The Monster’s Eyebrows, Or How Not To Finish A Story

Eyebrows can also help portray empathy.

Just a few more…damn it! Now I need to start over again! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I fucking love editing.

Yeah, I know. Weird: I am it. But there’s something very…freeing about doing all that cutting. Like spring cleaning. It’s a chore in a way, but I love getting rid of all that junk and clutter. Emptying drawers, shredding old documents, dropping boxes off at the charity bins…It’s like casting off a weight I didn’t realize was holding me back. Once it’s gone, I’m lighter.

Editing is the same. Cutting out all the pieces that don’t fit, piecing together what’s left into a leaner, more dangerous whole, taking a piece from raw iron to a steel blade…there’s a very unique sort of pleasure to that. Different than the initial rush of writing, but just as rewarding.

But there’s a right time and a wrong time to edit. And the wrong time—at least for me—is before I finish the first, or zero, draft.

I know, it’s so tempting. All those little mistakes* are just sitting there, waiting for your loving correction.** They stare at you every time you open the damn document, mocking you with their sheer fucking wrongness. Oh, hi, they say. Remember that bad day you had a while back, when you couldn’t put two words together to save your life? When everything you wrote seemed clumsy and trite? Well, it was! And we’re the record of that! Isn’t that fun?

Assholes.

But if you go back and fix those, then you’ll fix something else. That character that wasn’t quite gelling, the dialogue that doesn’t work, something.

And then something else.

And then you do a complete rewrite of the first chapter.

And before you know it, you’ve lost the story. So you go back and rework the opening again. And again. Sooner or later, you get bored and move on, but it doesn’t matter, because the story is dead.

My friend Sherry (who blogs here) says that editing before you finish the zero draft is a great way to have a lot of really great beginnings. And nothing else.

So step away from the red pen. No one found that harder to do than me. I love editing. The red ink flows like the blood of my enemies. Tearing something apart, stripping it down to the bare bones, and then rebuilding it into a monster… Man, what a high. But do that before the first draft is done, and you’re not rebuilding. There’s nothing there to rebuild yet. You’re like Dr. Frankenstein getting caught up in making sure the monster’s eyebrows are straight*** without taking the time to lace all those bones and guts together right. You’ll end up with a perfect face and nothing to hang it on.

So remember: guts and bones first. Then you can go back and make it pretty.

*’Little’ being a loose term. Some of them just keep getting bigger, like The Dark in that Robert Munsch book.
**Yes, I did go to Catholic school. Why do you ask?
***And, if possible, one uninterrupted line.

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5 thoughts on “The Monster’s Eyebrows, Or How Not To Finish A Story

  1. “[…]editing before you finish the zero draft is a great way to have a lot of really great beginnings. And nothing else.” Yes, it is. Yes, I’ve done it. Okay, okay – I’ll try to stop.

    But it’s so haaaaaaaard. I’m a tech writer/editor so I live and breathe red ink.

    Okay, that’s out of my system. Guts and bones – got it. Thanks Steph!

    • If it helps, just consider that you’re saving it all up for some epic word death matches somewhere down the road. Adjective against adjective! Who will emerge blood-stained and victorious? Stay tuned to find out.

  2. I’m with you – I like tightening things up. But the “lost in the beginnings” thing can happen even after you have a whole draft. It happened to my first screenplay. I had to keep rewriting the beginning according to the whims of various instructors in Rewrites class and now it’s years later and I STILL can’t make it through a whole rewrite.

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