Saturday, January 26, 2008

Scene-Level Editing

My previous posting discussed the three levels or types of editing. In this
posting I'll share an example regarding scene-level editing using my current
editing project, the novel JACK & JILL: THE UNTOLD STORY.

Scenes work best when there is a TIGHT FOCUS on a SPECIFIC GOAL and a clear sense of the RESULT of the POV character's effort to achieve that goal in the here-and-now. The actual result may itself be clear or unclear to the POV character, but whatever the case, the result should be clear to the READER, including the fact that things may be unclear to the POV character. In other words, it's okay to keep the POV character guessing, but don't leave the Reader guessing -- let the Reader know clearly who the POV character is, what his/her goal is, what stands in the way, and how things turn out.

Here is a closer look. The following elements are essential to a tightly-
focused scene:

1. At the outset, the Reader wants to know where we are, what the basic situation is, who the POV character is, what time it is, what's happening around the character at this moment, etc. (i.e., "clue me in, please!"). The Reader also wants to know what the POV character is attempting to do, or what danger or risk he/she is facing. This poses a story question for the current scene, one that is IMPORTANT and provides a REASON TO READ the scene. Even if this scene is part of a subplot and not part of the main dramatic throughline, what is going on in this subplot needs to tie in eventually to the main plot, the way smaller streams feed into a larger river.

2. Once the basic idea of the scene is established, the Reader wants to follow along and even anticipate what the POV character is doing or will do in order to accomplish the goal, or escape from or face the danger (responding to danger provides its own obvious and immediate goals -- other goals need to be made clear since they won't be so obvious or immediate). In other words, the Reader wants to see COMPLICATIONS and how things move along. The Reader also wants to understand the RATIONALE for these efforts and these circumstances. The goal must pan out, must make sense once we see it in action. The complications need to make sense also, not seem contrived or too convenient for the story. Real characters face real obstacles with real stakes!

3. Eventually, the Reader wants to see how things turn out. They want to see the RESULTS of the POV character's efforts when confronted with the complications. They want to know if the POV character achieved the goal or not, why or why not, and where this leaves things: what's next? If the POV character did achieve his/her goal, then there must be some twist to that -- having "won", he/she finds that "winning" is not all it's cracked up to be. Having obtained something, the "something" poses a new set of problems. Having gotten the key to the vault, there is now the issue of a monster that stands in the way of using the key to get into the vault, or the key comes with a new group of thugs that want it back, etc., etc. The result answers the current story question and immediately poses a new story question: where next? I'll repeat that: WHERE NEXT? This adds something called suspense, AKA a REASON TO READ.

Now, to illustrate how I took a simple scene from JACK & JILL, my current WUM (work under the microscope), and edited it to make it more focused! This scene is short, basic and simple. I don't want to share anything that is more involved or important to the story since I don't want to give away anything more than that about the story.

You will recall that JACK & JILL is a fantasy novel which is supposed to reveal the true story behind the Jack & Jill nursery rhyme. In this "original version", the characters are Jacques and Giel, two seventeen-year-old boys who live in a small village somewhere in a fictional version of the Low Countries ("Benelux": Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg). You can read the Prologue and first three chapters on my fiction excerpts blog, ADRIAN'S FIX.

Now, to the SIQ (scene in question). In the ORIGINAL (first-draft) version, Jacques and Giel walk along a road, escaping from a great danger behind them. They're far enough from it at the moment that they can walk instead of run. They haven't slept in a while and decide to take a break in a quiet ravine where they will not be seen. Later, some local farmers find them there, fast asleep. The farmers realize Jacques and Giel are fleeing, and take them prisoner in order to hold them for the very "whatever" they were fleeing from. One of the farmers who finds them is named "Jori".

Challenge to the Reader: Before continuing, can you tell what's wrong with the original scene? Name at least two things.

In the REVISED (second-draft) version, Jacques and Giel are walking along the road when the farmer Jori happens by on a wagon pulled by a horse. Jori is alone, going about his own business. He figures out that Jacques and Giel are fleeing and sought after by the dangerous "whatever" of the story. Jori is supportive of them and their cause, and tells them how he will help them. He tells them to wait in the ravine until nightfall, when he will return to give them a ride to safety. Now, the boys have to decide whether or not to believe Jori. Jacques wants to trust him, Giel does not (of course). Jacques prevails, the boys go to the ravine, but they do not acknowledge knowing anything about whatever intrigue Jori is talking about. They say they just want to rest, and if Jori happens back later and can offer them a ride then, they will be happy to take it. Jacques decides to take the risk since he wants to trust the kind farmer, but also he realizes potential danger, so he is playing it safe by denying everything, including any knowledge of "whatever". Later, the farmers arrive and find the boys sleeping in the ravine. The farmers take them prisoner.

The revised version is better than the original version in the following ways:

1. The new immediate danger (the local farmers) is introduced earlier -- we know there are local farmers and at least one of them might pose a threat, before we are faced with a group of farmers arriving as a threat.

2. There is suspense over whether or not to trust Jori. The kindly old farmer makes a convincing case that he really is on the boys' side, and the Reader would have also have every reason to think he may actually be genuine, yet know he might also not be.

3. We suffer greater disappointment when the local farmers show up at the end of this sequence. Not only are we already familiar with the "whatever" that the boys are fleeing from (based on earlier scenes), but we have had time to reflect on the danger the farmers pose, and what it would mean if they were to get into the middle of things and ruin the escape. We feel disappointment that the kindly old farmer is really a nasty guy after all, betraying the boys and taking them captive to return them to the "whatever" from which they were escaping.

4. The new version involves a more significant CHOICE by the POV character (Jacques) -- Jacques decides to trust Jori, and stay in the ravine. Bad choice, of course. By making a choice, Jacques is taking an active role in shaping his own fate. This is stronger than having Jacques decide to stay and rest in a ravine that he just happens to find along the way. Compare: "We're so tired and we just happened upon this ravine and there is no one around -- should we rest here?" vs. "This dude named Jori seems to know our secret but I'm not sure, and he wants us to stay here at this ravine and rest and wait for him to come back to help us, but maybe he's going to betray us, I'm just not sure -- should we rest here?"

5. Something you couldn't have guessed because I didn't tell you enough details up front: The choice Jacques must make also creates FORESHADOWING. Soon after this, there will be another major choice when Jacques has to decide whether or not to trust someone else. Giel will be very much against it -- downright adamant -- but Jacques will have a lot of reasons why he must take the risk, reasons that have been worked in since the very beginning of the story. Jacques is indeed compelled to do something that will turn out to go very, very, very badly for him.

In summary, when writing a first draft we are seeking our story and might describe things as just "happening" to the POV character while feeling our way along. We should strive wherever possible to keep things goal-driven instead. When we edit, we must correct any events that "just happen" and turn them into events that involve a CHOICE by the POV character. At the outset, clue the reader in to the POV character, time, setting, etc., firmly establish the POV character's goal and give a clear rationale for the goal. Along the way, provide justification for the particular complications and reinforce the rationale for having this goal in the first place, in spite of the obstacles. At the end, make it clear how things turn out, even if the way things turn out is that the outcome is not clear -- let the reader know the POV character is unsure, but don't leave the reader unsure about whether or not the POV character is unsure. If the goal is reached, it turns out not to be as helpful as originally thought. There is a twist and a new set of complications that come from having reached the goal. If the goal is not reached, then it should have been and it's not having been reached creates additional problems. However things turn out, there must be a new question, stated or implied, a new direction, a next step. If scenes are goal-driven, you raise story questions, and provide twists and turns, the reader will find it much easier to maintain and build interest.


Best wishes for your own editing adventures,


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Editing the Novel

I posted a hypothetical "how to edit" piece on my TIPS & TRICKS blog some time ago, before actually attempting to edit a full-length manuscript. I included a disclaimer that warned readers I had never attempted to follow my own advice. The purpose of writing the piece was not to tell people how to do something that I didn't know how to do, but to put myself through the paces of trying to anticipate how I might actually go about it, since I was about to embark on a major editing effort at that time. Since then, I've had the fine pleasure of writing additional complete drafts and also reworking full-length novels and editing them. I've learned a little bit more than I knew before, and want to share a glimpse into the EDITING PROCESS as I experience it. Here goes....

There are three types of editing: story-level, scene-level and text-level. I'll tackle them one at a time.


This is the highest-level editing, the one with the view to the entire story. It involves reviewing your overall plan for the story and figuring out whether what you wrote accomplishes that. This is where you figure out whether the ending works, whether a given scene is necessary, whether you adequately set up something or just dropped it on the reader. This is where you look for opportunities to work in more foreshadowing, where you raise questions and leave them to be answered later, creating suspense. You decide whether a given sequence is a relevant sub-plot or whether it ventures too far afield of your main plot, failing to contribute to the development of the themes or major threads. You realize you now possess a deeper level of understanding about your characters, the situation they're in, and their motivations. You gained this understanding while writing a complete draft. You use this understanding to draw out a stronger sense of the characters' motivations and the cause-and-effect aspect of the chain of events for the Reader, who will also appreciate seeing these connections. You also determine whether any new developments that came up in the writing are worth keeping, even if it means changes to your original plan. You have to negotiate with yourself on this, and it can be tough.

I think of this type of editing as reworking the story, more akin to planning and writing the story than editing the story. In fact, I don't really think of it as editing at all, even though it is a form of editing. This is what I do after completing a draft. If what I wrote works overall and needs only a few relatively minor changes, then I use this type of editing (or rethinking) to help me change individual scenes or chapters. If the changes needed are substantial, then I just do a complete rewrite, which is much easier than trying to fix something that is seriously broken. I enjoy this type of editing to a point, since I enjoy plotting. However, sometimes this gets frustrating, usually because I realize I have to make a decision that I don't want to make (should the story go this way or that way...). Overall, this sort of stuff is fun. At least, it can be. I work actively to keep it that way.

2. SCENE-LEVEL EDITING. This type of editing involves making changes to scenes to help them accomplish their business. When I realize from the story level that I need to add a certain piece of story information to a given scene, this is the point where I do that. If I need an outcome of a scene to be different in order for things to work better for the overall plot, then this is where I do that. My focus here is not so much on the actual words in the scene (that's the next level of editing), but on making the scene itself work properly. I take whatever insights I have and work them into the reality of the scene, its particulars, its specifics. I make sure I can see clearly where the beginning of the scene is, its middle and its ending, and what the point of it is.

The main thing I do in scene-level editing is tighten the focus. I make sure the POV character has a clear goal at the outset and makes a decision or two so that he/she takes an active role in doing things. I make sure the scene ends with a clear sense of how things turned out and that the ending of the scene implies or states directly a new question or direction to go in -- scenes must lead from one to the next, and where possible should increase suspense. Not all scenes have to have a major cliffhanger for an ending, but they should all have an emotional impact and/or new question that Readers will notice.


I tend to do text-level editing at all times. Every time I reread I change a word here or there. Every time I go through the story, I find myself fixing little things. Many little fixes over time add up to an awful lot of fixes. The enhancements make a difference, make the story more readable, makes it flow smoothly. I do this so much that I have to make it a point to shut off the text-level editor within me so I can focus on scene or story issues when I need to, or when I just want to read to catch the flow of the story over a longer sequence.

Text-level editing is where I find a more suitable word or phrase, where I break a long sentence down into several short sentences, where I take two short sentences and join them together, where I get rid of "and" and other words I find myself overusing from time to time, where I change -ing forms into -ed forms, where I get rid of "had" to simplify past tenses, where I get rid of "he said" or "she said" as much as possible, etc., etc.

I love this type of editing and now that I've done so much of it I've gotten really good at. I see new ways to consolidate and clarify text that I never dreamed possible before, a higher-level of editing skill -- and I was always a good editor to begin with, a "natural" at it. To learn more about this, I strongly recommend Evan Marshall's book, THE MARSHALL PLAN. The book features concrete examples. Before reading it, I had already learned a lot from reading best-selling authors. I noticed how they had a common style in structural terms that kept their prose readable. THE MARSHALL PLAN helped me bring those impressions together and create a conscious awareness and clear perspective on editing for clarity as it relates to novel writing.

In the near future, I'll post two more entries on my blog about editing. They will focus on scene-level editing and text-level editing, providing examples.

Since story-level editing involves whole stories, and I don't want to give away too much about my plots, I won't post examples of story-level editing. However, basic story planning is what's behind this type of editing -- having a sense of how to outline a story. For more ideas on that, see THE GAY MAN'S GUIDE TO WRITING FANTASY FICTION.


Friday, January 11, 2008

If You Can't Write, Edit!

I've been trying to get back into the JASPER novel to continue writing the first draft and finish it. Turns out that's not so easy. Not because I couldn't pick up any other novel right now, but that particular novel is tricky. I had a very particular mindset while writing it, drawing from a very particular sense of humor. Since I set it aside, I haven't been able to recapture that mindset yet to my satisfaction. I don't want to write on it until I know I'm back in the particular grove that this one story requires.

So, I've finally decided to push on and edit the JACK & JILL novel. I've worked my way through the first five chapters already, and was very happy to see that what I wrote, after it had sat for a while, seemed very readable, very tight overall, and actually pretty darned good, in my humble opinion. I was quite pleased with it. That's good, in that I should be happy with my work at this point, in general. If you can write and you've developed some skill at it, then what you write ought well to be readable and engaging, at least in general. It would be unusual if it weren't any good -- a sign that there are problems that need to be addressed! I think I'd address them to someone who cares, and put extra postage on them just to be sure they make it there. (haha)

Only one scene needed any rewriting, since I needed to change the tone of the interaction. Otherwise, the changes were mostly a word or two here or there, or tightening up a sentence, or joining two sentences together or breaking one sentence in two. The minor stuff that makes the text more readable, easier and faster to read.

I was impressed by the clarity of the text. The images and sense of what was happening in each scene was all very clear. There was a tight focus: each scene was about something specific, and ended with a clear sense of how it went, and where it needed to go. The chapter endings in particular were able to raise suspense, or create some impact that generated a sense of "I wonder what happens next". The shorter chapter lengths and goal-driven style really do pay off. There is a goal in each scene, a motivation, an obstacle (or two), and an outcome. Questions are raised, some answered right away, others left dangling there, raising the intrigue and suspense.

Okay, I love to gloat when I feel something I wrote worked well. It's a bad habit, potentially impolite, and certainly something that can define one as a "bore". But, there is a point here -- to become a writer, we must change our self-concept from "wannabe" to "I am a capable writer". Seeing that something you wrote works is part of that process, as much as seeing what doesn't work. I think we need to allow ourselves to see the growth, the progress, and feel good about it. It's not bragging, it's reaffirming for ourselves that what we are trying to do ... is something that we can do, and something we are in fact doing.

As for the editing, I anticipate the first half of the story will go along fairly smoothly, then the second half will turn into a real nightmare, since the later part of the story was less certain for me as I wrote it. I'll probably have to completely rewrite several chapters, maybe even the entire second half. However, that's only 35k words or so, and manageable. I was quite pleased to see that the basic outline held tight, and it's very easy for me to plug new ideas in for minor tweaking as needed, to enhance, draw out the significance of plot details, etc. I also figured out how to rewrite the ending. At this point I have no real questions left regarding this story, which is excellent. I should know it by now. I hate not knowing. Knowing is good.

Back to the bliss of editing,


Sunday, January 06, 2008

2008: A Year of Writing Furiously

The glitter begins to settle, the throbbing in my ears dies down to a faint, rhythmic hum ... the frantic commotion of the past few weeks gives way to gentle calm. Reassuring signs that a return to normalcy might indeed be possible.

I have decided to call 2008 my Year of Writing Furiously, a year in which I'll strive to write as many stories as I can. There is a value in writing my way through complete stories. Each time I learn more about the various parts of the three-act plot template, I understand better how things are set up and then realized later, how things tie together, how one part of the story supports another. Each time through I get better at conceptualizing stories, keeping myself on track, moving with more confidence and a more finely-tuned story sense. Even if I end up with a number of first drafts and a backlog of editing to do, still I will have advanced my skills at storytelling, the foundation aspects, which I need to hone and strengthen. I also want to complete at least two stories, three if I can, so that I'll have something to start sending out this year.

I've begun to hear my many Muses again, calling out to me, their sweet melodies drifting across the primordial sea, the Urstoff out of which our universe and our reality were fashioned. Powerful voices, muted still by the techno beats I can't quite free myself from. When I achieve silence in my own mind, I'll be able to hear those voices clearly again.

For now, I seek oblivion. Being and not being. Thinking and not thinking. Feeling and not feeling. In that twilight, I can look up and see not the world as it is, but as it could be, as it once was, as I am sure it is elsewhere. I can see across the planes of existence and know there is more, and find a way to bring it into being within our own world. A way to draw the energy of pure creativity into physical form, a series of symbols on the page that spell out stories which I know must somewhere be true.

Best wishes to all aspiring writers in 2008,


P.S. Hope you enjoy the new look for this blog. I have also done away with the ellipsis after the title ("Chronicling the Novel..." is now "Chronicling the Novel").