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February 4, 2020

Discovering What Matters: Editing and Your Life

Overflowing moving box with text: Purging What Doesn't Matter...In Our Story & Our Life

This week is full of chaos and exciting news for me!

Two-and-a-half months ago, a flood washed out the whole first floor of our house. Cue three weeks of an emergency pack-out and de-construction to rip out all flood-damaged material, then four-and-a-half weeks of reconstruction to rebuild our first floor, and finally—finally—this week we get to move back in. *whew*

The furniture all made it in from the storage unit yesterday, but today is all about moving in the two hundred or so boxes of stuff. And then comes the unpacking…which made me think about how much moving has in common with editing, as both make us question what matters. *smile*

The Benefit of Moving

Most of us have probably moved at some point in our lives. Personally, as my About page mentions, I once moved 14 times in a nine-year period (yes, really!). So in the past, I’ve been an expert at moving, but we’ve been in this house for a while (compared to my history anyway), and that means we’ve built up quite a bit of *cough* crap.

Before a move, most of us sort through all the piles and papers and stuff that never seems to get put away. The more things we move, the more the process costs us in time, money, and effort.

There’s a reason many people proclaim after a move “I never want to move again,” as the process is a lot of work. Getting ready for a move is often like a spring cleaning on steroids.

With this flood, however, all that crap was just thrown in a box for the emergency move out. That means all those piles—which might have been at least somewhat organized before—are now more random than ever. So we’ll be doing our sorting and tossing as we unpack. Wish me luck. *grin*

What Objects Matter to Us?

No matter what order we tackle the job, when we move, we often question everything we own:

  • What is the purpose of this?
  • Do I need this? (Do I really?)
  • Where’s the best place for this?

Those questions force us to decide what place everything has in our lives. What’s it doing for us? Does it “spark joy“? Often, we’ll decide that if we can get rid of something, we should get rid of it.

In other words, the process of moving helps us prioritize our belongings. If we hire a moving crew, we might go a step further and decide what things we’re moving ourselves because they’re too important to go without or to risk the crew losing or breaking them. Through this process, we discover what matters and what’s unnecessary, redundant, or just plain getting in the way.

The Parallels of Moving and Editing

Does purging things that are unnecessary, redundant, or getting in the way sound familiar? Obviously, those same bullet-point questions apply equally well to our editing process:

  • What is the purpose of this?
  • Do I need this? (Do I really?)
  • Where’s the best place for this?

What does moving to a new place have in common with editing our story? Click To TweetWhen we dig into our story, we ask ourselves what each scene, paragraph, and word is attempting to accomplish. Does it have a purpose in our story, or is it a tangent or distraction?

We ask whether each scene, paragraph, and word is really needed. Is it doing the job and accomplishing what we want it to accomplish, or do we need to rewrite because it’s failing at its goal?

And lastly, we might ask if each scene, paragraph, and word is in the best place to do its job. Would pacing improve if we moved it earlier or later, or do we need to rearrange for a stronger arc or emotional response in readers?

The Benefit of Editing

Just as moving helps us figure out which of our belongings are important to us, editing helps us figure out what matters in our story:

  • What scenes do we want to include?
  • What reactions do we want to create (in our characters as well as in readers)?
  • What pacing do we want for our story?
  • What seemingly “extraneous” words or ideas are necessary for our voice, story mood, or writing style?
  • What emotional response do we want to create in readers?

And just like with moving, there are no wrong answers. We get to decide what kind of home we want to create, and we get to decide what kind of story we want to create.

What someone else might think is unimportant junk, we might consider a treasured item with a purpose only apparent on a deeper level. Or a collection of bric-a-brac that seems random might be just what our home—or our story—needs to add interest and personality.

Know What We Want

In either case, we’ll have a better chance at narrowing down our things (or words) to those that matter if we know what we want for our home (or story). If we can see a place for something where it will have a purpose, we’ll be better able to justify keeping it.

I’ve talked before about how much of the writing advice we hear has been stripped of nuance. While most advice contains a kernel of truth, the advice might not apply to us, it might be overly simplified, it might be too extreme, etc.

One of those common pieces of advice that often loses its nuance is the admonishment to “kill your darlings.” The oft-quoted advice by Stephen King is usually originally attributed to William Faulkner: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

What's the nuance too-often lost in the advice to “kill your darlings”? Click To TweetWhat is a darling? Unfortunately, the advice too-often gets flattened into “kill any bit of writing you love.” That perspective has probably driven countless new writers crazy, as they attempt to figure out if they love something too much and now they need to cut it.

In reality, the idea is to not be so attached to any aspect of our writing that we resist changing it if it’s not working for the story. That’s especially the case if it’s not working for readers (such as being too confusing or resulting in an unintended reaction).

That said, if we know what we want for our story, we should know if (or how) that section serves a purpose. If our darling was supposed to accomplish a goal, we know to reword rather than just follow the advice to kill-slash-delete the section. Think of the advice as a way to give darlings a closer look, not as a rule on what to do with them.

In other words, knowing what we want for our story will help us know how to fix issues. Beta readers, editors, and readers are likely right about how it’s not working for them, but they’re not necessarily right on how to cure the problem.

As author Neil Gaiman says:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Only we know what we want for our story. And just like with the process of moving, the process of editing an help us figure out what really matters in our writing. *smile*

If you’ve moved before, did you purge many of your belongings as part of the process? What questions do you ask yourself about your stuff when preparing for a move? Do you see other parallels to how we approach editing? What questions do you ask to ensure a bit of writing matters to the story? What’s your take on the “kill your darlings” advice?

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Ruchama
Ruchama

As a Faulkner reader and lover of his sometimes pages long sentences and his lovely overwritten prose, I was dubious about the attribution. After all, this is the man who claimed he wrote one novel while in a hay loft with a jug of moonshine and didn’t come down until both were finished. So I checked (via google, how else these days?) and found this: https://slate.com/culture/2013/10/kill-your-darlings-writing-advice-what-writer-really-said-to-murder-your-babies.html

As for me, personally, I love editing my writing, including killing off what needs to be killed. On the other hand, I find editing my library and my fabric stash too formidable to attempt until I have a lot more energy than I do now at age 77. If I do decide to start editing library and fabric, I’ll wear a customized tee-shirt saying, “I’d rather be writing.”

Dawn

I love the Neil Gaiman quote! I once had a content editor that thought rewriting my entire first chapter was a good idea. She completely turned my main character into a stereotypical jarhead. Granted, he was wishy-washy but making him the exact opposite of what I needed for my story was a far worse crime.

I love the analogy of moving and editing. I start out being excited about the prospect of getting organized but my dread for it grows by the day.

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