Thursday, January 04, 2007

Editing for Tighter Writing--Part 2

Thanks to all you “brave souls” (to quote Kristy Dykes from yesterday’s comments) who edited yesterday’s passage. Today I give you the final as it will appear in Coral Moon. If you’re game, as an editing exercise you might want to print out both and look at them side by side. You may agree with some things I did and disagree with others. Of course, this is not your writer’s voice; it’s mine. So there are bound to be places of disagreement.

First, the scene. Then I’ll point out a few things.
Kill tonight—or die.

The words burned, hot acid eating through his eyes, his brain. Right down to his soul.
Only a crazy person would obey.

He slapped both hands to his ears, squeezed hard against his head. Screwed his eyes shut. He hung there, cut off from the world, snagged on the life sounds of his body. The whoosh of breath, the beat of his heart.

The words boiled.

His skull hurt. He pulled his hands away, let them fall. The kitchen spun. He dropped into a chair, bent forward, and breathed deeply until the dizziness passed.

He sat up, looked again to the table.

The note lay upon the unfolded Kanner Lake Times newspaper, each word horrific against the backdrop of a coral crescent moon.

How did they get in here?

What a stupid question. As if they lacked stealth, as if mere walls and locked entrances could keep them out. He’d been down the hall in the bedroom watching TV, door wide open, yet had heard nothing. Hadn’t even sensed their presence as he pushed off the bed and walked to the kitchen for some water.

A chill blew over his feet.

His eyes bugged, then scanned the room. Over white refrigerator and oak cabinets, wiped-down counters and empty sink. To the threshold of the kitchen and into the hallway. There his gaze lingered as the chill worked up to his ankles.

It had to be coming from the front of the house.

His skin oozed sweat, a web of sticky fear spinning down over him. Trembling, he pulled himself out of the chair. He clung to the smooth table edge, ensuring his balance. Then, heart beating in his throat, he forced himself across the floor, around the corner, and toward the front door.

It hung open a few inches.

They were taunting him...
Overall, I hope you’ll see how cutting certain words left the ones that really count. The ones that make you see, hear, feel the scene. For example, his original line: His skin oozed sweat, sticky fear spinning down over him like the web of a monstrous spider. In the rewrite, it becomes: His skin oozed sweat, a web of sticky fear spinning down over him. Changing the simile to a metaphor cuts words and leaves what’s important. …like the web of a monstrous spider isn’t needed at all. We all know where webs come from. Besides, the words sticky, spinning and web make us focus on the sweat-oozing fear, which is the point of the sentence—not the visual of some large spider making its lair.

When I serve on critique staff at writer’s conferences (such as at Mt. Hermon), manuscript after manuscript is brought to me for on-the-spot critiquing. Invariably, I see the need for cutting. Right there, I’ll show the author how to delete the unnecessary words. “See—if you take this away, and this, how your scene now zings? All the extraneous has been thrown off, and the verbs and adjectives that matter can shine.” This kind of exercise is one I go through with every book—in fact every edit stage of every book. It’s something I’ll keep practicing all my life. Hone, hone, hone.

The other thing you might notice is the breaking up of paragraphs for stronger beats. The paragraph His eyes bugged … goes from one in the original draft to three in the final. A new beat is introduced by the beginning of a paragraph. In the original, three beats were all stuck in one paragraph: his reaction to the chill and his searching for its source, his realization that it was coming from the front of the house, his pushing aside of fear and forcing himself to get up and go investigate. One of the “brave editing souls” from yesterday suggested that this line be cut: There his gaze lingered as the chill worked up to his ankles. In the weaker, three-beat-in-one paragraph, it did seem superfluous and slowing to the action. However, when I broke the paragraph into its three distinct beats, and each one then became stronger, I purposely kept that sentence as a way to draw out that first beat and add tension. I could picture this guy buggy-eyed, looking through the threshold as far as he could see, wondering what might lie beyond it.

I didn’t see the need for this paragraph edit until the rewrite stage, when I’d let the manuscript sit a month and could look at the scene with fresh eyes. Point to remember--sometimes the best edit isn’t always just cutting, or isn’t always the first fix that comes to mind.

Of course, editing’s never done. I could probably look at this scene right now and still make changes. But reality is, I have a schedule to keep. Writing to contract means doing the best I can in the time I’ve given myself (after all, I do set my deadline schedule), and then moving on to the next book. But always learning. Always learning.


Kristy Dykes said...

This was a great exercise, B. And a fun one. Thanks for giving it to us.

Critting/editing is so subjective. What one editor/reader likes, another may not. But through it all, the voice of the author has to shine through. For ex., part of your voice is short, run-on sentences:

He slapped both hands to his ears, squeezed hard against his head. Screwed his eyes shut.

K: Yesterday, when I edited your scene, I joined the sentences. But I knew as I did it that you would probably leave them the way they were because I've read you enough to know your voice.

Congrats on a great scene. You're a superb writer. I admire how you labor over every word to make it the best it can be. Wasn't it Hemmingway who said it took him a whole day to find the right word or sentence? Or something like that. Or, maybe it was Steinbeck. The point is, good writing is rewriting.

Thanks again!

Joanna Mallory said...

I'm late coming to the exercise, but these are the sorts of writing lessons that teach me best. I usually find the first version looks pretty good, until I see the revisions. That helps me look more clearly at my own work.

But, Brandilyn, don't you look too closely at the end result -- it's too late to change anything now :) No worries -- it sings. I'm just thinking I'd be sure to find something that personally irritated me once it was too late to change it.

That makes me ask: do you read your books once they're in print, to see how they came together (and to check for typos?)

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for that opportunity!! Now I can go tell me grandma that I helped edit one of B.C.'s books! (she is a huge fan)

I think my problem was that I added words. I am a very descriptive writer and speaker so I re-wrote it the way I would describe the scene to someone.

I guess I can now see why my mom says I talk way too much.......

:) :)

Anonymous said...

Are we allowed to double post??

Anyway, I forgot to say that B, that passage is amazing. I can only imagine how supurb the finished product will be.

Tina Helmuth said...

Thanks. This was a really great lesson, to be able to see where you cut. I only noticed a couple of things, so it's neat to see just how much tighter you made it.

Tina H.

Lynetta said...

I can hardly wait to read the book, Brandilyn! Your opening passage definitely does its job of grabbing the reader.

Eden said...

Enjoying the lesson. I wish it were April already!!!

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

No, Joanna, I don't read my books once they're in print. I'm too busy writing future ones. :]

However, I'm always grateful when a reader points out a typo that slipped through. This doesn't happen often now, thank goodness. But I am able to send an "oops, typo" message to Zondervan, so in the subsequent printings the problem can be fixed.

Anonymous said...

The "fresh eyes" is such a good point. You're writing that story with total immersion. You can feel the characters breathe, see them react, hear the inflections in their voices, and you want your reader to feel, see, and hear what you've known for however long you've been writing the novel. When you step away, "forget" for awhile, the fresh look helps you to see how maybe over-involved you were in "helping" the reader to "get it" all. At least for me.


(P.S. I can no longer sign in any other way than "anonymous" since the blogger change.)

Rachel Hauck said...

Thanks, Brandilyn. I always learn from you! This was a great lesson.


Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

great lesson, any more? LOL! So we could get a larger preview of the book!

PatriciaW said...

Brandilyn, you often talk about "beats". Can you post about this topic--what they are and how they impact story pacing? I got a little lost in your explanation.