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.