We are deep in the bowels of winter, with the weather dropping fast to -30°F/ -34°C. At times like this, I pretty much become a hermit; I mean, I’m already a hermit, but now I don’t even go in my yard. And one of my favorite things to do in my hermitage is start planning for spring. (Kind of pathetic, I know.) I plot out my garden. I contemplate plans for the property. And I think about livestock.
One of the best things about spring is going down to the feed shop and bringing home a madly peeping cardboard box of pine shavings and baby birds. Gosh, I love chicks. They’re terribly fragile things, all hunger and hollow bones and soft down, but they’re unbelievably cute little buggers.
Last year, since we knew we’d be gone for the summer, we only got two little pullets instead of our usual haul of two pullets (read: egg birds) and a dozen or so Cornish cross (read: meat birds). I get a visibly different breed of pullets each year so that I know at a glance how old a bird is, and this year we went with the red sex-links. They came home as freaking adorable little ginger powder puffs.
But hardly more than a week later, I started to notice pin feathers coming in, rimming their wings, their nubby little tails. By the time we left on our trip, they were well into gawky adolescence, and then three months later, I came home to this:
Bwah? What happened to my powder puffs???
But my shock quickly turned into delight when just a few weeks later, they started pooping out eggs. I cannot eat cuteness. Eggs are much better.
I’m not saying that pets like cats, which provide me no eatenings, aren’t wonderful. But these birds are not pets. As much as I enjoy them, they are stupid, smelly, evil-eyed neo-dinos and the whole point of my keeping them is for meat and eggs. Chicks provide me with neither. Growth and change, as in so many aspects in life, are good.
The early life of a manuscript is much like the early life of a chicken. Just as I wouldn’t really want my chicks to stay chicks forever, I don’t really want my early drafts to stay immature forever. Assuming your literary goals are anything beyond the personal catharsis of writing (which is a totally legit goal), a story must change and evolve for it to reach its full potential and achieve those goals. A story that stays in first draft mode forever, adorable and joyful as it may be, will never make it off your desk.
I used to make only the most superficial of edits to my beloved manuscript. (Yes, there was only one at the time.) I might alter the dialog a little, or clean up the prose a bit. But I would never have considered anything deeper than that. If I found there was a plot hole, I’d patch it over with even more bad writing, seaming it up with poor motivations, unrealistic character actions, and nonsensical ‘traditions’ designed expressly to prop up the rest of the stagnant mess. If I found one of my characters was only there because I thought they were cool, or a scene didn’t need to happen but I really liked the setting in which it took place, or any of a thousand other instances of self-gratifying excuses for hack work- then I’d find some reason, any reason at all, to double down and dig that grave a little deeper. I spun wheels in that rut for ten years, actively stunting my own story’s growth in a stilted homage to fear and nostalgia.
It shouldn’t be that way. The first draft is an opportunity to get all thoughts down on the page, no matter how stupid. The second draft should be the opportunity to start hammering the stupidity, and all the glittery bits in between, into something lovely and coherent. Growing pains are to be expected. Sometimes you won’t feel sure if you’re making the poor thing better or worse. But the change is good. The change is necessary. Editing is what makes takes a bad (or mediocre or even good) piece and makes it better.
Growth in a chicken takes time and energy, and the careful instructions coded over four billion years of trying new things. Plan the changes; cull; experiment; be brave. And then give your beautiful manuscript the time and the work needed to be its very best.
Do you find yourself stuck in an editing rut? Picking endlessly at the same sentences without really changing anything? Next week, I’ll talk about my editing process- how I plan it, what I look for, how I decide I’m done- and I’d love to hear about yours as well. Join me next Monday, and until then, happy writing (and editing)!