Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Because You Love It—Great! Now Rewrite It.

I’m speaking from the good old editing trenches today, having reached another earmark in mental progress, I believe. I’ve crossed The Threshold of Letting Go. This involves cutting favorite lines, scenes, characters, and even plotlines for the greater good.

The evil trickery of loving what you write is we become deluded into thinking it can’t get better. It grows worse when you’ve spent oodles of time carefully crafting certain sentences (scenes, plotlines, description, etc.) in your story. Especially if you’ve hit your voice just right, there’s subtle meaning to that sentence, and you feel as if some higher power wrote it through you. Okay, so that’s a bit extreme, but you know what I mean. Even these gold nuggets are subject to editing.

And it’s okay.

No, really, it is. I didn’t think used to think so. I fought the idea. Well, here I am, speaking from the other side of the doorway. You can hit the backspace button on those sentences or scenes (characters too), and the story will survive without them. So will you. Try it in a new file if you don't believe me and see for yourself. The weird part comes from feeling alright about it. I can go back and read the edited or new passages without regret.

As I tend to do, I sat back and reflected on my writing progress over the years. I pulled out old drafts and manuscripts and winced at my earlier mistakes. I remembered how enthralled I felt when writing them. “This six page opening describing a storm is perfect!” (Yawn.) “This character will be a huge hit because they go against everything shallow teens like!” (Don't ask.) “I’m the only person who will ever think of this plot twist!” (When did I live on a deserted island?) etc. All naïve, all silly. Thankfully, all gone. I keep the old copies to remind me of the progress I’ve made, and sometimes for laughs.

It’s alright to admit we make silly mistakes and carry silly misconceptions. The point is to recognize them as such and move forward. Sometimes we let pride get in the way. We don’t want to admit our way of doing or seeing things doesn’t work anymore. We don’t want the criticism from others when we hoped to astound. I’m grateful for every time my feet were swiped out from under me, whether someone else tripped me up or I did the stumbling on my own.

There are several reasons for editing out or revising those beloved story elements. The exact same reasons we're able to edit or revise the elements we're not so fond of. The point is, nothing is sacred. If we act as if they are, we lower our chances of publication. We're essentially blocking ourselves from writing the best story possible. I've been my own worse enemy before. It's not pretty.

One good way to tell if our "darlings" need to go is through reader feedback. If more than one person is recommending the executioners block or sending up huge question mark flares, it's time to admit you've been blinded by love. Sometimes we can figure it out all on our own. If reading back through the story you find yourself stumbling over a sentence or really wondering what it means—it probably needs to go or be revised. If a character is taking the manuscript over or causing problems (not of the plot kind) maybe that character needs to go. If you have a chapter or scene you've agonized over and it tickles your funny bone or gives you a thrill but in actuality it stops the momentum of the story, fails to reveal anything new, or doesn't fit in with character growth or plot—it needs the axe. If description fills up pages and pages for the mere purpose of world-building, stick it in a reference file for yourself. The reader doesn't need it as much as you do. Favorite bits of dialogue? Is it really necessary to forward the story, show inner change, or revelation? Or is it really gratuitous?

That's a good word to remember: gratuitous. Anything in the book for the writer's benefit or self-pleasure can usually be classified as a darling. Initial drafts, I've found, are very gratuitous. Later drafts tend to weed all that out so the story develops into something to please the reader, the audience we intend to share the story with.

Don't be too alarmed. This doesn't mean you can't have anything you love in a story. You just don't go overboard in demonstrating your love. We must be trained to distance ourselves from the story and see it objectively as a stranger might. That is what I've learned and I'm so glad I've learned it before passing the story on to more beta readers. How embarrassed I'd feel otherwise when the feedback started rolling in!

So where does that put me now? Probably poised to discover something else I’m doing wrong. In the meantime, I have a freer hand to edit with and if I must rewrite huge chunks of my story to get it told in the best way possible, so be it. I’ve seen other writers do it too. And the results are amazing in what they’ve rewritten. Here’s hoping I have the same kind of skill.

What writing thresholds have you crossed lately or fear you need to cross? And since it’s Valentine’s Day here in the U.S., what do you love most about writing?


  1. Holla! I know the feeling well. I love HOUND OF Annwyn, love it to pieces, which has made it difficult to cut the darlings. But, I've finally come to the point where I can bear it without hyperventilating. I'm down 10K, yay!

    I couldn't have done it without your feedback, Beta of Awesomeness. So thank you for sharing your pearls of wisdom.

  2. 10K down--wow! I hope you get it not only down but just right soon. You owe me an ending. *wink*

  3. Wow! Speaking right to the matter, as usual. In the last 3 months, I have finally begun to internalize and live what you're talking about myself. Or at least I hope that's what you're seeing on your beta for me. :D LIke I said before, no one can find the plot holes like you. I really appreciate your help.

    Angie is right you are the Beta of Awesomeness and I think you should take an extra chocolate for every 1K you've cut - you deserve it. Happy Valentine's Day.

  4. Editing may be hard work, but I think in many ways it's the most gratifying part of the writing process.

    Okay, nothing really can compare to those days (or hours, or minutes) when you're "in the zone" turning out a first draft, and an epiphany pours through you onto the page, a character takes the reins and makes a hard left when you'd thought s/he was going to ease to the right.

    But once that final page is written, and you know where the story started and ended, what the through line became, there's something extremely gratifying (so maybe I'm a touch masochistic) about returning to it with the idea that anything that doesn't "serve the story" gets the axe. That epiphany? Cut it, save it in an "outtakes" folder. If it didn't reveal somthing that moved the story forward, or if it did but the two pages it took to say it could be boiled down to one tight paragraph, do it. It's cleansing. Those scenes of a secondary character that so fully fleshed out his/her character--did it matter to the forward thrust of the story? Did we need to pause as she ruminates in the shower? Outtake.

    A first pass that cuts a ms from, say, 175K to 135K is just the warm-up. Massive chunks get deservedly, and fairly easily lopped. The next pass may lose another 25K with a sharper focus on craft, pacing, writing tight, looking at each sentence and paragraph. Maybe something else got short shrift and needs a bit of fleshing out. But by now you're looking at each word and sentence for its value, tone, rhythm, effect on pacing. You look harder for the one right word to replace the two easier ones.

    It's like the old saw about creating a sculpture--just cut away all the parts that aren't the statue. Easy as bloodletting!

    Me, I love editing.

  5. Boy that's the truth! Writing well is rewriting!

  6. Thanks, Rowanwolf and Amy!

    Rick: I noticed today as I was editing and rewriting that I fell into a new kind of zone, a deeper one. It was really cool and hard to shake off later. It helps to focus in on what needs to be there and, like you said, find ways to make your point in fewer words. Very enjoyable experience. Thanks for your comments!