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Chainsaws and scalpels

The weather in the San Juans was just about perfect over the weekend: low 70s in the daytime, big fluffy clouds drifting over the aspens and dragging their shadows up the mountainsides. I would have enjoyed it a little more if I wasn’t trying to decide who to kill.

I’m 240 pages into editing the draft of my novel and sometime late last week, I decided someone else needed to die (and die sooner in the story). Writer’s bloodlust, I guess. If I have to lop off big chunks of the story to shorten this beast (147,000 words, if you’re keeping track at home), then someone’s going down with those parts of the ship. It just took a while to decide who would draw the proverbial black bean. It was a little creepy, mentally lining up my characters like the criminals in The Usual Suspects and saying to one of them: sorry, I know you survived in the draft, but…

Why kill someone else? Why increase the body count? Because these characters are making a perilous journey and I realized that the perilous part doesn’t really hit home until the climax, near the end of the novel. That made me think about something in Anne Lamott’s book (the wonderfully-written Bird by Bird), about letting bad things happen to your characters, and I’m realizing that I was a bit of an overprotective parent the first time through this story. So in the re-write, they’re getting knocked around more.

And one in particular gets knocked dead. A minor character. They have much higher mortality rates than main characters (did you know that the average life expectancy for a minor character today is only eight chapters? True fact). It was actually pretty easy once I convinced myself that she needed to go and plotted out how I’d do it. It was, I suppose, like a lot of pre-meditated murders: the planning took a lot longer than the actual deed. About 10 minutes of typing, and it was finished.

I haven’t even started the real re-write yet, by the way. I’m reading through the draft for the first time in about a year, getting familiar with the story again and alternately reaching for the scalpel and the chainsaw. The scalpel is all the little stuff that I can’t let pass without marking: tweaking descriptions and dialogue, minor trims to sentences and paragraphs, fixing punctuation. I’ve made, oh, about 5,000 of those so far.

I’ve also killed off entire chapters – probably more than ten so far. That’s the chainsaw work. Most were just little scenes that I liked, but in the cold light of editing, they don’t serve the greater story so they get the big “X” through them. One of them featured a rookie Border Patrol agent trying to interview a suspected undocumented immigrant near the river and botching the Spanish, while the man patiently answers the questions even though he can tell the agent means to ask something else. Then he starts speaking English because he’s not undocumented after all, he’s a local having some fun with this rookie. “I got the amnesty back in the ’80s,” he tells the agent. “God bless Ronald Reagan.” Hilarity ensues.

It’s gone. Chainsaw victim.

This is slow work, slower than I’d expected. I still had that newspaper mentality when I started this stage of the process, thinking I could burn my way through 50 pages a day (which is what I did the first time I “edited” the draft. Turns out I just tickled it a bit). Now I’m marking up every page, making notes about how I want to alter sections or whole chapters. When sudden inspiration has struck, I’ve re-written an entire chapter or significant parts of chapters. If I get through 25 pages in eight or nine hours, that’s a good day. Some days it’s more like 10 or 12.

Yesterday I “finished” 20 pages. This particular section was part of the buildup to the climax, and I’m seeing what a tangled mess I made. Dead-end plot tangents. Multiple twists that should be straight lines because they’re more confusing than intriguing. Little cameo characters who, like a tepid lover, arrive on the scene and quickly depart without making much of an impression or impact on anyone. Whack, whack, whack.

It feels good knowing that the story will be shorter, tighter – and hopefully a lot better. But I gotta admit, drawing big X’s through entire pages of prose that I remember agonizing over is … not so fun.

And when I’m done making all of my thousands of little marks on the hard copy, I’ll scoop them all up, along with all the new bits and pieces I’ve been writing on the laptop, and all the notes I’ve made in two legal pads, then take a deep breath … and start re-writing the whole thing from the beginning.

Then the real fun begins…

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