This is not something that usually meets with my wife’s approval (unless we’re specifically heading to one of our sporadic mountain weekend retreats, where writing is explicitly listed as a weekend’s goal), but I have explained to her it’s a thing very closely associated to Lemony Snicket’s dictum regarding reading material: “Never trust someone who doesn’t bring a book along.” As readers gotta read, so too, writers gotta write. She was actually fairly gracious and didn’t kick up too much stink about it, once it became clear I was committed to bringing it along. (It? I should name my laptop, don’t you think? We do tend to anthropomorphize so much of our gadgetry these days… like it’s some kind of subconscious rebellion --- or maybe appeasement --- against the coming Takeover Of The Machines. Hey, it’s not just me… Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have both expressed concern over this.)
Anyway… my purpose today is not really to examine the struggles writers face with spouses over time taken to write (that can be a discussion for another day), but rather to discuss what I actually did with that writing time, and so muse on something that’s long befuddled me. (Your hint for that purpose --- your fairly broad hint --- is in the quote at the top.)
A little background first. My current WIP (work in progress) is Gryphon’s Awakening, the sequel --- or continuation, if you will, the word I prefer over sequel --- to my first novel, Gryphon’s Heir. At the moment, it stands at roughly 157,000 words, a number that tends to mean almost nothing to non-writers, except for them to note it sounds impressively like a helluva large number. Which is true to a certain extent, although not so much as they might think. At any rate, I think we’re in the home stretch of its storyline. I say “think” because the characters, bless their contrary little hearts, have a tendency (by turns amazing and exasperating --- sometimes simultaneously) to say and do things I neither expect nor predict, with the result that the story, to paraphrase Professor Tolkien, “grows in the telling.”
Now, we’re at the point where I’ve spread out several different narrative threads, and it’s time to start bringing those threads together… because, if I don’t, we run the risk of the Whole Damn Thing Collapsing Like A Jenga Tower. So I printed the last thirty or forty pages of the MS (manuscript) and took it along on our holiday.
And edited it.
And (this is the part I feel compelled to whisper the awful news) enjoyed doing it.
I didn’t strive to slash the Gordian Knot the storyline currently is looped in. I reread what I’d written recently (over the last month or so) in order to get a look at the forest, as opposed to individual trees, which is something that can happen all too readily when one is in the thick of the writing process. It put me in the position of sensing where things need to go next, and I managed to lop off --- prune, to keep the trees metaphor --- several hundred unnecessary words. What were they? Mostly qualifiers, connective words, double adjectives, general loquaciousness, things like that. I note I still, after many years of writing, have a weird fondness for double adjectives that’s totally not needed. Most writers fall into this trap: we like to ask, why use one word when six will do? Or, as Frasier Crane said, “If less is more, think how much more more will be!” Ah, yes. The struggle is real.
I haven’t always enjoyed editing. And I know, from my social media feed, many writers seem to regard the process with the kind of peculiar dread usually reserved for watching grisly horror films. Back when I finished the (bloated) first draft of Gryphon’s Heir --- it clocked in at 202,000 words --- I was completely convinced each and every one of those words was a pearl of great price, to be zealously protected from nasty literary people with metaphorical knives who wanted to, in Arthur Quiller-Couch’s famed saying, “murder my darlings.” I was like Mozart in the film Amadeus, protesting to the Emperor, “I don't understand. There are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required. Neither more nor less.”
But I learned. Under protest, I went back to the MS and began hacking away. I wound up cutting over 20,000 words from that first draft. Then added more story. Then cut more. Added. Cut. And ended up, several drafts later, with a tale that clocked in at about 186,000 words, but had way more to it than the first draft. It was tighter and much leaner. Better.
That said, I’m baffled why so many writers hate editing. Jeremy, the teenage protagonist of the cartoon strip Zits, told his long-suffering mother, “Perfection is the enemy of the done, mom,” and in a very narrow sense, that’s true. But as Mr. K pointed out in today’s opening quote, none of us do our best work the first time. Point of fact, we often make horrendously embarrassing errors which, if not caught, cause the world to question our competence as writers.
So, do yourself a favour, get out your (literary) knife, and murder a whole bunch ‘o darlings.
You might even find you enjoy it.