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Some Notes on Editing Fiction

Michael Dean Clark

This is the first in a series of entries on working to get the content ready for the next edition of Relief to go to press. Check back on Mondays for further installments.

Serving as the guest fiction editor for the coming edition of Relief reminded me of something.

Editing other people’s work is hard. Not difficult, hard.

At times, the decisions feel like chiseling off pieces of an already formed statue. In its initial form, the sculpture is complete and what the author wanted it to be when he or she put down their own hammer.

Being more of a writer than an editor made my work even less intuitive. Every sentence I suggested they cut or word I asked to be altered made me think of the sentences I’ve lost and words I’ve parsed for someone else in my own work. It’s never pleasant, even when I see how it is improving the story.

To come to terms with the work that needed to be done, I finally came to the following resolution: Venus De Milo would be far less beautiful with arms I didn’t have to imagine.

Sometimes you edit a part of a story to make it stronger. Sometimes you alter an element that works against the purpose of the piece. But most of the edits I found myself making were not about change. Rather, they were addition by subtraction.

Increasingly as I worked with these stories, I found myself excising lines and sections that got in the way of the author’s best work; the places where their voice was audible; the moments where their prose was at its most unselfconscious; the scenes where the world they brought me into ceased to exist through mere ink and paper.

The more I edited the more I saw myself cutting away background noise so that the silence left behind would cast the rest of the sound in clearer tones.

I found myself clearing paths so that the quiet moments of loss and strength like the passage below could more definitively mark Zach Czaia’s character Gladys in “The Wonderful Thing about Forgiveness.”

“Jorge said other things, made apologies, touched her arm briefly. These gestures she waited out. It could have been five, ten, a whole half-hour of minutes Gladys waited before finally hearing him rise from the chair, shuffle heavily out of the kitchen, open and close the door to the front porch.  Only then, after she was sure he had gone, did she lift her face from the table and bring it back into the light.”

In Michael Cocchiarale’s “God She Could Tolerate,” I worked to help clarify the utter disconnect that has grown up between Maddy and her husband John; a disconnect that rings in Maddy’s thoughts after he comments on how beautiful the afternoon is.

“At least he didn’t say ‘Lord.’  He didn’t say the Lord had anything to do with it, and for that reason Maddy decided she could tentatively accept the proposition, even if it reeked a bit of sentimentality.  To be charitable, she was even going to say “indeed”; but then, the silly fool, he kept on going.  ‘Forty years,’ he said, turning to her with moist, dung-like eyes.  ‘I don’t think I have ever taken the time . . .’”

Even in Margot Patterson’s “Catholics,” a story I mostly tried to avoid getting in the way of with the changes I asked for, I found myself pruning away lines and scenes so readers will run head first into passages like the following: 

“Now as I wait for Edward to call me, the cold of that day whistles through me, a draught that blows its cold breath on my hands and my heart. Before me, the long fall towards nothing. Within, a crazy, inextinguishable hope I’ll discover wings on the side of my body.” 

In a way, all of this feels a bit like the first and most vital tenet of the Hippocratic Oath, which is a pledge doctors make to help others using their skills and knowledge without harming them. Seems like a good way of looking at someone else’s writing as well.

Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction and nonfiction and an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University. He lives in San Diego with his wife and 2.7 children.