Sunday, June 28, 2009

Narrative Inertia

By Lisabet Sarai

I love tackling Chris Garcia-Sanchez' topics. They invite multiple interpretations. The subject he proposed for this week is “Killing Your Darlings”. I wondered for a while whether he was talking about doing in one's characters, and I was going to write about Exposure, in which the hunkiest guy in the book gets murdered in the first chapter. Then I realized that he probably meant something quite different, the anguish involved in taking the editorial knife to one's own writing, cutting out the passages, the ideas, even the characters that you feel are not working.

I suspect that this is what he intends because we're crit partners and I know something about his writing process. It involves multiple revisions, each one often a radical change from the last. I've also counseled him fairly frequently that his early drafts are too long. But it's often tough for me to suggest what he should excise, because it's all so good.

Anyway, this is my post and so I should be talking about my own editorial anguish. I'll be honest, though. Rarely do I even attempt the type of wholesale revisions that other authors describe. I find that my work has enormous narrative inertia. Once I have a first draft, it's rare and exceptionally difficult for me to make significant structural or thematic changes. I'll tweak, I'll polish—I may eliminate paragraphs or even a scene—I may add sentences or paragraphs to heighten an effect or clarify an ambiguity. But there's no murder in my editing, no more than minor plastic surgery.

Sometimes I worry about this. Do I really believe that my first draft is so close to being “right” that I don't need to slash it apart to make it better? No, not really. If I wanted to work harder, spend more time, submit my stories for multiple crits, I'm sure that they could be significantly improved. But it would be really hard. Once I have a story out on the electronic page, it seems to acquire a concreteness that makes it highly resistant to change. It's not because the story is “my darling”, my words so precious that I can't bear to alter or eliminate them. Rather, it's the fact that, once a story's born, I can't imagine how it could be different. It takes on a life of it's own.

I work as a software engineer. I love writing programs. I always marvel that something that begins as a disembodied idea ultimately becomes an artifact capable of influencing real world phenomena. The air traffic control system, your local ATM, the business behemoth that is—all these things are mostly software, abstract concepts made manifest in the physical realm.

Writing stories, for me, is somewhat similar. First there are the ideas. Then by some miraculous process, the notions kicking around in my mind are transformed into a book that someone can read in bed, a book that may entertain or arouse dozens (or in my dreams, thousands!) of other people. Once the book is written, it is no longer as malleable as the ideas that inspired it

It helps that my second, lightly edited draft, even if far from absolute perfection, is likely to be good enough to get published. I'm not being conceited here. I don't think I'm a wonderful writer, but I'm a fairly competent hack. My ratio of acceptances to rejections is pretty high. (I only wish my royalty statistics were comparable!) I'd rather spend my time working on a new story than polish my current one into a glittering diamond of a tale that will astonish everyone with its brilliance. Especially in the fast-paced world of e-publishing, I feel that I can't afford to spend months editing and revising a single title.

I am learning, though—partly through working with Chris, in fact. I'm trying to force my way through the brittle shell that seems to surround my stories and rework them in fundamental ways, if that seems necessary.

I had an interesting and revealing experience a few months ago, when I was working on Truce of Trust. This 16K story grew out of a shorter tale called “Detente”, which was included in my Fire anthology. “Detente” is told in the first person present, and it ends with a M/M/F ménage. Claire, my editor at Total-E-Bound, liked the overall concept but asked me to change the POV, the tense and the sexual orientation (she was looking for M/F/M submissions), as well as to make the story substantially longer.

I knew that this would be rough, but agreed to give it a try. When I began, I found the process extremely difficult. Gradually, however, I gained confidence. The characters changed. The story changed. The initial premise was the same, but the final result was quite different. I hadn't revised an old story, I realized. I had written a new one.

Like all authors, I have discarded fragments on my hard drive. These chapters and scenes are more orphans than darlings, though. I'll work on something for a while and then lose the spark. If I'm bored, I reason, my readers will be, too. Or else I'll start something and then not have a clue as to how to develop it. Without the ideas to feed them, my stories wither and die. But I don't deliberately kill them.

I'll tell you a secret. Authors like Chris, who agonize over their work, cutting and rearranging, feeling the pain of wielding the editing scalpel, make me feel embarrassed and guilty. Embarrassed because I feel that I somehow should be doing the same, that I'm lazy and insincere and complacent. Guilty because I do manage to get published, even if my sales aren't what I'd like, while many true artists have a far more difficult time.

This week at the Grip, we welcome our new member Ashley Lister. Ashley will be posting on Thursdays, in the slot previously handled by Kim Dare. I'll let Ashley introduce himself. I'm sure that you'll enjoy him.


  1. Lisabet - you've been writing well long enough that I think you intuitively know when something isn't working. I know I do. We all at some point have to 'own' our work. I first heard the term 'killing your darlings' in my graduate MFA program. The idea was tortuous to me since it was the beginning of my writing career and I didn't have any writing success yet. The program was workshop format. My rule of thumb was if one person said something about making a change I'd mull it over for a bit but if two or three said something I'd written was making them stop mid-stream in the reading of the piece then I would really take notice. I hate killing my darlings. But I'm prepared to do it when necessary and like many a soap opera star, I keep them in the wings ready to make a cameo appearance in another story. Thanks for the post....Mary Kennedy Eastham, Author, 'The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget' and the novel-in-progress 'Night Surfing'

  2. Lisabet!

    My ego is thrilled by your post.

    I picked up the term "Killing Your Darlings" from Stephen King. In his context I think it means both editorially and narratively. In other words, you have to make your characters suffer. You can't treat them nice. But also you have to be willing to chop out deathless prose that isn't needed, darling scenes that don't fit. The owl scene in "Lady and The Unicorn"? I loved that scene. Had to chop it out. As long as my posts are, they start out longer.

    I dont know why you think of yourself as a hack, just because you're prolific. You're just blessed, that's all. A lot of so called "hacks" like Robert E Howard, H P Lovecraft, and Phillip K Dick are still in print and people will be reading their stuff a hundred years from now if anyone is still left to read it. I think your stuff will be there too.


  3. Lisabet, a true eye opener of a post. Sometimes stories don't need to be tortured to come out right, sometimes they do. Perhaps you tend to write those that are the 'leave alone cause they're damn good' kind. LOL


  4. Thanks to all for your votes of confidence! I only hope what you say of my writing is true.

    One thing that I didn't mention in the post - I do a lot of editing while I am working on the first draft. Every time I sit down to write, I reread the last chapter or so and inevitably make some changes.

    So maybe I am killing my darlings, just v-e-r-y slowly!