1.18.2011

Self-Editing: Before and After

I'm editing my old story "Vermin" so I can put it up on Smashwords today or tomorrow. This was my second published story, and in many ways it reads worse than my first one, which at least had received a thorough edit before it went to print.

"Vermin" wasn't so lucky. Believe it or not, most non-professional publications don't put your manuscript through a thorough edit before they run it. Proofreading is about as good as you can expect. And unfortunately I was still pretty wet behind the ears with this sort of thing. However, once it went live, I wished I could take it down. While I enjoyed certain parts of the story, it wasn't up to my standards even in the two months between acceptance and publication. I can now see why it took so long for the story to find a home.

This isn't to bash the fine people at the publication where it still resides in the online archives (hopefully to never again see the light of day in that form). They obviously saw a glimmer of promise in it and me, and even though the work is no longer up to snuff, it's still a publishing credit that gave me the self-confidence I needed to keep producing better stuff.

Still, the original version is a hot mess and I've been buffing away all morning. To illustrate, I'm going to post the opening paragraph of both the original published version and the one that is going to be in the Smashwords edition. Maybe you'll see what I'm talking about:

BEFORE:

Oscar drove his Rid-Rite Pest Control truck up the winding, steep driveway of the old Martindale house and ground the vehicle to a stop in the dusty circular driveway. The Cape Cod-style house had once been home to Senator Abner Martindale and his family, but had stood empty for over two decades. A large sticker with a bright red SOLD blazed across the front of a weather-beaten For Sale sign, as if to proclaim to the world, “I’m baaaack!”

Like I said, hot friggen mess, and the story was rife with paragraphs like this. There are too many descriptive words (winding, steep, old, dusty circular, etc). It's trying to tell too much in the space allowed, and it overwhelms rather than intrigues. Furthermore, the phrase "pest control truck" stumbles in the brain and on the tongue no matter how many times I've read it, and I struggled then to fix it before finally giving up. Never mind the redundancies of the words "driveway" and "house" in the first two sentences that someone should have caught--either the editor or me (the editor's eyes were fresher than mine at the time, so yeah, I'm pointing a very small finger).  It's also lacking a distinctive voice and tone. Two years ago, I couldn't have conceptualized such a thing, but I've improved somewhat since then. Time for the scalpel.

AFTER:

Oscar parked his Rid-Rite Exterminators truck in front of the infamous Martindale house.* The old Cape Cod had stood empty for over two decades, but someone just bought the thing. The weather-beaten For Sale sign now proclaimed SOLD!, which felt more like a taunt than a boast.
By contrast, we have an introductory paragraph that is both shorter and clearer. That tongue-twisting phrase is gone too. Why I didn't think of that the first time, I can't tell ya. I removed most of the infodump about it being a Senator's house and sprinkled that stuff more judiciously throughout the story instead. Finally, the last sentence adds both foreshadowing and voice, telling us something about the house and Oscar. The original version attempted to do the same thing, but the execution was clumsier.

Anyway, you might not agree with my reasoning here. Maybe you thought the original paragraph was just fine. Maybe you don't think the second paragraph is much of an improvement. But I feel a lot happier with it as a whole. I'm putting myself out there like this to demonstrate a couple points:

1. There is always room for improvement. Although it was an amateur market, this story was "published" this way. Someone paid me money for it. Not all published work is good work, and by the same token, not all good work is published. I have stories a million times better than this that I am still struggling to publish. Don't ever think your skill level has reached a peak. I may look on my "After" version in another two years and see what I could have done differently. But I figure I'll be done with such torture at some point. There are only so many unnecessary words you can take out of something before you have nothing left.

2. Less is more. Full stop.

*Thank you to my friend Karyn for leading me to think of an improvement on the improvement. The line originally read, "...in front of the old Cape Cod. The infamous Martindale house..."

2 comments:

  1. Interesting. The second one IS greatly improved, IMO, gives a clearer picture by letting me fill in the gaps, easier to read. You've grown a lot as a writer.

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