Hank Speaks: How I Edit

(Crossposted to Byzantium’s Shores)

A fellow writer asked, via Instagram, how I go about editing as a writer who generally doesn’t outline at all. Generally speaking, my Inner Editor acts in different ways at different points in the process. Because I don’t feel like writing the phrase “Inner Editor” a whole lot of times, so he has a new name: Hank. Yeah, my Inner Editor sounds like a Hank. He’s an annoying and insistent fellow who is nevertheless always, always right. Seriously, Hank is always right. And even when I think I have him dead to rights, and I’ve caught him in a blatant error…he’s still right.

During the actual writing of the first draft, Hank is required to sit down and shut up, except for instances of the story going in the wrong direction. One of those happened just this morning! I was starting a scene, and for some reason I was badly stalling on it. Sometimes when this happens it’s just my mood, but other times it’s an indicator of something worse going on, and that was the case this time. I put Hank in the corner with a six-pack of beer and some DVDs of 1970s sitcoms, and he was happy for a while, only occasionally looking up to see what I was doing. But as I sat and sat, staring at the screen and then writing a few sentences and then staring some more and scrawling a few more sentences and just a-struggling along, Hank finally let out a giant belch, which is his usual signal that I need to listen to him.

“They’re in the wrong place,” he said.

“Who?” I asked.

“Your characters. They’re in the wrong place. They can’t be there.”

“Why not?”

At this he rolled his eyes, because they answer should have been as clear as day…and it was. There’s a very prime reason why my characters could not be in that location at that time, without something else very inconvenient happening by virtue of one of them being there. The characters in question are looking for a third character who may or may not be a villain and who has certainly gone to ground. So they’re looking for this guy. Problem is, there is a very noticeable physical characteristic about one of these characters that can’t be disguised away, so it follows that they cannot be in this location.

“Thanks, Hank!”

“Whatever.”

That kind of thing is all that Hank is allowed to talk about when I’m writing a first draft. He’s allowed to notice when I’ve taken wrong turns, and he nags louder and louder and louder until I listen. One time, when writing Stardancer, it took me three chapters before I realized that he was right and that I was ignoring him at my book’s peril. Hank’s sense, in moments like these, is for the storytelling. Hank is not allowed, at this point, to bring up anything about grammar or word choice or characterization or scenes that should not be.

When I’m done drafting, into the desk goes the draft (or onto a bunch of electronic storage media), for several months. Then, and only then, do I let Hank have a look.

That’s when he gets out his tools: scissors, hacksaws, chainsaws, butcher knives, meat cleavers, and a fifty-five gallon drum of White-Out.

Yup, Hank’s second trip through the manuscript is a brutal one. That’s when he gets to complain about anything and everything. That paragraph is too long. That paragraph is too short. Using an awful lot of words to say something simple here; but here, what’s the big damn rush? You can get poetic there. Is there a need for that adjective? How the hell did that disgusting adverb get in there? Does this conversation really need to go on this long? You do realize that this character is acting like an idiot here, don’t you?

Those are all very essential things for Hank to spot, but what I like even more are the bits where he says things like: “Hey, this scene here? You don’t set this up very well.” Also, I dig things like when he points out things I hadn’t properly considered, such as random plot elements that don’t end up going anywhere. I tend to have a lot of these as a pantser, as a lot of times I’m writing along and I think, “Maybe this character ends up being important somehow, so lets draw him forth a bit,” and then he disappears completely; then, months later, Hank reads that passage and says, “Yeah, cut this fellow. You don’t do anything with him.” A good example of this is in the early going of Princesses In SPACE!!! Book II: Even Princessier (not the actual title), when I have a character show up who basically does nothing but glower at Princess Tariana. She wonders what his deal is, but he glowers at her a few more times, exits stage left, and…that’s it. Never went anywhere, so out he went when Hank got there.

Hank is also ruthless when he sniffs out passages that were obviously written when I wasn’t quite sure what was supposed to happen next, and thus was basically riffing to fill the day’s word quota. Hank ends up getting quite the workout on that second trip through the book…and then he gets another workout at proofreading time, when he’s even more ruthlessly seeking out typos and errors of that sort. Even then, he can’t stop entirely, and he ends up cutting even more useless, needless words along the way. Hank is very good at this, and he’s saved me a lot of grief. Sometimes, once in a great while, Hank will deign to drop me a compliment here or there. Hank is a pretty crusty guy, after all.

Hank is most ruthless, however, during dialogue passages. Boy Howdy, is he ever. He’ll gleefully cut a ten page conversation down to three pages, if he can — and sometimes indeed he can, because I’ve seen him do it. He’ll delete many words from characters’ mouths; he’ll strike down entire speeches. Long talking scenes frustrate Hank, which is probably good because I actually enjoy writing them — maybe a little too much, so it’s useful for Hank to come along and say, “Talk talk talk, that’s all your characters do.” Hank likes action.

Hank also likes clarity. He hates it when I’m vague and when he can’t picture something in his head as I’m describing it. He’ll drill the hell out of me if he’s having a hard time figuring out what I’m describing.

Yeah, I’d be lost without Hank.

What ultimately makes Hank – and therefore my own editing – successful, in my view, is how ruthless I can be when reading my own writing. I’m not sure where this “gift” comes from, but I’ve long had an ability to be very hard on myself, and I think this is essential in appraising one’s own writing. True story: a number of times in my professional career I’ve had a boss come to me, at Performance Review time, and give me a blank form with the instructions that I was to appraise my own performance and then we’d compare notes. Every single time I’ve done this, I’ve painted a much bleaker picture of my own performance than my bosses. Maybe that’s a self-esteem thing, or maybe it’s a perverse sense that if I can be harder on myself than they are, the actual discussion will go better. (Which is, I must admit, what generally happens.)

I don’t approach my manuscripts with the sense that I’m actually not good and that the books are terrible, because I simply don’t think that’s the case. I’ll likely carry to my grave my conviction that with Stardancer I wrote a good book. But I’ll never believe that it can’t be better, and to this day, whenever I peruse that book to look things up, I’ll hear a voice in the background, saying, “Dammit! I shoulda caught that.” It’s Hank, of course. He’s ever trying to improve, which he’ll need to do, assuming that I keep getting better at this for a while.

Whether that’s a good assumption or not, of course, is a matter for time to tell.

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Happy Pi Day!

(crossposted from Byzantium’s Shores)

Yes, today is Pi Day! I don’t usually do much to observe Pi Day, but this year’s is a special edition, since this is the only year in this century when the digits will line up so perfectly.

And how would a goof like me mark the occasion? Well, it would start with this:

And end like this:


Long live Pi, and pie!

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Writing Outside the Lines: on outlines

(Crossposted to Byzantium’s Shores)

New writer acquaintance Briana Morgan has a nice post up about the evils* of outlining:

When I started using them [outlines], I felt trapped, bogged down, and nothing like myself. My whole process felt constrained. I suffocated. In my writing workshops, I was taught not to write without outlines. My professors frowned or scowled when I shunned the thought of planning. “You can’t write like that,” they said. “You’re setting yourself up for failure.” Well, they were half-right.

Outlining doesn’t work for me. For the longest time, I tried to fit in with other writers who swear by it, but the process felt forced. I was sure that everyone knew I was faking. My productivity ground to a halt. I put so much pressure on myself to do what everyone else was doing, instead of focusing on what worked for me. Since outlining wasn’t working, I must have been doing it wrong.

I don’t outline either…except for when I do. Heh!

Generally, the writing community seems to have settled on two terms to describe the respective camps: Plotters, referring to those who outline (thereby plotting everything in advance), and pantsers, meaning, those who write by the seat of their pants (or overalls, as the case may be).

So, which am I? For the most part, I’m a pantser. I roughly figure out a starting point for the book, come up with a vague idea for what’s generally supposed to happen, and then I start writing. Sometimes I have an idea of structure for the book beforehand (the current Forgotten Stars novel, Princesses III: The Sequel to Get Equal (not the actual title), has three viewpoint characters after two in Book II and just one in Stardancer), but sometimes I don’t even have that much. How can I go on so little? Well…it’s pretty much what I’ve always done. In my experience, my characters will do things on page 300 that I have no idea are even possible on page 30. New ideas will come to be a third of the way through, and I generally find that those new ideas are usually better than whatever I had already planned. A good idea always trumps the plan, if I even had one.

Here’s the thing: when you write a lot, you come to deeply trust the process upon which you’ve settled. I’m such a pantser that I started writing Princesses III: The Wrath of Spock (not the actual title) without even knowing exactly who my main villain was going to be; then, when he suddenly showed up in a scene that surprised me to have a villain in it, I still had no idea just what he was hoping to accomplish. I had to get to know this guy as my characters did. No doubt this may sound like utter lunacy to many writers, but it works for me. My approach to all this mirrors what Stephen King says in the brilliant On Writing:

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.

I pretty much completely agree with this. I have a situation: Two Princesses from the planet Gavinar are on their way someplace else but something happens and they wind up on a mysterious planet whose inhabitants see them as fulfillment of prophecy…and they just might be. That’s it. Who are the Princesses? Well, I had to figure that part out. Where’s the planet and what’s the deal with the people living there? Those details showed up, one by one, as I wrote that book and got my Princesses stranded…and then I figured out the planet’s little foibles, some of which I’m still figuring out and being surprised by.

I never would have tried outlining any of that. For Stardancer, I actually did have an idea of how that particular book’s main conflict got resolved in the end, but not so with Princesses II or with Princesses III. I just charged full-speed ahead, because that’s the only way I can work.

Mostly.

Because I do occasionally turn to the outline. Once in a while. Not very often.

And here’s the key: not for very long, in terms of book length.

Sometimes I get stuck, like anybody else. Sometimes I genuinely don’t know what comes next. This actually has two “flavors”, as it were. The first is easy: I get an increasingly persistent sense that I’ve gone in the wrong direction someplace. The fix here isn’t to outline, but rather to backtrack to the most recent spot where I felt things were still going in the right direction and try something else. The second, though, is when I know that what’s happened to this point is right, but I’m just not sure what happens next. Then I might outline a bit, maybe the next few scenes, just to work through some ideas and get a notion of the direction I’m going. This isn’t even always outlining, per se, but mostly a jotting down of ideas.

When I actually sit down to straight-up outline, though, is almost always when I’m nearing the book’s final act and when things are about to get complex. Almost always by this point not only do I know what’s going to happen, but the characters don’t do a lot of deviating, either, and if they do, it’s to do something cool that doesn’t really change the “big picture” of the ending. So I outline, very roughly, just to figure out the way the moving parts of the story have to line up: what happens first, what happens second, what this person is doing, how that person will respond, and so on. It’s the writing equivalent of how plumbers will lay out the sections of pipe on the floor, in order, before applying the PVC adhesive or starting to solder things together. That’s it: outlining the sequence, but never the entire story. That, I just can’t do. If I try outlining an entire novel from Chapter 1 to the Epilogue, I can quite simply guarantee that the story will change dramatically by Chapter 5, and the outline will be useless.

And besides…outlining doesn’t feel like writing to me. Outlining always vaguely feels to me like a writing-like activity that doesn’t necessarily lead to actual writing. It feels like all those times on The Brady Bunch when the boys were “fixing” their bikes but rarely riding them anywhere.

So that’s why I don’t outline, except for when I do.

* Outlining isn’t evil. It’s just a practice that some folks do and some don’t.

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