It’s a Hard Write Life
"The first draft is the talent, in the second is the art."
- Paul Valery, French Poet
One of the most difficult things about writing is editing. I remember a few years ago when one of my college professors in a writing workshop told me that editing takes up the majority of the writing process. After three months of working on edits for the first half of my upcoming novel, I feel like I am never going to be done. And I wonder why... why is it so hard to go back and fix the stuff that we know is crap. Why do we hold onto sentences that we love but have no room in our prose? What is so hard about letting go and cutting away?
The answer- pride. We are prideful, us writers. We love what we do and we enjoy the craft of weaving beautiful stories. Some of us love words.. so much so that we spread them across pages like an artist does with paint on a canvas. But what if Monet never stopped painting on the canvas? What if he just kept adding to one picture instead of letting his beautiful works stand alone? We wouldn't see anything! It would be a jumbled mess. When we tell a story there needs to be clarity. We clear out the mess and clutter and find the core reason for our work through revision.
I came across these tips in one of my college books- Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway*.
Eliminate Unnecessary Summary- that means limit scenes, cut unnecessary flashbacks, or over-explanations. Let your reader guess at some things or reveal details through 'showing not telling'.
Fix areas that lack pull- are you missing good dialog? Maybe your characters are two-dimensional without quirks or attitudes or imperfections- remember that people are not saints, make them believable! Start with tension otherwise you will lose your audience.
Shuck the Stereotypes- it is typical to write cliche characters. Dump stereotypical characters or actions, thoughts or behaviors. Princesses that need a Prince to rescue them- over done. Look for "the exact, the honest, and the fresh.*
Find Ambiguity and Destroy it- mystery is good, on some levels... especially if you are writing a detective novel. But too much ambiguity can leave readers scratching their heads. Look for parts in the story that need to be more concise. If people can't identify where, when, who, what, why, and how you have muddled things up. Go back and try to clear up that mess.
Charm them with Story, not Sarcasm and Overshare- yes, you are really good at describing things. Yes, you certainly do know what color underwear your character is wearing and how high the mountains are with extreme precision. In fact, you can probably fill the page with your sarcasm, wit, charm, and intellect... Don't. Keep it simple, not just for your readers, but for your sanity. Don't go too simple, but for goodness sake, don't go overboard. You don't want to lose the reader in the abyss that is your mind. Loose them in a really good story! Think about theme - what is the message you are trying to get across to the reader? If you can't find it, neither will your reader.
Cut the Deadweight- okay, you might just have a sequel or series of novels if your story never ends. Only problem is, it has to end. All good things come to an end sometime. So, cut back on sections that drag, especially if they keep the story from moving forward. Don't let your characters get stuck on gooey-gooey gumdrop spot forever. Make it sharp, economical, and vivid- especially if it is a short story. Look for spots where the dialogue is slow, the characters are acting out of character, the plot twists just keep coming (with no end in sight).
Plump it Up - look for parts where the characters are still just 8-bit copies of who they really are and spice them up. Is the setting too bland, maybe even non-existent? Add more vivid, concise descriptions. Is action or imagery or theme lacking? Don't be afraid to look for places where things are not quite worked all the way through in your mind. If you don't know why neither will the readers. Try to think- emotional engagement.
Cookie Cutter Stepford Writing- look for places where you just didn't add enough or where the writing is vague. If you use absolutes, try to re-word. Maybe you have bland adverbs or adjectives that are either too simple or too vague- fix that. Imitation is great but for a book, a unique story that is all yours, it isn't. Try to think how you can turn your basic ideas into more complex ones. That doesn't mean overshare or over description or writing more and more. It means this- take a story and own it. Make it yours, just like your clothing or hair or home. Don't be afraid to break molds. When in doubt, remember- stereotypes suck.
I hope you found some of these tips helpful. I know I have over the last few years of editing my work. Sharing what it's really like is all part of the writing process.
Leave a comment and let me know what you think!
*Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 9th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.