Help me learn to edit longer stories.
April 4, 2016 7:00 PM   Subscribe

I need help learning how to do structural edits on longer pieces of fiction (and maybe how to think about story structure more while I’m writing first drafts as well). I’m looking for book recommendations, articles, tips and techniques, and stories of what works for you. There’s more specifics below, but the tl;dr version is: what are editing strategies that might work well for someone a) highly attuned to sentences and the beautiful details of language and b) on the intuitive side in terms of process?

I feel like I don’t know how to edit my fiction. I don’t mean on the micro scale, like cutting out words or rearranging a sentence (I feel confident in my skills there.) I mean on a more macro scale, making substantial changes to a story structure, like cutting out scene or changing a character’s arc.

There’s a couple factors here. One, I’m very attuned to the flow and rhythm of sentences. Which is mostly a strength but also feels like a classic, “I can’t see the forest for the trees” situation. Like, I put so much work and focus on the micro scale that it sometimes feels hard to change anything because it’s all so tightly woven. So that’s one thing--I feel like I need tools and strategies for shifting my perspective, like trading out my microscope for binoculars and imaging satellites.

The other one is that I tend to have a kind of Romantic view/experience of my creative process. I’m a pretty intuitive person and it feels to me like writing is a form of communication/collaboration with my unconscious mind. I experience it as including some decisions and choices and also, in a way, like I’m discovering something that already exists. I also tend to valorize the first draft I write as the “purest” expression of “creation.”

I’m not super interested in skewering this perspective--it’s something that has been part of my worldview for most of my life, so I don’t think flat out rejecting it is going to work. But I know that it has some limitations. I’m interested in finding ways of cajoling that part of me, of working with my Romanticism in new ways.

This way of doing things has worked--some of my best stories (both from my own perspective and in terms of success) were essentially lightly edited first drafts--but that’s been for short stories and it has faltered for novellas and prevented me from finishing any novels (so far).

So, yeah, like I mentioned above, I’m looking for any sources of perspective, framework, strategies and techniques--whether those are books, podcasts, articles, videos, or your own experiences. Those could address the first issue--micro versus macro--and/or the second one.

I’m pretty turned off by things like How To Write The Bestselling Novel, etc. that have a formulaic perspective. It would be ideal, especially for sources related to the second, that the writer share, or at least have some sympathy with a Romantic, bohemian perspective. Talking about writing as a form of making Art, I mean, and that have some vibe of: mysterious, individual, murky, open, unfolding. (I liked Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, for example.)

posted by overglow to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, the best thing for me has been doing structural edits on other people's novels. I have a reasonably good set of instincts for structure, but I can see stuff in other people's work that I am too close to mine to see. (Stuff like "so we're 75% of the way through a massively charming novel, but when does the plot start?" and "Well it's cute that you're planning to include four entire towns' worth of characters, but this is a buddy novel and one of the protags can't interact with any of those folks, so...." as opposed to my primary writing partner's comment to me, which was, in short "why does only one of your two POV characters have a personality?" (That one stung. And was true.)) To maintain sanity, this requires a pool of folks whose work you can stand - I got mine at a writing workshop, but there are plenty of venues for meeting crit partners.

I also am inclined to say you'll be better off if you can keep the romanticism for drafts, but ditch it for edits, because you just can't count on being able to rip out a perfect draft the first time. (Some terrible, horrible people can, but I hate them all, and besides, it doesn't sound like you're one of them.) Novels are big complicated things with a lot of moving parts, and if you can't get your hands dirty, you can't fix a misfiring engine. They're beautiful and romantic when they're conceived, and again when they're finished (if you're lucky) but in between, they're kind of a hot mess.

Bona fides: have written three novels, one of them unsalvageable, one in edits, one in first draft. Have critted books for a variety of folks, several of whom will no doubt be published in the next five years (and one of whom already is, albeit with a memoir, not a novel yet.) So basically I am no authority, but I'm familiar with the process.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:29 PM on April 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Things to read: I would suggest reading Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. It is itself a novel --- quite a good one --- and I wouldn't want to describe the plot too much because watching it unspool is a great pleasure. But what makes that book a masterpiece in my opinion is its structure. Waters creates a very pleasing pattern within the plot of that book, and seeing how she does it might give you some ideas to nick. Even if the genre's not your bag as a rule, give it a try.

Personal anecdote: Most of the ideas I've had that have turned into larger pieces...the spark, the first thing I think of might be a scene, even just a moment, but I find that scene contains the core of the idea, and the structure naturally builds off that. Like one project I worked on for a while, it started off because I was struck by the image of women holding a baby an experiencing a sense of alienation, fear, repugnance. And from that core the story began to flow...who was the woman, whose the baby, why being forced to hold? And the story began to take shape from there...a woman and her best friend, who begin to draw apart when that friend becomes a mother. What binds people to each other, and the difference in strength between those ties, of affinity, personality, shared history, verses blood, instinct, primal drives. The difference between the people we choose to love and the people we must love, and the demands they make on us. The purposes we choose and the fates we reject. That scene, that image, for me, contained the glimmers of all these ideas, and when I began to consider these questions, who was the woman, why did she feel that way, other scenes began naturally to occur. The two friends together as teenagers, getting revenge on a boy. The woman and the friend's lover, meeting in the friend's hospital room. The woman and the friend in the baby's nursery before the birth.

That's how it usually works, for me, is that a story starts with an idea like that, a feeling I want to bring across. It's a bit know those connect the dots pictures in kid's activity books? It's like, I know this should turn out to be a picture of a dog, so I've got to put a dot in here for the nose and a dot in here fore the tail....each scene is a dot, an emotional beat I want to hit or facet of the overriding idea that I want to explore. At the beginning a few dots occur obviously and immediately, and usually in writing the dots other dots begin to occur, and then you've got to think out the lines to connect them. This character must die in order that that character be faced with this dilemma; what does she die of? How does the first character learn of it?

It can lead you into blind alleys sometimes doing it this way, but so long as you have that overriding idea then when you go back and edit, maybe after you give it some time, you can see where to trim, still. Because you know the central idea/image is the big important thing, so you can see, say, that the three long paras which give some shading to Character B's personality are unnecessary when Character B only exists to contrast with this aspect of character A. Or this passage drags on too long an deadens the impact of this dialogue, which is what I really want to hit the reader with. This discussion should happen earlier, so you know that already when this is revealed. Etc.
posted by Diablevert at 7:57 PM on April 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm an editor who's spent ten years as a (primarily) developmental editor, and what you're describing is, in my experience, remarkably common, especially amongst authors who tend to, as you put it, have a more romantic view of writing.

First, stop glorifying that first draft. If it helps, remind yourself that the first draft may be the purest form of expression between yourself and your subconscious, but the end goal, presumably, is to create a dialogue between you and the reader, not you and yourself. So the second and subsequent drafts are about a different form of communication--the goal is to keep the fundamental truths of the first draft, but to make them more accessible to a wider audience.

Second, macro plot editing. One of the things that I sometimes suggest to people is to, once you've finished the draft, go back and use that to create an outline. Nothing super intensive, but reread it, and give every scene a one-sentence summary. Then ask yourself what your primary and secondary plots are--say, for example, that you're writing a romantic suspense novel, so you've got a suspense thread and a romance thread, and maybe a third thread about the heroine's relationship with her sister or something. Go back and color code your one-sentence summaries--suspense is red, romance is blue, sister is orange, scenes that are none of those things are black. (Scenes can have more than one color.)

Now you look at just the colors. Your primary plot threads should last the entire length of your novel--I can't tell you how often people will write what's effectively a romance novella followed by a suspense novella featuring the same characters. If your red sentences don't start until halfway through the book, you have a problem. If you have four blue scenes in a row, and then an orange, and then seven reds, you should probably reconsider what you're doing with your pacing--things don't have to go red, blue, red, blue, orange, red, blue, red... but a dozen red scenes in a row should maybe make you think about what purpose the other colors are serving in the book as whole, and often indicate that the character arc should be reconsidered, because it's developing separately from the plot arc.

Once you've figured that out, look at the scenes that are black, and ask yourself what they're doing there. There are lots of things they can be doing--setting things up for a future book in the series, establishing side characters you want to explore further, developing your setting, etc--but you should arguably be more critical of these scenes than you should of the things that actively advance your plot.

This isn't hard science, obviously, and there are plenty of books that disregard some if not all of this, but it's the most useful way I've found to get people to take a step back from the trees. Often once you've done it a time or two, you'll start doing it intuitively--it gets easier and more automatic as you edit more.
posted by mishafletch at 8:25 PM on April 4, 2016 [26 favorites]

I'm struggling with the same problem, but I have two things that have helped me figure out how not to be so precious about how the words are sitting on the page, and how to think about structure.
The first is at least one beta reader. Having someone talk to you about your writing who can praise the good parts and point out the weak parts,
and who asks lots of questions that make you ask questions, can be a big help.
The second thing is Samuel Delany's "About Writing". There is a lot of talk about structure and how to do it, with concrete examples. There is a bunch of other good stuff in there, too, but he discusses structure at length and in detail.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 8:47 PM on April 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I also tend to be very intuitive in terms of my process. I like to start out a revision by reading fairly quickly through the story, too quickly to get bogged down making little stylistic edits, and just noting things like character decisions that don't make sense, emotional development that comes too quickly or out of nowhere, sections that feel too slow or irrelevant to the main storyline -- anything that feels subtly out of sync.

And sometimes, if I can't figure out a solution, I try to think of how I would solve the problem if I were working in a screenplay-formula framework. Not because I think that's necessarily going to give me the right answer, but because it can at least suggest some directions I should be looking -- and eventually one of those directions is going to make me feel, "Oh, yeah, this is right, this is what belongs in the story." I have read a ton of story structure books and blogs and I don't really have one to recommend because I suspect they would all feel kind of formulaic to you. But although I never try to shove my writing into a box that's the wrong size and shape for it, sometimes that lens helps me diagnose and fix genuine structural problems.

For example, the novel that I recently finished seemed to lose steam about 2/3 of the way through, and it felt like everything else was just wrapping up loose ends. When I looked at the book through a kind of screenplay-formula framework, I thought, well, there should be a climax about 3/4 of the way through -- and I didn't have one; I had a couple of big scenes that I thought functioned as the climax but actually didn't have any emotional heft because the characters had already talked through their problems. Once I took out the scenes where they talked through their problems, the big scenes I meant for the climax felt more tense and fraught, and the book worked better to sustain its tension.

I really like mishafletch's advice about using your first draft as the basis for making an outline that you can color-code -- I often use index cards on a bulletin board for this. One thing that I especially look out for, when I'm doing this, is figuring out how my red storyline and blue storyline and orange storyline play off each other thematically -- sometimes there's some parallelism (both characters invest emotional energy in creating personas for themselves because they fear being seen for who they really are), sometimes there's a reversal (A has the material comforts and family support that B lacks, but despite that, lacks and envies B's courage). Sometimes those connections aren't strong enough and you get two storylines that feel like they're from two different books, or one storyline feels like a weird vacation from the other one.
posted by Jeanne at 2:41 AM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I find it extremely helpful to step back from time to time and really think about causality and motivation. WHY are characters making certain decisions? What do they want, what's their internal life like, what are they trying to accomplish? And not just with your protagonist, but with everyone. I find that a major problem with many early drafts is that characters feel like chess pieces -- they're being moved around in service of a plot, or to make interesting things happen for more important characters, but they don't feel like people making understandable decisions.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:59 AM on April 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

Can't vouch for this personally, but there's a book called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers that might be useful.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:59 AM on April 5, 2016

I remember someplace Sarah Vowell said she doesn't enjoy writing so much but she enjoys editing because she likes making things better. So that's one way to think of it.

To me it sometimes feels as if my subconscious has a perfect story to tell but it's reaching me via a cruddy radio signal, so I have to keep turning my head around to try and clear all the static.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:50 PM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

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