Thursday, June 16, 2011

Editing - Everything Happens for a Reason

When people ask me about writing, I tell them that you need only a few things: a great story idea, stubbornness, and editing skills. The first one is self-explanatory. The stubbornness... well, let's just say that the Muses are often fickle, so finishing a project is often a huge challenge. And when it comes to publishing your book, the process of finding a publisher is even more of a hurdle. While we're on that subject, I better add thick skin to my so-you-wanna-be-a-writer list! 

The last requirement, editing skills, is often underestimated in its importance. You need to edit your book into the best thing you can create before you try to find a publisher. Once you find a publisher, an editor points you in the right direction to help you polish it further. (She also manages your ego and tries to keep you from feeling overwhelmed!) But the entire editing process is where a book can go from a good story to something you can really be proud of.

Working with an editor for the first time, I learned so much, and I tried to keep a list of dos and don'ts to help me out with my next book. Here's one of the most helpful things I learned: Everything happens for a reason. No, I'm not talking about a life philosophy (although I do actually believe this). I'm talking about how this applies to a work of fiction.

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and found a scene that seems to have no point? It might be entertaining, but what does it have to do with the storyline as a whole? Every scene has to have a purpose. It must either propel the storyline or reveal something about your characters. 

Here's an example of something I cut from Magick Charm:

            Of course no sane woman would want the attention of the drunken frat boys dangling beads from the iron balconies above the street, but it still stung when they leered, ogled, and shouted at my sister. “Hey new age girl,” they called. Nope, definitely not me. I told myself I didn’t care.
            “Hey boys.” She gave them a flirty finger wave.
            “Show us something!” They offered handfuls of dime-store plastic beads as payment for the peep show.
            I usually avoided the French Quarter for this reason. Perpetual spring break reigned here. I had never partied on spring break when I was a student, and I wasn’t about to start chugging beers or hooking up with strangers now that I had left the university. Let’s put it this way: I was more likely to stick pins in a voodoo doll than to flash strangers for Mardi Gras beads. And the voodoo thing was only going to happen when hell froze over.
            Rachel, however, did not appreciate the appeal of adulthood. She yanked her top down enough to expose her artificially augmented breasts, then reached greedy hands up to catch the plastic bounty the Phi Delts flung to her. Laughing, she adorned her neck with about a dozen sets of multi-colored beads.
            I rolled my eyes, lamenting the fact she and I were identical. Well, identical besides what five thousand dollars worth of plastic surgery could do for a girl.
            “We have a lot of packing to do before Ted gets home,” I reminded her. I couldn’t wait to put some distance between the two of us and the Greeks.
            “I know, I know.” She pouted and shuffled after me.

I was hesitant to remove this scene. It made me laugh and I’m big on comic relief! But what does this scene do for my storyline? Not a thing. It reveals a few things about my characters, but nothing that isn’t shown somewhere else in the book.

This scene illustrates a typical beads-for-boobs transaction that happens every night in the French Quarter. You could argue that it depicts something about the city and adds local color and a sense of setting. Ultimately, I painted the setting in other ways, and this little snippet was somewhat redundant.

As an aside, on my recent trip to New Orleans, I did, of course, see this kind of scene played out several times. I was a little surprised, though, by a few women I saw on Bourbon Street who did away with shirts altogether and wore only body paint! Those are some very self-confident, bold women!

I digress… In a novel, a little digression here or there is okay too. But with every scene, take a critical look at it and decide if it truly helps the story. Is there a reason for the scene? If not, keep your finger on the delete button!


  1. Great point - although sometimes it is SO HARD to cut some of those little "comic relief scenes" in the end... :-)

  2. Hi Jen!

    Excellent suggests to keep in mind, I'll be using them a little more frequently I think, lol!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Dottie :)

    (since I already follow, followed on Network Blogs instead!)

  3. Hi Dottie and thanks so much! I just discovered NetworkedBlogs this week - what a great tool!

  4. Lyre, I totally agree! I couldn't just press the delete button though, so I started a document of just deleted stuff. Somehow, saving it in a separate file makes it easier to cut it.

  5. Saving deletions: I do that, too. Enjoyed the article!

  6. Thanks, Wynne!
    I have occasionally used a line or two out of the deleted file, but mostly for me it's a way to trick myself into making the cuts easier. I'm not REALLY deleting it, just saving it for something else. Riiiight.