Tag Archives: Editing

The Gentle Art of Letting Go

I was ten years old when I met Claws. I say met, because, when it comes to cats, ownership is a tenuous concept. I remember I was sick that day when one of the ladies from our church came over with a scraggly white kitten she had found by the side of the road. I remember how we kept him in the garage for the first few weeks we had him, and I would rush out there in the mornings and pick him up out of his box and he would dig his tiny little claws into my hand.

We had some good times together. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while he sat on the couch. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while he batted his toys around. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while I whispered my darkest secrets into his pointy ears.

I loved that cat. I really did. But then one day he came home from a cat fight with his nose mangled to a bloody pulp. Didn’t think much of it at first, because, come on, he was a cat. I’d have been more worried if he wasn’t fighting.

But over the next few weeks the wound didn’t heal. Instead it started to fester, cracking and bleeding whenever he scratched at it. And when we finally took him to the vet the news was worse than I could have imagined. Skin cancer. I didn’t even know that cats could get skin cancer.

That was it. There was nothing they could do; nothing we could afford at least. So we had to put him down.

I am not a sentimental man. It’s not so much that I don’t like feelings, as I just don’t seem to have as many as some other people. But on that day, when I scratched Claws’s ears for the last time, when I hugged him and told him what a good cat he had been, when they took him away and closed the door, I bawled like a baby.

That’s the story. And here’s the point.

Sometimes you have to learn to let things go. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to fix it or make it better. Sometimes you have to learn to move on. And this is a thing we need to learn, not only as human beings, but more specifically as writers.

That story you’ve worked on for years, trying and failing to root out the causes of its failings? There’s nothing wrong with editing, but there comes a point where you might have to consider very carefully whether pressing forward is really worth the time you’re investing in it.

And with stories it’s hard. It’s hard because you’ve built this world, nurtured these characters, shaped these events like a microcosmic god, you’ve already invested so much of yourself into it that there’s a sense that if you give up on this you’re giving up on yourself. You say, “Think of all the time I’ve invested in this. It’s just around the corner, I know it is, just one more re-outline, just one more scene change and it’ll be right.” And so the story lurches on, a poor pathetic undead thing, forced to continue its agonized existence by the sheer force of your will.

Here’s the thing: sometimes you fail. It hurts to admit, but sometimes that story just isn’t very good. I had to face this recently with one of my own stories. It was the first book I had ever written, and I kept going back to it year after year thinking I could salvage it somehow. But last month I finally I realized the flaws in the narrative were just too deep to fix. I had to let it go.

But it isn’t a total loss. That story was the first step on a journey. And while I’m not yet the writer I want to be, I’m a whole heck of a lot better than the writer I used to be. And the stories I’m going to write are better than the stories I have written.

We fail, yes, but in failing we can learn. We can grow. But only if we can learn to accept failure for what it is: an opportunity to learn.

The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory

You know that thing people do when they get to the end of the year or they have a big anniversary or something, and they say, “Can you believe it’s been fifty years since we slayed the vacuum cleaner robot monster?”

I hate that.

Because seriously? Yes, I can believe it’s been however many years since whatever important event. I realize that it often seems like less time, but you know what? That’s because your brain is screwed up.

Don’t take offence, mine is screwed up too. It’s our memories really. They trick us. We think of them like snapshots or movies of the past, bits of information retained in our brains for years to come. But thing we fail to realize is this: we don’t remember what we don’t remember.

Those years that seem like they just flew by, that summer that was done before you knew it? Those times didn’t just zoom by like a speeding train. But you think they did. Because bits and pieces fall through the cracks. There are things that happened that you mind decided wasn’t worth saving, entire portions of your life that have simply been erased.

And I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m glad. Because on the whole, my life has been boring. Six years I’ve worked at Walmart. Six years. You know how many details of that banal existence are actually worth storing?

Answer: not very many.

But some things I do remember. I remember the day my wife came to work as a cashier. She wasn’t my wife at the time of course, she was just some cute girl with a nice smile. And I walked up to her and said, “Hi, my name is Al. I work back in the Sporting Goods department.” And then I paid for my drink and went and read a book or something.

And later when she was on her break she came back to Sporting Goods looking for me. She said, “I wasn’t sure if you were telling the truth or if that was just some kind of pickup line.”

And I said, “What the heck kind of pickup line is, ‘I sell guns at Walmart’?”

And then we got married.

And really if you think about it, it’s good that your mind doesn’t keep all the boring stuff. Because what that faulty memory is doing, what it’s really doing is making your life into a story. And sometimes it’s not even a true story.

As a storyteller myself I can respect that. It may seem like a horrible loss to be shed of all those moments of your life, moments you’ll never get to experience again, but in the end it comes down to simple editing. So while I don’t have to remember hours and hours of trivialities, I will always be able to reach back and touch that childhood moment when I had been out playing in the streets of my neighborhood, and the summer sun had finally gone down and the street lights were coming on, and in that moment I felt… unbelievably happy.

Moments like that are worth saving, stories like that are worth telling myself over and over again. So to my brain, I say, “Bravo, brain. Bravo.”

A Problem of Perspective

Yesterday, I told you about my experience with my editor and how wonderful it was. I extolled the experience of being edited as something uplifting and refreshing. And my conclusion was simple:

You should do it too.

But maybe you’re still skeptical. Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all well and good for Albert, but really what does he know? Just because he needs an editor doesn’t mean that I do.”

But you’re wrong my friend, horribly wrong. And here is why:

1. You haven’t explained enough.

You know your story backwards and forwards. You know exactly what is happening and why. But nobody else does. Which is really why you’re writing that book in the first place right? Because you want to tell people the story in your head. But sometimes you don’t get it all out.

So you’ll get your editor saying things like “Why is the dog thinking about eating the brains of this zombie. Is he in the habit of eating purifying grey matter? Is this the kind of thing his owners leave lying around the house? This makes no sense.”

At which point you realized that maybe including the detail that the dog is ravenously hungry might be somewhat enlightening to your readers.

2. Hey Bub back off on the explanation!

What’s that you say? This is the exact oposite thing of what we just discussed? Why, how astute of you.

But it’s still a problem. Because clearly you’re not trying to be obscure. You want your readers to understand what’s going on. And sometimes you tend to include to much detail, just in case they don’t quite get it.

The line between too much detail and not enough is razor thin. So you need an editor to say, “You don’t have to say ‘She reached for the can.’ Anyone over the age of four is capable of understanding that if the can was in the cupboard in one sentence and being opened in the next that it did not in fact magically teleport itself through the aether. Cans are not in the habit of doing that.”

3. Everything else

Because, lets face it, there’s way more than three things wrong with your manuscript. An editor can help you with everything from structure to weak verbs.

And please don’t misunderstand. It’s not because you’re a bad writer. You’re just too close to see everything that needs fixing.

You’re a little like the woman I met yesterday who was looking for a way to lock her daughter’s bedroom window shut so that she couldn’t get out in the middle of the night and go out galavanting with her boyfriends. (And by “galavanting” I mean “having sex”.) She looked me straight in the eye and said “When I was her age my parents screwed my windows shut, but my boyfriend just took out the screws.”

You know, on second thought you’re nothing like that woman. But you have a similar problem, which is that you can’t see the absurdity of what is literally right in front of your face. You’re too close. Too involved. You need someone who’s not involved with the situation who can step back and say, “If your daughter’s doing exactly the same thing you did at her age maybe your husband shouldn’t be calling her a whore. And exactly how did you two get to know each other anyway?”

Before I close, I wanted to give a quick caveat that all the edits I included, even though they were inspired by problems in my actual manuscript, were my own wording. My editor, the lovely and talented Ellie Soderstrom is far too nice to say things so harshly. Which was one of the wonderful things about working with her. She was able to tell me what needed changing without making me feel like a douche for getting it wrong.

I’ve already thanked her privately, but I wanted say it here where everyone could see. Thank you, thank you, thank you Ellie. You don’t know how much you encouraged me.

Zombies, Chainsaws, and Your Friendly Neighborhood Editor

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed I’ve been talking a lot about zombies lately. If you’re not a regular reader of this blog, um…what’s your problem? Get with the program, man.

You may have asked yourself, “Why is it that Albert has chosen this time to bombard us with pointless facts about fictional monsters?”

To which I say, “Pointless? POINTLESS!? You won’t think its very pointless when they’re ripping your guts out now will you?! Of all the ungrateful…”

No, wait. Sorry, got a little carried away there.

What I actually meant to say was that I am working on putting the finishing touches on an upcoming novella called, “A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw,” a story about a dog who faces the zombie apocalypse. I’m hoping to attract readers to the site who might have an interest in that kind of thing. (If you think the title sounds a little familiar, you’re not going crazy; the story was originally conceived as a shorter work which is available here for anyone who’s interested.)

I’ve been working on this thing for a while, first writing, then editing and polishing. And finally that moment came when…I had to let it out. I had to let someone else read it.

And not just anyone else, but someone who was going to look at my story and try to find something wrong with it. Someone who would rip it to shreds with a red pen. Someone who would attack its weak points and slash at anything that didn’t quite work. Someone who was going to take a chainsaw and carve up my precious baby in a spray of blood and shredded flesh.

In other words, an editor.

It wasn’t easy letting go. But I knew it had to be done. So I gritted my teeth, repeated Chuck Wendig’s “Do Better, Suck Less” mantra to myself twenty times, and hit that send button.

And then I realized I had forgotten to, you know, actually attach the document to the email, so I had to go through the whole process again.

When I finally got my story back…I was afraid open it. What awful things must this person have said about my work? But finally I did manage to take just a little peek. And then, maybe another page, and another and another, and…

Before I knew it I had blown through every page of that manuscript, checking changes and reading notes.

And let me tell you something. It was fun.

See, I had been spending all this time thinking that reading those edits would be a horrible experience. I thought for sure that those changes would be a blow to my ego. Because really, none of us like to be criticized. None of us like to hear, “This passage right here just doesn’t work.”

But I’m here to tell you it doesn’t all have to be negative. Not if you approach it the right way; not if you have the right editor.

In fact there’s something almost magical about looking at a change and thinking Yes! That does work better that way! Ha!

You need that extra pair of eyes. Someone who knows what to look for.

It’s not because you’re a horrible writer.

It’s because you’re way too close. Even after you’ve let it sit for months. Even after you’ve gone over and over it yourself until you’ve started to become nauseated by your own words.

It can be better.

So let go of that fear. Stop worrying about your ego. It isn’t important anyway.

What’s important is the story. In the end, it’s the only thing that matters.

Lost Love and the Art of Editing

The first time I fell in love I was sixteen years old. It was the kind of love you read about in story books, a fierce flame burning bright in my heart to the darkening of all others.

And it didn’t last. Because hey, I was sixteen. Well, eighteen by the time it ended, but still.

Of course I did not have quite such a pragmatic view of the situation at the time. I was heartbroken, utterly devastated. I thought that my life had somehow lost meaning. I told myself that if true love meant risking this kind of pain it wasn’t worth it to love at all.

Yeah, I was a total emo kid back then.

But in a way you can’t really blame me. I was eighteen. I had lost what I believed to be the love of my life. I didn’t have any perspective. Looking back though I can see the problems, the fault lines in both of our psyches that might have led to even worse heartbreak if the relationship had continued.

But back then I was too close to the situation to be able to see the potential problems it might have been forming. Then, two years later, when I was finally starting to get over that relationship when it happened again.

I fell in love. And I was too close to see the problems that were right under my nose. Only this time it wasn’t a girl. This time it was my manuscript.

My first manuscript. I can still see it in my head. I can see myself sitting in that college library between classes pounding out a fantasy epic that was sure to be the next big thing in young adult fiction. And when I finally finished that first draft I went to the story, bought a three ring binder and put all those printed pages inside. This was it, the moment I had been waiting for. I was finally holding all those hours of hard work in my hands.

I knew it needed editing. I had read all the books I could get my hands on. I even knew I was supposed to wait, to let my work sit for a while before I came back at it with the red pencil. Only I knew better. Maybe other authors needed to wait three or four months before they could look at their books objectively, but not me. I was special.

Except I wasn’t. No one is. If you ever learn anything in life, learn this: you are not special. That’s a whole blog post of its own, but I’m just dropping it in here for good measure. Trust me when I say it’ll save you some heartache in the long run.

And speaking of heartache guess what I got? Yup. I edited and edited until I couldn’t edit any more, and when I sent those first five pages off to an agent, and…nuthin’. Just a cold form letter advising me that my work was “not right” for whichever agency I had chosen.

So I got discouraged. I stopped writing for a while, and put my manuscript in a drawer somewhere.

Only I couldn’t turn my back on it. Because writing is like a drug. You tell yourself you can walk away any time you want, but you really can’t. It’s up there in your mind tweaking at you with story ideas and sentence structure.

So eventually I went back and looked again. And wouldn’t you know it, there were still all kinds of things that still needed fixing. So I worked and I worked and…well I’d love to tell you that this story end with my book being published, but you all know that’s not how it goes.

But I did learn a valuable lesson. When you write a book you invest so much time and emotional capital into it that there’s no way you can be truly objective about it. You need to step back, put the story in a drawer for a few months and let the embers of passion cool a little. Then you can go back to that draft and see it for all of its flaws.

And who knows? You may go back and find that that passage that you hated writing actually reads rather nicely. The pendulum swings both ways.

The Benefits of Brevity

If you follow the Twitterverse, you may know that recently there was a brouhaha over the decision of Twitter client, Tweetdeck, to include native access to so-called “long” tweets. It was exactly the kind of kerfuffle that inspires people to trot out words like “brouhaha” and “kerfuffle,” which is to say, it’s probably not really all that important in the broader scheme of things.

But as a writer, the discussion was more to me than just a fruitless debate about the “essence” of Twitter. It inspired me to start thinking about brevity in general.

For those of you who may not know, Twitter is a chat client that lets you post whatever you want to say as long as you can say it within 144 characters. That means that every letter, every punctuation mark, even every space, matters.

Having that kind of limitation forces you to focus on your writing. You’ll be sitting there looking at a tweet that’s just ten characters over the limit, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Which of these words can I cut out without damaging the overall meaning of the tweet?” And if you’re like me and you refuse to use abbreviations like “ur” for “your,” the challenge becomes even greater.

For some people apparently this limitation is a nuisance, but for me it’s like having a daily reminder to carve out the fat in my writing everywhere. And believe you me, there’s plenty of fat. It’s easy enough to throw words out onto an empty page, and to a point that’s okay. But now I’m in the process of editing, and I’m seeing that I’ve included words, sentences, even entire paragraphs that add absolutely nothing to my story.

Maybe you’re not a tweeter. Maybe you have no desire to become a tweeter. That’s fine and okay. But I believe that it’s a valuable exercise for all writers to participate in some form of limited composition. For instance flash fiction, which is fiction in less than a thousand words, is a great way to learn to limit yourself to the bare essentials of what is needed to tell the story.

It seems to go against the grain of the writer’s “free spirit” we all have within is, but in truth working within restrictions is a fantastic way to stir up our creativity. Because if you were faced with the challenge, “Tell a story about a robot” your mind could go in a million different directions, think of thousands of different scenarios. But what if the challenge became, “Tell a story about a robot in 100 words”, or, “Tell a story about a robot in 144 characters”? (Yes, It does have to be a story about a robot. There will be no argument on this point.) Now you’re forced to look at the problem in a completely different way. Those limitations help to focus the lens of your mind.

This isn’t to say that all stories need to be short. Plenty of stories need a lot of space to tell, and that’s fine. But even in writing those stories you should be cautious not to throw in piles and piles of words, just because you can.

No matter what king of writing you do, always ask yourself, “Is this really necessary to the story I’m trying to tell?” If it’s not, cut it out. It may hurt a little now, but in the long run it will make your writing far more focussed and powerful.