On Editing: Dissecting David

It’s well-known that when Michelangelo was asked how he made his masterpiece (the statue David) he replied:

“It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”

When I recalled this quote, I couldn’t think of a more perfect metaphor for the editing process. Editing a novel is exactly like chipping away at a big stone slab of generality, removing that which is not your novel and hoping to keep what is your novel perfectly in tact. Unfortunately, unlike what Michelangelo said of David, the editing process isn’t easy.

There is a high risk of cutting David’s toe, or worse, his entire foot off. Now that would not only be embarrassing, but it would totally throw the whole artistic endeavor off-balance! As you edit, you’re not just looking for mistakes or grammatical errors, or spelling typos. No, that stuff is actually very easy and routine.  The far more complex, time-consuming, less routine part involves more obscure, less-academically-studied elements like pace, and texture, beats, and tone.  Your dealing with questions like:

How much description does this character need before we can move on with the story? How much should I reveal about the plot at this point? Is this foreshadowing necessary, or is it cliché, or too obvious? Cut this seemingly random but beautiful piece of dialogue or keep it? How long does this transition have to be, can I make it shorter? It seems like there’s something missing here, I have no idea what, so should I just fill in, or abandon the whole scene entirely? Should this really cool adjective, that extra one that is not necessary, be kept for rhythm and flow? Should I keep this seemingly anti-grammatical sentence in its place as a style choice, or will the reader cringe and be distracted by it?Where the heck do I really begin this paragraph, and where the heck do I end it?

I’ll end it there.

The editing process is stuck deep in the minutia, strangled by the less-than-significant part of the whole. It’s the accounting side of writing…

2,000 pronouns + 600 nouns + 4,000 articles + 1,030 adjectives + 800 adverbs + 250 verbs + 400 conjunctions + 920 independent clauses + 1,099 dependent clauses – 1,0699 extra words / 20 chapters * 20 pages = 1 Novel

It’s the writer’s version of algebra…

Let F = finished novel

If x = “words” and y = “empty space around David”

Therefore:

F = x – y / patience*∞

That’s “patience” multiplied by “infinity.”  As in you need infinite patience!  Oh, and courage.

Now that my math and accounting friends have gone giddy with delight, I’m going to return back to the point. (Math Friend and Accountant Friend both moan:  “Awwww… man!”)  My point is this: writing is about measurement as much as it is about blind and quirky inspiration guided by big fate. There is a lot of calculation, a lot of glass beakers that need to have the right blood quantum so that when it’s all mixed in the centrifuge, you get a really good read on what’s inside. (My scientific friend has just perked up his ears. Like the pun? Yeah, I thought you did.)

That’s right Mr. and Mrs. Left Brain, we Right Brainers utilize our Left Brain as well! We have to. There is an essential need to balance the writing spreadsheet, solve the writing equation so that it comes out equal, get the right atoms to share the right protons and then get the desired catalyst.

At this point, the writing process is almost literally a science. It’s the part where writer’s feel the most pressure and most anxiety. A part of us wishes we could have the baby just as it came out, raw and ugly. We loved it the most then, in its natural state, and we hate to see it go through the awkward phases, start to rebel against us, and then go through all sorts of ups and downs. After that, it’s a cold process. We have to cut, gut, stuff, release, insert, dissect, reject, accept, inject, cut, gut, stuff, release, insert, dissect, reject, accept, inject, cut, gut, stuff, release, insert, dissect, reject, accept, inject…

No living human would dare want to be on the writer’s operating table. Especially when the procedure drives down the physician with so much stress and an absolute need for accuracy lest his patient die. (Yes! Got my doctor friend in it now!)

It may seem silly to a non-writer but really, if you spend so much time and effort on a project, I’m not sure a novel is so far away from a living thing.  Okay, maybe not a human being, but a novel is at least as beautiful and intricate as a statue. Think about it, if the original statue of David was the only copy left in existence and you saw it break apart, don’t you think it would pain you on some level?

If it would, then maybe you’ll have a better time understanding exactly what we writer’s are up to at your local coffee shop. We’re solving the theory of relativity, where making sure the big firm has all of its assets in order, we’re mapping a human genome, we’re removing an appendix, we’re chipping away at David. At least what we hope will be close to something like David.

All right, all right, it may not even come close, but we’ll keep trying. Somebody has to give the growing novels of the world hope for the future and a way out of a society that doesn’t care about them!  (Teacher friend, boo-ya!)

Okay… back to dissecting David.

Eh… anyone want to trade careers?

much love & cold hard facts,

Ollin

(P.S.  And yes, if you solve the number problem I wrote above, you will arrive at a correct solution.  Double boo-ya!)

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5 comments on “On Editing: Dissecting David

  1. Ugh, a naked David! Would castration make him less of a David?!

    Anyway, it really is nice to develop the impression that we writers are way cooler than doctors, mathematicians, and scientists all put together:)

    Waiting to read the ‘love story’?

  2. Waiting to read the ‘love story’!*

  3. junebugger says:

    Whoooaa, for a moment now and then I felt like I was back in math class. *gulp* But I really liked it. If ever someone asks me how to edit a novel, I’ll have to refer him or her to this post.

    Anyway, this was a brilliant analogy!! But in order to follow the motto: “It’s easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David” a writer needs to know their story, and especially their character, inside out.

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