Last week on Behind the Words we talked about writing with the door shut. This is the most exciting part of the process. Your mind is free and the story spills out onto the page in leaps and bounds. By the time you have that first draft in your hand you’re thinking you’ve really got something there. You’re finally finished!
Or are you?
Hm. You take a closer look and see a plot hole here, an inconsistency there, oh…what’s that? A character you’ve introduced and went nowhere? Damn…and there’s a lovely tangent you sailed off on that has nothing to do with the story at all—but it’s so cool!
The more you look, the more you find, including all the places where nasty Tyops Demons have mangled words and sentences.
In the beginning many new authors make the mistake of thinking the editing process is hunting down line by line those typos and technical errors, when in fact the first step in rewrites is looking at your story as a whole. Ferreting out spelling and grammar are the last polishing steps. Change what you catch here and there now, but remember, in this first step you’ll be moving large sections of your story, adding more, and mercilessly cutting what’s not needed. Technical errors are not your focus right now.
And that’s the real key to editing. Focus. Every stage of the game you’re looking for something different. It’s like trying to draw a circle with your left hand and making a square with your right at the same time. Try to focus on too many tasks at once and you’ll make it that much harder.
After you’ve finished your first draft, celebrate it, then put it down and walk away from it. Let the glow wear off. Give the story and your eyes a rest. You’re story blind right now. As much as you think you see the finish line in sight, it’s a mirage on the horizon. You’ll read your story and see what you want to see. Your brain automatically fills in the holes and you’ll miss all the unfinished story lines and opportunities for discovering hidden themes or places for foreshadowing.
After a couple weeks, or even months, it’s time to open the door. Go back into your story with the eyes of a first time reader. Ask yourself these questions as you go:
- Does the opening chapter grab me?
- Does each character introduced have a purpose?
- Do I stick to one point of view (POV)?
- Does the dialogue move the story?
- What kind of tone have you created?
- Are the characters growing?
- Do I dump blocks of info on the reader?
- Which chapters have me scrolling through in boredom and which ones make me stop and read?
- Do I give away too much too soon?
- Does the end of each chapter give the reader a reason to turn the page?
Make your notes as you go, then take the first draft to your beta readers, critique groups or an editor who specializes in story development. Ask them to look for and answer the same questions above, plus any other questions that rise up in your mind. You may choose to leave some questions unasked and see if the readers pick up the same things you do.
The key behind this primary stage of editing is making sure all the elements in your story work as one. During this phase you’ll get plenty of opinions, some of it you’ll use, some you won’t. Beta readers, developmental editors, coaches and critique groups—good ones—will help pinpoint the problems, bringing them to your attention. None of these groups are meant to rewrite your book for you. In addition to telling you what they saw as not working, they need to communicate why. When you understand the why too, you’ll know how to fix it and make it sing.
Wendi and I have been through this process numerous times. The bad news is, it doesn’t get easier. The good news is, we know what makes a story come to life and we can help you do that too. Contact us today for a free consultation, or if you’re going to be in the Las Vegas area on April 28-30, come hear Wendi speak at the Las Vegas Writers’ Conference. Click the link for more registration details.
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