In The End…

So I’m working on a short story right now.

It’s going to run around 12,000 words when it’s finished, and right at the moment, I’m working towards the ending. Those aren’t easy for me, but they’re something I’ve improved upon over the years with a lot of practice.

I have some choices to make.

I’m not really a big fan of happy endings. They can be a little too trite, sappy, or obvious. I’m a fan of fantastically disastrous endings, of gritty endings. Endings that rip your heart out and make you want to hide in your closet and eat comfort food.

Yeah, that kind.

I also enjoy ending stories with realistic and ambiguous conclusions. But happy endings? Yuck.

One of my favorite stories of Stephen King’s is Thinner, and the reason it’s one of my top ten King books is because of the ending.

Not the book.
Image courtesy MorgueFile.

If you haven’t read it (which likely means you’re not a horror fan or younger than 25 years), here comes a SPOILER alert — they die at the end. They all eat the pie that contains the curse. The whole ending backfires so spectacularly it’s beautiful. Of course, the whole story is just one cruel irony after another, but that ending…it’s the icing on the cake. Or rather, the top crust on the pie.

Anyway, it stuck with me since the first time I read it (nine or ten years old), and my father asked me what I thought. I said “a happy ending.”

He looked at me puzzled. “You think so?”

“For the Gypsies,” I told him. He laughed. I had originally just been sarcastic, but it kind of evolved from there.

But it stayed with me. The ending was a calamity for the main character and his family. Just desserts, all over, and I found that to be much more satisfying than a happy ending where the main character gets away with all his or her bullshit.

So this ending coming up in my new short story…I’m having a hell of a time deciding what kind of ending I want to develop. I’ve grown attached to the two characters, but I’ve killed off characters I’ve loved before, so do I want to do it again? Possibly.

When I have a dilemma like this, I typically write three different endings, then find the ones that just don’t work, and toss them aside. If it turns out that two, or all three of them work (which doesn’t usually happen, but sometimes it does by a freak accident), I’ll keep them all and let the publisher/editor decide which one to use. In my short story that’s coming out in October, I chose just one ending and sent it in. Luckily for me, the editor liked it.

If you have trouble with endings, write those first. I used to have a lot of trouble rushing to the end or getting stuck and not writing one at all. It’s something I still have to work on, but it’s much improved than it used to be.

Practice. That’s the craft of writing. The art is in the words themselves, but piecing the story together is the craft.

Go Edit Yourself

Okay, for the purposes of this post, we’re going to pretend that you’ve finished your manuscript. So, now what? Do you submit it right away for publishing, let someone else take a look at it, or what?

Some of you already have an answer for this. You may have a beta reader or copy editor at the ready. Or, you might know a professional editor for a publishing company who is all too happy to have a look at your work for free and make changes (if so, don’t bother reading further, but I have a feeling not all of you have an awesome editor on hand like that). But if you’re stuck on what to do or the editing process is getting to you, try my method.

I have an idea that this is a common method among successful authors, and it seems to work for me, too (a semi-successful author…I’m getting there, damn it). You may find this works for you.

Put your manuscript away.

Don’t look at it for six weeks to eight weeks. That’s right. DO NOT GO NEAR IT. Treat it as if it’s carrying a plague. Don’t touch, think, or even glance in its direction. Go play. Enjoy your hobbies. Write something else. Work on your other projects. Set a chewing gum record. Anything you can do other than looking at the 50,000+ words you’ve just written.

You need a cooling off period. Why?

Because this manuscript is your baby. You’ve written thousands of words getting your story to just exist. To make sure your characters have their say. To wind up a plot that will, hopefully, make the reader feel something — whether that’s fear, laughter, tears, etc. doesn’t matter — you worked hard to create a piece that’s as engaging as it is -fill in the blank-. Therefore, you need time away from it.

Even if you don’t have a message to tell the world, you have a story to tell, and there are parts of it that might be intensely important to you that just aren’t pertinent to the tale you’re weaving. That’s why you need to give yourself some space.

It will help you be objective for that first cut.

For me, that first revision is the toughest. I used to try to go after it right away, and would almost always find that I didn’t want to cut or add anything. I would insist that it was ‘just fine’ the way it was.

Luckily my partner was able to knock the rose-colored glasses right off my face (metaphorically. She doesn’t hit and I don’t wear rose-colored glasses anyway.). She suggested the ‘cooling off’ period to me after something she remembered that a very successful author said (I can’t recall who it was now, but am fairly sure it was Stephen King).

Giving a manuscript time to cool off so you aren’t as in love with it is important to editing. After I took her suggestion, I found I was far less enamored with certain parts of my work than I was with others, and I found places that needed more details. I was able to cut more out and make better decisions. I had a clearer head.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to know what parts to keep and what to lose, but it’s certainly easier than just barreling through it all willy-nilly.

Two things to do once your writing is done:

  1. Leave it alone for two months…six weeks, minimum.
  2. Go edit yourself…after that period of time. Get it ready for another person to read.
After that, grab your copy editor or beta reader and let them have a turn at it. You might find you’re much more satisfied with the results.

Picking Up The Pieces & Making It into Something Worth Reading

It’s April, and that means it’s time for Camp NaNoWriMo, where you can write novels, short stories, screenplays, and just about anything creative with words. That also means this post is going to be brief (or somewhat brief, you know how I get), because I’m working on a short story for this month.

Funny — it’s a short story I had scrapped about three months ago, thinking it wasn’t going to go anywhere. The beginning was kind of slow, and I was beginning to wonder just where in the heck I was going with the damn thing. Sure, I had plotted it out and had an outline, and planned on where I wanted the characters to be, but something about it was just…fizzling.

I just couldn’t seem to get it to work.

I was crestfallen about this particular story, because I really wanted it to work. But no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get that story flowing. So, I gave up.

Now, I’ve scrapped a book or two when it hasn’t worked, and that’s okay. Just as long as it’s not happening with every single venture you start. That’s part of the writing process — knowing when to let go and put the story away like the proverbial lame duck. Time to find a successor and work on that, instead.

But this one was just something I couldn’t let go. The main character was too vivid to me. But, I put her away, too.

Then I just forgot about it and moved onto my other project — an editing of one of my current books. I typically (split my infinitives) go through a few revisions before I have anyone else look at my work in order to get it to where I’m at least partially satisfied with it, and then have someone else take a look. A couple of beta readers, in fact. They copy edit me and make sure the story keeps continuity. Then, I revise it once more and make them go through it with a machete and tell me what parts need to stay, what needs to be elaborated upon, and what needs to be cut.

So, while doing my edits of this novel, and my normal work as a freelance writer and editor, I’d forgotten all about my horror adventure short story.

Until one night my main character decided to tell me her story in a different way as I was drifting off to sleep.

No, I don’t get up and spring to my laptop or a notebook by the bed, because I follow the Stephen King rule of writing. If the idea is good, it’ll still be there later on when you’re sitting down to write. I’ve wound up scrapping too many works BECAUSE of the “holy gods I have to write that down RIGHT NOW” method, and it’s only ever left me with a bunch of ideas that never pan out. A few of my friends can vouch for this.

I let my character tell me her story in a new way as I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I went to work. I did my normal freelance work, and then turned to my personal writing.

I trotted out the writing project and fished out the short story, and lo and behold, the idea was still there. So I reworked the beginning.

It’s not finished yet — still about 8,000 words away from completion. But I know that when it’s finished, it’ll be a good story. Certainly not the epic tales of Martin, Tolkien, Rowling, King, or Lovecraft, but it’ll be a fun story that I loved writing. Hopefully you’ll even love reading it.

For me, that’s the point of writing and storytelling — to have fun doing what I love most, and to be honest, if that’s not why you’re writing, then you’re going to be miserable. Why be a suffering artist when you can just enjoy the hell out of it, instead? (Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration of both sides, but we can work on that later.)

Okay, so this wasn’t a brief post at all. The point is, essentially, that if you have a work that’s fizzling out, go ahead and leave it alone. Ignore it. Feed your other projects that are  working. Eventually, you might come across a way to revive your dead or dying work and give it new life and purpose.

Dreading The Editing Process? Don’t. It’ll Make You a Better Writer

I am a sensitive person.

Many writers are sensitive people. Whether they cover up their sensitivity with humor, a tough, tacit exterior, gruffness, mystique, intrigue, or paper towels — inside, you’ll find a sensitive heart. Of course, that just applies to most writers, not all of them. Sweeping generalizations can get a person in trouble (sometimes).

But one of the things that I’m not sensitive about is my editing process, whether it’s on my own or with an editor. (I actually love being edited.)

Why?

Because it makes me a better writer.

There are several objections that people have to being edited — having their words changed on them or critiqued. NOTE that I use the word ‘critiqued’ and not ‘criticized.’ There is a world of difference between those two. Critique comes from the sincere desire to help someone improve their work. Criticism comes from the desire to belittle another person’s work. So, for the purpose of this post, let’s focus on critique and the editing process.

The two main objections I have seen from people over editing are:

  • It won’t be ‘my’ work anymore. If some editor comes in and changes whole paragraphs, adding and deleting sentences, then it’s not ‘mine’ any longer.
  • My work must not be very good if it needs this much revision. I’m just an untalented hack!
Well, let’s tackle that first one. 

  • It won’t be ‘my’ work anymore. If some editor comes in and changes whole paragraphs, adding and deleting sentences, then it’s not ‘mine’ any longer.
BULL CRAP. When I was doing my creative writing course in undergrad at the University of Vermont, my professor, Margaret Edwards, addressed this directly, and I’ll paraphrase her here:
It is absolutely still your own work. Had you not penned those words to paper, they wouldn’t exist for me to edit and revise. All I am doing is massaging the text to make it smooth and to make it stand out. These words are yours, not mine.

Let me put it this way. You give me a vase to examine. I put a flower in it and hand it back to you. It’s still your vase, kiddo. Now it’s just got a nice, bright flower in it to make people notice it even more than before.
The work is yours. It wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t written it in the first place. All editing is, essentially, is window dressing to make people stop in and ooh and ah at what a talented writer you are.
Okay? Okay. Next!
  • My work must not be very good if it needs this much revision. I’m just an untalented hack!

HA HA HA! Okay, seriously, stop feeling sorry for yourself RIGHT NOW. This is what we call a ‘cognitive distortion.’ Emotional reasoning, all-or-nothing thinking, and labeling, specifically. Stop it.
The fact of the matter is, even the very best writers on earth who have lived and are alive now have needed serious revisions to their work. Sometimes they have to cut out entire chapters, and sometimes they have to add descriptions. They have to change phrasing, rewrite entire blocks of prose, and take a machete to their work. But they’re still fantastic writers. They’re top-notch. They’ll even revise three or four times before submitting it for editing, and then the editors will do a number on the manuscript.
So stop thinking you don’t have talent. If an editor is looking at your work and caring enough about it to make major changes, then you, my friend, are a good writer. You’ve got the craft and the art of writing. Shut up and revise that manuscript, and be glad that you’ve got what it takes to get the attention of an editor who sees tons of manuscripts every week.
Editing, essentially, is simply a process you need to make your work stand out and get the attention it deserves. Instead of looking at it negatively, look at it as an opportunity to grow as a writer. It’s good for you, and, of course, the best flowers do grow after a combination of water and crap (yes, fertilizer. I sort of made a poop joke there. Enjoy.).
Now, get writing!
This post is dedicated to the incredible editor extraordinaire at Random House, Mister Benjamin Dreyer. You can follow his funny, sarcastic, witty, and insightful tweets @BCDreyer. While you’re there, follow me, too, @Spellvira — I am almost hilarious at times.