Doing the Beta Bop: Nothing better than a friend with a big knife

There is a rich literature on procrastination and writing… well, it’s simple. We put off writing, because it means abandoning that perfect vision in our heads, in favor of butt in chair,  fingers on keyboard, brain downloading, which produces something short of perfection.

Editing lets us take up the quest for the grail once more, with the proviso that what we produced in the course of writing is raw material. That’s a scary thought, given that even the most improvisational of us try to give it a shape, or have faith that it will assume a shape.

You have no idea what that shape might be, until you write it, let it sit, re-read it, let three or four of your closest beta-reading buddies read it. And that shape is elusive: it comes and goes in the mist. I’ve caught glimpses of the “true shape” of Erika and the Vampire three or four times since I finished the story in late May 2011. In the course of figuring that out, it expanded from a mere 5000 words to more than twice that length, and then back down to around 10,000 words. Among other things, I realized that I had summarized the scary stuff.

Then the singularly ruthless Devin Harnois told me, “This opening scene is too long. Here’s where the action starts.”

If you have friends like this, treasure them even if you don’t agree with them.

And if you have friends who are willing to take a knife to your work in tracking mode, and you trust their editorial instincts, take them up on it. A good editor is more precious than rubies. (That, and rubies cannot edit your manuscript.)

In fact, a number of twentieth-century literary reputations were made by tough-minded editors. F. Scott Fitzgerald comes to mind (Gatsby wouldn’t have quite so sparkling or precise without considerable editorial dialogue), but there’s also Virginia Woolf, who was writer and editor in the same package. She wrote nineteenth-century novels in first draft and carved twentieth-century novels out of the bulk, a process not unlike film editing.

I write this in trepidation because people with knives generally aren’t your friends. But if you find that friend who’s willing to wield a blade on your brainchild, and improves it in so doing (because your gut will tell you that it’s better, the honest reader-brain that looks over your shoulder after you’ve let the thing sit long enough to stop looking like your own work) then stick with that friend, feed that friend, and wield the knife yourself when asked.

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