I’m good at proof-reading, and kind of enjoy it – I think a mild streak of pedantry runs in the family.
Proof-reading implies that the manuscript, paper or whatever is finished and just needs the grammar and spelling checking. But often when I start to proof-read it quickly turns into editing, and sometimes re-writing.
Just last week I destroyed and re-wrote a document my boss had prepared (yeah, I know how to win friends and influence people :-S), as well as eviscerating the marketing department’s output (“This is a fragment, not a sentence … Who are ‘they’? … Talk like Yoda you do…”)
I have learned to be a ruthless editor through painstakingly honing my own writing over the past 25+ years. Even so, I still sometimes baulk at tearing apart weeks-worth of work.
I have known for some time that I needed to rework the opening chapters of Kikimora. They were still pretty much as I wrote them two and a half years ago when I was making my first forays into the story, and didn’t really know where it was going yet. So much about the story has changed since I wrote those opening chapters that they don’t really work any more.
“Kill your darlings,” they say, and I have done many times. But I baulked at this more than most. Perhaps because it was a larger piece than I normally have to cut; because it’s the opening passage; or because I felt that it set the scene so well.
But after all that ruthless editing at work, I felt that it was time to turn the same gimlet eye on my own manuscript. I printed off the opening chapters, sitting down at my table with highlighter, red pen, and much trepidation.
I slashed and burned.
One of the passages I was fond of, but which I grudgingly decided had to go is as follows:
Occasionally, emissaries from distant corners of the world came seeking Anatoly. They called him, Master of Mysterious Arts, Lord Shape-Changer, the Finest Magician the world has ever known. And then they poured gold and jewels at his feet, flattered him some more, and finally asked him to do something for them.
Sometimes Anatoly simply said, “No,” and sent the emissary on his way. Sometimes he asked for more details of the assignment, and then decided it didn’t interest him. Only rarely did he take the gold and accept the commission.
I was fond of that passage, and thought it a nice summation of that character’s set-up. However, in the very next chapter an emissary arrives from a distant land, bringing Anatoly rich gifts, and begs his help in finding a missing princess. You see the problem? In swift succession, I tell what the character does, and then I show what he does.
The opening chapters are vital to hooking your readers. There is no room for sloppiness and redundancy. The above piece had to go.
I was okay slicing through the prose with a red pen, but when it came to stitching back together what was left, I felt lost and bewildered and didn’t know where to start. Yesterday I began the slow and painful process. I produced far less work than I’d hoped to, and was not proud of a single word.
Today I dragged myself back to the keyboard, gritting my teeth to carry on. But… the new scene I grudgingly crow-barred in has begun to settle in and find its feet. New details occurred to me, fleshing out the characters in a similar way to all those lovely first draft passages I had to cut.
It is hard taking the knife to good words, but they have to serve the story, or else they’re pointless. Yesterdays and todays new words will need further polishing, but I know the story will be much stronger by the time I’ve finished. And that makes me happy.
What’s the hardest passage you ever had to cut? And did you ever regret it, or even put it back in later? I’m betting not.