Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Editing, With Cookies

I've been doing a lot of baking this week. I made about 300 Christmas cookies, most of which I will be giving as gifts to friends, family, neighbors, and anyone else, because otherwise I would eat all 300 of them. But that's another story entirely.

This morning while I stood in the kitchen, rolling out yet another pan of cookies, I realized how much it reminded me of editing. I'll get into that in a second. First, for non-writer friends, or anyone who clicked through just to see pictures of baked goods, a little anecdote.

On Sunday, Lulu helped me bake the first batch of cookies, and I thought for sure it would take twice as much time to make today's batch by myself. Not so. Turns out, I'm pretty efficient on my own. It was, however, a lot less fun to bake alone. I guess that's why my mind wandered so far from baking.

So here goes, my doughy mashup of holiday baking and editing.

Sunday's cookies were green. We cut out trees and holly leaves, and dipped them in white chocolate. Snow, y'all! Today's cookies were SUPPOSED to be red, but even after using most of a bottle of red food coloring, they still look a little pink. I figured they'd darken up a bit in the oven. Yeah, not so much.

Sort of red.
So this is the raw material I had to work with. My original draft. I could have just wadded it up and shoved it in the oven as-is. It would probably taste okay, but there would be no beauty. Not to mention, it wouldn't bake evenly. There'd be doughy bits in the center, and the bottom would certainly burn. It needed zazz. It needed editing. BRING ON THE COOKIE CUTTERS!

I started the job with dough that was ALMOST the right color, but there wasn't really much I could do with it. I tried adding more food coloring, but it seemed to get a brighter and brighter pink, rather than deepening to a rich red. I stopped before I turned the stuff day-glo fuschia, at least. Knowing when to stop walking down a path that isn't turning out right is half the battle in editing, too.

So finally it was time to cut. I intended to make a batch of stars and then dip them in dark chocolate. I have a half a dozen different star shaped cookie cutters, so I got them all out. Some have five points, some six, and one even has eight points! Variety! I picked one out and set to work. Between the strange dark pink color and my indelicacy with a spatula, most of the first batch reminded me of Patrick Star.

Just add green shorts and a confused facial expression.
I saw my mistake. The points of this star were too long and thin. They tended to bend a little when I transferred them to the cookie sheet. I tried to straighten them out, but then I ended up with bloated blobby points. Not to mention in that first pan, I don't think I rolled the dough thin enough. They were still puffed up too much.

Same goes for editing. The first pass through a manuscript will be rough. Even the basic shape of it might be a little off. Big things are easy to spot and fix. The obvious. The glaring. Like, "Hey, that looks like a beautiful daisy!" "Uh, yeah, but it's supposed to be a STAR!" You see smaller things you need to fix, but you have to be able to see all the problems before you can fix them all. It was time to try again. Second round!

On the second try, I used a different shape. It had shorter arms, and they were less likely to end up looking like Patrick, but they were also more likely to end up looking blobby. Live and learn.

Sometimes in editing you make a change, and take it too far. You wouldn't want to remove ALL the adverbs, for example. The rules of writing exist, but that doesn't mean they are etched in stone and you'll be thrown out of the Temple of Publishing forever if you bend them a little. In fact, if you don't bend them a little, you may as well be writing technical manuals, not fiction. You don't want to give up the essential look of a star just so you won't have to worry about bending the arms a bit. Blobby stars were a no go. Time for round three!

This time, I tried yet ANOTHER shape. This one wasn't half bad. It was much larger than the first two, so I could fit fewer on the tray at a time. I started to worry I'd be in the kitchen forever unless I did something drastic. I crammed as many of the large stars as I could on the tray, and lo and behold, problems arose.

Same goes for editing. Work too fast, or try to cram too much in during one revision, and it starts to blur together in your mind. You have to keep characters, subplots, and scenes separate, or they start looking like one big character, one big muddle of scenes. Editing is not a time to rush. Your characters should be evolving and becoming more distinct, and your scenes should be clearer and more concise with each round. If you're racing through edits at a blur, that's how the story will look to your readers. On to round four!

Finding a satisfactory plan B.

By this point, I was sick of stars. They were hard to cut out and force them to hold their shape. What had become of all my brilliantly laid plans? Screw it! Time to make stockings instead.

Sometimes it's easier to just make a change when the reality of all the faults of your original plan seem to hit you at once. Sometimes a character needs to go. Sometimes, after several rounds of editing, you'll realize that one of your subplots goes nowhere. Sometimes you need to add in a new character, one who will help tie the story together. Whatever's wrong, sometimes it takes a big change of shape to set you back on the right course.

My stocking cookies will taste just as good as the stars, and they'll still get a chocolate coating, but won't they be a nice change from a mountain of stars? Okay, now that I'm really getting the hang of this, I'm ready for round five.

Sometimes things go awry. When baking, it's easy to dispose of the evidence. Om nom nom. When editing, sometimes it's best to do the same. Eat those plot holes! CHOMP!

Eventually the ball of dough you have to work with gets smaller

and smaller

and smaller...
Until you don't have enough to cut any more cookies. With each pass of edits, there should be fewer and fewer problems. Less to work with, not in the sense that there are few words in total, but in the sense that there are fewer WRONG words to fix. It's quite satisfying when a pass through only leads to minor tweaking.

In baking, I take that scrap of dough and mush it into a flat blob, and bake it with the rest of the cookies. It's the BONUS COOKIE! My reward for finishing the job.

Now all the hard work is done. It's time to add the decorations. In the case of my cookies, that means chocolate and sprinkles. In the case of my manuscript, it means showing it to my critique partners. They will spit shine it for me, and point out all the problems I'm unable to see for myself. You wouldn't go to all the trouble to bake up those tasty cookies and then leave off the final decoration, that last step. Don't think your manuscript is complete without running it by a few trusted writer friends, either.

I haven't had time to dip all the cookies from today's round of baking, but the ones we finished on Sunday look adorable (and taste quite nice, too). I need to take a break from the kitchen for a bit, but when I go back, I'll be fully engaged with putting the finishing touches on those cookies. Just like putting the finishing touches on my manuscript. Sometimes you need to walk away for a bit, let things cool down, and take everything in with fresh eyes. The cookies will have had a few hours to firm up, or they would crumble when I try to coat them in heavy chocolate. By the time I return, they'll be able to stand on their own. :D

Hope y'all didn't get a stomachache from too many cookie metaphors. Now I'm off to dispose of the evidence that I'm clumsy at handling fresh-baked cookies. And then I need to do some editing.


  1. That was a perfect way to frame editing in a rather delicious way :) Now I want cookies...


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