Interrogatory Editing

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?

There are all sorts of characterization templates (here’s one, for example). But here are some general questions I think about in relation to the protagonist:

• 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.”


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  1. “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.)”
    This statement applies to real life more than I’d care to admit.

    Saving this post. Thanks, Jamie!

  2. So much good advice and direction in your articles, Jamie. Thanks!

  3. I don’t write fiction. Even so, this is one of the single most helpful pieces I have ever read anywhere, Jamie. Thank you. Printing it out now.