Writing process – the first edits

There are a few different notions floating around about how to edit a story. Rachel Aaron talks about an arc for each chapter, an arc for a book, and another arc over a series. I agree with her about having a structure, however, I like to be a bit more organic and varied about it so far. I have a rise and fall in each section. When I reach one of what feels like a natural stopping place, I go back and see if I can make the tension a little tighter, and the resolution a bit more satisfying, even if it is just a section.

However, Jim Butcher also gave some great advice in his blog. He talked about scene and setting. One of his examples was the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes back. His argument was that the whole movie was setting, culminating in the one scene “Luke, I am your father.” That was the payoff. Jim follows that structure in the Harry Dresden novels and the Alera ones too. It works for him, and I’ve learned a bunch from playing with the model of scene and setting or vice versa.

Another idea I’ve run across is one that I like a lot. I think it was Janeke who suggested making a pass through a story for each of the characters, to make sure they sound and act like themselves, with consistency. This is something I always do now. Wouldn’t do for one of the characters to be ‘out of character’ as it were. I’ve extended this to the places as well. Another thing that a beta reader suggested was to have a certain atmosphere associated with a character. Edward, a shape shifted dragon, is new to his human body and is just a bit clumsy in it. He is, however, a dangerous and ancient being who is larger than the human form he is currently inhabiting. Adding some grace notes like shadows to the room that give a hint of his gravitas are the equivalent of the music that accompanies Darth Vader (dum dum dum da da dum …) when he is on screen.

The same goes for the sounds, sights and other sensory information. It is those things that ground the experience we are writing about. If you are like me, those things come in to add depth to the world and the experiences. In the first draft the sketch goes down, telling the story and moving the plot along. In the second pass I want to know what color that robe is and how it is decorated. I want some light and shadow in the room and the fragrance in the air or at least a description of the food on the plate. Cooking is magic too, a person needs to eat, and magical beings are embodied in the world. I find that years after I read a book for the first time, it is the small embellishments that I remember. Captain Picard likes Earl Grey tea. Modesty Blaise preferred a one-piece swimsuit and a kongo as a weapon. Willie Garvin was all about the knives, but James Bond preferred a Berretta. I like to ask myself for at least one defining characteristic for each minor character, and more for the mainline characters, including turns of phrase and patterns in their speech.

I make an editing pass for each of the main characters, another for the sensory elements, and a pass for consistency. Then I ask “how could this be more interesting to the reader?” to tease out things I know but may have forgotten to say explicitly in the story. I am always learning more about the writing and trying to make each story better than the last.

I wonder what editing tips and tricks others have to share from their experiences?


I awaken from dreams that inhabit the worlds that exist inside books, especially my own books. More surprising, my partner also dreams in those worlds. He tells me that this is what makes a book real – when that book becomes ‘my world’ and the characters become ‘my friends’ it is a shared place. My created characters are not just mine any longer, as if they ever were. In the beginning, that may have been true. When I first created a character sketch, it was as if the character was a flat construct. Then they got some color and form and not long after that, there they are – standing up and walking around as if they were as real as a living person. As they grow and change, it seems the characters take on a life of their own. They start telling me what is going to happen next in their world and in their story.

It can be a bit unexpected the first time it happens; now that I am accustomed to characters talking in my dreams, it doesn’t startle me so much. It feels a bit like we authors collaborate and play with the shape and meaning of the places we create and the characters who inhabit them.

Our task is to tell stories that capture the moments and transitions that occur. However, it isn’t always clear what is going to happen in a given scene. You set up the circumstances, drop the characters in and watch or feel what happens. Soon enough, either the situation changes to suit the characters, or the fictional beings turn around and let you know what they would really say or do. Often what you thought was the point of the scene morphs and changes to bring out a different nuance. Sometimes it is even a major plot point, or a new person arrives in the scene as if they had been waiting in the wings, ready to walk on stage. I love that part of storytelling.

As an avid reader, I love books that draw me in. The stories that allow me to put myself into the world and feel like part of me lives there, that the characters are my friends, those are the stories I return to again and again. I hope to be able to build some of that into the stories I write. My characters are demanding their voices, and more stories and that’s a good place to begin.