Sunday, June 27, 2010

Writing Tip: Cake and Editing

For me, writing and baking a cake are a lot alike. I have to do things a certain way, in a certain order, to get my story or my cake to turn out the way I want. It took me far too long to figure out how much doing things in a certain order affected my writing. The cake? That was easy. And probably a bit tastier, too.

One of the many little details about writing that I've finally clued in to is how I need to edit. The order in which my story gets edited affects how it turns out. Hugely. I don't know if this is something that other people tend to have issue with, but if you are having some trouble editing, looking for something that might help you approach the process a different way, perhaps my methodology might spur an idea. So, I share.

I edit in the order of what I think matters in my story.

For me?
1. Character first
2. Plot
3. Setting
4. Pacing and mood/tone
5. Go back over #1-#4 again
6. Polishing the prose
7. And finally, grammar and spelling.

It's a pretty simple matter why this does it for me: this is how my mind works.

1. Character
I come up with characters first, I enjoy them, and if they don't feel real to me, the rest of the story doesn't go anywhere. So when I go to edit a chapter, I need to look over every aspect of the character. Is this how they'd really feel? Is this how they'd really act? Is this consistent with their history, their personality, their previous actions in the book? Is this the diction they'd use in their dialogue? Every aspect of them gets a once over, and typically gets changed if it's really off (and if I'm not brain dead at the time. Never a guarantee). If I work on it and can't get it to 'feel' right, then it's off to the next detail with a note to come back later, and sometimes a note to a friend who might be willing to read it and help me figure out what's wrong.

2. Plot
I'll admit it, this is a shorter edit moment for me, as I don't tend to plot much ahead of time until I'm partway through the story, or not at all until the end when I go back and look it all over. But there still needs to be moments of wondering if I have to make sure something is mentioned here so that it seems natural when it comes up later in the story. Is it heading the right way, or somewhere I don't know and have to find out later. For those who plot ahead of time, I'm sure the editing process is longer here, looking it all over to make sure details and plot are mentioned and dealt with in each chapter where they need to be.

3. Setting
This is, for me, putting in the details. I like action and inner thoughts, so I don't tend to put in as many details in the first draft, and here I need to go through and make sure people can see what's in my head. What's the room like, the people, the fight, the chair. This is the one that I have to struggle with the most, and the one I tend to feel like gets neglected more when I'm in a rush. For those who are more detail oriented, I think this step is more refining than adding the details in, making sure these details work for the tone and the mood and the perspective.

4. Pacing/mood/tone
Now that the details are added in, I've got to make sure I didn't just bog things down. I go back a few chapters of the story and start reading, so I can get into the rhythm before I hit the chapter I'm actually editing. That way, I have a better sense of how fast or slow it's going, and how fast or slow it needs to be. Is the mood/tone developing the way I think it is? Is it consistent with the previous chapter? The details, the action, everything here contributes, and it can be a real challenge to figure out what needs to be changed to pick things up or draw them out longer.

5. Going back for Round Two
Without this, it doesn't work. I've changed so much now that I need to go back and make sure the characters are still in character, that the plot is still going the right way, that there are enough details, and the pacing is working again after changing anything else that needed changing.

6. Polishing
Polishing is the icing on the cake. I get rid of clunky sentences, odd word choices, phrases that are a bit ambiguous or downright strange. I think a big mistake beginning writers can make is to try to do this too early (Been there, done that. Still do it occasionally. Neglect this shamefully if I'm in a hurry.).

Polishing up the writing before the very last is, in my opinion, like frosting the cake before it's baked. Yes, we've got the cake's recipe sorted out. The batter's been mixed and poured into the pan. But we all know there's still more to do. If we put all the swirls and piping and frosting bits on before it's done, we end up not wanting to bake the darn thing properly for fear of ruining the great job we did with the icing.

I'm sure you've all had those moments. Where you had such a great line or scene that even though it didn't actually fit into the story, you loved it too much to get rid of it. Not a good thing for our stories. We've got to be able to chop them to bits before we shine them up pretty. Although as something to help preserve my love of 'scenes that don't belong,' I personally make a file of them. I may have another story someday with a strong hero and needy villain where that scene would work perfectly. Or so I tell myself. It helps ease the pain. ;-)

7. Grammar and Spelling.
The main reason I never do grammar and spelling before the end is similar to why I don't think we should polish early. All the work makes us more reluctant to do what we need to during the rest of our edits. It's much easier to cut out three paragraphs when we haven't spent ten minutes getting the grammar and spelling just right. It's easier to chop up the story when it's not picture-perfect before time.

And let's face it, grammar is something that requires the least of you, and affects the story the least, and is something anyone can help you with. A story with bad characters or bad plotting is not one you're going to read, no matter how perfect the grammar is. And you are the only one who can figure out how to change those flaws. Grammar is something that has precise rules, and you can ask a wonderful beta to help you with it, which they can do even if you were in a coma for a month and had little to say about it, yes? It's the least amount of work during editing.

And that, my friends, is how Twisted edits...when things are going well and time is limitless. In reality, some of these steps get a little truncated and it shows.

But for anyone who is having a hard time diving into their editing this week, I really do think it can help to start the edits on what really speaks to you. If the historical period is what really gets you going, then start with the setting and description. If the plot stands out to you above the characters, start with that.

I will not mention grammar, because we all know that the grammar is not what attracted you to the story. Hopefully.

But if we do the editing right, I think we can have a tale that we are not ashamed to offer up and, well...let the readers eat cake. As long as it's the cake we just spent hours and hours slaving over and prettifying and filling with sex cream.

Which came out much, much dirtier than I meant it too.

Go me.


Erica said...

See, now this is where I know I'm an oddity be cause I absolutely love editing. Well,except for the grammar bit, which I'm terrible at. But that's why I have a writing group. I refuse to think of it as cheating.

Also, on an unrelated note, I would like to thank you for your commitment to happy endings. It upsets me when people up and die before telling their partners, who have already confessed their undying affection, that they are well and truly loved. At least I know someone out there is going to get it right.

SoniaRitsu said...

I have a hard time with the polishing. I often write my stories around a scene or line I can't bare to back space. XD It's normally a bit of comic relief or some such thing.

I also agree that it's nice to see happy endings. I try for those, and in most of my couples their feeling are unanimously understood, whether the pair is gay or straight. But I like bullying my characters, too. You have such a talent for the light fluffy feel that I wish I could pull off.