APPLYING MUSIC MIXING STRATEGIES TO FICTION EDITING
When I was playing in bands and later working as an engineer there was a suggestion that came up sooner or later at almost every recording session: “We’ll fix it in the mix. Can we fix it in the mix? Let’s fix it in the mix.” Could be the producer gently prodding a musician to move on from something he’s sucking at. Could be the musician himself, if he has enough perspective to let go because doing another take would just be beating a dead horse. Not everything can be fixed later, but sometimes a flawed performance has a great feel, and if the essence is there, little mistakes can be buffed out.
Fiction writers love to fix things in the mix. We call it rewriting, we call it 2nd, 3rd and 4th drafts, editing, polishing, etc. Sometimes we spend more time ‘mixing’ than we do ‘recording.’
The first draft of a novel is a lot like an unmixed song. Some of the tracks work great together, some just clutter up the melody, some are good but with little fuck-ups, and some are things that seemed like a good idea at the time (like a cowbell overdub at 2AM after a bong hit) but actually suck. Some of the tracks contain poetry that you can’t believe flowed out of you in the white heat of performing. You want to keep some of that, but not too much.
Does that sound like your freshly penned novel? I know it sounds like the first draft of mine. Here’s how I fixed it in the mix.
1. MUTE THE BAD
MUTE buttons are your friends. Mute all of the stuff that’s getting in the way of the ‘vocal melody’ your listener (reader) will be following. For us that means cutting sub plots and scenes that go nowhere, excessive interior monologue, and anything that slows the story down or does too much telling and not enough showing. Just turn that shit off. Mute it. Your book is going to shrink in this stage, making the cool stuff that does work stand out and command attention. It’s amazing how you can hear the character of a singer’s voice, the emotion and the reverb around it, when you mute all those extra guitar parts. Your main plot is the vocal track. Don’t let it get lost in a lot of meandering instrumental solos.
2. TURN DOWN THE BACKING TRACKS
Take anything good that’s less than vital to your plot and turn it down or pan it out to the sides. Of course you’re going to want to keep elements that enrich the work and give it texture. But bring those faders down a few notches so the main line of character motivation, action, and emotional reaction sits in the center with setting and backstory spread out around it at the far edges of the stereo field. Translation: less is more when it comes to backstory, description, adjectives, adverbs and exposition. Story is nouns and verbs—characters doing things. A melody with too many little flourishes has no power.
If “fix it in the mix” is the mantra of recording sessions, “more me” is the mantra of mix sessions. “I can’t hear my part on the chorus,” the bass player whines. And the polite engineer has to pretend to turn him up, or wait for him to leave the room before turning him back down because the chorus ain’t about the bass part, it’s about the singer and the song. Your main character is the singer. Every other character feels central when you’re writing from their point of view. They should, anyway, if you want them to be authentic. But when editing, you have to get them the hell out of the way.
3. CRANK UP THE GOOD
Turn up the cool parts. Here’s where you might need a semi-objective listener to step in and tell you how it sounds on a car stereo, after you’ve fried your own ears with eight straight hours between the monitor speakers, tweaking beyond all perspective.
When I passed The Devil of Echo Lake around to beta readers, I begged them to tell me what parts they would cut. It was already a pretty long book for a first novel and I needed to know what I could mute to tighten it up. Instead, they surprised me by responding with a consensus that they wanted more of a particular unresolved sub plot. It was a subplot that I had used to get my main character to a pivotal place, but then I dropped it. Now I realized I had to give it more justification and resolution. In the final draft, that subplot was so tightly wound around the main plot that it carried my MC through to the climax in a much more satisfying way.
And that’s the great thing about all of that muting and turning down. If you do enough of it, you make room to expand on the really badass elements of your story. Find out what the cool stuff is and turn it up.
4. DOUBLE TRACK THE KILLER RIFFS
Once you know what the most compelling parts are, reinforce them. People love that little guitar melody? Have the piano play it too, in a different place, or a variation on it. Foreshadow it with a slow, echo drenched appearance tucked into the intro section. You get what I mean? For a fiction writer this means working your themes. You can seed your story retrospectively with bits that enhance the most important events. And you can make sure that any subplots and characters who may have been improvising out of step in the first draft, are now so locked in with the rhythm your main character is moving to that they are totally integral to the story.
5. TAP YOUR FOOT
Trust your body. If you look at a group of people listening to a mix in a studio you will see a lot of feet and hands tapping. If the groove has problems, the tapping will feel awkward. After some time away from your self-edited novel, read it through and pay attention to your body. Do the tense parts make your breath shallow? Do the sexy parts turn you on? Does anything raise the hairs on your arm? Does the language have rhythm and flow when you read it aloud?
If so, you just might have a hit.