When I think about writing, one really important question comes to mind: why don’t we have jerseys? I’m not talking about replicas. I’m talking the real deal. Practice ones. Game ones. Full-on writing equipment with equipment managers.
To me, Writing is like a sport. But the question is, is it a team sport or an individual competition. My favorite scene from one of my favorite movies, Vision Quest, is when Louden Swain states emphatically, “Wrestling is not a team sport!” Then proceeds to climb the pegboard while his teammates gather around and cheer him on. If you haven’t seen it, you should:
You’re welcome! The whole movie is genius but that scene has always been my favorite. Even before I was writing. When I was just a reader. But now that scene gets to me on such a profound level because it completely depicts the writing life.
We start out training like the wrestlers do in Vision Quest. As a team. A critique group. An organization. A workshop or conference cohort. We hone our craft there, practice our literary moves. Then when we feel we are good enough, we try to climb the pegboard. And some of us make it. And that makes the rest of us clap and cheer and believe it can happen for us, too.
But what about all of the alone time? The butt-in-chair stuff that no one sees. The rough drafts and first tries no one hears because they are too dreadful to trot out in public? Those come just from us. We can use a writing coach (I definitely do). We can put our writing tribe on text on demand notice (I do that also) to help answer our plot questions and character moves. But it still comes down to us. What we do in that chair is what counts. After the critiquing. After the Beta reads, we are the CEO of our work. So how do we self-edit? Very carefully (cue the evil laugh)
These are my steps for self-editing. They’re not pretty, but they are essential. My version of writing bootcamp. Get ready to puke.
- Any part of your book that you think is sooo creative, so awesome that you continuously rubbed your hands together like the evil genius you were when you wrote it? Yeah…they probably need to go. Kill your darlings does not just refer to clever passages and favorite quotes. Huge artistic insight on the day of inception often comes off as contrived and unbelievable on the paper. Love at first sight doesn’t always end well. Look at those babies and be sure they serve your book. If not, Bbye. It isn’t you, it’s me. No, it’s really you.
- As you are carving and adjusting and looking for darlings to kill, is there a part of your manuscript that you figure you’ve read so many times that there’s no reason to read again. Or parts you feel are so solid there’s no reason to look at those? Yup. You’ve got issues there. If you find your eye scanning and skimming parts of your book, that could be the sign of a pacing problem. If you are bored in parts of your manuscript, how will readers feel? It’s time to get real or go home.
- You made it through the warm-ups, are you ready for the combines? I hope so because it’s time to dig deep and get aggressive. Here’s where you look at every single word in your manuscript. Every one should serve a purpose. Should inform character development. Should advance plot. Should act as subtext. Should create literary rhythm. Should work on more than one level. If your words aren’t working as hard as you are, they go. Sorry. You come to win or you watch the game from your couch. True story.
- Now it’s time to check your manuscript for characters that are slacking, actions that don’t progress plot. Look at each one of your scenes as if it’s a still picture in a film. I’ve actually done that with DVD’s. O Brother Where Art Thou is one worthy of this exercise. Every single shot is perfect. Every one. If any of your characters or scenes are just phoning it in, it’s time to break up with them.
Writing is a bad boyfriend. It’s true.
But nobody said climbing the pegboard was easy. You are not here to make friends. You are here to do outrageously hard things. You are here to win the National Championship. To set new personal records. To lift Lord Stanley’s Cup and drink a huge monster energy drink out of it. And when you’ve done all of that, when you’ve brutally embraced your manuscript. When you’ve committed to each word, each scene, each plot decision. Then you can hit the showers and celebrate like a champion! Cue the cheerleaders and the band. Cue the equipment manager. Because you’re going to need a clean jersey for tomorrow’s session.