Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Edit the Manuscript; Lose the Voice

As I mentioned in previous blogs, I just suffered from another series of rejections. So I took the first chapters of several manuscripts I've been working on and ran them by an unbiased (and unrelated) third party. Discovered something interesting. Editing is not always a great and wonderful thing. My "least edited" chapters are the best. By far, the best.

The rejected manuscripts had been edited too much. I tried to make stories that ran around 90,000 words fit into 75,000 words and as a result, I removed most of my voice and almost everything that made the characters understandable: like internal dialog and motivation. I also cut out so much that what was left was confusing.

Yes, sometimes it is possible to take a 90,000 word manuscript and cut it down under 75,000, but only if you actually have unnecessary scenes and a lot of extra verbiage. Or a few extra characters and subplots. If you don't and your writing is fairly tight to begin with, when you cut it that drastically, you are probably going to end up with a mess. I certainly did.

Maybe it's just me, though, because Reader's Digest condensed books seem to read "just fine." But…anyway.

Good Editing

Good editing is mostly structural. You get rid of unnecessary scenes that don't support and advance the storyline. You add in those little clues and red herrings the mystery requires. You reorder your sentences so that events and actions occur in the proper sequence. You fix the grammar.

If you're like me, you also add in descriptions, clarify motivations, and make sure the reader can understand what is going on. (My first drafts often only include dialog and terse action. You do need some descriptions, though, and your characters have to have some thoughts, emotions and motivations. Not everyone can psychically pick up on a character's internal emotional life and motivations the way I can. Of course, it helps that I'm the one who created the characters.)

Bad Editing

Bad editing is where you piddle around too much with how you are saying things. It is okay to substitute a stronger verb for a weak verb/adverb combo, e.g. "he ambled" instead of "he walked slowly." It is not okay to massage your sentences until you lose the original verve and power. That, my friends, is how you lose your voice.

I'm not a big fan of all this voice stuff—I think everyone has a voice. Your voice consists of your word choices and how you put thoughts together. That's it—no big mystery. However, the editing process is dangerous, because you can take all the freshness and life out of your writing by polishing it to death. Removing words. Substituting words. Nit-picking. Deleting sentences you need or watering other sentences down to make them "more acceptable." The trick is to learn when to stop.

Actually, I think the real trick is to realize how to edit. You don't want to change the words, you just want to ensure they make sense in the order written. Check sequence and mechanics. Check for action.

Then let it go.

(Unless you've already edited the holy heck out of several manuscripts and need to put them back together again. In which case, you have my profoundest sympathy.)


Naomi said...

Nice post. I think writers often forget that editing can involve more than just cutting things out. Clarifying motivations is something I need to work on - my secondary characters tend to be far too enigmatic and mysterious.

Melissa Amateis said...

I came across your post this evening since I am in the midst of editing hell. I had an agent request the full of my manuscript and I still need to make some changes to it. Unfortunately, I am completely sick of working on it and I feel that I'm editing TOO MUCH right now. I blogged about this very thing a month or so ago, how you can edit out your voice completely.

I plan to look at my manuscript with fresh eyes in the morning - and try not to make it sound PERFECT, y'know?