This article is posted in Page2Print.
There are times when I enter a sort of revision fugue, where I’ve been writing and rewriting the same words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, stories to the point that I can’t reliably tell what’s going on anymore. I come out the other side with a net wash. I may have been editing for three hours straight, but when I look at what I’ve been working on I honestly can’t see the work anymore. All I see are letters mashed together in some semblance of order.
This is the point at which I realize I can’t do any more good right now with a story. I am, for the purposes of that given day (and probably week or more), done with that particular piece.
As a Revisionist it is important that you come to understand the many different aspects of a piece of fiction, whether it’s micro-fiction, an epic 130-volume series or anything in between. Knowing and understanding all the parts of your work, how they fit together, how they play off each other, and how they form a cohesive whole is a frustrating task, and you’ll never be perfect. But you can certainly Try.
I have here just a quick list of questions I like to ask myself during the editing phases. These questions are designed to get me to think outside my own box, and may prove useful to you in the future when you find yourself struggling with editing your own work:
Q1: Where’s my water?
A lot of people I’ve had discussions with about the acts of writing and editing will swear by the concept of keeping your ass planted and powering through. I tend to agree, except that (like above) sometimes I get so focused in I stop seeing the forest for the trees and I’m making decisions that could harm the overall work without realizing it.
Asking this question pulls me out of the intense, show-stopping concentration and forces me to get up and disconnect for a minute. I don’t get on the Internet, I don’t turn on the TV, I don’t check my phone or call a friend. I go to the kitchen, I get a drink, I stand in the kitchen and drink. I don’t think about what I’m working on. I think about my water.
When I get back to editing, my subconscious has already begun compiling information and even that three-minute disconnect has allowed me to look upon what I’m doing with refreshed eyes.
Q2: Can I resolve this conflict before this scene?
This is a tough one sometimes. A lot of times I’m more or less flying by the seat of my pants with only a vague outline on paper, and I have a basic idea of where conflict is going to happen in the story. While I’m writing I’m unintentionally forcing plot elements and character motivations into a type of stalemate in order for the conflict to escalate and come to a head at the moment I want it to in my head.
The problem with this is that characters change, motivations get muddy, forks in the road insinuate themselves. Events coalesce naturally. By trying to force conflict into these niches I’ve set aside for them, I’m potentially dragging out conflict, or character growth, or forward progress in favor of my muddled mind’s machinations.
I tend to make a list while I’m editing of the major and minor conflicts that occur, and then I go back and examine how natural it feels for that conflict to happen. Sometimes the answer is “Yes, this is working” and sometimes it’s “Please God just kill me before I have to hear about this building conflict ONE MORE TIME.”
Q3: Who am I forgetting?
I swear I’m terrible about this. Even when I have an outline, or a synopsis at the start of a scene that tells me who all is active and about, I inevitably leave someone out during scenes with a lot of people. And I don’t mean simply that I neglected to give a character something to do. I literally forget that character exists for a while, or is with this group instead of their normal group.
Sometimes things happen, dramatic or actiony things, and I think they’re awesome. Then when I’m editing I realize “Hey, where was Ahmed during this conversation?” or “Why didn’t Shaniqua help Bobby when everyone was running away?” It can change the entire sequence of events just remembering that someone was there.
Maybe Ahmed acts on something he heard during this conversation later in the story, because I knew he was there when I was writing the later scene, but I forgot that I basically left him out of the conversation at the time I wrote it. Maybe Shaniqua has a personal stake in making sure Bobby doesn’t fall off the cliffside, and having that happen while she’s around makes less sense once I remember this.
Point is, characters are living, breathing entities in your story. They all see events from their own perspective, and sometimes you can forget that a character exists, and their presence in a scene can have wide-reaching effects.
Q4: Where did that come from?
This one is a bit stranger. When you’re writing sometimes plot devices pop up to get the story moving forward again. Pacific Rim, as fun as it was, utilizes a lazy plot device to get the ball rolling. This is forgivable in its case because the movie wanted to be about robots punching giant monsters, and the faster it gets us to that the better.
But sometimes it feels like a cheap ploy without any place in the story. The heroes are stumbling around for hours, days, weeks, whatever. They’re trying to achieve some vague goal (Stop the Evil Villain!) but have no idea how to do so. The awesome way to write yourself out of this is to let the characters devise a method based on the lore you’ve established. They come to a conclusion based on the hints you’ve dropped throughout the story and use it to win the day.
The terrible way to write yourself out of this is to put in a last-minute plot MacGuffin that is the only way to defeat the villain.
Sure, it gets the story moving forward, and it places things into an easy contextual narrative that you can swing through. But it isn’t natural, and it sure as hell isn’t fun for the reader when you get them all invested in the conflict and then swipe it all away with a super weapon or something.
A Plot Device shouldn’t feel like a plot device, basically.
That’s it. Four questions I ask myself in almost every scene that help me fill in plot holes, tighten the narrative, and keep myself moving forward.