"Here I come to save the day" is from Mighty Mouse cartoons of decades ago--with luck, you will have seen Andy Kaufman's wonderful send-up of that.
So that's what substantive editors do, right, come to save a manuscript in their mighty blue-pencil suits? Well, no, not really. Yet I believe that's among the expectations some writers have.
If you've been following my edits on FtQ, you may have
noticed that, more likely than not, as a result of all the comments I
offer the writer has plenty of work yet to do. With some clients, a
fairly massive rewrite is what's needed
But there is "save the day" work I do in an edit that doesn't require a lot of rewriting. Think of it as "pruning." I can't recall seeing a narrative (including my own) that didn't have plenty of opportunities for tightening, for liposuctioning verbal fat with my mighty blue pencil. I think this is SO necessary for a writer working to break in. Agents and editors see gazillions of words, and they have trained minds that instantly spot globs of word lard on a page. The word "unedited" springs to their minds, a term that tarnishes your story with anticipation of a turgid pace before it has even begun.
"Unedited," I've been told, is also an agent's first impression, before even looking at the narrative, when a first novel is over 100 thousand words in length. True, a few genres call for longer manuscripts, but they are the exception. One hurdle in moving from query letter to request for materials can be your word count. This is where trimming helps not only the quality of the narrative but in initial marketing efforts.
Pruning often involves more than excising a word or a phrase here and there. Sometimes I'll cut steamer trunks of baggage that the poor story is trying to drag along, and failing. In a recent edit, I cut a chapter and a half from a client's novel (he's going with the cut). It was material that applied to an early vision of a novel that had evolved a great deal in his rewriting. To my blue-pencil eyes it was a long and not-all-that-interesting detour from the story he was telling. Yet he was having trouble seeing that it was no longer effective.
As you may have seen in FtQ, this is a particular problem
when it comes to the opening of a novel. In Ed's recent post a strong
opening was there, but only after about 2,500 words had been cut
But most edits also include "plussing" as well as pruning. It usually falls in two areas that authors have trouble seeing clearly because, when they read through their manuscripts, they're seeing both the words on the page and the "moving picture" of the story as they see it in their minds. Unfortunately, a reader can only see the first part.
Scene setting is the first added work that my comments frequently call for. Often it's missing altogether (writer sees movie, reader sees nothing). My approach is to explain why it's needed, to suggest ideas that the author can build upon, and how to couch it in terms of a character's point of view so it becomes more involving than a verbal rendition of a postcard. I can't save the day for the writer, but I can set them on the path.
Staging is another area that turns into a swamp for some writers. They are so focused on moving the story forward that the physical movements they call for are either unlikely or impossible. Here's an example I cited in an earlier post:
Once safely inside her apartment on the fourth floor, she went to her bedroom window. She recoiled behind the curtain when she saw a long shadow on the pavement below recede into darkness. She recognized him.
For this author, I asked how the character could recognize a man if she saw only a shadow, especially if she was four stories up and it was dark outside. She needed to rethink her staging.
Sometimes even simple action brings out impossible staging.
(In a hospital corridor) An elderly man shuffled toward them. He wore a hospital johnnie that dangled open in the back.
I commented that, because the patient was coming toward
the point-of-view character, the pov guy couldn't see that his garment
dangled open in the back. A nit, for sure, but you don't want any false
notes to hurt the credibility of your story. Sometimes I'll get up from
my chair and act out or walk through a bit of action to make sure I
"show" the bodies moving through space in appropriate ways. I can't fix
staging problems, but I can see them and steer an author toward clarity.
So I can help you make what you have better. The narrative crisper, the pace quicker. I can help strengthen your storyline. I can point out where characters fail to satisfy or intrigue or have a pulse. But if there's saving the day to be done, it's you that has to do it. If you can pull it off in a rewrite, maybe
So where am I going with all this? I think this post was provoked by thinking of all the samples I haven't seen. Every writer's novel opening has been extensively worked and thought about. The writer feels pretty much done with it. I think that, when they send it out, they expect readers to say, "Yeah, that works." But, as you've seen in the sample edits, some don't work at all and others have a ways to go to realize their potential. Yet the author cannot see it.
I'll wager there are hundreds of writers out there who read Flogging the Quill and agree with much of what I say about and do to the writing posted. The edits and shortcomings are easy to see. Yet when they turn to their own work, filters and inner knowledge come into play and they are no longer in touch with, let's say, "reader reality," the effect created by nothing more than the words on the page. The author expects "Yeah, that works." when they send it out. If those readers never understand the need for fresh eyes, their work may be destined to languish forever in slushpileland.
So wake up, O ye unedited throngs, and find fresh eyes. You may be close, but close only counts in horseshoes and napalm. You've got to nail it if you're trying to break in.
For what it's worth.
Free edit in exchange for posting permission. You send a sample that you have questions about and of which you'd like an edit. I won't post it without your permission.
© 2005 Ray Rhamey