Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Callous Editor

As I continue editing my novel, I’m discovering more about the editing process. Perhaps it’s straight-forward to many writers, but I learn more from experience than anything else, so any forewarnings from others didn’t sink in to the necessary depths to actually affect me. As I reveal what I’m doing now, I can only hope that it benefits someone else, either as revelation or affirmation.

After what should be a very open and free first draft where the mind wanders about the page, the drafts that follow should be written meticulously. The story is out, but it’s going to be in sloppy form. I like to use the second draft as a time to methodically go from paragraph to paragraph, looking at the wording and overall feel of what is written. This is the place where major changes take place. Entire paragraphs are struck down by my backspace key. Just as the Cobra Kai sensei teaches in The Karate Kid, “Mercy is for the weak!” Even if a sentence is ingenious, it needs to go if it gets in the way of the story.

If the idea within a series of poorly written paragraphs should be retained, rewrite them. I like to just give myself some open space right there on the page to try a few alternatives and see what grabs me. As long as I’m patient and honest with myself, I know I’ll fix the problem.

Objectivity is the most important thing during edit mode. Pride in a rough draft keeps a work in bad form. Certainly there’s a place for sentimental feelings, but that’s what backup copies are for. Maybe a snappy line of dialogue will make it into another story one day, so just file it away like a gift card. (I’m not the type of writer to really go fishing for text I wrote in the past, but I do like to review ideas from older stories.)

Editing takes a focused mind and a cold heart. It’s still art, but it’s ruthless and determined. Leave no sentence unread, question each transition and shape that lump of a story into something memorable.

This article is part of the Top Five Writing Improvement Articles:
1. Writing To Your Strengths Or Weaknesses – Should you write to your strengths or weaknesses? The answer varies depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
2. Writing Tools – As writers, we need to consider which tools will help us the most with our craft and have them at the ready.
3. The Callous Editor – To edit our own works well, we must divorce emotions from the process and make hard choices.
4. Writing Exercises – When thoughts seem locked up tight, try some exercises to get the sludge moving again.
5. The Jab – We need good openings to our stories, and this article shares some advice and an example from my own writing.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Tales Within Tales

There are times when it may be appropriate to enclose a story within a fictional work. Perhaps a character is reminiscing, or the narrator is giving some background information to the reader. Regardless of the reason, there are some considerations we should make as authors of both the outer and inner tales.

Is this inner tale even necessary? In our society of “less is more,” we haven’t the time to delve into paragraphs or pages of something unrelated to the overall story. I think there is some leeway for a novel, in that an inner tale could simply be lending to the overall world building or character development, but for short stories, it seems better to omit trivial anecdotes.

When it does appear useful to delve into an inner tale, consider how it should be told. Which voice should relate the ideas? Your characters (should) have a limited point of view and tell stories using their distinct personalities, so that may work against explicit dialogue. On the other hand, you may want to use the limits of a character in order to keep certain details hidden. A character may also allow for a false story, whereas the narrator could be more truthful (depending on the narrator of course).

Part of telling the tale is deciding how detailed to make it. This may affect who tells it as well, so be prepared to switch speakers if a character can’t pull it off and remain in character. The level of detail in the inner tale should tie back to the overall purpose for its inclusion in the greater story. Describing a couch for two paragraphs seems pointless when the only important detail is the person sitting on the couch. Just as we hope to stay concise with the overall tale, we need to be that much more concise with an inner tale.

My usual preference for character specific inner tales is to imagine how I might share a news story with someone. I wouldn’t go into intricate details because that takes too long, and I probably wouldn’t know them. I would just give the overall picture and maybe lend my opinion. Now, what would my character do in my place?

The inner tale, like so many tools, can be either brilliant or foolish, depending on its usage. Evaluate its purpose and then craft it with precise strokes, placing it in the main story where it adds depth rather than killing the pace. Make it work for you.