Thursday, May 23, 2013

Editing Out In The Open #1 - A Short Story

I'm going to start something new on the blog - Editing Out In The Open. I'm going to take a submission, post  a portion of it, and edit it.

My goal is to show you that editing isn't scary. That it's helpful. That it makes a difference.

Normally, I use Word for my edits, allowing me to use margin comments along with inline edits to put together my thoughts. Because there are no margin edits here, I'm going to use two colors:

Red for inline edits, blue for comments.

Here now is a few paragraphs of "Sway" by Tracy Barnett, who is awesome.

Some weak yellow light filtered through the trees. Gave me barely enough light to see, and that's about all. (It's easier to start off in the positive about what you do have, especially if you're trying to hook a reader and set a tone so people know what they're getting into) . Way it scarcely hit was hitting the ground almost not at all was eerie. Was almost Almost like a haze hung over the tops of the trees what kept all but the general feel of light from making it to the ground. (Are we talking about how the light was and what it was or wasn't doing, or how the scene should feel?) Wasn't no proper light, you ask me. (At the end of the first paragraph, we've established a few things - 1 the narrator is somewhere in sight of trees 2 the narrator is likely southern (if American), but otherwise unpolished and "country" in their speech pattern 3 the lack of light is spooky)

Wasn't for me to worry about much, though. (Then why did we just spend a paragraph talking about it? I'd flag these first two sentences for a re-write) The bigger part of my mind hung on to the plan of keeping one foot front of another, just moving forward. While that happened, I guess the smaller part of my mind kept on the same line it had been thinking, trying to figure how I could find her. Trying to figure what I'd do if couldn't. (Again, I'm flagging a lot of this paragraph because the "southernness" of the narrator is actually getting in my way of understanding the new information -- so it's about finding "her", whoever she is, and the narrator has been thinking about her since before the story started -- but now we're talking about how it takes a lot of mental power just to walk, so maybe "she" is less important since she's not front-and-center in the narrator's mind? What's the important part(s) of the paragraph that I should take away here?)

Seemed it hadn't been long since I'd seen her last, though I couldn't say proper exactly how long. (The southern-isms are now getting ridiculous. The flavor of them should come across not ONLY in narration, but through the setting, which aside from trees and light, has gone so far unmentioned. There's more to a southern sound than some y'alls and shuckses and tarnations, right?) The start of it all stuck out bright in the center of my head. (You just spent a whole lot of words telling me that you were devoting a lot of mental power walking and a little mental power thinking about finding her, but now there's this third reserve of mental energy to power the memory of her? Do you want me to focus on the walking, her loss or the memory?) I'd been working was in the barn, same as most days, and she'd been playing in the hayloft. Despite my telling her not to play up there, she did it anyway. She was always so hard-headed about that, and really, even with the warnings and the headshakings, I couldn't say "no" her very often. I'd tried to stop her doing that, but she was always a bit hard-headed, and I could never say "no" for long enough to keep her from what she wanted. She screamed while I was racking tools against the wall. I turned fast, saw her hit the ground, and I was running to her. Spooked the hell out of the horse. Next thing I knew, it was night and I was cleaning blood out of my eyes. So there I was, racking some tools on the far wall, when I heard her scream. It didn't last long. I turned fast and saw her hit the ground. I ran, fast as I could, and must've spooked the horse, 'cause next thing I knew, it was night and I was cleaning blood out of my eyes. (Now if you look over the course of this paragraph, there's a TON of "I" all up and through it. That's okay for conveying facts, that's alright if we're looking to sound simple or childish, but too much "I" and we're moving somewhat out of the story to focus on the construction. Big things happened in this paragraph, and we've started seeing tension build up (she screamed, hit the ground, blood in the eyes at night, etc), so the focus should be there, not on the southern-isms or the number of "I"s - by now we NEED to be into the hook and meat of the story).

I sat up (weren't you running over? when were you seated?) , tried to clear my head. (this suggests you were confused or foggy or something that you haven't mentioned yet, and likely should, since I would love to know how you felt in addition to WHAT you felt) I wiped some more blood off of my face and looked to where I'd seen Emmy land. Nothing there. I shook my head to loose some cobwebs, and fell back down with the force of it. Last thing I saw that night was a small shape out in the field, walking away, east. "Emmy..." I tried to say, but the word died in my mouth and everything went all black. (I'm flagging the whole remainder of this paragraph because I have no idea what you're intending to say. What you've actually said is that there was blood on your face, you stood in the location where Emmy - now she has a name - should have been and she wasn't there, but somehow there was a shape in a field and it was walking away. The presumption here is that it's either Emmy or some kind of body-snatcher-slash-killer, but that's way unclear. A few setting details, maybe some context on the rest of the scene as this experience was happening to you, would better clarify where you want the reader's focus to be. Also, the progression of action - A to B to C seems really unclear - is it You were racking tools -> she screamed -> she hit the ground -> you were wiping blood from your eyes -> you ran over -> she was gone -> there's a shape in the field -> you said Emmy -> things go black ? Way too many things are unanswered for us to connect to the narrator and feel that sense of Emmy being important, of the narrator being in shock and/or driven on a quest to find her. This is rewrite territory.)

After I woke up, I scrambled around, trying to find her. (Well now you're just repeating yourself, and if you're still in that pseudo-recollection flashback mode, it's unclear since things going black AND it being a new paragraph generally mean we're back to the present moment, where you're walking under difficulty) Didn't see  much but my own blood on the barn floor, and a track leading off east. So, I walked. Didn't think about it much, just gathered a few things and set out to find her. (Wait, you wanted to go find her, it's important to go find her, you didn't think much about it, BUT you had time to pack? How would you know what to pack? Are you tipping your hand to the reader, or just being convenient about why you're going to use tools later?)

***
So that's my first pass editorially on a few paragraphs. I'm cutting it off there because I don't want this post getting too long, and the focus really is on how the editorial process works, rather than on this specific story. What I'd do next is attach the completed file (or however much we agreed upon editing) with comments and edits to an email, wherein I'd detail a few big broad concepts that Tracy can keep an eye out for when he rewrites and moves the story forward. For the sake of argument, let's pretend you're over my shoulder as I write that email.

It would look like this ...

Tracy,

Attached please find the first chunk of Sway edited. There's a few inline edits for structure made, but the majority of notes are comments. Here are the highlights.

1. Your setting is sparse. Outside of naming Emmy and mentioning trees, a field, a barn, a hayloft and a rack of tools, I have no idea where you are, what is or isn't important, or how "real" the story feels. There's not a lot of ground details here.

2. I don't feel really invested in the story. I'm interested, but there's a difference. Interest comes from wordplay and concept, the demonstration of ideas and the setting up of scenes. It makes me say "Ooh, that's nice, I like that". Investment though, is about connecting to the narrator (especially in first-person) and sharing the same feeling(s) they do - so if the narrator misses Emmy, we should know why and we should miss her too. Especially critical in first-person is the sense of discovery, that we're learning new info at more or less the narrator is. Yeah, you can say that you're telling this in the past tense, so really you're recounting the story after the fact, but the narrator-within-the-story and the reader should more or less be on the same emotional footing. Invest me, make me care about Emmy's not being there.

3. How critical are what I called the "southernisms"? Are you trying to show the narrator as a yokel, a mountain man, Slingblade, a farmer or a hick who is overcoming some superior force? Why do I need to know he (I'm assuming it's a he) litters his speech and thoughts with colloquial expressions? There are other ways to show us the character, and you don't really need to keep showing us the same facet over and over.

Talk soon, looking forward to Part 2,

John

***

It's my goal in this series to make editing more accessible to people, and to answer their questions about what exactly they're getting into when becoming part of a writer-editor relationship. And I like the transparency of doing it on the blog, even though it's generally slower and without some of the trappings I'm used to.

Yes, you can totally point out things I missed, as no editor is perfect, but before you get all critical and discount the value of an edit based on the fact that I may have missed a comma, remember too that if he rewrites things based on the suggestions, the grammar will change. And right now, the story is greater and more important than the sum of the punctuation.

I've received a few more submissions for Editing In the Open, so expect more to come.

Happy writing.