I’m back to that smelly cauldron of lumpy gruel.. Editing. Like Harry Potter in Potions class, it never feels like there is a way to win this one. But like Hermione endlessly groaning ‘don’t any of you ever read Hogwarts: A History?’ I’m nothing if not delusionally persistent.
So take #200 kerspillion and a thought suddenly occurs to me: what are you trying to do?
As a writer I am all over the genre bed, feet hanging over into YA, arms stretching out in lit-fic, a cold toe touching sci-fi, while my head rests beside a horses in criminal suburbia. And if you are wondering if that is a genre, that’s part of my problem. I quite frequently roll into the cracks. And even if there are a few genres which my knee-jerk reaction would be to kick out the bed – historical fiction, epic fantasy – in truth i’m not above stealing the covers from them.
I just don’t fit neatly anywhere. Stories and words. That’s what it is to me and I never really worried too much about genre. I was so certain I knew, it simply never occurred to me. I knew what I liked. I knew within a couple of lines if I wanted to read on. I had honed my interests to a scalpel-like precision. Where I belonged as a writer was surely the only area of my life I could confidently answer that question.
Turns out it might well be like every other area of my life.
The rest of the publishing/book world didn’t divide itself up into categories along the same lines as I did. My personal little radar led me skipping all over different genres. Hard sci-fi and opera lost out to future worlds and endless inner searching in the outer reaches, serial killers and gangsters never measured up to Poirot’s moustaches, chic-lit bored unless the voice felt like a friend, – hello Marion! *waves cheerily*.
What does any of this have to do with editing? I’ve just explained how odd I am, bear with me. In publishing terms I’m still unsure how to proceed, but the issue was how it began to affect me as a writer. How the voices of ‘should’ started to crowd in. You know the ones that tell you, this is what you should do? This is sci-fi there has to be robots, the protagonist has to be ‘special’, a love triangle must be shoehorned in.. Of course, I can subvert a cliché in my sleep (and pick my nose.. but that’s another post) it was, as always, subtler than that.
I have a hero who gets handed the solution – the point was never that he ‘was the hero’, it was that a story, a tragic inevitable series of events was unfolding and as the detective it was his job to uncover, not solve or rescue or fix, just uncover. But is that acceptable in the crime genre? Can he be a bit unsure, learning as he goes, mr. nice guy who struggles to assert himself, who feels sorry for the people he investigates? Who gets clocked on the head by an angry mum and a pan full of fried eggs?
I have a contemporary YA which walks the line between gritty issue driven subject matter and cosy comedy. Why? Because that’s pretty much what life feels like to me, especially when I was a teen.
It was when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to write for Camp Nano at the start of this month that this came to me. I have a good half dozen projects started and another couple I’d love to get stuck into and since I can’t write them all at once, I was trying to be prudent in my focus. You know, sensible. I asked myself which book would marry with others already written and in doing so give me some sense of identity as a writer? Another sci-fi – but I have a YA, MG and adult genre serial, I have future politics, medical advancement and Robots – even here nothing fits.
Crime? But I have something that editors continually read as lit-fic and a comedic crime caper with a 6ft 6 cross dressing Chief Detective.
YA? Ah possibly. Not much written but I have quite a few adventure series with a sci-fi, urban fantasy bent (still popular – look at me being all trend savvy *smug grin*) on the back burner, and one done and dusted, which I do love.
The more I tried to make myself write though the more problems started to rear up. Like that horses head come back to life. Twasn’t pretty. I ended up deleting the first 2000 words I had written. Then rescued them, then came to an abrupt halt and switched to the other idea. No deleting yet, but I got stuck at 392 words.
The plots were loose. I’m used to that. Though the endings felt vaguer than usual, I’m not sure that’s enough of an issue. I like the worlds, and though they do still need a lot of fleshing out, again that is one of the things I usually enjoy discovering as I go. That’s when I had my first flash.
Worlds – and fantasy and sci-fi lovers will understand this better than most – matter to me. The peculiar ambience like returning to your favourite hotel in your favourite country is an irreplaceable part of the appeal for me as a writer. But that isn’t just made by the facts, geography and system of Robotic Laws/Magic Rules, its in the voice. The characters.
Which led me to flash number two. I didn’t know these characters. I had no real sense of them, which explained why the story felt so vague. Once I know the characters the what and why start to reveal themselves. The two aspects are always inextricably linked.
But worse, far worse than that, I didn’t love them. Its always a love affair for me. Sometimes slow and unexpected, other times a whirlwind romance, but I have to love them. And I love them all still. When plots go stale and words fall flat, the characters still keep me rooted. I need to know everything about them, though I often acknowledge their story is short, a one hit affair, I won’t abandon them. I may burn in hell for my polygamy but future husbands take note, I am a lit-sexual and I can never change. No matter how foul, how mean, how warty my creations, this bed is big enough for all. In fact I love the warty ones the most.
And this led to flash number three: What are you trying to do?
Every writer has a bunch of tick boxes inside of them. Just like when you are making a list of attributes your perfect partner should have. Those boxes are made up of everything they want to achieve as a writer, honed usually, from everything they have read and loved and everything they have read and found wanting. And I believe, very importantly, everything they couldn’t find in what they read. Those gaps, those little missed steps, are where you find yourself. Often they are so small and nebulous you’d struggle to put them into words. The hero who never quite seems to make you swoon. The magic system that feels a little too artificial. They are certainly not something I or any other blogger, or teacher or writer, can articulate for you. You have to rely on knowing, feeling, getting in tune with your reader instincts.
Flash number four: because I when I start a theme I run with it. That’s one of my tick boxes.
Writers can very easily forget that they were once readers and it is this part of them that drives the creative urge. Never is this more apparent when we are editing. There we become so engrossed in the nitty gritty, the words, the flow, the metaphor, the grammar, the lego bricks of our story that we lose sight of what we were trying to build.
When editing – especially all editing up to the proof read – it really helps to keep at the front of your mind, or on a post-it on the front of your screen, those tick boxes. Whether you make a list or just trust those nebulous instincts is up to you, I’m more of a nebulous instinct type – not suprising I guess – but taking the time with each scene, especially I find, those ones that just don’t sit quite right, no matter how you tweak the sentence constructions, to raise your head and consider it within the context of what you are trying to do, might just be the tweak that transforms your editing process.