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Revision as a Bloody Battlefield

April 27, 2011 at 9:39 pm

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that I prefer to edit the old fashioned way, with pen and paper.

I've been doing quite a lot of that lately.  Enough that I used up one of my favorite editing pens this evening.  So I thought it would be fun to post some pictures of how the pages actually look once they've been savaged by the dreaded red ball point.  (Or, failing "fun", at least it's an easy blog post.)

Below the cut, photos of a work in progress.

Well, okay, not an actual work.  What?  You didn't think I really meant to post an as-typed first draft in readable form for the world to ridicule?  I'm not that crazy. 

So, yeah, "Lorem Ipsum" isn't an actual story.  Obviously.  But the arrangement of text on these pages, particularly the notes to myself in square brackets and asterisks, is modeled on that in a story I am working on at the moment, titled "My Love She Lives in a Tyrant Sky".  So I took a few bloody pages from the edited version of that story and copied, as best I could, the pattern of red scribbling.

Why yes, in case you're wondering, it was a bit of work to do fake editing on several pages of gibberish Latin text.  Perhaps you're having doubts about my sanity.  What can I say?  I hold my early drafts very close to my chest.  I generally don't let people see them until the pages have been through the editing process at least twice.  I'm neurotic that way.  (And, believe me, if you read an actual as-typed first draft, you'd understand why.)

Nothing is safe from the ravages of the red pen.  Not even the title page.Page 1

Even here, the page is full of corrections, and places where I've addressed special notes to myself embedded in the text.  I don't use actual copyediting marks.  Partly because the manuscript's editing needs go far, far beyond copyediting at this stage.  It's hardcore revision/rewriting.

I use a string of asterisks as placeholders for special words, phrases, or names that I didn't settle upon in the first draft.

A word in asterisks means I want to verify its meaning or spelling.  I spend a lot of time with the dictionary while rewriting.  I second-guess my vocabulary to an embarrassing degree.

A word in square brackets means I want to use a word very close to this but not quite the same thing.  (This happens when I've got something just on the tip of my tongue, but I'd rather keep typing than let everything come to a screeching halt while I try to wheedle something useful out of my brain.)

The carnage continues on page 2.

Page 2Sometimes I'll draw square brackets around a sentence, along with a curvy arrow.  That's my way of telling myself that a piece of text needs to move elsewhere on the page. 

Sometimes I use angle brackets, which means I want to check something very specific about that word or phrase-- for instance, I might want to verify that it's appropriate dialogue for a particular historical period.









It's pretty common for me to move large blocks of text around.  Page 3

That note in the margin says "To 4" along with a little symbol, which is matched to an identical star on page 4, along with a note that says "From 3".  I use little star symbols when moving text across pages because sometimes the text from one page will end up spread across several pages in the next draft.  If I didn't use a unique symbol for each move, I'd put stuff in the wrong places.  And if I'm working on autopilot, grooving out to music while entering all the changes, I'm capable of producing complete gibberish without realizing it.  (A lesson learned from experience, that is.)

I won't post the rest, but the current draft has 22 pages of this carnage.  I usually do the work in the morning, over a couple cups of coffee, which is when I do my best thinking. For a short story of moderate length, it takes a few hours.  What can I say?  I'm slow. Actually entering the changes is relatively easy.  That I can do in the evening, even when I'm brain dead after a full day at work.

I have entire drafts of novels that look just like this.  About 1700 pages of printed manuscript for the Milkweed Triptych, and just about every page of the first drafts is similarly covered in red ink.  That work takes more than a few hours, but I can usually do it in a couple of weeks.  Faster, if I have to, but it's not fun.

Overall, it's a labor intensive process.  But I don't mind, because I know each iteration immeasurably improves the work.


Melinda April 28, 2011 at 10:10 am
Wow. Now I feel inadequate. :) It's strange, I don't edit this way on my books, but I do print out my scripts and bleed all over them. Maybe because so much has to be conveyed with such a minimum of words in a script, and I can see it more easily with paper in my hand and a pen in my hands.
Ian April 28, 2011 at 10:15 am
Don't feel inadequate. Rather, feel glad you don't suffer from my own futile obsessions. I seem to believe that all of this effort will produce something "good" or "readable"...
Steve Halter April 28, 2011 at 10:39 am
Ian, the effort seems to pay off, so it doesn't seem futile :-) I've pretty much become the opposite. I pretty much can't bring myself to write or edit anything on paper anymore. When I finally got a WYSIWYG editor after dealing with LaTex and vi and other torture devices (and yes those were improvements) I rejoiced and have never been able to go back. I've been playing with Scrivener a little bit. It has some pretty interesting features. If I were doing a research intensive book, I can see where its organizational features could be handy. I think the secret is to just do whatever feels right for you.
Ian April 28, 2011 at 10:52 am
Wow, vi... that takes me back. Nobody could ever blame you for not wanting to go back to those days! I wrote my thesis in LaTeX, but at least I was able to use Emacs for that, rather than vi. I think Charlie Stross has said that he writes his novels (or some of them) in vim. Which is about as hardcore as you can get, short of coding the ASCII text directly via machine language manipulation of distinct memory registers. I'm very interested in Scrivener. Many people rave about it.
Susan April 28, 2011 at 11:51 am
Ack! Your revisions look just like mine! But I write in blue. And print in Times New Roman. Seriously, Ian, get with the Times. No one uses Courier anymore. ;) Oh, and instead of square brackets, I make little circles with a "?" inside, and instead of stars, each chunk of text gets a unique circled number. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to typing in all my handwritten revisions...
Ian April 28, 2011 at 12:03 pm
For some reason, I find that my eyes slide over problems more often when I work in a proportional-width font. Courier's fixed width spreads things out in a way that helps my careless eyes see things more clearly. I switch to something else if and when the intended recipient requests or requires it, but otherwise I stick with Courier. For one thing, word count actually MEANS something concrete when I use the old-school Standard Manuscript Format counting method. The "word count" provided by word processors is so hilariously inaccurate that the scientist in me feels fire shooting out of his head whenever he tries to reconcile Delta(characters typed) with Delta(automated wordcount). That said, I wouldn't mind either way if somebody would give me a consensus on which method is considered definitive for consideration of contract requirements and market guidelines. I could fit a lot more story into my books if I used the word processor count. (And if I used the word processor count, then at that point font become less important, I would assume.)
Steve Halter April 28, 2011 at 1:24 pm
I recall one slow day in the CS help-room and one of my friends doing a proof that emacs (the macro language anyway) was Turing Complete. Struck me as both curiously elegant and overkill for an editor at the same time. (I did say it was a slow day.) vi was fantastic compared to the punch card typer.
Ian April 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm
I didn't know that about emacs! That's kinda neat, imho. Punch card typer? I feel no regret in saying I never had to deal with anything like that. (My mom used to work as a keypuncher, many eons ago.)
Scott Denning April 28, 2011 at 9:56 pm
Y'know, now I have new insight into the Voynich Manuscript...
Ian April 29, 2011 at 12:07 am
Of course, what appears as simple marginalia is actual the metaciphertext, or MCT, of my actual comments to myself. Each apparent letter in the MCT comprises multiple distinct pen strokes visible only under high magnification. The individual pen strokes form a anagrammatic substitution cipher in pig latin Linear B.
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