Editing to greatness

From Monday to Friday of last week I spent my days down in St. George at a one of David Farland’s writing seminars.  The topic of this seminar was editing your novel. The seminar proved valuable on many fronts, but the main purpose–editing–benefited me a great deal.

Dave is a fantastic teacher, and I recommend that anyone who wants to write books take his seminars and learn as much from him as possible. Once you finish a book, Dave taught, you edit as follows:

  1. Add things
  2. Combine things
  3. Remove things
  4. Line edit

Of course, this is just one method. Some people don’t even edit. Some do it differently. I like this methodology. After all, what point is there in line editing if you’re just going to remove things or change it later on? So, take care of the big things up front–like missing scenes, plot lines, characters, and so forth. Then, you’ll notice, the next three edits all involve tightening the book up. The more experience I get writing a book, the more I learn the value of editing. I have 9 books of practice under my belt, now, and each time I write one the process is a little different. It evolves some, each time.

It used to be that I would write the book and then when editing simply go back through and line edit. Tweak the sentences and paragraphs. But the once I’d put the structure in place, I wouldn’t change it. These last four books, however, each book’s revision process has become more traumatic to the book. I’ve started taking drastic measure upon revision. Changing chapter sequences, deleting scenes, adding new scenes, combining characters, changing motivations, re-writing complete plot lines, removing entire swaths of book, adding others.

In the end, I’m certain that the more you write, the more willing you are to make big changes because the less sacred your writing becomes.

It’s a point that’s difficult to reach for many reasons. You hear stories about writers (such as Orson Scott Card) who write a first draft and then ship it off for publishing–and you want to be awesome like that. Or, you have very little time to write, and every page you remove counts as significant time lost. Possibly, you just can’t admit that something you wrote is poop, and needs to go.

But here’s the thing: when you reach the point that nothing is sacred as you edit, that you’ll throw anything out and sacrifice anything and spend any amount of time to fix something–that’s when you can gain true power as a writer. You can write things you never thought you could write, and when you can make your stories truly great.

Because chances are unless you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it up front, and quite a bit of time exploring a lot of the options, the book or story isn’t as fantastic as it could be with a little more work. Yes, it means sacrificing something–time, your pride, comfort–but in the end you come out on top.

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Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

My last post, I believe, I’d summarized another chapter of the excellent “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.” I stopped for several reasons. Three, really:

  1. The end of each chapter includes a summary of the points of the book. My summaries on the blog recreated much of that information.
  2. I suppose that my summarization might reduce the need for someone to buy the book. And I’m generally in favor of writers having people buy their books. So, it’s probably enough for me to say that the book is excellent, and if you edit any fiction, you should read it.
  3. It got downright tedious posting the summaries.
So, I stopped posting the summaries. The book, however, is excellent on many levels. If you write fiction, I recommend that you read it.

Chapter 5 of “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”

Here in chapter 5 we get a nice lesson on dialogue mechanics. The basic lesson is that you want your mechanics to be as transparent as possible and not get in the way of the dialogue. “Show don’t tell” is once again the star of the chapter.

The fist basic idea is to stop telling how people said something. The actual dialogue or a beat should accomplish that. Don’t write:

“Stop eating that pie,” she said angrily.

Instead, something like this works better to show the emotion”

She slammed her fork on the table. “Stop eating that pie.”

We want reader to feel the emotion in our characters–not know about the emotion. If we tell readers exactly about the emotion, they cannot interpret it the way that best suits them. So, show them, instead..

Also watch out for description that tells about the content of dialogue–you show what someone is thinking and then they say what they are thinking. That’s twice your readers learn about it. One time too many.

A lot of the time, dialogue explanations come in the form of -ly adjectives, which is another reason to get rid of such words.

In the end, the only reason to use speaker attributes is to show readers who is speaking. No other reason. Not to convey emotion or to tell how someone said it. Because of that, we should use the word “said” almost without exception.

Other tips:
–Don’t open a paragraph with speaker attribution.
–Put the character’s pronoun before “said” (that is: “Dave said”, not “said Dave.”)
–Decide how you’re going to refer to a character for a scene and stick to it.
–If it’s clear who is speaking, get rid of character attributions completely.
–If you’re getting tired of the number of beats, insert a beat, instead. A beat is a piece of action. In my example above, it’s the slamming of the fork on the table.
–To show an interruption, use dashes.
–To show someone trailing off, use ellipses.
–Start a new paragraph with each speaker.

And, there you have it. Dialogue mechanics.

Chapter 4 of “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”

In this chapter of the book we get a topic that I have never actually read about before, but that makes extremely good sense. The idea is that you should focus on what’s important to either advance the book’s plot or establish character. The book summarizes this with the word “proportion.”

This very simple idea is pretty easy to forget when you’re in the moment of writing and you find something great to add, or want to include a bit of research you’ve done. The book especially warns about focusing too much on unimportant actions and pet topics and hobbies.

Here are a few excerpts:
–“The time spent on a relatively minor point has thrown the scene out of proportion.”
–“When you fill in all the details and leave nothing to your reader’s imagination, you’re patronizing them.”

The solution to this problem, according to the authors, is to pay attention. Notice what you spend a great deal of time on. Anything that is focused on for very long will create an expectation in readers. If it doesn’t end up being important later on, readers will be disappointed.

Also, it doesn’t hurt to set the book aside for a little while and then come back to it. Approach it as a reader, not a writer. This will give you a fresh perspective on the content and will help you see what things are out of proportion. You may also discover that parts of the book that are small might be worth expanding on.

You can also use proportion to create tension or surprises. If you spend less time on something at the start, and then make it important later on, it can give a nice twist to the element and plot.

The authors also note that you don’t have to cut EVERYTHING that doesn’t relate directly to your story, but anything you add or leave in should somehow add to the story in a way that resonates with the rest of the story.

As far as description goes, and avoiding too much detail to throw something out of proportion, allow your viewpoint character’s interests to control the amount of description. Only devote the amount of attention to something that your character devotes to it.

So, there you have it. Proportion. It’s a tool. Use it wisely.

Next up: Dialogue Mechanics. Oooooh!