Making the story the best it can be.

This is the seventh of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

First off, sorry it’s been a few months. COVID-19 and all, I don’t think I need to explain more than that.

Put The W’s Together

Second, now that I’ve outlined the W’s, it’s time to put them all together. You can certainly do your own thing, but I usually take them in the order I set out above, Apparent Event, Actual Event, Environment, Character and Relationship, Conflict, and The Moment Before. THIS IS NOT A RULE. I can and do violate this order all the time.

But why suggest that order, then? Wouldn’t it be better to decide on the characters first? Or the actual event? I usually have a pretty decent idea of where I want the story to go, and I know the main character of the scene before I get to the W’s. Choosing the apparent event forces me to get creative, and will usually tell me who the other characters in the scene should be. Not every scene can be in a law office, right? Setting the apparent event constrains my choices for the rest of the W’s. Also, once you know your main characters, apparent events will present themselves to you almost unasked.

The actual event is the character or story element that needs to happen during that scene, which often (most every time?) has very little to do with the apparent event. But the character or story element happens to a character, which means it will happen in that character’s context – apparent event and environment – which kind of drives the details of the actual event.

Conflict is often the most difficult part of this to define, though it might not seem so at first. If you only think of conflict as a fist fight, you’re getting it all wrong. Sure, there can be a fist fight, but that would probably be an apparent event with a huge subtext for the actual event. The conflict is internal to the characters, usually, sometimes external. But you don’t want it to be trite or on-the-nose. No black knights blocking the bridge into the abandoned castle, please. How about a lovely peasant girl inviting the knight to cross the bridge? Would you trust her? Why not?

The other three elements follow once you have the apparent event, actual event, and conflict. The environment is determined largely by the apparent event, and once you get into the story, the character and moment before are set already, for the most part.

What Does It Look Like On The Page?

I’ll share a bit of my work in progress below. It’s how I plot out my stories using the W’s.

Remember, for a regular novel you have about 70,000 to 90,000 words, which seems like a lot until your first draft has 125,000 words and you have to cut it by a third. A novel is going to have between 60 and 80 scenes, which again seems like a lot but is actually nearly nothing once you get into it. You need to be economical, you need to work smart, you need to know what you’re doing before you start writing. You do that by using the W’s.

An image of a scene breakdown for my current work in progress:

I tried not to give too many spoilers, since this novel is a sequel to ‘The Guilty Die Twice,’ but you can see how I work. I don’t have the characters listed with the other W’s, I have them at the header of the scene so I can tell at a glance who is getting the focus. Later on I may have to rearrange things, and having the characters up top makes that easier. Then I have notes to myself on the scene, including possibilities for later scenes, and then the W’s nicely outlined.

Give It A Shot

Feel free to take this advice and make it your own. Recall that I came to this method as an actor and adapted it to my writing. My acting teacher gave all her students a business card with the W’s on it, and I have that card to this day, I’m looking at it right now because it stays on my desk centered beneath my computer monitor, where I can see it every time I write.

Good luck! Let me know how it works out for you.

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It’s been a week since I turned over my pass at developmental edits on my manuscript, and I’ve had some time to digest the experience. It was, in turns, both infuriating and gratifying.

Infuriating: ‘You use this word too much to describe this character.’
How dare you question my authorial voice? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: do a simple count of the offending word to find that, in fact, it’s in every description of that character.
Oh yeah, I see what you mean now. That is annoying. You’re right, I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘You state your theme very plainly several times when you don’t need to. Let the narrative state your theme for you.’
I would never state my themes outright! Do you think I’m some kind of hack? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the offending passages out loud to myself.
Holy cow, I really did exactly that, three different times. You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘This bad guy turns good guy, and it doesn’t feel authentic to the character.’
My characters are mine alone to manipulate! I am their God! I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the last scene the character is in and get the same feeling.
That character’s wrapped up in an inappropriate little bow, isn’t she? You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Overall, I’d give it 10% infuriating, 90% gratifying. When I found it infuriating I was really being defensive and blocking myself from the process. If I took a deep breath or two and listened instead of reacting, I discovered that my editor was trying to make my manuscript the best it could be. He’s got skin in this game too, you know? He’s not making edits to piss me off ( or not just to piss me off ), he’s very invested in putting out a great product.

Authors, when your time comes and you have your first work with an editor, embrace the process. Listen to what your editor’s saying; they’re not always 100% right, but they’re almost always right. They do this all day, every day. Trust them.

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I have finished my round of Developmental Edits!!

Yay me!!

This is the first round of edits, from my editor to me and back again.  I’ll have more feedback in a later blog post, but I figured I’d let everyone know that I completed this major first milestone.  Only four or five more to go.

Also: my publisher has come up with a different title.  I have some opinions on that, too.  More to come.

It’s been two weeks of work, and I’m going to go outside now, to refamiliarize myself with fresh air and the sky.  More posts this weekend.

 

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I’m about 50 pages into the developmental edits, and I have a few thoughts.

  1. I’m far less prickly about this than I thought I’d be. Not that I’m entirely cool with it, that’s a little much to ask, but I’m not as precious with my writing as once was. There have been a few points so far where I was thinking ‘come on, now… really?’ but once I got over myself those edits made the narrative stronger.
  2. I’ve encountered a few dev edit comments, and they’ve been right on. That is, they’ve made the story tighter, made the words hang together better. I haven’t yet found a comment that I disagreed with. But I’m only 50 pages in.
  3. What copy editing has happened has been strictly according to established style manuals. I have to confess, some copy edits feel like flattening out my own style – I’m not a newspaper reporter – but I’m letting them go. They stick out to me like a neon sign, but more than likely no one else is going to notice them.
  4. From time to time, I’m being ‘handled.’ That is, my editor will leave me a compliment when he wants me to change a error he feels is sloppy and unprofessional. For instance: ‘Reword: kind of a cliché. Your writing is normally so good and so original – so I’d hate to have it marred by such a common turn of phrase.’ Translated from Touchy-Authorese this means ‘Seriously? Put some effort into it, don’t be a hack.’ All right, I get it.
  5. My years as an actor gave me a pretty thick skin for notes (thanks, June!), but that doesn’t mean I’m invulnerable. I’m learning to let it go, though, and trust that the guy who pays his mortgage by editing books knows what he’s doing. Kind of like they’re trusting me to know what I’m doing.

My main takeaway so far? This really is a team effort. I do need an editor, which means I’m going to have to accept that his goal is to make my book the best it can be. Even if that means losing most of my precious, precious ellipses…


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Publishing News: I got the developmental edits back this morning! Now I have something I can do! Yay me!

I you have a moment, you can review developmental edits.

My publisher returned to me three items:

  • Editing letter – where the editor explains his edits in general, and what he’s looking for me do with my turn at the manuscript.
  • A marked-up copy of the edited manuscript – where all the changes the editor made are highlighted for me, so I can see what he did and digest any notes he may have left in the margins.
  • A clean copy of the edited manuscript – a copy for me to perform my edits on. There are some markups still in it, but not as many as the other copy.

I read over the editing letter, fully anticipating being outraged and offended. I was not. I agree with everything my editor said, and I will fully comply with his wishes.

To be honest, I’m a little disappointed that there’s not more drama here. I kind of wanted to exercise a little righteous indignation, to rage against the machine. Oh well, maybe later.

My editor has four items he’d like me to work on. In dev edits these are big-picture items, not missing apostrophes or participles dangling.

  • Ellipses – I use these to indicate hesitation and uncertainty in dialogue. My editor wants me to cut a third of them, at least. This is the part where I might get a little touchy, but if I’m overusing ellipses and they distract from the narrative, I need to get rid of many of them.
  • Over-stating my themes – Yeah. I do that. Fair criticism.
  • A big fight scene feels staged – I agree. I’ll work on making it feel more dynamic and emergent rather than long-anticipated and planned.
  • A character’s big change – my editor would like to see this character remain unapologetic and unrepentant until several books later. I agree. This character is too valuable as a foil to change so soon. In my defense, I originally wrote this book as a one-off, I hadn’t planned other books. Now that I am planning more, this is a necessary change.

I have 14 days to do my edits and hand my edited copy of the manuscript back. I am going to use every hour of those 14 days. I feel good, I think this is going to go well.

Big Plus – it looks like my editor and I are in synch. A good writer needs a great editor, and I think I got one. I took a quick look at some of his notes in the marked-up version, and, so far, I agree with them all. To quote Rick Blaine, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Big minus – I have to work in MS Word. I do my writing in Pages, not just because it works so much better than MS Word, but because in my day job I use MS products almost exclusively and I am not a fan. Bloatware. Look it up. Or click the link. So maybe this is my ‘rage against the machine’ moment. Curse you, MS Word! From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!

I’ll have more next week, after I really dig into these edits. I’m sure I’ll find some nit-picky things to complain about.

 

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Last time, I ended with my need to find out more about the editing process. There are developmental edits, copy edits, and proofreading, and these different phases take up a large part of the publishing process. So what happens in each one?

Developmental edit: this phase examines the manuscript as an entire story, including all the vital elements. Does it hold together? Does it move to slowly in some parts, or too quickly in others? Does the story fit the target audience? The editor will look for character development, plot, tone, and voice to make sure those things are consistent throughout the manuscript. Typically, the editor will not focus on typos or grammatical errors because whole sections of the text might need to be rewritten or might get thrown out entirely. There is back-and-forth between author and editor in this phase.

Copy edit: the meat and potatoes of editing. This phase is like handing your manuscript over to your 9th-grade English teacher, you’re gonna get it back dripping with red ink. This phase is where editors work on spelling and grammar and sentence structure and paragraph construction. There is back-and-forth between author and editor in this phase, too.

Proofreading: essentially the last pass at copy editing. This is the detail phase where the editor is trying to catch every remaining error. Which is, of course, impossible. I’m sure everyone has seen typos in major book releases, it’s unavoidable. But the editors in this phase try to get it perfect. This is usually an editor-only process, with author review after it’s finished.

Now that we know what’s involved, at least at a high level, with each editing phase, I can see a couple of possible issues.  And by that, I mean issues I’ll have with the process.

Dev edit – the editor and I might disagree on some major points, like tone, or target audience, pacing, or even major plot points. I hope this doesn’t happen, but I need to decide how I’m going to deal with a disagreement like this if it comes up.  I’ll probably defer to their expertise, unless their expertise suggests something stupid.

Copy edit – I need to repeat my mantra of ‘be patient, be kind’ when this phase starts. I hate, hate, hate nitpicky edits to my stuff, and that’s something I’m going to have to get past. Yeah, I ended a sentence with a preposition, so what?

Proofreading – I’ll have a go at it when the time comes, but, honestly, by that stage I will have gone through the manuscript three or four times already, I’m not sure what I could add to the proofreading process after that kind of fatigue. But I’ll grind it out.

When these phases begin, I’ll let everyone know. And, of course, I’ll keep you posted on the details as they happen.
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