|Yeah, I'm going down this rabbit hole.|
With that having been said, it is a good idea to find some rules that work for you, and that help you get from Point A to Point B when you sit down to tell a story. And since I'm elbow-deep in the second draft of a novel manuscript at the moment, I figured I'd share some of the rules I've developed as a response to the editing process.
Rule #1: When In Doubt, Cut It Out
One of the most important rules of editing any draft is that if your initial effort is fatty or bloated, it's time to take the scissors and start sculpting. If you want your book to have six-pack abs, then it's going to have to feel the burn. Whether it's a cool phrase you thought of that really doesn't work, that second or third fight scene you put in for additional fan service, or just re-iterating a piece of exposition you already laid out, start cutting. Flab, even flab that might be funny, or fun, or full of witty text, is your enemy when you're editing.
Rule #2: Always Ask "Why?"
So, you've got your book. Maybe it's good, maybe it's bad, but it's on the page in front of you now rather than in your head. When you're editing, you need to have a little man on your shoulder ask "why?" every time you come across a salient point. It isn't enough to ask why, though; you need to have an answer. So when your little editor asks, "why are these characters at odds with each other?" you should be able to answer, "they're professionally competing for a promotion and glory, and while they have mutual respect for each other, this tension over their egos is what stops them from being friends." If you ask why, and you don't know the answer to the question, it might be time to reconsider that particular story choice.
Rule #3: Always Ask "Why Not?"
When it comes to a book, the parts of the story you choose to tell us are just as important as the parts you don't. So, in addition to asking why, the editor sitting on your other shoulder should be asking why you didn't do something. So, for example, if the question is, "why didn't this character bring back-up with them on their quest, choosing to go it alone?" you should have the answer ready to fire off. Whether it's that they're a loner, and have no one they can call on for aid, or that they're arrogant and think they can handle it themselves, or that what they're doing is highly illegal and they don't want criminal charges falling on their friends, you need to have answers to the "why not?" editor, too.
Rule #4: Don't Be Afraid To Explore
Just because you're trimming down your first draft, that doesn't mean you should feel afraid to explore things you didn't while you were getting the initial words onto the page. For example, if it feels like the chemistry between two characters changes too suddenly, then slow it down. Add a chapter, or event, where they address some of their friction, and put it to bed. Show change happening so the audience doesn't get whiplash. Maybe you skipped the protagonist's journey from the wilderness to the capitol, but you make reference to some cool stuff that happened on the road. Well, you can expand on that, and show the audience what happened. You can make room, and stretch out, if it makes the story better.
Rule #5: Look At The Big Picture
When you're initially writing a book, it's easy to miss the forest for the trees. Every day you're focusing on a new section of the wall, laying your mortar and bricks along the lines you previously set out. But once it's done, and you step back, you might notice your wall is crooked as shit. Or that, while it's functional, it would be better if you could have bent it in a different direction. Because it's not enough for a book to just be readable, and to make cognitive sense; you need to identify all the problems, and iron them out. Whether that means nixing the witch in chapter eight because she just feels like a token way to deliver exposition, or choosing to injure your lead in an earlier chapter so the fight scenes feel more tense later on, the point is always the same. You need to look at the book as a whole, and understand where little changes need to be made to alter the bird's-eye view.
That's all for my thoughts on this week's Craft of Writing post. If you'd like to stay on top of my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you'd like to help support me and my work, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to help keep the content flowing, and to get a free book as a thank you.