editing

One Scene After Another

Recently, I was reflecting on how I got better at drawing. Not ‘good,’ not in the context of all the truly good artists out there. But good enough to make me (and even a few other people) happy. Good enough to make fan art of the stories no one else is making fan art for—mostly, the stories in my own head, or in the heads of my friends.

I realized that I’d been trying to get good at drawing the same way I’d gotten good at writing—on one project. For years, I wrote and revised and re-wrote and re-revised one book until I was a good writer. That was how I learned, and it worked for me. But every time I sat down to draw, I would slave painstakingly for hours, trying to erase and redo bad lines while leaving the good lines intact—just like I’d done with writing. I wanted to be able to tweak this one picture until it was good enough, but I’d have to give up in frustration and settle for what I got, because drawing doesn’t work like that.

The thing about a novel—one scene can take a dozen hours, and one novel can take scores of scenes. If you write a novel that’s not quite right, that might be a few hundred hours that you poured into this Not Quite Right Manuscript. It makes perfect sense to spend another twenty or fifty hours making it Quite Right. But here’s where I fell down. A drawing isn’t a novel. It’s more like a single scene. You can fiddle and tweak, but after a bit, even if it’s not perfect yet, you’ve got to leave it alone and move on to the next one or you’ll never get anywhere.

Then I decided to try gel-ink drawing. I had a new sketchbook, and I determined that I was going to draw at least one face or figure sketch every day. And man, a gel-ink pen is unforgiving. It was so much bolder than I was, and mistakes had to be integrated or ignored—they couldn’t be erased. And that forced me to work faster. I couldn’t perfect them if I couldn’t employ erasure–or even much in the way of subtlety. So I turned a new page and drew, every day, for a couple of months.

And what I had at the end of that time? It wasn’t even the improved skill level that mattered so much, though that was nice. It was the difference in the way I sat down to draw. The mindset that if this one wasn’t good enough, instead of editing it until it was, (an improbability, since at a low skill level I might not even really know what was wrong,) I should do it faster, let it go, and save the time and energy for trying it again tomorrow. Which led to my drawing a lot more figures and faces, because with the freedom to leave them mistake-riddled, even bad, I was drawing a lot faster and more easily. Not looking behind me, not “line editing,” just looking ahead to the next, better thing. Just putting one scene after another.

Maybe there’s something in that for writing, too.

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The Preserved Image of Pain

Screaming screaming screaming

They say you should write from the depths of your emotion. I can’t do that. Or I can, but it’s nothing but

Screaming

Crying

Melancholy quiet

If you like that, more power to you

And good for me, I guess

But when I’m in the depths of my emotion, all my skill goes out the window, and when I sit down to type, it’s only

Screaming screaming screaming

I can’t speak of insanity without one foot in the sane

I can’t speak of agony without some part of my spirit anchoring me in calm

I can’t speak of anything

Without screaming screaming screaming

When I’m like this

When I’m lost

When I’m hurting all the way through

It’s just one slice of uninspired pain after another

And that’s just the thing, isn’t it?

Nobody really cares how you hurt

If you can’t make them feel it

And when I’m worst hurt

I lose the words for it

When I’m worst hurting

I lose all my power

Memory of pain is a beautiful material

When this moment is faded and past

Pressed into my mind like a flower folded in a book

When it’s still pretty and fragrant but

Flat and dry, the preserved image of pain, the footprint of loneliness past

Then I can ply my best magic

And wrap it in skill

And soak it in words

Boiled down, and distilled

My pain will taste sweet as a lover’s ache on the tongue

As a wish

Of a kiss

But raw and unfinished, it’s only a

Scream, scream, scream

Pain sipped in empathy, or racking the imagination

Is perfect cloth for my cutting

I spy out a story in the agony-not-mine

And stitch it together with words sharp and fine

And the finished pain is beautiful to see

And devastating to don

A writer’s work done

But when I’m hurting

I can only wait it out

And write it out

And scream, and scream, and scream

Now I’ve wept on my touchpad, and it refuses to act until

My tears are wiped away

See? Tears are a paralytic. I’m not the only thing

That’s useless until pain is pressed into the book of memory

Pulled out when faded

And made into a perfume

Balanced to perfection

Wafting the ache upon the air

With acute undertones like a needle to the gut

Just enough and not too much

Oooh

Smell the crumbling of a heart

With dry overtones and a sprig of tongue-in-cheek

The melodrama chemically removed

Like caffeination

The ink-caster’s done it again

See? I’m writing myself out of the pit

I’m writing the smirk back onto my lips

And my words grow cleverer and better-cooked by the line

Not like those rare fillets of heart up top

Not like those raw-writ screams

No; now the wound’s seared over

The fit of agony already going dry

In my gut,

An aching gem ready to be cut

In my mind,

My wheel of skill will grind it

On my lips,

A smile in full

Sadistic

Ready to revel

In the pain of my past self

The self at the top of the page

To bask in her agonies

And finally

To write

Seithr the Kahn Rocks the House

In my last piece, I introduced you to Seithr the Kahn, my Inner Editor.

You may have thought him unpleasant. And you’d have been right.

But you also may have thought that he does nothing but tear me down. And, well, you’d have been nearly right. He does have a penchant for excessive verbal abuse, and his compliments are few and far between, but in all that he does, he bears one important thing in mind:

He works for me.

However rude and offensive this perfectionist may be, everything he does is for the good of his employer and for his highest ideal– the integrity of The Story.

This is why he cannot abide the messiness of my first drafts, and I do have to lock him out for that bit.

But once the first draft is out on the table, I turn it over to my Inner Editor, for his sensitive perception and brutal judgment. The icy detachment of this internal outsider is invaluable to my work.

His eyes seize on what mine do not; plot weaknesses, scene incohesion, lack of sentence flow and jerky dialogue. And then he cuts.

He once took his machete to a full 20+ page chunk, cutting a good seventh of my manuscript. He ran his fillet knife over the whole novel, slicing out a race of dragons and a central character. He ever whittles at my prose, letting words and sentences and whole paragraphs fall away like so many wood chips.

And then he adds. Write fifteen pages of replacement scenes, he ordered. Insert more of that girl’s family memories throughout, making the climax more poignant, he told me. Add more description of your main character, and I think “modify” is the word you were looking for in the first sentence of that last paragraph.

And you know what? My book is approximately exactly 7.452 times better than it was before he got his meticulously clean beefy hands on them.

It may be hard to listen to your Inner Editor once something is all written up, because they may ask you to do tough things; cut a piece of witty dialogue, kill a favorite character, or re-write the ending with a different climax. Or even re-write the beginning with a different motive (true story.)

But try to remember that they work for you– and then let them do their job. And if, once you’ve finished that first draft, you let your Inner Editor back inside, they’ll rock the house.

Seithr the Kahn in the Doghouse

Inner Editors can be the bane of a first draft.

You’ve been plagued, I’m sure, by the creature of which I speak; it lurks on the blank page, ready to pounce on your first sentence, erasing it all before you’ve reached the period.

It demands that you write a better first sentence next time, a better first word, a better first draft. Or better yet, don’t even start—forget the whole thing. You’re hopeless and you know it.

If you don’t look out, this overzealous naysayer will stamp out the flame of your novel before you’ve struck flint—and if it can’t stop you writing in the first place, it will be in your ear the whole time, whispering—or screaming—that everything you write is crapcrapcrap.

And of course it’s crap. First drafts are always crap(Hemingway said as much in stronger language). That’s what editing is for.

So you need to keep your Inner Editor’s grimy influence off your first draft. There are only two ways I know of to do this:

One, ignore its comments.

Two, shut it up altogether.

You could, I suppose, do this by an act of will, but I’ve found a trick that helps me take command of my Inner Editor.

I call him Seithr the Kahn.

No, not the trick, my Inner Editor. That’s the trick; I gave him a gender, a name, a species(human), an appearance(muscular, square-jawed, and stubble-headed), and a personality(tough as formaldehyde and more brutally cold than The Long Winter).

And I gave him a voice. A loud, barking, growling voice. A drill-sergeant voice that tells me that I have “The imagination of a wet dish rag”, and calls my book things like “the brainchild of a jellyfish’s whore”.

And then I lock that man, and his filthy drill-sergeant mouth, out of the house. I lock him outside of the noveling part of my brain, outside of my creative space, and he doesn’t get to come in until the first draft is finished.

Sometimes I hear him pounding on the door and howling as I venture out onto some grievous writing limb. Sometimes I see his blue-stubbly face pressed up against the window, his breath forming clouds in the air as he glares furiously in at me, at my blossoming first draft.

And you know what? While it’s kind of creepy, it’s also laughable. More laughable, certainly, than some disembodied voice of shame.

And whenever any thoughts of disgust and self-doubt creep in, I give them stern looks and send them outside to play with Seithr the Kahn as he stews in a moody huff.

So tell me, who’s your Inner Editor? And once you’ve figured them out, and we’ve met them and said our hellos—banish them to the doghouse.

Story Sculpting

Sure, I enjoy the first draft– botching whatever I like, breaking down the fourth wall, chatting with my characters, amusing myself. For example:

“Upon entering the city, Sy and Mysst made for the best recommended inn.
Since their author was, most unfortunately, failing in her authorial pursuits, they found themselves walking inside the tavern below the inn with nothing to observe about their surroundings or interactions to that point.”

Because anything goes, the imagination is released from its straitjacket, and the soul spills out in incredible plot twists and inspired prose. These geysers of ink are unmatched by the editor’s stern red pen.

However, that wonderful, freeing Anything Goes is also the worst thing about the first draft. Within all the loveliness of this great release-of-soul, there bursts a dungheap.

This is where the red pen shines.

This is where dead prose is resurrected, where rants and brambles are cut away to reveal the fairy glade. This is where every stray thread of plot is wound up, or snipped, or new threads woven throughout, till they stretch across your loom to form a tale…

From the cold-hearted, cold-minded task of the red pen leaps the glory that the first draft only dreamt of.

The first draft is a miracle. From nothing to something. From blank page, to ink. It is the pure creation of a block of finest marble– fine, shapeless marble.

The editor sculpts, taking hammer and chisel to this unrealized dream, shattering the creation in horrifying sprays of stone. And then, beneath the careful pen, the dream begins to emerge. With every cautious, destructive stroke, the editor frees the story from its first draft, then smooths and polishes till every sentence gleams.

Then, art.