Getting me to edit is a little like getting the dog to volunteer for a bath. However, knee deep in books I swore to myself ( and you.. whoever you are..) I wouldn’t just leave them all to languish..
The biggest reason I struggle with editing is I have a tendency to hate my own work. Being critical is necessary but it can also be blinding- diverting your focus from areas that really need work, while you fret over unimportant points. Since joining writing groups and reading other novice works, I’ve noticed this tendency in other writers. First chapters get proofed to virtual perfection, while the underlying flaws are never addressed. Lines are skilfully rewoven into works of beauty and the fact that the character saying them was supposedly dead by this time gets neatly overlooked..
My aim was to build a check list to help make sure the story was working – something that would help flag up plot holes, character inconsistencies, confusing developments, underdeveloped areas. A checklist that theoretically could be applied to any book. Not because I’m completely self less and want you all to benefit.. 🙂 but because I have five books to wade through and they are all really different. However what I have discovered really can benefit all.
I discovered the Outline. Bear with me.. This everyday writers tool often gets treated in the same way as the synopsis – a chore to be done later on – indeed it often gets replaced with the synopsis and completely overlooked. I’ll hold my hand up to that. But this is not a marketing tool, this is an editing tool and its the single best way to approach your edit I have ever come across.
Some people do a version of the outline before writing the first draft, in the sense that they plan out their story, writing out a few lines depicting what they want to happen in each scene. But even so I would still advise they put that aside and start a new outline after the first draft is written.
The outline really is much like what a number of people think of when they first attempt a synopsis, especially if they read somewhere it should be 12 pages long 🙂 An outline can be as long as that, longer, depending on the book. Its a chapter by chapter breakdown of what happens. Its not about theme, underlying emotions, what potential subplots you are setting up – its a plain as plain can be list of WHAT IS ACTUALLY IN EACH CHAPTER. do it with dots, dashes , write it straight out, eschew all full stops and capital letters. This is your tool – its not for any other eyes, the writing really doesn’t matter.
Don’t for instance be tempted to do this
Harry Potter Ch.1
In a quiet suburban street Vernon Dursley wakens to a flock of passing owls. Surprised and mildly perturbed by this variation of normality he heads down to breakfast. A devoted family man, he spoils his son and is blind to the baby’s faults…
That’s a nice description of what you hope you have said, with a touch of restrained artistry and a whole load of superfluous detail. This isn’t an outline. Get ugly, but get factual.
Harry Potter Ch.1
Vernon Dursley goes to work – strange cat watching him – thinks he sees it reading map, convinces himself he didn’t – sees lots of owls – strange cloaked little men – hears them whisper name ‘Harry Potter’ – worries it might be wife’s sisters baby.- returns home. Cat still watching him. Doesn’t say anything to wife.
I did it with my book open. My memory is fairly good so initially I could jump from chapter heading to chapter heading and from the first line know where I was. But as I got deeper into the story I found myself missing small details and having to scroll back. For instance in the above example I initially forgot to mention he saw the cat. Of course the minute Dumbledore appears we realise the importance of the cat. Thus even as we write we see how our story strands start to tie up – and if say you had forgotten in your draft to write the cat in..
If like me you aren’t great at reading your own work, having the book open as you write works doubly well. Perhaps you think you can do it all by memory – zeroing in on things you recall you weren’t happy with, while not bothering to read anything else? Or worse – and I do this a lot – fussing over the perfect syntax and punctuation in parts that you were already pretty happy with. By keeping your book open and forcing yourself to check up on small details, making sure everything lines up you are forcing yourself to read – the single most important thing a writer needs to do, after writing. And if the scene doesn’t read that well, you don’t even have to fix it right there, just put some notes in – you aren’t concerned with line editing at this point. On the other hand sometimes all it needs is some minor tweaking, filching out a few wonky typos, so you can end up killing two birds with one stone.
Once you have finished you have a blueprint of your book – not what you would like your book to be, but what it actually is, what is actually in it, not just what you intended to put in – which is why I recommend doing it even if you write a plan beforehand. Its a very quick ‘flick and see’ method to get to grips with any glaring holes and where might be a good place to insert or extend scenes. I also found it handy for identifying unnecessary ones.
Once the initial outline is done you can then use it to highlight all other aspects of your book. You can measure what each scene is contributing in terms of pace – is it action driven, relationship driven, character building? You can pick out elements which are contributing to underlying themes – see if you are being too obscure or laying it on to thick. And probably the most useful trick I have found is that you can use it to see how well you are setting up future events.
For instance in the example with Harry Potter you can see that we are setting the ground for the way the Dursleys treat Harry – the refusal to accept anything strange, the choice not to mention what he saw to his wife and upset her.
You can use it again and again, going through every layer of your story and seeing how each thread is dealt with and resolved: Character, relationships, sub plots, themes, world building.
Use dates, highlighters, colour code the different layers – whatever suits you. The principle is simple, but like the story itself the format can be tailored to you. (I’m not really a highlighter kind of girl, but hey..) Its a map through your story, showing you all the dead ends, loops and landmarks that you both need and need to get shot of.
Honestly, try it. And if you already have, why didn’t you tell me?!