Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Things I've Learned From Editing; or, "What the Hell Was I Thinking When I Wrote That?"

When I sat down to write my first novel, I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to have happen. I knew who all the main characters were going to be, I knew what sort of trouble they were going to get into, and - more or less - I knew how the characters were going to extricate themselves from these situations and how the book was going to end.

So I wrote it.

It really was that simple. That's not to say I didn't realize it was going to be a lot of work, because I did. And it was.

But it was also one of the most gratifying feelings I've ever had when I wrote "THE END" after 95,000 words worth of murder, deception, kidnappings, plot twists and other stunning developments. "A roller-coaster ride of thrills and chills," as one reviewer put it.*

There was one thing I didn't realize, though, when I started out to write a novel. It's the dirty little secret that none of the wonderful writers I admire so much ever told me.** And it's this: When you write THE END after 95,000 words of murder, deception, and all that other stuff I wrote in the last paragraph, your novel isn't really finished. Your work isn't ending, it's just beginning.

You see, there's an unassuming little word in the English language called "edit." Look at it sitting back there in the last sentence. Easy to overlook, right? It's short, it's the Napoleon of words. But it's mean, and it hangs over everything you do as a writer.

Because after you write THE END, you now have to go back over your masterpiece and clean up all the crap. It's kind of like having a baby, only not in the obvious, cliched sense where I talk about the labor pains of the creative process, of writing as giving birth. Please, give me a break. I was there for the birth of my children, and I have to tell you, if writing was anything like that, I wouldn't go near it with a ten foot pen.

No, when I say writing a novel is like having a baby, I'm talking about once you get the little sweetheart home from the hospital. And you realize that, okay, yeah, sure, you love her with all your heart, but . . . uh . . . there's an awful lot of . . . you know . . . shit inside her. And it's up to YOU to clean it all up.

That's where the word "edit" comes in. All that stuff that seemed so witty, or ingenious, or clever at two in the morning or during your lunch break at work when you were writing like mad because it was the only time you had all day to get it done, suddenly looks lamer than Kanye West at an awards show.

That snappy dialogue you had your protagonist whip out that made the female main character go all weak in the knees? Boring. Dude, If you talked like that in real life you would never have gotten a date, which would have given you plenty of time to write, which maybe would have helped you avoid stale, goofy dialogue like what you wrote that you now have to EDIT!

That clever method you used to help the aformentioned stud wriggle out of the tight spot you put him in while having no clue how to help him escape? Ridiculous. Even MacGyver couldn't make a semiautomatic pistol out of a lock of hair and a tampon, not on the best day he ever had. Whoever said "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" was probably a writer editing something stupid he wrote.

And how about the paragraph you wrote in which you cleverly inserted the one clue that, when discovered, will break your whole mystery wide open? You already did that twenty pages ago, you idiot.

There might be writers out there who are so good, so talented, so goddamned savant-ish that they don't need to edit. The lyrical prose just flows out of their brains, through their fingers, and onto the page, or in this case, the computer screen. Their first draft is also their last draft.

But I don't want to know about it if there are. I find it comforting to think that somewhere out there right now, Lawrence Block is scratching his head, going, "Crap, I can't remember how I spell 'Dortmunder!'"


*The reviewer was me. I haven't managed to find anyone to publish this masterpiece of fiction yet. Still, I stand by the review.

**Of course they never told me; I don't actually know any of them. It doesn't make my point any less valid, though.


YeeMum said...

Just popping in to let you know I still read these (although I'm not sure you read the comments)

Always a pleasure

Al Leverone said...

I sure do, and I really really really appreciate the support, too...thanks a lot!