Wednesday, May 21

Oh, Now I Made it Worse: When Editing Goes Astray

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy


When I talked about ambiguous pronouns, and there was a comment about one of my examples. In trying to fix that ambiguity, I made the whole passage awkward. This is the perfect example to help illustrate what I call revision smudge. The things left behind when we edit one thing and it changes something else.

Here’s the original text: 
Bob and Gary ran for the house, zombies crashing through the woods behind them.
"Get to the car!" Bob screamed, reloading the shotgun while Gary dug into his pockets for the keys. Bob tripped and went flying, slamming against the dirt with a grunt.
The comment was that “his pockets” could refer to Gary or Bob. Which it technically could, so I edited the example to read like this:
Bob and Gary ran for the house, zombies crashing through the woods behind them.

"Get to the car!" Bob screamed, reloading the shotgun.

Gary dug into his pockets for the keys, hands shaking. Bob stumbled and went flying, slamming against the dirt with a grunt.
Moving Gary to his own line fixes the pronoun, but now the "Bob stumbled" part feels tacked on there at the end. Originally, it was part of Bob’s passage, so it made sense that Bob tripped as he was reloading the shotgun. Now, it reads awkwardly.

Something like this can easily be missed when we’re editing. There was nothing “wrong’ with it, so to us it reads fine unless we’re really looking at it. But it's common for these types of smudges to trigger a red flag that something is off, even if we're not sure what it is.

Let's rework the passage yet again to fix that smudge. Since the problem occurred because it moved away from Bob, sending it back there seems to be the easiest fix. But then it reads like this:
Bob and Gary ran for the house, zombies crashing through the woods behind them.

"Get to the car!" Bob screamed, reloading the shotgun. He stumbled and went flying, slamming against the dirt with a grunt.

Gary dug into his pockets for the keys, hands shaking.
It’s better, as Bob now stumbles in the right spot, but now Gary’s looking for his keys like Bob hasn’t just taken a dirt nap. It feels unconnected.

To flow smoothly, the trip needs to be in the right spot (after Gary goes for his keys). So let’s take a step back and look at what we’re trying to accomplish with this passage. Bob tripping is clearly a problem that makes the situation worse. He’s easy pickings for the zombies on their tail. So if this is a complication, why not add a small success for this event to mess up? Or even better—a way to make it worse.
Bob and Gary ran for the house, zombies crashing through the woods behind them.

"Get to the car!" Bob screamed, reloading the shotgun.

Gary dug into his pockets for the keys, hands shaking. Breath spray, matchbooks—keys, where are the damn keys! He emptied his pockets, tossing the useless crap to the ground.

Bob backed away from the zombies, firing. The tube of breath spray rolled toward him and slipped under his foot. He went flying, slamming against the dirt with a grunt.
More interesting, right?

When you have revision smudge, it’s a good idea to look at what you were trying to do and not so much at the words written. It’s not always about finding a spot for it, but making it fit the scene with whatever new changes caused the problem in the first place.

Often, a quick tweak is all you need to fix it. Change a few words, move or delete a line or two, and find a more interesting way to show what you wanted to show all along.

Do you find revision smudge when you edit? How do you handle the leftover bits that clog up otherwise good prose? 

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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26 comments:

  1. This was a great example. I tend to do this a lot too. Smudge. Fantastic definition!

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  2. Great examples. Yes, a quick tweak and a sharp eye like you have is sometimes all you need. Thanks for sharing this.

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  3. At the moment I'm simply culling the parts that don't work and saving them in a seperate document to see if they can be found a new home later.

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  4. I have the same thought process as you do. Frustrating while you're doing it, but it all works out in the end. :)

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  5. Were you an editor in another life? I would not have caught that smudge! Thanks for the example.

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  6. Editing for flow is always a challenge. Moving one phrase or sentence can set off a chain reaction of other places that now need fixing. Each sentence has to lead to the next one, and if you like to juggle things as you write, the way I do, things can get garbled.

    And you have to be willing to "delete" instead of just "move."

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  7. This happens more than I'd like to admit. Most of the time, I'll get hung up on the details and I know I need to move on and come back fresh. I'll just highlight the problem section, then when the character's aren't knocking on my door, begging for their next big scene, I'll go through pages, finding the yellow and try to fix. When I've done some for a while, its nice to scroll back through clean white pages. Ah!

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  8. I do this all the time! (Make it worse, I mean.) But not just in terms of grammar - when you change something, anything, in a piece, it can totally upset the flow. That's why when I edit (and ONLY at the editing stage) I eventually start rereading the entire scene whenever I make even a small change. You keep trying things until something works!

    Personally, I thought the original paragraph was fine. I understand the problem but feel like you would have to be dumb to get confused at it. The second example definitely felt worse and tacked on, so I'm glad you worked at it until it came right!

    Great article. :D

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  9. Thanks guys! Angie, I love editing, and I have worked with a lot of editors (both in writing and in my day job), so I must have picked p a few things over the years :)

    Terry, the delete key is our friend :)

    Annalise, I agree that the para was fine (the most obvious his was for Gary), but it made a good example for the blog.

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  10. Oh, it is wonderful to read your posts. I don't have anything intelligent to say because my mind is mush from changing my 1st person POV to 3rd person. However, in doing this, I've stumbled myself, over all kinds of "smudges".

    Slow improvements keep revealing new problems. How do you get to the end of revising!

    BTW, just finished Blue Fire and the review will be on my blog Friday. *big grin*

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  11. Interesting progression. Good rewrite. I don't know that I would have caught the keys thing, although it's a pretty funny image when you think of it that way.

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  12. Charity, cool! Thanks :) Can't wait to read it.

    Jessica, it is. I think most folks would just assume that. :)

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  13. I smudge my editing all the time. Sometimes it's easy to fix, but sometimes I end up rewriting the whole passage. It's an ugly process, but it usually results in better paragraphs...
    Poor Bob, though. His buddy didn't even notice his dirt nap!

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    1. I do terrible things to poor Bob. The smudge seems to depend on how big the change is that makes it. Change something major in the plot or story, or character, and it can leave a mess.

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  14. Yup, I smudge things up all the time. I'm constantly having to do what you suggest: back out and look at what the scene was supposed to convey in the first place. Sometimes I realize the entire passage isn't necessary, so out it goes.

    BTW- I love it when you pull stuff from the archives.

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    1. Aw thanks! That;s why I started doing it every Friday :)

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  15. I disagree that in the original "his" could refer to Bob. As a rule, pronouns refer back to the last noun. Plus, it's a stretch to think Gary is digging in Bob's pockets. It's illogical in a way the text doesn't allow for.

    I also disagree that the second option makes Bob's tripping feel like an add-on. Para. 1 is action, para. 2 is dialogue, and para. 3 is back to the action. That said, if you don't lay out the rest of your action and dialogue this way, this would feel odd.

    I don't think the final version is an improvement. We're getting more details, but they're not useful details and the pacing of the action is slowed down considerably as a result. Sometimes more isn't better. Get me to the action!

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    1. No worries, and this is a great reminder that not every reader is going to have the same experience. We all have different tastes about what works and what doesn't. :)

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  16. Love the smudge concept. Just added this to my class wiki. Thanks!

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  17. Thanks for another great lesson.

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  18. Uhm. I am an aspiring writer, Ms./Mrs. Hardy. And I want to be a professional novelist someday. I'm just not sure if I'm good enough. I wrote something when I read your article about the voices in your characters and this is what I sorta got:

    “If you were half the man he was!“ Catelyn cried out, tears pooling in her eyes now. “This matter would be over by now!” She dropped on her knees with a loud thud. The sound of her fall seemed to echo the pain in her heart but Eddard Stark was oblivious to this. “I have no more care - whatsoever - of man and his honor.” Eddard slammed a fist on the table beside him. The wine glasses hit the floor as Catelyn let the tears fall down. After a few moments, she stood back up and looked Eddard in the eyes. For a moment, Eddard felt guilt. But when he turned away from her, guilt was nothing for him anymore. Catelyn swiped the back of her hands violently across her eyes and shouted, “You are not the man I once loved. You are a lunatic, stuck in your terrors of past.” She wiped the new tears coming. “What good will letting those men die bring?! The Lannisters will not surrender no matter how many soldiers you send in battle. They’ll fight to the death! And bring you with them!” The final words hung in the air. Eddard knew the Lannisters too well to argue with Catelyn in that matter. Thus, he kept silent. “This is my last request as your betrothed.” Catelyn sounded eerily calm. “Order your men to fall back, Lord Stark.” Her begging eyes stared at him. “I suggest the same my lord.” Maester Luwin put in suddenly. Lord Eddard Stark stood there silently, thinking.
    “The Others take you for this!” Eddard cursed when his eyes opened and he walked out of the room with a shattered resolve. With that, Catelyn Stark felt unimaginable peace.

    Uhm. I took the characters from George Martin's famous work Game of Thrones. Uhm. What do you think about my writing, Ms./Mrs. Hardy? Am I an awful writer?

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    1. No, you're not an awful writer. :) You still have things to learn, but we all start out that way. Writing is a skill and it takes time to develop that skill. If you'd like more detailed feedback, you might try submitting something (even this) to the Real Life Diagnostics column. (you can find the link in the contents menu) I critique snippets like this on Saturdays and offer specific advice on what you're doing right and what you might want to work on. It could help point you in the right direction for the next step in your writing journey :)

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  19. Fantastic. . .thanks so much. Blessings, Janet

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