Reanimate your darlings

If you are reading this message, then I am dead.


No. Hang on, not dead. I meant to say “editing”.

I have a fraught relationship with editing, which boils down to:

  1. I really hate editing my own work, but
  2. My work really needs editing, but
  3. I don’t want to because it’s HAAAAAARDDDD, so
  4. I procrastinate enormously, but
  5. Procrastination makes me feel guilt and shame at my own laziness, so
  6. I tend to associate the process of editing with the emotional response of feeling guilt and shame.

Now, having compiled that list I will own up to being an enormous hypocrite, since it maps more or less exactly to the daily saga of getting my youngest child to drink prune juice for her digestion. It’s the exact same battle every day, and I know – I KNOW – I shouldn’t be giving her grief about doing something for her own good while simultaneously mewling piteously about how hard editing is. Harden up, Dad!

Listen, I’m comfortable with my parental hypocrisy. It’s a skill I’ve been developing for years, mostly by eating far too much chocolate.

Ahem. Back to the point: for the past couple of weeks I’ve been working with an editor.

As part of his coursework for a certificate in editing, a friend is doing end to end production on a short story anthology. The final product will not actually be published – there’s no budget attached to this assignment. But he put out the call to his fellow writers to dig up abandon stories for him to practice his editing skills on. A bit like literary grave-robbing for Victor Frankenstein’s Quarterly Journal.

By pure chance *cough* I happen to have several completely busted stories taking up valuable space in my Dropbox. I picked one that was…well, expressions like “horrible train wreck” are so inflammatory, so let’s exercise undue kindness in calling it “challenging”.

(It was a half-good story idea bolted onto overly dramatic and yet tediously inactive characters, to be duly unkind).

Together we reworked the concept into a new outline, on which we went back and forth a couple of times until we agreed on the story structure. Then I rewrote it from scratch – I think I kept about one paragraph from the original manuscript (which is incidentally in danger of being cut from the final rewrite).

The editor hit the manuscript with the red pen, calling me out for my incoherent descriptions, inappropriate metaphors and occasional incomplete sentences.

Together we made some useful discoveries: I use “as” way too much in the construction of run-on sentences. I write too many run-on sentences. If left to their own devices, my characters all try to talk like the Narrator from The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.

(None of these are revelations, by the way. I know I do it. I just have a bind spot about how often I do it).

So after a couple of editing passes, we’ve turned a demonstrably terrible story – no false modesty here, the original version was just garbage – into a pretty good one. It might be commercial, or it might not. Either way it’s considerably better for the editing work that’s been done on it.

I might be starting to come around on this whole “editing” thing. I begin to see the advantages of a bit of good old fashioned script doctoring.

Just as well, too. There’s a novel manuscript lying next to me complaining about its dangling plot threads, undernourished characters and a serious infestation of run-on sentences.

Time for a little light surgery.

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4 Responses to Reanimate your darlings

  1. Dr Clam says:

    The final product will not actually be published – there’s no budget attached to this assignment.

    Budget? Whyever for? All that’s needed is labour, and your mate is providing that for course credit. And in my experience, most people I meet talk like the Narrator from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. (Though mostly they are the people that only I can see, I guess.)

    You know where I stand, of course- was it Proudhon who said: “The writer will never be free until the last editor is strangled with the entrails of the last reviewer”?

    • Lexifab says:

      Away with your bolshy nonsense, you!

      In this particular case, I’d have been more than happy to hand the final story over for the production of a free giveaway anthology, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise, and the editor in question’s professional ethics precluded asking volunteers to give up first publication rights to what might or might not commercially valuable intellectual property. And yes, I realise that sentence probably makes your skin itch, but these are the times we’re living in).

  2. Lexifab says:

    …wait a minute, aren’t you advocating the arguments of a guy who lived in the 19th century?

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