Editing as Following the Story

I’m editing a lot lately. Here are some thoughts about finding the story’s true course when you already have an imperfect version of it in front of you.

I’m the kind of person who learns how to do something by doing it. And I realized something this time through the rewriting of an old story of mine. I’ve gotten better at what feels like an essential skill of my craft: following the story. Seem obvious? At the rewrite stage, this is very difficult to do. There’s a kind of inertial drift to the story. It goes this way, because it’s already down on paper this way. And something in me has tended to resist upsetting the order or the drift of the words already there. One has to get past that readerly impulse that treats a story as a thing complete, wrapped up in cellophane, observable but beyond shaping. “Following the story” is different than reading what you’ve already written. It may mean resisting what you’ve written.

The whisper of the story comes, for me, by way of nagging sensations of doubt. What is my hero doing here? What happened to the wound he received on page 12? Why is this land lush and green and not dry and wind-blown? Or why is it built up like a medieval fortress when it should be earthy and wild?

The key, the thing I feel I’m getting better at with practice, is the capacity to trace the offending element to its root and excise it. But rarely can you get away with a surgical removal. The thing that’s offending is bound up with your original misperception of the story. In taking it out, you are changing the fabric of the whole. And so, at least for me, you have to begin following the story forward again, from that point. You have to listen patiently for every change that your excision requires, as you read, edit, rewrite, rework, mold the materials of the story.

But it’s this constant listening, this ear to the story, to following its course as you would a fragile stream in a thick wood, under heavy brush and leaves, not knowing–again–where precisely it will take you. It’s the admission that you’re following–not reading, but searching out the story again. That’s key.

Note: This post originally appeared on my Blogger blog, here: Sideways-in: Editing as Following the Story.

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