Posts Tagged ‘read’


     Every writer must eventually part ways with some of his or her favorite creations for the sake of the greater good.  There are dozens of names for this process:  Slaughtering your sacred cows, Killing your darlings, or the term I find most fitting, Cutting the fat.  No matter what you choose to call it though, it sucks.

     There are two types of “cuts”, and although both can be equally painful, the first one (which is the removal of an unecessary sentence) is substantially less time-consuming than the second (which is the deletion of an entire scene.)  In deleting an uneeded sentence, I can at least take solace in the fact that I didn’t spend hours and hours working on it.  For me, these kinds of space-wasters are usually just flowery details that, for some reason, I’ve become unreasonably attached to.  I guess this is where my inner poet likes to rear his stubborn but eloquent and impassioned (and often pompous), beautiful head.  (Uncle Carlos is only there to give dirty looks to the main character.  Does he really need to be “a blandly handsome man with an air of quick-thinning tolerance about him”?) But over all, I am able to see the ultimate detriment to this kind of self-indulgence, and generally have no trouble toning down the details.

     Then there is the second kind of cut: scene deletion.  This, for me, has always been far more demoralizing.  It’s one thing to just clean up the excess portions of a scene, and quite another to look at it in its entirety and disheartedly realize (or worse be told by an outside source) that the entire piece is basically no good.  I got my first real lesson in this right off the bat when my mentor, Kim (Williams-Justesen), and I did the first read through of my first manuscript, The White Room.

     We were at the cemetery downtown, (now that I think about it, that sounds very odd.  Why were we at the cemetery?  Oh yeah… because it’s peaceful, beautiful and well, dead people don’t tend to interrupt), sitting on the lawn on a warm spring day.  I was all kinds of excited because it was the first time I’d be able to hear my story out loud and with continuity.  Kim began reading.  It was a disaster.  Instead of gently rowing down the stream as I believed we would be, the first thirteen pages or so felt more like being in an aluminum canoe on a wind-peeved sea.  Had I had any Dramamine handy, I would have taken it… and without protest to the inevitable drooling drug daze those pills always put me in.  Anyway, Kim was kind enough to continue to the end of the chapter which thankfully, had smoothed out a bit.  When she was done, she looked at the pages in her hand and then looked at me.  “You want to know what I think?” she asked.  I said that yes, I did indeed want to know, but in truth, I wasn’t sure I really did.  She turned the manuscript back to page one, and then one after another, plucked page after page away from the stack.  Somewhere around mid-chapter one, she stopped and pointed to a paragraph in the middle of the page.  “I think this is where your story starts,” she said.     

     I was stunned.  I argued.  I made excuses.  I rationalized and justified.  But worst of all, in truth… I agreed with her.  The reality was that the first half of that chapter was nothing more than a confusing warm-up.  I’d struck on some significant points in those pages, but over all, it was crap.  I stewed the rest of the day as we read the other chapters, and that night, I went home with my tail between my legs and started re-writing and implanting the few decent scraps from the trash pages, as needed into the newer, better beginning.  I made a decision that day that I would never let that happen again.  Unfortunately, however, I think that, at least to some degree, writing some crap is inevitable. 

     For me there are two reasons an uneccessary scene gets written in the first place.  The first, and most common reason, is that my “muse” gets an inspired hair up his ass… and just runs like hell with it, as if trying to outrun my sense of good judgment and discrimination.  I start with a plan… and end up not only in left field, but in an altogether different tennis tournament entirely.   When the muse gets this kind of head start, I find myself reading page after page of unholy gibberish that, if ever seen by a professional, would seal my fate as a failed writer.  Forever.

     The second reason I write bad scenes is simple: laziness.  I don’t feel like writing, but I know I have to, and therefore, I sit down and very simply fill white space with whatever nonsense comes into my mind.  Perhaps my character needs to pee.  At times like these, that seems pretty important.  Or maybe Henry the optometrist will spend a few hours petting the dog.  Nevermind that there was no dog before now.  Now Henry has a dog.  Yep.  Pet the dog, it is.  That will fill the empty space.  That being said, I actually prefer this kind of “very bad scene.”  It’s much easier to say goodbye to utter nonsense than to the flowery grandeur of my terribly possessive (and I suspect, alcoholic,) muse.

    Any way you look at it, editing is a bitch.  You wind up deleting hours of your life you will never get back, but alas… it’s necessary, and what works for me is I try to get it as close to perfect as I can, not because I’m such a perfectionist, but because I am insecure enough that I really don’t want to invite any more criticism than necessary. Still, it’s a drink-inducing, hair-pulling, teeth-grinding emotional calamity that although I might (let’s be honest) wish on my worst enemy, I do not wish on you.  Happy travels!

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        At some point in the writing of every novel, the time comes when the author (or authors) need to block out a broad segment of time, sit down and read the story from page one to the last page written, and take out their little mental microscopes and search for all the little (and large) mistakes that weaken (or entirely ruin) their stories.  This is called a “comprehensive reading.” 

     Today marks the finish of chapter ten of “An Evil Heart,” the joint novel I’ve been writing with my friend and mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen (Mimi).  I spent several hours at her home yesterday, and a few more hours this morning, finishing up the scenes that we weren’t able to write without the other person being present.  Now that the paths of her character and my character are fully intertwined, me and Kim’s “together time” will need to be multiplied.   Kim and I have chosen to do comprehensive readings about every ten chapters, so I will spend the next week revising and refining the previous chapters so that the story can be read with as little interruption as possible.  

     A week from today, she and I will get together, find a relatively private location and spend the whole day reading what we’ve written.  Because I hate to read aloud, and am more audibly oriented in my learning style, Kim reads and I listen.  This is a tedious process, but it is where all the logic flaws, plot problems, character inconsistencies and previously overlooked grammatical errors shine through.  

     Although this will be the first read-through we’ve done of An Evil Heart, we did several on my first book, The White Room (which is currently looking for a home somewhere in New York right now), so I have an idea of how this works.  It is a process that can take anywhere from nine to thirteen hours.  But it’s worth it.  In my previous read-throughs, I was continually amazed by the blatant errors an author of a novel can overlook.  Worst of all, perhaps, are the logic flaws.

     A logic flaw is just that: a flaw in logic.  During one read-through, I was made embarrassingly aware that a character had taken the last sip of the same beer three different times.  At another point, a crucifix that burst into flames and turned to ash suddenly reappeared in a characters front pocket.  These little things are so easily written but become terribly apparent when read aloud. 

    Plot consistency is another obstacle you’ll contend with during a comprehensive reading. For example, in The White Room, I had created vampires who, of course, could not go out into the daylight.  I can not count how many times a vampire appeared in the middle of the day, totally unaware of the sun shining above.  In writing entities who could only survive in the darkness, I realized I’d placed a terrible restriction on myself and continually had to change the story around to keep consistent with the “reality” of the storyline.    

     Characters also like to lose consistency throughout the duration of a novel, and some characters end up being completely unnecessary.  There was one character I really liked and wanted to give more presence to.  Reading the story through, I realized this character seemed like a kind of strange appendage of the larger characters, and really had no place in the story other than the original two or three lines she was given.  I then had to go back and cut her out of all the scenes she didn’t fit into.  At another time, one of my characters voices changed so dramatically as the story progressed that by the end, he was nearly unrecognizable.  He began as a wise type who used proper English and eventually evolved into the barely educated boy next door.  This was one of the largest problems I had with that story and it took considerable time and energy to rephrase all of his dialog as well as correct his general disposition. 

    Not all flaws are big ones though.  Reading your manuscript through, you could continually find little sentences and phrases that, when heard aloud, just sound ridiculous.  “Bob flicked concerned eyes at me.”  Oh yeah?  And from just whose head did Bob pluck these concerned eyes out of?  And why on earth did he flick them at me? 

    These are just a few examples of the potential corrections a comprehensive reading offers a writer.   If it weren’t for several such sessions of my last story, I could have easily made the fatal mistake of sending a fault-riddled manuscript off to an agent, who would take one look at it and surely deem me unfit to write fiction. 

     I am both excited and reluctant to see what errors we find in An Evil Heart.   I’m learning that we humans, unfortunately, are flawed creatures by nature and we insert a little of that nature into everything we produce.  A comprehensive reading is a good way to spot and correct enough problems that by the time the story reaches the hands of an agent or editor, it is in acceptable and semi-professional condition.  The side effect to this, of course, is that by the end, you’ll be so tired of your own story that you’ll just want to kill every character in it call it a day.  But don’t.  It’s about that time that you know you’re getting close to being done. 

   And no, it will never be perfect. But it can be damned good… and given the right amount of attention to detail, you might even find an agent who agrees.