The imaginative editor: Lessons in writing, part 4

Every writer needs an editor. Writers need someone to read what they wrote to see if the audience will understand and appreciate the writing. Trusted readers who can offer incisive criticism serve much the same purpose. Get yourself an editor, if you can.

If only Maxwell Perkins could be your editor!

If only Maxwell Perkins could be your editor!

But whether you do or not, be your own editor. You can do part of the job yourself. And in one respect, you can do it much better than any other person. How? Imagination! You know your story better than anyone else. You can see possibilities in it that no one else can.

When I was writing The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge, my mechanism for being my own editor was to write three chapters ahead. This meant I got to read each chapter at least three times, one week apart, before I committed it to the blog. Ever gone back to read something you wrote after it’s been in a drawer for a while? You will see all sorts of things you missed, all sorts of things that can be improved. That’s what writing three chapters ahead did for me.

But it did one other thing for me. It saved Dragon Lady.

One of the fundamental principles of magic, and life for that matter, in the Sillyverse is that things change, people evolve, nothing is quite stable. Back in an earlier post, I put this in a simpler form: magicians learn. Indeed, in 1886, the Office of Occult Affairs is only four years old. Abigail and her colleagues have only some empirical knowledge of magic. Attempts to systematically explore magic are decades away. And a scientific theory of magic won’t exist before the late 1960s.

I hadn’t thought about how this might apply to the story of Dragon Lady within the story itself until I wrote the first draft of chapter 8, where Rebecca confronts the werewolf. I had imagined this scene several times before writing it. I loved it. I wrote it. And then I realized it violated everything I had established about Rebecca’s use of magic. My story was ruined.

Maybe not. What was Rebecca’s relationship to the walking stick? All I had established was that she was bound to it, that she accessed it magic using ceremonial operations, that she hadn’t used it for nine years, and that it had just misbehaved with Amy in chapter 5. What if that relationship was changing? What if the walking stick’s trick on Amy wasn’t a trick, but an honest attempt to be nice to Amy that had somehow backfired? What was the dragon’s motivation?

I had most of a week between when I first wrote chapter 8 and when I had to post chapter 6 to figure out just what was going on. I looked back at the story I had written so far. Rebecca was happy to be getting back to magic. Apparently so was the dragon! Things change; relationships evolve. After four years when they had worked together, and nine years when Rebecca hadn’t called on the dragon but was still bound to it, and it to her, how would they feel about each other? Well, married couples generally either have learned to live together or are spitting venom at each other by that time, so I felt the same had to be true for Rebecca and the dragon. And they clearly weren’t at each other’s throats. So they were not only bound to each other, they were in genuine alliance with each other.

This necessitated rethinking their relationship. That also meant rethinking the ending. I had figured Rebecca would have to give up the walking stick to rescue Patty, and then die while taking it back. That wasn’t possible now; she was bound to it and to the dragon.

Then, just like Rebecca, I had one shining moment where it all came together. For the rest of the story, I would drop clues about the relationship between Rebecca and the dragon. Rebecca herself would be having trouble understanding her relationship with her dragon. She would repeatedly ponder just what was going on, finally unraveling the clues and figuring out the truth only toward the end, under the pressure of resolving a dilemma.

Most importantly, Rebecca’s solution would not just be a way to save Patty. It would be a way for Rebecca to save herself. She was warm and loving, but she was also impulsive and self-centered at times in her life. She had lived with magic and without it. What did she want to be? What could she become? The choice before her would be clear and complex, both. She could live as she had and defeat Maverick, at the cost of Patty’s life. Or she could give up her old life for a new and stranger one, as the price for defeating Maverick while saving Patty. It would not be an easy decision, it would involve sacrifice either way, and which choice she made would define her very self, her character and moral code.

This new view of Rebecca’s relationship to her walking stick turned Dragon Lady from a simple pulp suspense story into Rebecca’s personal odyssey. Oh, it is still mostly a suspense story. If I were to rewrite it, Rebecca would get more time for introspection, and I’d offer more of Abigail’s thinking as a contrast. But even as it stands, Rebecca changes and grows. And that, for me, saved The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge. It made it more fun to write, and gave it a more satisfying conclusion.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
This entry was posted in Dragon Lady, Writing fiction and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The imaginative editor: Lessons in writing, part 4

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    Hadn’t meant to post this until tomorrow, but I hit the wrong key . . . and deleting a post is not a viable option when it goes out to several score readers via e-mail!

  2. crimsonprose says:

    Yes, the editor. You knew I’d like this one. But even before it reaches the pre-submission stage when a ‘professional’ editor might be employed, we all edit, all the time. Does the plot work? Does it hang together? As you’ve just said. What is the character’s motivation? Is that scene needed? Does that name work? Susan is entirely different character to Charlotte. Is there a part 5? I’ve enjoyed reading the hows and whys, the reverses and advances of Dragon Lady.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      When I started DSL, I did not think there would be much going back and forth in writing it as there turned out to be. I figured it would be written linearly, develop linearly, and that was that. I was wrong.

  3. Dan Allosso says:

    Interesting thoughts on editing. My reading has been curtailed recently, due to writing — I meant to go back through and read your whole story before now. I’m going to be doing my rewrite over the next month, and will be looking for readers. Self-publishing, so I’m coordinating those processes myself.

  4. Eves dropping on your writing mind…who would have thought. Your way inspires mine. Thanks.
    *Pockets map*

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