Storytelling and Editing: navigating the tricky waters

Shelly Frome

Years ago, in order to earn some extra credit, I took a course in creative writing at a little college in Miami. There I discovered women who were working on a novel and had signed up for the same course over and over again. Not only that, but they were still working on their first chapter. As encouragement, the instructor and fellow classmates would make comments like, “I see so much improvement. Those hibiscus bushes are becoming more and more vivid with each draft.” At that juncture I promised myself if I myself ever tackled a novel, I would never get stuck in the hibiscus bushes. Nor would I try to please a group of very pleasant well-wishers. I wasn’t sure I’d try to please any group at all.

Visit the VBT Cafe

But even on your own, there’s the left part of the brain that monitors and judges and the right hemisphere that just wants to carry on and be given free rein. Moreover, how on earth do you bridge the gap between what you think or hope you’re creating and the needs and responses of the publishing world?

And so, on my first pass, trying my darnedest to cram in as much information as possible so the reader would see there’s really a lot going on here, Scott Meredith, the noted New York agent, told me you can’t do that. No reader could possibly take it all in. Later on, I read the advice of the late novelist and college instructor John Gardner. He noted that you should always think of it as carefully feeding a hammer mill. At the same time, a popular author wrote a guide revealing his secret: you spring forward and then fall back to gradually let the reader in on what’s going on. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott claims you should keep going until the very end. Accept the fact you’re going to wind up with a lousy first draft which the editor inside you can tackle and fix. One best selling writer believes it’s like taking a car trip in the dark: using the headlights, knowing more or less where you’re headed but allowing yourself to turn off at any time to find what’s really out there.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules. For what it’s worth, I myself use a variation. Though I more or less know where I’m going, I can’t seem to take another step until I’ve polished the chapter I’m on. All the while I leave myself open to discover things—what this character’s really like, some twist in direction I wasn’t expecting that’ll necessitate major or minor adjustments. Then I’ll go back and read, say, all the beginning chapters to see if the story really hangs together with a compelling through-line.

In any case, I try not to get stuck in the hibiscus bushes, self-editing so much that I’ll never finish the journey. Never self-edit to the point where I’ll avoid diving into some dicey scene and allowing it to “catch fire” as the playwright Tennessee Williams used to say.

Unfortunately, because of the ease of self-publishing and e-publishing there are countless dilettantes out there skipping over structure and the editing process altogether. Why bother, they say, when you can announce your latest and do a give-away every few months? It reminds me of the heiress Paris Hilton who arranged to get on a series of mindless so-called reality shows and then announced she was retiring. When asked on network TV, From what, Paris? she couldn’t think of a thing.

In real terms, when you’ve done your very best, you send it out there and hopefully find a match with an agent or publisher. Or, just to make doubly sure, you latch on to a reputable, professional editor who has a track record handling your particular material. After he or she gives you the green light, you send it out. Once you’ve finally placed it, more editing will be asked of you.

However, if nothing pans out, you can look into a decent e-publisher, safe in the conviction you have something worthwhile to offer.

In my own case, I spend so much time striving for a solid foundation and trying to satisfy both parts of my brain, more often than not, my independent publisher will accept the final draft. At that point, he’ll assign someone like the wonderful Allyson Gard who, in turn, will make suggestions. Only then will the final draft be truly final and ready to reach readers’ hands.

Twilight of the Drifter
Josh Devlin, a failed journalist  winds up in a Kentucky homeless shelter on a wintry December and comes upon a runaway named Alice holed up in an abandoned boxcar.

Taken with her plight, and dejected over his own squandered life, he spirits her back to Memphis and his uncle’s Blues Hall Cafe. 

From there he tries to get back on his feet while seeking a solution to Alice’s troubles. But a Delta bluesman’s checkered past comes into play and Josh finds himself on a collision course with a backwoods tracker fixated on the Civil War and the machinations of the governor-elect of Mississippi. 

A tale that hinges on the vagaries of chance and human nature. Or, to put it another way, past sins have finally come due in the present . . .

Author Shelly Frome
Shelly Frome is a member of Mystery Writers of America, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of mysteries, books on theater and film, and articles on the performing arts appearing in a number of periodicals in the U.S. and the U.K. He is also a film critic and a contributor to writers’ blogs. His fiction includes Lilac Moon, Sun Dance for Andy Horn, Tinseltown Riff and the trans-Atlantic cozy The Twinning Murders. Among his works of non-fiction are the acclaimed The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. Twilight of the Drifter, his latest novel, is a southern gothic crime-and-blues odyssey.
Excerpt of 
Twilight of the Drifter
Wolf Creek was silent again, shrouded and
hidden away in the fading early December light.  
Then the cracking sound of wood as the old hunter’s blind gave way
somewhere in the near distance, a sudden scream and a muffled thud. The
cracking sound was not nearly as sharp as the first gunshot or the second, the
scream not at all as piercing as the first cry or as grating as the moans that
followed and faded.
The coonhound took off immediately, ignoring the touch of frost in the
creek water, the obstacle course of fallen tree limbs and bare forked branches,
the muddy slope and the snare and tangle of vines and whip-like saplings.
Within seconds, the hound was bounding higher until he came upon a prone
scrawny figure totally unlike the one that had just fallen on the opposite
Sniffing around, barking and howling, the hound snapped at the flimsy
jacket and bit into it.  As the scrawny
little figure began to stir, he tore into the sleeve, ripping it to shreds and
barked and howled again, turning back for instructions. The sight of the skinny
flailing arms sent the coonhound back on its haunches—half guarding, half
confused as it turned around yet again, looking down the slope to the creek
bed, still waiting for a signal.
Presently, a tall, rangy man made his way across the same obstacle
course, long-handled shovel in hand. But he was only in time to catch sight of
a girl clutching her head, staggering away from the scene through the tangles
and deepening shadows. Then again, it could’ve been a boy for all he knew, but
he settled on a girl, a flat-chested tomboy, more like. Casting his gaze up to
the snapped rungs of the tree-ladder, he spotted the broken edge of the rotting
hunters blind some eight feet above where she could’ve seen everything.
The coonhound began circling around him, displaying the shards of
material dangling from his jaw. 
Instinctively, the man rushed forward. Then he thought better of it as
his overalls got snagged in the brambles. From the look of things, the girl was
probably dazed and confused and wouldn’t get as far as the dirt drive, if that.
Wrong guess. The slam of a hood as the flat-bed’s worn V-8 motor
fired-up, the grinding of gears and the familiar whine and squeal of tires
signaled the tomboy was away and well out of reach.

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