Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What to edit: personal details vs. fluid story

When I edited my short story, "What the Market Will Bear," for e-publication, I cut about 500 words from the manuscript that I'd been sending to editors. This tightened the story, at the expense of a few, what we could call, "personal details." However, the cost wasn't very high: it's an 8,000 word story, so there was still plenty of character to go around.

But it made me start thinking about editing, and, in particular, why I normally don't cut those little personal details, anecdotes, and stream-of-consciousness absurdities from my stories - despite the fact that, without them, stories are almost invariably "tighter." I keep wonky little bits of detail in my short stories, however, because stories - even the short kind - are about characters, and characters are nothing without their 'ittle bits.

The maxim of, "cut, cut, and cut again," far from belonging to a suicidal's miscellany, is rather the industry standard advice for writers revising their manuscripts. In a lot of ways, this makes sense. When you first write a manuscript, a lot of random stuff gets in there; in revision, you ought to remove the pieces that are obstacles to the story.

The problem arises when you start to realize that what seem like obstacles to plot actually help develop story, if your story has any interest whatsoever in the peoples and worlds it contains. To wit: a recent story of mine contains a character who, at two points in the tale, listens to "audioporn:" a cassette tape of, effectively, sex sounds. This detail has utterly nothing to do with the story; the character doesn't defeat an evil demon or an alien menace by figuring out that, say, these creatures abhor audioporn, and, should he link his cassette through an amplifier, his enemies will be vanquished. He just does it, just like I enjoy eating pickled onions and reading in the bath. It's fun - and funny - and so I've kept it in the manuscript, because that detail marks out who Ty (the character in question) is for me in my creative consciousness.

I'm a big fan of fun characters, so keeping these kinds of ridiculous details in my stories makes sense to me. At the same time, I know there's a balance to maintain with fluid story. Depending on the length of a particular tale, more or less detail might be appropriate. But I'm kind of getting sick of characters whose every flaw and facet contributes to the resolution of the plot. And so, even when I'm being my own editor, I'm retaining those details that the conventional wisdom says to chuck, because characters - even shallow ones - are a deep part of story.

...that, or I'm just making excuses not to cut, cut, and cut again.

-bn

1 comment:

  1. Yes, it seems every panel I've been to about editing has had a really strong emphasis on cutting out as much as possible from your stories. I have a rather hard time with this, unfortunately. I go through a story a few times to cut out every sentence and word that I decide isn't necessary, but that's never nearly enough it seems. Good luck finding a balance with that.

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