Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Writing Triage

In trauma medicine, we evaluate multiple injured patients during triage to prioritize the order of their care. If you've ever watched M*A*S*H on television, this is what Hawkeye, B.J. and the other doctors do before they go into surgery. In domestic situations, most patients are first evaluated by their ABCs, or airways, breathing and circulation.

As writers, we have to evaluate our work in progress after we write the first draft for any care and repair it might need. We call this form of self-torture editing, and we all have different ways to do it. Some writers prefer a one-pass edit, while others edit dozens of times. There is nothing wrong with multiple edits, but writers can develop a bad habit of backtracking so often that they get trapped in an editing loop, and never write more than a couple of chapters before they get bored, start a new project, and trap themselves again.

I thought a triage approach might help writers who have a hard time with editing. Imagine for a moment that your latest chapter or scene is a patient in need of evaluation (yes, you get to play doctor.) Instead of a stethescope and an exam room, you'll need a hard copy of what needs editing and a highlighter.

To begin your evaluation, read through the chapter or scene you'd like to edit, look for the following conditions, and flag them with your highlighter:

A: Arresting -- any words, phrases or sentences that for whatever reason stop you from reading past them or throw you out of the story.

Example:

Squilyp wished to argue with me, but he knew we did not have time to debate my prognosis. He did, however, insist I activate the transmitter in my vocollar and keep the channel open as I operated on the patient. I wondered what I was going to make for dinner tonight; Reever didn't care for much protein. A training monitor in the surgical suite would provide a visual feed for him to observe the entire procedure.

Note: it's nice that Cherijo thinks about preparing meals, but now is not a time she would be doing that. Cherijo's focus should be on the patient she's about to cut open.

B: Baffling -- any point in the story that is unclear, whether it needs more detailing or streamlining.

Example:

Squilyp stayed with the patient while I donned a surgical shroud and listened to an ongoing thermal/subdermal aspiration of a v'relkas miatas nearby, and then stopped me as the drone surgical assistance unit rolled its instrument tray past us and into the suite. "I cannot allow you to do this alone. I will stay and assist."

Note: Do you know what an ongoing thermal/subdermal aspiration of a v'relkas miatas is? Neither do I, but it sounds pretty cool. Anything you put in a story just because you thought it sounded cool? Needs to go.

C: Cluttering -- any portion of the story that has no purpose except to occupy space, such as filler or housekeeping dialogue.

Example:

"Color is normal, with some arterial pulsation. A considerable amount of distention in the valve, but the tissue appears viable. Thermal scanner." I used the non-invasive instrument to pinpoint the exact location of the mass. "The obstruction is approximately fourteen centimeters by eight centimeters length-width, possibly five centimeters deep, somewhat oblong in shape with rounded edges that remind me of any number of objects, like a small handheld container for personal items, the Jorenian version of Tupperware, or my author's last StarDoc manuscript, and is still partially lodged in the pyloric sphincter adjunct to the secondary chamber. That is causing the bulge."

Note: This sort of over-detailing is common SF TMI. It has nothing to do with the exact location of the mass, so it slows down the passage. I threw it in there deliberately to give Cherijo more to say, which is a filler tactic and doesn't serve the story.

While you're being a story doc, pay close attention to your pacing. Disruption of pacing is always a dead giveaway. When you pinpoint the things that speed, slow or stop the heartbeat of the story, then you've successfully diagnosed what you need to rewrite or remove to save the patient.

9 comments:

  1. I wondered what I was going to make for dinner tonight; Reever didn't care for much protein.

    okay, this made me laugh. yeah, that sounds so much like Cherijo

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  2. I've learnt from experience that if something stops me in my tracks when reading, it has to go or be smoothed out. I just wish I could learn not to have to be stopped four, five, six times before I take out the scalpel :).

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  3. As a paramedic, I love your ABC's. :) Anything that makes me trip over it--even a name--gets excised or changed in my drafts. I've had to learn to send my "triage staff" packing as I write, or I tend to edit myself right into boredom, as you pointed out. Great take, as always. :)

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  4. Slightly off topic, but I started reading your Stardoc series for the first time. Loving it actually. Just wanted to say that.

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  5. This is perfect for scene and chapter revision but - you knew I'd ask - what about the manuscript as a whole? How do you get past the deer-in-headlights fear of having to revise the sucker?

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  6. jess--I feel a lot better about revising when I do it on a chapter-by-chapter basis. "Oh, chapter four is lousy, I'm going to replace it with something more interesting." "You know, chapter two isn't true anymore--going to have to take that out." "Better swap chapters eight and eleven." Tiny goals. That way it's not as disheartening as looking at a 100,000 word manuscript and knowing you've got to look at every one of those 100,000 words.

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  7. I'm in the edits a dozen times camp. Not because I can't let go, but because I can't seem to cover more than a couple of issues during each edit pass. So I have the copyedit/readthru after the first draft, the fix-the-storyline edit, the clean-up the characters edit, the flesh out the subplots edit, the spice up the description edit, etc etc. Lavender Secrets went through 10 edits before publication, and Face of the Enemy is about to get its final (and 8th) edit before going to print....

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  8. Heh, I love your writing triage. Just priceless.

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  9. Great examples! Thank you!

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