Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Edit Like a Bully

by Riley Redgate

I've always thought that for writers, finding a strong circle of support is more than helpful—it's a necessity. There's so much negativity floating around the publishing world, from doubts about the industry as a whole to the odd rude critiquer one might encounter. Not to mention the inevitable self-doubt. We need people to remind us that dreams are possibilities, and that our goals are achievable.

Sometimes, though, we go too far. We find wonderful people; we find supportive and understanding writers and build a friend circle with them; we find beta readers who are tough and honest but never cruel or anything but constructive. And in the finding, we forget that there are cruel people out there.

Yep. It's obnoxious, but there are indeed those folks who roam the bookshelves looking for their next target of derision. People who are waiting to snort at your metaphors and scoff at your turn of phrase. People for whom the "benefit of the doubt" doesn't exist. (For some select books that have drawn the hatred of alarmingly large segments of the population, even normal friendly readers can turn into vitriolic book bullies. Example: the comments section of this video.)

Of course, this isn't meant to freak you out. It's just a friendly reminder that some people suck, and because writers who write for publication create work to be perused by all people—including those who suck—it's something we have to keep in mind. Turns out, too, that their lack of empathy can be helpful. At least, it's helped me, cynic realist that I am. Here are the rules I play by:

When you're editing, put yourself in the shoes of an absolute jerk. Read through slowly, line by line, and ask yourself, "If I were taking this not at all seriously, and reading it in an overly dramatic voice, could I laugh at this line? This phrase? This description?" Yep—pretend you're an absolute jerk who found a manuscript on the ground and has nothing better to do than joke about its contents with a few absolute jerk friends. It's a necessary step, because—while we all feel deeply about the stories we have to tell—when we're editing, we have to pretend there's no emotional context. We have to pretend we are those people who don't read respectfully, who don't even care enough to actually read rather than skimming. And then we have to tear our work to shreds so they don't do it for us later.

After all, if there's an opening, something in a sentence that could serve as a chink in the armor, someone out there could jump on it. Case in point: the video referenced above, and the entire series of videos that follows. (For those who don't want to click through, it's basically a YouTube celebrity reading through Twilight, picking out lines he finds particularly insipid, and mocking them.) Watching that footage reminds me of the terrifying possibility that—were my stuff ever to get published—that could happen to my work, too. Yeesh.

People always talk about "killing darlings" as if it's a horrifying prospect, but to me, what's far more horrifying is the absolute willingness of the reading public to go all-out psycho-killer-screech-screech on a book once it becomes "cool" to dislike that book. Once we distance ourselves, remember who we're writing for, and take everything we write with a healthy grain of salt, "killing darlings" stops being painful and becomes just another stepping stone to that seamless suit of literary armor.

And once you've done that, you'll have done all you can. Which means if someone does decide to take a jab at your writing, you can chalk it up to preference and not worry a bit.

Of course, this ferocious inner editor has to be shut down when you're drafting, otherwise it'll be an impediment to getting words down on the paper. In short, my tactic is this: Draft like your best friend is cheering you on. Edit like a bully.

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.


JeffO said...

Good advice, Riley. Just two things to add.

First, I found no link in your post, though I think I know who you're talking about.

Second, it probably goes without saying, but if you're editing/beta-ing for someone else, I'd say dial it back when you write up your notes for them. It's fine to read it like a bully, and it's also desired to be honest, but you wouldn't want to come off like a bully. You don't necessarily need to sugar-coat things, but you shouldn't be a jerk.

Riley Redgate said...

Hm, weird - the words "this video" should be a purple clickable hyperlink ... maybe it's a browser thing? Dunno.

But yeah, no, I absolutely agree with you re: editing or beta-ing other people's work. The type of vicious self-editing I endorse isn't something you need to hear from other people's mouths; there's never an excuse or a reason for gratuitous meanness when it comes to crit partners.

Debra McKellan said...

This is awesome advice!

Jemi Fraser said...

Brilliant Riley! I don't know if I'll ever develop that suit of srmour - but I'll keep working on it! :)