Thursday, December 20, 2012

Editing, 4, the process

This is a more technical post that addresses strategies I utilize when editing my own work--to me this is not the same as revising. To see how I pull off a revision, see the page in my blog called On My Mind.

These techniques may not be effective for anyone else, but the discussion about them will at least kill some of your time if you have some time to kill and Youtube isn't doing it for you.

Like always, I will refrain from using such child-like terms as "show" and "tell" when discussing fiction and techniques. Instead, I will refer to the elements of fiction.



1) Objectivity


This is the big hurdle when editing your own work. When I read a manuscript from another writer, my mind goes to work and objectivity comes easy. I see the elements of fiction at work. Sometimes, I come across elements that I feel were ineffective, like stale dialogue or confusing descriptions of action or setting. 

I like to think that I'm very effective at critiquing the work of others. Yet, it is very difficult to critique my own work in an editorial capacity. 

But, to help with that I came up with a thought experiment.



2) The Thought Experiment


Like I mentioned above, the problem I faced before editing Absolution was that I needed to look at the work with fresh eyes, the eyes of someone else. Here is the thought experiment I performed to help me: What if someone else had written the novel, someone I was not acquainted with?

What this means is that I asked a number of questions as if this were the work of someone else. Say, if like me you wrote an Urban Fantasy/Detective story, what would you say in  your review if it had been written by Jim Butcher? Or by Mike Resnick (who wrote Stalking the Unicorn [an influence])?

The key for me was to be intentionally cruel and picky. My comments became less of a novel review than a pseudo-editing session with the novelist (Jim or Mike).

Here is what I noticed about Jim/Mike's new novel, Absolution. They ventured into subject matter that they had never gone into before. It was a little more controversial than the usual fare for Jim Butcher.

But not for Mike Resnick, who has written novels using pen names that have been called everywhere on the internet, "adult." It hints at something that can't be mentioned, but what that is I can only guess at. The term "adult" usually refers to erotica and maybe that's the case with Resnick.

The treatment and development of the main character is more in line with Butcher, but not with Resnick. In the end, Butcher's main character, Detective Adams, grows as a person.

This information is invaluable if you are a writer trying to break into a field dominated by giants like Butcher and Resnick. How much do you want the novel to emulate their work and how far are you willing to deviate from it? The answers you give will alter the editing comments.

For example, I'm a fan of Butcher and really wanted to write something that emulated his Harry Dresden novels. But Absolution deals with situations not found in any Dresden story. It is bolder, less inhibited. My editing comments would then say something like, "Tone down this element," or "This is too much for this type of novel."

This is a vague flavor of the most important questions I asked. Let me be a little more specific.


3) It's all in the reading...

Continuing the thought experiment, I ask all manner of questions about the novel, which help me understand the vision of the novelist and help me place the work in its appropriate place next to other, similar, published works. 

I spent two months editing Absolution (this is before the copyediting process). For volume one of The Quantum of the Past, I needed less time (since it is so short). If you recall, in the second installment on Editing, I mentioned the enormous amount of reading the editor must do.



a. Methodology


The editorial reading will give the editor a glance at the methodology employed by the writer. Here, I assume a mystery, like Absolution

How do they start the novel? Who is the protagonist? If a mystery, how do they issue clues? How does the manuscript's length compare to the average length of other mysteries? Prologue or not? Level of realism?

In other words, what strategies does the novel employ to tell its story? I mentioned the average length of mysteries just now, but how did I get that number?

I "acquired" pdf versions of novels that were a representative sample of mysteries--written in a number of eras. Then I turned these into MS Word documents, using the presets I have for my own manuscripts. I compared these. Mind you, this is only a guess at how long the original manuscripts were. But it did give up invaluable information.

Note: I do the same with Fantasy novels.

Note: It's not pirating if I own a physical copy of the books in question!

Continuing methodology: One of my professors once told me that a novel teaches you how to read it. I think they ripped that off of someone else, but this observation applies here. When you read a novel, it tells you about its methodology.

Once the manuscript has given me all that information, it is essential that I analyze it.



b. Quality Control 


Once the editor has a handle on the methodology of the novel and the vision, it's time for quality control.

In production, quality control is a way to ensure that the product adheres to certain standards (its quality), as defined somewhere else and by someone other than the producer.

In fiction, the "standard" is twofold.

There is the vision of the novel, which the editor must grasp or have some understanding of.

The editor, in theory, must help the manuscript achieve this vision further or must help to strengthen the vision if it is weak. A way to do this is by making sure the methodology of the novel helps and does not hinder.

For example, if you envisioned your mystery novel to be the next The Big Sleep, and the editor catches on that you're trying to do more than help your reader kill time, then this might be a quality control comment: You focus too much on the action (too much running around), and not enough on the inter-relations between the protagonist and his city, which is a staple of other, complex, fiction of this type.

The other standard is the existing novels of the same type, genre.

After reading dozens of mysteries and working with authors to develop novels in the genre, you will know when a new mystery author lacks something his/her contemporaries do not. If your plot is clumsy and you make too obvious who the killer is, for example, then this might be a quality control comment: The plot pace is too slow (or fast) and the clues make too obvious who the responsible party is and sometimes they rely too much on chance, like when the detective stumbles onto that store clerk who happened to know the victim and shared valuable information.

Here are some of the editorial comments I made for the revised first volume of The Quantum of the Past:

*The protagonist is not sympathetic enough; he at times feels bigoted and homophobic, when he should come off as a war torn soldier whose frustrations project onto the diverse city he lives in. The key is to explore the true source of his frustrations. 

*I am not getting a sense of the Kendra Lepree character; she seems different than the Kendra in the other story, The Sprite

*The Prologue is of a different nature than the other, non-linear elements that introduce volumes 2 and 3. As it stands, there isn't a sense of unity in the whole, as if the writer has no sense of it or it is too underdeveloped. 

*Expand the events where the protagonist spends time with the Kendra Lepree character to develop their friendship further; it seems rushed now.

*Make the protagonist a tense character, who others think will go postal at any moment; this will foreshadow what happens later in the story. 

Notice that one of the comments had to do with another story I'm working on, The Sprite. The characterization was not the same in both works, which bothered me. Another thing that bothered me was how Miles came across once I implemented the new vision I had for the novel.

These problems came out when I went through the thought experiment. The authors I chose for the experiment were G.R.R. Martin and Tolkien (don't ask why).

As a Tolkien work, it differed in its treatment of magical "races" that are a part of the fantasy world. It's also not as sophisticated in its linguistic morphology, and world building. But I don't want to beat myself up too much. Tolkien's goal with Middle Earth differed than my own. He wanted to build a mythology, whereas I want to explore certain socio-cultural elements, like race relations and sexual orientations.  

As a protagonist, Miles Trevor is dissimilar to the protagonists in Tolkien's best known works. Bilbo and Frodo suffer from different ailments than does Miles. The problems of my protagonist are rooted in our contemporary world, particularly the urban landscape of Los Angeles. But the humanism in Frodo and Bilbo is something that I wanted to inject into Miles. A decent person is a decent person no matter what world they are in--at least this was my logic.

The tone of the work does match the tone in many of G.R.R. Martin's works. It is dark and the level of realism is gritty. I like to think that if magical phenomenon were real, they would exist as Martin draws them.

I wasn't interested so much in the magic system as the style of it, which was something that Martin shares with Tolkien. If you've read both, then you know what I mean. This decision influenced the editorial comments I made regarding the magic in Quantum



4) Implementing Comments

The editor made comments, now implement them.  Naturally, since these comments may alter substantially the elements of fiction in your novel, it follows that you must read over the thing again to make sure it is in harmony--like it was at the end of the revision process.

Now, this reading is unique in that you won't have the luxury of changing anything else that you now feel is problematic. It means you (the writer) need to discuss these new issues with your editor (you).




And folks, that is all for now.


LC