Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Editing is necessary. I wouldn't say I like the process of editing my work, but I don't generally hate it either. It's almost like doing a puzzle - there's a really solid story buried on these pages (well, hopefully it's really solid, if I've done any of my job well up until that point), but there's all manner of incorrect, sub-optimal or additional words in there, too. I need to find those words and change or remove them, so that all that's left is the story in its ideal form. I get really excited when I discover that reworking a sentence or paragraph makes it stronger - builds in more emotion or gives it a greater impact or just makes the meaning clearer.

But there are different levels of editing, too. Sometimes snipping a word here or a phrase there aren't really what's needed. I liken it to the difference between a makeover and surgery. A lot of what I do is the equivalent of a haircut and a manicure - really just sprucing up the outward appearance, but leaving the thematic elements and the base storyline pretty much alone. But what if that's just putting perfume on a pig?

What if I've got a good, working story, but it's a little sick? Then I need to operate. I need to cut open that otherwise healthy body and, without breaking anything that's working, I need to cut out the diseased parts and implant something stronger and better. Then I need to sew the whole thing back up and check its vital signs to ensure everything works. Much as Hippocrates said, I must "first, do no harm."

But that's HARD! It's hard to be sure where you're supposed to cut. It's hard to make sure that you don't snip a major blood vessel - say, a theme that you've woven into the story - and then fail to reconnect it properly later on. It's hard to not cut away too much healthy tissue - imagery and action that worked well and needed to be there to move the story along. It's hard not to throw off the pace or the continuity or, if you were good enough to have had it in the first place, the lyrical poetry of the prose.

I'm in the final stretch with my short story, The Songbirds of Arroyoverde. I took it to my Writer's Roundtable a couple of weeks ago and got some great feedback about what did and didn't work. I also got some good advice about how to fix it and was inspired to think of a number of improvements myself. Monday morning, I started with a makeover. I worked through the least of the changes I needed to make - issues of word choice and some deft cuts that tightened and strengthened the piece. Or at least I hope that's what they did. They felt like good changes and a whole lot of this writing business is running on gut instinct.

After that, it was time to go under the knife. I try not to get too emotionally attached to the specific words and phrases in my story. I don't ever want to feel like it's going to hurt to have to make a change. I confess that sometimes the ideas and concepts in the story feel a bit more sacrosanct to me. It becomes a feeling of "this is what the story's about. If I'm going to change it, I'll be telling a different story." But these weren't changes of that sort. They were, I think, all improvements. And one in particular I really thought took a chunk on the story that I'd never really liked and replaced it with something I liked much better.

So this wasn't an impassioned exercise. The only emotion I had going on was fear. Fear that I'd make a mess of this thing that, in its current state, wasn't awesome but wasn't terrible. It was a fear born in part out of my utter ineptitude as a handyman. I'm all about taking stuff apart. That's easy. But when it comes to fixing the pieces inside and then putting it all back together again, I'm useless. I usually make it worse. Now, granted, there's not really much comparison between my capabilities at manually repairing stuff around my home and my function as an editor. That's why they call them irrational fears.

In the end, I needed to simply knuckle down and do it. It's a process that I'm going to work through over a couple of days so as not to get into trouble by rushing. I may need to throw in lots of breaks and comfort foods. The good news is that I actually have done this before and I know it will work. In the end, everything will coalesce and the patient will get up and dance a jig - happier and healthier and stronger than before it went under the knife. By week's end, this story's going off to the anthology editor for his consideration.

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