Editing: The Slasher Flick

I put on a clown mask. I pick up a knife; I rev the chainsaw. I develop an ominous, repetitive background track out of nowhere. I stake out the house with the lingerie-lounging babysitter, I lurk around the cabin with the campers repelled magnetically away from their safety in numbers, and I stare in the windows of the house where so-and-so was tragically murdered.

I am ready to edit my novel. And so are you, even if you don’t believe it.

The hardest part about being a writer usually isn’t writing sixty pages on one subject, it’s telling the same story in six and making it more evocative. Editing that story is painful, and also a bit like being flayed alive, or maybe being forced to choose between your children (or maybe flaying your children alive). There is simply no easy way to do it-but, as far as I’m concerned, you should always go in starved for blood.

Put yourself in mind of a generic kill-’em-all horror archetype. Romantic contenders need to be ousted for the main couple to get together. Girl-who-trips-on-air needs to be murdered for cryptic messages to be painted in blood. Attractive protagonist needs an exact number of friends who are slower runners to correspond to the number of flashbacks s/he must have explaining their relation to the antagonist. It’s true in slasher flicks, and true in drafting-by the time credits roll for your editing spree, only the parts absolutely necessary to the story should have survived.

To test the soundness of a drafted chapter, read it straight through from start to finish. If your eyes skip certain parts, or seem too eager to jump to exciting paragraphs, consider why that is. Is all the language as interesting as the rest? Is the placement of detail totally relevant to what’s happening right at that moment?

If it’s an easy fix, revise it. If it isn’t, hack it.

Now, don’t panic. If you’re really set on patching in that one atmospheric detail or that one additional character quirk, then maybe the problem isn’t whether or not it adds to the story-the problem is whether or not it belongs where you’ve put it.

One of the most vital things I’ve learned about writing is the importance of efficient information placement. A descriptor may be superbly effective, but its inclusion bogs down the momentum of the narrative. Well, don’t delete it-instead, prepare to be the serial killer. Take the sentence somewhere solitary, cut out its heart, and find the most striking place to put it on display.

Personally, I keep my own separate file for reject writing. I give it a creative or dramatic title, like perhaps the whole paragraphs I’m replacing are simply going into their own story (“Yes, dear, Muffins just went to go live up north with Fido, Bubbles, and Grandpa.”) It hurts less that way, and liberates me to remove sluggish sections without sacrificing their content-dicing up a chunk of exposition and dispersing it over the course of a chapter can become the perfect emphasis for character actions.

For instance, imagine your character is running for their life in one scene. In another, they pull out a heavy keychain full of goodies they’ve been carrying in their pocket all along to save the day. If in the first scene the character runs so wildly that their keychain jangles or its weight bruises their leg, the plot moves much more quickly when the same character fumbles out an attached Swiss army knife later. This kind of continuity adds movement and interest, and feels much fresher.

The next time you seriously edit, writers, remember to think like a slasher flick: eliminate the weak links, dismember anything that doesn’t move fast enough, and never be afraid to lead with a machete.

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