Shrunken Manuscript: Worth the Highlighter and Rage?

The Confession:

I love tiny things.

Maybe it’s something inherent in me, linked to an evolutionary strain in my DNA that’s big on humans not abandoning their babies on sketchy street corners or whatever.  I’m a sucker for anything miniaturized: freshly hatched snakes, impractical cats, tiny erasers shaped like ice cream cones– if I were any more pathetic, someone would find me in the streets petting a smart car while squealing “It’s like a baby Prius!”

That and car alarms.
Photo By: Easa Shamih

Primarily, that’s why the shrunken manuscript editing method appealed to me.  Not only was it tiny, but also added a key element of functionality– namely, that I could track anything I wanted while enjoying the tiny, tiny font.  By destroying margins, font, line breaks and whatever else stood in my path, I could print the bastard of a book and highlight whatever the hell I needed to.  Everything laid bare, glaringly visual.

I first found it here.

The Dilemma:

When I started writing my first book, I kept one phrase clutched to my brain like a rosary: Where’s the heat?

I knew that I had done everything I could first-draft-wise to make sure every. damn. scene. has some sort of opposing goals or, at bare minimum, snark, between my characters.  What I mostly needed was a way to track what kind of conflict ultimately ended up on the page.  It would be all well and good to get my readers interested in the conflict only to string them on for a painfully one-note ride.  Statistically speaking, some of them have seen the Fast and the Furious franchise; it would be cruel to make them suffer through the literary equivalent.

I completely eradicated my margins and reformatted everything in six point font, deleting all chapter breaks.  Finally, at long last, my 164,000 word behemoth (tapping in at just over 450 Google Docs pages) was down to 79 pages of barely legible text.  I pulled out my highlighters with a steely gaze and offered a prayer to my spirit animal, Chuck Wendig.

The Verdict:

By using different colored highlighters for the different types of conflict in my scenes, it was actually pretty effective.  It became pretty clear, pretty fast, what type of conflict dominated my story when I ran out of my yellow highlighter (interpersonal conflict) halfway through my fucking manuscript.  Suddenly, I could see the delicate balance of my story and where exactly it needed to get better– I could point to the oceans of yellow highlighter and wonder “Where’s pink?  A dash of green, maybe?” (Internal and physical, respectively.)

One problem I (predictably) ran into was in the sheer size of my manuscript– there’s a reason everyone who suggests this method advises you keep your page count around thirty.  I valiantly tried to post all my pages on my bedroom walls to free up enough space– I’d have succeeded too, if my condo hadn’t decided to flood.

Mother Nature, you suck.
Photo By: Jon Mitchell

Now my pages are all tucked up in a less than useful three ring binder where the mapping is far less visual, but the initial information I gleaned is still valuable– where it sags, where it one-notes, and just how much of it begs to be cut.

Another sidenote: this isn’t as effective as your first round of editing if you’re story is long.  I really, really regret not doing it AFTER I’d made my first round of cuts and corrections.  Now I’ve invested a ton of time highlighting scenes, lines, and general sexiness that has failed to meet my passing scrutiny.  I could have saved myself a few days and a handful of highlighters by having this mapping sometime after the first draft but before the second.

My glorious work. 1/8th of it, to be more exact.

The Summary

Overall, it was a handy little tool to whip out and play with, but next time I think I’ll try to apply it to mapping other things: character development, plot layering, etc.
Questions, comments, concerns?  General snarkiness?  Let me know down below.  I assure you my bite is largely metaphorical.

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