Friday, September 7, 2012

The Rewrite

For the past three weeks I have defeated the Butfirst Disease (see 8/28/12 blog) and actually done some serious work editing a book I wrote a few years ago. I know my skills and my limitations, and I can honestly say it's a good read with a strong story line, characters you can love or not, a great location--Paris in 1919--and a couple of interesting subplots. I'm about two-thirds through and I've chopped more than a hundred pages. The original came in at 437, and I hope to end up with about 325.

First I did the obvious: I got rid of as many words ending in ly as I could. Depending on adverbs is like hiring cheap labor. The job will get done, but badly.  I followed this with a 'search and destroy' for the word that, possibly the most useless of all four-letter words. Then I looked for passive sentences and made them active whenever possible. Finally, I counted the number of times I used the word 'seemed.' I took all of them out save three or four out, because things either are or are not. If they seem to be, it means they're actually something else.

Like many writers, I've had to create my characters from an amalgam of both the real and the imagined. In doing so, I gave them particular appearances, demeanors and quirks, thought patterns, personalities, issues and secrets.  And, like many writers, I thought I had to share all this information with the readers: How else would the legions who will make this an enduring best-seller know what and who I'm writing about? This need to over-describe was a mistake.  It slowed the book down tremendously without adding an iota of interest. It pains me to say this, but it was boring. In writing, for the most part, you don't need the warts and goiters.

I also thought: Do readers, for example, have to know in excruciating details about the great influenza pandemic of 1918, and the deaths of a lead character's parents? In my mind, they did. Who wouldn't be fascinated by such a wave of death? Twenty to 40 millions killed in the greatest and most devastating epidemic in world history, with 28 percent of all Americans infected! Personally, I love having such information at hand; I  thrive on dropping significant factoids during a lull in dinner conversation, which may or may not explain the rolling eyes of my exasperated friends.  Me, I like this stuff. Others, maybe not so much.

I did this repeatedly throughout the book, using the lives of my protagonists and heroes to illustrate historical details I found interesting but which had no play whatsoever in the book's plot. 

Call it the James Michener syndrome. It worked back when JM was putting out his 900-page epics, possibly because (1) there were fewer distractions to readers--phones, emails, television, tweets, texts, etc., and (2)  many people now want some sort of instant gratification, even when reading (it's my sense that the need for instant gratification has hit the reading public. That's why we read writers like Lee Childs whose characters don't evince much thought or philosophizing and are constantly engaged in some form of action--hitting, killing and maiming, for the most part.)

The other stuff I'm getting rid of involves what I call characterial introspection. How often do we need to know what the character is thinking, and to what depth?

I believed it was necessary to the plot's development to have in black and white all the concepts, notions, and rationalizations needed for my people to act. What I didn't realize is that this sort of exposition is mortally dull to the reader, and a facile way for the writer to avoid doing the work that must be done.

What all this means, in the end, is that the reader has to be allowed a place in the book. I'll lose him if I crowd him by over-writing. In fact, ideally, the reader is lured into the work and becomes a character. A Joyce, Harris, Balzac, Hugo knows that when creating a universe, there has to be a door to let the reader in.  That's great writing.

I still have a lot of work to do...

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