Decisions, Decisions; or How Do You Know When You’re Doing It Right?

(This posting originally appeared on The Melt-Ink Pot)

I’m about 3/4 of the way finished with my second draft of the first volume of the “Daughters of August Winterbourne” series. And in the course of editing, I’ve had to make some pretty tough decisions.

One decision I made just today was to delete a small section that was told from the POV of Nicholas Fletcher, the main character’s love interest in the story. I really loved the section, and it ended with one of my favorite lines from the whole story:

As Sophie’s Lightning sailed on through the night, Nicholas Fletcher tried to convince himself that it was the cold wind that brought tears to his eyes. He almost succeeded. Almost.

It’s a great line, one that shows us a great deal about Nicholas’ character, including the fact that he is not good at lying, even to himself.

However…at that point in the story, being in Nicholas’ head would force me to reveal information that I was not yet prepared to reveal. It lessened the impact of a later reveal, one that is pivotal to the story. So in order for that bit to work, this bit had to go.

Editing is a difficult process, one that isn’t made any easier by the fact that there are no signposts, no maps to point me in the right direction. Unlike the Sudoku game I have loaded on my computer, the text does not light up red to let me know when I’ve made an incorrect choice. It’s all based on one of two things: My own instincts, and the advice of my critique group.

I’ll write more on the second in a week or two, but let’s talk about the first for a few minutes.

I found this quote today, and it really seemed to fit:

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words. “
–Mark Twain

How does one develop the instincts to know what changes to make, and which bits to leave alone? As with most skills, practice helps. I find that the more I edit, the easier it is to spot things that just don’t belong in the story. For me, this happens on two levels: Whole scenes/subplots that aren’t needed in order to tell the story, and lines or paragraphs within a scene. I may not get everything on the first pass–in fact, I’m guaranteed not to–but with each subsequent pass, I weed out a few more things.

For me, distance also helps. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I finish a story, I’m convinced that if it’s not the best thing ever written, then it’s at least the best thing I’ve ever written. Every word is perfect. Nothing about it should ever be changed.

This is why I believe in letting things “settle” a bit before even attempting an edit. When I finish a story, I’m just too close to it. Depending on the story, I’ve spent the last several weeks or months eating, sleeping, and breathing this story. I’ve done my best to bring it to life, with characters and plots and consequences, oh my!

But after I’ve let it settle, it’s easier to see that this bit of dialogue nearly duplicates that bit of dialogue over there, and that this scene is very cute and amusing, but does nothing to further the overall plot.

Sometimes, though, even after a story has had a chance to settle, it’s not always easy to tell if the decisions I’ve made are the right ones. At the moment, I’m angsting about whether my story even starts in the right place. I currently begin the story with my main character, Celia Winterbourne, landing her father’s airship on the eve of her departure for the Royal Academy of Science in Oxford. It’s a great introduction to Celia and her father, August Winterbourne, and their airship, Sophie’s Lightning. I’ve tweaked it such that it has at least some tension in it now. But is this really where the story begins? Or does it begin when she boards the train to Oxford the next morning? Or when she gets off the train a few hours later? Or is there some better place at which to begin the tale?

Sadly, I don’t have the magical answer to that question. If I did, I would share, I promise.

In the meantime, the only advice I have to offer is this: Bits are cheap. If you are trying to decide between three possible points at which you could start your story, why not make three copies of it and try all three possibilities, then choose the one that works the best?

How do other people approach editing decisions?


About sheilamcclune

Aspiring author, sharing the tidbits I've learned along the way.
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