On Editing Your Short Story Manuscript

This post is about my process for editing short story manuscripts.

BEFORE WE BEGIN…

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I’m not here to tell you how important it is to edit your short stories; I’m assuming that you’re a talented enough writer to know that you don’t shit rainbows of magical prose, and you’re surer than shit aren’t Jack Kerouac. So, a talented writer like yourself understands that you must edit.
So, we’ll skip the spiel about how dreadfully important editing is (don’t get me wrong, it’s the most fucking important part of writing, what am I saying? It IS writing), because the assumption is you already know that.
Right?

SO, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU GONNA TALK ABOUT?
Very good question. I’m here to talk with you about HOW we edit our short stories. Do you break apart every sentence, write them out on post it notes, and stick them chronologically across your tile floor? Do you lock yourself in the bathroom with a clipboard, your manuscript, a notebook, your laptop, and a stack of books, and work through the night scribbling on your manuscript sketching out scene placement for your complete rewrite?
I do those things.
Why do I do those things?
Because sometimes it takes weird shit to coax out the most brilliant facets of our diamond skulls. That’s the truth of the matter. We all do different things to connect with the ambiguous literary overseer: the muse.
But, it’s all true.
It’s not as simple as sitting down and writing (unless it is, and you know as well as I do the world is made up of exceptions to the rule). It’s about altering your mindset, giving into the gods by offering them human offal, and on the flip side, after all the hard, back beratingly laborious work is finished…
You do it again.

SO, J.O, WHAT OTHER CRAZY SHIT DO YOU DO TO COAX THE MUSE?
Don’t get your hopes up, it’s not as glamourous or earth quakingly eccentric as you’re expecting. It starts with the simplest step of the writing process: writing.
Yup. I cough up the first draft, print it out and put it inside my metal, UPS guy clipboard I bought online for the explicit purpose of manuscript editing.
I usually let some time pass. A few days, a week, I guess it all depends on the length of the work and how hard it was to draft out in the first place. But there’s ALWAYS some fermenting time. You know who taught me that? Cat Rambo. Greatest writing teacher that god ever gifted the collective of keyboard punchers.

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A manuscript* I recently finished.

I come back to my manuscript with fresh eyes, and start scribbling all over the pages.
“This is wrong. Cut this. What the fuck? You lazy piece of shit you just wrote ‘describe his gun here’ instead of describing it, asshole. Cut this whole page. Add this scene, that scene, and another scene. Change the ending. Change the beginning…”
The most important thing I do is reassess every scene, and make notes about how I want it rewritten, which you can see below how I mark up the side margins and number the scenes.
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THE REWRITE

 
The most interesting part about my writer’s mind, in my opinion, is how little I end up consulting the notes I made after the first draft.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s necessary to make the notes, it’s just not necessary to consult them during the rewrite, but once in a great while. For the most part, I have the layout in my head for how I want it rewritten, and I wouldn’t have had this concrete image had I not made the notes, so you understand how necessary they were.
After I have the rewrite printed out, it’s treated like a first draft. I mark it up, find what scenes need rewrites, which only need polishing, what opportunities did I miss to bring the reader into the protagonist’s head?

POLISHING
The polishing process is an unpredictable, excruciatingly painful, yet so fucking sweet, process. Is it done yet? Is it ready? No, of course It’s not ready fool! Yeah, it’s ready to submit, man! No, it’s not!
It’s at that point that I usually send it to my writing groups, mostly on OWW, which is a great community of speculative writers who always help to make my writing better.
While I wait for my writing groups to get back with me, I’ll usually start my next project. Work on a blog post, write notes to develop a short story idea, cry. Lots of crying in this here writer’s life.

SUBMITTING
The time has come for the most torturous yet rewarding part of the whole activity. You’ll simultaneously praise your brilliance as a writer, and condemn your writing to the pits of hell.
At this point, if I’m not deep into working on another project, I might quit writing entirely. The ol’ fuck-it-all attitude is the constant Goliath for all of us David’s.
The first thing I do is get on Duotrope and assemble a list of 5 publications I think my piece would fit well in. I format and submit my manuscript to the the #1 on that list, and wait. I use my preoccupation in my next project to get through the days of waiting, and automatically submit to the next magazine should I get a rejection.
If the story truly sucks, and nobody likes it at all, it won’t get accepted anywhere. By the time that conclusion can be made, I’ll already have another draft ready to submit that doesn’t suck and I can get excited about!
It’s a vicious cycle, but I’m in love with it all the same.

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CONCLUSION
Is your writing process similar to mine? Do you have to do fifteen naked jumping jacks in the shower before you can write weird westerns? Need three Boost nutritional drinks mixed with a finger of whiskey before you can write your seventh chapter? Let everyone know in the comments what it takes for you to get there. To access the mythical muse of old.

 

FOOTNOTES:
*The manuscript** used in the photos for this blog post are from a completed horror short story I wrote recently while in a Georgia hotel fleeing Hurricane Irma which threatened to pummel my central Florida home. It’s an interesting story, I enjoy it very much, but it has yet to be published. I’m still shopping it around. I’m even considering posting it on bums wear diamonds, but I’m not convinced there will be enough people interested in reading it. So, if you’re someone who likes free stories, click that follow button on the right side of your screen, and I’ll know you’re down for a free story (and you’ll be notified when It’s posted).
**The story itself has undergone a series of name changes, originally it was titled Pages Bound by Leather, but then I changed it to A Collection of Brief Noises. Now I think I’ll simplify it to simply, Brief Noises.

On Making a Living Writing Short Stories (Part 1)

Have you ever wondered what it takes to make a living writing short stories?

EVER TRY TO MAKE A LIVING WRITING SHORT STORIES?

I remember the day I decided to become a professional short story writer, and by that, I mean, I decided that I could produce short stories at a frequent enough basis that I’d make a profitable living. This was a half-decade ago, and my main source of understanding for the short story underground was Harlan Ellison’s many works, and the non-fictional, part-of-the-job, here’s-the-business-of-it-all, sections that bridged one Ellison story to the next.
Harlan Ellison is credited with writing over 1,700 short stories, novelettes, novellas, screenplays, teleplays, moonside tattoo flash fictions, etc. At the time (1960’s-1970’s) the going rate for short fiction was a penny a word. Of course, now, the SFWA classifies 6 cents a word to be the bare minimum a “professional” publication can pay their writer’s.
I got to thinking: what exactly would it take to make a living as a short story writer?

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Gotta love the old mags

A BIT OF MATH

Let’s say that the average piece of short fiction is 5,000 words. At a penny a word like ol’ Harlan was getting paid, that makes $50 a story.
1,700 (Harlan’s total publications) x $50 = $85,000 (over the course of a very long and winding career.)
That’s not spectacular in today’s economic, fiscal perspective, but at the time it was a living. Though a groveling one. By no means was he a rich man, however this is not taking into consideration the payment he got from television writing in the 70’s and 80’s for the work he did on shows like Babylon 5, and The Twilight Zone.

DIGGING DEEPER

Now let’s break this down. Thanks to the handy resources over at Internet Speculative Fiction Database, I compiled a spreadsheet of the Harlan Ellison’s 12 published pieces of short fiction in 1959*, to extrapolate exactly how much money he made to live on (considering only his income on short stories), and how that would translate to the modern market.
Check it out.

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That’s not enough money to support yourself, let alone if you’re married or have kids. It wasn’t enough for Harlan back in 1959, either. So, the real question is, why do we write short fiction at all?
Passion. Of course, you already knew that. You’re a struggling writer yourself who’s faced the same pitfalls I have, and drawn the same conclusions I have. You, on the other hand, didn’t put the time into making such a beautiful spreadsheet to prove your point to the world! (unless you did, and if you did, my apologies.)

WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO MAKE A LIVING?

To use the figure given in the spreadsheet, the average single person, minimum wage income is $15,080 a year. Let’s say you are only published in SFWA approved publications that pay at the minimum 6c a word. Let’s do some more math.
15,080 x 100 = 1,508,000 pennies a year
1,508,000 / 6 (your minimum per word price) = 251,500 (rounded up from 251,333.333)
To achieve the average minimum wage salary, you must sell 251,500 words worth of short fiction. This means, essentially you must sell the equivalent amount of short fiction as James Joyce’s Ulysses (261,222 words approximately) a year, just to make a minimum wage living.
251,500 / 5,000 (average short story length) = 51 (rounded up from 50.3)
51 short stories a year to professionally selling markets. That’s over 4 stories a month. That means at any given month, your name will be on Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Interzone, and the Magazine of S&SF.
The point is, the odds are highly against you.
Of course, professional writers who have the inclination towards short fiction supplement their income with other things, such as novels, short story collections, self-published pieces, articles, and of course, a day job (that’s a classic).
If, even after an eight-hour day frying burgers at Checker’s, you’re still coming home and writing your daily 2,500 word requirement, if you submit in spite of dozens of rejection e-mails, if you have the courage to accept constructive criticism and make your fiction writing as sharp as it can be, then you have that one thing, the thing that will give you a successful career as a short story writer.
Passion.

 

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The book that made me want to be a (short story) writer.

Conclusion

 

So, if you want to make a minimum wage living publishing short stories, you gotta’ sell 51stories to professionally paying markets per year. There are other ways, of course. I’m currently experimenting with them, and when I have enough content to update you on my pursuit, I’ll post the second part of this post.
Until then, write on!

Footnotes:
*This is, almost, what Harlan Ellison made from his writing that year. The only other published work he had during 1959 was a double-sided ace paperback. The Man with Nine Lives/ A Touch of Infinity. If you look back at the spreadsheet, you’ll find a novella published in the October ’59 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories called Sound of the Scythe, which would later be published as The Man with Nine Lives and makes up half of the ace double. The other half, A Touch of Infinity, contains** five short stories and one novelette.
**Blind Lightning, Back to the Drawing Boards, Life Hutch, The Sky is Burning, Final Trophy, and the novelette Run for the stars. A Touch of Infinity also included an introductory essay by Harlan Ellison.