Blood from a Stone

Writers are sometime divided between pantsers and plotters (or gardeners and architects, if you prefer). That is, writers who make it up as they go along versus one who pre-plan a story’s structure, characters and scenes.

What are ya?

Architect or gardener?

I’m usually somewhere near the middle of that range – maybe a little more gardener-ish, a little loose with the blueprints. Most writers have a place staked out for themselves somewhere on that scale. Give us a conversational opening, or better still alcohol, and we’ll tell you about our process.

Another axis of division that I see writers talking about a lot less is the drafter-editor spectrum – writing new words versus cleaning up those words.

Which is to say, which aspect of the writing process does an individual author find to be satisfying, fulfilling and boundlessly uplifting, and which one is the most frustrating, tedious and altogether excruciating self-inflicted psychological torture?

If you theoretically had to spend the rest of your days either spilling out whatever thoughts passed through your brains onto your fingertips or going over them again and again and endlessly again until they made some kind of sense, which would you choose?

I don’t like editing, okay? It’s like that Talking Heads song goes: “Say something once/Why say it again?” [1]

Having gone through the arduous-but-righteous process of slapping down a large block of text into a shape roughly resembling a story, the thought of going back to the start and questioning every word’s existence provokes a physiological response in me [2]. I *hate* editing: adjusting and adding and flensing and tightening everything until the story is a taut and shimmering skin wrapped around an elegant, unbreakable skeleton.

Don’t get me wrong – I still do the editing, because it has to be done. Even if it were possible to nail every nuance of character, setting and plot on the first pass, nobody should have to suffer through my raw prose. An editing pass just to remove every unnecessary instance of the word “that” would clip an average of 1% off my word count. When I trim out the gratuitous adverbs, tortuous sentence construction and miscellaneous other padding artefacts, the savings really begin to add up.

Editing is what turns an okay story into a readable one, nine times out of ten. It’s good work. It’s important work. But it’s hard work.

I know a few people – let’s call them “aliens” and ascribe to them “deranged and unknowable minds” – who actually like editing. They can’t wait to get through all the boring work of shoveling their text out like hot bitumen so they can get to the fun part of patching the holes, smoothing it all out and making sure it goes somewhere sensible [3].

“Fun”.

For them, cutting a whole character out of a manuscript is a tremendous achievement. For me it’s like deciding which toe I can afford to lose. (Sure, I only probably need two on each foot, but I’d rather keep them all).

I’m trying to get better. There was a time when I would sooner abandon a story altogether rather than go over it with a red pen. I’m coming around to the obvious if unpalatable position that it’s better when I find my mistakes before a reader does.

But, man. Ugh. Editing. Where’s the fun in that?
(This post has absolutely nothing to do with a story I just happen to be working on that grew by 3000 words in a rewrite and conservatively needs at least 2000 words chopped out of it. Nothing at all. Total coincidence.)

[1] That’s “Psycho Killer”, in the event you were wondering
[2] Usually mild nausea followed by enough procrastination to embarrass a statue
[3] Yes, I just compared editing to transport infrastructure. It felt good too.

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4 Responses to Blood from a Stone

  1. Leife says:

    Quietly snorfling into my cup of tea, here. Thanks for the laugh, Dave.

  2. Lexifab says:

    My work here is done!

    Literally so, as a matter of fact, since I’ve spent the day (quelle horreur!) editing a 50-page story. Time for a soothing libation.

  3. Jean V says:

    The one good thing I can see about editing is that you’ve actually got to the stage where there’s something *to* edit. I don’t think, except for a few short stories, I’ve got to that point. Hmmmm.

  4. Lexifab says:

    Being in a regular critiquing group has helped with that. The need to have *something* finished and ready for a critique every month or two has kept me honest. (Well, honest-ish – so far this year I’ve only put one story through the critiquing circle. But it’s true in principle).

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