I recently got a question asking about writing tips in general, and especially related to editing. For privacy reasons, as usual, I won’t name the person–but I’m writing a post here instead of replying directly because 1) I always ramble like fuuuuuuuck and 2) maybe someone else out there is curious about the same thing from my perspective.
First, as always, I’m obviously not a professional. You’ll definitely want to go with what professionals say, if anything goes against my thoughts. But for what it’s worth, I helped a family member edit her book and a professional who worked with her on the book was really impressed with my feedback. Which I am not saying to pat myself on the back; I say only to mention that maybe, hopefully, some of this is useful and not totally leading people down the wrong path lol
I have some posts on writing advice here: http://ais-n.tumblr.com/tagged/writing-advice — and there should be some that Santino and/or I wrote under “writing questions” here: https://aisness.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/icos-master-list-feb-2016-edition (Note that there may be some overlap between the two links, also I’m not sure if all those links still work–if you see any specifically that don’t, let me know).
I have lots of thoughts on writing, but they’re all pretty informed by my personal writing style which is very much aimed toward writing what makes sense for that story and those characters, and “rules” be damned. I don’t like the idea of confining oneself to expectations if it interferes with the natural, organic progression of a story. That does mean I tend to go pretty hardcore into stuff I write because if I’m writing a dark story, I’m not going to pull punches; and I tend to add a fair amount of darkness into my stories because it doesn’t feel realistic to me otherwise. But this also means my style doesn’t work for people who want to feel like they always know what’s coming or at least know the limits to which the story will go. After all, as we’ve seen, you cannot trust me to not totally fuck up a character because it feels like the right progression for me. And that’s not fun for some people to read, you know? But it’s super hard for me to write a more chill story because it’s not the kind of story I tend to read. I try to do it and then I get bored, but other people can do that same concept and story in a fantastically beautiful way and really excel at it.
What I mean by this aside is that I have maybe a bit odd of a viewpoint on writing stories compared to some more traditional or mainstream views, so that may make me a terrible person to ask for thoughts for you, or it may make me someone who vibes better with your personal style. I think it’s most important we’re all genuine to ourselves so whatever writing style works for you is the perfect style for your stories. There’s a story out there for every occasion, every voice, every idea, every feeling.
There is no right or wrong way to write; in my opinion, the only way you can do anything “wrong” is by not believing in your own personal voice, your own personal style; by silencing your individuality if it doesn’t fit the stronger, louder voice. If it does fit, that’s perfect and you should run with it. If it doesn’t, don’t change yourself or your world or characters or story into something it isn’t. That feeling of dissonance will be what is taken away from your story instead of the story itself, at least to readers like me. Because I do believe what Maya Angelou said is true: people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. In my personal opinion both as a reader and a writer, I think that applies to stories as well.
I also think research is really important but I guess that’s a whole other thing. I’m getting too much into writing tips right now so I’ll leave it at this and the linked posts above — but if anyone is curious about anything in particular, let me know. If you’d be curious about my personal thoughts on anything, I’m happy to answer 🙂
Editing is a pain, but also kind of fun. I have a few thoughts on it– most of what I’m first talking about below is you editing your own work. I touch a little on editing someone else’s work afterward.
**Read or edit for the overall flow as much (or IMO more) than you do the specific grammatical nitpicking. I know that’s going to go against what a lot of people feel about editing, but here’s the thing: stories are translations of the heart, whether it’s the heart of the overall story, the heart of the writer, the heart of the characters, the heart of the reader, the heart of whatever it represents. To me, a story is poetry on a larger scale, or it’s a song, or it’s whatever artistic endeavor that represents something that, to you, feels moving or meaningful.
Yes, it’s important that we understand what you’re trying to say. For that, yes, having someone check the grammar is definitely useful.
But the rules of grammar are not the rules of language. That may sound like an odd thing to say because, yeah, technically it is– but think about when you’re learning a new language. If it’s anything like when I’ve taken classes in the multiple languages I’ve taken classes in, the teacher tells you all the specific grammatical rules so you’re speaking properly, politely, in complete sentences with all the correct intonation and all the right tenses. You can definitely get your thoughts across if you learn a language that way, in that people will understand the concept of what you’re saying because you are literally speaking textbook to them.
But then think about your native language. Do you speak or type grammatically correct all the time? Do you avoid contractions, run-on sentences, do you not indulge in hyperbole, do you not have fun dropping an Oxford comma or two? If you’re feeling an intense emotion, aren’t you even more likely to play the strings of the language you know best? Changing vocabulary to emphasize meaning or form, adding intensity in your tone or your chosen verbal attack, throwing in swear words or cutting your sentences in half then in half again and again until it’s just partial words because you’re too upset or excited or something else to properly form a complete sentence?
There may be people out there who don’t do this, I don’t know. But for me, this is how I function, and it seems to me how a lot of people around me function. We rarely speak perfectly politely, perfectly properly, in our native tongue 100% of the time. Even languages built very much on the concept of polite and proper, even cultures with a clear sense of in group vs out group, have variations set in place in their language to indicate intimacy, friendship, a sense of understanding. Those levels are there so we can share that connection with others in something as simple as the word we choose when we call them, or the name we use when they come close.
To me, stories are like levels of language. There are different ways of telling the stories based on the story that’s being told. If it’s a character who’s distant or cold, or a setting that requires a sense of detachment, writing in very proper, polite, grammatically perfect sentences makes sense because it provides that sense of out group you would get in your native tongue. If it’s a story that should feel visceral, cloying, catastrophically vulnerable, then it’s meaningful to write in an ebb and flow of emotion dependent on the feeling of the character or the feeling the writer wants to create within the reader. Words breathe life into the story they relay, so the chosen words matter. Most of the time, I think stories benefit from a variation in the telling of them; perfect in some places, very imperfect in others, a constant reflection of the tapestry of emotions and motion in the world or story itself, or a view into the mind of the character displayed.
So, although it’s important to have someone who can help with any egregious and unhelpful grammatical mistakes, or spelling errors or the like, I also don’t think that should be the primary focus. It’s the sort of thing that’s important to take into account so that no poor wording accidentally jolts the reader from the story, but it shouldn’t be the be all and end all because that could result in losing the more emotional flow needed for what the story is trying to get across.
I think of it like this: writers are the translators for a character’s life. How would the characters feel at different points in the story, and therefore how best can that be worded to make the reader feel the same way reading it? How can you make the reader feel like they are experiencing that same emotion the character is feeling? That’s the best way to bring alive a world or plot or character, in my mind: by making it real.
**Read, reread, reread again, but leave time in between. One of the best things I think you can do right after you finish writing a story is set it aside and do not touch it or think about it for a time period that makes sense for the length of story you wrote, or whatever makes sense for you as a person. I like to give it at least a week, and if it’s a story I worked on for a long time, maybe even months.
Obviously you have to go according to if you have a deadline or not, or whatever other factors are affecting you in your life and situation. If it’s a short story, okay then maybe you really only need to set it aside for a day or a few hours before getting back in there. But if it’s something you labored on at length, you need to give yourself a clarity you can’t achieve by immediately starting over at the top. I wrote Incarnations over the course of 20 years, for example, and I ended up finishing it in October 2016, set it aside for most of November and December, did the occasional spot checking and spot editing throughout through February or March 2017, and didn’t really fully reread it until May 2017. Now it’s going into July 2017, and I’m still editing it again, I just started rereading from the start, and I’m still finding things that can use improvement. But I’m happy about it, because the improvements I’m seeing are ones that I think are valuable, and they’re things I obviously didn’t notice any of the many times I reread these early chapters in the years preceding this month.
So, finish your story and then push it aside and don’t think about it right away. Do other things. I like to watch TV shows I like, play games that are fun, turn to manga, whatever it is that relaxes you and may also inspire you, without being too closely connected to the source material (aka, your book) where it won’t let you fully get that distance. That’s why I like to use other media like movies, TV shows, etc, instead of other books because it’s too easy to fall back into a comparative mindset on something too parallel.
That sounds a little crazy, I know, but you could send it off to other people in that interim if that makes sense to you. (That’s what I did — in October when I finished Incarnations, I sent it to my 4 betas which then gave them plenty of time to look it over in the months I was laying low. And just in late June I got another beta who is looking at the whole thing with fresh eyes, which is good because now she has the copy of the book that included all the improvements I made between myself and my betas’ suggestions.) I think it’s important to have that break, whether you send it to others or simply set it aside for no one to read for some time. You don’t want to go so long that you never pick it up again, but you want to give yourself time to distance yourself from all the decisions big and small you made in the course of writing it.
The reason for this is so that when you go back and reread it from beginning to end, you are looking at it with fresh eyes. You’re going to be more likely to notice things that need fixing that way; whether it’s a poorly done transition, or maybe an idea on how to improve a whole section, or maybe you realize you need to remove this piece so that another part shines. Ideally, you will want to reread a few times, and give yourself some space again in between at some point.
You will always find things you missed or things that need to be improved, no matter how many times you reread and edit it, no matter how many people look at it. Stories are living, breathing evolutions of the heart. They will always feel both very right and very wrong, because they will always strike you a little different every time you review them.
**Save everything! This is another suggestion that probably a lot of people will disagree with, but personally I’m a pack rat. I keep all the old versions of everything I ever write, because I find it helpful sometimes to pull inspiration from the past, or to double check that I made the right decision on this or that. Or sometimes in the course of editing and rereading and reviewing, you’ll realize that a scene you wrote previously that you removed is one that still keeps coming back to you.
That happened with me in Incarnations, to give you an example to explain what I mean. As I mentioned, I’ve been working on that book on and off for 20 years. In the course of that time, I kept writing new beginnings to the book, doing random new scenes, trying to find something to jumpstart my interest in a story I loved but a book that was hard for me to write. In one of those incarnations (no pun intended ;p), I had a scene of some characters walking into a town, and the way that town felt to the POV character. I actually wrote probably 3 or 4 versions of this same scene, from different POVs, of them walking into this town. I really liked the scene, and I really wanted that scene to start the book for a long time, and for a long time it did.
At some point I chose a different character’s POV as the main scene, and then eventually I decided to cut out that scene entirely and take pieces of it with the same POV character but write a totally different scenario. So I ended up scrapping that entire start of a chapter I had. I know many people who would simply delete that because it isn’t relevant anymore, but being a pack rat, I didn’t.
Years passed and I got to the point in the book where all the characters go to that town. But because of the way I was jumping back and forth chronologically between character POVs, I decided to totally scrap the scene of them entering the town, and instead you would see them heading toward it, then the next time you saw them they would have been there for hours and there would be a recap in narration of what happened up until that point. I felt like that was fine in writing it and editing it and that’s what I did. But then, after I gave myself those months of not rereading it front to back, after I gave myself time to spot check other parts, when I reread it with fresh eyes I felt like it was jarring having that time skip.
I needed to add back in a scene of them entering the town; of the impact it had on them. If I had deleted that scene for good, it would have been incredibly frustrating for me because I remembered liking what I’d had before, I remembered having most of it written out, I knew it would be so much faster to find that and add it back in and edit it for flow instead of rewriting from scratch. And because I keep everything, because I use Scrivener where everything is in one place, because I have it organized just well enough for me to know where to find the folder of old chapters and old chapter parts, it was easy for me to find that scene, incorporate it into a new chapter, and edit out the narration info dump in the other chapter that had thrown off the flow.
When you’re on your 3rd, 4th, 20th time of rereading or editing a story, it’s way too frustrating to think about having to write something completely new. It feels like, come on, I should be over that part, I should have the freedom to not have to totally write a brand new chapter. But you may find that previous ideas you had actually do work better to bring back into the fold instead of leaving out. If you delete everything you did along the way, you will double or triple your frustration at the point you need it. And if you’re anything like me, you may delay yourself significantly in going forward because you’ll be too frustrated by your lack of forethought to want to deal with what you need to do in the present.
You may find you never reuse your old bits and pieces–you may think, that doesn’t apply to me, if I delete something I know I want it gone for good, I don’t care about what it was before because if I need to add something I want to add something brand new. That may be how you function so that may work wonderfully and therefore, you may be tempted to delete things just so you get it out of your way. I would still recommend saving everything, for an entirely different reason as well. It’s nice to see where you were, to know where you are now. It can be good for yourself to see how you used to write so you can see your improvements.
But even more than that, if your story ever makes it big or even has a meaningful impact on one other person, they may really appreciate having that insight into how the story started vs what it became. I know I personally like having that insight for myself, and for stories I enjoy I always love to have all the drafts and tidbits and whatever else I can find, because it makes the world feel even more real to me. It can be inspirational to other people, or it can simply be a fun extra for a story or world they adore.
Think about JKR — think of all the people who would love to have the airplane bag she wrote the Hogwarts houses on first, or the notepads she originally wrote the plot ideas on, because Harry Potter is important to them. She may have seen those as something to throw away back then, in the case of the airplane bags something literally made to be discarded, and yeah it was just ink on a throwaway bag. But it was the beginning of something so much more. She can never get back that bag if she throws it out, but if she keeps it, it can be a constant reminder to her of where she started and where she is now, or an inspiration to other writers that you don’t need all the biggest and best programs and computers and training to write. You just need a story you want to tell, and a means to write it down.
**Notes are great! Speaking of notes, I think they’re great! I use Scrivener when I’m writing, and it helps soooooo much in editing too. One of the things I do as I write and edit and reread is I’m constantly leaving comments to myself in the story. I leave comments about “this is what’s happening in the background of this scene” or “this is what’s meaningful about this particular wording from the character” or “this is what that means even though it won’t come up for a long time” or “why did I do this? check if I want to keep it” or “hey I just got a great idea on how I can incorporate this into a future idea, note to self remember to add this in later” and so on and so forth. Because I’m wordy as fuck, some of those comments are basically a short story on their own. But they give me so much more context than I would have otherwise had, and there have been many times that I totally forgot about the significance of something, only to see it mentioned in a comment and say to myself, “Oh hey! That’s actually really cool…”
When editing, those comments are invaluable to help remind me of what I was thinking when I first wrote something. Also, it helps me see if something bugged me in previous rereading or editing, so that I can decide if I do eventually want to delete or change a part or if I want to keep it. It lets me compare my current editing thoughts against previous editing or writing thoughts, which gives me a much more faceted view of every step along the way.
**Have beta readers, ideally from different perspectives. I think having multiple, trusted people read your story is important after you’ve finished it. They will have an outside perspective you won’t, and they may notice things you missed. They may have great ideas for improvement that wouldn’t have occurred to you, and they may have feedback for some of the ideas you had that just aren’t working for them as readers. You want that variance of view because it will give you a much more faceted experience of your story than you would get if you only look at it yourself, or only choose yes men as your feedback.
**Find a critic. Along the lines of beta readers, it’s important to have betas who will read the story for the overall flow, the overall emotional impact, and give you feedback on that. How did the story make them feel? How did the characters connect or not connect with them, and why? These are important factors in a story. And yeah, maybe this character shouldn’t be connecting with readers, maybe that’s the whole point– but then that gives you a good idea that you were on the right track with how you wrote that.
But you can never improve if you only seek out people who will tell you all the great things you’re doing, and none of the bad. No story is perfect, there is no book that can’t be improved. You don’t want to get all the way to the point of releasing the story and only then find all the flaws in it, where it becomes a criticism on a grander scale and can even affect word of mouth, or whether or not people choose to read it. You will never make it perfect, but it’s good to know ahead of time what people may fault the story for, so you have time to determine if you find fault in that as well and want to fix it, or if for you it’s something that is there purposefully, that shouldn’t change, at which point you will have a better answer ready for when the questions come about why this or why that.
Find someone who will constructively criticize your story–someone who will nitpick details, challenge the rules of the world, ask you to explain or justify why this or that choice was made. You should be able to answer all those questions, give reasons for all those challenges. If you can’t, that gives you a really good view of the parts of your story that may need improvement, or perhaps areas that don’t flow well with the rest.
Find the level of critic that makes sense for what you’re doing. If you’re doing a fun little story that isn’t a serious endeavor, then you don’t need someone who will rip it to shreds because that may not be the point of the story. But if you’re writing an epic series with an intricate plot, it would behoove you to get that other perspective that will be pulling apart the story as they read to give you clues to what thoughts may be going through a reader’s mind, and what needs to be added, changed, or removed to improve that experience.
Again, it’s important this person gives you constructive criticism — just being told you write like shit isn’t helpful. You need someone who will pinpoint problem areas and tell you why and how it needs help. Ideally, that person will also be a great bouncing board for you to figure out solutions to those problems.
**Follow critical people. Another thing I like to do is find people who do constructive criticism of books we all know or love; popular series, indie series, it doesn’t matter. There are writers, editors, critics, etc, out there who post about why they did or didn’t like this or that thing. You need to find someone who is fair about it; who doesn’t just rip into everything to be a jerk, but who will constructively address issues they see in stories in whatever media they follow.
Having them go through stories we all know can be really useful, because then you have something to compare against as a fellow reader. Do you agree with their criticism or assessment of this story or that plot or this character? Why or why not? Do you never agree with their criticisms, or do you mostly agree but sometimes not? That will give you a really good idea of where they’re coming from in their own perspective when they’re looking at stories, so then you know how to interpret recommendations they give generally or specifically in stories they’re reading.
You can then look at what they’re saying about these books you have also read, what they see as the problems and what they see as the solutions, and then apply that mindset to your own story and try to see from the perspective they would have for your work. What do you think they would say needs to change? What do you think they would say is the reason? Do you agree? How can you adjust it so that their criticism wouldn’t apply but that you still feel comfortable you are keeping the story real to its needs?
One of my favorite people who does this is Whitley over at http://readingwithavengeance.com/. She also has a whole section on writing tips or thoughts here: http://readingwithavengeance.com/tagged/on-writing. What I like about Whitley is she’s funny and snarky in places, but she isn’t mean. She explains why she feels how she feels, she will be very critical of things that make no sense to her, but she gives suggestions for how it might have been improved, and even in a book she loathes she will always say if this or that line or part or plot point actually is done well. Also, she usually overviews what’s happening and often goes chapter by chapter, so you could read an entire book through her criticisms alone, and know everything that happened in the book while also knowing how she felt about it. It’s sort of like having director commentary for a book, only it’s critic commentary. I used to religiously follow her blog and haven’t as much lately only because I’m on tumblr less, but I do love her perspective from when I followed her in the past. I actually was going to hire her to review Incarnations, but the book is so long that it would cost me a fortune to have her look at it, which is a shame because I think she would have a wonderful perspective. But speaking of, some of the people who are critics like Whitley actually can be hired as an editor of your book–consider that as an option if it makes sense for you.
But you don’t have to agree with Whitley–I mention her as an example of someone I personally really like, but you may like someone else. Point being, find that person who resonates with you, see what issues they have with stories they are critiquing, and turn that critical thinking onto your own story to see if you fall into the same tropes as that book and if so, see if you think it can be improved.
**Don’t be afraid to change things, and don’t be afraid to keep things. Make the story true to the world, the characters, and you; don’t compromise anything that’s really important to you to keep, just because someone says it doesn’t meet expectations or genre rules or whatever other explanation. But also don’t just dismiss what they’re saying because you don’t like it; really consider their feedback, their point of view, their suggestions. If it’s something that’s too important to keep, then even if they recommend you remove it, figure out a compromise that lets you keep what you want to keep without detracting from the quality of the overall story. Value their contributions and their viewpoint without replacing your own with theirs simply because you’re insecure.
**Don’t see editing as an extended means of failure. Don’t see editing as something that is only showing you your failures. If there are a lot of mistakes in your story, if a lot of things need to be changed, if you feel like in the end you’re changing more than you’re keeping–none of this is indicative of failure, and so you shouldn’t feel down about it. It’s all about improving the rough edges of your story so it can truly shine, and in that way it will not detract from the characters or world or plot it covers.
Constructive criticism and beta readers can provide an invaluable source of feedback, but it’s also important you ask them to tell you what does work. You need to know where you did well for the story, and where it can be improved. But know that improving something isn’t showing you failed in the original writing of it; it only means you wrote something well enough that people understood where you wanted to go with it, but you didn’t have the other perspectives yet on how to take it there even further. We are all human beings with our own singular POV. That’s why it’s important to get those other thoughts, to help us expand our view. We still did a great job in the original writing of it no matter how much needs to change, because we still wrote it. We still got something out there into the world that wasn’t there before. We still became the voice for that world or character. All we’re doing now is finding a way to polish that voice so more people on a larger scale understand it better.
**Don’t let the rules rule you. There is a risk of me sounding a bit sassy in this section and I genuinely don’t mean to, but this happens to be a major frustration I have generally in life which comes out pretty well in this concept. I feel like I see people reference this idea of genre expectations sometimes in writing, and I don’t get it. I know, I know, I probably am the odd one out on this; I probably have a strange perspective that the professionals would say is all wrong. Maybe they’re right, or maybe I just don’t understand what people are trying to say. But the way I interpret this concept I’ve seen– that you have to fit certain rules to be “successful”–it’s just… it’s something that is so against the way I feel about life that it’s hard for me to reconcile.
The thing is, stories shouldn’t be cookie cutter. Sometimes they can fall into that mindset if everyone is so concerned with meeting the rules placed upon them that they aren’t following the rules or flow of their own world or story.
I personally feel like the library would be a pretty boring place if literally every book checked all the boxes and stayed in the boundaries of its particular genre. There’s no room for innovation there; no room for growth as a writer. At least, not for me for the way I write. Maybe for others, the boundaries of a genre don’t at all feel like all any sort of inhibitor for the story they can and will write, and so for them it probably makes a lot of sense to look at those rules and follow them because it may give them some parameters to start with for the story they want to write. I’m not saying people are wrong for following those rules or expectations if it works well for them; they should do whatever is most comfortable for them, most accurate to their ideals or tendencies. There are probably some phenomenal books out there that very much follow the rules of the genre, that stay within the boundaries, because those stories fit the genre so perfectly. But n that scenario,the writer is still being true to the story, it’s just that the way of being true to that story naturally remains within the genre itself. They aren’t compromising their world or story or book to stay in the boxes; their story flourishes in that area and doesn’t need to expand beyond it; may even be detrimental if it did.
That works perfectly well for them so they should do what’s best for them. But for those who don’t naturally feel comfortable staying in boundaries, or whose stories don’t tend to remain confined to a singular genre, they shouldn’t change no matter what they’re told. We need that variation in stories, in writers, in worlds. When people say that a story needs to stay within this or that box because of this or that reason, maybe because not every book can be LOTR or ASOIAF/GOT, or whatever, yeah, that’s true. Not every book can. But those series are well known because they were not conventional. Not everyone can be GRRM, yeah. But GRRM is GRRM, and probably was told he couldn’t be Tolkien. And Tolkien was probably told he was crazy.
Most really famous writers will tell you that they were rejected repeatedly before their story was accepted, even if that story is now astoundingly popular or considered groundbreaking in some form.
That’s why I don’t think it’s wise to listen to “you can only do __” because if everyone only does the same thing, then how is there any innovation or variety?
I’m not saying there’s nothing of value by staying within boundaries–there could be incredibly interesting, or well written stories, or even really creative ones, staying within the bounds. But not everyone who stays within boundaries will always be able to remain unique from everyone else stuck in those same boundaries. Eventually, as a numbers game, it will come to a point where much of the stories become reflective of each other.
Sort of like how you can have canon, then all the fanfic writers start writing their stories and being inspired by each other and having a lot of fun coming up with details to fill in the blanks of their information–and everyone is so inspired by and informed about the other stories in their same field that little details start to reflect each other. And then soon those ideas become facts that become indistinguishable from canon, even though they are fanon. Now, everyone is reflecting the same false concept because everyone saw it so frequently that they came to view it as a rule rather than an idea. That doesn’t at all mean all those fanfics are bad; there can still be phenomenally written ones in that fandom. But it does mean that now everyone is playing the same cards in slightly different ways, because they forgot that they could move beyond them. And now, a character who had blue eyes in canon suddenly has purple because it transitioned from blue to indigo to blue-purple to purple, and now we’re all calling them something they aren’t, because we all thought we had to follow the same set of data points in a situation that is meant to give a person freedom from those expectations. That is, until someone else comes along who says, “Hey, I looked at the canon again and noticed the character’s eyes are blue, so now I’m going to write a story divorced from the unspoken rules of fanon” and if their story has merit, if what they wanted to tell was a good story and done well, they become a new voice bringing new ideas and new life info a fandom that had accidentally, in its love and devotion for the originating source, found itself stuck in self-assigned boundaries of expectations and rules that didn’t need to be there.
That’s how I see the concept of having to only write by the rules. If it works for the story, then go for it. If it doesn’t work for the story, don’t compromise just to check off those boxes.
Readers respond to the truth of a story, whatever that truth may be. They will notice more if a story is stifled to fit rules than they will if a story expands beyond the rules it was given, in order to grow.
If you want a comparison — In the Company of Shadows is a story some people really like. But when Santino and I wrote it, we knew absolutely nothing about the m/m genre. We just wrote what we wrote because it made sense for the story, the world, the characters, and we released it on AFFN and eventually it made its way through word of mouth into the m/m genre reading community. There are a lot of aspects of ICoS that don’t fit the genre, and some things that probably are considered something you should not do. But those are the parts of ICoS that people seem to value the most. If we had gone into that story deciding that the only way to write a m/m series was to first immerse ourselves in the genre, and write down all the rules, and then follow them completely, ICoS would not be the story it is. And in my opinion, it would not have resonated with a lot of the people it did resonate with, and so it would not have had the impact it’s had. There are stories in m/m that flourish in m/m and they don’t need to change. ICoS is not one of them.
I was told, years ago, by someone who had been a friend that she didn’t need to read ICoS to know it would be shit, because I had told her how we wrote what we wrote because it felt right, and we didn’t know anything about the genre, we didn’t follow any rules. Her perspective was that it couldn’t possibly be good if it didn’t. She felt that it was imperative to know those rules first, to follow the genre boundaries, because otherwise it wasn’t going to fit that genre and therefore wouldn’t be a good story. This woman was upset at the time she said these things, so it’s possible she didn’t 100% mean everything she said, but I do think she did fully believe that perspective and viewpoint. There may have been other reasons going into why she said these things, perhaps something she had been told for her own stories that became a source of frustration for her that found an outlet in our conversation. I don’t know. All I know is, I will never agree with the idea that the value of a story is solely in the rules it follows, rather than the story itself.
**When you think you’re completely finished, set it aside for a little bit and read it again. You’ll probably find more things you want to change. And if not, you’ll have the satisfaction of work well done and finally finished. Maybe you’ll be able to see all the wonderful scenes you wrote more that way. I find that happens for me… I can be pretty down about what I write, but if I give myself enough time and go back and reread it from a fresh perspective, sometimes I surprise myself in reading scenes or interactions or wording. Sometimes I think that something I did was genuinely well done. It’s important to give myself that allowance, that acknowledgment, as much as it is to always remember that I will never write a perfect story, and I will never reach a point where I can’t improve.
But that can be part of the adventure. Where can you go next as a writer? The idea of getting better doesn’t have to be something negative, looking at all the things you did wrong and how you weren’t good enough the first time. In my darker days that’s how I see things, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be something incredibly positive. Look at how much I can still learn, look at how far I can still expand, look at all the growth I have available to me in my future. That’s amazing. That’s something that gives me an endless source of education–which will allow me to always and always reach out in new and improved ways, to forge new connections and strengthen those new and valuable understandings.
The book Incarnations was 20 years ago, back when I called it Calling of the Onyx, back when it had some of the same characters but was completely different, back when I was that 12-14 year old kid wanting to write a fantasy novel about a female main character navigating her world of magic, with her getting to be the savior instead of some random male character always taking charge–that book had potential, but it had a long way to go. I recognized that even then; knew it wasn’t as good as it could be, and that’s what made me stop before I finished it and start over, then start over again and again as the years passed, as I gained new life experiences, as I got a broader understanding of the world, as I had new ideas on how to improve or change or mitigate what I already had written. Calling of the Onyx was a passable book. It probably would have been considered good or at least decent for a preteen kid to write. Incarnations is so much better. Whether or not people will like it when it’s out, inherently Incarnations is a major improvement because I learned so much more in my life in the process of getting to the point where I could write a cohesive story, and finish the book for the first time. Now it’s part of a series, now it’s part of something much larger than it would have been before. There is great value in what was Calling of the Onyx, in the ideas I had back then, and that value helped inform the story I wrote over the following 20 years. But if I had stopped at CotO, if I had told myself I had to play by those rules only, I would have lost out on a lot of what came next. I wouldn’t have added so much more to the world building that I did, I wouldn’t have expanded the character base so much, I wouldn’t have done a lot of things.
Incarnations being a better book doesn’t devalue CotO; it honors what it was, and expands it into something more, something new with a reflective nod to the past. That’s what you can do any time you edit a story; value the old while honoring the new; honoring the old while valuing the new. With that willingness to listen to your thoughts and your betas, you can find a version of the story that fits its world or context best, without losing what makes it unique or meaningful.
+ + +
And now that I spent so much more time waxing poetic about editing, it’s probably way too much to go into examples of how I edit other peoples’ work. If that’s something anyone has interest in, let me know and I can find examples that won’t contain spoilers or privacy concerns, or show a way of editing my own work as if I were editing someone else’s.
I don’t know if anything I said in this long post is of use to anyone. I do have an inherent need to push back against rules that I see as labels that try to confine or define me in ways I don’t agree with, because that’s something that is sort of inherent to me as a person. As an asexual, as a lesbian, as someone who’s so often been on the outside of the “norm” in so many big and small ways, I react strongly to being told I have to be boxed in by other peoples’ expectations. That informs a lot of the way I write and read stories; I don’t want to feel stifled there any more than I want to feel stifled in my living, breathing life. I don’t mean to be rude to anyone who feels otherwise about the way they write or edit, and I am not at all saying they are doing anything wrong– if it’s right for them, then in fact it’s extremely right for them to do.
But if you are a person like me, a writer or a reader who feels the way I feel on these things, then maybe the way I look at editing or writing will help you. Because at the very least, you’ll know you aren’t alone.
+ + +
If that resonates with you, you may find some of the other posts I’ve made in the past to be helpful, like Never regret you and the Equality of Differences. Or, you may find some peace or connection in perusing my about Ais tag or my personal category here on my blog. Whatever you choose, I’m wishing you all the very best.