Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: editing

Being An Editor

I somehow seem to have slipped into this space where I am an editor. I look at TV shows now and ask why certain elements were introduced as thematic images. I read stories and see movies and get more annoyed at plot contrivances than I used to. And I appear to have unreasonably high standards for fiction now. I recognize all of this. I try to not subject people to it unnecessarily.

But here’s the thing: if I’m editing your work, for a magazine or something, I am trying to help you. I am not picking at your work because I don’t like you, or because I was in a bad mood, or because it’s fun to tear people down. I’m picking at your work because I want to find out what your vision is, what’s the best and clearest and most compelling way to convey that to your audience. You have the right to ignore my advice, of course you do. It’s your work. But getting defensive and argumentative is not a helpful response, ever. All it does is make ME want to ignore YOU.

Murder? Not so fast

One of the popular cliches of graduate writing seminars is “murder your darlings.” This is the rule that guards against a writer becoming so emotionally attached to a scene that he or she keeps it in the manuscript even when it doesn’t belong. We’ve all done that, right? Written something that made us bounce in our chair, something that was so good that we had to keep it in the story, or change the story to make the scene fit? Well, that’s not good writing. All scenes should serve the purpose of the story, so if your amazing, wonderful scene doesn’t work, take it out.

That said, I’ve noticed that some people have taken this philosophy to extremes. To them, “murder your darlings” means that any piece of writing that you’re too emotionally attached to should be cut. I’m not sure why; maybe because they think they’ll never be able to judge it objectively. But I don’t agree with that.

The people who read and like your work like it because they share a good number of your sensibilities. If you absolutely love a scene, chances are they will too. So the last thing you want to do is make your work duller by cutting all the parts you really love. As I’ve written before, keep the scene in, rework it to fit the story if you can, and if it absolutely won’t fit, cut it.

But don’t murder it. Save it for later. You will write another story.

Spellchecker Rant

Okay, so I’m reading though and it takes me about two sentences to identify that it is Spellchecked. I have ranted about spellcheckers before, but let me be 100% clear on this: Spellcheckers are the worst things to happen to amateur writers since Papermate Erasable Ink Pens(*).

(*) Papermate Erasable Ink Pens smelled horrible and, what’s more, DID NOT ERASE, at least not completely. In grade school and junior high, we thought these were the best things ever. When our sadistic teachers would demand that we take our tests IN INK (for some odd reason that I find hard to process even now–something about how if we made mistakes we’d have to cross them out and they could see every mistake?), we would gleefully whip out our erasable pens and take the tests, secure in the knowledge that we could cover up our errors if need be. Of course, we never could, because the pen always left faint lines. Did I mention the smell? Still, it’s interesting in that it was, I believe, my first experience of a technology vs. authority arms race. The teachers did eventually forbid the use of erasable pens in ink-only test taking, but at that point we were in high school and didn’t care.

This manuscript that I was reading had every word spelled correctly. The problem was that the correctly-spelled word was, almost more often than not, the WRONG WORD. A spellchecker will not tell you that “where” is wrong in the sentence, “My parents where sad.” It will not pick up the mistake in, “I came form a small town.” It will not, further, tell you that the sentence, “I found my father in the shed we called it that, even though it was a garage that, we could have parked a car in if we had on, doing drugs” is an abomination.

What a spellchecker will do is give you the illusion that it is editing your manuscript for you. “Just run it through a spellchecker before you hand it in,” the amateur writer’s instinct, with all the wisdom of Candlewick, tells him. And so he does so, congratulates himself on catching all those misspellings, and turns in his manuscript.

There is no substitute for reading through and editing your own work. No spellchecker, no grammar checker, no proofreader can do this for you. Yes, it’s not as much fun as the writing part. Yes, there are often two or three words at a time that don’t need any more editing. But yes, it is an essential part of being a writer. And when you turn in a spellchecked manuscript, it is blindingly, glaringly obvious that you are missing an essential component of being a writer, and the manuscript reader will treat your manuscript accordingly(**).

(**) In my case, writing blog posts about it and complaining about it to my friends.

Should You Give The People What They Want?

No matter what the Kinks say, it’s not a good rule for writers unless you’re writing on a contract. If you’re writing for your own pleasure, or writing stories you want to tell, at least, then mostly you need to keep in mind that you’re the one you have to please.

However, it’s not a bad idea to keep in mind what your target audience wants. In general, the ideal situation is that what’s interesting to you is also going to be interesting to them, so you can happily scribble down all the stuff you like, and they’ll be just as satisfied.

There are times, of course, when opinions diverge. They, for instance, want the same characters in the same stories (thinly disguised as requests for sequels); you want to explore new ground. Or maybe you want to write the same characters, but moving on to new problems that make them less the characters your readers liked. There may also be times–and these are the tough ones–where you’ll know that a scene doesn’t belong in your story from a structural standpoint, but you’ll also know that the people who like your work will really like that scene.

Say, for example, you have a character whose dry, cynical wit is what you (and others) love about her. You’ve got her in this scene at a restaurant and have come up with some absolutely terrific zingers for her to fire at the slovenly waiter about the underdone food. It really shows off her character and will make everyone smile. But alas, the restaurant scene does really nothing else for the purposes of your story.

So what do you do there? If it’s something extraneous that you really should cut to move the plot along, but it highlights a part of the character that you like, and your readers will like, do you keep it? Try to work it into the plot a little more? Rework some of the more critical plot scenes to fill the same niche?

My answer, and it varies by situation, is that I try to get that scene to be more integrated into the plot. Failing that, I’m inclined to leave it. It adds color to the story, and if it’s got enough entertainment value, people won’t mind that it doesn’t move things along. You’re making the story fun to read and fun to write, and in the end, that’s what matters.

When you can do all that AND make it integral to the plot AND have a significant message AND do it in a fresh new way … well, that’s what we’re working towards, isn’t it?

Are you overwriting the obvious again?

One of the more common mistakes I see in the writing of more experienced amateur writers is the tendency to overwrite. They write more than is needed to get the point across, often inundating the reader with the same information expressed in a few different ways (or in some cases, expressed in the same way). Most of the time, you don’t need to tell the reader something three or four times. The reader is usually capable of picking up information with one or two clues, so there’s no need to overwrite. All this does is slow down the pace of the story and …

Yeah, see what I did there? It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that first paragraph, except that it contains about three too many sentences. Try this one out:

One of the more common mistakes I see in the writing of more experienced amateur writers is the tendency to overwrite. The reader is usually capable of picking up information with one or two clues; anything more is annoying overkill.

Overwriting is not an indication of poor writing skills. It’s an indication of insufficient time spent editing. A friend of mine once said that he’d read that every sentence needs to move the story forward. I thought that was a bit excessive at the time, but it’s not a bad rule to keep in the back of your head. Are you writing what the reader wants and needs to see next? Or, as Frasier Crane said on Cheers, “Oh, now you’re saying that I’m redundant, that I repeat myself, that I say things over and over.”

In fact, overwriting is a good thing in drafts. It’s not bad to have the same sentiment expressed several different ways. Then, while editing, you pick the one that works the best in terms of pacing and language, and get rid of the rest. But don’t be afraid to edit. If you feel you have to mention something several times for emphasis, space it out. Let the feeling build through the story rather than being slammed home all in one paragraph.

It’s not a bad flaw to find, and I guarantee you, everyone does it. Be diligent while editing, and it won’t be an issue.

…If Only You Could Live In Your Novel

It struck me recently that owning a home is kind of like writing a novel. You might ask someone to give your precious possession a look over, to make some minor improvements to the pacing (or, say, to run a gas line to the backyard). Well, when they give it back, they say, “hey, did you know that your plot has a major discontinuity in it?” (or, say, that your hot water heater is leaking). And of course, as anyone knows, even a minor fix to a novel (or a house) inevitably ends in more than one trip to the reference shelf (or Home Depot), taking two or three (or ten) times the time (and money) you’d originally thought it would.

Both are complicated structures with a lot of dependent parts. The good thing about the novel is that its parts don’t degrade over time if you don’t touch them. However, like a house, all the parts are subject to individual taste and perception; it is nearly impossible to view either of them objectively at anything other than the most fundamental level (it has four walls and a roof/the language is technically proficient).

I wasn’t sure this post was going to have a point when it started. I just thought it was an amusing analogy. But I think it does have a point, and that is that whether it’s your house or your novel, you have to ultimately trust your judgment. You can bring in people who are experts in the big things, the foundation it’s all built on, but when it comes to whether it’s finished, that should be your decision. You’re the one who has to live with it. You could tinker with it endlessly–trust me, you will never run out of things to fix. But at some point you have to say, “Enough.”

Learning how to do that is one of the most difficult parts of being a writer. I would say it’s the most difficult part of being a homeowner, but I have a mortgage. And, now, a new hot water heater.

Common Writing Mistakes

I love this post, not only for putting “loose vs. lose” at the top of the list, but also for giving me the Latin behind “i.e.” (id est) and “e.g.” (exempli gratia) and for the interesting bit of advice about apostrophes: “When in doubt, leave it out.” I hadn’t thought about it, but I do think an unnecessary apostrophe is more jarring than a missing one. If you really don’t know and don’t have a reference handy, I guess that’s not a bad rule of thumb.

[Edit: In the great Philadelphia Will Do blog, this headline today is timely.]