Part 3: The Nitty-Gritties of Book Editing
Yesterday’s post was about spicing up your manuscript to be more engaging. Today’s post is about discovering your goals and fine-tuning your manuscript to achieve those goals (no more, no less). This is about using structure and science to streamline your story; to get that final polish agents and editors want to see.
Every scene you write should accomplish something specific in your story. Let me repeat that in different words: Have clear story goals for every single scene in your manuscript.
First drafts are full of stuff that doesn’t fit this criteria. HEY SHE HAS A COOL BATHROOM LETS SHOW HER IN IT. A LOT. And you know what? That is okay. That’s more than okay. That’s great. That’s how first drafts are.
But once you reach the revision stage–the second, third, fourth drafts–you want to narrow the focus. Go into each chapter and each scene with a clear goal in mind. Know the starting point (e.g., Sophie and Leon are fighting about something) and an ending point (Sophie and Leon make up and decide on a mutual course of action). Let your characters’ emotions guide you. We want to see change.
Sometimes we write scenes that only serve as setting or character exposition. Remove these. Work that details into other scenes that do have clear goals, that do accomplish an important milestone in your story.
2. Leave out extraneous detail.
I know I have a lot of ideas going into a story–going into each scene, even. The result is a first draft with threads that spin off into the aether, observations and descriptions and divergences that, really, don’t go anywhere in the long haul.
If a scene does have a clear goal, cut any extraneous details or tangents unless they reveal crucial information. If they do, figure out if you can use those reveals of information to push the scene towards its climax. Remember that readers are hyper-sensitive; they read every word you write and try figure out what they mean in the greater context. Give readers the right threads that will lead them down the path you’ve set out for them. (You evil puppet-master, you.)
Obviously, red herrings are OK–if intentional. Each step toward the finish should be calculated. Don’t give us a supporting character’s backstory or veer off into a philosophical description of the desert landscape unless it matters thematically or pushes the reader down the plotline.
3. Remove connective tissue.
It’s kind of a gross metaphor, but when someone in my writer’s group told me to do this, I knew right away what she was saying. There’s an old adage in film: “Never show someone walking through a door.” The same is true when honing your manuscript: leave out the strings between important sequences.
During the first draft process, when we’re still trying to figure out how characters get from Point A to Point B, connective tissue is natural. Now that you’ve written the thing once, go back in and remove all that… gross stuff.
Sounds scary? Like you might leave your reader confused or disjointed? Give it a try anyway. Cut out the walking and driving and other transitions, and just drop a scene break.
Now walk away. Pee, pet your cat, whatever. Come back and re-read it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how everything still makes sense. And your reader is much happier jumping right to the important parts. (Remember how it felt watching The Avengers? This is why.)
4. Start in the middle.
As there are exceptions to every rule, there are exceptions to this one. Sometimes you need a wind-up, for whatever inexplicable reason.
I hate to keep bringing this back to film, but there’s so much to learn from the art of filmmaking in making a reader feel totally encompassed by your story. To me, the point of writing fiction is to create a world inside which readers can live for a while. And who else does this better than the movies?
One way to do this is to start with the action and cut from one important section to the next. Jump right to the meat of the scene. No one cares about what John ordered for lunch at the restaurant–what we care about is the argument John and Linda are about to have at the table. Go right to the good stuff. I mean, seriously. Who actually likes eating the cookie? GO RIGHT FOR THE CREAM FILLING.
This is the end of the revision series. Maybe, if you really, really like this kind of thing, I can do more. There’s so much to say about finding critique partners, knowing when to revise, and knowing when to leave a manuscript alone for a while…
What are the strategies you’ve employed for polishing your manuscript? Any lessons you’ve learned along the way?