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Spring-cleaning your fiction: How to tidy up a messy draft

Two surefire ways to ensure your manuscript is lean & clean before it meets an editor's eye.

Roll up your sleeves, scribes. This month we’re spring-cleaning our prose.

We’re embracing revision, not dreading it. Our drafts are going to emerge from our linguistic boot camp leaner, cleaner, lighter, and swifter. We’re going to Marie Kondo our manuscripts. If a single word, a meager semicolon in our work doesn’t bring us joy, it’s getting the boot. And when we eject all the nonsense that’s weighing down our drafts, they’re going to sing so sweetly even the staunchest, grouchiest, Grinchiest of editors won’t be able to resist them.

 

When I say nonsense, I mean it quite literally: We must scrub out the elements in our manuscripts that make no sense in the context of the story. If we are trying to get to an inciting incident quickly, it’s a bit absurd to spend three paragraphs on your character’s past life as a zookeeper. If we are showing the reader villainous behavior, it seems foolish to waste words telling the reader a character is a villain, a bad guy, a bully, a real bad egg. If the clever joke on page four distracts from the emotional resonance of a sorrowful event, logic dictates we must cut it.

 

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Logic. Because the truth is – when we’re tenderly holding pages of a story we’ve cobbled together with our own mind, offering them to editors, knowing full in our hearts that it’s just the best and truest and most marvelous thing we’ve ever created – logic doesn’t always enter the equation. Logic, most times, isn’t even in the room. Logic is barricaded behind six deadbolted doors in the basement of our creative process, so far away from the buzz and hum of creation we couldn’t hear it if we tried.

 

The good news is there are two surefire ways to invite Logic back to the discussion before our stories meet an editor’s eye. One is relying on an honest, nonjudgmental critique partner, who can gently point out places where nonsense might arise.

 

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The second is time. Time allows our brain to shift from Writer to Reader, experiencing our stories as a stranger might. Only then can we analyze how the story is working as a whole without being distracted at the sentence level.

 

That’s the good news. The best news is that with more time, you’ll learn your own “tells,” the danger zones in drafts where you’re especially prone to writerly tomfoolery. Perhaps you lean heavily on too-long sentences and forget to write short ones; perhaps you are an adverb fiend, wasting words describing action instead of showing action. Perhaps you are a world-class dialogue writer who ignores setting; perhaps you are a champion setting-builder who ignores dialogue. You will build a checklist of these strengths and weaknesses that will make revision easier each time you attempt it. Don’t get me wrong: It’ll always be brutal, killing those darlings, but that checklist will make those darlings a little easier to spot.

 

As an editor, all I ask from any short story is that it has something to say. Clutter, nonsense, flab – all of these things obscure that message, making it impossible to hear a story’s truth.  Take some time and really listen to your stories. Ask yourself: What are they trying to say? And what in this draft is preventing them from saying it?

 

When you find it, cut it. Be bold, be merciless, be brutal. Because the real truth of writing is that so much of its power lies not with what you put on the page, but what you leave off.

 

Nicki Porter is the senior editor of The Writer. 

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