I’ve put the first in a series of posts on editing over on the East Block Irregulars blog and have posted it here as well.
I Write Electronically, But Edit Electronically or on Paper
I always write on a computer—no long-hand or voice recognition. When I need to edit, I may review a printed a hard copy or do revisions in the electronic document. In either case, I start with the big pieces—plot, theme—and make sure they’re solid before moving on to detailed elements like setting details or dialogue.
After the First Draft, Check Plot & Character Logic
After I finish a first draft, I check to see that the plots and character points work in a logical sense. Have I revealed the necessary information in the proper order? Sounds simple, but there have been times when necessary information to understand something on page 4 is revealed on page 7. Or I never explained what the villain did to make the main character want to kill him.
Depending on the length of the story, I will either do this with an electronic version or, if the document is too long to track with more than a few PageUp and PageDown keystrokes, I will print it (usually more than 5,000 words).
With the necessary building blocks in place, it’s time to look at theme. Depending on what I found in the first step, I might do another revision of the story, or simply make some notes and move on to this step.
SIDENOTE: Not everyone is big on theme, but I believe a story should be more than a series of actions. You don’t need to make a bold statement—if mankind lands on Mars, it will ruin it, so end the space program!—but at least give people something to think about.
What I look for:
- Is the theme clear or subtle? Does that work for what I am trying to accomplish?
- How do the characters, setting and plot contribute to the theme? Could one confuse the other? For example, a story with domestic violence as the theme where gods abuse their worshippers, but the gods still claim to love them. However, the gods are compelling characters. Could this run the risk of readers rooting for the abuser?
If the theme is confused, time to revisit the sequence of plot and character development to remain on-theme.
Balance Action vs. Information
Depending on what I find in the above two steps, I might do a revision to the story, or simply continue making notes. In this step, it’s time to look at the balance of action versus back story & info dumps.
Put too much back story up front and the story is too slow at the beginning:
SIX GUNS AND HEXED ONES
By Matt Moore
When the young wizard learned the gunslinger had come to Dry River Township, he’d vowed the old man would never leave. [Followed by five pages of background information and no action in the present.]
But put it too late and you’re delaying the climax:
The gunslinger and wizard squared off on the dusty main street, six-shooter and wand pointing at their hated adversary. [Followed by five pages of background information and no action in the present.]
So, spread background information out enough to maintain tension, but keep the reader informed. To do this, keep some information from the reader, but not too long. For example, if you hint at where the main character is in the first sentence:
Chains around her legs rattling, Mary-Ann yanked at the rusty metal bars of her cage.
Don’t keep where she is a secret (unless that is the point of the story) until the end. Reveal she is in a dungeon, Old West prison cell or zoo, but then how she got there is the next unanswered question. But a question that goes unanswered for too long stops being tension and becomes frustration.
Other Story Elements
With the major elements of theme, plot and character addressed, it’s time to work on other story elements. Usually a revision to the manuscript is needed prior this point. However, only focus on one of these elements each time you go through the manuscript. Don’t try to fix them all at once or you’ll miss something. This may seem like it takes a long time – and for a novel it might – but since it focuses on something specific, often you can skip over entire portions of the story that do not relate to the element you’re focused on.
- Does each man character have a distinct and consistent speaking style? Does this accurately reflect them? For example, a 5 year-old or high school drop-out shouldn’t have complex vocabularies.
- Is there sufficient physical description of your characters, and those descriptions accurately reflect them—teenager vs. adult, athletic vs. sedentary.
- Are you telling what the character feels (“Mary-Ann felt rage built”) or describing (“Mary-Ann lashed out, screaming and striking the bars with bare palms, pain stinging up her arms”).
- Is it clear where each scene is taking place? How large is it? Where is the light coming from?
- Is sensory details provided? More than just sight? What’s the temperature? How does it smell?
- Does setting add to the story? If so, what details?
Usually, another revision is needed before moving on to this step, which is where the story is reviewed for its language. Are certain words repeated? Do paragraphs begin with the same word or sentences follow the same pattern?
Also, do not start and the beginning of the story but pick a random point in the manuscript. If you start at the beginning, you run the risk of editing the story, not its language.
One Last Read
When done, I let the story sit for a few days to a week, then go back and read it through one last time. If there is nothing glaringly wrong with it, it’s done and ready to send out.