Episode 4: Overhaul Editing, Part 1

Watch for a rundown of the Keep/Kill/Change game!

Hey everyone! It’s been awhile, I hope everyone accomplished their November goals! I didn’t get around to NaNoWriMo, but that doesn’t mean I’m without a lot of work to edit this month.

The video accompanying this post is me rambling a little bit (okay, for like 11 minutes) about an editing process I call Overhaul Editing. This post is just going to go a little more in-depth, maybe give you direction if you’re still feeling lost. Because let’s face it–editing without a plan is scary.

NOTE: Sometimes you just can’t do this process alone. Self-editing is no joke. It’s good to learn what methods work for you and get good at doing it yourself, but I still fully support the notion of investing in a paid beta-reader / alpha-reader / editor if you have those resources. A second set of eyes can be invaluable!

So where do we start? Why do we start? I started because I wanted to get some more progress on book 2 of Nightwalker, since book 1 is with my trusty editor right now (Amanda is amazing.) I had about 70k words to work off of, and decided to read over it to get back into the “soul” of it all and jump in again.

Guess what? I HATED IT.

I knew it was time for an overhaul edit. What you’re trying to accomplish with this kind of edit is getting a clear view of “The Big Picture.” Most of the time we can’t fix the problem with The Big Picture by touching up sentences and doing line edits. Nope, that’s for when The Big Picture is solid and focused. In order to get there, we have to dig in, rip out, and build a new foundation.

Time to play KEEP OR KILL! Or, specifically, take your WIP and mark it up with “Keep”, “Kill”, or “Change”. I divided up all the scenes I had across chapters 22 through 30, smooshed them into a document formatted with “0.25 margins, columns, and 8pt Arial Narrow font, printed double sided. I bought some gel highlighters and made a color key at the top and dove in.

So how do you play Keep, Kill, Change? You get the concept of circling/highlighting which scenes (or parts of) that you’ll keep, but how do you decide? It’s easy to tell if it’s a problem, but how do you decide to kill it or change it? What’s the fix? Step 1 is to approach every scene with one basic question:

What is the point of this scene?

If you can’t tell, it’s probably gotta go. Or, if you like it and don’t want to scrap it, give it a point. Make something happen that drives the plot, the characters, etc. Sometimes we come up with these neat scene ideas that have fun/cute/intense/whatever interactions between characters and we have to include them! They’re awesome! But do they have a point beyond being a little entertaining? If not, they’re probably going to slow your story down and could be the reason why the scenes before and after don’t connect very well (if that is indeed the situation for you.)

The other issue you might come across while playing this game is, “The scene has a point, but it still sucks–why?” Grab some paper, it’s time to take notes!

You may have a weak, watery scene on your hands. Maybe you gotta kill it, maybe you don’t, but pour over it and try to identify why it’s lacking. Here are some potential problems you might be dealing with:

  • CHARACTERIZATION: Your scene might have taken your character(s) in an unplanned direction. Sometimes that’s good! But sometimes it isn’t. Most of us unintentionally project onto at least one character (sorry Aleth) and that can really derail things for a character’s development and the tone/mood they are meant to set in a scene. The best fix for a problem like this is usually to just scrap the scene and start over if it’s a scene you really need at all.
  • MOOD/TONE SHIFT: Since we’re already on the subject of mood/tone shifts caused by projecting yourself onto a character, let’s talk about it in other situations. Sometimes it happens for other reasons. Maybe you’re reading over your scene after leaving it alone for a few months and you’re realizing it’s not as dark as you wanted, and it’s fudging up the scenes that follow. It might be good to scrap and start over, but in some cases it could just be your word choices. Connotation is a powerful thing! Try replacing certain words with synonyms that have the mood you want, and only describe what suits that mood. If you want dark and intimidating, don’t describe the sunlight, describe the biting chill in the air despite a hauntingly clear sky.
  • WEAK MOTIVATION: Alright guys, this one bugs the snot out of me. Look at that “What is the point of this scene” line again. Does the scene have a point? Good. Paraphrase and get literal: WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? Let’s say your scene is Cat is in Dog’s town, finds him, and punches him in the face. Why is Cat in Dog’s town if Cat lives 40 minutes away? Why is Dog where he is when Cat finds him/how does Cat find him? Why does Cat feel strongly enough to punch him in the face? Weak motivation causes plot holes. Ask why in every circumstance that you can. When you have an answer for every ‘why,’ you have a more airtight plot and a more meaningful scene. 
  • CHANGE IN STORYLINE: We all get in the zone at times and our characters and plot run away and do as they please. Sometimes this creates excellent twists, and sometimes this derails everything. Don’t let your story write itself into a corner. Don’t give yourself the excuse “Oh I’m stuck because my characters went and did this!” Have discipline. If that’s how you write, cool, but if it has gotten you in a bind, scrap it and do it differently. Just keep your drafts, because someday that scrapped scene could be used for something else, but don’t let fictional people bully you into writing the story a certain way. Remember: It’s your story, you run the show. They are ultimately at your whims. If you don’t like what they do, tell them to take it from the top!
  • LOW STAKES: This is another thing that’s super bothersome. Where’s the PERIL? So often it seems like authors are afraid to make their characters confront danger, change, consequences, conflict, etc. I’m not talking minor stuff either. These books are loaded with little things that characters overreact to in place of larger-scale conflict that those reactions would be appropriate for. What happens when the main character overreacts in these scenes? If she blows up at something that in real life isn’t really a big deal and slaps the prince, an eyeroll is not really “high stakes.” Getting thrown in jail or the dungeon is a good start, though. RAISE THE STAKES. I don’t care what your genre is, the stakes can always be higher! Is your main character going to lose their job/get dumped/lose their home/be killed? Make the reader worry! Come on! Amp it up!
  • NOT ENOUGH ANYTHING: Maybe your scene just lacks. Period. Not enough emotion, drive, drama, movement, interest, humor, whatever. It happens. Kill it. There’s nothing you can really do with these scenes except start over from a new angle.
Get to work, take notes, get your thoughts in order. Make a game plan!

There you have it. Step 1 of Overhaul Editing – Keep, Kill, Change. Identify problems as you go and decide if they’re worth fixing, or if you should scrap it. That’s all this step is for. Don’t worry about the rewrite just yet–get your thoughts in order first! Step 2 of Overhaul Editing is on the way. Building a New Pyramid!

Time to get to work! AJ OUT ❤

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