Olive’s lawyerly day job involves doing a ton of research, which is incredibly useful when it comes to figuring lovely things out like… “Could someone’s head actually come off in that situation?” (Spoiler: The answer is yes!)
I work as a video producer, and one skill I’ve honed is how to achieve the most impact with the least amount of time. As an editor, I work under fierce time constraints, and not only deadlines but a very specific amount of time I’m allowed to present whatever it is I’m cutting together.
I thought that this might help when it came to sitting down and editing our rough draft for content. After all, I’m used to taking hours of footage and boiling it down to a few minutes of a trailer or video, sometimes even 30 second TV spots!
So, first, you look at the big picture, the top level ideas and see what’s necessary and what isn’t. Then you look at what’s good and what isn’t. Sometimes they aren’t the same thing. And when that happens it feels like you have to put on your butcher apron and get out the cleaver, despite how desperately your dear, poor story is begging you for mercy.
I think about rule #4 of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for creative writing.
“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”
Although the rules were intended for short stories, I think the same can apply to longer form narratives. Useless information, redundant information, boring information, all that must go, or transcend mediocrity in the rewrite. I find it’s hardest when I’m not being honest with myself. Maybe I wrote something with an underlying intention, and it’s not coming across, or I can’t quite articulate why it’s there, but goddammit, I want it there.
This falls into what I call the Edgar rule. The most useful advice this professor gave me when I was learning how to edit video was as follows. He’d chide us, accusingly, in front of the whole class, in his adorable Chilean accent, “You are in love with your footage!” It felt dirty, like it was a shameful love. And it was. It was dishonest for the viewers. “You promise one thing, but instead you self-serve, and we are left watching you…” I won’t repeat exactly what that act of self-love was, as this blog is rated PG-13, but suffice to say, there’s a time and place for those private moments.
“Pity the readers,” Vonnegut says. And I take that to also mean respect the readers. They are trusting us with their time, and attention, and giving our characters life. We owe it to our readers to put the very best we can on the page, and leave the rest of our fun, self-indulgent meanderings on the cutting room floor.
So the next time your story is begging you for mercy, gently remind it: Editing is a merciful act. Look it in the eyes and tell it: I will always love you, story, even in your ugliest form, and this hurts me just as bad as it hurts you.
Then put it out of its misery.