Saturday, March 3, 2018

When someone should slap your hand away from the keyboard...

Writing is not always about writing. Sometimes it is:

fiddling around with unrelated stuff to unblock the drains on your brain
refreshing - the mind
                 - your email
being stuck
researching help/publishers/agents
preparing queries/submissions/synopses

But it's not called 'writing' for nothing, so a big part of what we do is getting the words down and arranging them into a coherent and fresh assemblage that we hope will win readers over. We create the story and then move on to the second and third tiers of writing:

second guessing yourself

Revising, editing and titivating are related, but are not the same thing. Revising is clocking rubbish sentences, it's thinking 'no, I can't kill Mrs Kilgour in Chapter 3 after all cos she's the only one who can slip the note under the door in Chapter 7'. Mrs Kilgour's demise must therefore be moved to Chapter 8. It's activating passive sentences and changing that eleventh 'ambled' into a fresher synonym, killing darlings that just don't belong no matter how hard you ply the shoe horn and fighting cliches tooth and nail. Its moving action around and making the narrative more sensible and the language and sentence structure stronger. It's taking out the obvious 'writing' so the reader won't notice the seams, or the authorial hand if you like. It's what you do before you send your MS out to a publisher or consider it ready for self pubbing.

Editing comes after you feel the MS is done. It is essential and, I always think, best done by another eye. It's grammar and punctuation appraisal and correction. And it's 'Mrs Kilgour really should be gone by Chapter 4, unless you give her more to do between then and Chapter 8. Or maybe just find another stooge to slip the note, or send a text or pigeon post instead.' It's a fresh reader saying 'I don't get why this is happening,' or 'no one talks like that these days' or 'that eye colour change better be the result of new contact lenses but you might want to mention that in the text.' You can't be the objective reader. No, really, you can't. You can be for revising, but not for editing. Trust me on this.

And then there is titivating: the final spruce up that may or may not be necessary. It can easily become a delaying tactic, more a manifestation of the fear of taking the next step than it is a means to improving your work. And titivating is a distant relation and sometimes a precursor to second guessing and if you have reached this point, someone should probably just slap your hand away from the paper or the keyboard. Second guessing is related to self doubt, and is just as useless. It's wondering and fixating on what will make the publisher accept my story, the purchaser pick my book, the reader love it and review it, the judges select it as a finalist etc...that I haven't already included. It sometimes comes before you finally send your story out, and sometimes it happens after a few rejections or indifferent reviews. And the bottom line is you can't know. Your best guide is you. Tell the story the way you want to. Read it and see if it moves you, makes you laugh or cry, or both. Sometimes, and I'm sorry but this is an unpleasant truth, your story might actually be perfect and still not find a home, with publishers or purchasers or readers. A semi-proof of the pointlessness of second guessing is that while 5 publishers may reject your work, the 6th (or 26th) one may love it and can't wait to put it on shop shelves. If you had tried to please the second five by second guessing your work and altering it based on supposition about why the first five didn't accept it, it might no longer be the story you had so much faith in, and loved. And it might not catch the eye of any of the publishers, be they the sixth or the nth one because it is no longer the work of your heart and possibly has even started to show signs of being overworked.  Of course, if twenty publishers or 20 members of your critique group (okay most groups aren't that big but I'm just trying to make a point here so bear with me) all point to the same problem then you revise. But trying to fix a story that isn't broken is fruitless. Second guessing can give you no greater guarantees of success and quite possibly might just tie you in knots.

So to sum up, revision is good, editing is best outsourced, titivating is procrastinating and second guessing is the path to madness. Let's be careful out there people.