What the Tarot Taught Me About Fiction Editing

I love this part.  I’m in the middle of editing a book, and the themes are coming out of the woodwork.

tarotpens1I hate starting the editing process, but once I’m in the thick of it, it’s good.  Starting is hard because when I come back to something I’ve written, it’s usually after letting it sit for a while and that unfamiliarity with my own story gives me perspective, but it also comes with a heap of trepidation.  What if it really sucks and I just didn’t see it until now?  What if it needs a ton of work?  For a full-length novel, the urge to avoid finding that out can be a big hurdle.  Deadlines help me to get over it and dive in, even if they’re just my own incremental deadlines, like: I will polish and tighten the first five chapters by next Friday.  Having a set number of pages to edit each day also helps, just like  a daily word count target helps while writing.  And once I’m in the thick of it, going through a book with a fine-toothed comb and reshaping it—trimming it here, expanding it there, finding connective threads and braiding them together… I absolutely love it.

I’m going to reveal what a big geek I am, as if you hadn’t already guessed.

When I was like fourteen, I used to play D&D, and I remember there were these pewter figurines of the monsters and characters that you could buy at the game shop where they sold the books and dice.  My geek friends and I would paint these figures with model paints.   When the colors were dry, the last step was to dilute some black paint in water and do a blackwash that would get into all of the crevices to bring out the details.

A good rewrite is like a blackwash on a piece of fiction.  It enhances things that were always there, but that couldn’t be seen clearly before.  This isn’t adding detail (which can bloat a manuscript), it’s making particular details more prominent to tease thematic elements out of the background.

Or, a different analogy for the editing process that will kick my freaky geekdom up another notch–Tarot cards.  Around the same time I was rocking the 20-sided die, I also learned how to read Tarot cards.  Yep, those paranoid evangelicals were right… D&D leads to witchcraft!

Here’s the thing about divination: I don’t believe it really predicts the future.  I did find out pretty quickly though, that if you take a person who is anxious for answers and present them with a set of information rich symbols, and then open up a dialog about those symbols, the subject will readily extract meaning from random chaos, and you can then help them to make up a story and find a path forward, answer the question, or solve the problem.  I noticed that most of the people who look back later and say a card reading was accurate are the ones who found a meaningful story about their situation in the cards and then made a decision based on that to create a particular future.  People, after all, are meaning makers, and we all tell ourselves stories about our lives (we all edit them, too).

A good oracle is a form of psychotherapy, like staring at an inkblot.  A good novel is a kind of oracle.  Readers are seeking meaning and answers.  A writer who can experience her story as a reader is also able to divine hidden meaning, make subtle symbolic connections, and solve problems.

The first draft of a book usually contains a fair amount of random chaos. There are ideas that don’t pan out, roads that lead nowhere.  When I’m writing, I’m shuffling the deck, and I need to throw all kinds of things down to see where they lead.  When I’m editing, I’m cutting a lot of that stuff.  But sometimes what I thought was an insignificant detail, an unessential line of dialog, is actually a doorway to a deeper level of meaning in the story, a door that connects one chapter or character to another in a way that can surprise and exhilarate me, and hopefully do the same for a reader.

I’ll try to give one example from my current book.  In the first draft there were origami cranes that appeared at pivotal moments.  Of course I knew they were important to the plot, but was it important that they were cranes?  In the third draft I changed one into an origami dog and suddenly it related to another dog in the story.  And then what if I change this other crane into a butterfly? Now it’s a reference to the butterfly effect, and hurricanes, and karma, and the Japanese symbol for the soul… Suddenly the story starts to feel like it’s firing on all cylinders.

I love spotting those symbolic symmetries in my story’s cards.  I love this part.


3 thoughts on “What the Tarot Taught Me About Fiction Editing

  1. katyasozaeva says:

    I love working with the Tarot; it’s a great way to find direction. I agree that they don’t necessarily tell the future, but I disagree that it’s all just meaning-seeking. I think these are tools that help us connect to the collective unconsciousness, and to our own Higher Self, and as such can provide necessary clues as to what direction we should take. Anyway, it sounds like your new book is going to be awesome! Can’t wait to read it!

    1. DTWynne says:

      Thanks. I guess I should add that I do believe, or suspect, something like this: If a symbol set is comprehensive enough and balanced enough to mirror the archetypes of the human psyche and of the world we live in (that old microcosm/macrocosm thing), then it does seem to tap into the synchronicity of the moment in a way that can be uncanny. I don’t know if that makes much sense, but I think the Tarot and the iChing give us access to some very appropriate wisdom when we approach them with a meditative mind set.

  2. jaimiengle says:

    Great blog. I am also in the stages of editing my second manuscript, and I have to say you nailed it on the head. It is a very cool feeling to see that you created something that you may not have even meant to do or notice you did on the first draft. can’t wait to read your next book!

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