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.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Girl on the Graveyard Shift

She was sixteen when we met. She hated me, and why wouldn't she? I was older, a college kid, and every time I came into the restaurant where I had worked the previous two summers my friends would hang out with me in the kitchen and when that happened she had to run around like a crazy person in the dining room trying to get everything done.

So I suppose it's not entirely accurate to say she hated me; she didn't even know me, and most people don't hate me at least until after they get to know me. But she sure didn't like the extra work she had to do when I showed up.

After I graduated college - in an economy more or less similar to the one we've been saddled with the last couple of years - and couldn't find a real job, I went back to the restaurant to earn a few bucks there while I searched. She was a high school senior by then, working overnight shifts on the weekends. Graveyard shifts, we called them.

As it so happened, those were the shifts I was working, too. I got to know this slim, pretty brunette on those long nights in the nearly empty restaurant on the Maine Turnpike. We would sit at a booth drinking coffee for five hours or so and then work like mad to get everything done before the day shifters came in.

I decided this was a girl I wanted to date - unfortunate because although she no longer hated me, she certainly didn't want to date me. I didn't consider that a big deal, though; I had been convincing girls who didn't want anything to do with me to give it a shot for quite some time.

Eventually I wore the girl down and she agreed to go out with me, more to get me to stop bugging her than anything else, probably. About a year-and-a-half later we walked down the aisle together, an almost twenty-four year old groom and a bride who had just turned nineteen.

I would have loved to have superpowers for just that one day, to be able to read people's minds. How many people in the church and the reception hall whispered their suspicions to each other that the girl must be pregnant? (She wasn't) How many people shared cynical grins, convinced we would last maybe a year; two at the most?

I don't blame them, I would probably have done the same thing in their shoes. But what they may not have realized was that we were two people who knew exactly what we wanted out of life and were lucky enough to have found it at a young age.

That was twenty-six years ago today, and it hasn't all been easy. There have been plenty of bumps in the road, as there are in every relationship. But every bruise and every scar has added a little depth to our relationship, and we're still going strong.

So this is for the girl who has believed in me when no one else did; who has given birth to my children; who has moved all over New England with me as I pursued my career. Thanks for twenty-six wonderful years. Happy Anniversary to my wife Sue...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Invisible Victims

Imagine, for just a moment, that you are the father of a young family. The oldest child in your family is a girl who, by the time she reaches her teen years, has begun growing into a smart, pretty, outgoing young woman. Like young women everywhere, your oldest child eventually falls in love, and like fathers everywhere, you don't particularly approve of your young daughter's choice.

Imagine that from the earliest days of the relationship, you see a disturbing trend developing. Your young daughter's boyfriend tries again and again to separate her from her family; to isolate her, while at the same time treating her poorly, cheating on her with other girls, playing the sorts of games boys play in high school every day.

Still your daughter stays with this boy. She has known nothing but love and encouragement from her family; it never occurs to her he might be different.

After a couple of years, imagine that you discover your smart, pretty, outgoing daughter is pregnant. She is a junior in high school by now. When this young "man" finds out the news, he dumps her like the proverbial hot potato, only to take her back later, unfortunately for her.

Imagine that nine months later your granddaughter is born. By now your daughter and the young "man" are seniors in high school. During the delivery, the "father" continues his controlling behavior, refusing to allow anyone else in the delivery room, including the young woman's mother.

A few months later, imagine that your daughter and this young "man" graduate high school. Your daughter has had a child during her senior year but has missed just two weeks of school, earning honor roll grades and admission to an outstanding college. She will have to live at home but she has a future. On graduation night, the "father" of your daughter's child cheats on her. Twice. With two separate young women.

Imagine that this is the last straw. Finally your daughter sees the light. She sends the young "man" packing, relationship-wise, while still allowing him to see his child. You allow this young "man" into your house almost daily, even though he no longer is in a relationship with your daughter, because you want your grandchild to know her father, regardless of your feelings for him.

Now imagine that you discover this young "man," who has been in and out of trouble with the law, is being charged with a felony sex crime. On a thirteen year old girl.

The case is not as open-and-shut as it may appear to most people. This girl, who clearly has serious problems, has been obsessed with this young "man" for years, but in New Hampshire the law is clear: This thirteen year old girl could sprint naked across her yard and throw herself at this young "man," who is now twenty years old, and it is up to him, as a supposed adult, to stop the girl.

Unfair? Sure. Still, it's the law, and it makes sense. A thirteen year old girl, by virtue of her age and immaturity, is unable to give consent for sex. Period.

Imagine that this young "man" will face a criminal trial in the near future and if he is convicted, will face jail time, meaning of course that he will lose his job, making him incapable of paying for the child care that your wife provides daily. Without this money, your wife will be forced to go back to work - you have two children in college and tuition bills mounting.

But if your wife returns to the workforce, there will be no one to care for your granddaughter, meaning your smart, pretty, outgoing daughter may be forced to drop out of college to care for her child. Imagine that the only positive contribution this young "man" has made to his now two-and-a-half year old child's welfare will disappear.

Imagine that this young "man's" supporters - Incredibly, he does have some! - have blamed your child for his woes. If she had only stayed with him he wouldn't be in this trouble, the argument seems to go. I know, there's not a lot of logic going on there.

Imagine that your innocent little grandchild caught a glimpse of this young "man's" mug shot in the newspaper. "Daddy looks mad," she says, when she sees the photo.

Just imagine.