How The Hell To Do This, Part The Fifth: Edit Like An Asshole.
A word about the title of these: I realize that it might read sort of obnoxious, like I think that this is the the definitive way to be a writer and to publish. Let me be clear about this: I don’t think that, nor am I claiming it. I think there are some broad conventions that are likely to work across different people and working styles, as well as techniques that might be more likely to yield good results than others. But this is only what’s worked for me, and what I’ve done. It might not work for you. It might be bad advice for you. So I make no claim to authority here outside my own experience. The wording of the title itself is meant to convey impatience and exasperation toward the craft/process itself, which is frankly how I feel about writing a lot of the time.
That clarified, this week: editing.
I’ve written a lot around and about the process of editing, but not much that deals directly with what the process looks like, for me. This is mostly because, for me, the process is still very much in the middle of being hammered out, and it changes all the time. Of all the elements of writing that I deal with, editing is probably the one on which I still need to do the most work – which sucks, because it’s sort of really really important.
Me, I’m impatient (see above). I’m also blessed with the ability to write first drafts that often don’t need drastic tweaking before they’re at least okay. But because I don’t usually see the need for massive tweaking, and because I’m impatient and I have an itchy submission finger (more about this next week), I tend to overlook the need for more subtle polishing, and I sometimes send things out before they’re really ready – before they really are about as good as they can be.
In that vein, some things I’ve learned, most of which I’m sure are familiar to you:
- Get some distance. Put the piece aside and do other things, so you can come back to it in a week or two and read it like you’re not so close to it that you can’t actually see what shape it’s in. This is hugely important, and hugely difficult if you’re as impatient as I am. But you need it. You’ll miss things without at least an approximation of objectivity.
- Get some good beta readers and listen to them. Do not pick people who have good reason to massage your ego, or people whom you believe might do so out of nicety. Pick the most ruthlessly blunt people you know and demand their honesty. I firmly believe that no story is so good that it can’t do with at least two extra sets of eyes. And you may not like what they say. But be ready to trust them, even if the truths they tell you are hard to hear.
- Be ready to murder your darlings. One thing I especially need to work on in the editing phase is cutting. Cutting is hard, especially if you have a habit of falling in love with your own prose. But I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve written that ended up being hampered, and in some cases rejected, because of their length – more specifically, because of the amount of plot in the length. Short stories especially are tricky this way: they need to be lean and mean. Stuff needs to happen and it needs to happen fast, because there isn’t a lot of space for it to happen in. So ideally, each individual word should do something specific. If it doesn’t, or if it doesn’t do it efficiently enough, cut it and find a new one. And if you really really love this passage or that turn of phrase, that’s when you most likely need to be the most ruthless. Seriously: you are a serial killer and words are your hapless victims. Murder them.
- Be ready for more. Even after a story gets accepted, there are almost certainly one or two or even four or five more rounds of editing that it’ll need to go through. Sometimes an editor will also have something of a different vision of your story than you do. A writer should never sacrifice the soul of her story, or make concessions that she really finds harmful to the piece, but be ready to work constructively with criticism, and be ready to be open to ideas that might, at first shot, seem very far apart from how you see things unfolding. Don’t be a prima donna. Trust your editor, at least unless she’s really given you good reason not to.
Next week: the submission process. Joy.