Self-Editing

Strands of con­scious­ness, or how I edit

Strands of consciousness

Just because the first draft is writ­ten does not mean that a writer’s work is done. That was not a les­son I savoured, in fact my very first “final nov­el” is still in that edit­ing stage as I fum­ble my way around it. You see, I write the first draft in a method­i­cal way and gen­er­al­ly sparse way. I bare­ly touch the sur­face of the character’s thoughts and moti­va­tions, which leaves me in the sit­u­a­tion of rarely need­ing to cut down words (out­side style) but rather add more. So, how is my process at this point?

The key thing is that I focus–more or less–on a sin­gle thing in each read-through. I know oth­ers have a nice­ly sec­tioned sto­ry where they need to go into some­thing clos­er to line-edit imme­di­ate­ly, but I don’t. Their approach is as valid for them, obvi­ous­ly, as writ­ing is per­son­al in a way that’s hard to fath­om for those who don’t do, I think.

I won’t men­tion again how to do these read-throughs. I per­son­al­ly like to print it out and work on paper rather than the screen, but do what­ev­er you’re com­fort­able with.

A caveat: Any grammar/style/passive voice/etc edits, apply main­ly to the nar­ra­tive. Dia­logue fol­lows its own rules. It doesn’t need to be gram­mat­i­cal­ly cor­rect, it doesn’t need to be coher­ent. As long as any changes are on pur­pose. Feel like break­ing “rules”? Knock your­self out! Just do it in pur­pose. Have a rea­son for every rule you are break­ing. You are the boss of your writ­ing, and your style, and you owe it to your­self and your read­ers to make the best of it.

Also? These strands of edit­ing are in no way a replace­ment for beta read­ers or paid edi­tors. These are to help the edi­tors to make the best of your man­u­script with­out need­ing to wal­low through a drudge of things you can fix on your own.

First read-through

The first thing I focus on–after a time of rest of at least a week or two–is to read it as if it was writ­ten by a stranger. I don’t hate my work (gen­er­al­ly), so I won’t sug­gest read­ing it as if your worst ene­my wrote it, but I do sug­gest that you need to read it as if you’ve nev­er read it before. This will give you the base to see where you’re start­ing the sto­ry too ear­ly or too late, and where infor­ma­tion is miss­ing.

If you are a pantser, I believe you will get some mileage out of map­ping your nov­el against K.M. Weiland’s arti­cle Learn How To Struc­ture Your Novel–In 5 Min­utes. I gen­er­al­ly use it set up the skele­ton of plot/etc, and then check back once the first draft is done.

In sum­ma­ry, imag­ine the sto­ry as three acts and three plot points, with a quar­ter of the nov­el ded­i­cat­ed to the First Act (end­ing with the First Plot Point), anoth­er quar­ter lead­ing up to the Sec­ond Plot Point (mid­way through the Sec­ond Act), anoth­er quar­ter lead­ing to the end of the Sec­ond Act and the Third Plot Point (I tend to like to think of it as the low­est point), and then the final quar­ter is the Third Act. Even if you don’t use an “offi­cial” three-act struc­ture, I find this use­ful as a men­tal struc­ture.

At any rate, at the end of this read-through, you should have fig­ured out what plot­holes (if any) you have, if you need to rebal­ance sec­tions by cut­ting out scenes or writ­ing new scenes, or even new chap­ters. If you feel like fix­ing gram­mar and spelling as you do this, that’s fine, but don’t wor­ry about sen­tence struc­ture too much. Your focus should be on the sto­ry and mak­ing it coher­ent.

I tend to look for the fol­low­ing things:

  • Are there scenes that needs to be added to flesh out characters/plot?
  • Are any tran­si­tions (in par­tic­u­lar­ly between scenes) too abrupt?
  • Is it clear who’s speak­ing? I’m not talk­ing about dan­gling par­tici­ples here, but rather too many pro­nouns.
  • Should any scenes be cut? Does the sto­ry start where it should?
  • Is any­thing obvi­ous­ly incon­sis­tent? Why is her pet poo­dle now a dober­mann?

Now go on to fix the issues you found. To me, this is the fun part of edit­ing, at least the first few strands.

Character Arcs

I fin­ished my first nov­el (the one allud­ed to above, not-yet-fin­ished-edit­ing) in Novem­ber 2013. I used Scriven­er (an awe­some pro­gram!), which among its fea­tures has the abil­i­ty to add labels to scenes. I’d marked each scene with char­ac­ters, loca­tions, and occa­sion­al­ly sto­ry­line strand. I strong­ly rec­om­mend this, espe­cial­ly if you have a way to fil­ter out the non-rel­e­vant scenes. Any­ways, back to Vendela and the Små­ty nov­el (first in a series).

Vendela is a fair­ly cold, cal­cu­lat­ing, emo­tion­al­ly dis­tant per­son who doesn’t let much both­er her. In the first act there’s a scene where we’re intro­duced to her ex who drunk­en­ly accosts her and the guy (male main char­ac­ter Andrej) she’s with. This shooks her up, leav­ing her need­ing Andrej to defend her hon­our. … Wait, what? The hell did that come from? Yeah … That’s fixed now. Robert (the ex) is over­all a good guy, and he’s cer­tain­ly not abu­sive; he nev­er was. Accost­ing her while drunk? Sure. But it left her unruf­fled, and a touch annoyed at Andrej for try­ing to fight her bat­tles.

So, that’s what I mean about edit­ing for char­ac­ter arcs. No mat­ter if you’re writ­ing the arc from a strict for­mu­la (I rec­om­mend K.M Wei­land again for posts on how to write a good char­ac­ter arc), or pants­ing it with a vague idea on where you want them to go, this step is actu­al­ly sev­er­al strands.

In each strand, read through the rel­e­vant character’s (major or minor) parts for tone and arc. Are you spread­ing the bread­crumbs of char­ac­ter his­to­ry and such even­ly? Are they sud­den­ly act­ing out of char­ac­ter? Well, if they are, then either fix it to be in char­ac­ter, or to show why this is not out of char­ac­ter (or maybe to lat­er give expla­na­tions, though if it’s this one, make sure you hint at that).

In sum­ma­ry, per char­ac­ter:

  • Decide the plot points for the char­ac­ter
  • As above, are there incon­sis­ten­cies that needs to be fixed?
  • Do you need to add/remove scenes to make parts of the arc more obvi­ous?

Cut out filter words

You know the words. The myr­i­ad of “Just” and “So” that plagues your nar­ra­tive. All the real­ly, total­ly, etc. If you don’t know exact­ly which words you have issues with, I rec­om­mend find­ing good books/blog posts on it. I per­son­al­ly use Rayne Hall’s The Word-Loss Diet.

I put this before the next sec­tion because it’s an easy way to see the style cleaned up, and assum­ing you fol­low a sys­tem it’s fast as well.

Evaluate the usefulness of the scenes

This one’s hard for me. I always end up either cut­ting too much, or too lit­tle, because I’m eager­ly try­ing to ‘kill my dar­lings’. When I read every scene should ful­fill a pur­pose for the plot I for­get that char­ac­ters are the most impor­tant part of the plot. Even a scene where they have cof­fee in a hotel might be use­ful if we find out that the main char­ac­ter is ter­ri­fied of hors­es, some­thing that only becomes rel­e­vant once the only option is to flee from Mount Doom mount­ed.

That said, do look at every scene and fig­ure out the fol­low­ing:

  • What does the main Point of View (PoV) want? (They should want some­thing)
  • Does the scene add to either flesh­ing out the char­ac­ters (and not in the “info dump” kind of way), or fur­ther the plot?

First style/grammar edit

At this point, you should have the sto­ry down pat and can start look­ing at scene-lev­el edits. I tend to start this off with using the ancient lin­ux tool diction to get wordy/misused phras­es out in the open as well as basic grammar/spelling checks, before read­ing it through and mark­ing things that stand out.

If you take noth­ing else with you from this arti­cle, take this:

Read your sto­ry out loud to get the melody. Espe­cial­ly if you have some­one who’s patient with lis­ten­ing and can give you point­ers if some­thing sounds off. If you’re stum­bling on words, mark them to be fixed in some way.

Since you’re read­ing things through, you’ll maybe also fig­ure out issues in voice/whatever that were missed in pri­or steps. That’s fine, and I’d mark those as well.

Passive voice

Yes, I am giv­ing this its own head­ing. I like to use the Lin­ux tool style, which ana­lyzes the text for read­abil­i­ty and sen­tence struc­ture. It also has a set­ting sim­i­lar to diction, allow­ing me to get–black-on-white–a list of sen­tences writ­ten in pas­sive voice. Now, here’s some­thing impor­tant to keep in mind: You’re the boss of your writ­ing, not some fan­cy auto­mat­ic style ana­lyz­er.

Grammar/spelling

Trust me, those two pri­or steps intro­duced a myr­i­ad of gram­mat­i­cal mis­steps and broke the melody com­pletel­ly. Run the gram­mar-/spellcheck­er, and then read it through out loud, fix­ing every­thing the grammar/spellchecker didn’t catch.

The five senses and other parts of scenery

How many have you used? Keep in mind that to write a rich expe­ri­ence, you’ll want to uti­lize more than just sight and hear­ing. How does the floor feel under her feet? What does the air smell of? Can she taste any­thing? This may not need to be fixed in every scene, but I (per­son­al­ly!) would look into hav­ing at least three sens­es in each scene.

In dia­logue, let the char­ac­ters inter­act with the envi­ron­ment. Where are they? Let us know not by you stat­ing that “the room was small with a table”, but by the char­ac­ter tak­ing three steps and then sit­ting down, look­ing out the win­dow. Yes, this is the old “show not tell”.

As an aside, this is actu­al­ly why I strug­gle with first per­son nar­ra­tive. My writ­ing tends to be filled with she pulled a hand through her oily locks and he slumped into the hard chair, winc­ing at the loud creak­ing, which works fine in third, but makes the Point of View seem a touch too con­ceit­ed in first.

Point of View

Since you’ve estab­lished what your Point of View is, now it’s time to get down and grit­ty and fig­ure out on a scene-lev­el if you’re head­hop­ping too much. I’m not going to tell you howy you should orga­nize your point of view(s), only that you should make sure the read­er only gets what any giv­en PoV should know.

Words

If you’re like me, you’ve picked at the words in every read-through, but I like to have one that’s specif­i­cal­ly for find­ing good words. Now, don’t tell me “there should not be any adverbs, because a strong verb is bet­ter than a verb + adverb!”. Sure, that’s true. That said, he said qui­et­ly might not be the same thing as

he whis­pered

. If he whis­pered, then sure, but if he just has a nat­u­ral­ly soft voice, don’t write that he whis­pered.

I have a dic­tio­nary and the­saurus at hand for this. Not to play “hunt the weird syn­onym”, but because I love the melody of words. I may not always read out loud, but even writ­ing this blog post I hear the words in my head. I spend far less time find­ing the per­fect word in non-fic­tion, but in fic­tion it’s impor­tant.

Imag­ine three women in a room. One is demure, the sec­ond one is coy and the third is silent. Do they look the same to your minds-eye? They don’t to mine, but those words are syn­onyms. I like to get the gen­er­al shape of the word (let’s start with shy), and then roll it and its syn­onyms around in my mouth, tast­ing the melody and exam­in­ing the con­jured images.

Summary

And that’s all! I will prob­a­bly do a cou­ple of more read-throughs, tweak­ing here, adding there, but once I’ve come down to this point, I’m fig­ur­ing I’ll feel ready to … hide the nov­el in a cup­board and nev­er think about it again, for fear of rejec­tion. Okay, don’t do that last step, even if I will!


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