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Posts Tagged ‘editing’

I’d like to win a writing award some day.

This is hardly news; every writer wants to win an award someday, except for those who already have, and I am fairly confident in saying that they want to win more awards some day. There are, of course, writers who say they don’t care if they ever win any awards, but I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if they did.*

I don’t feel bad about this; to be honest, nothing I’ve done has merited such treatment (although a few years ago, when the Hugos were being manipulated by block voting, I did think that I had an eligible story which was equal to anything the block voters were putting up). In fact, I have my doubts that I ever will write something that special. Which is why it’s a darn good thing it’s not up to me.

I’m sure that many writers have finished a story and thought, “Damn, that’s good, even if I do say so myself. This could actually get nominated for something.” (Actually, we all say that pretty much every time we finish, but occasionally we recognize that it might just be more than fantastical thinking.) More often, though, I think that we write something hoping against hope just to get it published, and when it is nominated for an award–let alone when it wins one–we are stunned because we don’t think it’s good enough.

I mean, face it, we never think it’s good enough; it’s never really done. There is always a verb to be made more tangible or a sentence or two to be shaved (and I actually sold a story after just such an operation), but part of the trick of being a real writer is to know when to let go. After all, if it’s rejected a few times, you can always go back and edit then. But to think it’s not only finished, but award-worthy? That’s beyond most of our capabilities. Writers are the worst judges of our own work.

And that’s why it’s best that other people nominate us for awards. The best award, anyway, is having people buy what we write. Maybe we even get fan mail. But we’re writing to be read, not for trophies.

Still, it would be nice, some day, to stand at that dais and thank my wife, my readers, and my tenth-grade English teacher. Just don’t ask me how that might happen, because I’d be the last person to figure it out.

 

*There is a continuing topic question in the community: Would you rather be known as a commercially-successful writer or a critically-successful writer? There are about twice as many answers to that question as there are writers.

 

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I’m editing The Scent of Death, and it’s going… pretty well. As in, I’m not having to erase large tracts of pages and replace them. There are the usual awkward phrasings, the repetitious words, and some inconsistencies that I am correcting (all of them, I hope). But in the main, it’s going okay.

But it’s not going quickly. It feels as though editing is taking longer than the writing did. This is ridiculous, of course; last night I edited sixty pages. (If I could write sixty pages in one night, I’d be producing a novel a week.) But it feels that way.

The problem is that when you edit, you are rereading a novel you just, in effect, read. And when you write the whole damned thing in two months, you haven’t even had time to forget the beginning, let alone the ending. In my whole life, I have immediately gone back and read a novel a second time exactly once. And I wasn’t reading that one critically.

Which is the other problem, or really, the second half of the problem. You aren’t just reading the book, you’re editing it. You’re deliberately finding all the faults in your own work, and that’s everyone’s favorite pastime, right? How can a project which you tackled so joyfully a few weeks ago be such a pain in the neck now?

It’s kind of like being Victor Frankenstein, and after the first flush of creation, you see all the warts and flaws. You’d like to just start again and fix some of those things in the next version, but you’re still stuck with what you’ve just done. A book, like a seven-foot-tall golem, wants to go places. It wants to be seen by people. It doesn’t like being chained in a dungeon. So you have to let it out, but you can’t let it out like it looks now. People would be frightened. They’d call it a monster–and then they’d call you one, too. Worse yet, they’d call you a bad writer. Pitchforks and torches are one thing, but bad reviews…

So you edit your little monster, and you teach it some manners, and  you let it out, hoping that it won’t do too much damage and that eventually, when the next creation is ready, it will help them forget about your earlier, flawed, attempt. But then, if you’re lucky, to your surprise people start to befriend your monster, and to see in it the beauty you had always wanted to show, but thought you’d failed to do. And you realize that, after struggling through all that editing, maybe you didn’t create such a monster after all.

But by then, you’ve got another little creation coming out of the printer, and he’s all covered in warts and flaws, and his ears are where his nose should be, and you wonder if you’re ever going to get this right…

#SFWApro

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“Kill your darlings.” That’s what they tell you in Writing 101. Don’t hesitate to cut sentences, even paragraphs, no matter how much you love them, if they don’t serve the story. Take your writing scalpel and remove them from the body of your work.

In a recent survey of market opportunities cross-referenced with the stories I have available for submission, I came across a pro-rate paying magazine whose guidelines immediately put me in mind of a certain story.*

Now, this is one of my favorites. I have held onto it, refusing to submit it to less than pro-rate markets, knowing in my heart that it is good enough to pull down top money—despite the fact that all of the top markets so far have rejected it (even if one did request a rewrite). New markets pop up with some frequency, however, so I’ve been living in the hope that it would find that one editor who would believe in it as I did.

I didn’t recall, though, sending it to that market. “Is it possible I never subbed that story to that magazine?” I wondered. “How could I not?” But in checking my files, I saw that no, I never had. Why? Because a second review of the guidelines showed that their maximum length was 4000 words, and my story was 4500.

I immediately thought, “Five hundred words? How am I going to cut 500 words from a 4500-word story?” I live by the rule that after you’ve drafted and polished a story, you should go back and cut another 10%. I had already done that. But I bent to the task, intending to try to identify some scene that could be excised, much as I believed it impossible. Every scene was absolutely crucial!

It took exactly one pass to remove 450 words.

The rest fell quickly after. There were unwieldy constructions and unnecessary exposition. I even added a few words at one point to make a critical scene clearer, and still managed to reach my goal. The whole process took less than an hour.

What’s the take-away here? Should I change the 10% rule to 20%? I don’t think so. You don’t want to compile so many rules about how to write that you forget just to write. Truthfully, when I started this essay I didn’t know myself where it was going. But the answer was in front of me almost from the beginning: You can’t set a story on a pedestal. Sure, when it’s published, out in the world, it’s set. But until then, it can always be improved, no matter how much store you set by it.

Kill your darlings with a scalpel? Sure. Except when a machine gun will do the job better.

*According to SFWA guidelines, “pro” rates start at $0.06/word.

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