First Edit is like Surgical Post Op

I had surgery yesterday.

Great word, surgery. It conjures images of operating rooms, nurses and doctors, scalpels, and knocked out patients. Not in this case, I only had a grape-size mass removed from my back. A local, some slice-slice, a few stitches and done. Quick, easy, no problem.

Then the local wore off 4 hours later.

It doesn’t hurt exactly, it just feels… wrong.

The back (and spine) is the junction of your body. If it’s a little out of whack, you know it and everything pulls. (“Don’t lift anything heavy.” “OK,” I said, forgetting I have a 20-pound puppy.)

The first-round edit is just like that. The “back” of the story is what it’s about. That’s a very powerful concept, “what it’s about.” It sums up your story, and better, it help you edit.

You’ve just finished your first draft. Congratulations! If you’re like me, the third act comes in a rush, so once you’ve typed “The End” (metaphorically or literally), your job is to get it out of your head. Go mow the lawn, pull some weeds, paint the house, bathe the dog. And celebrate!

Maybe start researching your next book. Maybe read some other people’s books. Try to forget the book you just finished. Then a month or so later, read it through.

Use a highlighter, add a few notes, but mostly just read it quickly. What you’re looking for is what feels wrong.

Consider: A great run of scenes where Atticus Finch finds true love. They date, they dream, they fall head over heals. Knowing the back of To Kill a Mockingbird, these scenes should feel wrong. They aren’t about what Mockingbird is about. Every scene should relate to what the story is about. Identifying such scenes is actually easy. Ask yourself, “If I remove this scene, does it matter?” If the answer is “no” remove it. To Kill a Mockingbird: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham ...
I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.
That’s what To Kill a Mockingbird is about.

This can feel difficult. A wrong scene can be written beautifully. It still has to go. A wrong scene is like a gratuitous scene in a movie where you’re hoping they get back to the story soon…

Also look for what’s missing. Are the steps to the conclusion clear? Are any stones absent? Does anything need to be clarified?

Remember, at this stage you’re reading, not rewriting. Take notes, mark any obvious typos (don’t slow down to look for typos), if you print it out, use colored pencils (not pens! You may need to change something later), online, highlight or comment (PDF is nice for this).

Remember, you’re looking for things that feel wrong. The ideal back condition is to be totally unaware of it, and so it is with your story. Wrong pulls us out of the story. Scenes that fail to tie into the back of the story need to marked and revisited. Is it extraneous? Cut it. Is it out of place? Move it. Is it missing? Add it in (or write a note about what should be in the scene). Could it work? Is there a genuine way to add purpose to the scene?

Do you have a long string of scenes that don’t fit? Can you turn them into a sub-plot that does tie into the back? If not, save them for another book.

That first read-through is get a handle on what goes, what needs to be added, and finding the right order.

Next is the rewrite following your notes. Then you can dig into language and pacing in your next edit.

Don’t Be a Hypocrite!

I stopped watching the CW’s Flash many seasons ago. The show had too many logic disconnects to make sense (not the physics of super-speed; you need a lot of willingness to suspend disbelief, but that’s expect for a superhero show), and just sloppy writing.

I did stick around long enough to see the introduction of Ralph Dibny who would become the stretchy sleuth Elongated Man. Ralph was immature, crude, gross, and rubbed everyone wrong. Hartley Sawyer was the perfect actor for the role, he looks identical to the comic book version and has a snarky sense of humor.

Kids, Elongated Man, Flash, Costume, Zentai, Bodysuit, Superhero ...
Elongated Man

Ralph’s particular arc was to grow, mature, become more heroic, and be all that he could be. And he succeeded, eventually winning everyone’s trust and respect.

Now they’ve fired Hartley Sawyer because 8 years ago he made several insensitive, offensive tweets. Sawyer was a young comedian, immature and going for shock value to get noticed.

Sawyer was Dibny, who has grown, matured, and become the adult he wasn’t then.

By firing Sawyer, the CW has become a steaming hypocrite. It’s heroic for Dibny to grow up, but not Sawyer, who’s apologetic and recognizes his offense.

This is a writing blog, though, so let me bring it home: write what you believe. Live what you believe. Obviously many of characters are negative examples… they aren’t what you believe but they counterpoint what you do believe in your favored characters. Clearly they should be growing in a manner consistent with what you believe to be good. When you see someone similar going through your character’s arc, you should be applauding it.

THE FLASH Finds Their Elongated Man
The comic book version.

Or is that a stretch?

Writers are SO Powerful!

It’s been a sad and scary week, studded with ugly racism, peaceful protest, some of it hijacked by violent people. Cities are locking down and social media is overrun with angry posts and comments.

The truth is racism is a horrifyingly real issue still, yet strides are being made. What used to be a (forgive me) black and white topic is now a complex topic with many subtleties and nuance. And you’ll find that social media does not put up with subtleties and nuance, because too many people aren’t listening.

Snow Falling on Cedars (film) - Wikipedia
A moving book. A story well told.

Hence the power of the writer and the ability to fully explore subtleties and nuance in novels and non-fiction. To Kill a Mockingbird was for many white writers of a certain age our first powerful awareness of racism and did more for white-locked regions than even well-done protests. I’m from Seattle, a nearly all-white community and racism wasn’t a big concern because, well, there was no one to be racist against (and the few minorities we knew were friends, and it’s funny how once you see someone as a person first, the skin color doesn’t matter). Years later Snow Falling on Cedars was a similar eye-opening book, this time about white-Asian racism, which for our area was more meaningful since a large Japanese community was close to ours.

Here’s a story of nuance that I fell into as a 3rd-grader. Sammy was a classmate who got into fights every day. I never saw why the fights started, just that he was always in the middle of it. Sammy was Japanese, but to me he was just Sammy. I hadn’t learned racism and never dreamed the fights were about racism. In the cloakroom as we waited for recess, I asked Sammy if he was going to get in a fight again. He said nothing, walked up the line and whispered to the teacher. When everyone else was released to recess, I was held back and lectured on racism by our teacher who was supremely disappointed in me. She thought I knew better.

Well, clearly I didn’t know better. It hadn’t occurred to me why he was fighting (I was on crutches and watched the playground from the sidelines. I could see a lot but hear very little), just that he was fighting. My question was not racist, I just wanted to know if he was going to fight today. I was so confused because I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. At first I thought maybe she thought I was going to fight him, but I couldn’t walk so fighting wasn’t possible. For a couple years I was an imperfect observer while kids played, much like Scout, who was too young to understand the larger issues facing grownups.

Story is powerful and the issues are plentiful, not limited to racism. In a book we can see all sides of injustice. Through fiction you can tell your story and give we readers a deep insight. That is needed more today than ever before.

Not every book has to be focused on a social issue, but social issues exist and your characters may deal with them as a texture of the period.

Make America Understand!

Even Jerks Can Work

He’s arrogant, cruel, self-righteous, petty, venal, and in so many ways a jerk. Yet he’s funny, witty, and charming, so he’s the star of the show.

Maybe you didn’t think of Benjamin Franklin Pierce, AKA Hawkeye from M*A*S*H, as an awful man, but he is. He belittles Frank Burns rather than help improve him, he objectifies women, makes sport of everyone, can dish it out but can’t take it, and while he’s a great meatball surgeon, if you knew him in real life, you’d consider him vain, shallow, and mean.

That’s the power of story. As a fictional character who you don’t have to live with, Hawkeye is fun. As a co-worker or friend, he’d be tiresome.

The Avengers: Jeremy Renner was so fed up of being 'Loki's minion ...
No, no, no, not THAT Hawkeye… well, okay, that Hawkeye, too.

In a story, though, Hawkeye promotes conflict. He riles people up, then awes them with his skill as a wit and a doctor.

He is deeply flawed, which makes him an engaging character. My main characters are often too nice, too good, because they are the observers of the action.

That’s a weakness in my writing and one I need to correct. A flawed character can get worse AND can get better; he can change. He’s unpredictable and stirs controversy. He gets himself into and out of trouble. He commits the action, he is not acted upon.

Hawkeye is a great character, but a lousy person. Make sure your characters are flawed yet have a way of covering themselves.

Another example of this is Psych, a favorite of my children. Sean’s a jerk. Flat out, lousy friend, jerk. Gus MUST have been abused as a child to put up with him. Jewels is out of her mind for caring about him.

But he’s funny. Audacious. Gets away with stuff we can’t.

He’s good story.

Gregory House is another jerk, but he pushes the jerk way hard with the only redeeming quality is that he knows medicine. He is THE most unlikable human on the planet played so fetchingly by Hugh Lorrie. Roguish, biting charm…

In Star Wars, everyone’s favorite human is Han Solo. A roguish, charming bad boy with a tarnished heart of gold.

There must be something good about being bad.

In a story (don’t take that as an excuse to be a charming jerk in real life).

A Surprising Admission from a Publisher

I know it’s strange to admit, but I haven’t read a paperback book in years. I read a couple of hardback books a little more than a year ago, but almost all my reading has been done on a Kindle Fire or a computer.

Until recently, that is. I’ve relocated my office and probably a thousand books, among which I found several novels I had been meaning to read. Two nights ago, I picked up Dean Koontz’s By the Light of the Moon.

It was weird.

6 x 9 Standing Paperback Book Mockup - Covervault
Do you know where your paperback is?

The font was small, the margin dipped into the bend of the spine, and it felt odd turning thin pages. Then someone turned off the light and reading was over for the evening.

I’ve taken for granted the ability to change font size and type style on my Kindle. Both my Paperwhite and Fire need no exterior light, and swiping is second nature.

I had the thought that it won’t be long before e-readers completely take over the market. I’ve been resistant, of course. I love paper books. I love the smell and the creak of the spine. Yet I made the realization that of the six bookshelves in my office, my Kindle has the capacity to hold all my books in the palm of my hand. That says a lot to a guy with a sore back from moving said bookshelves.

Of course, I take that to heart when designing my author’s books. Font is large enough to read easily, gutters are wide enough, but the ebook sells for less and has the same royalty.

Will paperbacks and hardbacks go the way of the VCR? Maybe. Especially with libraries being closed for a while now, people are turning to their Kindles. It is difficult to go back.

Does that surprise you? Perplex you? Or have not thought about paperbacks in a while?

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