Kill Your Darlings

Earlier this year, I finalized a short story that I really adored. Quite often the process of drafting a story can be painful, but this one was a joy from beginning to end. I hand-wrote the first draft, and it had a lyrical quality to it. I loved the main character. I felt passionate about the themes explored. The story had a deliberately slow pace, an unfolding and unveiling. It was a quiet story with a good emotional payoff.

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Unfortunately, this all meant it was looooong. Which, in itself—not a problem! If the reader is willing to go with you on that journey, awesome. But from a practical standpoint, a long word count can be a challenge. Most literary magazines have a word-count range they’ll accept. For a lot of them, the max is 6,000. Your options for submission dwindle as the word count rises.

But there are options, and I loved this story, so off it went on its submission rounds.

And then, a few weeks ago, I ran out of places that would accept that many words. I had to make a choice: retire the story, or hack off over 2,000 words.

2,000 may not sound like a lot. But that’s anywhere from a third to one half of most short stories. The task seemed impossible—or if not impossible, unpalatable. Taking away that much would ruin the deliberate pace I had set. It would alter the methodical voice. It wouldn’t be the same story.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a short story she wrote that was accepted by a major magazine. It was a story she loved, one she’d polished and tightened to perfection, and she was ecstatic it was going to be published. Then, prior to publication, she got a phone call. There wasn’t as much space in the magazine as originally planned. She had two options: drop the story from that month’s issue and hope it got picked up for a future one, or edit it down.

Gilbert chose to edit. She wasn’t sure how she was going to do it, but she started hacking away until it was done. And to her surprise, the story was ultimately better for it—and yes, it was published.

So I printed up my story and grabbed my red pen and I started editing. It took about a week (and a final edit from Byron) but I was able to cut out close to 3,000 words.

And it is a different story. It has a totally different pace. It leaves you with a different feeling. I had to kill so many darlings, sentences and entire sections that I loved and desperately wanted to keep. But the heart of it is still there, still beating.

While it’s true that stories are art, that writers have a vision and they should stay true to it, there’s never anything so precious that it can’t be revised. My story now starts its second round of submissions—a different story, yes, but one I’m still proud of. It wouldn’t have had that chance if I decided it was perfect as it was.

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Laura’s New Writing Plan

It’s like Kanye’s plan, but with a lot less crop tops and a lot more word count.

Like I mentioned in last week’s post — I haven’t been writing much lately. I’ve gotten out a few short stories that I feel good about, but what I REALLY need to be doing is editing the 2nd draft of my book. I’ve puttered away at it, but haven’t succeeded at getting down to business.

I know I work better with structure. I need deadlines. But sometimes creating those for yourself… the motivation, it’s lacking.

Last week my friend Jay introduced me to a site called Pacemaker. In a nutshell: you put in your writing goals and deadlines, and Pacemaker spits out a plan. The exact number of words per day you need to write (or edit) in order to hit your goal.

So I thought… what would it look like if I made a goal to finish the 2nd draft by the end of this year?

And you know, it’s not too shabby.

Pacemaker Writing Calendar

About 550 words on the weekdays. A little over 1,000 on the weekends. December looks the same. Totally doable. And I’m doing it.

As you can see, I’ve already missed one day–but that’s ok. Not beating myself up over it. I made it up on the weekend, so we’re still on track.

Breaking it down day by day, word by word, makes the goal look much more reasonable. More attainable. 550 words a day doesn’t seem scary. (On a good day, I can get that done in the morning before leaving for work.) The vision of having that 2nd draft printed up and piled up on my desk — it’s taking shape.

You just have to start. One word at a time.

The First Draft, as Portrayed with GIFs

Whelp. I did it. I finished reading the first draft of my book. My book. That statement in itself is pretty cool. But I will say — it was an interesting journey. There were surprises along the way, reactions I didn’t expect. Join me, if you will, on the roller coaster of emotions.

The Beginning

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Have you ever revisited something that, at one point in time, you thought was awesome? That feeling when you you go back and realize, “Huh. This isn’t really what I remember it being.” Yeah. That. That was the beginning of the book.

Keep in mind, I wrote the beginning two and a half years ago. That’s a looooong time. Plenty of time to forget reality. In my head, the beginning of the book was AH-MAZ-ING. Intrigue, world building, character development, mystery! IT HAD IT ALL!

In reality? It had some of that. But it definitely didn’t feel fleshed out enough — I don’t think all the questions should be answered up front in a book, but there are a few too many questions as it currently stands. Areas are lacking. Which leads me to…

The “Science”

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Le sigh. I mean, look — I’ve said from the get-go that this book is “speculative fiction.” I purposely do not call it science fiction because a) the science is far in the background, and b) my grasp on science is not what we’d call “strong.” And therein, dear readers, lies the problem. The speculative future set forth in my book depends upon an ecological catastrophe — and ecology = science. Science may not be the point of the book, but the science within the book does need to be somewhat realistic.

And what I have going on now… nope. Nope. Does not work. It is not based on any kind of scientific reality that could actually occur (a fact which I confirmed with a meteorologist a few weeks ago). Which, oddly, does not make me as depressed as I thought it would. With some research and tweaks, I do think I can “fix” the science — at least so it’s passable. At least so someone could shrug and say, “Well, ok, probably couldn’t happen, but it works.” But I need to put on my scientific lab coat and do some research to get to that point.

The Middle

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Well here’s our first PLEASANT surprise. I was sure — sure — that the middle of this book was going to suck. That it would be overly long, a slog for the reader to get through. Because that’s how it felt when I wrote it — that I was slogging through it, just trying to get to the end. But you know? It ain’t half bad. Yes, it needs some tweaks here and there, but not nearly as many as I thought. It moves along at a good clip — the action moments are pretty well paced out — and all the “major” moments happen at good points in the overall plot. I can only attribute this stroke of good luck to the fact that I spent time outlining this summer.

The End

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Ah, the end. The point I was so, so excited to reach. And yes — it shows. The ending feels rushed, which is understandable considering that I was racing like a truck without brakes towards my self-imposed deadline. I think it’s mostly there, but it needs some sort of BANG moment — a bigger crescendo. I want to leave the reader gasping for breath, exhilarated, as she turns that final page.

And the final analysis? I’m not totally sure. I’m still mulling it all over in my head. As they say with houses, I think the book has “good bones” — but it’s definitely a fixer-upper.

I was starting to feel kind of down about all this — the book seems so far from where I want it to be, so far from what I know it can be — but then I remembered something Neil Gaiman said at his reading tour:

“I do believe in talent, but I think I believe in hard work more.” – Neil Gaiman

And hard work? Hard work I can do.

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I just need to keep going, keep sanding down and varnishing those layers until I get the polished piece I want. I’m already excited to read the second draft.

The Best Laid Plans

Ugh.

You know how I was ALL READY to start editing on February 1? I’d done my prep work, my research, I was excited and rarin’ to go? I woke up on Saturday morning, pulled the manuscript together, formatted it to download onto my Kindle so I could read the whole thing in one go. And then I headed off to get my hair cut, with a whole, wide-open evening laid out in front of me, set aside to read.

And then halfway through my hair cut, I got so dizzy and nauseous that I had to interrupt my stylist and tell her, Oh hey, I’m sorry, I know you’re cutting my hair but if I don’t lie down now I’m going to pass out.

Fun!

I managed to drag my ass home, climb into bed and proceed to shiver and sweat and be generally miserable for the next 12 hours. Well, let’s be honest — the next 12 hours were the worst, but it extended in to Sunday as well. And Monday! On Monday afternoon I told Byron, “I’m going to try to take a shower now… I feel like I’m starting to smell.”

“Yeah, you kind of are… what? I didn’t say anything until you mentioned it!”

Thanks, dear.

Tuesday thank goodness I was finally feeling well enough to head back to work. Which I did. And then Wednesday I woke up with pink eye.

PINK EYE.

I AM NOT AMUSED BY THE PRACTICAL JOKE, UNIVERSE.

(The really annoying thing about all this? I was pretty sick two weeks ago, too. And Byron was really sick last week. And now apparently it’s my turn again? I told a co-worker that our house must be infested with the plague, and he said, “Just burn it down.”)

So. Needless to stay I was back on the couch Wednesday, and my sorry ass is here at home today as well.

Maybe also needless to say? I haven’t started editing the book yet. Which makes me feel like a huge failure. I know, I know, I set an arbitrary deadline for myself — a deadline not based on any agent or publisher or job — but it was still my deadline. And I missed that deadline because I could barely lift my head off the couch, let alone read a book or sit at the computer.

I know that “real life” sometimes gets in the way of writing, but… I never let real life get in the way of writing. When I set myself a goal, I get it done. In fact, I specifically set personal deadlines so I do get the work done. I hold myself accountable. “Real life” to me is always just an excuse for not writing. And now here I am, kicking and screaming because life’s drug me down to its level.

So, I don’t know. Do I just re-set the goal? Tell myself that I’ll start revisions this Saturday, that it’s ok, shit happens? I mean, that’s what I HAVE to do at this point. But it still pisses me off. I failed myself, and that’s the worse offense.

Now excuse me while I return myself to the couch.

On Editing

As mentioned earlier in the week, I’m starting the first-draft edit on Saturday. As also mentioned, I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing. Yes, I can edit for spelling, grammar, consistencies — but this thing needs serious revisions. Where to begin? How to tackle what at the moment seems to be a massive undertaken?

I was always the type of student to do all my homework, and apparently I haven’t lost that trait. For the past week I dug into blogs and books and turned to the experts: authors whose advice I’ve found helpful in the past. And soon enough, some themes began to emerge.

Start Reading

You need to re-read your book. It’s time. Sit down with it. Print it out and plop it in your lap. Or smear it onto your iPad or computer monitor. Whatever it takes: just re-read that sonofabitch. Do this quickly. — Chuck Wendig, “25 Steps to Edit the Unmerciful Suck Out of Your Story

Stephen King advises the same thing in On Writing — sit down and re-read the first draft, preferably in one sitting. The idea is that you’ll see the book as a whole, without time lapses, and you’ll be able to see what works — and what doesn’t.

Find Your Theme

I’ve read On Writing numerous times (I noticed the other day how incredibly broken my book’s spine is), and I’m always finding new bits to love in there. Like this:

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book — at least one worth reading — is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings your is about. — Stephen King, On Writing

Yes. Definitely yes. That’s one thing I’m very aware of with my book — it needs a Unifying Factor. Or rather, the unifying factor lying beneath all the junk needs to be uncovered. (For more about uncovering theme and symbolism and all that big scary stuff, I’d also recommend Chuck Wendig’s blog post, “The Contextual Edit“.)

Cut Out the Crap

There’s one bit of On Writing that always stuck with me, from the very first time I read it:

In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High …. I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1 Draft – 10%. Good luck.” — Stephen King, On Writing

I love that — such a simple, easy formula. What I find most interesting is that King claims he follows it almost to the letter — for his second draft, he chops 10% of the word count from the first draft. No excuses, it just has to happen. I know my book needs some “de-puffying”, so 10% seems a good amount to aim for.

Margaret Atwood gives similar advice (PS, HOW EXCITED WAS I when I found Margaret Atwood had a blog post with editing advice??):

Readers are readers. They are good at reading. They are also post-film, and are used to swift cuts. They will fill in quite a lot. At any point, are you telling/filling in too much? The author needs to walk through the moves in his/her head — like practicing a dance or a military exercise — so that no actual tactical mistakes are made — the character doesn’t go out the door before he’s put his pants on, unless intended — but then the planning steps, the  connect-the-dots steps, are pruned out so that what the reader gets is a graceful, fluid execution. We hope. — Margaret Atwood, “Ten Editing Tips, for Your Fiction Mss.

Remove the “connect-the-dot” steps — this gives the reader credit. You’re trusting that the reader is intelligent, that you don’t need to fill in every tiny detail for her. It seems to me this would result in a sharper, leaner book (something I’m hoping to achieve).

Track It

I can’t believe I never thought of this one before:

It is exceedingly helpful to mark all the changes you make. I turn them on when editing but turn their visibility off at the same time — so, it’s tracking all the changes I make off-stage and behind the curtain. But I can view them at any time. — Chuck Wendig, “How Chuck Wendig Edits a Novel

Track Changes in Word. Duh. Totally doing this.

It’s a Process — And That’s Ok

The most daunting thing about editing is… well, there’s not just one daunting thing, is the problem. It’s all the things. Grammar and continuity errors and gaping plot holes and oh God I forgot about that character what do I do with him?? At this point in time, it seems like a massive undertaking.

Well. It is. But that shouldn’t phase you:

See revision as “envisioning again.” If there are areas in your work where there is a blur or vagueness, you can simply see the picture again and add the details that will bring your work closer to your mind’s picture. You can sit down and time yourself and add to the original work that second, third, or fourth time you wrote on something. — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Wendig calls this the “Layer Cake” theory of editing. One of my writing-group buddies has a different analogy — varnishing a table. You can’t apply ten layers of varnish at once, the thing will turn out looking like a mess. You have to sand the table down, smooth it out, apply one layer. Then you repeat the process, one layer at a time, until you have the final result: a beautiful, smooth, gleaming table. Same thing with a novel and editing: you start one layer at a time — context, grammar, characters — until you have one damn fine table. Er, book.

I have to say, after this whole week of research and reading and expectation — I feel ready. I feel excitedI’m ready for Saturday to arrive, to sit down with my book — my book, which I wrote, which I finished — and start ripping it to shreds. Or, maybe politely pecking it to shreds. It’ll be a messy business — and that’s ok.

Getting Back to Business

Well.

January sure flew by fast.

When I finished my first draft in December, February seemed a loooong way away. Taking off January from all things writing seemed like a huge luxury. I would do ALL THE THINGS. Watch ALL THE TV. My brain would relax and veg out and come February be totally blank — a clean slate, ready to work.

Didn’t quite happen that way. Don’t get me wrong — January has been an awesome month. I read good books! I worked on some new projects! I traveled to Sweden and Denmark!

But at the back of my brain it lurked. The ever-present story. Characters and plot and questions. It never truly left. It’s taken up residency and ignores the eviction notices.

Byron is currently reading the first draft — the first person to read it in its full, complete form. I am dying to ask him questions, ask him where he is, what’s happening what does he think — but I resist, because that’s not really fair to him as a reader. On the flip side, he doesn’t get to ask me questions at this point — he just reads it as it is. Any inconsistencies or errors or gaping holes can be pointed out after “The end” is reached. (Although he did tell me I somehow mixed up the first chapter of another book in there. Oops.)

So here we are, with February just around the corner. I said that come February 1 the revisions would begin, and I’m sticking to that. I realized the other day, though, that I don’t really know what I’ll be doing come February 1. I mean, editing, yes. But I’ve never undertaken an editing project this large before. The last book I wrote, I edited under the time crunch of NaNoWriMo — 30 days of intense editing — and while I do think the second draft is better than the first, it wasn’t enough. That editing job was haphazard and hacked together and clearly the work of someone without a plan. Hindsight makes clear that I had no idea what I was doing.

This time, I want a plan. I want strategic editing — I want revisions that enhance the story, make it tighter and leaner and strongerSo I’m doing my homework. This past week I’ve been reading up on editing from the pros — professional authors, published authors, the ones who’ve done this in the past and (in theory) know what they’re doing. I’m gathering up the best of the best, and on Thursday I’ll share my finds with you — with the hopes that I’ll get some clarity out of it, too.

Part of me doesn’t feel ready — part of me says I should take more time off, that my brain needs to decompress more. But another large part of me calls bullshit. It’s time to get back to business.