When my work first began to be accepted and published, I quickly learned several surprising facts about the process. Likely the most surprising was that many writers just aren’t into self-editing; something I thought was strictly required.
My first forays into professional writing were as a screenwriter, a discipline which exists in an entirely separate universe, worlds apart from published prose. Submit a completed screenplay with so much as an extra space between words, and the assigned reader – often an intern or entry level assistant of some kind, feels perfectly justified in tossing your work into the can, or hitting delete. Seems unreasonable, even elitist doesn’t it? But there is a brutal Darwinian logic at work, stemming from multiple factors. Most significantly, one page of a properly formatted screenplay is said to equal roughly one minute of screen time. Thus, a finished spec (non-commissioned) script should top out at between ninety and one hundred and twenty pages. Typos, overly descriptive narrative and general sloppiness can queer the formula. Nobody has time for that. Anyone accepting screenplay submissions will not want to account for your mistakes. Your work has to be finished. And perfect. That includes editing.
If you’ve written so much as a mash note, (that’s how we used to refer to sexts, kiddies) you’ll know that not everything you drop on the page should stay there. Nobody gets it right the first time. We can all scan for typos and mistakes, but not every writer can take up the cross of amputating pieces of their children. That’s where professional editors and editing services come in. There are these wonderful souls have no interest in the process of world building from the ground up or stringing together narrative. Their calling is to clean, organize, refine. It’s as much an art as the actual storytelling, and we wouldn’t have decent books without them.
That said – maybe I’m weird. I would rather be the one doing the amputating, if it must be done, than to leave that surgery to someone who could never be as emotionally or energetically invested in my monstrous fetuses as I am. It probably has a lot to do with habits learned as a screenwriter, but maybe also with martial arts and weight training, two activities which require constant personal refinement, self-sacrifice and yes, pain.
In any case, I’m inclined to chip away, to leave as little distraction for beta readers and as little work for editors and publishers as possible; to turn in a complete work. My belief is that a highly polished piece is that much more likely to be accepted, quicker to be published, and even more valuable to a publisher – and thus likely to command a larger purse for you the writer, not even to mention what it does for your reputation as professional, timely and attractive to work with.
Every writer is different, and I can’t pretend to dictate how all writers should conduct their process. Maybe some are so driven to move on to the next project that they simply cannot conjure the focus needed to trudge through a fifth, sixth and seventh draft of nothing more than making cuts and additions. Maybe for some, the story is well and truly done, maxed out, past history – yet still needs an outside hand before being ready for mass consumption. Their cartridge is spent and it’s time to chamber the next round.
Now lest I wax too high and mighty/writerier than thou, I should mention that recent experience has taught me that, as much as I may be driven to self-edit, I’m not always that good at it. My upcoming September release, Red Harvest: Haunted Hollow Chronicles Volume 1, probably made it to the “accept” pile by the very skin of its teeth. My editor, one of God’s own angels flying above a purgatory of self-indulgent keyboard and pen jockeys, sent my manuscript back to me with notes that, despite their diplomatic composition, exposed me as a mediocre compositionist with a few half way decent ideas. I learned a lot from her patient yet deserved annihilation of my sloppy prose. I wish for such an entity to nurture and afflict all you smug story slingers out there, if for no other reason than so that I can read your very best work.
But I also encourage you to self-edit the absolute hell out of your work. After all, if you’ve done your homework you should know everybody needs editing. The better your work is, the more readers it’s likely to reach. Swallow your ego, crush your lassitude and refine that diamond. You might be surprised at how satisfied you can be with your own work when you look at it after a harsh slash session or two.
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“The Scares That Care Charity Weekend was originally a horror event designed to delight horror fans while benefiting those in need. Now, because of the increasing attendance from fan bases outside of horror, we are starting to transition to a genre event and will continue to morph as feedback points in the direction to continue positive growth.
“Scares That Care!” is an IRS approved, 501(c)(3) charitable organization, designed to bring together the fans of “all things spooky.” Whether it’s haunted houses, paranormal, horror films, or anything else in the “vein” of the horror genre, “Scares That Care!” brings together those individuals in order to give back to the families that need it most…and in turn, become “Good Ambassadors of Horror.”
The difference between our event and the other, fantastic shows that are out there, is simple. All of our proceeds will go to the families that need our assistance. We pride ourselves in being an organization that has no salaries, and no paychecks. We do this because it’s the right thing to do, and we want to represent the Horror community in the best light possible.”
In my short story Unto The Earth I attempted to integrate symbolism that served as both foreshadowing and “easter eggs” of a sort, in that they gave the story what I hoped is a connected sense of doom that cannot be forestalled; karma that must be satisfied.
In case you haven’t read the story and don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now and find it in Sekhmet Press’ Wrapped In Black anthology, or just skip this installment.
Our protagonist Lyle is a decent guy who suffered a severe, memory-robbing accident. Brought back to physical health by the patient love of a nurse named Agnes, he has fallen in love and married the Haitian beauty, only to find himself falling into uncontrollable fits of rage he takes out on her.
Lyle is something of a partial man; missing pieces of his psyche that might give his life, already ideal on the outside, the meaning that would fill a vast hole in his soul. The first easter egg is his dog ; another slice of normal pie that should fit easily into a very simple puzzle. But I chose for the dog to be black, and named him Shucky. If you’re familiar with supernatural lore you might know of the Anglo legend called the Black Shuck; a massive demonic dog, black of course. Encountering or even just seeing the beast is said to foretell of death, either to the seer or his/her immediate family.
So “Shucky,” even as a seemingly harmless family pet, is a portent of death to give the story an early sense of the supernatural mixed in with the commonality of Lyle’s everyman (apologies for this cliche’) life. In retrospect, it seems rather wedged in. Something closer to the story’s vodun (voodoo) connection would have been more appropriate. Still, Shucky plays his role and adds some spice.
Lyle also visits a therapist to discuss his growing outbursts of abusive rage. Absently, he handles a figurine replica of a Mesopotamian fertility goddess. Maternity -of a kind- is also a theme, and with the goddess now hovering in the reader’s subconscious, the finale will theoretically carry its weight and imbue a sense of connections, a thread that weaves in and out of the tale along with many others to make a whole cloth.
I was intrigued to see, some months later, a similar scene in the film “Hellions,” whose antagonist is a teen who fears she is pregnant. The girl visits a counselor. As the session winds down, she sees a decorative sculpture on the desk that begins to seep blood. There is no further discussion of this; the narrative simply moves on. While we watch the movie with most of our brain another part continues to ponder this image, becoming more and more uneasy.
A funny thing about symbolism is that once you’re aware of it, you start seeing it everywhere and pondering what a seemingly meaningless placement of an item or color or sound might actually mean. Symbols will seem to present themselves in your daily life. Make of that what you will, but this awareness can translate to your writing . Many authors (or screenwriters/directors) when learning of symbolic meaning that has been read into their work, will deny that it was ever their intent. However, if symbolism is deeply subconscious, would even they know?
More on the Black Shuck:
Call it simple instinct.
We see a snake or a spider and our initial reaction is revulsion — because we perceive it as a threat. Our ancestors learned the hard way, in countless separate tribes, that some creatures are dangerous, others are not. Few of us fear budgies or warblers for instance and might even find them cute or otherwise pleasant. Yet, most spiders are much smaller than these birds, not to mention completely harmless to us. Still, we have a natural revulsion to them.
There is more to our little eight legged boogieman than we see at first glance. Spiders have eight legs and eight eyes. The number eight has significance in many esoteric belief systems, and we are aware of this too, though at a deeper level. Numbers mean something to us beyond the amount of things they count. Some people even see numbers in terms of gender or even color or taste.
When you put a spider in your story, the reader’s natural fear or negative baggage will arise, and you must take advantage of this. Thus, a spider can represent something related to the number eight. Perhaps your protagonist is an outlaw in a western, riding across the desert to start a new life. He encounters a tarantula and gets a bad feelin’. Well, turns out there’s a posse on his trail; eight hard men, aimin’ to kill.
Let’s take it a step further; our hero brings down his knife, severing one of the spiders’ legs. But it gets away; he either chose not to kill it or simply wasn’t able. Of his pursuers, one is an adversary whom he wounded and should have killed.
This also falls into the realm of both foreshadowing and subtext. But the important thing is — you never spell it out. Some readers might catch it but most won’t — yet their subconscious will, and the reader will have a richer experience. It’s like the barest pinch of a spice in a stew that takes the whole meal from “delicious” and elevates it to “unforgettable!”
This is an entry level example of symbolism, which admittedly, is pretty much where I am. But it’s a start, and if you want your story to work beyond just the gut level -meaning a pure celebration of scares and gross outs and shock factor, which is just as legitimate a form of horror I might add, in the same way that slapstick is just as powerful a form of comedy as the most sophisticated Greek tragicomedy- then it’s not a bad idea to research symbolism.
NEXT TIME: Part 2. Duh.