Cait and I recently read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In the ensuing whirlwind of tidying at my house, I emptied out over ten year’s worth of binders. The binders were stuffed with handwritten pages of stories, journaling, and printed copies of stories and plays.
As I emptied out the binders, I kept coming across copies of the same two books. I wondered if I had accidentally started sorting the wrong pile. But, no. They were the same stories printed a dozen times, stuffed into binders spanning across the years. Two stories alone took up half of the binders. Even a slightly different draft earned the project a printed copy, as if something astoundingly new was coming out of the printer.
It was so obvious, with time between me and the stories, that the stories had become like the crib bumper I toddled around with as my childhood security blanket.
I found the remains of that bumper when I was cleaning stuff out, too. My mom had slowly cut away parts of the bumper until only a small square was left, so well-loved that the sheep on the fabric was nearly rubbed away and you could see the polyester filling inside.
I’d obviously loved those two book projects. But the stories had been loved–and edited–to death.
The harder I fought for them, the limper they got. I hadn’t moved on, let the story live and breathe in the form my abilities had been capable of conveying the first time. I’d smothered them with attention, cut them to bits, left jagged scars across the pages. There was nothing breathing there anymore.
As a writer-editor, I’ve become increasingly careful about preserving the writer’s voice, keeping the pages breathing even if the prose isn’t perfect. With more experience, I discover the power of a light hand–and the power of moving on.
Finishing a project and moving on is crucial to learning.
It’s the learning experience that counts. There are flaws within each story–but they’re not always flaws. Sometimes those flaws are like the flaws in emeralds, serving as essential character, the fissures of work behind the stone’s gorgeous green glow. Not every story is a glittery Gatsby diamond. It’s important to know what you’re working with.
If you pick and polish and indiscriminately nag your story, you could end up with a sorry caricature instead of an imperfect masterpiece. (That’s why it’s so important to NOT follow every piece of editing advice you read, and not follow every suggestion your CPs or editors gives you.)
With these things on my mind, I suggest this:
Do not edit with a mind to fix problems and eradicate mistakes.
Yes, there will be grammatical errors and smarter ways to phrase sentences. But fixing all of those “mistakes” could wipe out any hint of voice the book has. And that shouldn’t be the mindset behind the work anyway.
Think to yourself instead: Am I making the story stronger? Am I highlighting the good, using the unique features of my words to their best advantage? What is special here, vivid, brilliant, beautiful, amazing? Why did I love this idea so much?
Without new projects and new ideas, you won’t be able to grow as a writer. No matter how hard you try or how thickly you spackle on the paint, it just won’t work.
Embrace what makes the project lovely: don’t make it be something else. And then move on.