Full Metal Edit: How I learned to stop copyediting and love the critique

[Editor’s note:  Another great post from our editor, Lewis Pollak!]5871413651_5cb7d14c5a_o


Some years back, long before I started working as an editor, my wife became a writer. Though there was certainly a part of me that thought this was a flight of fancy at the time and that she wasn’t serious about it (spoiler: I was wrong), I was very much curious to see her work.

Her response was something akin to, “Hell no,” but possibly less polite than that. My wife knows me well, and she knew exactly what would happen.

You see, my background is in academics. I spent years doing research and working on advanced degrees. While I grew up reading a great deal of science fiction and fantasy, the writing I knew as an adult (stop snickering, I hear you) was the sort you’d find in scientific journals.

But I was persistent, and eventually, she relented. What happened next was precisely what she’d feared. I started marking things like sentence fragments and other grammar that didn’t meet some standard I had in my head. I was copyediting when what she wanted was a critique. This is not what she, her story, or our marriage needed at the time.

It took a while (and a few smacks with a two-by-four studded with rusty nails), but she eventually helped me learn to look past the grammar and see the story. Without having gone through that process, I never would have gotten into editing. Even after I started, I still had to fight that impulse when doing developmental edits, and the ones I did early on took far longer than they should have and certainly caused undue stress for the authors I worked with as a result.

Editing Stages

I wanted to take a few moments today to talk about the different stages of editing, hopefully helping you understand the editing process better and perhaps putting you on the path to giving better critiques to other authors. Bear in mind that these are generalizations, not absolutes, and that different people may refer to them by different names.

A developmental edit looks at big picture issues: things like GMC, characterization, conflict and adhesion between characters, plot structure, and overall pacing. In the wake of a developmental edit, entire story threads could be changed or removed. Character motivations or flaws might be rewritten. Entire scenes could be moved, removed, changed dramatically, or added. In a perfect world, all the heavy changes happen here. But it is often the case that changes beget other changes down the line. Also, at least for me, there comes a point where it becomes a challenge to clearly envision what the story will look like after those changes are made. Sometimes things that should be obvious can be missed until after the dust settles a bit. It may also be the case that an issue can’t be addressed until the author makes some changes. This is often the case with ending sequences, because I don’t know how an author might choose to resolve various things.

A line edit is all about the details and more focused on the language, drilling down into individual scenes. Is POV clearly established? Should POV be deeper? Do characters react to stimuli appropriately? Do scenes flow well one into the next? Do conversations drift back and forth between multiple topics or simply drag on too long? Is it clear who is speaking? Could the end of each scene or chapter be stronger so we keep the reader from putting the book down? Are there words/phrases that are repeated too frequently or are used in multiple POVs inappropriately? Is appropriate character movement present?

Keep in mind that if an issue that would normally be discussed in line edits is pervasive throughout the manuscript, an editor may bring it up during developmental edits and give the author a chance to address the issue, which can save a ton of time later on. For instance, if characters never have internal reactions to stimuli/events (and I see that frequently) that should be brought up in a developmental edit. If it is only a problem occasionally, it can wait, so the author can focus on bigger issues.

A copyedit focuses almost entirely on language: clarity, readability, grammar, spelling, etc. That doesn’t mean a good copyeditor (and they are worth their weight in gold) won’t identify some of the issues above, but their focus should be on the language and continuity, sentence by sentence. Copyeditors are like a safety net. They get paid to see the things others have read five times and never spotted. A good copyeditor understands and respects voice and will refrain from sacrificing voice on the altar of grammar provided clarity is not an issue.

Being a Better Critique Partner

In my eyes, a critique is very similar to a developmental edit, the primary difference being the nature of the relationship between the writer and the person providing the critique. The reason I wanted to go through this was so that you could keep it in mind the next time you are asked to give a critique. Try not to focus on the language. Nitpicking over things like word choice is premature if the entire scene needs to be cut or moved.

Instead, do your best to look at the big picture. Do you like the characters? Do they behave in ways that make sense? Is there enough conflict? Is the plot interesting and does it have some element (or combined elements in some way) that makes it original? Does the story bog down in places? Those are the things that your critique partner probably needs to know in order to make the story the best it can be, not whether they have sentence fragments or they used a semi-colon incorrectly.

Applying Feedback

Give careful consideration to the feedback you receive, even if you disagree. Have you not conveyed something clearly enough? Are there ideas in your head that haven’t made it onto the page? Pay special attention to anything you hear from multiple people.

One last thing to note: not all feedback is necessarily right for your story. Know what your vision of the story is. Understand what you want the story to be. Don’t be afraid to filter out feedback that doesn’t fit that vision. If the feedback identifies a problem but the proposed solution doesn’t work for you, consider alternate ways to attack the problem instead.

Then you will be happy, your critique partner will be happy, and there will be no need for rusty nails.

Every Scene is a Story

Without getting too terribly esoteric, I’ve been seeing a lot of holographic patterning in my Year of Cruise.

To display both my geek and hippy-dippy tendencies, I mean “holographic” as in “whole in every part.”  If you cut a hologram in two, each half will still hold the whole picture.   Cut those in half– same thing.  Which is frankly fascinating to me — I am a big fan of patterns and seeing micro/macro relationships — but probably not as fascinating to, say, all of you.

What I’ve noticed that is actually applicable, and hopefully of interest, is that your story essentially works the same way.  Sort of.

Each scene is representative of a story.

Ideally, each scene is set up like a story.  It has a goal.  That goal is motivated.  There is an obstacle to achieving the goal.  There’s a POV.  And finally, there’s an arc.

Let’s take a popular example.  I’ll use the opening scene of Turn Coat, by NYT bestseller Jim Butcher.  It opens with a bang:  our narrator and hero Harry Dresden opens his apartment door to see Morgan, a frenemy who has often wanted him dead, bleeding and half-unconscious on his stoop.  “The Wardens are coming.  Hide me, please,” he asks, before promptly passing out.  (Hell of a hook, incidentally.)

Considering their history, Harry could just as easily shut the door, leaving the guy to his fate.  But Harry’s a hero, and he’s terminally curious and generally has a worse relationship with the wizard communities police force (the Wardens) than most, so he takes the guy in and calls a friend, a medical examiner, to help patch Morgan up.  They patch up Morgan as best they can, but it doesn’t look good — and now it looks like whatever trouble Morgan is in will no doubt rope Harry in, as well.  Like, this-could-get-him-killed trouble.

This is the Inciting Incident — the day something changes. It sets the story goal:  will Harry find out what’s going on and keep himself, and Morgan, out of trouble?

Right from the jump.  Frickin’ brilliant.

What about the “filler” scenes?

That’s the thing.  There are no filler scenes.

There is a little “scenelet” right after a crucial character — Anastasia Luccio, Dresden’s girlfriend and Morgan’s boss — discovered that Dresden is harboring the “fugitive” Morgan.  She’s angry, because Dresden lied.  Morgan is shattered, because he had been in love with Luccio for centuries and didn’t realize she’d hooked up with Dresden.  The prior scene ends painfully.  The next mini-scene is a sequel, a reaction scene, where Luccio talks to Dresden.  She explains what had happened between Morgan and herself.  She then asks what Harry’s planning on doing.  Harry believes Morgan is innocent: despite the fact that he may die, his character will not allow him to back down and leave a true traitor on the loose while a good man dies.  Despite many misgivings, she tentatively agrees to help.  By helping she, too, may condemn herself to death.

In a nutshell, it’s a choice between doing what’s safe, perhaps even smart… and doing what’s right.  Which, in a nutshell, is the crux of the book.

The little not-quite-a-scene, and its expository dialogue, is really the wrap up of the previous scene.  It acts as both a breathing space (things have been pretty damned exciting up to this point) as well as a quieter echo over the overall theme.  Best of all, even though it seems completely perfect, natural and in-place, if somewhat tangential… it sets up something later, showing something crucial.

Make the causal seem casual.

Again:  the scene is a microcosm of the whole novel.  It shows theme.  It sets up something key.  That’s a lot of heavy-lifting for something that’s just a few pages long.  And there’s no feeling of “uh-oh, signpost ahead:  this information is going to be important.”  It’s just a nice little scene that plays out into something bigger down the line, something that makes a turning point twist.

Every scene should do more than one thing, but it should absolutely support the story.  It should hold the dynamic, the essential question, of the story at the forefront at all times… either from the external, or internal, GMC.

How to actually use this esoteric information.

Well, if you’re using Rock Your Plot or you’ve taken one of my classes, you know that I put a lot of emphasis on scenes, as well as the interplay between scene and overall story structure.

When you know where the story needs to go, you can lay out scenes.

When you know what the scene needs to do, you can load it and layer it with elements of the story as a whole.

This is the purpose of revisions.  That’s the tweak, the dialing-in.  The glorious, torturous, necessary element, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser.  This is where the gold is.

Story Structure vs. Reader Experience.

When I revise my work, or when I’m editing someone else’s work, there are two main elements I consider.

The first is story structure:  what the story is.

The second is reader experience.  This is how the story is told.

Structure first.

When I revise, the first thing I do is a quick read through.  I look at what’s working, and what isn’t, just in general notes.

From there, I look at how the story is constructed.  I double-check my plot outline.  If I’m working with someone who is revising, a student or coaching client, then I’ll have them create a chart of every scene.

I’ll double check that the characters all want something.  That what they want is big; that the reason for what they want is understandable and urgent.  That the obstacles in the way of the want are equal to, or even larger than, the scope of what they want.

I’ll then ensure that each scene is essentially a mini version of the larger story, until I get to the resolution scenes.

When I’m satisfied that the story itself is sound — that the characters are both consistent and well developed, that the plot line demonstrates that arc in a satisfactory way with an escalating conflict — then I’m able to move forward to reader experience.

“What am I trying to accomplish with this scene?”

Scenes are the basic building blocks of any story, and reader experience is built scene by scene.

When you’re working with structure, you’re looking at the macrocosm.  When you’re working with reader experience, you’re going microcosm.  It’s holographic:  each small piece reflects the whole.

Confident that you know where your story is going and how it works, you’re going to look at each scene and ask:  how can this scene support the story?

What does the genre expect?  Do you play to expectations, or experiment?  And why do you want to?  How will that make the story better for the reader?

Why are you choosing this POV character instead of another one?  Does his external voice (dialogue) match his internal voice (exposition?)

Why have you chosen this point of view?  Do you want the closeness and immediacy of first person?  Or the almost clinical distance of third — not deep third, but more “narrative” third — or even omniscient?

How can you get the scene to accomplish more than one thing?  How can you layer the scene, multi-tasking both character development, conflict escalation, and maybe some subtext and theme?

Is the scene anchored?  Can the setting help accomplish, say, setting emotion or theme?

Is the scene visually boring?  Can you add something — Elizabeth Berg calls it a Talking Head Avoidance Device — that is interesting in and of itself while still imparting crucial information?  Instead of sitting at a coffee house talking about what’s happening, can they be at a dance-a-thon?  Or working out at the gym?  Or at target practice?  How can you shift this around?


You’ll also look at how the scenes work together:  from micro back to macro.

Do you have too many scenes in one character’s POV, so that another POV character essentially disappears?  (See Happy Days, where Richie’s older brother goes upstairs for skis… and never comes back down.)   Is everyone getting enough screen time?   If you have one scene with a non-major character’s POV, why?  And do you think the reader will appreciate it for what it is, or be frustrated at getting close to a character that essentially disappears without an arc?

Do you have too many action scenes back to back, so the reader is essentially “falling asleep at the edge of his seat?”

Do you have repetitive conflict?  Or repetitive anything, for that matter?

Does each scene carry you into the next one?  Or is there a “stopping” point that’s essentially a fat speed bump in your novel?

Sequence matters.

One of my best friends has to polish each scene before she can move forward in writing a story.  I’ll be honest — this baffles the hell out of me.  In my mind, getting the story laid out is like framing a house.  If I polished before I got the mechanics worked out, it’d be like getting one room framed, putting in all the stuff, wallpapering and carpeting and painting… and then ripping a lot of it out, because I realize I’d gotten the electrical wrong.

Of course, people vary. If it’s your process, you need to honor what works for you.

But if you’ve been flailing a little in the revision process, and you’re not sure how to proceed, I’d recommend trying it this way:

Zoom out:  structure.

Zoom in:  scene work.

Toggle:  Scene sequence.

Every element supports the other.  And when you’re finished, like an impressionist painting, it will create a cohesive whole.




Rock Your Revisions: How to Show Without Telling

Note:  big thanks to relatively new subscriber Annie for this topic!  🙂

One of the things I often catch when I’m editing a manuscript is the dreaded “show, don’t tell.”  The story’s going along swimmingly, then suddenly you hit a sand trap of several lengthy paragraphs of exposition. Sometimes, I can’t even remember what’s happening in the scene, and need to flip back to pick up what the originating action was.

The writer is telling me what’s happening, who it’s happening to, and basically what I need to know… and, if we’re being honest, the writer is trying her damnedest to tell me how to feel about what I’m reading.

But, being the recalcitrant reader that I am, I don’t want someone telling me how to feel.  I want to make the decision for myself.

Getting your (control) freak on.

It’s an easy trap for writers to fall into.  We want so badly to set the scene and control the reader’s experience that we start dictating rather than letting a scene unfold organically.

We want to explain without a shadow of a doubt the magnitude of what our protagonist is wrestling with — so we crawl into his head, and start narrating what his thought process is.

We want to show that while the heroine’s actions up to this point have been unsympathetic, she’s got a ton of baggage — which we’ll then devote a page and a half to explaining.

We don’t want there to be any misunderstandings… and consequently, we suck the life right out of our manuscripts, and replace it with a symbolic stone carving instead of a living person.

Trust your reader.

Let’s say we’re sitting at a cafe.  A guy walks up.  “Oh, this guy is a total asshole,” I mutter to you.

He walks over.  “Oh, hi, Cathy!  Did you get that book I left for you on your desk?”

“Yes,” I reply, with a tight smile.  “It was very thoughtful of you.”

“I just wanted to thank you for helping me with that project.”  He smiles gently. “And this must be the friend I’ve heard so much about.  It’s great to meet you.”  He shakes your hand.

Then he walks away, and I say, “See?  What did I tell you?  Total asshole!”   

Basically, you’re going to assume that either I am crazy, or that there’s some history between the guy and myself that causes me to froth at the mouth. Even if I explain at length why I feel the way I do, you’re still going to have a niggling doubt because of what you personally experienced.

Now, let’s say this happened instead:

“Get out of my way!”  The guy snaps at a woman who is trying to maneuver two arms full of groceries while riding herd on a toddler.  “And could you keep that damned kid quiet?”  He brushes past her, ignoring the fact that he’s set her off balance.  Her groceries tumble, and the kid starts crying.  He just keeps walking to me.

“Hey, you owe me money.”  He’s glaring.

“What?” I answer. “Why?”

“Because I bought your stupid book, that’s why.  I want a refund.”

I look at you.  Do I even need to tell you my opinion of this guy?  No.  Why?  Because odds are good you already made the connection.

I’m not saying that you need to draw your characters quite so broadly to get the point across.  What I am saying:  trust your reader to draw the right conclusions.

An exercise.

If you’ve gotten an edit that says “telling, not showing” on your work, I’d like you to try the following exercise.

Take the scene, and write it as if you’re writing a play.

You can describe your character.  You can describe the setting.  You can write the dialogue and give stage directions.

But you cannot write one word about how the character is feeling, what his/her backstory is, or what he/she is thinking about.

In most cases, I’d take out any description of how the character delivers the lines.  Think about it like a play — if you’ve written your dialogue clearly enough, if the scene is clear enough, then how the lines should be delivered ought to be evident.  (This also helps eliminate a lot of those pesky adverbs people keep carping about!)

I’m not saying that all fiction should be written in a play-writing style: there’s a richness to prose and an art to novel-writing that is necessarily different.  However, if you find yourself falling into the “telling, not showing” trap, this is one quick cure.

Experiment with alternatives.

That scene, where you have the heroine ruminating about her poor upbringing?  Figure out a way to show the audience that instead.  Would you have her impoverished crackhead mother calling her, screaming for money?  Or simply showing her apologizing profusely to a bill collector, who is awkwardly embarrassed because “it’s not that big a deal”? Maybe show her squirreling money behind light switches in her house?

If you’ve got a handsome rogue who’s actually a nice guy, how would you show that?  The stereotype would be to show him being nice to a dog or a child.  How else can you do it?

Donald Maass, in his wonderful Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, discusses writing down ten possibilities for how a scene could be handled to get a point across — the first five or so are usually cliches, but as your creativity stretches for the next five scenarios, that’s where you find the juice.

Play with different, non-cliche ways to get across what you’re saying in exposition.  Then try the “play” technique, and write the scene in action and dialogue.

Like magic, you’ll see just how quickly your mind gets trained to show, not tell.

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