Write with passion, edit with reason.
by Kitty Fitzgerald
Illustration by Bradley Wind
‘A story – even if it’s based on ‘truth’ – is a pack of lies. The reader and the writer know this. They enter into a kind of conspiracy. Tell your lie convincingly enough, the reader says, and I’ll believe you.’ - David Almond
The most common problems I’ve come across in my work as an editor are:
- stories that are too literally based on real life experiences.
- where further editing is required in order to tighten and surprise.
- where too many characters are introduced too soon.
- where the ending doesn’t fulfill the promise of the opening.
All writers are different; they have certain processes to do with getting down to writing first drafts and also to the editing of their work. Some have to make copious notes before they begin; others start with a conversation and see where it takes them. Many writers prefer to work in the morning, others in the afternoon, some in the evening or through the night. I like to write between midday and nine in the evening and I always edit by hand and then reload on to my computer. But that’s me. There isn’t a template and I would always encourage writers to spend time experimenting in order to find their unique ‘voice’: the thing that makes them different from other writers.
Partly this will be influenced by memory. We all dig into our past as part of our writing process but the writer’s task is to use memory, not just reproduce it. Changing the gender of a character or their age can help create distance from actual events. Remember David Almond’s advice at the top of this, things don’t have to turnout the way they did in ‘real life’. Part of the pleasure of being a writer is that you don’t have to write the truth – or more likely, one version of the truth. And bear in mind that an anecdote is not a short story. It could be a starting point, a seed from which it could grow. But a seed and fully-grown tree are very different. A story is a sequence of events that impact on our characters but that sequence should be invisible, like the skeleton under our flesh is or the foundations of a house.
Writing will also be influenced by experience but again that needs to be distilled. When it becomes part of a story, or the impetus for one, there are no boundaries. You don’t have to limit your imagination. What other work gives you the chance to make things up or to create characters and make things happen to them?
I can’t recall who first said it but, write with passion and edit with reason, is a good maxim to pin above your writing space. The first draft is just the beginning, the foundation. Let yourself go, try out ideas, settings, characters and play with structure and language. But try to move your characters from a starting point towards a satisfying conclusion. In the process of editing you may well change the beginning or the end and everything in between. But I’m not talking about a twist in the tale syndrome. Readers need to feel they haven’t been duped, in the way young children write stories that end up with a character waking up and finding it was all a dream.
In a recent short competition, I read a story that introduced seven characters in the first page and by the end of the story I knew no more about six of them than I had at the beginning. And many of the pieces submitted were extracts from something longer, perhaps a novel and consequently were not as satisfying as a carefully constructed piece of short fiction. I’m not suggesting the writer has to tie up every single thing at the end of a story; it’s good to leave space for the reader to fill in the gaps. But try not to promise what you can’t deliver.
When you’ve got your first draft down on paper, put it away for at least a week before looking it again, this time wearing a reader’s head. Try to forget that these are your precious words and step back: what would you think if you’d picked up this piece of writing in a bookshop, online, in a library? I like to use a different space when I begin the editing process and because I do this by hand, that can be anywhere from a library, to a café, on a train or in a shed. Psychologically, it reminds me of the difference between first draft and editing. You need that sort of distance to improve your work. Again, some writers love the editing process and others hate it and during your practise you’ll discover your preferences.
A few basic tips: when submitting work to publishers, avoid long letters of explanation and make sure your submission is individual to each editor. Best to know the magazines/publishers before you submit. Stories should always be properly laid out: 12 pt regular font (Times, Georgia etc), header with your name and story name, page numbers at the bottom. Good luck.
Kitty Fitzgerald has edited five anthologies of short fiction; most recently, ROOT New stories by North East Writers, IRON Press, March 2013. She’s been a judge on many short story competitions, written critiques of them and tutored short fiction on residential writing courses and on BA and MA Creative Writing courses. Four of her novels have been published, most recently, Pigtopia (Faber). IRON Press published her collection of short stories, Miranda’s Shadow, in May 2013.