Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Big Red One

Pencil, that is.

You know, for the stuff that has to go. No room, gotta keep word count down, paper and ink costs money. Plus, there's the small problem of boring readers.

Sound familiar? It's a refrain in the back of the mind of all writers, since we are, perforce, editors too. We've got to be! We make a million little decisions each day, and somehow muster the nerve not to think about them too much.

Self-doubt is the worst enemy a writer can have (as opposed to Scotch, which is too often blamed) ... it can cripple us, leave us for dead, and blow sand and dust over the bones of our dreamt-of careers with all the equanimity of Monument Valley.

In short, self-doubt sucks. When we write something, we've got to be able to trust our instincts. OURS. Not a reader's, a critique group, a parent, a spouse or the cat. That's the only way books get written ... by closing our eyes and taking a big giant leap of faith that we're not making complete fools of ourselves.

Now, that said ... once the book is finished, and we're reasonably pleased with it, perhaps having experienced a few of those moments of exhilaration you get when you feel both entertained by what you've written and proud that you wrote it ... once it's done, we need to put on the other hat.

The editor's, which can look remarkably like one of those undertaker hats from an old western.

For editors, my friends, come to bury words, not to praise them. And even through those moments of exhilaration will come passages that slow down the pace, that clog the action, that may be pretty sitting there, but will make a reader put down the book, yawn, and say she needs to start another one, this one's boring.

Hence, the red pencil.

And--if you're lucky--your editor's ear is perfectly tuned to what are pretty DVD extras and what is essential. And--if you're lucky--your ear can get tuned to the same frequency, so that there will be less and less revision required. You put on the undertaker's hat, and bury the rotten stuff (and sometimes good stuff to be recycled later) before anyone else gets wise.

Of course, if you're a writer who is told to "add more, develop this more, we need this fleshed out" ... well, then your editor is wearing a Frankenstein wig and asking you to resurrect thoughts and emotions that you were done with ages ago, in the interests of character development or tension building or beefing up page count. So you make like Marty Feldman, and you listen.

You always listen to editors. Except when you don't, though I haven't yet experienced that dilemma.

I'm one of the red pencil writers, and I'm lucky to have a wonderful, experienced and understanding editor. She let me wear the hat and trim the beginning of City of Dragons until I felt it was taught and tight enough to engage a reader who wouldn't necessarily care about the Chinese Telephone Exchange building on Washington Street. And she was happy, and I was happy. But I was prepared to advocate for some of my favorite bits later in the book; I was prepared with arguments. Fortunately for me, I didn't have to use them.

My rule is simple: I listen to suggestions (from my agent, say) and figure out what it is about the passage or the paragraph or the line that is bothersome. Then I try to rewrite it. And if it's truly a necessary bit that adds life or energy or suspense or characterization to the novel, I can rewrite it. If I have trouble with the rephrase ... I cut it out.

"When in doubt--cut it out." What you can't bear to cut you can rework. What you can't rework is absolutely essential, and what you fight to preserve.

And I have a funny feeling I'll be re-reading this post before I'm finished with my current deadline ...


Sophie Littlefield said...

There was a scene I wrote over a year ago at the very beginning of the 2nd YA in my series. I fell in love with that scene in a way that happens so rarely with us self-doubt-inflicted writers - I truly believed it was the finest 2000 words I'd ever written.

So of course it was doomed. I knew it then. My agent told me immediately it had no place in the book. But I kept it there. Throughout the entire year, as I finished other projects and only tinkered with the YA, I kept admiring it. When I returned to the book with full force in January, I admired it like a prize pig, returning now and then just to enjoy its brilliance.

Every person I ever showed it to said it had to go. I finished that draft a few weeks ago and sent it to that same agent, knowing what the result would be. Came back in less than 24 hours and then and only then did i finally yank it out.

I'm still grieving. Because the rest of the book will never be as pretty as that one scene.

Kelli Stanley said...

I'm sorry, Soph ... that's awful. RIP to your lovely prose, and I hope you will be releasing it as a promo or something for when the book comes out. You know, lucky subscribers to your newsletter get a look at the "scene that never was"?

We may not be able to publish director's cuts, but gee, we should be able to use our "extras". JK Rowling put her edits on her website!


Shane Gericke said...

RIP, Sophie. Losing brilliant scenes is like losing a family member. Cause in a way, they are.

Can you turn it into a short story? That way WE can read it and comment on how beautious it is.

Shane Gericke said...

Kelli, you are so right--a tiny bit of self-doubt is good cause it keeps you on your toes. Any more than that is crippling.

Unknown said...

I was so PROUD of myself the day I started getting deletion edits instead of "what's going on here" comments!

That said, it took half a dozen talented writers to persuade me to change the opening of my WIP, which I knew was brilliant and artistic and mysterious (but the wrong place to start). Kudos to Helen S. if she's reading, her clear questions and suggestions finally got me to LOOK at what I was doing outside the context of the individual scene, though numerous others had tried to get through to me before. Not every book can start like Casablanca: lesson learned.

Since I have both good and bad instincts, I try to listen for what resonates in comments. If something makes me irrationally upset, there's probably some nugget of truth. Or if everybody stumbles in the same area, I'm all, "aha, there's something to fix in there..." The trick is to separate symptoms ("I hated your character") from the problem, which may be in an entirely different place...

How writers continue to grow their craft after they are published fascinates me. Before you are published, there are far fewer voices, and far fewer agendas.

Thanks Kelli for much food for thought!

Eric Beetner said...

As an editor of the film and TV variety I bring that critical eye to my writing and hence I end up with very short manuscripts. Then I can go back and shave something down to 30,000 if I let myself. Too many 1/2 hour TV shows in my brain.
I love your admission that you recycle good ideas that don't make the cut. My trouble is I file them away in that most unreliable of places - my brain. I'm sure I've lost some great lines deep in my cerebral cortex. Of course I can still recite most of Animal House by rote. What's wrong with this picture?

Dana Fredsti said...

Loved this post, Kelli, including all of your 'illustrations!' I've had to learn to have my editing hat on pretty much as a write for some of my 'you have three months to write this book!' projects, which isn't always a good thing... It' actually takes longer to write the book when you're constantly second guessing yourself.

Sophie, I'm with Kelli - when this book comes out, PLEASE include your scene as an extra special promo on your website!

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, Shane. :) It's hard to maintain a balance between healthy and crippling ... healthy enough to listen to what could be improved, crippling to the point where your mind second-guesses before your fingers hit the keys.

Writers' egos are usually fragile things, kept aloft by a kind word or good review or a sense of enjoyment from your own work ... and can just as easily plummet like an Acme anvil.

Finding that middle ground/El Dorado is the sweet spot, I think ...

Kelli Stanley said...

Thank you, Myst, and I'm delighted to hear about the WIP progress! :)

You're so right about character/symptoms. We really need to translate the criticism to see what is at the heart of the issue. And sometimes, if we do it right, we're able to make the change AND keep our favorite line. :)

Hooray for days like that! :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Eric, I've got plenty of 80s new wave band trivia floating around in my head, so I know what you mean. :)

I always figure we're lucky to get a good idea (and who knows if another will strike), so if it doesn't work one place it might work another.

I keep a scrap file open when I write, in case something takes a turn I didn't expect or a bit of writing proves too long. Makes me feel better, even if none of it actually gets used.

Hey ... reuse, recycle and all that. And it worked for Chandler! :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, Dana!! :)

I believe excessive self-doubt leads to writer's block which leads to alcoholism.

How's that for a slippery slope? ;)

I've found that I can't edit and write at the same time, at least not without heartache. I tend to most recently written--which serves to get me "there"--and which also sometimes generates more first draft stuff. Then settle in to pouring it out.

Kudos, sweetie, for not only doing both at the same time, but for accomplishing it with a three-month deadline--tough stuff, indeed!!


Kelli Stanley said...

OK, I'm a little worried ... I post a pic of myself in a lineup, and no one comments? ;)

I mean, I know I'm a Criminal Mind, but still ...

Graham Brown said...

Kelli - I love your "Usual Suspects" pic - its perfect.

And you're soooo on with this post. Self Doubt must be curshed by any meas necessary - it's like the dark side of the Force.

Graham Brown said...

Also - spelling is part of the dark side of the Force.

Bobby Mangahas said...

I assumed that line up thing was some thing that we don't say nothin' about. :)

Oh, and great post. I'm dealing with the same thing with the play I finished. I like it, but there's probably a lot that can go.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Great post1

I just assumed the lineup picture was a cry for help and I was about to call to see if you needed bail money. If you can answer the comment on your phone from your cell, let me know if I should send over a lawyer, Kelli!

Kelli Stanley said...

Graham, I'm so with you on that whole Dark Side thing. I mean, c'mon--spelling is subjective. Is gray better than grey? No--it's just American vs. English. So I say we should bring back the fs instead of ss and have done with it.

Am I making ye olde sense here? ;)


And thanks for the pic comment! I was trying to channel Mary Astor's character in a noir called Act of Violence ...

Kelli Stanley said...

RJ, what happens at CM, stays at CM ... ;) That mug shot was actually taken at Noir City this year. Yes, I get into character! ;)

Thanks again for dropping in, and I'm so glad to hear you're finished with your play!! Make sure you let us know how it goes with the revision process!


Kelli Stanley said...

Becks, thank you!! You know you're one of the first people I will call when I'm finally caught. ;)

Luckily, this was just a pose ... but I was getting worried that you all thought it might be a normal snapshot for me.

And when I do need a lawyer, I'm calling Gabi ... 'cause she can frame somebody and get me off the hook. :)


Shane Gericke said...

Eric, when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor ...

Terry Stonecrop said...

I was so busy admiring your hat, I didn't notice you were in a lineup.

Good advice about self-doubt.I agree with Graham, it should be curshed. I like that owrd...almost as much as I like the word, owrd.

Right, I love Chandler. Remember, he called reusing, cannibalizing?