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Melva McLean

An Editor in a Three-Day Writer’s Boot Camp, Day 2

Putting crumpled paper in wastebasket

In every good boot camp movie there’s a scene where a tough army trainer leaves the rebellious recruit out in the cold and rain all night or makes them do 1,000 pushups. This is one way to make the recruit begin to sacrifice ego.

The other short story boot camp recruits and I didn’t have to stand out in the cold or do pushups. In fact, the assignment sounded simple enough: each of us was to go home and come back in the morning with a revised draft of our story, one that more clearly articulated what that story was about. “The only way to succeed in this writers’ army,” one of the drill quill sergeants said, “is to be clear about the mission and execute it the most effective way possible. Oo-rah!”

That night I reread my story and wondered how anyone could say that “I” didn’t know what it was about, that “I” wasn’t sure what I was trying to say and that “I” had to focus. Sheesh! Couldn’t they see it was a coming-of-age story in which a teenaged girl finally rebels against her single-parent father who is trying to keep the family farm going despite the downturn in the economy and the older brother’s decision to go into the army and leave the safety of Manitoba for Afghanistan and without knowing he was leaving a pregnant girlfriend behind?

The next morning I realized I wasn’t the only one who’d had a sleepless night. Everyone looked shell-shocked. But when we went around the table, I realized that most people had attempted to complete the task — er, mission. Someone had changed the genre of her story from historical to science fiction. Another writer had changed his protagonist from male to female and changed the tone from drama to comedy to explore surviving divorce to a spouse everyone loves but you.

Putting crumpled paper in wastebasketNot me. I hadn’t changed a thing. Uh uh. Not one word. Oh, I had some ideas about how to make it more exciting … less chatty, more —

I was cut off from explaining all this by the second sergeant, who walked slowly toward me, hands on hips, then looked down on my desk.

“Is that your original story?” he asked.

I nodded slowly, swallowing hard.

He picked up my manuscript, tore it in half and then walked over to the wastebasket.

“That was so unnecessary,” one of my fellow recruits said when we broke for lunch.

I thought again about my Sufi mantra, adopted for life and editing: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. At the first gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’ At the second gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it necessary?’ And, at the third gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it kind?’ ”

Here I was, at my own second gate on the second day, and I began to wonder if it was even necessary to come back for the third and last day.

…To be continued!


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