Specifically, though, I want to talk about the type of editing that puts me on the other side of the writer/publisher relationship – my time as a Managing Editor at Flash Fiction Online. It constantly amazes me how much I learn from reading, and from the discussions our staff has about what stories to publish. That time – known as winnowing – is everyone's favorite. We argue. We cajole. We learn how to present detailed arguments to support why a story should be published.
And so, here are some of the main things I've learned from being an editor. None of these are particularly mind-blowing. So maybe I should say, here are some of the common pieces of advice that editing has helped me to understand the rationale behind them.
1. Pretty words are not a story
This is the newest, and one of the hardest things I've had to learn. Some of my favorite books (Heart of Darkness, The Last Unicorn, everything by Patricia McKillip) have gorgeous, lyrical prose. But increasingly I find myself frustrated at the word salad I have to slog through in order to get to the heart of a story. I still love imagery and pretty language, but sometimes I wish people would put away the thesaurus and tell the story in simple, plain terms.
In my own writing, I'm still trying to figure out the line. I don't think I'm going to stop using imagery, but I'm certainly going to be more ruthless about how much I let myself keep in the final drafts.
2. Emotional honesty is a rare and precious thing
One of my slushers has been complaining lately about the number of stories featuring difficult situations faced by wide-eyed children. It's something we see often – where the writer has gone for the biggest emotional punch possible. Sort of like, "It'd be sad if the main character had cancer, but it would be EVEN SADDER if he got the cancer while rescuing puppies from communists!" (You see this type of thing in anime all the time too – all the characters have to have a horrifically tragic backstory). The instinct is understandable. Emotion is what attaches us to the stories we read. However, I'm beginning to think that it's not the amount of the emotion that matters. Rather, it's the truth of that emotion, and how well the writer projects it.
This one is harder to apply to my own writing. As it is, I worry I have something of a tendency toward melodrama. I think it also has to do with the delicate balance between showing, and making sure the emotion comes across.
3. There are no new ideas – and that's okay
We see patterns of stories. Sometimes it's more obvious where they come from – I think it was about a year ago that someone must have had a Red Riding Hood anthology. I got very tired of those stories quickly. There are other phases that have less obvious of a rationale. I'm very glad we are out of the 'Husband randomly kills nagging wife' or vice-versa phase. Right now, serial killers are more popular than ever. And don't talk to me about second person POV.
The problem is, it's hard to set hard and firm rules about what stories or trends I hate. Because every time I do so, someone comes along with an exception to the rule, and I have to shut my mouth all over again. In my opinion, what separates out the good stories from the thousands of similar ones is connected to #2: emotional honesty. Sheer originality is a good thing too, but an old idea well-told can be a glorious thing.
This is the easiest one to follow: write what you want, as long as you believe in it.