Editing: Looking at the Big Picture

So a manuscript is finished, yay!

Most people suggest that the first step is to put it away for a while to get some distance from what you’ve written, some objectivity about your words. I do think that’s a sensible idea. I don’t do it very well myself. With Ghosts, I tried to wait a month, but actually I spent that month posting chapters at Critique Circle and resisting the temptation to make more than minor edits. With later books, I’ve managed a few days or a couple of weeks. With A Lonely Magic, it was more like a night. Ah, well.

My true first step is to read the whole manuscript, beginning to end, in a format not the same as the one in which I wrote it. I usually create a Kindle version and use that. My goal is to try to read it as a reader would. I don’t try to make fixes along the way. Instead, I make notes. Lots of them! Here’s what I’m looking for:

    1) Scenes

    Does every scene have a clear purpose? Does every scene move the plot forward? Is every scene necessary? Why does a given scene HAVE to happen? What does it accomplish? If the scene disappeared, what effect would it have on the overall story? If it’s not accomplishing anything important, could I add something to it that would be valuable?

    The flip side, of course, is whether I’ve skipped scenes. I do that more often than writing useless scenes (although I’ve done some of the former.) For example, I’ll often start a scene, then throw in some background information, something that’s happened previously, then continue the scene and in the first read, I realize that the background information should have been a scene on its own.

    In A Gift of Time, most early versions skipped from the bistro to days later at Natalya’s house. Then at Nat’s house, I had multiple paragraphs about what had happened at the police station and with the therapist. In the final version, that was a full scene of its own, one which established Colin’s character, developed a better sense of Kenzi’s behavior, gave Nat & Colin another opportunity for tension, dropped a bunch of clues about Kenzi’s background, and let me balance out my point-of-view switches a little better.

    2) Setting

    I don’t like writing description and I don’t like reading description, so I generally avoid it as much as possible. Sometimes, though, that makes scenes feel floaty, un-anchored, or even confusing. I revised the first scene in A Lonely Magic repeatedly, trying to make it more visual while maintaining the tension, and some readers still found it confusing. Of course, too much description can be boring. I also almost invariably wind up marking my descriptions with notes that say things like, “Clunky and boring, trim!” or “total cliche, fix ad make interesting.” But I make sure in my first revision that each scene has a clear sense of place. If you read my CBCA series of posts, you can think of it as a contextual embedding check–I make sure that I haven’t skipped including those details, because for me, they’re easy to not include in a first draft.

    3) Pacing

    This is an easy check, a hard fix. If I start skimming–and I’m a serious skimmer most of the time, so it’s instinct for me–I immediately stop reading, identify where I started skimming, and mark it for revision. Maybe it needs tightening, maybe it needs to be deleted, maybe it needs to be pumped up, to have some emotion added. I don’t necessarily know as I’m reading what I need to change, but I know that the pacing is wrong if I start skimming.

    And the flip side of that, of course, is that I also look for scenes that are too quick. I think every book I’ve written has a first version of the climax that almost a bare bones outline instead of a complete scene. Those are easy to identify but less fun to fix.

    Finally, I try to consider the overall pace of the story. In A Lonely Magic, the first draft has a climactic moment that is immediately followed by a ton of exposition. In the final version, almost all of that conversation gets moved ahead of the climactic moment so that the pacing doesn’t go straight from a major adrenaline high action moment to a thud of historical detail. So in this first revision pass, I look at the high and lows of the story and try to make sure that they flow the way they should. One of my favorite reviews of ALM calls it a “tilt-a-whirl” which I loved. It means I hit what I was aiming for!

The final element that I look for in this first draft revision is the most important to me, so I’m going to give it a whole blog post of its own next time. Any guesses about what it is?

*****
Today’s writing goal: a whole chapter, at least 1000+ words, of my final Eureka story. I’m dragging my feet about wrapping it up, because it feels like I’m closing a chapter of my life. But it’s time.

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