Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Business of Murder: Writing and Rewriting

In the last few months I’ve had a fair few requests from editors for rewrites to various stories – in some ways it’s a good thing since it means that the editors in question are taking the submissions seriously enough to grub around in them and find those flaws which exists in virtually all my early drafts (and by early draft I mean anything and everything from the first to the final one where an editor goes ‘Yes, I’d like to buy it/ publish it now’).

Generally, I find that most rewrite requests seem to address the question of pacing in my stories. I’m a great believer in the long opening, in giving the reader a chance to settle into the story and the world it is set in, but these days I’m increasingly beginning to realise that perhaps the ‘medium opening’ is more efficient.

I’m also beginning to realise that not every word I put on paper necessarily deserves to be there.

A case in point is a story which I’m currently working on (superstition prevents me from naming either the story or the market, since I’ve always found that the best and surest way to put the hoodoo on something is to claim that something is a sure thing).

Briefly, it’s a sword and sorcery fantasy that deals with the nature of obsessive love (and also features some stirring battles, a bit of snappy dialogue, a scene set in a medieval coffee shop and a chess game!)

The first reaction from the market in question was ‘we liked it but can you trim the opening scene?’ My first reaction was ‘but I’ve made it as lean and efficient as I can, how can I possibly shorten it?’ Turns out that I could shorten it quite easily without losing either the sense or the build up.

Most of the cuts consisted of getting rid of superfluous words and rearranging the dialogue a bit so that, rather than three characters having a terse conversation, it became two characters having the same conversation without the third butting in all the time(!)

As a result of this and other rewrite requests, I’m beginning to realise that an awful lot of the business of writing consists of the business of rewriting, of paring things down or building them up so that the story can stand on its own. Very often writers tend to believe that the implicit is the explicit – that simply because they are fully aware of what is going on then the reader will also be fully aware. As a result, it’s often the case that readers and editors become confused or miss a vital point that’s staring them in the face (“but it was implied that the Jade Monkey was in the tower all the time”) when in fact it’s writer’s fault for not supplying the correct information.
It doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that readers need to be led by the hand through the intricacies of a story - readers are intelligent enough to pick up on the subtleties, red herrings and moments of misdirection which form part and parcel of any good fiction – it does, however, mean that everything needs to be present and correct for them to do so.

In plot terms it’s the old maxim of Chekhov’s Gun (if a gun is going to be fired in the third act then it needs to be seen in Act 1), a maxim that can apply to characters equally as well as props. A coward does not become a hero for no good reason, a hero does not simply run away from overwhelming odds simply because the plot demands it or, at a more basic level, if you tell the reader that Throd the Invincible is carrying an axe, it had better not change into a sword half-way through the narrative (unless, of course, Throd loses his axe and is forced to use a discarded sword despite the fact that he’s not a very good swordsman thus racking up the tension in the final battle with Vertorveen the Skull Eater. Of course, by calling the character Throd the Invincible in the first place you’ve already given the outcome away… but Throd the Rarely Beaten doesn’t have the same ring at all).

I always try to make my first drafts as polished as I possibly can – which is why I take such a long time over short fiction – but very often there is something (a line, a character, a lapse of internal logic) which causes the story to stumble anyway. Hence the business of rewriting.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that the story needs to be torn down and started from the beginning – I have enough confidence in my muse for that to happen very seldom – but it does mean that sometimes a character or concept or particular line of sparkling prose has to go. Yes, it’s time to ‘murder your darlings’ as the old saying goes, although I like to think of it as pruning rather than full scale slaughter. Sometimes the pruning comes from the author and sometimes it comes from the editor. Both are equally as valuable. After all, the business of any good editor is to publish good fiction and very often that outside eye, removed from the emotional attachment which most writers have to their work, can be invaluable.

Of course sometimes a problem can be fixed by a less abrupt method than the murder of darlings. Bringing a character, scene or event forward in the narrative means that both the story and the reader get to the crux of things that little bit more swiftly – and getting to the crux even half a page earlier can sometimes really increase the pace of a story (Throd meets Vertorveen on page three rather than page four, for instance, and it turns out that they are both questing for the Skull of Kalashtureen – Throd to grind it to powder so that he may heal his dying love and Vertorveen because he fancies a light snack before dinner).

This doesn’t mean that all fiction should hurtle towards its climax, rather that the sense of moving forward should always be there – the things that the characters say and do should always move the story towards the next scene, and the next, and the next. Often, those killable darlings are the things that prevent the story from moving forward, those moments where the writer has drawn overt attention to the fact that this is a story. In such cases it isn’t murder… it’s justifiable homicide.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, excellent post! Had me laughing in a few places ("Throd the Rarely Beaten", for instance).

    I have literary plans for the weekend: not only writing but some reading, including the first issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

    As for condensing one's work and killing the darlings, I'm almost too maniacal when applying that concept to my own work.

    As a submissions reader and proofer at an online horror magazine, I wish a few other writers understood the concept: "When we ask for a revision or a condensation of a work, we mean you actually have to CHANGE it." Some "revised" pieces come back to us virtually untouched, just as long and encumbered as they were the first time.