9.07.2018

Selective Engineering

When you edit a manuscript based on another person's advice, you may be surprised by how much impact a limited amount of rework has on the problem being addressed. Any author will be cheered by this news, because it accords with a natural law of writing. Advice given is sweeping; the writer’s response is grudging. It works that way because the author is the one who has to plow through the practical steps of making the changes.

As an editor, I know more than I want to about the depressing variety of author  responses to criticism. Some authors change a sentence here and there and ta-da! That kind of editing is too limited. Others rewrite and add hundreds of pages—toward a grand design that bears little resemblance to the advice.

You want to be strategic. How large is the issue being addressed? That tells you how many changes you should make. If, for example, someone remarks that he didn’t get to know the protagonist’s boyfriend well enough to care when he breaks off the book-long relationship, that’s pretty large. You would want to shoot for a minimum of five places in the manuscript where the relationship is augmented. Two of those might consist of new scenes entirely. In the end, how much are you really adding? Maybe 15-20 pages? Yet when the coverage is expanded in five separate locations, we get to understand the arc of the relationship much better. Now the break-up has an emotional payoff.

The advice may address a slighter issue, and your response should be commensurate. If a hero regularly meets with buds at a bar, the reader might complain that all the friends are an undifferentiated mass. So you pick out two—one loud and one sensitive maybe—and add coverage for them in those scenes. You cut down (or give the lines of lesser players to one of the two you picked) on the others, and you’re done. How many bar scenes are there, anyway?

You may decide that the change suggested will require too much work to be worth the effort. Let’s say a street kid ends up being adopted. You’re advised to make the child older, because a girl at age six functions essentially as a go-go doll. Pick me! Yet as you review the scenes in which she appears, you realize you’d have to rewrite all of them to make her 12, not to mention devising different plot outcomes because of her added sophistication. You have to ask yourself: how central is she to the drama? Is the story really about the adopting couple?

Exercise: With any change, first review the scenes in which the targeted characters appear. Only those scenes, lifted out from all the rest. Study the dynamics within that limited purview. Now start writing the new material or pruning the old. You can always figure out how the new work ties in with the rest of the book later.

“When you stand alone and sell yourself, you can't please everyone. But when you're different, you can last. “
—Don Rickles

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine



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