The Process, Part II

Before going on to chronicle the editing process, I want to mention that, to someone who reads this blog, it would appear that like Mark Twain, I write in spurts. This is not quite the case. Twain would abandon manuscripts for months before coming back to them. I might leave something for days or weeks, but it’s out of necessity. After all, I’m working a full time job and raising a family. I don’t want my kids to grow up and write spiteful biographies saying that I was talented but had no time for them.

Besides, when I’ve had the chance to write full time, I charged through projects in record time. The Boddekker’s Demons half of Ferman’s Devils was written in five months. So was Trust, but I was working full time then – my agent lit a fire under me to get the manuscript out because we thought it would be great marketing to have an election year thriller out in time for an actual election year (my wife was truly a Novel Widow during that period).

Once the first draft is done, I try to let it sit for a month without looking at it. During this time I do nothing, or I might actually start the next novel, writing a first chapter that might sit for weeks or sometimes years before I decided to write the rest. As a further inducement to leave the book alone, I sometimes find First Readers to take a look at it, hopefully to offer brutally frank opinions on what I’ve done.

When the month is over, it’s time to edit the manuscript for a second time.

That’s right. I said second. Over the years, I’ve developed a process that I call “pre-editing.” I’ve learned to identify things in my outline or in my head that can be deleted simply by not writing them. It might be something I might need to know, but the reader doesn’t.* It could be something that would slow down the flow of the book, something that no longer fits given the book’s current direction, or something that merely seemed like a good idea at the time, but no longer is.

“Pre-editing” also entails going back and making changes to the manuscript when a later plot point requires it. In Deadline I keep changing the age of Jill’s daughter to facilitate a paternal relationship with Max, the protagonist. So I go back in the manuscript and insert/delete where necessary (or, in Deadline’s case, get a red pen and scribble around what I’ve already written).

Last night’s work on And/News is a textbook case of pre-editing. I mentioned in yesterday’s scorecard entry that I went back and filled in some details throughout the chapter that I realized it needed. But that’s not the entire story.

I was working on a section where Richard and K confront a reluctant witness. Part of my notes – a good two paragraphs worth – called for a revelation about the relationship the witness had with his live-in girlfriend. The Weasel Effect was supposed to come into play as we found out that the witness successfully courted and bedded the girl under false circumstances, and by the time she realized he wasn’t all he claimed to be, it was too late for her to get out. She had no support system in place and could not easily leave him.

The notes on this could have easily taken a day’s worth of writing to get down. Fortunately, as I neared that part of the chapter, I saw that 1) this little bit of exposition wasn’t necessary for a character who was only going to appear in the book for one chapter, and 2) the direction I was writing in skewed away from that kind of a relationship with his live-in; it was more important that he be attached to her (albeit with a wandering eye). So I ignored my earlier directive and as a result, And/News is eight pages shorter.

(Again, Ferman’s Devils provides an interesting counterpoint to this process. One of the things I had put into the outline was the chapter where Bainbridge insinuates herself into Boddekker’s life and follows him to the Nursing Home where his 1960’s burnout grandmother lives. In the early writing stages, I was trying to keep the length down because my agent has a chronic phobia of manuscripts over 100,000 words in length. So I decided that, while the chapter was fun, I wasn’t going to write it. I made the transition that the chapter provided in a different way. When Bantam bought the book and split it in half, my editor encouraged me to add the chapter. It worked out well – readers got something really close to a director’s cut of the book, and the addition of the chapter made both books approximately the same length.)

Once the manuscript has sat for a month, it is time for a physical edit. I sit in my big La-Z-Boy recliner (dubbed “The Editing Chair”) with the binder in my lap and a red pen in my hand, and I proceed to go through the manuscript and bloody it up.

Since my first drafts are nothing more than a race to get everything onto paper before I forget it, there’s a lot of sloppiness present. And I also have comments from my wife in the manuscript. She’s got great editorial instincts, and she reads the book chapter-by-chapter as I finish each one and print it out. She’s my first First Reader, and it must be agonizing to her to wait months to get to the end of a book (she’s one of these three or four books a week types).

I look for clunky writing. I whack out things that don’t 1) move the story ahead or 2) develop someone’s character, or 3) – something new I’ve added to And/News – provide insight into one of the book’s themes.

One thing I do – in fact, I usually do this on the computer – is go on a hunt for the word “just.” It’s a rotten little rodent of a word that slips in when I’m not looking, and it can just ruin a sentence by qualifying it (that is, taking the air out of a turn of words by distancing the reader from the action).** This is a search and destroy mission, and very few survive. A few others are transformed into another word.

Once the book is carved up, I enter the changes into the manuscript document. These can range from deleting or changing one word on a page to reworking entire sections (which I have either handwritten, or else put down notes on what to do). I know it would be easier to edit onscreen, but I learned to edit physically, and it serves me well. Besides, there’s a “half-edit” when I put the changes into the computer. This is where I notice things I missed in the physical edit, or else I second-guess myself and either edit the edit or change it back to the way it was.

Then I print the new version of the book out, the Intermediate Draft, let my wife have a whack at it (all at once this time), and then I read it. By this point most of the large changes and alterations have already been made, so I’m checking to make sure everything flows. I still make changes and occasionally second- (or third-) guess myself at this stage. Then it’s back to the computer with this set of changes.

When it rolls out of the printer, it’s the Final Draft. The manuscript is ready to go.

I felt guilty about this process for a long time, especially after hearing how some authors produce draft after draft after draft until they have a perfect manuscript. I quit feeling that way once I had a revelation: I can’t do that because to me, the manuscript will never be perfect. Every time I pick up one of my published novels – even if it’s the first time I’m looking into an author’s copy – I see mistakes or things on every page that I would change if I could. So I have to force myself to a point where I let it go. If I didn’t, I would revise the thing forever and never send it out (I also have problems with my blog entries, which, while they’re more spontaneous, are also quite sloppy by my standards – it’s a real temptation to go in and use that REVISIONIST HISTORY button that most blog hosts feature). There comes a time when I must, as Sir Winston says, kill the monster and fling him before the public.

So that’s the process. I don’t know if it works for anyone outside of me, but work for me it does. I remember being at a Science Fiction convention with the lovely and gracious Lois McMaster Bujold. We were talking about how we wrote, and when I described how I did it (in much less detail than these last two days), poor Lois looked at me, aghast. “I could never work that way,” she said. I got the impression that she was the type who worked on a sentence or paragraph until it was perfect and then moved on. But I could be wrong.

Everyone is different. The best way to find out how you write novels is to start writing them. Pretty soon you’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t. Then you can spout of ad infinitum about how you work in your blog.

After all, getting there is half the fun.

(Hope this answered your questions.)


*For example, in The Company Man, I knew but never revealed that Howard Kessler and Jack Lime were once partners, starting their career in Astradyne together. And Kessler sold Lime out to advance in the company. Cool detail, but it would have slowed things down to tell it; the book, after all, was about Andy Birch.

**Yes, I know I used the word “just” in that sentence. Pun intended.

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