December 28, 2008

A Keyboard and a Knife: Editing for Blood

Since I was a child I’ve been learning to write. With some formal education and a lot of reading and research, I’ve stumbled across lessons and maxims which have helped me shape my voice and influenced my style. Some of these items which have come my way are adages, wisdom which I can no longer attribute to a particular source. Most useful to me in my endeavors is this line: “A good novel is not what you put into it, but what you take out of it.”

My first novel was written before I heard that quotation. Back in early 1991, I had the gall to think I could write a book. Like my previous short stories, I had characters in mind, a plot, and grand ideas about how to proceed. But, a novel? That is a lot of work, I thought. As I proceeded, I typed away with reckless abandon. The result was a ninety six thousand word manuscript which received dozens of rejections from literary agents and publishers alike. The common complaint was that the “pacing” was slow. Translation: It was too long.

In retrospect, I realize that I did not edit enough. Yes, I pored over the piece for typos, grammar mistakes, and punctuation usage. Yet, I declined to remove all of the excess verbiage and unneeded paragraphs. Like a cluttered room in a tiny house, much could be eliminated. There are passages describing streets, the weather, characters that appear in brief scenes and flowery prose which do nothing to advance the story. Before sitting down to write this article, I took the bulky manuscript out of its box and felt the weight of it in my hands. Examining the enormous size of this work, I surmised that I’d need an axe to chop away the excess.

It’s too late to fix that work of fiction now. I am on to bigger and better things. A lesson I took away from that experience is that I now do much of the editing as I move along. I’ll type out a page or two on my computer and hurry back to examine the length of the section which I am creating. After a break, I read each paragraph, slowly, and then hack away with the delete key. Perhaps I act hastily at times, but I write with my gut. This has become my process of authoring and maybe one day I’ll be rewarded with the so-called success of brick and mortar publishing. Until then, I am a hacker, a steamroller of an author with a sharp scalpel in my back pocket.

Yesterday I began my fourth novel. It is a story which combines many elements of my personal life; and, I am expanding those themes into a tale of a man who reaches the pinnacle of his life while at his lowest point. Having advanced a mere two pages into this outline, blood has already begun to spill. Nouns, verbs, and whole sentences are falling to their early deaths long before anyone other than the eager author, me, has had the chance to read them and make them live. It is nasty work; heartless, cruel, and very necessary. A good novel is not just what you manage to type. It is the result of some cold blooded editing.

-Michael J. Kannengieser