(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on the 21st. Become a patron and see posts early, get FREE ebooks before anyone else can get them, and help me on my quest to feed a family of five with my dreams!)
For a little while now, I’ve been kicking around the idea of going back and editing some of my oldest stories. I generally still like those stories from my earliest days of self-publishing — an immense five years ago, has it really been so little time? It seems like ages.
It’s exactly because it seems like ages that I want to create some revamped editions of those stories. Five years isn’t all that long ago, but it was only seven years ago that I decided it might be fun to take up writing for my own enjoyment again and only six years ago that I decided — okay, my wife persuaded me over my own self-conscious and self-deprecating protests — that I might want to write stories to share with other people, and maybe even sell a few.
I used to write in grade school, imitations of science fiction stories found in libraries and the steady stream of paperbacks my father devoured. But after placing only (!) third in a short story contest in my smallish school, I decided I must not be cut out for writing — I had absorbed, from somewhere, the idea that writing was a talent and not a skill, and I didn’t have it. I wrote a few short stories in my teens and twenties, for my eyes only. Still convinced that, though fun, I just didn’t have the talent to write good ones. The thought of writing disappeared from my horizon until my late thirties, when it finally sank through my thick skull — I think the credit goes to Stephen King’s On Writing, which my wife brought home for me from a thrift store — that writing was a skill, like any art, and takes practice and time for the skill to develop.
And so I started filling notebooks with my own writing and reading the stories I loved with an eye toward what made them fun and interesting to read.
Those early self-published works were published while my skills were still new, and they show it. Are they still good? I hope so — at the least, I think the concepts are sound and the basics of story are there. But after writing a hundred and something short stories and making my way through an English fiction writing MA (I’m in the final course of my program as I write this) I think my writing has evolved significantly in the last few years. And I think any writer who passes through the first five years of writing with the intent to be published does the same — the early years of developing any skill are the years of greatest growth.
Now here’s the bit that’s important to you if you are interested in writing and especially if you have enjoyed some of my stories:
I’m planning on writing a few posts along the way as I revise, and I’m planning on publishing new editions with the old text included after the new text for anyone who would like to compare and contrast.
I think it will be an interesting look into how a writer evolves, for you and certainly for me.
I’d love to have the old and new text side by side for easy comparison, but there are a few factors in the way, so one after another it will have to be. 1: my primary self-publishing outlet, Smashwords, doesn’t like columnar formatting. 2: even if I could finangle side-by-side columns they would look like hell on any device you’d read an ebook on, short of maybe a 40″ monitor. 3: my stories tend to lengthen with editing despite the fat I cut, and the comparison columns would soon be out of sync anyway.
But why, exactly, is any of that important?
Because as my patrons (if you’re not, I’m talking to you in the next paragraph, and this one is short, so I’ll be right with you), I’ll treat new editions of old stories exactly like new stories. You will see them on Patreon a minimum of 30 days before they appear anywhere else, and you will get a free copy in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI regardless of what I charge for the new edition elsewhere. This one I’m tackling first, “In Real Life”, is priced at $1.99.
Even if you’re not one of my Patreon patrons, you may not have read the original, and may find it best to wait and get the new and old editions together — and if by chance you bought the original ebook, once the new edition is released you *should* be able to download the new version from the original vendor you purchased it from. If not, let me know and I’ll hook you up after the patron-exclusive 30 days ends — you’re on the honor system; please be kind to this writer who needs every penny he earns to keep his 20 year old minivan running and the lights on at home.
Also, the story may get longer — at least three readers have told me that they’d love for it to be longer, maybe to reveal what happens next after the ending. Now, “tell us what happens next” is sometimes the bane of the short story writers — I, like many others, like an open-ended ending that invites the reader to imagine the possibilities beyond the end of the story — but sometimes it’s actually a good idea. I’m thinking particularly of “Isolation”, the title story of my Isolation and Other Stories collection, which ended after what became the first third of the story in the original draft. My wife read it and said, as near as I can remember, “hell no, you can’t end it there. It needs more.”
Sometimes the reader is right. “In Real Life” might need more. Or it might not. We’ll see. But like I said before, my drafts tend to grow during editing — just as, in the old saying, stories grow with the telling.
No matter how it goes, it should be fun.
Please don’t remind me that those are famous last words — let’s end on a high note.
(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on 24 February. Patrons — even if all they can spare is one thin dollar per month — see my posts first. They also get to see the stories I publish 30 days in advance, plus a FREE .pdf copy, even if I charge for the ebook everywhere else! So you should totally pledge. Seriously. I’m not making a hell of a lot of money doing this (yet!) and the budget is thin, thin, thin — you can see all its ribs, the poor thing. Make my budget happier. Happy, financially secure writers write more writing. Word.)
…so I can put it together better.
I don’t know how many of you know this, but I’m wrapping up an MA in English with a fiction writing concentration. I know, I know — what a huge surprise. It sort of made sense, and the bit of the financial aid that doesn’t go to paying for tuition and books goes toward keeping a roof over our (there are 5 of us stuffed into this little trailer) heads so we have a place to store the computer that I tend to school and work on.
So, in any event, it has been a good ride, and I think my writing is considerably better for the experience.
For my thesis, I am putting together a new collection, and I was working on a story that is part of it.
It was a good story. I liked it. My fellow students and professor liked it. And one of them suggested something (kicking myself — I should have thought of it! See the value of having someone to critique you? Not yet? Read on.) good.
Loosely paraphrased: “good story — but why not start where the action is?”
But how many times have I seen that very basic advice in the blogs and similar from writers and editors and readers?
Tons. (Lesson along the way: there’s a big difference between hearing or reading advice and actually taking it OMG I HAVE THE SUDDEN URGE TO CALL MYSELF NAMES) You probably have too. Now, not every story needs to start in the middle of the action. And “action” is a flexible concept. There’s no combat in my story, and we usually think “someone needs to be trying to kill someone” when we think action. There’s a big expedition to somewhere long-lost and mysterious in this story, and instead of having two scenes of lead-in with their own minor conflicts, I chopped them out and relocated them later in the story. So the “action” is just the characters departing from their origin and launching themselves into the unknown. But it’s more interesting than a slow lead-in, by a long shot. Then the structure cried out for another prelude scene buried later in the story, so I wrote one. And that made the characters, situations, the whole damn world of the story a richer and more interesting place.
The moral of this little story isn’t “always, always, always start in the middle of some form of action.” There are wonderful stories that don’t start that way, and maybe you’ve written and/or read some of them. Great.
The moral is, “don’t be afraid to chop up your story and rearrange the bits to see if it’s better off.” We have word processors. We can cut, copy, and paste. We can save multiple revisions in their own handy little folders. We can print if we want and rearrange pages, scribble all over the thing. Some of us (not me — spend money? I don’t have much of that stuff!) even have cool writer-in-mind software that lets us take a story apart digitally and rearrange it at will just to see how it looks.
Look, we’re creative people. Not just those of us that write fiction, but those of us who read it, too. Relatively few of us humans even read fiction. I think it takes a creative spark to read it and love it enough to come back for more without the whip of a teacher behind us and the carrot of a diploma in front of us. Something like a third of us humans never read a work of fiction again after the required reading of whatever level of education we have is behind us. Another third read “rarely.” That’s roughly what I recall, and I’m probably being optimistic about the numbers.
So being creative people, when we create something, we don’t want to change it. We want to think we have it right the first time, that our initial conception is the right one. We’re tempted to make small changes, not big ones. Not even just to see.
Make some big changes. Maybe you’ll waste some time, but you’ll be playing with something you like anyway — and that’s not a bad thing at all if you’re one to voluntarily sit down and write a story. No matter what you do with that story. Even if you write fiction only for yourself in a locked journal with instructions in your will to burn it after you die, even if you “just” write a little fanfic here and there to share with your friends or on a fan forum, even if you never mean to publish a damn thing.
Because sometimes those experiments with big changes pay off.
So is that all I learned? Nah. I learned a lesson I have to learn over and over again, each time a little better — I hope. I’m a hyperactive person, and I’m distractible. I may or may not meet the definition of ADD or ADHD — whatever I am, hyperactive is what they called it when I was a little tyke in rural Wisconsin in the ’70s. I’m impatient as all hell. I really want stories to come out great just the way I first conceive them. And it has taken practice and experience to get to the point where I’m willing to take my time, even sit on a story for days or weeks until I have fresh eyes to take it out and fiddle with it to see if I can make it better. To get to the point where I have found some balance between the humility it takes to listen to advice and/or consider writing a story a different way, and the ego it takes to say, “hey, this is my world, and I think it’s interesting. Come look at it.”
If I can do it, you probably can too.
I wrote this six word story earlier today on Twitter, and I realized that I had made a mistake. A critical mistake.
I semicolon-ed where I should have comma-d.
It makes a difference. It makes a BIG difference.
Even when what you’re doing is only six(ish) words long, editing is very important.
So without further ado, the corrected story:
He broke rules constantly, even in this.
Earlier today I watched a bit of the Zimmerman trial (if you’ve been living under a rock or live outside the USA where I’m guessing it’s not such a big news item, here’s a basic rundown) because I’m somewhat interested and also apparently a bit masochistic this morning/early afternoon. As I listened, something occurred to me: the literary world has something to offer the justice system.
We don’t need jurors listening to all this testimony, viewing all this evidence, listening to the lawyers work to spin it this way and that.
We need a board of editors instead. Think about it. Who else is more qualified to cut a story down to its essential details and throw all the fat away? Who else has seen more convoluted plots and worked to make something understandable out of them? Who else is trained to ignore flowery prose and overwrought adjectival constructions (which are basically what lawyers do when they’re speaking aloud)? Who else is experienced in stripping all that flowery-ness and adjectival overdoing down to terse, clear prose?
The only catch in my idea is the fact that professional editors just don’t have the time. They’re already buried under their slushpiles, I can’t imagine getting them to take on trial work as well.
What a shame. They’d be perfect.
My last entry included an excerpt from a work in progress, one I’m finishing up now. I’ve completed the first draft and am in the middle of a readthrough and editing… which goes slowly when you do it all yourself. The recommendation I see is that you never edit your own work.
I would add a qualifier: unless you can’t afford an editor. Maybe I could, just barely… but we live close to the bone and my family has given up quite enough already to help me pursue my writing, thank you very much. Executive decision: I do my own work. It’s an exercise in role-playing. S. A. Barton the writer and S. A. Barton the editor have to read the same story from different mental places. My wife is kind enough to read my rough drafts and give me her comments, which helps me make the mental shift and sometimes leads to some changes as well.
But I didn’t come here to write about editing your own/my own work. Not entirely.
I came here to say something about titles. I write my own titles, too. My family critiques my working titles, but the final decision is mine. Sometimes they change… and I think that’s a good thing. If my first choice of anything is always right, I start to question my decision making process. Nobody is right the first time, all the time.
When I started writing, my working title was The Landfill Down By The Pumphouse. Then it became The Pumphouse Down By The Landfill because I liked the sound of it better with the words switched around.
Then I was writing a line of dialogue near the end of the story. Having written the mundane line, “My name is Gerald,” I had to explain why saying that simple introduction, unremarkable to you or me, was remarkable to Gerald. And it was remarkable to Gerald, for reasons I can’t explain without giving away a major part of the story. Sorry, when a story is only 5,000 words long, you really can’t throw out a lot of spoilers without, you know, spoiling it.
The point is, I wrote the line. I realized it really meant something to Gerald. I explained why it was so important to him, and as I did that I realized I had to change the title again, and radically.
Here’s the cover. I hope to have it up on Smashwords in 48 hours or less.
- Aliens Are A Playground (sabarton.com)
- Introducing Project LOSK (ow4ow.wordpress.com)
- How I Write First Drafts (by Rose Hunter) (poemsforthewriting.com)
- 193. What comes first… (sevenscoopsoffun.wordpress.com)
- Update 3 – Working title and Progress (kashkurtin.wordpress.com)
- Don’t judge a book by its working title (smartbrief.com)
- Traffic Jam (gettingsomethenovel.wordpress.com)
- First draft – just finish it already! (aletteratatime.wordpress.com)
- 3rd Draft finished … or is it? (petedenton.wordpress.com)
- Three Things Every New Author Needs To Know (sinistralscribblings.wordpress.com)