Wednesday, February 12, 2014

10 Things You MUST Consider When Editing a Scene

After having written five full length books (only three of which are currently available for sale) and working on the next two simultaneously, I think I have my own writing process pretty well worked out. 

Generally when I write my first draft, I focus on action and pushing the narrative forward. I pay very little attention to things like character quirks, setting description, foreshadowing, etc. This is the draft that goes to my writer's group so they can tell me where my story is weak, where there are discontinuities, and where it needs more work. 

I often get comments about needing more description, fleshing out characters more, etc. And that's okay. The characters are already fleshed out in my head, and while I know that doesn't help the reader, details like that are what my second draft is for.

As I'm currently in a predominantly editing mode right now, for both book 1 of Dragon Magic and book 2 of Street Games, I thought I'd do a post about all the details I edit for when I do my second draft.

Even if your process is different than mine, these are things that ought to be considered for every manuscript. Pay attention to these details and you'll end up with a fabulously-written novel.

1. Tone/Mood - Figure out what tone or mood you want for each scene and use words, especially in the description, that match it. If it's a sad scene, use melancholy words to describe the setting, the character's actions and facial expressions, and anything else you can get away with. Being aware of the tone as the author will instill it in your reader without them even realizing it.

2. Point of View - Double check that you're keeping any given scene in one point of view and not slipping out of it. Also, make sure that your POV reflects your character. So, if your POV character is a fisherman, make sure everything they think and say is through the life lens of a fisherman. Have them use fishing phrases, compare prices to that of fish, etc. If you ask yourself before editing each chapter, who is this character and how does he/she think, your character will end up with a much more distinctive and memorable voice, which can only make your book that much better.

3. Setting Description - As I said, in the first draft I tend to go through without paying much attention to describing what I see in my head. For every scene, make sure your reader can see what you see.

4. Character Description - Ditto here. Make sure your reader can see your characters. One great tip for doing this is to describe one attribute of your character in each scene, through action. So, let's say you have a shaggy-haired, yellow-eyed blacksmith. (Anyone know that reference?) Don't just describe what he looks like the first time and never touch on it again. In each scene he's in, pick an attribute and give him an action that includes it. Have him run a hand through his shaggy curls. Or don't just say he shifted his gaze, but he shifted his golden-eyed gaze. This will remind your readers of what your character looks like without drawing attention to the description. Basically it's a sneaky author's trick to memorable characters.

5. OOD for Each Character - I've talked about Objects of Desire before (see this post for details). Basically, each character needs a physical OOD and a metaphysical OOD. In each scene, make sure each of the character's words, actions, and motivations, point toward that OOD. If this is not present, the narrative will start to feel sprawling, like it lacks cohesion. So, for each scene, review what your POV character's OOD is and ask yourself, how are they accomplishing their OOD in this scene? If you don't have an answer, you may need to either add to or re-think that scene.

6. OOD for Each Scene - Similarly, each scene should bring your characters toward their ultimate goal. Ask yourself what each scene accomplishes and why it's important to your story as a whole. Ask yourself, so what? What happens here that is significant? Make sure every scene is necessary and, preferably, accomplishes at least one thing. Really, you should try to accomplish more than one major thing with each scene. This can be character development, moving the plot along, foreshadowing, etc. Don't include scenes that are simply fun to write but don't do anything for your story.

7. Crutch Words - This is where writing groups come in handy. They can point out your crutch words and help you steer away from them. I have a list of crutch words I look for when I edit. Using Word, I search using the Ctrl F feature for each word. Then I go through and re-write any passages that use crutch words, or at least as many of them as I can. 

My general rule is to cut down my use of crutch words by half. So, if I use the same word 50 times in a chapter, I have to cut it down to at least twenty-five, if not less. I go through each individual usage and try to think of another way to say it that doesn't use the crutch. Some I genuinely have to keep, but this will make you more aware of your crutches and helps give your writing more flow and variety. It also helps you stay away from passive voice and weak sentence structure. The following is a list of my crutch words, though honestly, having done this many times, there are a good few of them I rarely use at all anymore.

My crutch words/phrases: then/that, but, was/were, especially, finally, suddenly, with descriptive noun (ie. "with gusto"), reflexives (his/her own, himself, herself, itself), a bit, seemed, just, very, realized/knew, saw, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, tried, managed to, looked (i.e. looked sad), had, at all, almost, is/are verb-ing, might, even, for a moment

8. Conflict - Make sure each chapter/scene has conflict in it. Otherwise, it's boring. Plain and simple. Keep in mind this can be any kind of conflict: internal, external, character versus himself, other characters, nature, etc. Just makes sure there's some kind of conflict! Your story will be better for it. Trust me.

9. Action - We've already talked about moving the story forward, but also try to give each chapter/scene some physical action. Even if it's a scene of mostly internal dialogue, have the character move or experience physical sensation. This will keep the reader much more interested and give the scene some variety. 

10. Ending - This one isn't vital, but I'd highly recommend it. We know in blogging that a call to action gets a much better response than anything else. That's why we should always ask a question or say "click on the link below" rather than just "check it out." The call to action is psychological thing and people are much more likely to respond to it than any other ending. I think the same concept applies to chapter/scene endings. 

Sure, you can end the scene with a great line of dialogue or a great description, but that creates a neat, self-contained scene, rather than propelling the reader forward. If you end with the characters doing some kind of action--I'm talking some kind of physical action, even as simple as walking out of the room--it feels like the character is already moving on to the next thing, and the reader feels compelled to go with them.

So, these are the things I pay attention to when I edit. (As you can imagine, I often spend hours editing a single scene.) Even if the plot and characters are awesome, it's the details that will make a fantastic novel, so don't short change them.

What details do you pay attention to while editing?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. That's a great resource. It's frustrating as a reader when the scene changes tone for no reason. ***typo***