Writing Advice Sucks #4: Editing ‘The Warehouse’, why Elmore Leonard was right, and one secret editing trick that will BLOW YOUR MIND

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I run an online workshop program at LitReactor, where we bring in writers and editors to lead classes on craft. I listen to a lot of pitches. And one of the pitches I get most frequently is on editing. Not how to write the first draft of a novel or story, but how to refine a written story.

And I cannot sell them.

I’ve had authors whose other classes sold very well try to teach an editing class and I’m lucky if we sell enough seats to keep it open. I cannot for the life of me understand why this is.

The first draft of a novel is—and should be—a nightmare. It’s like going to the beach and building yourself a big giant pile of formless, lumpy sand. Once the pile is built out to the right dimensions, then you go in with your hand tools and you chip and carve at it until you’ve got a pretty sandcastle.

There’s a lot that goes into the editing process—a lot—which I’ve been thinking about as I’m working on my edit for The Warehouse. My editor at Crown, Julian, had said he didn’t anticipate major surgery. He still sent me a 14-page edit letter—single-spaced, with half-inch margins. His assistant, Angeline, sent me her own five-page letter (and they both hit on a lot of the same points, which really underscored where the faults were in the narrative).

It is not major surgery. But Julian did drill down into the connective tissue, the things that I subconsciously knew didn’t work, but couldn’t really put my finger on. He’s challenging me, like I completed a Rubik’s cube, and he took it from me and mixed it all up and handed it back to me and said, “Now do it again, jerk.”

Except the Rubik’s cube will look even better when it’s reformed.

Julian edited The Martian, which is a book that is both hugely technical and science-y, but also incredibly readable and entertaining—and now I understand why. Specifically, his notes really embodied something Elmore Leonard said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Leonard continued:

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

It’s a great piece of advice. My interpretation is slightly expanded, to all those cute but belabored sentences where it feels like I’m showing off. They’ve been highlighted and I am ripping them out without any regret, because I can see how they aren’t as clever as I thought. They’re speed bumps in the narrative.

I see those a lot—sentences or details that should have been removed, but the author formed a personal bond with them and didn’t want to lose them. This is where my journalism degree has really been useful. When you’re writing a news story, you have to be ruthless because you’re writing to a target—at my old paper, an inch count.

Your story about a fire or a stabbing might need to fill a ten-inch hole on a page, and that meant you had to hand in ten inches. No less, and definitely no more. If you handed in 11, then one inch was getting cut. Which meant sometimes you would have a great detail or quote and it would get tossed.

What sucks is that in journalism, it’s generally gone forever. In fiction, if you really love it, you can stash it in a file somewhere, and maybe it’ll get another chance at life. I’ve certainly had lines and ideas that I’ve pulled out of books because they didn’t fit, only to find another use for them down the road.

Another place where my journalism degree helped: I work fast. I once covered a pretty big fire late on a Friday night—big enough they were holding page one for it—and I had less than ten minutes to sit down and write it. You don’t get to ask for more time. You finish it and get it in.

Fiction doesn’t have the same sense of urgency. But it sort of does, too. My contract doesn’t even really require the book to be done until October, but the sooner we finish it, the sooner we get it into the hands of the sale reps. Plus, having more time means we can do another pass or two if we feel like we need it. Finally, all the foreign publishers are waiting for the finished manuscript, so they can get started on translation.

I got my edit letter on June 7. I took most of the month of June to think the notes over and make my own notes, and started work on June 24. I’m aiming to deliver Aug. 1. I’m doing two passes—one to address everything, and another to make sure it’s smooth.

It’s daunting. And it’s not, because again, the journalism training helps. The Warehouse is a big book. The version I submitted was 123,000 words, or 526 pages double-spaced in Word. The Ash novels averaged around 75,000, so this is a lot of book. It’s a different kind of story, with three narrative voices, interlude chapters made up of manuals and film scripts, and a whole lot of world-building.

Those interlude chapters were a lot of fun to write, and it was fun to break form a little bit, but Julian really challenged me on which ones I needed and which I didn’t. In one of our first conversations about the book we talked about cutting, and he said he didn’t anticipate a lot—even at the size it was he didn’t think there was a lot of bloat.

But as he dug down into it, and as I’m following along, I’m finding that there are opportunities to evaluate—stuff that provide some interesting shading, but what function do they serve to the overall story?

I just finished the first pass and got the book down to 119,000 words. Cutting 4,000 words might not seem like a lot but I also added chapters and sections, to address logical inconsistencies, or timeline issues, or to flesh out some of the plotting stuff that didn’t totally make sense.

A good editor is a valuable thing but it’s important to be able to see this stuff for yourself. To take it as far as you can before sending it out into the world. A book is ready to move onto the next stage—beta-readers or agents—when you can’t see the shortcomings anymore. When you’ve run out of ideas on how to make it better, that’s when you bring in the outside set of eyes.

That said, here are a few tips I’ve developed for my own editorial process, some of which are obvious, but the last one isn’t and I think it’s pretty cool.

Read out loud. This is tried and true. Reading something out loud will help you find the hitches in your sentences and dialogue.

Give yourself some space. I try to build in a couple of weeks between edits—taking that time to read more or write some short stories—so I can get some distance from what’s on the page. That way you can look at it with fresh eyes. I busted ass on this rewrite so I could get two weeks of dead air before I read it one more time, just to make sure the changes are smooth.

Don’t drag it out. To the previous point, the reason I’m busting ass is because two weeks from today, I’m going to a cabin with some writing pals so we can punch each other in the face and grill meat and cry about our feelings over a campfire (manly stuff) but mostly we are going to WRITE. I’ve got two and a half days and I plan to do my entire final pass, beginning to end, before we leave. There’s something to be said for seeing the whole story in such a short timespan. You really see how those threads you placed in the beginning tie into the end. It’s tough to find the time to do something like this—but when you can, it’s worth it.

Use the tools Word gives you. I like to turn on track changes and comments, and I even toggle the little paragraph symbol on the Word toolbar, to show all the nonprinting characters, like spaces and returns and tabs. Something about seeing all that puts me in the right kind of technical mindset.

Get yourself some good beta-readers. I actually don’t tend to use a lot of beta-readers—the first person to read The Warehouse after me was my agent. Usually I have my wife read my stuff, but she was in the middle of a pretty intense master’s program. She is a phenomenal beta-reader, because not only does she have another master’s, in English literature, but she reads very widely, and not exclusively just the kind of stuff I write.

Keep a notebook or notes app handy. I have talked a few times about the value of forgetting stuff. Now is not that time! I am spending a lot of my idle thought time chewing over The Warehouse right now—I literally had a dream about it one night. Sometimes a detail is so good but so small, and it’s easy to forget. Don’t forget. Write it down.

Take notes in general. After Julian sent me the edit letter, I thought a lot about my response. I’m taking 95 percent of what he suggested, and there are only a few minor points where I feel differently. The best way for me to process everything was to sit down and write my own response notes—for example, all the characters in The Warehouse wear tracking watches, and there were some logical inconsistencies with how they worked. Julian did a fantastic job of pointing out those inconsistencies, and even offered some tips on how to fix them. But I still had to fix the big-picture stuff. It’s easier to do that re-mapping when you have it in front of you, rather than doing it on the fly. And it made our follow-up conversation a lot easier, because I had answers on how I was going to tackle everything.

Just because it’s an idea doesn’t mean it’s a good one. That said, I’m not going to use all the notes I made. Sometimes you get a flash of inspiration and it sounds really good at the time, but in reality it’s not, and you have to know when to ignore it. How do you tell the difference? Fuck if I know. But there was one scene in particular I wanted to add, and I couldn’t figure out a way to do it organically, and I realized I would have to go at the book with a hammer to make it fit—and that was pretty much my answer right there.

Start at the end and work your way backward. This is my favorite bit of advice. When you start a book, you are full up of energy and excitement, but by the end of a book, even if you don’t mean to consciously, you just want to get it done, which means you might rush. I have read books where it feels like an author is ready to be finished, and the dominoes fall in such quick succession you’re left wondering: what happened? So I always do one full pass where I start with the last chapter and then work backward. This way I’m putting fresh energy into the ending, but I’m also seeing the story from a new perspective.

And there you have it. My usual caveats stick: most writing advice sucks because there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. This is just what works for me. Maybe there’s something in here that’s useful to you. And if not, that’s cool, too!

I love editing. It’s where you find the book. It’s sculpting the pile of sand into something with borders and dimensions and details. It takes time and multiple passes and it can be hard and frustrating, but when you hit the mark, damn does it feel nice.

In other news: My latest novel, Potter’s Field, just hit this week. That’s fun! Find it here in hardcover and eBook. If you’re just showing up, you can see all of these writing advice columns at this link. And if you want to keep on top of what I’m doing (as well as get some cool book recommendations every now and again) sign up for my newsletter.

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