Brief Thoughts on Self-Editing

I’ve been going back and doing some revisions on some projects I’m close to finishing up, including a handful of my own short stories and those of a friend. It’s funny going through someone else’s drafts and being made aware of exactly how different the story would be if you were the one telling it, even if the plot structure remains entirely the same there are so many different things I would focus on in the telling. And that’s not a dig at how it was told, I just find it endlessly cool that two storytellers can make radically different tales out of the same plot beats.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that my own stuff requires far less editing than anything I’d done prior. I’ve still had to take a hacksaw to some parts and had beta readers go over it with fresher eyes, but for the short stories I made a sincere effort to… Not quite outline, but tentpole things.

As I have mentioned before, I’m very much an exploratory writer. I like to discover things alongside my characters. For most of the stories here, that just would not work because they deal with massive twists and need to have a lot of foreshadowing woven in leading up to them so they don’t feel too deus ex machina. My exercise with this set of stories was that I’d go into each one knowing a few specific points:

  • Central conflict, even if it came down to a one sentence summary of what is driving things alone.
  • The first plot point, which is the moment when the conflict is made manifest even if the reader doesn’t realize it quite yet, typically within the first 10% of the story.
  • The second point when the protagonist stops being reactive and begins being proactive, displaying some agency. Usually around the halfway mark.
  • The final point is where the protagonist becomes aware of the conflict in its entirety, usually somewhere in the last 25% of the novel and typically a result of becoming more proactive, either a reward for trying or a punishment for meddling depending on the tone of the story.

It’s a mutation of the three act process that many people tout and it works well for me, at least in the short story format. I’m sure if I added pinches between the three major points and used the conflict sentence as an elevator pitch or back blurb I’d have something I could structure a novella or novel around, which is something I intend to force myself to do at some point soon just to get out of my comfort zone of exploratory writing. It’s one of those things where it works so well on the small scale I’d like to try and replicate it on the larger one.

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artist’s interpretation of the realization that you need to add two chapters to make the finale work

The major benefit I’ve found is that I don’t have to go back and find places to jam in foreshadowing once I know how the story ends, which was always the biggest eater of time and effort in previous storywriting. Extensive rewrites to add that usually just meant that the first draft turned into a very large, bloated outline that I had to chop apart anyway. I don’t think I lost too much of keeping the characters organic and their actions driven by agency rather than plot, because even though I knew where I wanted them to get I largely allowed them to get there paragraph by paragraph rather than adhere to a stringent plan. This was particularly important with a couple of them that pushed me way outside of my authorial comfort zone and had me writing as a female arson investigator and a pair of male desert warriors from a culture utterly alien to my own.

Honestly, looking at the time invested, I had to put a lot more into planning it but I didn’t have to cut hundreds and hundreds of words out and re-arrange scenes to make them gel better, so even if it took about the same effort it felt like a nicer and smoother project from start to finish. Ten hours to churn out a piece from start to finish gives more of a sense of accomplishment than getting it done in six hours but realizing you still have to spend for pulling it apart and putting it back together with duct tape and chewing gum.

Outside of that, I’ve finished the rest of those books on Turkey/the Ottomans that I picked up at the library the other weekend and most of the stuff on the transition from the early semitic people and the Sumerians being integrated into the Akkadian empire, which is something I’m using for inspiration when it comes to the mythology of my story. It’s predominantly early 20th century for the plot itself but shaped by events thousands of years prior and man, old Babylonian stuff is great brain fuel for that when all you have to go off of for historical records is a listing that claims some kings reigned for hundreds of years and regularly went out to exchange bodily fluid with the gods that still walked the earth. I’ve also finally gotten my brain back in fighting shape for dry historical documents after going some time without reading any primary or secondary sources for more than a few chapters at a time. When I started this batch of stuff it took me half a week to work through a 500 page book and by the end I was cruising through 300 pages in an evening and coming up with pages worth of notes in the double digits (admittedly I still need to go through and get those organized in some digital format since they’re all on scratch pads, but hey).

51GsZenbbCL._SY346_.jpgHaving nothing to do with any of that, I also finished up one of my more anticipated novels of the year, Ghost Talkers by Mary Kowal. It’s good. It’s almost everything I wanted. Kowal does some of the best historical fantasy out there today and this one is in a criminally underused era, the supernatural side of WW1. England is doing quite badly, as are the Triple Entente forces in general. They finally get a leg up on the Germans when they figure out how to reverse engineer occult texts from the 18th and 19th centuries and create seances on an industrial scale, binding soldiers to return to the homeland at the moment of death to report enemy movements and other details to a host of dedicated spirit mediums. It plays with the Victorian fascination with spirituality and the resurgence of ghost folklore in the era, along with it rapidly being pushed out of the pop culture. In this case it’s intentionally pushed out prior to the seances being deployed, funded by the British government to try and keep the Germans from finding out what’s happening or discovering that ghosts even exist. Because there wouldn’t be much of a plot if they didn’t, the Germans do discover this and the bulk of the novel explores the back and forth of the British ghost talkers trying to adapt to new strategies the Germans are using to disrupt the tactic, like blinding soldiers before killing them so they can’t see any useful details to report, or using increasingly brutal means and powerful explosives to flood the seances with too many ghosts for them to process in a timely manner, masking the important troop movements and surgical ambushes. My one complaint is that I wish it had taken this angle more instead of turning into a bit of a spy thriller with the protagonist attempting to track down the traitor(s) who leaked the information to the enemy in the first place. It’s a well written spy thriller with a great cast, but it left me wanting more details and more information on the magic of the setting and the creative ways that the various military forces make use of it. Still, there’s always sequels and Kowal isn’t a stranger to those, her Glamourist Histories ended up four novels long and felt fresh and new up through the end and I’d love to see something similar here. Having just come out of my big study on the Ottoman front, that alone could provide fodder for multiple books in this setting when you start to explore the clash between Islamic, pre-Islamic and various Judeo-Christian takes on spirits and ghosts in an incredibly turbulent and deadly territory.

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