Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Editing Etiquette

I like to edit.  Like may not be a nearly intense enough word.  I LOVE to edit.  Insert my ten-year-old son’s on the cusp of mastering a sarcastic voice saying “If you love editing so much, why don’t you marry it?”  Well were I not married to an incredible man, I’d have to give it serious consideration.  Mrs. Sarah Edit.  Perhaps. 
My red pen gives me chills.  There’ve been numerous studies that show humans (and particularly adolescents) do not respond well to papers corrected with red ink.  I wholeheartedly believe those studies, except they don’t apply to me.  I’ve brandished a red pen since I was six.  It was my mother’s, felt-tipped with a curved red cap, and when I held the point too long on one spot in my teddy bear picnic rip-off story, it looked like it was bleeding across the page.  The visual made a deep impression upon me.  Good writing hurts.  It bleeds.  It takes time and tears to perfect.  The rush of writing may be the creative buzz we get from the ideas scampering across the page, but for me the sustained thrill is the hours of editing to hone my craft and get the piece just right.  Lately, though, I do find myself asking one question over and over (and over) again.  Do I edit too much?
Editing does not have hard and fast rules.  How many times are you allowed to change a word before it’s so different from the original intention that it doesn’t count anymore?  When does a page become so familiar we lose any hopes of truly affecting change?  On average I read each of my pages ten or so times.  I have never in my life once read a page and found it perfect.  Even after publication I often see things that might be tweaked or polished or cut all together.  At that stage in the game it’s too late, thankfully.  But now as I work on a novel-length project, I find myself starting at Go and rarely making it past Baltic Avenue because the damn hotel could always use a face-lift.  Add a flowerbox.  Polish the handrail.  Except with Monopoly I can put all the pieces back in their slots in the box and call it a night.  My story, though, does not fit so neatly in its case.
I probably worry about the same things many writers do.  Are my characters speaking in unique voices?  Have I provided enough description without robbing the reader of the imagination latitude that we all delight in?  Ultimately did I strike the perfect balance between nouns, verbs, and adjectives to move the piece along?  The questions start to cloud my decisions.  The red pen flies around on its own.  I squint my eyes and try to rediscover things lost seven edits back but realize that some misplaced things stay misplaced.  And how do I move forward to page two when the voice in my head says there are still jobs to be done on page one?
The best analogy I can draw brings me to my closet of all places.  Every morning before teaching I pull out a dress.  Or seven.  A few skirts make their way onto what should be my writing desk.  T-shirts and blouses clamor on top.  All in all I’ve excavated ten to fifteen outfits and the mixing and matching begins.  The first outfit may have been the best but until I try every piece, strap on every shoe that might work, I can’t be at peace with the day’s clothing.  I feel this way about my stories.  There are always possibilities, and if I don’t explore them, I could be sending my story out into the world in tacky heels and an outfit none too flattering.
Over-editing can certainly be detrimental to one’s mental health, but if we don’t give ourselves the leeway to dig in and play around with both the mechanics and bigger issues, how can we be sure that the final product is truly what it should be?  Don’t be afraid to change but more importantly change back.  Often we don’t know it looks right until we’ve first seen what it looks like when it’s wrong.    

Monday, May 16, 2011

Emulation, Exultation, and Exasperation

My alternate title for this post was 'Why does reading other writer’s work sometimes drive me insane?'

I consider myself well-read.  Although in the past nine months or so with a baby underfoot I haven’t had quite the chance to read as much as I’d like.  (My new goal is a book a week.  We’ll see how that pans out.)  I read a wide array of works from comic books and graphic novels to classics.  I don’t particularly enjoy Westerns much, and Romance novels often leave me cold.  I’ve even waded through Twilight, TWICE, despite my issues with its plot, characters, and repetition of the same seven words, but I digress.  With my latest venture of writing a young adult novel, I’ve put a special focus on reading excerpts, if not whole volumes, of as many award winners and well-received ones as possible.

My  conclusion?

They are all incredible and beautifully written, and I don’t write a thing like any of them.  So I race back to the drawing board and add waterfalls of detail in the style of the book I just finished where the characters drown in adjectives.  Nope, in my story it sounds awful.  The characters prefer not to have the hair on their arms described as little black soldiers standing on edge when they get scared.  It’s vaguely like watching a favorite movie on a big screen, high def television where you can see the chip in the actor’s tooth or one eye that droops a smidge.  Too much detail can kill the fantasy.

On to action then.  My characters are moving.  Dancing.  Fighting.  Spinning.  Twisting.  Ok, not only are they dizzy, but there’s no room to breathe on the page.  I’ve forgotten how to keep track of the characters when they all appear to be scattering in entirely different directions.  Sorry Jackie Chan et al., but action-packed does not work for me.

One last try.  Bring on the internal monologue.  Now my characters are full of angst.  They think and speak to themselves in Shakespeare-worthy rants.  Forget to be or not to be.  My lovelies agonize over how their lives will be deeply and profoundly affected by wearing the blue as opposed to the red shirt.  What harm will befall their worlds should they dare to choose the wrong outfit.  The tragedy.  The humanity.  The miserable writing.  Excuse me while I go cry for a few minutes and find preemptive Tylenol for the impending migraine.

I think I’ve learned a valuable lesson.  I need to be confident in the choices that I make for my characters and my writing.  I would argue that artistic folks are a terribly self-masochistic group who often rake themselves over the coals for not finding the right word or placing the correct brushstroke on the page.  Emulating someone else’s style is like sliding on jeans that are not only two sizes too small but also the wrong color, the wrong style, and the wrong species.  I’m not advocating ignoring other works or influences.  We study the masters for a reason.  Rather it’s best to take these works for what they are, other peoples’ things.  Look at them.  Turn them in your hand and appreciate their shiny newness, but remember that at the end of the day the writing needs to be yours.  It should be as familiar as an old friend and rarely, if ever, make you feel like a stranger to your own creation. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Why villains break writers' hearts.

Why do villains give us such head and heartaches?

I'm nearing the end of my young adult novel.  (Actually I've finished a rough draft and am now dropping in the details that managed to escape the first time round.)  And it reminds me how awful it is to dispense with the villain or villains at the end.  Rarely are they truly dreadful creatures.  They have redeeming qualities.  Wait, we GIVE them redeeming qualities and dimensions so they aren't lightning bolts of bad who storm through our stories spreading the nasty.  Don't we all want to trick the reader into believing they can be good?  But once we do that the questions start to nibble in the backs of our brains.  Can they be saved?  Will they really pull the triggers at the end of our stories?  Or can everyone find his or her aha moment and walk out of the book unscathed.

The answer, of course, is not a chance.

My two protagonists are a pair of misguided young girls coerced to the dark side by a friend and social torment.  I feel for them.  At times they say nice things.  They remember their please and thank you's.  One of them cries.  Often.  But I know they have to go.  The story won't ring true if the end is littered with sunshine and rainbows.  In essence I've already dropped the axe.  I've written the ending, so maybe it's the redeeming details that I'm struggling with.  I want to save them from being mean girl stereotypes, but in doing so, I waiver.  The nice touches come too easily.  As a writer, hurray.  It means that my characters have come to life in a way that we hope and pray for whenever approaching new projects. 

As a human being, not so much.  I'd like to believe that the daily coins of kindness we drop in the karma bank pay off in the end.  Why not give them a chance to liberate themselves from the tag villain and rival the hero of the book in their worthiness?  Can't the novel survive without its teaspoons of evil stirred in?

Nope.  Time to get out the red pen.  Sorry girls.