A year on since we started Death Of 1000 Cuts, it’s immensely gratifying to hear all the positive feedback from regular readers. A few people on Reddit and Twitter have called me an arrogant dick, and you know what, they’re probably right. As John Scalzi succinctly put it, the failure mode of clever is ‘asshole’.
Still, I think most of you get that my primary motivation is a positive one. Honest, articulate feedback is hard to find and hard to receive. I find it as hard as anyone. When I receive competent, solicited criticism of my fiction, my gut response is not: ‘Hooray! Thank you for your shrewd eye and courageous commitment to the truth, dear comrade,’ but: ‘Oh God, I’ve got no idea how to fix this. Why aren’t readers smart enough to get it as it is? Why do we live in such a broken, myopic, anti-intellectual, moribund world? *RIPS OPEN SHIRT* Strike me down, Lord! Take me now!’ Even though I asked for it.
The flipside to that is, whenever I ask someone to act as beta reader for me and they get back with ‘yeah, it was good’, I’m mistrustful. Not that I think they’re lying, exactly, but ‘good’ isn’t why I write, and I doubt it’s why you write either. My goal is to write awesome stories. Miss-your-stop, drop-spag-bol-down-your-shirt, not-now-honey, no-sleep-till-the-chapter’s-done stories. The ones that leave a hole when they’re gone.
I’m not saying I’ve ever achieved that, but that’s the goal, and I don’t think it’s a silly or grandiose one. I want my reader to have the quality of experience I’ve had with really, really fantastic books. Obviously there are lots of factors like subject matter and your age and what’s going on in your life when you read it – I don’t have control over those things. But what I do have control over is how I invest my only currency – words – sentence after sentence, page after page. If I think the story I have to tell is worth sharing, then getting the way I tell it as right as I can manage is just due diligence.
If you’ve been reading Death Of 1000 Cuts over the last year, probably you feel like you’ve picked up a few tips on how to sharpen your prose – even if you’re not a fiction writer (yet). Focusing that editorial eye can be an empowering experience. So much of good fiction is about craft, and so few novice authors bother putting in the gym time to develop theirs. It’s less glamorous than all that farty waftery about inspiration and getting in the head of your characters.
Personally – and I know from speaking to other authors that I’m not alone in this – I find editing immensely fun. It’s when the story starts to read like an actual cool thing and not the discursive rambling of a drunk uncle with concussion. Unnecessary words get nixed. Weak words get replaced with stronger ones. Dumb filler dialogue becomes sweet resonant zingers. We rerun the scene again, only this time, instead of shuffling out of the drawing room meekly, the abashed nephew kisses his uncle fully on the lips, and refuses to disengage. We switch variables, we test the results, and we find out what works best.
But here’s the thing. If you sit down in front of a blank page and focus on the rules of composition, the big no-nos of writing fiction, all the stupid blunders you might make, you will end up writing and deleting variations on the same sentence all day, before slamming your laptop closed in disgust.
Believe me. I’ve done it.
Editing is a tool. We use it at a specific time, to achieve a specific purpose. If you build your shrewd, no-nonsense editor muscles without building your creative-shitstorm, bollocks-to-the-rules artist muscles in equal measure, the result is constipation. Uh… I know that doesn’t really fit the muscle analogy, but I expect steroids probably fuck up your bowels, so.
It’s essential that every skill you learn in Death Of 1000 Cuts, you are able to throw away. Actually cracking on with the first draft of a novel requires a completely different suite of creative strategies, mostly to do with enthusiastically accepting ideas and generating more than your novel can fit.
What happens next? you ask yourself as you approach the end of the scene. Here’s a great way to shut yourself down:
I’d better make sure I don’t come up with any stupid clichés, or something implausible, or something I’ve done in a previous story, or some inadvertently insensitive trope.
Don’t misunderstand me: those are all good flaws to test for in the editing phase. But when you’re writing, trying to innoculate yourself against mistakes is a surefire means of putting your creativity in a coma. A better tactic would be:
What are 10 things that could happen next?
By which I mean, 10 mutually-exclusive things. The brain responds much better to a bulk demand than a request for a single right answer. Embedded in the question is the knowledge that at least 9 of the answers will be thrown away. That’s hugely liberating, and it stimulates the flow of ideas. You can go further:
What’s the dumbest fucking thing that could happen next? What’s the worst, most offensive thing that could happen? What are 10 other scenes in fiction I could steal from? What have I done before that I could repeat here?
By deliberately going for the stuff your rational mind tells you will be bad, you’re freeing yourself from the burden of producing brilliant ideas everytime. Instead, you can have fun. With each stupid, unworkable, rude idea, your creative mind will gain a little more bulk. And you know what? You might just stumble across the brilliant, audacious move that caps the scene perfectly.
Your sensible, compassionate, rules-led editor can return to the wreckage later and tidy things up. A lot – most even – of what your crazy artist side comes up with will be bad. If you’re letting him/her/them do his/her/their job right, some of it will be positively shameful. Shocking. Absolutely unfit for human eyes. If your internal editor doesn’t cringe at least once every pass, maybe your artist side is still in shackles.
What I’m saying is, there’s a time and a place for scissors. And I’m not advocating you go easy on yourself when the time comes for revision. But as you read this blog, and find new ways of refining your fiction, please don’t lose your delight in mischief. Remember that all good art starts with play.