An Object Lesson in Editing

At some point last fall, I was rather concerned about the inordinate length of my new novel. It was weighing in at 157,000 words, and I felt that I had to do something. Getting it trimmed down to a marketable length (100,000 words) was never a possibility, but I felt I ought not to impose on readers’ patience unnecessarily.

So I combined two similar scenes into one, thereby trimming (or so I thought at the time) a couple of thousand words. The scenes were on successive days in the story, but the action was somewhat redundant and the story was moving rather slowly. Good candidates for some judicious trimming.

This week, having already laid out the interior of the paperback in InDesign, complete with chapter heads, running heads, front matter, and detailed attention to widows and orphans, I sat down to give it a final read-through before uploading it to Amazon for y’all’s readin’ pleasure. All went well until I hit Chapter 18 (out of 36). At that point I realized that my intrepid sleuth was asking a woman questions about things he didn’t know yet!

So I transplanted a conversation from Chapter 20 back to Chapter 12 and deleted part of the conversation in 18. Breathed a sigh of relief — problem solved, right? This meant juggling the page layout, because 12 was now a page longer, so all of the remaining chapter start pages were off by one, forcing me to relocate all of the decorative capital letters that start the chapters. But that’s just a mechanical task, right? A chore. Hey, self-publishing is full of chores.

But now I’m staring in horror at Chapter 29, where there’s a reference to a fist fight that got deleted, and also a familiar treatment of a minor character who never got introduced because his first appearance disappeared.

My options are not appetizing. I can try thrashing through a narrow rewrite, but it’s going to look funny tossing that new character into the middle of an action sequence in Chapter 29 when he has never been properly introduced. Also, I recall that the leading lady is going to say a few words to him in Chapter 35, which will read very oddly if he hasn’t been deployed smoothly in the earlier text. And there are other minor issues, I expect.

I can scrap the InDesign file and do the layout again from scratch after carefully editing the text. That would mean a lot of extra layout work. The alternative, however, is not much better. If I start cutting and pasting chunks out of Chapter 12, 18, 20, and so on, working in InDesign, I’m quite likely to make a mess of it. Also, every edit that I make in InDesign has be be back-duplicated into Scrivener, where the manuscript resides, because I will be using Scrivener to produce the e-book file.

I can’t simply revert to an earlier version of the manuscript, because in the past few days I have made a number of small edits that I want to keep. Deleting an adverb or a comma, fixing a floating pronoun antecedent, replacing a couple of words of dialog with something that sounds less stilted. I don’t want to have to duplicate all that work by re-reading from page 1.

There’s a nice program called WinMerge (yeah, I’m a Windows user; you wanna make something out of it?) with which I can easily compare the August version with the current version. If I decide to restore the missing scene, this will allow me to figure out where the changes will go. But it’s still going to be a dangerous edit.

The lesson in this nightmare, I think, is this: Don’t try to tighten up a finished manuscript by reorganizing it. Just don’t. Leave it alone. If your literary agent (assuming you have one, ha-ha) tells you to cut 5,000 words, just smile and say, “Okay, I can do that. I charge $80 an hour for my editing services. Send me a check for the first ten hours of work. After I cash your check, I’ll get started.”

I’m kidding, of course. You should never say anything of the sort to an agent. But the real evil here does in fact reside in the publishing industry, not in your skills as an author, nor in mine. These people insist on tightly written books! They have bludgeoned us into submission. We are aesthetically cowed.

So fuck ’em. Really. Don’t try to make anything shorter. It’s fine the way it is. You may quote me.

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