Luxury Polishing

Posted: March 28th, 2014 under Collections, Craft, the writing life.
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Quite often, and especially with long books,  writers are up against tight deadlines.   Yes, we proofread.  Yes, we try to find every continuity error, every awkward phrase, every less than perfect word choice.    And we hope Editor and Copy-Editor and eventually the proofreader for the page proofs will find the ones we miss (though sometimes we need to correct their corrections.   The CE who wanted me to have a ship’s weapons “staffed” instead of “manned,” for instance.)  But once a writer is hooked into a traditional publishing workflow,  there’s a limit to how many drafts, how many re-readings, how much polishing can be done in the time alloted.

Short fiction that’s under contract has a similar, but not identical, problem–the very fact that it’s short means it takes less time to re-read, to consider–in re-reading–whether maybe that final clause in the sentence should be the first…or maybe a separate sentence.    Still, if you suddenly realize that you’ve reversed characters’ roles…there may not be time to re-write it.   Magazine and anthology editors have hard deadlines because they need them–production deadlnes are bearing down on them–and stuff has to be ready when it’s due.

What I’m rediscovering, working on the Paksworld stories,  is the luxury of having time to read one, make notes, put it aside while reading another one–let days pass between re-readings–discuss it with my alpha readers for this project, fiddle with alternate versions.   Those that first appeared as log posts,  though I tried to have them “clean,”  were not really polished.  Each re-reading, by me or the alpha readers,  finds something–a roughness, a slight confusion, a redundancy, something–to be pulled out with mental forceps and replaced by something better.

There’s pressure–from myself, mostly–to get this done quickly, but there’s no outside deadline,  so there’s time to consider the story more fully, in its entire context.   Someone in a family you know is promoted.   Casually, writing that story the first time, I said the person was a second son.   Well, but…is he?   And how old would he be?   And what did he do before being promoted?   How many other sons are there–and daughters–and what are they like?   Because although this is a short story, and the others will not appear in it, they had an effect on him.    Is he just a generic second son or…something else?

The second draft (or third; I lose track) of “Torre’s Ride”  had a “storyteller” ending but did not work for the alpha readers, who were “Yeah, yeah, but the story ended back there, we don’t care that there were different versions, we just want one, right here.”   There was a…discussion.  Civilized, of course.   I came around and now there is a version, just one, in this collection.     Best of all,  in picking through the alternatives I’ve “heard” here and there in the murmurs of gossip in the Paksworld domain of my imagination, I found a really nifty one to use.   And working on that one yesterday,  I realized a connection I hadn’t caught before between that story and Crown.   I love the way my Paksworld deep logic connects things I haven’t consciously thought of yet.

Because short fiction is so short,  it doesn’t develop the same momentum as big fat volumes of a big fat group.   And that’s why the fiddly bits matter so much.  In the midst of a group, one lackluster word choice may (doesn’t always) go unnoticed…in a story, it’s like a specialty store sandwich with one of its bread slices being thin, flabby white “big chain” bread.   Yes, every word choice should be perfect in a book, and in a series…but the story’s own momentum will carry readers over a few that aren’t.  In a short story…not so much.   Hence the time I spent deciding whether the bad king in “Torre’s Ride” was wicked, evil, or cruel.   Any would work.  But the piece is so short that varying them reads wrong–it reads like “I’m trying very hard not to repeat a word….”  and it sticks out.  Which, then?   (You’ll find out.)

“Vardan’s Tale,” which you had as a “Twelve Days of Christmas” treat,  needed work, too.   There were fossil pronouns (wrong gender) in places–five, I think–and hastily written sentences that needed to have the burs combed out of their manes and their hooves cleaned, which often meant rearranging them, dividing them, and so on.

And bit by bit, they’re getting shinier, even glittery in places.   At least I think so, and faulty as a writer’s view of his/her own writing often is,  I think the mprovement is real.






  • Comment by Kathleen — March 28, 2014 @ 8:37 pm


    I so look forward to this group of stories.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 28, 2014 @ 9:29 pm


    If I weren’t typing so much, my fingers would be crossed, Linda. It’s my first venture into a) organizing a group of stories and b) putting out something myself (albeit with help, still…) And sometimes, looking for information & advice, find yourself in a hopeless situation. The topic of organizing a short fiction collection came up on a writers’ group; I was fine with the first guy’s list of things (check, check, yep, I did that, check) but the second guy dropped in a rule that undid what I’d done right in terms of the other guy’s advice. Then a third person who’s done it tossed in yet another set of criteria. It rapidly approached “If we had eggs we could have ham and eggs, if we had any ham” in that no arrangement would work for every advisor. Which could be the fault of the stories, except I think the only way to get stories that would satisfy all the criteria for mixing them would be to write to the “mixability” criteria.

    And I can’t. Especially not in Paksworld. Stories come out the length they are, in the chronological order they are, and with the characters they have.

  • Comment by Fred — March 28, 2014 @ 9:56 pm


    I can’t say for other people, but for me good short stories are to linger over, to savor and enjoy, perhaps even re-read immediately, each story for what it is – not to rush through as if there were some kind of deadline or I were taking a speed-reading test.

    So unless there are dependencies, my opinion is that you shouldn’t get too wrapped up in the “perfect” order.

    When I re-read the Paksworld novels, I often just read them as episodes, and jump around in the story arc. Or I’ll make my own assortment (for example, parts of the story that occur in Brewersbridge).

    Thanks for exploring the people, history, and geography of Paksworld for us, and sharing!

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 28, 2014 @ 10:16 pm


    Fred: Thank you. I had chosen an almost-chronological order for the stories, with the legends tucked in where they seemed to resonate best, so that not only readers familiar with the world, but also those who came to it after reading perhaps one or two of the latest group wouldn’t be completely at sea. But the recommendation to “start with a long one” doesn’t fit with that; the early side stories in the new group are all short, some very short. “A Parrion of Cooking” is the longest in the collection, and all the rest are longer than any of the first. I could move “Those Who Walk in Darkness” (which is chronologically about 8-10 days ahead of “Point of Honor”) but both my assistant and I feel that it snugs in comfortably next to “The Last Lesson” (which is the last story.) It is, however, substantially longer than the first stories.

  • Comment by jjmcgaffey — March 28, 2014 @ 10:51 pm


    Doesn’t matter to me, either. I always hope that the collection ends with a “good” story – that is, one that resonates with me and doesn’t have any irritating oddities. That way I walk away feeling good about the whole collection. But I own, and will continue to own, collections (anthologies, actually) in which there is _one_ story that’s really worth rereading, and maybe one or two others I found mildly pleasurable – and I absolutely hated the last story (and others). I just won’t read those stories again.

    By which I’m trying to say, the order is not really important – it’s nice to have it in _some_ order, and roughly chronological works, but honestly you could do it alphabetical by the second word in the title and it wouldn’t much matter if there are good stories in there (as I confidently expect there will be). And certainly length is not a criteria – there are stories barely five pages that have more depth and resonance with me than others, 20-30-50 pages long. Since you can’t tell what will resonate with what reader, put them in an order that works for you. We’ll enjoy them.

  • Comment by Ed Schoenfeld — March 28, 2014 @ 11:06 pm


    Just reacting as a reader, the length of the first story in a collection doesn’t really matter to me. The first story should have a good hook and be not too filling, so I still want to read more when I am done.

    So IMO you’ve got no problems, whatever story you put first.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — March 29, 2014 @ 6:36 am


    I think the length question isn’t so much for those of us already hooked here but it’s about those who might be picking up (so to speak) Elizabeth for the first time on some bookseller’s shelf. Do you want some really short work that they can totally finish and get hooked on while standing at the shelf or something they think they should find a nearby chair to finish working through the first entry. If this is going to only be electronic publish some of this is moot. But then how do you push the teasers out to the masses? The complete first entry or just the start of a longer one? I don’t have an answer for that, but I do think it helps frame the context for the order.

  • Comment by pjm — March 29, 2014 @ 7:44 am


    I don’t particularly remember anything much about the length of different stories in any collection I have read. No, I recall one or two which finished with a much longer story. I would not start or finish with a short short, but otherwise I can’t see it matters much.

  • Comment by GinnyW — March 29, 2014 @ 4:23 pm


    If the stories have a definite chronological order, then I find it helpful to read them in that sequence. Because I am character-oriented, I will hunt through to find all the stories with a particular character. I find it confusing if the same character is “younger” in a later story in the same anthology.

    Truthfully, though, if I like the stories, I will reread them in different orders. The length does not matter much to me personally, probably because shorter than a novel is shorter than a novel. Daniel does make a good point about the new reader standing in the bookstore, though. I will buy a book by a new author more readily if the first story (or chapter)is engaging.

  • Comment by Richard — March 29, 2014 @ 11:59 pm


    I love the way your richness of world-building gives you things to connect.

  • Comment by Linda — April 1, 2014 @ 8:03 am


    Will there any hints given about where a particular story fits in the overall context, or will we have to dig that out of the stories by remembering details from the main arc? I enjoy doing that , but also enjoy knowing I’ve gotten it “right” before I end up speculating too deeply on trails going in the wrong direction.

    In any case I know we’ll enjoy, and after the first reading I always end up flipping for my favorites.

  • Comment by Amanda — April 3, 2014 @ 11:13 pm


    I look forward to more backstory for this world. I love understanding the people and how their belief systems and history have unfolded.

    I have been reading the series out loud to my boyfriend and this is a great way to proofread. It takes so much longer to get through the book but I have found errors that I never noticed the dozens of times reading them to myself. Quite odd how the eye and brain correct these common errors when reading but the mouth goes “what is that?” when you try to say them 😛

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