The most common comment I leave for myself during the editing process consists of two words: do better.
You’ll spot that gem up and down the margins of the print out, scrawled in red ink. It’ll pop up in the digital bubbles of the comments function on the computer. Sometimes it just ends up printed in big ass block letters on a post-it and stuck on my desk.
I slap this comment on every instance where I think I fell short. The parts it references aren’t spectacularly bad or anything. They’re just…meh. Nothing. Forgettable. Or worse, cliched. They’re all the places that I didn’t bring my A-game. I was going through the motions like an overpaid athlete with a bulletproof contract and a rabid badger of an agent. I did what I had to do, I moved the story along, but I can do better. And I know it.
Zero drafts are full of this shit, and they have to be. Zero drafts are about getting through the story, in part so I can find out what the hell it is. The prettiness comes later. But when I’m hacking my way through that first rough pass, I’m so busy trying to nail the story to the floor before it has a chance to get away that I fall back into the easy phrases, the lazy words. Nights are dark, people are constantly looking at things, and things are a little too on the nose. It gets the job done, it gets the reader—in this case, me—from one point to another, but it lacks artistry. More than that, it lacks impact. It falls through the brain without a ripple, let alone the ice-pick of revelation for which we’re aiming.
I read about a songwriter once who said that he threw out the first rhyme he thought of every fucking time. No light and sight for this guy. No heart and start. He always looked for something else. Something that wasn’t so goddamn obvious. It’s the same principle at play here. Don’t complicate for the sake of complicating, but learn to recognize the difference between simple and elegant and lazy and boring. The only way to recognize that difference, to train your brain’s nose to zero in on its unique stench, is to go through your own shit and find it. Because, trust me, it’s there.
And when you find it? Simple.