Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Being your own editor

I read nineteenth century novels for fun. Well, either that or I'm a cheapskate and you can read nineteenth century novels for free. The problem is that when I've read one I have a dreadful habit of writing like its author when I return to my day job of story writing.

I was given a bit of a jolt recently by a slush reader's feedback - the sort of thing you get from some magazines when your story's not good enough for a personal rejection and not bad enough for the unsubtle hint that they'd just as soon you didn't send them any more. This reader criticised my slow pace. Then as an afterthought he wondered whether I was trying to write as though I were a nineteenth century novelist. That, he thought, might be clever but was never going to sell.

Now this particular story had started life at something approaching 11,000 words. Then with difficulty I edited it to 9,800 so as to meet another contest's 10,000 word limit. I had, as usual, very high expectations. I got straight rejections. I tried again until I got the above comment.

As it happened, I had received an encouraging personal rejection for another story of a similar genre at about this time, but from a market whose word limit was about half the length of the original version of this story. I had a bit of a think. What were the chances of cutting out so much? Well I had often read that it was good practice to try and reduce your story by a third, so I reckoned it must be even better practice to try and almost halve it. I set to work.


I stress that I really liked the original version of this story myself. Of course I'm the guy that likes nineteenth century novels too. As I got going I discovered lengthy lyrical writing about the setting of the story; so lengthy in fact that the story was sometimes put on hold for a page at a time whilst my Point-of-View character took a look around in all directions. And then moved a few yards and got a different view and did the same again.

Now writers are always warned against white room writing. This means not engaging your reader in the setting at all and ignoring all or most of the human senses in your enthusiasm for the story and nothing but the story. Whilst the writer can see the setting in his own mind, the reader cannot unless the writer paints the scenery and populates the landscape for him.

But perhaps at the other extreme we should also be warned against what I might call Art Gallery writing - if we might consider a gallery to be the opposite of an empty room. A lot of the pictures in an average gallery don't attract the average visitor's attention. Fortunately. If they did, I'm told, it would take ten years to walk around The Hermitage in St Petersburg (left).

Anyway, in very short order I had removed 1,000 words from the first eight pages of this story. The thing was I was really enjoying this process. I found myself developing an instinct for the difference between description that was vital to the story and description that was there for its own sake.

So I ended up with a story halved in length and zipping along, if not like a racing car at least like a  buggy drawn by a spirited horse. And I couldn't believe how much better I liked it. I read it again and again without even threatening to get tired of it the way I can easily do with some (though not of course all) of my longer stories.

Since then I think I may be more sparing with unnecessary description, but I still think it's a worthwhile exercise to be your own editor for a while.