I’m pleased to host Shelly Frome. Read his impressive bio and you’ll see he’s well-qualified to talk about any phase of writing. He’s chosen Storytelling and Editing today and I’m sure you’ll find it interesting. Leave a comment and let us know if your MO is different from his.
Storytelling and Editing: navigating the tricky waters
by Shelly Frome
Years ago, in order to earn some extra credit, I took a course in creative writing at a little college in
There I discovered women who were working on a novel and had signed up for the same course over and
over again. Not only that, but they were still working on their first chapter.
As encouragement, the instructor and fellow classmates would make comments
like, “I see so much improvement. Those hibiscus bushes are becoming more and
more vivid with each draft.” At that juncture I promised myself if I myself ever
tackled a novel, I would never get stuck in the hibiscus bushes. Nor would I
try to please a group of very pleasant well-wishers. I wasn’t sure I’d try to
please any group at all. Miami
But even on your own, there’s the left part of the brain that monitors and judges and the right hemisphere that just wants to carry on and be given free rein. Moreover, how on earth do you bridge the gap between what you think or hope you’re creating and the needs and responses of the publishing world?
And so, on my first pass, I tried my darndest to cram in as much information as possible so the reader would see there’s really a lot going on here. Scott Meredith, the noted New York agent, told me you can’t do that. No reader could possibly take it all in. Later on, I read the advice of the late novelist and college instructor John Gardner. He noted that you should always think of it as carefully feeding a hammer mill. At the same time, a popular author wrote a guide revealing his secret: you spring forward and then fall back to gradually let the reader in on what’s going on. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott claims you should keep going until the very end. Accept the fact you’re going to wind up with a lousy first draft which the editor inside you can tackle and fix. One best selling writer believes it’s like taking a car trip in the dark: using the headlights, knowing more or less where you’re headed but allowing yourself to turn off at any time to find what’s really out there.
There are, of course, no hard and fast rules. For what it’s worth, I myself use a variation. Though I more or less know where I’m going, I can’t seem to take another step until I’ve polished the chapter I’m on. All the while I leave myself open to discover things—what this character’s really like, some twist in direction I wasn’t expecting that’ll necessitate major or minor adjustments. Then I’ll go back and read, say, all the beginning chapters to see if the story really hangs together with a compelling through-line.
In any case, I try not to get stuck in the hibiscus bushes, self-editing so much that I’ll never finish the journey. Never self-edit to the point where I’ll avoid diving into some dicey scene and allowing it to “catch fire” as the playwright Tennessee Williams used to say.
When you’ve done your very best, you can send it out there and hopefully find a match with an agent or publisher. Or, just to make doubly sure, you can latch on to a reputable, professional editor who has a track record handling your particular material. After he or she gives you the green light, then you send it out. Once you’ve finally placed it, more editing will be asked of you.
However, if nothing pans out, you can still look into a decent e-publisher or one who does both hard copies and e-versions, safe in the conviction you have something worthwhile to offer.
In my own case, I spend so much time striving for a solid foundation and trying to satisfy both parts of my brain, more often than not, my own independent publisher will accept the final draft. At that point, he’ll assign an editor who will make further suggestions. Only after all this will my final draft be as final as it’s going to be and ready to reach readers’ hands. Or again, in Tennessee Williams’ words, ready to “rely on the kindness of strangers.”