Nobody taught me specific methods for editing. Some tactics are obvious (you should be kind, for example, which is a rule for life as well as for editing) and others are strategies I came up with on my own right here in the swanky second-floor office in the pink house with the green* door. I think I’m all unique and smartypantsy and suchlike … until I find out I’m not so much.
Like, I am a big believer in interrogatory editing. Questioning myself out of a corner. Then I was poking around on the interwebs, trying to prolong the experience of Smith Henderson’s fabulous (really: fabulous) first novel, Fourth of July Creek. You never know what you might find. In this case, a piece from the Wall Street Journal a week before the book shipped. And in a much longer review, look at this:
The chapters about Pete’s daughter, Rachel, which take the form of an interview with an anonymous interrogator, grew out of a brainstorming technique Mr. Henderson often uses. When he’s trying to work out a sticky plot point or develop a character’s back story, he writes out questions to himself, and answers them. “It’s a way of having a conversation with yourself,” he said.
And I thought, Hey, hold on. This guy is using my technique! Ha.
When I get stuck (editorially speaking), when I’m confused, when there are so many trees that the forest—er, story arc—seems obscure, I tend to fall back on formula. Meaning, I ask myself some standard questions and see if the answers, like bread crumbs, lead me … anywhere. Out of the woods.
You’ve seen this discussion as it relates to plot. I have series of questions I ask myself** to make sure I can see where the story is headed:
1 Who is the protagonist?
2 What is the inciting incident?***
3 What is the story-worthy problem?****
4 What will the protagonist have to sacrifice in order to solve his problem?*****
5 What causes his dark night of the soul?******
6 What is the resolution?*******
If you can answer these questions easily, you’re on the right track. If you work out the responses and the answers don’t add up, you need to start a rewrite that will cover all the bases.
You can question your way out of all sorts of stalemates and corners. (Note: questions that help you analyze should not be confused with second-guessing.)
I always take a hard look at the first chapter, for example.
• Does the first line grab me? If not, how could we tweak it?
• Who did I “meet” first? (It should be the protagonist. Usually.)
• Do I have a sense of the protagonist’s character?
• Do I have a sense of the story’s place in time yet?
• How close to the beginning is the inciting incident?
• Is there too much backstory?
• Does the story start in the right place?
• What did I learn in the first chapter? Am I set up to keep reading?
• Did this chapter make reading on an irresistible proposition? Yes or no.
• Is the narrative voice distinctive? Or is it like every other narrative voice ever written?
• What does the protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it?
• What is his personal stake in this quest?
• What is the protagonist’s inner journey (as opposed to the outer journey)?
• Did the protagonist give something up (sacrifice) to solve his problem?
• Does the protagonist have flaws? Do they affect the plot? (I hope so!)
• Are the flaws themselves the story-worthy problem?
• Do I like the protagonist in spite of his flaws? Will other readers care about him?
• What will happen if the story-worthy problem can’t be solved?
• What would happen if the protagonist just said, “Aw, forget it” and went home?
Or we could talk about structure and pacing:
• Has anything happened yet? (By the end of the first chapter, by page 50, by page 100.)
• What is the subplot? (There had better be.)
• What are the obstacles the protagonist faces on his way to solving his problem?
• What is the importance of this scene?
• Does this scene advance the plot or reveal characterization?
• What fascinates the author most—milieu, character, ideas/message, events?
• Would we benefit from a change in POV?
• Was the outcome ever in doubt?
Another question I ask in a variety of situations is: Who is the audience for this? (Audience is important for marketing campaigns, for cover copy, for the language used in the book itself … and on and on.)
I’ve found this question and answer thing very effective. It could be your technique too.
Oh, those Q-and-A chapters in Fourth of July Creek were way good. The first one was an oddity, but as they continued to unfold, I realized Henderson was telling the entire subplot with this device. They stood out. It worked. You should try it.
* Yeah, it used to be blue. Good memory, you!
** I refine this list all the time, and use different pieces of it in different edits, depending on what applies.
*** The thing that makes the protagonist realize he has a problem.
**** The problem the protagonist will have to solve in order to put his world back to rights; the thing that conflicts the protagonist.
***** The sacrifice will bring about personal growth (the inner journey).
****** The moment when the protagonist realizes he will have to sacrifice.
******* Are the problems solved? Did growth occur? Loose ends tied up?
Tweet: I am a big believer in interrogatory editing. Questioning myself out of a corner.
Tweet: I ask questions & see if the answers, like bread crumbs, lead me out of the woods.
Tweet: You can question your way out of all sorts of stalemates and corners.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”