September 5th, 2011

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How to Write a Book in Six Months — Don’t Fight the Editing

Originally published at Cassie Alexander. You can comment here or there.

So this past week, wherein I wrote 15k as the intro to a maybe thing, I sent everything I finished, every day, to Daniel, my first reader.

Usually I wait until I've got 10k or so. (30k if I'm feeling lucky. Which isn't always a brill idea.) It's been Chinese-interesting to get whapped on the nose repeatedly this week...but it's been good. Realllllly good. It's let me exercise one of the most valuable tools any writer can have -- the ability to get over yourself asap, and do edits quickly.

It's only natural to want to protect your work. You just practically gave birth to it for crying out loud, and what you really want to hear when you send it out to people is how amazingly perfect it is, not how much you need to work on it. But, chances are it needs work. (Everything needs work. Those people who say they don't need to edit, they're effing liars who edit in secret, late at night.)

And you ask about edits on the internet, and some tomfool shouts up with the Rules of Editing according to Some White Writer from the 50's whose name I have forgotten -- and his one particular comment about not doing edits except to editorial suggestion. Those people are idiots, too. It's not the 50's anymore, and there aren't 40 pulp mags churning, desperate for your words. So it behooves you to try to put your best foot forward, even if it hurts.

There's two phases to this process:

Who are you asking to read your stuff?

Readers. And possibly other writers.

Edits are only of value if they're from people who know what they're talking about. Not family members (typically) or random people online. You can get some value out of scattershot things like critters.org and the online writing workshop, I've heard, but you'll also get a lot of "I didn't like the space ship on page three" when you're writing a gritty story about an undead unicorn herd. Those ones you can toss off right away.

One of the earliest writing groups I was a part of came from a group on usenet. (Jesus, I am old.) Other groups have formed in the realms of fan fiction, people aggregating as friendly commenters on a particular blog, anyone who shares the same basic feel for the field that you're trying to write in, online and in person. You don't really want to try to drag someone who writes Twilight fanfic in to read your post-singularity novel, or vice versa. Look at where you hang out online. Go to some cons. Be receptive, and try to meet people who are interested in sharing/reading work.

You want to be in a crit group where everyone's working towards publication in a serious fashion, and where you're not the best person there -- because you want to keep learning. Hopefully this'll be in a crit trading situation where you can send work back and forth, but a lot of people are lucky and meet the someone who just likes to read and offer advice.

Which is just fine, as long as that advice is good and helpful. Hold this thought --

Be aware that crit groups can go stale over time...you get so used to being nice to everyone, because Jane brought in fresh brownies this month, so how can you tell her that her characterization sucks, however nicely? Or, Jim's always harping at voice, even though he can never quiet explain what that is. It's tough. Mix it up a bit, if you can. Go to a workshop or meet other people for a different feel.

What do you do with the edits?

While you're at the group, or just have gotten the email...behave. Smile nice. These people read your stuff, and even if you're raging in lava-heat anger about how they misconstrued what they read, it's their read, not yours. (Believe me, I feel your pain. Nothing's worse than the first person who is critting a story getting Something Completely Wrong about your story, and then their shitty crit coloring everyone else's crit of your work.) Breathe, take notes, and be nice.

Go home with your notes. Wait a day, if you can. Maybe two. And then take your ego-monkey and shove it in a box, and look at the notes again.

Not everyone's advice is going to be golden. But even online, chances are there'll be one or two points that -- in the clear light of day, when you're thinking about how awesome you really want this work to be -- sing out to you. Even the people that miss things and seem to go off on their own track -- what was happening in the book when they veered off? Sometimes it's not even the crit itself but the location of the misdirection that counts.

When you're just starting out, there's this temptation to be either a prima donna or a doormat. If you're the prima donna, you don't want to hear anything negative about your work, ever. If you're the doormat, you want to make all the changes everyone asks you to make, even if in doing so you dilute your original words.

Where you need to be, as a functioning writer, is somewhere in the spectrum in between.

Here's how I try to look at things:

The only thing you've really got to spend as a writer is yourself. Really. It's all you on the page, all the time. It is your story. For me, that's not just a combination of words, it's like a living breathing thing. So I try to rephrase things in my head.

If someone says that my inability to skillfully infodump is interrupting my story -- fuck those words. They're gone.

If someone tells me that the relationship between two characters is not tonally right for my story -- I'm changing them, all of them if i have to.

If someone says my theme is wrong -- I check my theme against my story. If they're right, it goes.

My only job, as a writer, is to serve the story. And that's how I judge the crits (and editorial suggestions, even from paying editors!) I get. Are they right? Am I doing something wrong that's hiding my story? If so, I make those changes at breakneck speed. If their suggestions involve me changing the story (not the superficial linear ABC plot story, but the structure of why this thing I'm writing is what I want to write), then I hold back a little, and think longer on it. It might be more important in those cases to stay true to myself.

The words are just the tools I use to get the story out of the marble. (Please dear god may that make sense.) There's every chance I may be using the wrong tools. But the story is always mine, and that's what I want to shine through. No matter if it hurts.

I see a lot of people get wrapped up in linear crits -- you make suggestions to them to rearrange parts, or skip ahead, and they fight you because to them it seems important that their plots go 1...2...3. Or they want to port in endless backstory (because it felt so good to them to figure all that out!) or they want to surprise you with stuff without foreshadowing it, not realizing that nail-biting anticipation is part of the surprise -- they're all attached to the magic of words still, in the orders that they put them, not realizing that the actual magic of any book ever is in the story. That part of you that you and only you can put on the page. As a writer your only job is really to figure out what tells the story best, and dismiss what does not. Take the harvest, delete the chaff.

Do I always do all of this right?

Oh hell no. But at least I know what I should be trying to do now, which is a hell of a lot more than I knew when I started this being-a-writer mess. Remember that 4500 word glorious word count from a few days ago?

My beloved first reader, Daniel, sent me back a 2200 word reply telling me all of why it was wrong.

And he was right. So I shoved my ego-monkey into a box, ate ice-cream, and then got going again. My schedule doesn't have time to feel sorry for myself, and really, it's a waste of time (except for the excuse to eat ice cream.)

If you are very lucky like me, eventually you'll find someone who gets what you're trying to do, and who only wants to see you do it better. This is the end all, be all, crit/edit goal. (It's the goal of life itself in a lot of ways, in most relationships. I am a very supported, lucky girl.)

Anyhow. That's what I did last night, was reread and fix things, and then today, reread them again before sending them back to him. I'm hoping I'm almost done, but if not, I'll take it on the chin and dive in again.

Here is a beautiful sad song, sung sweetly by a beautiful woman, as your reward for getting to the end of this post. "Video Games" by Lana Del Rey.

More soon, as always.