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August 5, 2012

Thank you, Mr. Bowie.

About to take my son off to sleep-away camp for the first time. The moment feels slightly traumatic for me, less so for him, I think. At least it’s only a three-night deal, designed for first-timers.

I figured out a few years ago that raising a kid is about seeing them recede from you. There’s a picture that sums it up:

That’s the view, if you’re doing it right. Oh, sometimes they turn around for a short period of time to face you, for reassurance or support or such, but if they’re going to be out on their own as functional human beings someday, they need to gradually separate from you.

Sometimes “gradually” means “way too sudden,” of course.

Now comes the writerly bit. I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon with stories I write. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

The relationship between a story and its author has to become more distant as it progresses for the story to stand on its own, i.e., for it to be good enough to publish. This should not be news, for anyone who has finished a draft and attempted to start revising it right away. How did that turn out? I can’t speak for everyone, but I try not to let a draft go until it looks…adequate. Turning around and looking for issues on something you just finished that’s not in obviously bad shape is not going to produce optimal results.

Pro tip–something like AutoCrit WILL help you right away. If you MUST revise instantly or despair, use a similar tool that spots subtle mechanical flaws for you.

Beyond mere logistical concerns, though, there’s a different kind of distance that has to develop. You have to reach the emotional stage where you are willing to, as the saying goes, “kill your darlings.”

Note–there is no direct connection between this part and real kids. I wanted to clarify that before something unfortunate happens, okay?

You have to be willing to rip out passages of your best prose if they get in the way, to mutate (or eliminate) characters who aren’t pulling their weight, to add material your beta readers want, even if you think it’s superfluous. Your viewpoint must be that of a knowledgeable yet disinterested reader and editor, who has no emotional attachment to any specific part of the story, but wants it to be the best it can be, while still remaining itself. If you can’t manage this state on your own, an agent or editor will be happy to force you into it, should the manuscript get that far–so you might as well practice.

There are times when this breaks down, because there are stories I can’t fix without writing a different story entirely (albeit with some reuse of character or plot elements). Not many, but some, and thankfully mostly the short ones.

Note–again, we’ve left the opening allegory behind. I do not suggest having more kids if the first one doesn’t turn out right.

By the time a story is published, I think it should be something you’re proud of, but not something you’re still wanting to tinker with. Whenever I read accounts of authors going back and doing rewrites on their published novels, all I can think is “don’t you have a new idea worth developing?” Then again, I’d love to have that issue, so perhaps I should be less judgmental.

Do other people feel similarly?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jet permalink
    August 5, 2012 1:42 pm

    This is a great anaolgy. I think editing is gut renching painful. Hats off to you to sticking to so well.

  2. August 6, 2012 5:20 pm

    Nicely done.

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