Self-Editing for Writers – The Story
By Shon Bacon
You finished a book? Great! Not too long after finishing a book, many writers quickly go in search of an editor to make their literary babies shine, and although it is important to have several sets of eyes peruse your novel, it’s just as important that you learn to have a keen eye for story, for story components so that you can develop the strongest story possible before setting it free to public scrutiny.
This workshop will help you do just that. Let’s jump in!
1—WHAT’S YOUR STORY ABOUT?
You want to make sure your story is sound and that it does all the things you set out for it to do. Now, how do you do that?
Every story has an arc - a set up, obstacles for the main character to overcome, and a resolution.
Sometimes, I come across a novel from a client that has holes in one or all of these areas. There's not enough set up to get me into the story and the main character. There's not enough conflict in that vast middle of the story to make me care what happens to the main character. There's not enough of a resolution, and I'm left wondering, "Why did I read this?"
When these gaps are found within a story, I get into lecture mode and pose eight questions to the client:
1) Who is your main character (MC)?
2) What does the MC want?
3) What's the main conflict that keeps the MC from getting that want?
4) What's the event/situation that sets the MC in motion to achieve the want?
5) What are the obstacles the MC encounters, keeping him/her from the want? (Obstacles should escalate, building tension)
6) What's the event/situation that makes the MC go "All-or-Nothing" to win the want? (This is a moment in which there is no turning back)
7) Does the MC win or lose?
8) What's the effect of the win or loss on the MC?
I have the client develop an answer for each of these questions, and then we discuss what's missing from the story and how to apply some of these answers to the revising of the story. The questions are asked in a traditional way, meaning they have a beginning, middle, ending flow to them. However, not all stories are traditional. Some start at the end and then show the reader how that ending came to be.
The point is most, if not all, stories touch upon each of these questions, so it benefits you as the writer to analyze your story, paying attention to these questions and editing your story accordingly. Your “paid” editor (and future publisher) will thank you.
A little footnote here, during this time, it’s also important to think of those first ten pages of your story. These days, the first page has to grab a reader’s attention, so it’s vital that you start your story in the best possible light.
When I pursued my MFA degree a few years ago, my fiction professor/mentor discussed the concept of Camping and Marching.
He began by stating that many writers, for fear of losing readers or of leaving readers “in the dark”, will overwrite, overstate, and overdevelop every scene so that readers are in on EVERYTHING. That's how you will definitely lose a reader! When you're in a scene, you have to ask yourself, "Is this scene vital to the understanding of the story?" This, in essence, is the camping and marching question. If a scene is important to your story and readers will be lost if you do not put it in, then you want to "camp" in that scene for a while and show the reader what he or she needs to continue with the story. If the scene is not vital, then you want to "march" right through it, giving the reader exactly what he or she needs and then moving on to the next scene of your story.
Camping and marching are extremely important when one discusses developing scenes, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's take a step back and discuss scenes.
What is a scene? Well, it takes place in one setting -- though if there are flashbacks, a scene could conceivably have more than one setting. It involves one or more characters. It has a beginning, middle, and ending. And most importantly - it MOVES a story FORWARD. Think about some of your favorite TV shows. Imagine a scene from one of those shows. As you visualize it, think about how the scene starts. Typically, we are "placed" somewhere (setting). People are revealed to us (characters). Some idea, point, purpose, situation is presented to us (beginning). There is interaction amongst the characters (middle), and the scene concludes in a way that propels the story forward and makes us want to know what happens next (ending).
EACH SCENE in your novel should work toward doing all of these things, too, and a scene's purpose determines how developed the scene will be. Sometimes, there will be scenes that do not move the story's conflict(s) along. In these types of scenes, writers should MARCH; they should give the reader exactly what he/she needs and move on to the next scene.
Most of your scenes should, however, develop your story's conflict(s) and move the story's purpose toward its conclusion. These are the scenes that writers should "camp" in. How does the setting affect the story? How do the characters' internal thoughts affect the story? How do the characters' facial movements, actions, words affect the story? In these scenes, you will want to make the atmosphere literally jump off the page so that the reader can visualize the scene and understand its importance to the story - if not right then, then surely by the end of the story.
Here’s a link to an article I wrote on knowing when to show and tell in stories, something that is also important when developing scenes: http://www.apooobooks.com/showing-telling-shonell-bacon/
An important part to any story is dialogue; aside from action, it’s one of the tools in which we learn about your characters. You definitely want to make sure the dialogue is true to your character. You should always be asking, “Would this character say this?” Not only should the dialogue be true to your character, but it should also be real and authentic to the situations in which your characters find themselves talking. Every story has a purpose and every part of that story serves that purpose, including dialogue. Another important thing to look for in dialogue – LIFE. Dialogue needs to be active; it needs to reveal character, reveal story, not tell, etc. Not only should the dialogue be active, but the characters speaking should be active, too. Readers hate talking heads, so having pages upon pages of dialogue where we don’t see the characters moving or emoting is a sure-fire way to get readers to skim until they get back to action. So, allow your characters to MOVE, to FEEL while they talk. Not every piece of dialogue needs this, so you’ll have to figure out where this material feels real and authentic to the scene and to the dialogue.
To learn more about dialogue, such as avoiding stereotypes, the use of profanity, and use of taglines, check out my three-part article on writing dialogue.
The story is very important; however, there are other things that are important to analyze while in the editing stage. You do want to make sure you use punctuation properly, that you capitalize correctly, that you don’t overwrite, that you know the difference between too, two, and to; that your point of view is consistent throughout your book, etc.
Below are links to articles I’ve written pertaining to these issues. Definitely take the time to check them out because the more you know as a writer, the better your craft (and writing) will be.
Point of View - http://www.apooobooks.com/pointofview-shonell-bacon/
Punctuation Issues - http://www.apooobooks.com/punctuation-shonell-bacon/
Capitalization Issues - http://www.apooobooks.com/capitalization-shonell-bacon/
Word Issues – wordiness, overwriting, commonly confused words - http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2009/07/words-words-words.html
The important thing to remember: there is no “quick fix” to writing or to editing. It takes time to write a book, and it takes time to edit that book. You won’t be able to do all the above things in one read. In fact, it’s good to make several passes through your book in the editing stage, each pass examining one important component to your book. For example, your first pass might be for story arc. The second pass, for POV. The third pass, dialogue (especially if you don’t think you’re a strong dialogue writer).
The point is out of all the people on the planet, you should care about your literary work the most. As such, you need to put the time and energy into making sure the product you place in an editor’s, agent’s, or publisher’s hands is as clean and developed as you can possibly make it.
If you have ANY questions about any of the above, definitely leave comments and questions; I would love to hear from you and help you to develop your literary babies.
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