A few weeks back, Paul D. Marks hosted a chat about themes with this year's Macavity Award finalists for Best Short Story, and I'm pleased this week to welcome the Anthony Award finalists in the same category—weighing in on this week's question about how we writers edit our works.
Before we get to the discussion, be sure and check out each of the linked stories below; the winning story will be announced at this year's Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC—based on the votes of attendees at the conference.
- "Honeymoon Suite" by Craig Faustus Buck, Murder at the Beach: The Bouchercon Anthology 2014
- "The Shadow Knows" by Barb Goffman, Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays
- "Howling at the Moon" by Paul D. Marks, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
- "Of Dogs & Deceit" by John Shepphird, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine
- "The Odds Are Against Us" by Art Taylor, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
As for the question at hand, I'll introduce it by saying that editing may well be both the hardest and the most rewarding aspect of the writing process—whether it's done along the way (write some small part of a story, then revise it extensively before diving in again) or as discrete stages (push through an entire draft, then step back and see what you've got). So I was wildly interested in hearing the responses from my fellow panelists.
My own process is a combination of two extremes. I'll fret over individual lines and paragraphs and scenes along the way—very slow forward progress always—but even when it's all "done" I feel like I'm at a new beginning, seeing the whole of it for the first time and trying to examine how well a story is balanced, how well it moves, where it falters, where it fails. In the best cases, reading the first full draft of a tale will open up new possibilities—I'll finally see what the story is really about, where the connections are revealing themselves, and how to orchestrate all the parts into better harmony. Such was the case with "The Odds Are Against Us"—the final scenes falling out of that rereading. In the worst cases, though, I'll discover that it's an ungainly mess—major work ahead. I always tell my students that the word "revision" really means "new vision" or "second vision." And it's important to get that renewed or objective perspective, whether by having others read and critique your work or by setting a draft aside for a period of time. I've had times when I've put aside a story for months or even years (sadly true) before coming back to it to do the hard work of finishing it right.
When does the tinkering stop? It's too easy, I think, to become paralyzed by the notion that something isn't good enough and for your work to become a draft-eternally-in-progress. I've talked about this trouble before here at Criminal Minds—my own liberation at the example of sculptor Alberto Giacometti, whose ten Women of Venice are each beautiful in their own way and each molded from the same lump of clay, worked and reworked again and again. Many ways of doing something, and you don't have to find the perfect one; that way leads to madness.
Enough from me, though. What do the other finalists say? Their responses follow—continuing in alphabetical order by first name this time around.
BARB GOFFMAN: I wish I could give a simple answer. I edit as I write, so when I get to The End, most of my stories are pretty clean. Nonetheless, I'll read a finished story over more than once for problems (grammar, spelling, clarity, wordiness, overused words, inconsistencies, and more). I'll review it to see if I have enough description and if I'm telling where I should be showing and if there are ways I can add richness. I'll also send the story to a trusted friend or two for feedback, and then I may make more changes. If I have enough time, I'll let the story sit for a few days and read it again. A fresh eye can be important to spotting problems. But when do I stop editing? I stop when the story reads right. When I'm happy with it. It's subjective and hard to explain because in the end, editing is an art, not a science.
CRAIG FAUSTUS BUCK: I write by the seat of my pants, so I often find myself going down dead end streets when I need a highway, then having to backpedal my way out. It's an incredibly inefficient way to write, but it's a lot more fun to have your characters surprise you than it is to paint by the numbers from an outline.
However, as my characters do their thing, I'm constantly going back to earlier scenes and making revisions to properly motivate their actions. Also, if I take more then two days off, I'll usually have to start back at the beginning and read the entire manuscript to catch up to where I was. I will inevitably edit again along the way. And as I write, I will often shuffle the parts of sentence around until I find the order that best serves my three Cs: clarity, cadence and character. I generally don't distinguish between writing and editing because it's all one big blur.
Once I write "The End" I'll make several editorial passes for single purposes: to track a character's emotional arc, to double-check the timeline, to follow a B-story, whatever. By the time I finish a project, be it a short story or a novel, I've probably spent about ninety percent of my writing time editing. I stop when it's time to send it.
JOHN SHEPPHIRD: The gut tells you. It's far easier to edit than compose (in any medium). I try not to get hung up rewriting and overthinking. I force myself to keep moving forward. Then I reward myself for finishing, step away for a bit, and come back to make it better. Some of the best stuff makes it into the second, third, or umpteenth pass. At a certain point different ideas pull me away from what I'm working on. I go on to write something else, but not before finishing.
Sometimes the editing process is fast and furious. Before "Ghost Negligence" was nominated for the Shamus, Linda Landrigan, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, asked me to consider making it a series. I agreed and wrote "Of Dogs & Deceit" quickly because I wanted to get her something and didn't spend too much time editing. The title for the story was the last thing I came up with while walking my dog one morning.
When "Ghost Negligence" won the Shamus, I thought Linda would print "Of Dogs & Deceit" soon after, but she waited almost a year until she could give me the magazine's cover with the Roy Lichtenstein inspired artwork featuring my story. It happened to be the November Bouchercon issue (with copies in the book bags) so convention regulars were exposed to my work. Alas, here I am, nominated for the Anthony for the second in my Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine private eye series. And it's such an honor to be included with the other talented authors in my category. Onward!
PAUL D. MARKS: Some people edit too little. I think I tend to edit too much. I want to keep going and going until it's 110% perfect, kind of like in The Producers where they sell more than 100% of the show to investors. But of course it never is perfect. And there comes a time when you do have to stop editing and give birth to the story.
As for process, and mundane as it might sound, initially you just have to read it over, find whatever works and what doesn't (this could be an article in itself), fix what you find. But we go "snow blind" to our work and miss a lot of errors or plot issues, etc. The best way to deal with that is to let the project sit for a week and come back to it fresh. You'll be amazed what you find. The other thing is to read it out loud. Again, it's amazing what you missed when reading it to yourself. Then, of course, you can have beta readers or hired editors and if you have an agent and a publisher they will also give input. But no matter what you do or how much you read and re-read and edit, you will always find something you wish you had changed even after the book is published. Big things, little things, but there's always something.
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