This is the first installment of a little series all about editing. The series will be based on my personal self-editing process, but will hopefully give you some ideas that you can apply to your own. It’s not a guideline or a set of rules–just an example of one person’s way of doing things. Always make sure you save every version of your draft!
Today’s topic is Plot, or the Substantive Edit. This is the first stage of my editing process, as well as the most painful, and the most rewarding. Below are three steps I take to stay sane and focused while tightening my manuscript.
1. Write a list of all the things wrong with your plot
Sounds fun, right? These are the things you always knew had to change eventually. Now is the time to make them squirm in the spotlight.
After I finished the first draft of my manuscript, I set it aside for a few days. During this little break, I compiled a list of every scene, plot point, character, and chapter that I wasn’t happy with. Gimmicks, coincidences, boring scenes, illogical reactions. I didn’t go easy on myself. It was liberating in a way, because it was the first time I forced myself to look at the major flaws, rather than glossing over them in fear of not making my target word count. These flaws were the things that spoiled my manuscript, and made me think the whole thing was worthless. I thought the list would make me feel terrible about myself as a writer, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, when I saw a physical list of all the flaws, I realised that I wasn’t unhappy with everything. The list made me feel in control, and showed me exactly what I had to do to improve.
Examples of things on my list: Opening of Chapter 3, Travis (the whole character), Chapter 7, Chapter 9, Chapter 13, The phone call in Chapter 20, etc.
2. Fix or delete?
Some things just have to go. Like Travis. He served no purpose as a character, except to create a problem for the protagonist later down the road. I found that a lot of the plot flaws in my manuscript came in groups. Travis was a plot device, for a plot point that was weak anyway. I deleted both Travis and that plot point, and found another, stronger way to bring across the information I was using him for. Although it was painful and time consuming, deleting Travis fixed more than one of the problems on my list. I was tempted to add him to a couple more scenes, and try to add depth to his character instead of deleting him. The more I tried, however, the more obvious it became that deleting him and the events involved with him was the only way to improve the plot’s cohesiveness.
I think the tip here is to try everything out. Have the original version of your draft saved, and in the second draft, delete what you want to delete, and change what you want to change. Don’t stop until you’re content with it.
3. Ask the hard questions
Does that backstory need to be there? Does that chapter add anything to the plot or the character? Is that logical? Does the climax happen too early/late? Is the resolution too predictable, obvious, abrupt, coincidental, etc? Does that character serve a purpose? Would your protagonist make that mistake?
If you read a lot of books, you most-likely already know the answers. For me, it was a matter of not allowing myself to dodge the questions.
Thank you so much for reading, and good luck with your manuscript!