The Reject File
Most of my tips are just my personal opinions and you really don’t have to follow them if you don’t want to, but you could do a lot worse than follow this one.
Keep a “reject file”.
When you delete a passage from your manuscript, DO NOT just delete but cut and paste it on a file dedicated to preserving deleted passages.
You will be forced to delete some awesome passages in your editing process and it will be painful. But some of that sting will be alleviated if you kept that deleted passage in a separate file. Also, you never know when that passage might come in handy. Maybe it will make it back into your book after you have made some changes. Or, it could be used in your next book.
I have a box full of papers which are hand written manuscripts in Japanese from over thirty years ago. I keep them for the off chance that I might start writing fiction in Japanese again some day.
Keep a file of your deleted passages. And don’t forget to back it up.
When you turn a rough first draft into a rough second draft, your job is to cut the fat and make the story lean and mean. But sometimes, in the final product, it’s the meaningless banter and the little detours that add flavor to the story. Those are the things you should put back in to your manuscript in the final stages. But how do you know what part is the fat that needs to be cut out and what parts adds the flavor?
First off, I am differentiating the first-to-second draft process and the second-to-third draft process because it is easier to explain when I draw a clear line. But in the real world, writers tend to do the structural editing and the polishing at the same time, or at mixed times. It is rarely very clear cut what part of your editing is done in the second draft and what part is done in the third draft. That said, I do believe that the purpose of the second draft and the third draft are different. And even when you mix the second draft process with the third draft process, doing the polishing before you are done with the structural editing, there is still a difference between the two. You are only doing some of the third draft process in the second draft.
With that caveat out of the way, how do you insert the “unnecessary” elements without ruining the work?
Kurt Vonnegut says that “every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” But I can remember some memorable passages in Vonnegut’s work that did neither. Still, those lapses in the action are quite memorable. The reason is that they are emotional. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, when the action stops and there is no exposition of character, there is always a sketch of emotion. The scenes are like flash fiction inserted into the novel. They are brief episodes that tug at your heartstrings for no apparent purpose.
As I have said before, there are universal rules that can apply to what you should do in your early draft efforts. But what you do in the final polishing depends largely on your own character and individuality. So, what I suggest here is only a rule of thumb. When you put back in the passages that have no role in revealing character or advancing action, the decision of whether they should be inserted or not depends on whether or not they convey emotion.
When To Stop Editing
I spent more than ten years on my first novel. Some people just keep on polishing their novel until they don’t know what to do with it anymore.
When do writers stop editing their novels? The short answer is: Never. John Irving for one is on record saying that he continues to edit his novels after they are published. His changes are not reflected in the newer editions, but he knows they are there. On one level, once the book is published, it belongs to the reader. But on another level, a writer never quits being a writer, as evidenced by the behavior of cannot-be-weaned-off-my-books J. K. Rowling.
You cannot get writers to stop tinkering with their creations and be done with it. That is where professional editors come in. Put a cap on how many drafts you want to go through before sending your manuscript to a professional editor. The rule of thumb is, a minimum of two, a maximum of five. I don’t suggest you go for the minimum.
The benefits of putting a maximum on your number of drafts is two fold. One is that you will stop polishing forever. The other is that it will force you to reach a certain goal in a limited number of tries.
You have to have a manuscript presentable to a given number of beta readers when you have finished your third draft. If they give you constructive feedback, you can re-write it into your forth draft. You have one more chance to show it to amateur readers and revise if you want to create a fifth draft. After that, you show it to a professional developmental editor, not a proof reader. This is the last time you revise before publication.
If you show your book to a professional editor too early, he will ask for more than one revision, and he will charge you each time until you are dead broke. So edit well before sending it to a professional editor.
The Seven Basic Plots
They say there are a limited number of basic plots in fiction. Joseph Campbell proposed the idea of the monomyth. Foster-Harris said there are three. Booker concluded that there are seven basic plots. Tobias wrote that there are twenty. Polti said there are thirty six. Try initiating a debate in a writer’s forum about how many basic plots there really are and watch an interesting train wreck develop. Bring popcorn.
There seems to be considerable pedantic interest in how many plots there really are. A math professor named Matthew Jockers used Fourier transformations to analyze over 40,000 books and came up with a result that said there are six basic plots to all fiction. Seriously? Fourier transformations?
But answering the question of how many there really are does not help the fiction writer. A writer needs just one detailed point-by-point plot map. You can use the same plot map for every book you ever write. This is why Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet is based on Campbell’s monomyth. One practical plot map is all you need. No writer ever needs more than four.
Some writers say that they mix a lot of plots; a little “quest” here, a little “rags to riches” there, some “comedy” and some “tragedy”. But those are plot elements, not plot structures.
A plot structure is a map. It guides the writer from the beginning to the end of the book. Since it is only a framework, you can throw in as many plot elements as you like. Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet has 15 “beats”. If you reverse engineer the novels of James Patterson, an admitted plotter, you will find about 22 plot points per book. If you look carefully, you will find the same plot points come up again and again. The bad guy is nearly captured but gets away, the good guys suffer heavy setbacks, children are endangered, the cavalry charges in. All those plot points appear in the same area in every book.
If you have one good plot map, you could check your story to see if you have missed any crucial elements even if you did not initially plot your story. If you think this will create a cookie cutter book, remember that a cookie cutter book is better than an unreadable book.