Saturday, September 20, 2008

Working at Home on a Saturday

Here's a little peek inside my world. This is what a very happy Saturday looks like. I feel very lucky on a day like today. My house is quiet and clean, and I get to stay in it. I have leftover pizza from last night's dinner, and a big pot of homemade vegetable soup I threw together late last night, so I don't have to worry about cooking. I get to focus on doing something I love, editing a manuscript that I know will challenge me in a good, absorbing way.

Usually I edit on the computer, but I decided to go old school with this one. There's an autumn nip in the air, and the local birds are feeding in the landscaping just outside the windows you can see in that picture. I get to edit and watch the birds at the same time. Goldfinches and cardinals and house sparrows are the main entertainment today.

It took me over an hour to get through the first six pages of this manuscript, but that's because openings usually take a lot of careful thought. I always want the first five to ten pages of any manuscript to be as flawless as possible. Point of view is especially important here because this is where we establish the reader-character bond. Even tiny glitches in pov at this stage can prevent a reader from really getting into the story.

This author dilutes point of view in very subtle ways that can be a bit tricky to fix. I have to tear into the language a little bit, and that's something best done with a light touch.

Alicia's post yesterday referred to the way we obsess over single words and nitpicky details such as which adjective should come first in a pair. Who was it that said, Today I spent the morning putting in a single comma, and then spent the afternoon taking it out? I want to say it was Oscar Wilde, but I could be way off on that.

Anyway, my point -- yes, there is one -- is that sometimes a line edit requires us to tinker with the language, and because we try to do this gently, it leads to a natural obsession with details. A passage doesn't work. Perhaps you need a brand new passage, or perhaps we can just remove a single modifier and let the rest stand. In order to do that, though, I need to know exactly which modifier needs to be trimmed.

It's a judgment call. In the comments to yesterday's post, we began to see that even something as simple as whether to switch the order of two adjectives can have a variety of consequences. Sentence rhythm is changed, yes, but something more than that was at stake. The sentence contained two like ideas (lounging and elegant), and one unalike (drunk). It's a shell game. Switching the line-up of these ideas moves the point of impact in the sentence. Meaning and ear are both changed, and not in small ways, even though the change might seem trivial at first blush.

A lot of times these decisions hinge on the rest of the passage. Where are we trying to focus the reader's attention? Are we using a sleight of hand in our shell game to befuddle the viewer, or do we want to inspire our reader to feel confident that we can be trusted? Sometimes we want to hide details in plain sight. And sometimes we want the crowd to believe that anyone can win by paying attention.

So back to the mines for me. I have a feeling that once I get past the first twenty pages on this one, my editing speed will pick up. But on a day like today with nothing pressing on the calendar, I have the luxury of time. That's a luxury in short supply recently, and so I intend to enjoy every moment of it today.

ETA: I meant to also mention that I like the sentence structure in Alicia's sample sentence. I think the paired cumulative adjectives at the end are a good choice here. A participial phrase dilutes the ideas, and converting one of the adjectives to an adverb shifts focus off the main clause. All of which is contingent, of course, on the sentences which surround the sample.


1 comment:

Genella deGrey said...

Yes, that was Oscar Wilde - He's one of my favorites. Oscar was a man born one hundred years too soon.