Editing History

Anyone writing a history book must gather an armada of facts. You start with the headliners of a chosen time, such as Queen Elizabeth I, and work your way down into intricate side alleys where hopefully none have gone before. You emerge from your toils with a masterpiece of assemblage—only to learn that it is too long for a publisher’s page requirements. How are you supposed to judge what should stay and what should go?

The first place to look is lengthy quoted material. By their very nature, excerpts from other sources fall in the category of support for your points. Maybe during the course of your research, you saw an entire paragraph from a historical figure that was marked by its passion and eloquence. So it’s all included. Yet if you need to make cuts, you have to decide whether that eloquence is really speaking to the point you’re trying to make. Maybe you keep only two sentences out of six.

A second field for cutting comprises repeated quotes from the same source. You may have a dozen quotes from an excellent biography of the Earl of Essex, for instance, and you’ve judiciously strewn them throughout the book, backing up a variety of points you’ve made. So you should look to see if you have other quoted material backing up that same point. If you do, excise the Essex bio quotes. A dozen times is probably going to the same well too often anyway.

Once the easy choices are made, you have to examine your text critically. How in depth are you getting on tangential subjects? You may have started off, for instance, using the creation of permanent theaters as a way of showing the rise of London’s middle class, but that devolves into a discussion of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. You’re going too far down a side alley for the book. You can probably trim a paragraph here and there concerning all sorts of ancillary tidbits.

Another area to consider is biographical material on minor personages. One of the problems with research is that some other author will have reams of information on her chosen topic. As you get deep into the weeds of your subject, that material seems important for providing context. If you had the space, that would be great. But if you need to prune, I don’t need to know how many wives and children the guy had if his reason for being in the book is a law that tried to ban theatrical entertainment as licentious.

Exercise: Footnotes are an author’s best friend when trying to reduce word count. Do you have a striking anomaly that you can’t bear to part with, but know it’s pretty far off the track? You create a footnote. These days, many of these are posted online, so you can be as ornate as you like.

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”
—Harry S Truman

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Living the Dream

No one, no matter how happy, fails to look over the fence at greener grass. That is the human condition: to wish for something we are not. The desire to become someone else, even if only temporarily, is one of the main reasons people tell stories. All of those characters are, thankfully, not you.

That motive conflicts with another main reason to write: self-regard. You have to think that you have something special—the ability to write, if nothing else—that sets you apart from the hoi polloi. So if you’re going to write about the human condition, all the interesting stuff that’s happened to you sounds like a good lode to mine.

I would venture to say that most writers are better off striving for wish fulfillment rather than self-exploration. It is true that having a rough life makes for interesting stories, but how many people really have it rough? I’ll go beyond that and ask another question: how many people who have endured hardships have the talent or the perseverance to write about them in a way that inflames the reader?

That question strikes at the heart of the matter. Writing about yourself is like writing in a journal. You try to capture past incidents in words, however imperfectly. Because the material chimes inside of you, causing deep feelings associated with remembrance, you don’t realize as clearly how it would impact someone else. It is a shortcut, in other words.

Longing to inhabit another’s shoes takes more effort. You have to draw up defining characteristics: who is that person like? You have to keep asking yourself how the person will react in a given situation. What would he say to that? Would he respond at all? You walk around during the day, after the writing session, thinking about what you have written. And at a more advanced stage, the character starts telling you what he wants.

Where are your personal feelings in this construct? They’re inside everything the character does. You’re still the same egotistic maniac. Yet you are pouring those drives into an ideal, someone larger than yourself. That being may be just outsized enough to capture the reader’s interest.

Exercise: If you have a character that is largely autobiographical, you might use two guidelines to judge how effective she is. First, are her plot events progressing in an arc that is intrinsic to the circle you’re completing inside the book? Put another way, are you sticking in stuff just because it happened to you? Second, are her feelings interesting, or are they as mundane as you, gazing over the fence, are?

“If a poem is each time new, then it is necessarily an act of discovery, a chance taken, a chance that may lead to fulfillment or disaster.”
—A. R. Ammons

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Checking Your Drafts

Writing on a computer is such an improvement in so many ways. A brilliant idea comes to mind, and a few keystrokes later, it’s down on paper. Revising also is such a breeze. Yet the very ease also leads to complications centered on loss. As in, forever lost in the computer. Here are a few tips to avoid gnashing of teeth.

The problem exists on both a micro and macro level. At the word-by-word end, you may edit a sentence or paragraph and replace it with what, at that moment, you think is better. Only later when you are thinking about it, in that obsessive way writers do, you decide you like the first way better. You return to the computer, and find it irrevocably gone. You try to recapture what you wrote, but the wording isn’t right. You blew it.

You have to get in the habit of creating a new file every time you revise. It seems like a pain, but you don’t have to copy and paste the entire manuscript. You start at the chapter heading (or even the top of the single page you want to edit) and drag the mouse to copy that section you know you’re working on. If you don’t want your manuscript file to get too cluttered, create sub-files (“Chapter X”). But don’t throw out your drafts until a much later date, when you’re sure you know what you want.

On a macro level, the danger can be that you lose material between drafts. Say, you write a scene for a murder, in draft #1. Yet when you read it over, you realize that circumstances impacting the murder changed. So you write a new scene that accommodates the changes. When you complete that draft, you’re reading it over and you realize that certain parts of version #1 were actually better, except for those few things you really needed to change. Only you can’t find the scene you wrote earlier.

Rather than reading pages upon pages in frustration, use the Compare Documents function in Microsoft Word. It asks for two files, so you put the original in one box and the latest draft in another. A third file emerges that shows only the changes between the two drafts. Now all you have to do is flip to the general section where the murder should be, and the highlighted text will jump out at you. (Note that you can also use this function for micro comparisons as well.)

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it."

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.