Committed—Self-publishing Part 5: Development edit—Getting down to business
After a surge of insulted outrage passed, I carefully went over all of the editor’s notes throughout the manuscript. Depressingly, I understood why the editor felt some correction or other was needed: every place with a note or suggestion for a change, well, needed something. Not that I agreed with the suggested fixes all the time, only that it needed fixing, sometimes meaning a complete overhaul.
There were also scattered compliments: on dialogue, description, and use of little noticed habits we all have, which took the edge off some of the sharper cuts.
The first thing I decided without even thinking about it was there was no way I was going to turn this over to a book doctor.
I’d taken a gut shot to my view of myself as a writer, but I was not going down: I had tried to pull off a number of sophisticated maneuvers but had failed in most. Spectacularly. All those problems that the earlier readers couldn’t quite get a fix on or express clearly now had highlighting, notes and explanations, in specific terms that I could grasp and so act on.
I quailed at the amount of work needed. I had to re-dramatize the arcs of two thirds of the book, convert dialogue and static scenes into action in order to drive the reader through the pages, at the same time as cutting out 25 plus percent of the text, all in a book I felt completely burned out on.
A hell of a challenge, but I decided I would be up to it in spite of not wanting to live another moment inside the heads of those characters or that universe.
Starting with the main characters, I created more complete sketches, with a distilled sense of what drove them, sharpening the particular form their struggle took, clarifying each one’s arc and the specific route along the path from self-ignorance to self-knowledge each traveled until finally confronting who he or she really is, and then finding concrete ways to dramatize each path including whether the character accepts this truth or not. For each sketch, I created a specific key word that illustrated the lens through which he or she viewed the world: Passion, Power and Media.
Each sketch drills down to what would make each sympathetic: Jonathan must to be torn apart by his passion just as it lets him create, giving him a seemingly impossible choice between the two things that make his life worth living: his lover or his music; Scott was always to have been Tragic—with the capital T. Now his single-minded attention to power combines with a potent secret he keeps even from himself and drives his every action, until a final revelation, one that changes everything he has been for the reader up to that moment. While Jennifer needed the least work, she still needs to be stronger and even more sympathetic, pushing the reader to want her to tear away the lens of mass media through which she sees the world and gets her sense of self. Finally the secondary characters got treatment: many were given a secret that explained why they act as they do; the roles each one played in the individual stories of the three Point of View characters, as well as the over arching story of music, from White Heat to Mercurial Visions and finally to Merciful Release was clarified and sharpened.
These sketches allowed every scene to be rewritten to bring into sharper relief each one’s individual struggle, as well as contrasting the way each sees the world, and letting their natural conflicts flare, more often and more brightly.
All obvious this: things I’d thought I had already accomplished but had not, and my earlier readers, while sensing these failures, either didn’t have the vocabulary, or perhaps lacked the specific knowledge to enable them to explain these problems to me in a way I could recognize and fix.
These sketches generated more pages stuffed with ideas to realize.
Then, with my new character guides, arcs, sketches and notes, I set out rebuild each of the four story arcs—one for each of the three POV characters and the larger one the three create together—scene by scene looking for ways to dramatize what I had failed at before, all informed by ideas from a particularly excellent Freakanomics podcast on suspense and surprise, called, “How to Create Suspense”.
Nothing was spared the hard stare of Do You Work or NOT? Even whole scenes I recalled spending hours on, repeatedly, to the point of reading each sentence aloud to improve its sound: If it didn’t pull it’s weight, it was gone. Two bars with some of my favorite descriptions lasting dozens of pages: chopped out.
The scenes that survived, I trimmed to their essence. Over nineteen thousand words worth fell to the knife: dropping the word count from 149,000 words down to 129,700, shedding roughly 67 pages.
At the same time, the original 18 chapters grew to 61, by slicing up chapters into tighter dramatic movements with fewer scenes, frequently only one, and always with a mind to leaving unanswered the reader’s most important question: “what’s next?”
As I cut, remolded and augmented, I imagined the developmental editor reading this new version, thinking he’d never have suggested such massive changes: who’d have the patience? More importantly I knew what I had intended. She never could because I’d failed in achieving them, and it’s impossible for the editor to have suggested changes to achieve goals and effects that existed only in my mind, never on the page.
Now, I understood why no agent bothered with the manuscript in its original form: it sucked. It had never had a chance to make it to a traditional house for a development edit in the first place: no one knew what it was to look like but me, and that book was buried under so much detritus that no one could have see it. I.e. it could NEVER have made it the traditional way.
But knowing everything that I’d done wrong, I could rewrite the manuscript to that it could make it in a traditional house. The proof: an Editor’s Choice designation.