The subject of self-editing is a bit confusing since the phrase doesn't truly define what we're talking about. Is it rewriting, which entails tearing apart the whole book, tossing out stuff, writing new stuff, changing stuff? Or are we talking revision, which requires less drastic changes but still demands a bit of messing with the stuff? Or copy and line edits which focus on the stuff itself – word choice, clarity, rhythm and flow?
Personally, I'm an outspoken advocate of structure, so the first thing I edit is my story question. Is it present in every scene? Do the scenes move my character closer to or farther from the goal?
If the answer is yes, I move on the next step, polishing my prose. If not, I troubleshoot, using wonderful methods I learned at Debra Dixon's and Jack Bickham's knees.
When I have having trouble writing a scene or finding the heart of an already written scene, it's probably because the character GMC or scene goal isn't defined. Sometimes, neither are. A clue that a scene is missing both is that it seems totally flat and it's difficult to pin down why. Here are some remedies:
When a character's purpose for being in the scene isn't clear, it's difficult to know what to write, and the cause is usually a lack of GoalMotivationConflict.
1.If you've completed a GMC for the character, go back to the chart and examine it for tension. The conflict (obstacle) must powerfully oppose the goal and be apparent to the reader. If you haven't completed one, it's time you did. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, now is the time to run, not walk, to pick up a copy of Debra Dixon's GMC book (not sold on Amazon, use link at end).
2. Look at internal conflict. Does the character want two opposing outcomes? Is this a lose/lose situation — if he gets one, he gives up the other? It should be, so get busy fixing if it's not.
3. If you don't have a GMC for the character, the goal is probably absent from the scene. (Yes, you may have it in your head, sorta, but it's always writes better when it's on paper somewhere).
4. If the goal is there but you have problems getting engaged in whether the character reaches the goal, take a long look at motivation. Make sure the motivation is big and that the consequences of failure are enormous.
5. You have two types of scenes. One concentrates on action and is show not tell; the second explores the character's reactions to the action. In the goal scene, your character emphasis is 'I want.' In a reaction step it is 'I'm blindsided.”
Action Toward Goal:
a) Goal: “I want” leads to b) Conflict: “You can't/better not” or “You'd better get out of my way.” leads to c) Failure or Setback: “What I've feared (or worse) has come upon me.”
Reaction to Setback:
a) Reaction: “I'm blindsided.” or “This is worse than I feared.” leads to b) Dilemma/ Indecision: “What did I do/can I do?” leads to c) Decision: “By God, I think I've got it.”
This decision then immediately transform into action. You may have heard that the reaction scene (often referred to as a sequel) is a license to write pages of introspection. While these scenes do include character self-examination this doesn't mean long passages of internal thought. Active writing, events occurring on the page, can often show the mental and emotional change required to come to decision more powerfully than internal dialogue. Also, the process of decision can span several action segments and doesn't always neatly fit into one scene.
6. When you've identified the steps of your scene, keep your writing centered around them. Examine everything in the character's actions that is relevant and strengthen, clarify, add, and subtract until the scene becomes vital to the forward movement of your story. If the scene still doesn't contribute or just barely performs that function, consider folding the major elements into another scene or eliminating them altogether.
7. Cut any scene that doesn't show one of these: a) the character in powerful action toward the goal, b) a visibly escalating conflict, c) a strengthening or change in motivation. Again, extract any vital information and fold it in elsewhere.
Applying this analysis to every scene that doesn't measure up will result in a remarkably stronger book and will actually simplify your editing process if you do it first, before you begin messing with the prose.
But how about you? Do you have some time-tested methods of dealing with the self-edit process? This is only one way and no matter how convinced I am of its effectiveness because it works for me I'm well aware there may be easier ways or different approaches. I'd love to hear about them and invite you to leave a comment.
Until next month,
This article has its foundation in these writing books:
GMC: GOAL, MOTIVATION AND CONFLICT by Debra Dixon. Available at www.gryphonbooksforwriters.com.
SCENE AND STRUCTURE by Jack Bickham and TECHNIQUES OF A SELLING WRITER by Dwight V. Swain.