Editing: from Good to Great (or...How to Boil a Dragon)

I am performing a ventriloquist act in a couple of weeks as part of a Puppet Slam. You might be thinking that the hardest part of preparing for that is keeping my mouth from moving or coming up with funny jokes. It turns out the hardest part is editing the act.

There is a strict five minute time limit for each performer. When I did my test performance at an open mic night, it ran about 5:30. I've been working on this bit for a while, refining it, taking out the stuff that's not as good. Adding in new stuff that is good. I felt like I had already boiled it down to a really tasty Friendly Funny Dragon Puppet soup.

Is that how soup works? I don't know. You'll notice that none of the tabs at the top of this site say "cooking".

I do know that the process of editing is one of the hardest and most painful things to do to your art. Whether its a book, a painting, a comedy or pencil sketch, or five minutes of a fuzzy talking dragon, knowing what to leave out is just as important to the art as what to include.

I think the reason why this is such a difficult task for most people is because it is so difficult to see your own art objectively. You've just spent who knows how long laboring over this magnificent creation. The page is covered with blood, sweat, tears, Cheetos dust, and maybe even a little hamster poop. Who knows?

The point is, every little piece of magic in there is your own. It's hard to let it go, to just dump it in the trash, never to be seen or heard by anyone else.

But you must. If you want to take your art to the next level, from good to great, you must "kill you darlings." Which brings me to an invaluable exercise that is perfectly represented by cutting down a 5:30 act to less than 5:00.

When you (or your editor, publisher, contest guidelines, etc.) puts a specific and non-negotiable limit on your word count or time, you can no longer hide behind the bush of "I Already Edited It." You are now forced to come out, fire up the chain saw and hack away at the branches of "Keep Editing It."

It puts you in the uncomfortable position of having to cut something. You only have to choose which of the branches of Awesomeness are less awesome than the others. It breaks through that wall of subjectivity and when you are on the other side and look back, you will eventually say, "Oh, crap, why did I do that?!"

Just kidding. You might say that, and you can always go back to the saved version of your first edit and add it back in, assuming that in your excitement of reading this article, you haven't already chopped it up and deleted it or burned it.

More likely, you will say, "That was painful, but now that I am past that, I can see that the overall finished piece is quite elevated to polished completion. Now I've got to do something about that gross hamster. Maybe get a cat instead."

When I did my first stand-up comedy act at the big comedy theater in Denver, I had two minutes. I had maybe an hour of material that I had been doing in the seedy open mics around town, so when I was told 'two minutes', I was dumbfounded. How could I possibly fit an entire funny act into two minutes?

I could probably fit two jokes in that time frame, so I hacked and I hurt and I complained and in the end, I had a tighter, better two minutes than I ever had before and I killed at the comedy club. (That's a good thing.)

My suggestion for a brilliant editing exercise, whatever type of art you are creating, is to set a very specific and rigid limit of content, whether its length or time, cut it down until you are within that limit. This is one of the reasons I love writing flash fiction - part of the fun is impossibly fitting your Bear size story into a Hamster cage, by using one amazing word, instead of ten other words.

If I can fit a whole bag of Cheetos in my little stomach, you can fit your bear into a hamster cage. I have faith in you. Just take the chain saw and hack away at the bear's....nevermind, these analogies are breaking down. You get the point.

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