Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Editing Hits the Wall

One of my current WIPs

Many, many weeks ago, I took an excellent intensive course at Grub Street, entitled "From Revision to Submission."
Intended for the writer who needs a final push to submit their work, this class provides one last objective look to make certain that the writer is in the best possible position for publication. The first half of the class will be a revision workshop, focusing on the art of sanding down, smoothing out, and touching up the writing. The second half will help students discuss and find markets for their work. The last class will partially be devoted to assembling submissions and celebrating finished pieces.
The instructor was James Scott, who among other things is an editor at One Story, which is possibly the best lit mag out there right now, I think. The man knows his stuff, is what I'm saying here. He especially was a good instructor for me, because he has a natural instinct for plot and structure, where as I am more of a language-and-character writer, finding structure rather challenging.

So I am here today to share with you the single best piece of editing advice I got from the class: cut and paste, and stick it on the wall.

See that photo up there? That's a 20-page short story, which has been cut-and-pasted by scene (yes, actual scissors and tape, not computer-clicking) and spread out on the wall. I pasted certain scenes higher or lower based on the focus of each scene -- Character #1's POV was the baseline, omniscient narrator POV went slightly lower, Character #2's POV was taped slightly higher. Jim writes a lot of flashbacks, so he tends to tape sections higher or lower based on whether a scene is in the present or past. You may think of other ways to use the vertical as well as the horizontal.

Step back. Take a look. What do you see?

When I looked at the short story in that photo, I saw a lot of imbalance. Okay, it makes sense for that fourth scene to be super-short, because it's really just a teaser/introduction to the second character's POV, but the sixth scene is crazy long. Especially if the fifth scene is also that long... I want the narrator POV and 2nd character POV scenes to be places the reader can catch his or her breath in the story, and if scenes 5 and 6 are back-to-back enormous, that just won't happen. Scene 6 needs to be cut into at least 2 parts.

And look how front-loaded the story is! Scenes 3, 5, 6, and maybe 8 are the long ones, and then it's short-short-short all in a row at the end. No wonder the damn thing feels like it ends abruptly. Now, I already knew there were some plot elements that needed to be added to the story towards the back third, so some of those additions were already planned, but now it's even more obvious where this extra information has to go.

Depending on the nature of your story, you may also want to highlight sections. Is your dialogue evenly spaced throughout the story, or weirdly clumped in the center? Is your action where you thought it would be? Jim showed us one of his works-in-progress, and we saw that all the flashback was up front -- not good. The reader will want to know who everyone is and what the stakes are before they start dipping into reminiscences. How else will the reader know WHY those reflective moments are important?

Now, just because I'm talking in terms of balance of course does not mean that the story needs to be totally even throughout. Maybe the action really does belong all at the end. Maybe the story should start with all long sections and get increasingly tighter as the tale progresses. Only you know what your story needs, but this is a very good way to figure out what your story is already doing. They might not be the same thing, and sometimes it's just too hard to see the forest for the trees on the computer screen.

Jim swears that he's sold every story that has gotten this revision treatment. We'll see how my story fares when I'm done with it...



  1. Intriguing idea.... visualizing balance. I like it.

    Great post!

  2. I'm a big fan of tools that help you see patterns in a story. I hadn't tried this one - thanks!

  3. Very visual, and I'm usually a visual person, so I might have to try this one.
    My other fav technique is print and get out the glittery purple pen. :)

  4. I think I need more walls! Interesting. It seems a little over-fussy, but then, maybe we all have to get a little more fuss-budgety to compete these days.

  5. It sounds like a great idea, but I find myself lazy? reluctant? to do something like this. Maybe because at the back of my head I am wondering if there is a more efficient use of my time. But I may give this a try. I am going through a ms one last time, I swear, this is the VERY last time, and maybe this may help me see things I've missed. On the other hand, this may bring up stuff that will require more than on pass. Sigh.

  6. I am so going to try this. Thanks!

  7. I've been listing major plot points to see if the flow works, but this is definitely better!

  8. If I do anything I'll highlight on my computer the scenes I think are weak to see what's actually there. I haven't pasted on a wall though, yet. :)

  9. My favorite editing technique is just...kinda...uh...printing out the story and editing by hand, then more editing on the computer and maybe more by hand, and...yeah.

    That's a fascinating approach, though. I'll have to keep it in mind, good lady!

  10. Wow, I love this editing concept!! So simple, but so helpful!! I will have to give it a try. Thanks, as always, for the excellent advice!

  11. I do the READ IT ALOUD technique--ideally, reading it with someone else (someone who can read, an actor type)--so that I can hear the dialogue, shifts, momentum, etc.

    I have to print it out first, though. I do much more if I have pen in hand, rather that just a keyboard in front of me. I can circle pieces that need extensive work.

    Love the layout idea, though. I might even try that with my plays, highlighting different characters to see if one talks a bunch more than the others.

  12. I do something similar, but it's still on the computer. I paste my entire story into Microsoft word from Scrivener and then set the zoom factor way out so I can see what the pages look like, but I can't read individual words. Then I scroll through (or if I'm zoomed out enough, no need to scroll) and look for things like too-short chapters or large blocks of text with no dialogue to break it up.

  13. I write around in a story for weeks and eventually hone in on the scenes I want. I rewrite each of those scenes separately--usually out of order, hardest first--and incorporate what's helpful from the parts I'm tossing.

    I haven't taken a hard, empirical look at scenes in relation to each other. I'm with Yat-Yee that the prospect makes me feel lazy. Also hate the idea that even more precious work will end up in the trash.

    So, I'm racking my brain for one reasonable argument against THE WALL. Anyone?

  14. I'm gonna need a bigger wall. ;)

    My favorite editing technique is the "read aloud." I catch more things that need to be changed that way than any other.

  15. Okay, so what I write isn't fiction (at least I hope not)... But I totally used to do something similar writing out points for my paper on post-it notes.

    My favorite editing technique though was giving papers to Masha. Back in college, I had a special slab of card-board that she could keep on her lap and prop the paper against. I wrote "Masha's little Guilloteen" across the top, which was of course instantly corrected in her signature red-pen.