Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Top Ten Things I Know About Editing

I did this post on editing for The Blood Red Pencil last month, but I know that, unbelievable as it may seem, not all of you made it over to every single other blog I guested on last month.

So since I am not only touring for THE UNSEEN, but MOVING this week, talk about horror, I am reposting that blog here for those of you who might find it useful.

Hope everyone is well, and we'll be back to our regularly scheduled program soon. If I survive all this.

- Alex

------------------ Top Ten Things I Know About Editing --------------------

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.

Some of you are already well aware that 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, so here it is again, for those just finding this post.



* 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?
* Allies
* 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


* 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:

1. Getting there (storming the castle)
2. 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, check out the post linked on the right-hand side of this blog!

So, anyone have a top few editing tips for me? I’m always looking!

Happy editing!



All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


Jeanne Ryan said...

When this was on the Blood Red Pencil, I printed it out and put it in my "editing" file.

Jake Nantz said...

Tips? Only one I can think of is the one drum at which you've always banged away: Finish, then edit, then keep editing. Don't quit because you're tired of it, or you now think it sucks but that next one, now THAT has promise. Just finish, make it as good as you can, and then make one more pass even after that, just to be SURE.

Wendy Wagner; said...

Love these pointers! And good luck with the move!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jeanne, glad it's a keeper for you!

Jake, you are totally right - it all boils down to the one thing:

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, W! Moving really is hell. Hell, hell, hell.

Karen from Mentor said...

"5. Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on that crucial genre element."

I can't tell you how many budding authors I talk to who can't even begin the conversation with what genre their book fits into. If you don't have that at the outset how are you going to write a book that works in the commercial industry, let alone SELL it?
Great post. Happy (or at least not horrifying) moving.
Karen :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Karen, you're right - it's frightening how many aspiring authors can't even identify their genre.

However, it's an easy way to screen out the non-serious!

Merc said...

Wow, great list, thank you so much! I've bookmarked it and will definitely have to print it out and consult when editing. :)

Good luck with the move!

laughingwolf said...

hope the move goes smoothly, alex

thx for the tips...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Merc, you have a great name.

Thanks, Laughing Wolf, and everyone, for the well-wishes on the move.

You know how they say moving is one of the top five life stressors of all time?

Well, they're right.


Unknown said...

Great post. Thank you so much!

Alli Sinclair said...

Changing the typeface on the screen helps to find spelling errors and gives a fresh perspective on the story.

Also, printing out a draft and having it by your side as you start a new document on your screen - this works well when transitioning from the bones of draft one and fleshing out draft two. The blank screen tends to give more leeway to creativity when the bones are sitting beside you. It works a treat for me, anyway - just not environmentally friendly, I'm afraid.

Garkbit the Irascible said...

I use MSreader to read the text aloud, and then follow the line with my eyes. The eyes read what they expect to be there, as in what I thought I wrote, and the voice reads what is actually on the page. When the two are different, there is a really loud perceptual clang, like someone dropping dishes in the mental kitchen.

Barry Napier said...

#2 is sometimes painful for me. It also leads to at least 2 more weeks of editing.

Great list and thanks for the insight!

Unknown said...


Have you seen the movie, the Fifth Element?

I had some questions about the structure on that one.

Unknown said...

And, eh? What do you think of this?

A narrative scene must be NO MORE THAN 750 words.

That's about 3 manuscript pages.

A screenplay scene must be NO MORE THAN 3 pages.

Isn't that an odd coincidence?

This is from award winning author Linnea Sinclair on the blog Alien Romances http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/

I have never seen this before, and wanted to know if you agree or disagree.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Glad it's working for you, Jamie!

And Alli, I do the same thing with the typeface. It really does work to give you a fresh look at the story.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yvette, I have seen the movie, but it's not one that stayed with me. I remember it being all over the map - not the greatest one to look at for structure. But I could be wrong. What's the question?

Holly Jahangiri said...

What great advice!

I have no problem with #1. I can be ruthless, especially after the break described in #4. Do you ever pick up your work after an extended break, and think, "Wow, I wrote this? It's better than I thought. I don't even remember writing this." That's the point at which anything that interrupts the flow stands out like a sore thumb. You can read as a reader, not as the author. The attachment of just having written it is gone, and it's easier to let go.

I often subvocalize. (My family would have me committed if I started reading aloud, except for my children's books.) It's easier on the vocal cords. But you're absolutely right - it's the only way to really see how the story and sentence structure flow, and where the potholes and speed bumps are.

It's harder to find a "great" critique group. I usually prefer to get most of my critique from readers who don't write (or don't fancy themselves writers). Most of the professional editors I know don't see themselves as writers, so I count myself lucky to have several as friends who may occasionally be prevailed upon to give my work at least one pass. We writers all have needs - and one of those needs is to get feedback, but another is to focus on our own writing. Critiquing takes time and helps us to focus on what works and what doesn't, free of any emotional attachment to our own precious words. It feels good to give back something of the help we've received along the way; it feels good to watch other writers grow. But a critique group can also begin to take up more of our time than our own writing, so we need to be generous but careful with our time and effort.

I love your quick summary of Three Act Structure and film structure, and I think I need to print this post out and stick it to my wall. Thanks!

Don't envy you the moving - you have my sympathies.

Unknown said...

I noticed that the segments of the film tended to occur in five minute increments. Is that typical for an action type film?
Tonight I'm watching Valkyrie, and it seems to have 7-10 minute segments. Much different.
In both stories I noticed the main character is off screen for a length of time during the first part of the film as well. Isn't that a break in storyline? Just curious.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Holly, yeah, I do pick up my work after a break and wonder who wrote parts of it. I love that feeling! It's almost always better than I have been thinking it is, too, which is always a huge relief.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, I see, Yvette. Action movies and BIG movies, like the comic book adaptations, tend to have more sequences and shorter. I'm not surprised at the 5 minute segments you were noticing. Shorter sequences create that rollercoaster effect that we're all looking for in summer movies.

Rhonda Lane said...

Wow. This is a writing course in a single post. The "Readers Digest" condensed version - only better. Thanks, Alex.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Rhonda - yes, tried and true...