Top Ten Things I Know About Editing by Alexandra Sokoloff
Great to be here among the savage — I mean, dedicated — editors and authors of Blood Red Pencil!
Before I started writing novels, I worked as a theater director, a Hollywood story analyst, and a screenwriter. All of those jobs have given me some pretty useful perspectives on editing. So for today’s guest blog I’ve put the best things I know into one of those ever-popular Top Ten lists:
1. Cut, cut, cut.
When you first start writing, you are reluctant to cut anything. Believe me, I remember. But the truth is, beginning writers very, very, VERY often duplicate scenes, and characters, too. And dialogue, oh man, do inexperienced writers duplicate dialogue! The same things happen over and over again, are said over and over again. It will be less painful for you to cut if you learn to look for and start to recognize when you’re duplicating scenes, actions, characters and dialogue. Those are the obvious places to cut and combine.
Some very wise writer (unfortunately I have no idea who) said, “If it occurs to you to cut, do so.” This seems harsh and scary, I know. Often I’ll flag something in a manuscript as “Could cut”, and leave it in my draft for several passes until I finally bite the bullet and get rid of it. So, you know, that’s fine. Allow yourself to CONSIDER cutting something, first. No commitment! Then if you do, fine. But once you’ve considered cutting, you almost always will.
2. Read your book aloud. All of it. Cover to cover.
The best thing I know to do to edit a book — or script — is read it aloud. The whole thing. I know, this takes several days, and you will lose your voice. Get some good cough drops. But there is no better way to find errors — spelling, grammar, continuity, and rhythmic errors. Try it, you’ll be amazed.
3. Find a great critique group.
This is easier said than done, but you NEED a group, or a series of readers, who will commit themselves to making your work the best it can be, just as you commit the same to their work. Editors don’t edit the way they used to and publishing houses expect their authors to find friends to do that kind of intensive editing. Really.
4. Do several passes.
Finish your first draft, no matter how rough it is. Then give yourself a break — a week is good, two weeks is better, three weeks is better than that — as time permits. Then read, cut, polish, put in notes. Repeat. And repeat again. Always give yourself time off between reads if you can. The closer your book is to done, the more uncomfortable the unwieldy sections will seem to you, and you will be more and more okay with getting rid of them. Read on for the specific kinds of passes I recommend doing.
5. Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on that crucial genre element.
For a thriller: thrills and suspense. For a mystery: clues and misdirection and suspense. For a comedy: a comedic pass. For a romance: a sex pass. Or “emotional” pass, if you must call it that. For horror… well, you get it.
I write suspense. So after I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes (or comic scenes, or romantic scenes) if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense, or horror, or comedy, or romance. It’s your JOB to deliver the genre you’re writing in. It’s worth a dedicated pass to make sure you’re giving your readers what they’re buying the book for.
6. Know your Three Act Structure.
If something in your story is sagging, it is amazing how quickly you can pull your narrative into line by looking at the scene or sequence you have around page 100 (or whatever page is ¼ way through the book), page 200, (or whatever page is ½ way through the book), page 300 (or whatever page is ¾ through the book) and your climax. Each of those scenes should be huge, pivotal, devastating, game-changing scenes or sequences (even if it’s just emotional devastation). Those four points are the tentpoles of your story.
7. Do a dedicated DESIRE LINE pass in which you ask yourself for every scene: “What does this character WANT? Who is opposing her/him in this scene? Who WINS in the scene? What will they do now?”
8. Do a dedicated EMOTIONAL pass, in which you ask yourself in every chapter, every scene, what do I want my readers to FEEL in this moment?
9. Do a dedicated SENSORY pass, in which you make sure you’re covering what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.
10. Finally, and this is a big one: steal from film structure to pull your story into dramatic line.
I’ve compiled a checklist of story elements that I use both when I’m brainstorming a story on index cards, and again when I’m starting to revise. I find it invaluable to go through my first draft and make sure I’m hitting all of these points.
STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST
- Opening image
- Meet the hero or heroine
- Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.
- Hero/ine’s arc
- Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure
- Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)
- State the theme/what’s the story about?
- Mentor (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).
- Love interest
- Plant/Reveal (or: Setups and Payoffs)
- Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
- Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)
- Sequence One climax
- Central Question
- Act One climax
- Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)
- Threshold Guardian (maybe)
- Hero/ine’s Plan
- Antagonist’s Plan
- Training Sequence
- Series of Tests
- Picking up new Allies
- Assembling the Team
- Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as being from the antagonist)
- In a detective story, questioning witnesses, lining up and eliminating suspects, following clues.
- Completely changes the game
- Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
- Can be a huge revelation
- Can be a huge defeat
- Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
- Can be sex at 60 — the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems
ACT TWO, PART TWO
- Recalibrating — after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the Midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.
- Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive
- Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)
- Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).
- A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)
- Reversals and Revelations/Twists. (Hmm, that clearly should have its own post, now, shouldn't it?)
- The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (aka All Is Lost)
- Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is
- Answers the Central Question
The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence — the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.
The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:
- Getting there (storming the castle)
- The final battle itself
- Thematic Location — often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
- The protagonist’s character change
- The antagonist’s character change (if any)
- Possibly allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire
- Could be one last huge reveal or twist, or series of reveals and twists, or series of final payoffs you've been saving (as in BACK TO THE FUTURE and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE).
- RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.
If these story elements are new to you, here’s a link to a LOT more detail:
So, anyone have a top few editing tips for me? I’m always looking!