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  • Writer's pictureStefanie Barnfather

Stories That Don't Survive

Updated: Jan 13

Before a book gets published, the process to take the story from a raw pile of words to a polished pile of words is complex and lengthy. A brutal element of editing is having to make decisions about what to keep -- and what to destroy.

Sorry. I mean, cut. What to cut. Taking words out of a WIP isn't difficult at all. *clears throat, then pulls on collar while eyes dart from side to side*

Anywho, sometimes authors and their teams have to destroy -- I mean, cut -- content from a book to make the story, or collection of stories, stronger. Before I released my book of shorts I shuffled multiple pieces in and out of the compilation before landing on the thirteen that made it to the published manuscript.

How did I select the pieces that survived? Why did I chop the ones that didn't? Keep reading to find out.

Alright. It's a new year. Before I delve into the details of my process, here's my 2023 reminder about this blog: the opinions I share and practises I practice are MY opinions and MY practises. I trust that you are a capable human and can choose which suggestions work for you (or don't). Nothing I recommend is a hard-and-fast truth, so please don't assume that my way is the only way. If you hate everything I describe, DON'T DO IT. If you aren't sure if my process would work, maybe try it before you trash it. If you love EVERYTHING I RECOMMEND AND ME AND MY BRAIN AND HEART AND SOUL AND BODY (yowza!), then please -- by all means -- give my recos a go.

Let's have some fun, friends.

STEP ONE: Write the Book

Surprisingly, before you can cut something, you have to write something. So, write your novel, short story, script or blog, then decide what to bury. You can't say goodbye to words that haven't said hello. Right?

STEP TWO: Read the Book

This is where editing begins. If you have an editor, go away -- this blog isn't for you. If you are an indie creator and can't afford an editor (or are a terrible collaborator, like me, who doesn't like to compromise and hates every suggestion given to her, just kidding, no, I'm not), here are a few things you can think about as you scan through your drafts:

  • Pacing -- is the story moving too quickly and you're confused? Or too slowly and you're bored? Maybe you need to trim / slice / add / adapt words to keep the flow moving at the speed you desire.

  • Fillers -- don't get mad, but filler words can muck up your work. Sometimes. I suggest searching for extra or doubled-up descriptors that oversaturate your story with detail. SOMETIMES. Sometimes, repetition or adjectives or adverbs or nouns (ha!) can create captivating imagery and important atmosphere. If your preference is to be verbose -- and it works -- don't stress about it. However, I like to trim the fillers so my writing is clean, and my plot and characters shine. Say farewell to these favourites: 'the' 'said' 'that' 'when' 'then' 'so' 'suddenly' 'basically' 'actually' 'MC's first name' 'just joking' 'am I?' 'etcetera'

  • Format -- your page setup impacts readability. Check your font, text sizes, line spacing, indents, paper colour, and margins. Confirm that they are compatible with your printer or ePub. Having well-formatted stories increases their enjoyment factor -- much like a professional chef who designs their plates to look palatable, so should an indie author design their book to be readable.

Once your book is in a clean, tidy, well-crafted place, we start sending parts of it TO HELL!!! BAHAHAHHHHH!!!

STEP THREE: Deciding What Stays and What Goes

I always save this step until after I'm finished editing. Why? Because I like to make sure the work I'm cutting isn't because of the aforementioned issues. I prefer to eliminate content because it doesn't serve the story or collection, not because my writing or book structure is clunky. So. How do I determine what to send to the trash? I ask myself the following questions as I read my drafts:

  • Does this meaningfully add to the story? If a character or scene or description confuses the theme, doesn't contribute to plot development or the resolution, nor supports the protagonist / antagonist arc, then it's gone. I publish fiction, not journal entries.

  • Is this too much? One time, I created an entire language for a dystopian world. My betas' heads exploded when they read the draft because they couldn't connect to the characters, track the action or give two figs about the society -- there was too much unnecessary detail getting in the way. Did I eliminate the language entirely? Nope. I selected the vocabulary that was essential in crafting the world, then returned the rest to standardized Western vernacular.

  • Does this work within the genre? This one is tricky... I don't believe in genre, but a lot of readers do. You decide if you want to be a CoHo, or embrace the current categorical norms. Personally, I think pushing genre boundaries is cool, but staying within a reasonable sphere of familiarity is smart. So if I'm editing a short story set two hundred years in the future and note that I've automatically made the characters use pens, I like to be able to justify them relying on an antiquated tool, or I cut the pens and invent a writing implement that fits within a sci-fi setting. Welcome, robot-recorders.

  • Am I coming across like an ass? For example, some readers might not like it if you use the word "ass". I don't mind the word "ass" -- which is why I use the word "ass". But I use the word "ass" with the awareness that it might cause readers discomfort. I'm okay with this. I'm prepared to have a dialogue about my use of the word "ass". Plus, I have strong boundaries established between my work life and my personal -- and a strong support network in case an artistic choice receives backlash. But despite my comfortability with cussing, I always CHECK MY BIASES. Is the writing accidentally crossing lines? Have I unintentionally triggered a sensitive topic? What are my expectations as an author -- and human -- and am I honouring them? I hate to say this, but I have caught myself writing through a physically ableist lens. I'm not proud of it, and I do my best to change the content when it comes up. Compassionately. And diligently. Cut cut cut.

  • Does this suck? This pertains more to my collections of short stories, not novels -- though I have cut 20,000 words from a seventh draft of a book because I couldn't figure out how to salvage a thread that went nowhere. I still have nightmares about it. Since this sucking bullet point applies more to my shorts -- and the stories that don't survive is the thesis of this blog -- I'm gonna smoothly segue into...

STEP FOUR: Stepping Back

When I'm mired in detail, it makes it tricky to objectively decide what works and what doesn't. With collections of short stories, here are the emotionally detached strategies I use to decide which pieces stay and which ones pray. For their lives. Because I frequently kill them. Anyway:

  • Ask -- can I write something better? Yes. I am that cruel. And I can write the first draft of a short story in a day. So, after editing is done, I look at my collection and seriously consider if I can be better at the craft. Sometimes, I can't -- the work is as good as it gets. Sometimes, I can. And the stories that drift to the bottom of my shit list get flushed.

  • Print each story separately, line them up on a table, and -- literally -- step back. I'm a strange, visual beast. I like to see things in my external world before making hard choices. By placing the physical copies of my stories in front of me and looking at them as individual parts of a whole, I can decide if they serve. You wouldn't believe the realizations I've had while staring down at the many pieces of my books. FYI -- this works for chapters and script scenes, too. One time, I moved a chapter back 75 pages and the book was infinitely better.

  • Think about the big-book arc. I used to write musicals. In musicals, much like collections of short stories, there are structural highs and lows. Peaks and valleys. High tides and low tides. Apt allegories and repetitive metaphors. You start with a BANG! up front, then slow down the pace to draw audiences in, allowing them to settle into your world. Then, right before "intermission" (aka the halfway point in your story / act break / plot shift), you hit your audiences with a pacing change -- something wilder to keep them hooked. Then you pull back a bit (not as much as in the beginning, though) and begin a slow and steady rise in intensity towards the climax, into the denouement, then down to the ending of your choice. This is how I assemble my collections. If the stories are in the wrong order (ie. one is too good for the beginning or too slow for the end), I do a wee bit of rearranging.

  • Assign theme / tone / style values. For every short story, I assign a word or sentence that describes its theme, tone and style of writing. If there are too many similar stories in a row* -- or in the entire book -- they get moved or cut.

  • Let readers take a peek, then ask them questions. I'm writing an entire blog about beta readers, so I won't waste your valuable time delving into the minutia of feedback preferences here. You are welcome.

*In the final draft of my first collection, two of the stories were similar. While most people wouldn't notice the theme / tone / style likeness -- because the plot and characters were different -- I wanted to provide more variety for readers, so I shifted one of the stories to my second compilation (releasing in October 2023, btw). In the second book it stands out, instead of seeming like a shallow reflection of the other.

Hope this helped! If you have suggestions about how to make hard cutting calls, feel free to throw them in the comment section. If you disagree with me, let's start a lively debate! If you find that these strategies work for you, I'd love to hear about it.

Have fun writing!

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