I cannot testify that writing a book is like giving birth. I’m a guy, and I’d sound pretty dumb saying something like that. I will say that it’s like pushing a living thing out of you, despite the fact that you don’t have any exits that a logical person would think right for the task. And I won’t presume to talk about what happens after the miracle of childbirth, other than I hear that it’s hectic. But on the literary side, once you’ve finished writing a book you can then relax, have couple of drinks, and look at your family for a few days. Then the real work starts, because the book you just wrote is an abomination that would make any reader weep acid and bite off his fingers so he’s never again tempted to turn a page.
Enter the miracle of editing. I think of it as teaching my book to walk, to play well with others, to tie its shoes, and to stand up for itself. Maybe a little orthodonture if it’s lucky. Killers might chase the hero of my book a thousand miles, and in editing I realize they have no reason to chase him past the first hundred yards. Perhaps I use the word “macaroni” three times in the same paragraph. I might have written some stuff that’s just plain dumb. A few determined rounds of editing can transform my book from a wretched semi-hominid into a respectable literary creature.
Truman Capote said that “finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” Give me an amen, brother. After all that editing, I feel like my book and I have spent a year together in a trench across from the Chinese army. I don’t want to let go. I dread saying, “I’m finished with you, you’re as good as you’re going to get. Let’s send you to agents and publishers who don’t care about you at all, and who may even hate you worse than smallpox.” My first novel is now being shopped to some fine agents, and every time I send out a query a sliver of my soul withers.
To distract me from my grief, I now spend my evenings editing my second novel. I’m on my third round of edits, and I hope it’s the last until some editor at Del Ray tells me my plot sucks and I need to fix it before they publish me. I hope for this even though no one at Del Ray is even aware I exist, so I think I deserve points for optimism. Anyway, this edit has taken a while because my book is long.
My first novel was 80,000 words, which is a respectable length. I figured I’d push myself with my second novel and go for 100,000 words. When I realized I needed another subplot, I cranked my estimate up to 120,000 words. When my hero told me he didn’t want to fall for that blond girl and to go screw myself, I gave up on estimating how long this thing would be. I finished at 180,000 words. As a point of comparison, that’s about the length of the New Testament. My novel has funnier dialogue than the New Testament, and fewer lepers. They each have the same number of world-shattering cataclysms.
I’m 150,000 words through my edit, and my fiercest enemies have fought me through every paragraph. They are the evil “adverb” and the baby-murdering “dialogue attribution.” I use these when I’m lazy, and they advertize my laziness by making my writing lame and squishy. And what are they?
Think about your meanest English teacher, the one who made you read The Scarlet Letter, and remember the things she told you. At one point she said that an adverb modifies a verb, or sometimes an adjective. In the sentence below, the word “confusingly” is an adverb:
“He confusingly explained to his readers what an adverb is.”
Why is that adverb bad? It’s not bad, it just turns the sentence into a blundering literary rhino. Try this:
“He baffled his readers with a lousy adverb explanation and an obscure rhino reference.”
“Baffled” does a better job than “confusingly explained.” At least I think it does. I’m not alone, since that literary heavy hitter Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the highest rooftop.”
All right, let’s move on to this dialogue attribution business. When a character speaks dialogue, you have to let your reader know who said those amazing words that will soon appear on t-shirts and a Facebook meme. You can do that with the reliable “he said.” But you have so many alternatives from which to choose. You could write: he uttered, he grunted, he howled, he moped, he exulted, he agreed, he snorted, and many more. Aren’t these cool?
Well, maybe not. When I use them I’m just avoiding the work of explaining in detail what’s going on. For example, I may write:
“My dialogue attributions are awful,” he groaned.
That’s literary laziness. It’s the equivalent of tossing in a clump of dishwasher soap and flushing instead of scrubbing the toilet. By the way, I like to describe writing it relation to common household tasks. I think it puts all of this writing bullshit in the proper context. Here’s an alternative dialogue attribution:
“His forefinger punched the backspace key a few dozen times. Then he snatched his Red Bull and hurled it across the room, missing the cat by a foot. Dropping his head to the desktop with a smack, he said, ‘My lousy dialogue attributions are kicking my ass.’”
The lesson for me in all this is to not spend my time coming up with fun alternatives to “he said.” I should just use “he said” and instead spend my energy on real writing.
So, how does that play out in the book I’m editing, the title of which is No Good Deals, by the way? Here’s an example of a sentence that tortured me last night:
“’I’m bloody tired of you talking obsessively about monuments!’ Stan yelled angrily. ’I totally hate the idea of you finally getting a monument!’”
You can see that some of the characters in my story might or might not have monuments built to them. That’s got to be good. When No Good Deals is published, as I’m certain it will be someday, monuments are a good reason to hurry out and buy a copy. However, here’s the edited version:
“’Damn you! I don’t even want a monument. If you’re having a monument, that’s the last scum-flicking thing I’d want,’ Stan said. ‘I’ll pay children to throw shit at your monument after I’m dead!’”
I think that’s a decent edit and also a good example of my character’s level of sophistication. I already feel one step closer to getting this baby published.