The Fourth Draft: Editing a Short Story with a Friend

The Fourth Draft: Editing a Short Story with a Friend

I’m finished with the foundations, frame, and other major changes to the story, and need to take the next, worst step: being picky about the details.

I’m not a naturally persnickety person. Editing at the sentence level is usually as far as I go. Words and turns of phrases feel better when I don’t think about them as I write, when the words come one after another. But, as I’ve come to learn around being around great artists and workers, the devil is in the details. I know I’m writing something good when it surprises and excites me while I’m writing. Yet, I only know if I have great writing during the last iterations of the piece, when I take a magnifying glass to diction.

Lauren has swooped in to help. Here is ONE comment by her:

this sounds lovely and poetical but is unspecific as well. is paths to take out enemies a noun? the thing she scored? well, it sounds like a noun if you’re an Old English poem, but since you’re not in that context, make sure you really don’t want to be more specific about what enemies, really don’t want to add that extra grammar thing take out her enemies, the king’s enemies, and if you’re here you might as well say slaughter his enemies, lol. We’re talking about chess pieces, the literal pieces, right? She’s scoring paths through his pieces with her pieces. You can slaughter those, or personify them, but what I’m trying to say is that we have to have the scene/setting in our minds, with all its tension and stakes, till the very last moment, and for that purpose I’d be really careful about making sure your metaphors are doing all the work for you to that end that they possibly can be.

 

So many comments

Reading over Lauren’s comments is always a learning experience. I’ve learned the difference between blond versus blonde, how to use an em dash, the problems with moving your king in chess, and more. And so, the first thing to do after getting comments is to say thank you. Always. I don’t pay her, though I’ve offered, and she didn’t have to help me. But she did, and for that, I am supremely grateful.

The second thing I do is read all of the comments at least once. I don’t reply to them or fix anything. I just read all of them. Then I go back to the beginning and decide which of them I agree with, request clarification for those I am unsure about, and discuss reasoning and alternative fixes for the ones I disagree with.

I make my changes, fill in the gaps and smooth transitions, and give it back to her. And repeat.

Here’s the thing I hate about editing: it’s nonlinear. It’s a straightfoward process to find where the writing doesn’t work on a grammatical level. The verbs aren’t interesting, the adverbs and adjectives don’t add nuance, the active voice is inappropriate here, the sentence is too long, the subject is muddled, the information flow is hard to follow. . .  et cetera. I can do most of that myself.

For story, God help me. Editing for story equals trying to answer Lauren’s questions in a way that the emotions and the logic behind character decisions make sense, staring at the last few lines, deleting those line, undoing the delete, writing down what I wanted to accomplish with the end, writing it (only 52 words!), figuring out what I did and did not like with that ending. . . and now I’m here.

Right now I’m stuck on lingo and language. There are three different lingos at play: the everyday lingo of an American woman, chess jargon, and the chat-speak of internet message boards— and if I want to go further, the difference in chat-speak between English and Russian users (and there is a difference!). I’m trying to make it clear that the protagonist is fluent in chess jargon and chat-speak and that she struggles to communicate in everyday interactions because she simply does not know how to connect with people. I don’t want to make it clear by stating the above in an internal monologue. I want to show the simplicity or complexity of using language through tonal quality and meaning. And all of the above is why I’m deleting and rewriting the ending word by word. The last four lines don’t capture my vision for her final internal metamorphosis, and it’s driving me bonkers.

I had to give myself permission to edit this messy way. For a long time I would write and write and write, delete huge swatches of story, and stitch and polish so the joints don’t show. I’ve since learned that polishing is not editing. Editing requires deeper introspection and attention than I have been giving my work, and I must be willing to upheave the story’s foundations if that’s what it takes to make it better. I’m getting closer to the story’s heart, and that makes it worth the frustration.

While you’re waiting to read this story, you should check out one of my finished short stories here.

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