Writing & Self-Editing: Step 1: The Big Picture

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Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Finishing a first draft is a hard-won accomplishment, one you should definitely celebrate! But of course it’s only the first step. This article offers tips and recommended resources for editing your first draft before passing it on to an alpha or beta reader or an editor. This information will also be helpful during the writing process, even if your story idea is still germinating.

When editing your manuscript, start with “big picture” issues, including point of view, characterization, plotting, and pacing, before worrying about sentence structure and grammar. Otherwise you might waste a lot of time fine tuning sections that will need to be drastically changed or cut out altogether.

The Big Picture:

A. Point of View

B. Characterization

  1. Dig more deeply into your characters.
  2. Make sure your characters are driving the plot.
  3. Look at your protagonist’s character arc.

C. Plotting & Pacing

  1. Decide where your story begins.
  2. Make every scene count.
  3. Outline your novel.
  4. Write a synopsis.

A. Point of View: I mentioned this first because, regardless of the type of novel you write, characters are the heart of the story, and many problems with character development stem from issues with point of view.

harry-potter-philosophers-stone

Point of view is basically about what a character knows. When J.K. Rowling writes from Harry’s point of view (3rd person limited), we aren’t aware of anything that happens when he isn’t in the room—or of what anyone else is thinking—unless they tell him.

Look at your use of point of view. Did you write in 1st person point of view (“I”), where a character (usually the protagonist) tells the story?

“Siobhan said that I should write something I would want to read myself. Mostly I read books about science and maths. I do not like proper novels. In proper novels people say things like, ‘I am veined with iron, with silver and with streaks of common mud. I cannot contract into the firm fist which those clench who do not depend on stimulus.’ What does this mean?” (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon)

Is it 3rd person limited point of view (“he” or “she”), where the story is told through one character’s eyes at a time?

‘‘’Mercy!’’ Catelyn cried, but horns and drums and the clash of steel smothered her plea. Ser Ryman buried the head of his axe in Dacey’s stomach. By then men were pouring in the other doors as well, mailed men in shaggy fur cloaks with steel in their hands. Northmen! (A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin)

Whatever it is, see if you used it consistently.

Be wary of contemporary omniscient point of view, in which the narrator knows everything that’s happening in the story and can read the thoughts of all the characters. This can be done well, but it’s difficult to pull off, and there’s usually a more effective way to tell the story.

As a writing coach and editor, I find that when the characters aren’t fully developed, omniscient point of view or inconsistent use of third-person point of view is often the root of the problem. The author jumps from the mind of one character to another (often called head-hopping), trying to convey the thoughts and reactions of everyone in the room. The reader is unable to stick with any character long enough to get to know and care about him.

If you’re narrating from various points of view throughout your story, consider going through the manuscript and highlighting the sections that reflect a particular character’s thoughts and experiences, using a different color for each character. Is there is a great deal of jumping around? Does it fluctuate between 1st person and 3rd person or between 3rd person limited and 3rd person omniscient? If so, I recommend choosing one character (probably your protagonist), or several characters if you want to alternate points of view. Consistently tell the story through the point-of-view character’s eyes and share only her thoughts.

If you alternate points of view, think carefully about how many point-of-view characters you need. There is no hard-and-fast rule. It depends on the length of your book and the conventions of your genre. Romance novels commonly use two points of view: the two romantic leads, alternating between their perspectives. Mysteries and thrillers often stick with one point of view, typically the sleuth. Fantasy novels sometimes have four or more point-of-view characters; they can get away with more if the book is very long. (A nod to George R.R. Martin.)

Whatever you decide, choose your point-of-view characters thoughtfully and be careful not to confuse readers. Sticking with one point of view per chapter works well. Another technique is to use a transition sentence (“George rolled up his sleeping bag, thinking of his years fighting in the war…”) That sentence lets readers know, right off the bat, that you’re putting them in George’s mind.

Effective use of point of view can make or break a story. Luckily, there are plenty of good resources on the subject.

Articles on Point of View:

Books on Point of View:

Articles on Avoiding Head-Hopping:

Articles & Podcasts on Making the Most of Point of View and Narrative Voice: 

B. Characterization:

1. Dig More Deeply Into Your Characters: Does your main character seem like a real person, with both strengths and flaws? Is she likable? Interesting? Will readers sympathize with him and care what happens to him?

Sherlock

Not all protagonists have to be likable. People love television characters like Sherlock and Dexter, but they aren’t necessarily people you’d want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with.

Some characters seem to lack redeeming qualities altogether. Maybe you have a colorful, hilarious antihero or you’re going to take readers on a memorable journey through the mind of a psychopath. In any case, something needs to compel us to keep reading. In the same vein, the antagonist needs to be well developed and interesting, and the secondary characters should be vibrant and lifelike.

Characters are brought to life through their actions, thoughts, and dialogue. If they haven’t yet come to life on the page, it could be that some scenes were written before you knew the characters well enough to completely flesh them out. Maybe you’re a “discovery writer” (or “pantser”) and these characters were blossoming in your mind gradually, as you wrote the novel. Or if you’re a “plotter,” you might have been focused on the plot rather than delving deeply into your characters.

If your characters have become real living, breathing people for you now, as you edit you can dive more deeply into their thoughts, enrich their dialogue, and revise to ensure their actions are consistent with who they are.

If you would like to get to know your characters better, this is a good time to dive in. There are plenty of templates online to help you create specific details about your characters. (Here is an example.) Also, consider freewriting a monologue from a particular character’s perspective. Let the character tell you what his childhood was like, his most important experiences, and what he wants most out of life. Let her explain why she made the choices she made. This activity can be very revealing and a lot of fun.

Katniss Everdeen

2. Make Sure Your Characters Are Driving the Plot: Virtually every story starts with a character who wants something. The most important question to ask about your character is what do you want and why can’t you have it?

The character’s goal, which might change throughout the story, drives the plot, and whatever is standing in the way of that goal is the conflict. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss’s goals are to provide for her family and protect her sister. Later, her goal is simply to survive. The oppressive government of Panem is the primary obstacle. It keeps her family and her district in desperate poverty, threatens her sister’s safety, and thrusts her into the brutal hunger games.

Be sure your character’s goals are driving the plot. Otherwise, you risk having a character with no agency; things just happen to her instead of her struggling to direct her own fate. You also risk having a plot with no clear chain of cause and effect. An example of cause and effect:

  • Katniss has to care for her family because her father died in the coal mines. Taking care of her family, especially her sister, becomes her primary goal.
  • Because her primary goal is to protect her sister, she volunteers for the hunger games
  • Because of that, she has to leave District 12 and fight in the arena.

…and so forth.

This cause and effect creates a logical chain of events. Without that, the story has no clear direction or momentum.

Walter White in Breaking Bad

3. Look at Your Protagonist’s Character Arc: In most compelling stories, the character grows and changes in some way. Usually facing the conflict in your story nurtures that growth. Perhaps the heroine in your fantasy has to face a life-threatening challenge. To become ready for that, she must face smaller challenges and become stronger, braver, and more resilient. Maybe the hero in your romance has met the woman with whom he’ll find his happily ever after. They could be perfect for each other, but he isn’t ready. First he has to let down his defenses and deal with some weighty emotional baggage. These are examples of positive character arcs.

Some stories have negative character arcs; instead of growing and becoming a better, stronger person, the protagonist morally deteriorates. This is the basis of classic tragedies, such as Macbeth. Modern examples include Walter White in Breaking Bad and Lester Nygaard in the first season of the Fargo series.

Whatever kind of story you choose to write, look at how your character evolves from the beginning of the novel to the end. Most good stories include a satisfying character arc, and this helps ensure that readers will find your protagonist compelling.

Articles & Videos on Creating Rich, Well-Developed Characters: 

Articles on Creating Strong Character Arcs:

Books on Characterization and Character Arcs:

C. Plotting and Pacing:

1. Decide Where Your Story Begins: A common problem with first drafts is ineffective pacing. There is no magic formula. It depends, in part, on the type of story. Some start with a bang and some benefit from more patient pacing. But in general, if no important action unfolds until a quarter of the way through the book, you are likely to lose your readers. Where does your story actually start?

One common problem with first drafts is too much backstory on the characters or setting, often called info dumping, in the opening chapters. Readers want to jump quickly into the story. They’re willing to trust you to let them get to know the characters and the world you’ve created gradually, as the story unfolds.

When providing developmental editing to a client, I typically write a one- to two-sentence summary of what happens in each chapter, focusing on what’s important to the story. If the answer to “what happens in this chapter that’s essential to the story?” is “nothing much” through the first quarter of the book, there’s an issue with pacing. Figure out where the story starts, and consider cutting earlier scenes.

2. Make Every Scene Count: In the same vein, consider the purpose of every scene in your book. What’s important in terms of plot, character development, and establishing the setting? What can be trimmed out?

In general, every scene in your story should have a purpose: advancing the plot, developing characters and, in some cases, worldbuilding. Creating an outline and synopsis (below) can be incredibly helpful. While outlining, jot down a brief description of each scene. (This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule but, basically, a scene has the same characters doing something in the same location. When new characters arrive or people relocate, a new scene begins.) Note the purpose of each scene.

I outline my novels on Scrivener. Since I tend to be a discovery writer, I do this after writing the first draft, or while the draft is in progress, to figure out where all the pieces fit. I create a note card for each scene and give it a title. Often it’s a silly title, like “Exploding Toilets and Impressionism.” I do this simply so I can remember the gist of what happens in that scene. I also jot down “Story Beat/Purpose” on each card. If I can’t identify a clear purpose, I consider scrapping the scene. This helps ensure that the pacing won’t drag.

Another common problem is for the pacing to gallop along too quickly. I often see this in fantasy/adventure manuscripts. The author is eager to hold the reader’s interest, so the story moves from one battle scene to another, without giving readers time to catch their breath.

If you find this problem in your writing, strive to create a pattern of rising and falling tension. For example, after a scene in which readers are in peril, include a more quiet, thoughtful scene in which they recuperate, discuss what they’ve just learned about their enemy, and refine their strategy. Mastering the concept of “scene and sequel” can be extremely helpful.

graph

This is a graph I created illustrating the level of dramatic tension in a client’s manuscript (The graph continues on the second line.) I rated the tension in each scene on a scale of 1 to 6 and charted it on the graph. Obviously, this is not an exact science, but it highlights one of the reasons the plot was working well. The tension rises and falls throughout the book, and it gradually increases throughout the novel, peaking at the climax of the story.

3. Outline Your Novel: If you didn’t consciously use story structure or follow an outline in developing your first draft, this can be quite helpful now. You can reverse engineer your novel, outlining it scene by scene. This will let you see the bare bones of your story structure and pinpoint scenes that aren’t working as they should, including scenes that should be deleted.

4. Write a Synopsis: Another way to identify problems with plotting and structure is to write a synopsis of your novel. Boiling your story down to a concise summary will reveal how the plot fits together and make it easier to hone in on problems.

Articles on Where to Begin Your Story, Handling Backstory, and Making Every Scene Count: 

Articles & Videos on Story Structure:

Articles on Story Tropes & Archetypes:

Articles, Videos & Podcasts on Outlining:

Information on Plotting Speculative Fiction:

Information on Plotting Romance:

Books on Outlining:

Writing a Synopsis:

More About Plotting:

Editing a Manuscript
Photo from istockphoto.com

Recommended Resources on the Editing Process:

To recommend additional resources, please contact me.