Darth Vader and the Death Star: An Editing Ideology

In between construction on Death Stars I and II, Darth Vader moonlighted as senior editor for a major publishing house. He applied his same philosophy in running the Death Star to critiquing manuscripts, using the Force to ensure that writers were as ruthless with words as he was with underlings. He valued, above all else, economy and efficiency.

Here are a few pointers from the Darth Vader school of thought:

1. Choke your darlings.

If you have a minor character who is underperforming, or worse, not performing at all, choke them out using the Force. If you have a droid and a human who serve the same function, combine them into a cyborg, thus making them more than both. There is no room on the Death Star or in a manuscript for freeloaders.

2. Blast your adverbs, clichés, unnecessary dialogue tags, etc.

These time-wasters are like Stormtroopers—can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Like the Imperial Army, they’re incredible ineffective. They have state-of-the-art weapons, but never actually hit their mark. In fact, they are the laughingstock of the entire galaxy. Economize the best and pulverize the rest.

3. Treat your adversaries with respect, but show no mercy.

Make your protagonist work, your antagonist too. Don’t let their fates be handed to them. If your protagonist is lacking oomph, make life harder—murder his aunt and uncle, cut off his hand, throw him down a vent shaft. If your antagonist seems two-dimensional, give him an inglorious Jedi past, a lost love, a dysfunctional father-son relationship. Give them both motivations and desires. And plans. Your antag and protag should each have a master plan that is in direct conflict with each other. Also, a fight scene with lightsabers never hurts.

4. Curb your tangents.

Keep only what’s interesting, relevant and well-written. This applies to both descriptions and random factoids. Do you know what the Death Star serves in the cafeteria on Wednesdays? Or how Darth Vader feels about the Emperor’s new job creation policies? Don’t distract from the story with too many asides. Keep the reader in the action of the story.

5. Break his heart.

Darth Vader no longer has a heart, but he remembers what it was like to have one. He wants to feel things too. Give your protagonist an internal struggle, have them build relationships with other characters, then destroy those relationships only to rebuild them again. Darth still wonders how a Wookie has more friends on Facebook than he does. Don’t they know he can destroy them with a single thought? It’s because at the end of the day, neither superweapons, nor annihilation can fill that empty space in Darth Vader’s chest.

Only the heart of your story can.

Page 80 (aka Writer’s Block)

Pages 1-79 are sheer bliss. I’m in love with my story, I’m in love with my writing, the characters are singing, the words are flowing and everything is as it should be.

Then I hit page 80.

At page 80, everything starts to unravel. I question the meaning of the story, the authenticity of my characters, my own abilities as a writer. Everything about the story is flawed, I’m not the writer I thought I was. I should quit this nonsense and go get a real job. 

But if getting a real job doesn’t appeal to you, these are some strategies I’ve employed in the past. 

1. Put it away. The longer the better. This is always hard for me because I tend to work obsessively on my projects and if I’m not actively shaping it, I feel as though I’ve abandoned it. But sometimes distance is necessary to be able to think critically and objectively.  

2. Give it to a friend, someone who is a constructive and critical thinker. Maybe they can tell you where they think you think it’s going, or tell you why it’s not working.

3. Start over. I’ve had great results with this, sometimes switching from 3rd person to 1rst, or vice versa, or telling the story from someone else’s POV. You may have thought it was one person’s story, when really it was someone else’s. Characters are tricky that way and it’s fun way to experiment (and exercise) with voice.

4. Let it go. Sometimes if you move onto a new project, the story will come back to you. 

5. Read. Reading good books is a great way to look critically at what’s wrong with your own. Study their page’s 80 and see how they got through it–did they introduce a new character? a new obstacle? a terminal disease? 

6. Let go of expectations and/or set small goals for yourself. “Today I’m going to write one killer line, today I’m going to write one great description, ect.”

7. Just keep writing. You love to write like a fish loves to swim. So write poetry, short stories, emails, blog posts, or work on editing someone else’s work. Every little bit you do makes you a stronger writer.

Got any more suggestions? I’d love to hear them. Page 80’s come around again and again.

Revising Tip: Retyping

I recently started revising a project that I’ve been working on for the past three years. This will be the fifth full revision of it and (thankfully) it has already been sold to a publisher. This revision will focus on voice and dialogue. But when I sat down to do it, I felt trapped in the manuscript, especially with that oh-so-important first chapter.

I decided to retype the story. Crazy, I know, but there is also something so liberating about starting out with all that white space and nothing beyond. Perhaps it is more psychological, but I felt free to really make it what I wanted. I was also able to determine the slow/boring parts and trim them right out (I don’t really have to type all that, do I?). Without the stress of trying to make sure A matches B and C, I could get a little more personal with the characters. I could switch backstory around as I saw fit, without worrying about being redundant. And most importantly, I was able to fall in love with the story all over again.

So far I’m on pg 28. We’ll see how it goes from here.

Happy Revising!