Moving ain’t like editing…

…except for one little thing.

Our basement contains a roughly equivalent pile of "stuff."

Our basement contains a roughly equivalent pile of “stuff.”

It occurred to me after spending day after day in my basement dealing with a vast accumulation of stuff — and yes, I’m using stuff in lieu of a much more graphic, though certainly appropriate, word — that I’d seen manuscripts loaded down with smoldering piles of such detritus. The difference, aside from the physical presence of actual stuff, was the volume of it.

I don’t recall anyone ever using the need to move, as in relocate/downsize/bug out, as a metaphor for editing, but as I’m pressed for time, I’m willing to sacrifice erudition <cough> just this once. For reasons I don’t understand, many who are new to the craft of writing feel compelled to write the way they think someone who’s highly educated might write, or possibly speak. Either way, it’s a mistake.

CannibalAnd yet it happens over and over. The need to sound profound usually results in a mishmash of sentences heavily laced with adjectives and adverbs that wander through the wilderness in search of meaning. Picture the Donner party gallivanting through the Sierra Nevada mountains as the snow begins to fall. That ill-fated trip began 170 years ago this month, by the way. If Donner and Company had followed a straighter path, and done a good bit less meandering, they might have completed their journey without having to eat each other to survive the winter. But I digress.

Consider this literary gem:

He wrapped a long, thin finger around the sturdy handle of the shiny black receptacle. Slowly, he hoisted the ceramic vessel to his pale pink lips. The steaming liquid rolled acridly around his sensitive tongue, evoking an involuntary reaction to the South American beverage’s bitter taste. The liquid was a stark black, reflecting the pale glow from the screen of his rectangular computer monitor. His concerned green eyes darted from one serifed letter to another, drinking in each word’s meaning as purposefully as he drank in his coffee. (Sample borrowed from a post by Bob Dole in Answers.com.)

Could you tell this poor schlub is merely drinking coffee while he reads something on his PC? Geez. There’s a reason I cast it in purple. I also deal with the issue of narrative bloat in chapter 39 of Write Naked!  Feel free to peruse the free version on-line.

chamber pot

I know it’s not ceramic, but it *is* a chamber pot, and the warning is classic.

The passage above (in purple) is wrong on so many levels I have difficulty counting them. Let’s start with his “long, thin finger.” Who cares if it’s long and thin? I can say with certainty that most guys don’t. Nor do we attempt to hold a beverage-filled mug with a single digit either. And despite an abundance of descriptors, we still don’t know for sure if he’s drinking from a cup, a mug, or a chamber pot. But again, who cares?

The third sentence is breathtakingly void of useful data, and yet it crawls, travelogue style, to the southern hemisphere in its journey of obfuscation. I’m guessing it’s coffee, but then, what do I know? (As I’m reading, my inner editor screams, “For the love of God, get on with it!” And, not surprisingly, I agree.) Still, there’s a slim chance that it isn’t coffee. It could be tea or possibly even yerba mate. Again, who cares? Let’s plow ahead.

Alas, we can’t move on just yet, we have to ponder the reflection of the rectangular computer monitor in the “stark black” liquid. Someone please tell me who uses a computer monitor that isn’t rectangular. But never mind, we have a more pressing matter: the mystery beverage. We’re still dealing in clues about that. What could it possibly be? And if it’s so vile, why drink it? Is the protagonist crazy?

Probably not, but I’m developing suspicions about the alleged writer.

Finally we reach the last sentence, which suggests our nameless drinker doesn’t read like normal folk. Nay, he must examine each individual letter, dot, and tittle for its typographical pedigree as he digests the text with the same tenacity as he consumes the dreadful concoction from south of the border, whatever the hell it is. Apparently, we’ll never find out.

I actually grieve for the fellow in this tale. But I take comfort knowing I’ll never read another word about him.

Which brings me back to my premise: moving demands that one get rid of the superfluous junk acquired over a period of time. In short, if you don’t need it or love it, lose it. Editing often requires something similar, as demonstrated. Keeping a chamber pot handy whilst editing something like this ain’t such a bad idea.

Movin’ on now.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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