The Internal Editor at Work

I’m always really leery of talking much about writing, because, well, I haven’t had any fiction published, so I don’t know why anyone would be interested in what I have to say about it, except in the ways it relates to my job. :-) I worked on a bit of setting yesterday, though—trying just to paint a picture of a place and time, with no plot in mind at all as I wrote—and I thought it was interesting how my internal editor, which Jay Lake and I discussed the other day, looked at the sentences once they were done.



Ruby crouched in the dirt between the tomato plants, the heavy green scent of them all around her, and pulled a clover-colored caterpillar off a baby tomato. I’m not wild about “Ruby” (especially since I have “Orange” for the dog later). Maybe choose a somewhat religious name. And, you know, I like clover because it’s something this country girl would relate to, but hornworms aren’t really the color of clover—they’re kind of lighter and brighter than that. Deanna? Honestly, quit worrying about stupid crap like that and get on with the story, or you’ll never get it done. Her little brother Peter just squished the hornworms, but they stank when you did that. The chickens liked ’em alive anyway. She palmed it, ignoring its wriggling in her hand, and plucked another, then dropped them in the bucket between her soil-crusted bare feet, thinking how she’d need to scrub under her toenails extra hard next bath she got. With the toenails, you can fit that info in somewhere else in the story. It’s too much description right here. Another worm tried to crawl out, and she flicked it back in, where it twisted among the others, half its stubby legs grasping at air, before righting itself and clambering over them to try again. Okay, this whole image is cool—I like her picking the hornworms. It shows they don’t have pesticides, it illustrates how this country girl easily does a chore that might gross out a kid from today, it shows her needing to work to help the family be fed, shows the rural conditions in which they live, etc. HOWEVER, this is not an interesting way to start a story—it’s just description. To open, you need some conflict to keep the reader going, or you need to pose a question in the readers’ minds that they’ll want answered. You can put this somewhere else, to illustrate something about her character, like maybe she prefers being out here picking hornworms to being inside.

Sweat built up along the top of one eyebrow. She pulled the back of her arm across her forehead before the salty stuff could drip into her eye, then winced at the grime covering the long sleeve of her old dress. Mama would scold her for it. It was hot out here for the sleeves, she knew, but the hairs on the tomato plants always made her itch. Okay, cool. I like the image of her out in the heat in this long-sleeved dress, and I like the info about her mom. I like picturing those fine hairs on the tomato plants and showing how this chore affects her.

The long, low voice of Dewie’s coon dog sounded from somewhere up the road, and dogs joined in bit by bit from all around—some so far off she could only hear them as distant whines. Even old Orange, stiff as he was, crawled out from the hollow he’d dug under the front porch and gave a few barks for good measure while stretching, before circling and flopping down by the rotted-wood steps everyone just leapt past. First, cut off the sentence after “stretching.” You just don’t need all this right here and can just show someone leaping past those steps later. Also, I’m even a little skeptical about her mother allowing them to be rotten anyway, because she seems pretty anal about stuff otherwise, unless the dad’s kind of a layabout who won’t do the “guy” chores this time and place calls for, which is an idea. That’s little stuff. Big stuff, though, is that I think you can use this paragraph as foreshadowing if you place and edit it right—make it known that something about the coon dog’s call isn’t normal, and raise the question in the readers’ minds about what he’s barking at.

She looked up those steps to the screen door riddled with holes that were patched over with squares of sewn-on flour sacks—Mama hated when the flies came in. Mama wasn’t there yet, though. No lunch yet, then. She turned her attention back to the tomato plants and picked another hornworm. I like showing her mother’s personality here through the way the screen is patched, but just having my protag waiting for lunch isn’t very interesting, and this description is too detailed following the last paragraph. I think this could be mentioned in passing as someone goes in the door, maybe accidentally rips off a patch or something.

A horsefly buzzed near her ear, and she swatted at it, then clapped it between her hands before it could get her. She wiped the mess on the material stretched across her thighs. I like showing how buggy this place is, and how unbothered by killing the bugs and by mess she is. It’s a little detail that could go almost anywhere in the story. A change of wind brought pitch-perfect singing–“that saved a wretch like me”–and she glanced toward the west field to the side of the house, away from the shade of the trees, where her oldest sister was hanging laundry on a line Papa had strung out in the open, with some metal poles he’d bought special for Mama. I love the details this shows about her family—religious, how the father buys a chore-helping present for the mother that sounds exorbitantly expensive to this poor family. I like the accuracy that the clothes need to be hung in the sun, while the house in this hot climate is shaded by trees to help keep it cool. It doesn’t seem as though there’s enough reason to have it, though. This needs to be tied into the plot. You can relate the change of wind to what’s happening, or you can somehow illustrate and elaborate on the relationship between the two sisters.

The back of her neck tingled, and she twisted to look at the Big Trees. The twelve oaks clustered so tightly they looked like a single tree from way back here, multi-textured trunks leaning together striped with darker shadow under the layered canopy. This is your first hint of conflict. It needs to come sooner. Also, I’m not wild about “canopy” for this girl’s world. I think you can say “tingled like a passel of fire ants was crawling across it” to get more into the world and replace “canopy” with…something. Don’t know what yet. Let’s have fun thinking about what’s under the trees.

As near as I can tell, I’m one of those writers who has to write in order to get ideas. If I sit around waiting for an idea to occur to me, I’ll just sit forever. Once I started painting this picture, though, plot ideas started to come to me. When I grab one and riff off it, I’m sure it’ll lead to more. :-) This was really a fantastic exercise for me.

6 thoughts on “The Internal Editor at Work”

  1. As near as I can tell, I’m one of those writers who has to write in order to get ideas. If I sit around waiting for an idea to occur to me, I’ll just sit forever….

    That’s me in a nut’s hell as well. The writing feeds itself. (And fwiw, it drives me bugfuck. Temperamentally I’d prefer to have a story shaped and beveled more fully in my head before I sit down to type.)

  2. I love seeing internal editor comments on a writing project. Others’ processes might differ from mine (I always get action first, though with cinematic ‘trailers’ of the setting) but I can always learn from them.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  3. I get ideas without writing – but I can’t develop them. As I write – I nearly alwys am working on two documents – the prose and the outline. The outline is fluid till the last words of prose – but it makes sure that I don’t waste time writing in a cul-de-sac. Re-arranging an outline for a new development for a few hours is a better use of time than writing 5k words I’m not going to be able to use now.

  4. As near as I can tell, I’m one of those writers who has to write in order to get ideas. If I sit around waiting for an idea to occur to me, I’ll just sit forever. Once I started painting this picture, though, plot ideas started to come to me. When I grab one and riff off it, I’m sure it’ll lead to more. :-) This was really a fantastic exercise for me.

    DINGDINGDINGDINGDING…..yeah That’s Me as well. Ideas can come to me in a vacuum, as it were, but I don’t really start understanding and fleshing them out til I explore them — which sometimes involves a lot of wrong turns.

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