Kill Your Babies

No, no, not a political screed.  I’m not allowed to do those until I find a job that doesn’t require me to be strictly nonpartisan.   I’m talking here about the editing process.

One of the things they teach you in Headline Writing 101 is that if you think something is good or clever, you’d best ask several other people if they agree before you throw it out into the world for everyone to see.  It’s worse when you’re starting out and less experienced — odds are something you find brilliant and hilarious is really trite and hackneyed.  Or offensive. Or just plain wrong. (Ask the features reporter who dedicated an entire paragraph about the absurdity of the Beach Boys’ song “Little Blue Scoop.” True story.)

The hard part isn’t in the asking, of course. Asking is just showing off. “Lookie what I did! Isn’t it wonderful?” The hard part is when you get an answer you don’t want. “Wellllll… it’s okaaaaay, I guesssss.”  Or worse, ‘Oh, my god, you can NOT run that.”

Killing Your Babies means being willing to accept that you’re going in a wrong direction, no matter how right it feels.  Sometimes that means you’re writing the wrong book and should just find a whole new idea. Other times it means you’ve got a good idea, but you’re writing it for the wrong audience.  In other cases, there might not be anything intrinsically wrong with your work — you just didn’t need to work so hard.  This might requires rewriting scenes, or it might require just ditching them altogether.

I’m a much better editor than I am a writer.  In reworking my 120,000 word novel, I’ve had absolutely no problem chopping out 13 percent of my copy. (I want to knock out another 4,000 words to get it under 100k, and that might take a bit more doing, but I suspect it will still be easier than writing the thing was in the first place.) There are parts that hurt, but I see the need. There are parts that were just badly written and needed tightening.  The ones I find interesting are the parts I had to write to figure out where I was going, or some aspect of a character’s personality, but when I went back and read it again, was completely extraneous.  Reams of dialogue that revealed a character’s values or opinions that weren’t intrinsic to the story, they just helped flesh out the character in tangential ways. Confrontations that created tension for later scenes — when the later scenes worked just fine on their own and needed no setup at all.    It was all useful for me to do, of course; it helped me get things straight in my own mind.  But I’m not doing a reader any favors by dragging them down my own self-indulgent rabbit holes, now am I? (This blog doesn’t count.) So I cut.

I don’t think I’m betraying any confidences when I share with you that my father is going through much the same thing.  He is writing a biography of an essentially forgotten character in the history of Egyptology, and I think it will be a lovely little jewelbox of a piece when it is finished.  But it started out as a gusty and overly involved chronology of a man who had lots of friends who had lots of other friends who never showed up again after one mention. It’s difficult: When you spend six weeks trying to track down someone’s name, you want that piece of info in your story, by god. You don’t want to think you wasted six weeks on something that really belongs on the cutting room floor. And unless you can look at the process as “I did this work because I needed to know it, not because anyone else needs to read it,” that can be a hard thing to overcome.

I hacked at the draft he sent me and made a few suggestions.  I knew he wanted to do a straight-ahead McCullough-style scholarly biography.  I also knew he had way too many kitchen sinks in there. He agreed and got rid of some. I suggested he needed a bit of sparkle in his prose, and he (a bit grudgingly, I think,) toddled off to ingest some Eric Larson.

Then the man got an agent, and she told him straight-up bios don’t work unless you’ve got a string of letters after your name, which he does not. It might have been faster for him to just get the PhD and become a member of The Society, but I don’t think it would have benefited his writing much.  Instead, he got a directive from a consumer who knows the market, and that has helped him whip his unwieldy opus into mainstream saleable shape.  I can’t wait to read the latest iteration — which will doubtless hit the market long before I get an agent for any of the projects I’m fiddling around with.

Alas, I have a blog and he does not. Elsewise, I’d send you to him for pointers on how to actually reach the ultimate goal.


About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
This entry was posted in Editing, Mechanics, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

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