Write Drunk, Edit Sober

HemingwayI think Hemingway once advised, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Unfortunately, I can’t write drunk — doesn’t work for me. But I can be very sober when I edit.

I’ve been editing my two “finished” novel manuscripts. The first one, now called Being Ruby, was complete at 70 thousand words. I’ll have to send it in to the Taos Writers’ conference soon, probably in April, for workshopping in July. So I went through it again and pulled out 2,000 words, bringing the count to just under 68K. That makes it revision five of draft ten. I amazed myself by pulling out that many words after so many iterations of the manuscript.

Most of those dead words were the consequence of over-writing, which I regress to in  narrative description. I write an idea and I don’t feel I nailed it, so I write it again in a different way, and leave both versions in. At the time, I have the sense that I’m elaborating the idea, but with my editor’s goggles on, it shows up as bad writing.

About 20% of the excess words came out of dialog, which is good because that means the dialog is fairly tight. Where it wasn’t, I was usually struggling with timing, so I’d put in some chit-chat to make time go by. I think it’s better to cut to micro-action to create conversational lacunae.

Also, I’ve become better at maintaining a naturalistic tone in dialog without filling it up with empty words. In real life, much conversation is babbling idiocy, but fictional characters can be remarkably concise and still sound like ordinary people. The secret, I’ve discovered, is the nonsequitur. Each interlocutor need not address the other’s previous statement or question directly as we do in real life.

I didn’t make any important structural or dramatic changes in Ruby, even though I’m not completely satisfied with the ending. I left it “open-ended,” as it were, so I could pick up the characters and the theme again in a sequel, but that leaves a lot of cash on the table. I’ll be interested to see what the workshoppers say about it.


The second manuscript, now called Desert Dream, is just over 78,000 words after two revisions of draft 5.  Unlike Ruby, I don’t think it has a lot of dead verbiage in it, but it has a different problem.

Desert Dream opens with two short chapters showing my main character, Quinn, a hard-boiled cop, doing his job, investigating homicides, and that sets his time and place, introduces a few supporting characters, and above all, sets the tone, mood, and Quinn’s voice.  Fine. But readers had a problem.

I’m serializing the novel, or at least the first few chapters of it, on an online critique site (www.critiquecircle.com). It’s been generally well-received there, but several readers complained that the first two chapters feel like false starts. They want the plot to get moving immediately. In fact, the main plot doesn’t start until chapter 3 and doesn’t really get rolling until chapter 4. Some readers were unhappy that the cases Quinn worked on in the prologue chapters were introduced, then summarized and wrapped up (and tossed out). They wanted me to dramatize the long, slow, and interesting police procedures of finding clues, running into complications, and solving the case – what you’d expect in a typical genre crime novel.

Their complaints are fair. But my intention was not to write a police procedural, and Desert Dream is supposed to stretch beyond the typical crime novel to explore a character. It’s about a man, who happens to be a cop, who changes over time from being moralistically rigid and emotionally shallow, to, at the end, being humanistically nuanced and emotionally committed (that magic worked through romance). That’s my story.

It seems I started my readers off on the wrong foot with false expectations. The obvious solution would be to lop off the first two chapters and start where the main plot starts.  Maybe I’ll do that, but it’s going to be difficult to weave in all the introductory material about the character and his context, and especially difficult to establish his voice without some hard-boiled blood and guts for the opening. And besides, I like those first two chapters, and so do readers, many enthusiastically so.

spaghettiI’m whining. I can cut chapters with the click of a mouse. I’m not ready to do it though, because I’m not sure I understand the problem yet. The genre expectation is that you start with a bang then keep the ball rolling inexorably. I didn’t mean to write genre crime, but I greedily appropriated the germane tropes, so I have no one to blame if readers are misled. I need to let this problem simmer for a while before I do anything rash.

Why can’t I just write what I mean to say the first time? Why is it necessary to write a mixed-up plate of spaghetti that has to be untangled? Does everybody have that problem or is it just me?

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