This post is dedicated to all editors out there, the magnificent people who have the talent to shape the fragile mess of words they receive from writers into something beautiful and yet still FUCKING FRAGILE AND MESSY the way it originally was. And when you look at it, at what they do, you scratch your head and wonder how the hell they do it. Or maybe you don't. Maybe you take it for granted. I know I did. Until last week. I thought, "Hey, that's what they're good at. That's what editors do. It's their job." I didn't know how hard it was until I tried it on my own.
This week I have received from Sarah the final condensed manuscript for Siren Suicides. What she did was squeeze 3 books (262K words) into 1 book (88K words) by doing magic cutting and stitching and reorganizing and yet keeping the story intact. I was elated. I dug into reading it as soon as I could. And guess what happened. I got so disgusted with my old writing that at first I rewrote a sentence. Then a paragraph. Then a whole page. Then I ended up spending a whole day on rewriting 6 first pages by mercilessly lopping off chunks of descriptions and dialogue and exposition and just plain butchering the thing till what I had left was clean gleaming bones. I polished the bones somewhat. When they were shining I was satisfied at last. I intended to do the same for the rest of the thing which at the rate of 6 pages a day would've taken me 55 days to finish which would've put my writing schedule on hold and instead of starting TUBE, Draft 3 in January I would've started it in March. I got gloomy thoughts on shooting myself with a Kalashnikov because, frankly, I didn't want to do this. I'm good at making myself do things I don't like, BUT I AM SO DONE WITH THIS STORY I DON'T WANT TO TOUCH IT.
You can predict what happened next. I tweeted about this, of course. Sarah saw it, of course. Sarah sent me a warning email TO NOT DO IT. TO BLOODY LEAVE IT ALONE. She was very gentle about it (I love you, Sarah). It was like she found me on the street holding up my baby by the hair and flaying its skin and she softly said, "Dearest Ksenia," she said, "this is what I was afraid of." The baby, meanwhile, is bleeding and screaming its head off. And I look at Sarah, wondering what she means. And she keeps talking to me softly, "Please don't be mad at me when I say this...please don't be offended. Because I'm going to be totally honest." And the baby is still screaming, and I'm still holding it up by the hair. "I really, really, really think this is not the way to go about it." By now the baby is dying, but I'm listening, curious what she has to say. "Your result in these 6 pages is so brief, so clipped, so, that it no longer contains the authenticity of Ailen's perspective, thought processes. The voice of the narrator is now you, not Ailen. The voice of this book is now your CURRENT writing style which is GREAT AND WONDERFUL. But it is not the voice of this book, which I tried so hard to preserve. You have been trying your utmost to be a succinct writer. Siren Suicides is not a succinct book. It is full of adolescent thoughts and language which is what makes it relatable, what makes it powerful. The opening scene now sounds...sterile."
Sterile. I have stopped skinning the baby and have put the baby down. And Sarah keeps talking to me. "I am now certain that you will feel the same way about the rest of the book, that it needs this level of scrubbing, but I wish that you would simply read it through first." And she did, she asked me JUST READ IT FIRST. But did I listen? No. Stubborn ass Ksenia. "It's your book," said Sarah, looking down sadly at the baby. "You can continue scrubbing it if you like. I think it will make for a less powerful book." And now I look down at the baby too and I see that she is right. I can't touch it and not kill it. I'm so far away now in my writing from where I began that I shouldn't be allowed to touch it. So I cleaned the baby up and stapled back its skin and took 3 days to read the whole thing without stripping it down to the bones. I removed myself from the text and tried to feel the story, just feel the way it was written, and tried to see what didn't fit WITHIN THAT VOICE, not react to how I WOULD HAVE WRITTEN IT the way I write now.
And that is what editors do. And that, people, is very hard. You are so tempted to just fix the thing when it's not your job to fix it, your job is to see beauty in it and let others see it too. God, what a life-changing experience it was. My hat off to all editors out there. YOU ARE MAGIC.
As I promised, so you can see the process and maybe glimpse something from it that could help you with your own writing, here are the three versions of the opening pages, the original story edited by my first editor, Colleen M. Albert (who worked very hard to preserve my original tone though even back then I asked her to hack it all she needs), the condensed version that my current editor, Sarah Grace Liu did, and the sterile anorexic version I made out of it in an attempt to bend it to how I write now (can't believe my style changed so much over only 3 years).
1. SIREN SUICIDES, ORIGINAL OPENING.
"I chose to die in the bathroom because it’s the only room in the house I can lock. Besides, water calms me, and I have to be calm to pull the plug on my life. Nothing would irritate my father more than finding the fully clothed corpse of his sixteen-year-old daughter on the morning of her birthday, floating in his beloved antique, carved-marble tub—a ridiculous Bright family relic. Each of its corners is held up by one of four sirens, their mouths open in lethal song, their hands turned up in worship to the Siren of Canosa, a bronze faucet figurine. How fitting. Ailen Bright, the deceased, guided into the afterlife by a tap. Do you hear me, Papa? This is my morbid joke.
Six years ago today, on a rainy September morning, my mother jumped off the Aurora Bridge. Something terrible must have happened, because she was afraid of heights. I’d heard Papa scream at her, heard her run out of their bedroom and slam the front door. I hadn’t seen much of my mom during my childhood, but after that day, I’d lost her forever. For this, and for all of the pain he’s caused me, I want to hurt my father the only way I can—by sending him a message as twisted as his soul. By ending my life in the very place he delivered me, on a rainy September morning in 1993."
2. SIREN SUICIDES, SARAH'S CONDENSED OPENING.
"I chose to die in the bathroom because it’s the only room in the house I can lock. And because water calms me. I have to be calm to pull the plug on my life. Nothing would irritate my father more than finding his sixteen-year-old daughter on the morning of her birthday, floating in his beloved antique marble tub—a ridiculous Bright family relic. Each corner is held up by one of four carved sirens, their mouths open in lethal song, their hands turned up in worship to the Siren of Canosa, a bronze faucet figure. How fitting. Ailen Bright, the deceased, guided into the afterlife by a tap. Do you hear me, Papa? This is my morbid joke.
Eight. Nine. Ten.
Ten seconds since I took the plunge, submerging into the bathtub full of water, wearing faded jeans and my favorite bright blue hoodie. Big white letters spell Siren Suicides across the front; they’re my favorite band, because their music kicks ass.
Blue is my favorite color. Three is my favorite number. It takes three minutes for an average person to drown. Only two minutes and fifty seconds left. I hold my breath."
3. SIREN SUICIDES, MY STERILE OPENING.
"I chose to die in the bathroom because it’s the only room in the house I can lock. Because water calms me. And I have to be calm to pull the plug on my life. Nothing would irritate my father more than finding his sixteen-year-old daughter on the morning of her birthday, floating in his beloved marble tub—a ridiculous Bright family relic held up by carved sirens, their mouths open in song, their hands raised in worship to the Siren of Canosa, a bronze faucet figurine. How fitting. Ailen Bright, the deceased, guided into the afterlife by a tap.
Do you hear me, Papa? This is my morbid joke.
Eight. Nine. Ten.
Ten seconds since I took the plunge, wearing jeans and my favorite hoodie. Blue. Siren Suicides spelled across the front. My favorite band. Blue is my favorite color. Three is my favorite number. It takes three minutes for an average person to drown. Only two minutes and fifty seconds left.
I hold my breath."
To tell you the truth, to me these 6 pages I scrubbed weren't even close to how I wanted them. I found myself wanting to completely rewrite the whole thing. Bad idea. I'm glad I listened to Sarah. I'm glad I won't have to do it. This experience has taught me to accept myself as I were back then, to be okay with it, and to move on.
So what happens now? I have sent off the entire file with my comments to Sarah and gave her free reign to polish more as she sees fit. I'm terrified of touching it. I'd end up hurting it for sure. Sarah will get back to me after December 17th (she has a thing she has to do for her classes) and then I will look over it again and have Royce look at it in case I missed something, and maybe exchange a couple emails with Sarah and then the final manuscript will go to Stuart who will probably have time to look at it in January and start formatting it, and if all goes well, it will be done by the beginning of February, maybe on my birthday, February 6th. How about it. I will shoot for it to be the publishing date.