Shovelling Through The Shit: How To Edit A Short Story

A giraffe in South Africa

Have I got a doozy for you.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

0. Finish the goddamned thing. Seriously. Get a proper draft before you start editing. Otherwise you’re trying to decorate a cake that hasn’t been baked yet. Best you might get is an icing-batter slurry. Which might be delicious—no arguments on that front—but you’ll find hard to sell.

1. Read it over. Start to finish, one pass if you can. Just reading for now. Note how it flows or doesn’t. At this point, it’s far more likely to be ‘doesn’t’. Try not to wince.

2. Get a drink. Not strictly necessary, but it makes it hurt less.

3. Take it apart. Read it again, this time with your trusty red pen/comment function/trained marmoset editor at the ready. make lots of notes this time. Dig into that thing like it’s a pile of giraffe shit with a diamond buried at the bottom. Which, in a sense, it is: there’s a gem in there that you’re trying to release, but it’s buried in crap. How much crap depends on how clean a draft you produced out of the gate, but mind this: there will always be some crap. Always.

3b. Re-outline. Again, not strictly necessary, especially for short fiction, but if you have a tangled ball of plot yarn on your hands, sometimes re-outlining can help straighten it out. Get the real story in mind so you have an idea of what to cut and what to keep.

4. Put it aside. I like to let my notes age for a day or two before starting on the actual editing. Sometimes you don’t have time for this, and that’s all that can be done. But if I can, I set it aside and work on something else. Think of it as a palate cleanser.

5. Get your machete and hammer. Metaphorical ones. Or real ones, if the urge takes you. I’m not judging. The point is, now it’s time to wade in and start making the changes. Your brain machete is for cutting, your brain hammer is for rebuilding. I split the window into two panes, one with the original, marked up copy and one with a blank document. And then I start typing. Every word and line has to prove its worth before it’s allowed to stay. It can be a slow process, no denying that, but it usually produces a good product.

6. Put it aside again. Yup. Again.

7. Read it again. Evaluate how you did. Does it need more serious work? If so, head back to step two and repeat the process. Does it need only a few line edits to be ready? Move on to step eight.

8. Spit and polish. Go through it one more time and make sure all the commas, capitals, names, and the other assorted minutia of the written language are in their proper places. Use your eyes, not spell check. Tip for those of us who find it hard to spot mistakes when reading: go through it backwards. It makes you look at each letter. This is what I do.

9. Get another drink. This time for congratulations. You just edited the crap out of that motherfucker. Celebrate.

Your Two Step Plan To Writing Awesomeness

Mardi Gras Marathon, New Orleans. Crossing the...

Woo! The end! Now what?(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You want to be a writer? I can help you. I have your plan right here. And it’s dead fucking simple. Only two steps. That’s ten less than alcoholics have. Ten whole less steps! Fuck, babies manage two steps before falling down. Surely you can do it?

All right, enough beating around the bush. Here’s the plan. You need to do two things.

1) Write.

2) Finish.

Most people can manage the first one*, but I meet a hell of a lot of people who can’t figure out the second part. They start things, they write, but they never finish. Everything’s always ‘in progress’ or ‘half done’ or ‘being worked on.’ Nothing wrong with that stuff, but sooner or later you have to finish things. Here’s why:

It’s an accomplishment. You are no longer a writer with half a novel, or five-eights of a short story. You have a complete work. It might suck, it might need more polishing than the Hope Diamond, but it’s done. You climbed that mountain. Good on you.

It’s a fixer-upper. Hard to fix things that aren’t done. You go back, thinking you’ll just change one thing, and that thing snowballs into another thing, and another. Before you know it, you’ve started the same story eighteen times and are no closer to finishing the goddamn thing than you are to achieving cold fusion in your food processor. Get to the end, then look back and see what needs to change. It’ll be clearer. Trust me.

It’s a learning experience. I finished my first novel about five years ago, and it sucked. It still does. But I learned a hell of a lot from it. Mostly what not to do. Now, that thing will likely never see the light of day, but I still think of it fondly from time to time.** Because it was my first, and you never forget your first. Or what you learned from the experience.

It’s a power up. Nothing gives you creative wings like finishing a project. I finished a short story this morning and have since learned to walk on water, spontaneously generated candy from nail clippings***, and achieved cold fusion without a food processor. And I blew through the rest of my to do list with a swagger in my step. Because finishing things is awesome.

Go forth and finish, children. Bask in the glow. Enjoy the moment.

And then put on your editing brain and get back to work.

*And a lot of people can’t, but I’m not talking to them. Mostly because they make me angry.
**And will continue to do so as long as I never have to read it again.
***It wasn’t very good.

The Path To Not Sucking

Slightly Muddy Trail

Watch your step.(Photo credit: jaybergesen)

The other day, I was looking through short story submission listings and I found one that I thought I might have a story for. But it was something I wrote back in the long ago that never found a home. So long ago that I couldn’t remember which of the four or five titles I’d decided on for it. So I had to go through my File O’ Finished Stories* and read a bunch of stuff from that era to see if I had one that fit.

That was a bad trip.

It was less ‘stroll down Memory Lane’ and more ‘get jumped and robbed by thugs in Memory Lane who then proceed to boot fuck you a little bit while you’re down on the ground.’ When I say that a lot of this stuff sucked, it doesn’t even cover half of it. To properly describe the amount of suckage, I would use all my words for today, tomorrow, and probably the rest of the weekend. But I won’t, because I’m going to need those words for useful stuff. Like maybe writing a story that I could submit to that anthology without wanting to die of embarrassment.

It was a fucking humbling experience. I like to think I’ve got some skill with words, but there was little evidence of it in these stories. There were ideas, sure, but they were couched in graceless language and as poorly executed as a mob lynching.

I decided to be depressed for a while.

Which was pointless. All it meant was that I got less shit written than I should have. But eventually, I came around to the truth of the matter:

The path to not sucking lies through a lot of sucking.

There is no way around it. You have to suck at something first. You have to slog your way through an awful lot of Being Bad At Shit before you find your footing and start on the road of Not Being Terrible. You’ll still fall off the path every now and then, but your footing will grow more sure with every step until you hardly fall into the mud of suckage at all.

But you still will. Sometimes. Because no one’s perfect.

And as you’re lying there in the cold wet mud, you can either give up and drown, or get your ass up and try to find your way back to firm ground. It’s your choice.

Just remember to keep those old missteps around. So that, every now and then, you can look back and see how far you’ve come.

*In my head, it’s a digital version of the Island of Misfit Toys

All About Timing: Deadlines and Time Crunches

Beasts of Hoth

This is what delivers mail in my province. (Photo credit: leg0fenris)

(Late post is late because I was out shoveling 8,752 pounds of snow out of the driveway. My arms are tired.)

Sometimes, the universe has no sense of timing.*

I’ve been working away at my list of submissions. To date, I only had one story lying around that I could send in. All the rest I’ve had to write from scratch. So in my quest to get thirteen new rejections in 2013, I’ve had to increase my output. I started scouring listings for short stories, and I found quite a few, but I do not keep a large backlog of stories. I don’t write a lot of short fiction, and what I do write tends to be in response to some deadline or another. Well, I figured finding some more deadlines would mean more stories finished. Right?

Well, I was partially right. I have been writing more short story ideas, and in general having more ideas for them. Part of that is the old you only find what you’re looking for trick: if I don’t have short stories on the brain, I’m not going to come up with ideas for them. Law of…I don’t know. Law of brains or some shit.

But, wonderful though it is to have all these ideas, there is still not enough time to get them all done. Or even half of them done. Which can be irritating.

There was one anthology that particularly intrigued me, but I was having trouble coming up with exactly the right story for it. I had some notes and a few false starts, but nothing worth submitting. And then I got sick, which put me behind. I chose to devote time to the anthology I actually had a story for and let the other one go.

And then I came up with an idea. A good one, too. It came to me while I was lying on the couch, covered in cats, trying to sneak in a pre-gym nap. A little more thought, and I knew I had something good.

But there was a problem: the due date was too close. With other projects in the works and, you know, having a fucking life, I wouldn’t have time to get it done. At least not done well. And I’m not going to submit a poor piece just to meet my own goal. That’s cheating. Again, I cursed the gods of inspiration** for their piss-poor timing.

But very occasionally, the world listens. Because when I was back checking more listings this week, I saw a change: the deadline had been extended. By two weeks. Just enough time to get it done.

So now I will. Thanks, universe. I owe you one.

*For example, three snow storms in the last week of March. What the unholy fiddle-playing fuck, Weather Gods?
**Commonly known as Research, Coffee, and Being Bat-Shit Crazy.

Fill Needed: Editing the Short Story Zero Draft

Rodeo clown Flint Rasmussen

Not Shown: The Main Character. Unless the editing takes a weird turn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, it’s done. The first draft of that short story I was wrangling with last week. And most of the week before. In the kind of twist that my brain loves, the winner of the Draft Cage Match was…a completely different story. This is the equivalent of, at the end of The Hunger Games, having the Punisher appear and gun down the last three competitors simultaneously. Cool? Maybe. But definitely unexpected.

But there’s a draft, and it’s done, and now I need to make it not suck.  Here’s my attack plan:

1) Fill in the holes. My zero drafts tend to be either really wandering or really sparse. This is the latter. About half of it is just dialogue at this point. I need to go back and backfill some of those gaps because, right now, they’re just talking heads. At least one of them has a head. The other might have none, or more than one. Hard to tell.

2) Continuity of Voice. I wrote first person this time, so I need to make sure that the viewpoint character’s voice is consistent throughout. No changing into a hard-drinking, hard-loving rodeo clown halfway through. Unless it’s really awesome. Then it’s okay.

3) Continuity of Rules: Working in speculative fiction is freeing—magic and science and warping the laws of physics, oh my!—but also oddly constricting. You need to know what the rules are before you break them, and then you need to break them consistently. This story concerns a binding contract and certain conditions that have to be fulfilled and loopholes within those rules. I miss one, then the premise falls apart.

4) Shiny!* Time to break out the polish and get to buffing. Take out the nicks, grind off the unnecessary rough edges**, make it slick enough so that when the gut-punch comes, it’s that much more unexpected.

There’s a lot of work to be done, especially considering the state of the draft, but now there’s a place to start. That’s all a zero draft is: a point on the map to say ‘you are here’ so you can figure out how to get where you want. Now I’ve got to get to work.

What’s that, you say? You can hear something under the floorboards? Oh, that’s nothing. Nothing important, anyway. It’s certainly not the butchered corpses of the last three drafts trapped under there, trying to get out so they can force me to finish them. No. Nothing of that sort.

…Where’s the flamethrower?

*I may have been watching Firefly again lately.
**While leaving in all the necessary rough edges, of course. It’s the difference between a skin condition and a signature scar.

Square Pegs and Four-Dimensional Holes

Square Peg in a Round Hole - -...

See? It fits. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So. I’ve got this idea. For a short story.

I started it on Sunday. Figured I could have a zero draft knocked out by the end of Monday.

So far I have over 3,000 words. But there’s a problem: it’s divided between three different versions of the same story.

But wait. There’s a punchline: none of them is the right version.

Oh, none of them are terrible. They don’t make me want to wire my keyboard to a stick of dynamite. They’re just…meh. Honestly, bad would be better, in a way. It’d be easier to see the problems if they were bigger. Besides, nothing damns like faint praise. I’d rather have a flaming bonfire of spectacular failure than this little pile of boredom.*

You know the old phrase about square pegs and round holes?** It’s like that. Except instead of a square peg, I have a four-dimensional skewed, twisted thing. With tentacles. And it keeps changing shape. And I’m not allowed to look at the holes I’m trying to jam it in. I just have to keep trying different ones with my eyes closed until something fits.

There is a story here, and a good one. I can feel it in my headbones. I just need to find it and force it out of whatever abysmal shithole it’s hiding in. Once it’s in the light all the dross will burn off. But first I need to find the right vehicle to get it there.

Different narrator? Point of view change? New start point? New end point? Gender switch? More cursing? I’m trying it all. Sooner or later one of them will work. In the meantime, I’m trying to think of all the bits and pieces I have written so far as a really, really big outline. In narrative form. With three different main characters.

I may need to do more thinking on this one.

*It’s this attitude that has led humanity to most of its great achievements and all of its really big fuck ups. Seriously. It’s true. Check the history.
**Sidebar: this same phrase was once used by someone describing an awkward sexual encounter to me. Now I can never look at it the same way again.

On The Path to World Domination: The First Publication

An example of a cheque.

Bitches gonna get paid. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So. My first publication.

It was for a short story called ‘Magic Show’ that I wrote about…hang on, let me check the date mark…holy fuck, almost five years ago. Whoa. Didn’t see that coming. Anyway. I wrote the first draft of it on a six-hour bus ride from Halifax to Cape Breton. I always end up getting lots of writing done in places from which I can’t escape.*

It was also the first short story I’d written since about the seventh grade, so I was kind of unsure about it. But I knew there was an upcoming anthology, Undercurrents, that seemed to be a fit theme-wise, so I wrote up my cover letter, double-checked the manuscript and the letter for embarrassing spelling errors, and sent it in. Here’s the stages it went through:

The Letter: Eventually, a letter came, which told me my story had been accepted and that a contract and edits would follow.
I immediately turned it over just in case someone had scrawled LOL JK NOPE on the back, but they had not. I proceeded to squeal and get high-fives from everyone nearby.

The Contract: This was pretty simple, simple enough that even I, with my limited legal knowledge, could figure it out easily. This details things like payment, rights, all that good stuff. Every short story contract I’ve ever seen has been dead fucking simple. But if you’re unsure, there’s no shame in getting a friend fluent in Legal Speak to look it over, or checking it out via some stuff online. You should know what you’re getting into instead of just signing on the dotted line. Read that shit. You’re a writer, you should respect the power of words.

The Edits: The editors of the anthology sent me a marked-up version of my story with changes they’d like to see. I made the changes and sent it back. That’s it.
Admittedly, most of my edits have been simple, single-pass stuff: spelling errors, tense agreement, accidental slips of the keys that turn ‘shot’ into ‘shit’.** I’ve never had anyone ask me for a different ending, or a complete rewrite, so I can’t comment on how that goes.
However, one point I will make is that the editor is not usually asking. These are the changes they want, and if you choose not to make them, you’d best have a damn good reason. And “I just like it better this way” is not a reason. You’ll have to make a compelling case, or face the possibility of your story getting dropped. Ask yourself if the changes are that big a deal first.

The Book Launch (Optional): I was lucky enough that the first anthology I was published in was launched where I live, so I got to go to the launch. I also did a reading, which was fun. If someone asks you to do one, you should. If you don’t, then, again, have a really damn good reason, because they can really help sell the book, which helps you. (Those of you who are terrified, strap on your adult pants and check out this post on overcoming it.)
Also featured at the book launch was a signing. All us authors had little name-tags, so in the space between the readings, people who had a copy of the book would come up to us and ask for a John Hancock***. Also fun. Make sure you bring a good pen with you, one that won’t crap out. And smile and be pleasant. After all, these people just paid money—real money, that they worked for—for a piece of your writing. Wasn’t that nice of them? Hitch a smile on your face and be nice in return.

The Money: Ah, the part everyone’s waiting for. Sometimes you get this before the launch, sometimes after. I got this particular cheque after because our pay was based on a portion of sales. That’s another thing: sometimes you get a flat fee, sometimes you get a share or royalties or profits or earnings or whatever. Did you read the contract like I told you? It was in there.
That first cheque was pretty sweet. I remember taking it out of the envelope, looking at it and thinking, My first writing pay cheque. I should frame this.
Then I came to my senses and used it to buy beer. Because, dude: money. From writing. How fucking sweet is that?

*Except by the power of imagination.  
**I never stop making this mistake.
***That sounds like a sex act when I write it that way.

Danger: Brain Goblins At Work

Custard a-boiling

Mm. Needs more zombies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes it feels like I don’t really think of short story ideas. I write them, on occasion, but the ideas…they seem to come from somewhere else. Somewhere down in the dark parts of my hind brain.

I first heard about an anthology more than a month back. Very specific theme, but something not too far removed from what I tend to write. But I didn’t have anything for it right then and there so I put it aside while I worked on some other stuff: editing, rewrite notes, blog posts. I read a few things in the right vein, browsed a few articles, and then let it go.

And then, last week, while I was in the middle of making a vanilla bean custard for a pie, the idea came to me. That’s how it feels, too: it turned up out of the back of my brain like a stray cat. And, very much like a cat, once I made room for it, it promptly stretched out and made itself at home, scratching the couch and pissing in the corners. I thought about it while I whisked and heated and eyeballed the custard, daring it to break while my attention was elsewhere. By the time I had the custard poured into the crust and cooling, most of the story was fleshed out. All I had to do was sit down and write it.* Which I then did. Just a zero draft, but I got 4000 words out in about two and a half hours, so it was a good afternoon.

Sometimes they just turn up like that. My head is kind of a big, chaotic factory. Maybe like the Pits of Isengard, if you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings movies. From a distance it’s just smoke and noise; close up, it’s chaos and work and sweat and evil. And then some goblin** is coming up to me with a twisted new thing it made while I was busy doing other things.

I trust my Brain Goblins.*** They come up with some interesting things down there in the dark, while I’m cooking and reading and (rarely) cleaning and brushing my teeth and all the other crap that makes up a daily life. I throw them some raw materials, in the shape of myths and themes, and they come up with ideas. And, often, nightmares. But I consider that a by-product.

But I needed the prompt first, and the anthology listing was just that. Maybe it was the narrowness of the submission guidelines, or maybe it was the promise of payment. Either way, the story is done now, and soon it will be sent off to its (hopefully) new home.

And in the meantime, I’m going to go browse submission listings again, and see if the Brain Goblins have got anything else for me this week.

*I say that like it’s the easy part, but of course it’s not. Anyone can think of an idea; writing it is the real work.
**Yes, I’m enough of a geek to know that the workers in the Pits were orcs or, more rarely, uruk-hai. I just don’t like the way Brain Orcs reads. Consider this a lesson in editing: it works even in your own head.
***For stories, that is. Not so much with things like, say, talking to the mailman or getting groceries. It never goes well.