Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Editing

As I read through my recently published story, "Swallowed," (Here, in case you want to check it out.) I got to thinking about how I had edited and revised it, and I figured it would make for a good blog post with some practical craft and writing advice.

In its current ("final" I would say, but what writing is final? Perhaps "published" is the best term...) incarnation, "Swallowed" is 5500 words.  A medium length short story.  In the version that I initially sent out to Gulf Stream (et al.) it was 9000 words.  A long short story.  A couple of places rejected it with a note saying: its good, but too long.  Gulf Stream took the time to say: we like it, we want it if you can make it shorter (by ten pages).

So, I began to hack.

At first, cutting off just under half of a story feels a little daunting.  Okay, a lot daunting.  But, in some ways, getting rid of thousands of words is easier than getting rid of a hundred.  You can't tell yourself -- I'll just trim back on adjectives.  No.  You've got to get in there with a machete (and then follow up with a pruning shear).  

So, off I went.  The editors had been kind and suggested I cut the start.  This is almost always where to go when you need to cut something. Get rid of the runway and let the story takeoff sooner.  That was two thousand words gone. 

For the rest, I looked at places where the main character went off on tangents or told about his backstory.  This was much harder for me to cut.  As I took out passages, I kept wavering, thinking: this is good character development... or, this funny!  

Maybe it was.  Maybe it wasn't.  The bottom line was that the story was too long.  Something (lots of somethings) had to go.  I didn't let myself read through the piece until I'd finished making the cuts down to the page limit they had set.  I cut (almost) everything that wasn't related to the forward motion of the plot: getting my character on his journey as soon as possible and then not letting him pause.

Then, when I'd gotten down to the page limit they suggested, I saved it, turned the computer off, and let it sit for a few days.  I worked on other stuff.  I tried to forget it.  Then I went back to "Swallowed" and read it through without letting myself change anything (okay, except for typos).  It was coherent.  It was faster.  It was, perhaps, better.  But the truth is: I missed a lot of what I cut... 

Deep breath.  Cutting your writing is hard.  But here's what I told myself as I made those final edits and sent it back to Gulf Stream:  I'm the only one who knows what's missing.  No one else will say - hey what happened to that awesome joke on page 3?  Maybe that's the author's burden, to know all the orphans and might-have-beens and close-calls and nearly-made-its in the piece.  

What I'm offering is a piece of advice that I often give to my students (and need to take to heart myself).  If a piece is good, it will probably be better if it is shorter.  Almost every story has some slack in it.  And even a little bit of slack can kill a good story.  Set a challenge: trim a thousand words.  Cut a story in half, length-wise.  Make that your writing project of the day.  It almost always makes it better.

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