Storyville: The Horror of Editing and Revision
Okay, if you love editing your writing, raise your hand. Come on now, don’t be shy, who loves to pour over their work cutting, pasting, cutting, adding, all of that stuff? Anybody? You in the back, put your hand down, you’re a freak. Nobody likes to edit, to proof their own work. It’s a slow, painful process. But if you can get over the worry and fear and self-doubt that is constantly trying to worm its way into your writing, maybe we can get through this together. Let’s talk about how to edit, what’s too much or too little, and when to take advice from others. Take an aspirin—it's revision time.
FIRST DRAFT – Get It Out
Before you can edit, you have to write. As many talented authors have said before me, take off the editor’s hat when writing the first draft, Just let it flow out of you. Some have called it “the great dump,” equating it to pooping—how eloquent. I see it more as tapping into an internal vision—a flow that you turn on like a faucet, and let pour out of you, stopping for nothing. Often you can become a “body without organs,” the world falling away around you, getting into “the zone” where sounds and smells just disappear. Do that. Write it down as fast as you can. Some authors like to labor over every word, every sentence, but I find that painful and impossible to do. I say get the story down, capture your scenes with as much detail as you can, and then come back later and edit it, unpacking where needed (adding in more detail) or trimming and cutting, removing the redundancies. But get that first draft done.
FIRST READ – Broad Strokes
What I like to do when I have finished a story, whether it took me an hour, a day, or a week to write, is IMMEDIATELY go back and read it, while the story is still fresh in my mind. This isn’t a particular edit, this isn’t up close or far away, this isn’t for grammar and typos (although you may catch some), it’s just to see how it feels. Broad brush strokes, overall sense of story, the beginning, the end. Are you captivated throughout the middle? When it was over, how did you feel—happy, sad, terrified, horrified? What was your goal? Do you feel it was achieved?
SECOND READ – Grammar
I like to read the story out loud the second time, to catch all of the little things that I may have missed in the first pass. Where do you stutter and stop? Does the flow work? Could a different word here or there improve the lyrical quality of the story? Look closely at the words. Do you use the word “sheen” seven times in two pages? Did you use the wrong their/they’re/there by mistake? Did you shift tenses by mistake? I look for those little things, word choices (is red the word you really want, or did you mean crimson, or velvet?), redundancies, things like that. Did you call somebody Jessica the first half and Jennifer the second half? Fix those little details, as they don’t require a lot of thought, just sharp eyes and a little bit of time.
THIRD READ – The Big Edit
Now put the story away. Let it sit, let it rest, for as long as you can. Maybe that means fifteen minutes, maybe it means a day or a week. But let it fade from you a bit, and then read it again. NOW is the time to get serious. I can’t break my edits down as well as Craig Clevenger does; I just call this the “big edit,” and it’s there to fix any large problems. Did you make a major shift change, and now the second half needs to be made first person present, not first person past tense? Or God forbid, as I once did with Transubstantiate, should the whole thing be changed from third to first (or first to third)? That can be very painful. Is there a major plot hole? Did you not account for the fact that it was raining outside so the fire could never have been built? Did you lose track of time and screw up the chronology of events? Did you have four members in the gang when only three would suffice? Big picture stuff, that’s what you want here. Check your narrative hook (does it work?), look at your conflict/resolution (is there one?), weigh your ending (is it a punch in the gut or a quiet fade?) and edit accordingly. This can take an hour, a day, a month, or more. If you end up making major revisions, it could take six months or more. Let me give you an example.
I wrote a story in my MFA program down at Murray State University in Kentucky called “Tinkering With the Moon.” I thought it was a brilliant bit of magical realism. My professor hated it—my Pulitzer nominated professor. He asked me to take out just one paragraph, about how the mother and her son liked to go to garage sales, and write another story starting with that excerpt. I put “Tinkering With the Moon” aside, and did that. It became an entirely different story called, “Garage Sales.” In the end, I think both stories worked. “Tinkering With the Moon” just came out in Gargoyle #58, an excellent literary quarterly that has published work by T.C. Boyle, Jennifer Egan, Ben Marcus and Allen Ginsberg. I’m still shopping “Garage Sales.” (NOTE: "Garage Sales" ended up in Midwestern Gothic.—Richard) I love them both, but they’re different, very different stories. The point I’m trying to make is that sometimes a story can morph into something else. Don’t be afraid to put something aside and start over, or take a new direction. It’s only time, and a bit of your soul.
TIME TO SHARE – Opinions Are Like Buttholes: Everyone Has One and Most of Them Stink
So you’ve put your story aside for a while now. You’re eager to get back at it. Pick it up and read it through. Does anything fall apart? Is there anything else you can do to it? Are you starting to get frustrated, sick of the story? Now is the time to workshop it. You need other opinions, so head over to your online or local workshop and post up the story. When you do this, ask specific questions if you can, voice any concerns you may have. Does the setting work or is it too much? Do you like Arial? Did you sympathize with her or did she start a bitch and remain a bitch? And what about the kitten, was that too much, too gross, or did it work? Did it make you angry at the man that kicked it? Did you want him dead, too? You will get a wide range of comments, but you can try to at least focus some of their attention on the areas that worry you the most.
The comments are pouring in now—you’ve got eight reviews. They are all over the place. One person says the setting is too rich, too distracting. Another person loved it, felt immersed in the darkness. But everyone agreed that the kitten kicker was a bad man and deserved to die at the hands of the reluctant vigilante. So what now? How do you know what advice to take and what advice to ignore?
First, trust yourself, and go with your own instincts. If you feel that the setting was rich and lush but not overpowering, then leave it. If you still feel like maybe it’s a bit much, then trim it back. But always remember that this is YOUR vision, you know it better than anyone. Just make sure that what’s in your head is also on the page. It’s easy to argue with your readers and say that it’s all there, the clues, the hints, but maybe it really isn’t. So, on decisions where the audience is split, go with your gut, with what you think is best.
Second, see what the majority thinks. Again, it doesn’t mean you HAVE to make that universal change, but if nobody understood the voicemail that was left on the phone, didn’t know the wife was dead, you should strongly consider making the change. I’ll give you another example.
When I sent in my story “Stillness” to Cemetery Dance, the one that ended up in Shivers VI alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub, I was worried that I wasn’t being obvious enough about the realities of my protagonist’s universe. Would they get it? Was I being too vague? I always get that criticism. “What the hell is happening here, Richard, can you explain the ending?” You don’t want people guessing. But the editors at Cemetery Dance came back to me with a handful of edits and told me to dial it back a bit more. Take that empty bottle of pills off the table, the phone ringing in the middle of the apocalypse would be enough to clue in the audience of this broken reality. I wasn’t sure. I questioned the edit. They told me their audience was smart, they’d get it, trust THEM—so I did. I deferred to the superior minds, the proven editors, and so should you—if it works.
Which leads me to one more comment on the workshop edits—who is saying what? You need to look at the reviewer, your critic. Are they being honest, or do they hold a grudge against you? Are they being harsh because they’re a jerk and jealous? I’m not kidding here. Much like the opposite—are they a good friend who always says, “This is awesome, I wouldn’t change a thing.” That’s probably crap too. Push them to be honest, more honest, to nitpick if they have to. You want to trim the fat, and let the steak sizzle. Is the criticism coming from somebody that always gives you excellent grammar advice (take it) but NEVER seems to “get” your overall story because, well, because maybe they’re a bit dense (don’t take it)? Keep that in mind. Look at the experience, the style, the history you have with this person. If this critic is an experienced author who has published a lot and they are the only one saying they don’t buy the scene with the heroin use, that it feels too melodramatic, then consider taking that advice. If they have a style that is their own, and they are trying to push you in that direction, be aware of it, and if it feels right, do it. If it doesn’t, then don’t. Basically it all comes down to what feels right to you. The more you write, the more you edit, the better you’ll get at taking certain advice and learning to ignore others.
WHEN IS IT DONE? WHEN IT'S DONE.
They say that editing is what makes a good writer a great writer, and I have to agree. As much as I hate editing, I always take the time to go over my work for as long as I can stand it. I have gotten to the point where I can tell when a word works (what is this creature, a behemoth? No, he’s a golem, yeah, that’s it) or not. I can tell when the scene I’m writing is flowing, unfolding at the right pace, when the senses are enough, when I need to add in more sounds and smells and sensory items. And you will get better at it too.
As you edit and share your story, workshopping it to death, polishing it up—when do you know it’s finally DONE? For me, I can tell that a story is done when I can’t find anything left to fix. When I read through it thinking “This story needs to be creepy,” and I get to the end, and I’m still freaked out? It still works. I know then that I’m close, but I don’t ever think I’m totally finished until I just can’t pick it up and read it again. When you are sick or your own work, when you just can’t stomach it one more time, you are done. You’ve poured as much of yourself into it as you can, and there is just nothing left. That’s when you’re done.
Just don’t go back and read it three years later. You’ll certainly feel like it’s crap.
I wanted to give you some basic thoughts on editing. Obviously you could take an excellent class like the one Craig Clevenger teaches here at LitReactor, and break down your edits into fifty different categories. I can’t do that. You could study for three years at an MFA program, or read ten books on the subject. I just wanted to give you some basic tools to help you get through the process, and let you know that you are not alone. One day you may cruise through your edits, confident and happy and content. The next day it may all fall apart. Your writing suddenly sucks, and you lay your head on your desk and cry into your mouse pad. It’s okay. We’re all a little bipolar. But push through it, and get it done, and then send your baby out into the world where it will be rejected for six months.
Still want to be a writer? Yeah, me too—in addition to being bipolar, most of us are sadomasochists as well.
A very unique author that I really love is Jac Jemc. She is a local author here in Chicago who I've read with. I’m a big fan of her work. I’d call her almost surreal, but grounded in realism. I’m linking to two of her stories, “The Grifted” at The Collagist and “The Things Which Bind Us” at PANK. Enjoy. Her debut novel, My Only Wife is out now.
TO SEND A QUESTION TO RICHARD, drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.
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