Four and a half things a good self-editor needs to do

So, one day, after lots of ideas have been passed around and plans drawn up and several chapters written and hacked about, the collaborative writers wake up to the realisation that they’ve written a novel. Or at least something that looks like a novel. But just as a pile of organs and limbs does not a living human make, so these written pieces do not constitute a novel Like the pile of body bits, the mass of writing has all the necessary bits and bobs – characters, scenes, a beginning, a middle and an end – but it’s not really finished. It’s certainly not ready to be unleashed upon a reading audience. The collaborators still have ahead of them the meaty task of editing the whole thing into shape.

And, to carry a metaphor further, just as Victor Frankenstein built a human out of those component parts, so the collaborators need to sew their novel together. However, unlike Frankenstein, our collaborators need to hide their stitches and prevent the public from guessing where each bit came from. It is in this final edit that the collaborators need to hide the differences in their style and conceal the incongruous ideas they might have brought to the piece. But what is that the editors need to do?

1. Fix plot holes

The first sign of a patchwork novel is the lack of continuity of plot. Solo writers have enough trouble controlling the internal logic of their fiction. The Harry Potter books feature lines of dialogue spoken by people who aren’t actually present in the scene. Even in the Iliad, Homer has a character die at one point in the story only to reappear perfectly alive later. My favourite by far comes from Robinson Crusoe in which our eponymous hero swims out to a ship naked where he then proceeds to stuff his pockets with biscuits.
And this curse of poor continuity can just as easily strike collaborative writers. I remember, as a teenager, watching the collaboratively-written sitcom Red Dwarf and being a bit put out to see Lister having his appendix removed for the second time. I’m not sure if that’s a continuity error or if Rob Grant and Doug Naylor simply didn’t care. After all, you should never let logic get in the way of a good joke.
In the final edit, the editor must fix those continuity errors that need fixing. JK Rowling (or her editors) deleted those ephemeral speakers from her scenes in later editions. And Robinson Crusoe either needs to put on some trousers or stick his biscuits somewhere else.

2. Maintain consistency of characters

Maintaining continuity is not limited to logical continuity of events. Your collaborative novel should also have continuity of character. All the major characters, whilst they should be given room to grow and allowed to occasionally indulge in out of character behaviour, should normally behave within certain parameters. Your prudish library shouldn’t become flirtatious and promiscuous in chapter 5. Your pacifist monk shouldn’t be opening an unnecessary can of whup-ass in chapter 4. Such behaviour will grate with the reader and break any spell your novel holds over them.
Be especially wary of writing sentences that begin with “She would never usually do X” as a preface to the character doing X. It’s not inherently wrong but if your character ends up doing X on more than one occasion then it has made a lie of the original sentence. The same goes for any other sweeping generalisations which proclaim that a character always/never behaves in a certain way. They are, at best, straitjackets and, at worst, can make you look like the most unreliable of narrators.
The editor needs to restore the reliability of the narrator. The prudish librarian needs to do something else in chapter 5 or get a complete rewrite to make chapter 5 work. Rewriting a whole character is one heck of a chore but the editor/writer must either bite the bullet or indulge in some clever trickery like lampshading.
Lampshading (for those that don’t know) is where a line of dialogue or a snippet of prose covers up the fact that there is a big hole in the story by drawing attention to it. If the prudish librarian, after the bout of flirtatious promiscuity, remarks to a friend, “I’ve no idea what came over me. That was completely out of character,” then the writer has lampshaded the inconsistency of characterisation by letting the reader know that it they also were aware of its implausibility and drawing the reader into their confidence.

3. Keep the world turning

Continuity of character is not limited to the characters themselves. Your world has a character of its own. Certain events tend to happen in the type of world you’ve made and certain events are unlikely or impossible. Harry Potter may be a teenager but isn’t going to locked in a battle with his own acne, smoke cigarettes behind Hagrid’s hut or steal cans of lager from the Dursley’s fridge. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci mystery solver Robert Langdon may be an academic but he doesn’t have term papers to mark, tricky grant forms to fill in or mortgage payments to worry about. Their worlds aren’t like that. Failure to understand the world of your novel can be as jarring and destructive as any logical slip up.

4. Make the plot arc work

Of course, characters and the world they inhabit do not remained fix, at least not in good fiction. Characters grow, learn and change and impact on the world around them. Relationships germinate, blossom and die. Across the length of your novel, there is movement and change. This is part of the arc of your whole story. Your novel needs to have an arc. It has to go somewhere. Readers like to feel they are being taken on a journey with a specific destination. Your novel should be such a journey, not a random tour, taking lefts and rights on a whim and ending up nowhere in particular.
If your novel is a journey from A to Z then the reader would appreciate it if you would take them through B, C, D, etc on the way. A novel that leaps from Q to Z without any of the intervening sections has probably used an irritating deus ex machina or similar device. A novel that takes a wild detour through p, q and W is likely to confuse and alienate the reader. Your novel must make sense as a novel and, unless you have good reason (and there are plenty of good reasons) stick to the conventions of the form. This does not mean that your novel should be dull and predictable. You can still have an almost infinite variation in plot whilst retaining an arc that makes sense.
Your collaborative novel’s arc consists of numerous plot points or story beats or whatever you want to call them. These are the things that happen that are essential to the story. The arc of your novel is a line drawn through these points, turning the dots of individual incidents into a line of story.
Human beings are very good at spotting patterns. It’s one of those things at which our brains really excel. Show a person a dozen random pictures and they will try to compose a narrative or theory that connects them. That’s why we think we’ve have convoluted story-style dreams when our brains flash up random thoughts and images in our sleep. In order to make your arc work, you do not need to draw the line for the reader, merely ensure that the plot points we’re leaping between are properly spaced and positioned so that the pattern-finding reader leaps intuitively from one to the next in the way you want. A good editor does this by the addition of extra details or the removal of superfluous details, which are, in essence, the two forms of Chekhov’s Gun.
There are two forms of Chekhov’s Gun. There’s the one that Chehkov himself wrote about and there’s the one many people mistakenly thought he was writing about. Both are very useful.

4a. Add foreshadowing (and payoffs)

Firstly, the Chekhov’s Gun which really isn’t Chekhov’s Gun. This is the idea that if, for example, someone is going to be killed in the later stages of the story then the gun or other means of killing them must be notably present in the early parts of the story. It doesn’t have to be a gun or a killing. If a character is going to find a secret in someone’s diary then the diary must be present throughout the story. This form of Chehkov’s Gun is otherwise known as foreshadowing and payoff. If there is a significant or surprising event in the story, it must be foreshadowed earlier on. When the event that was foreshadowed occurs, that’s the payoff.
When my daughter and I went to see The Dark Knight Rises at the cinema, we had a competition to see who could predict how the film would end based on foreshadowing in the first part of the film. Together we spotted:

  • Bruce Wayne running his fingers over the scar on Miranda Tate’s back
  • The images of the child climbing out of the pit prison
  • The fact that the “Bat” copter’s autopilot wasn’t working
  • Alfred talking about a café he visits each year in France

We saw each of those elements paid off in the way we expected at the end of the movie. And – and this is important – knowing these things did not ruin the story for us; they intensified the feeling of story. We were able to grasp the story as the mythic tale it was and came away very satisfied (and a bit smug). There were probably a dozen other examples of foreshadowing-payoff in that film which we did not consciously notice but which enhanced our enjoyment.

4b. Get rid of the gun (and any other red herrings)

In truth though, Chehkov was not writing about foreshadowing when he first mentioned his ‘gun’. He actually said, in a letter to a friend, ‘One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it’. He was warning against intentional and unintentional red herrings. The true Chehkov’s Gun is a sort of Occam’s Razor of writing which effectively states, if you don’t need it, take it out. Remember, you do not need to be like a Victorian writer of serialised novels, you do not need to throw as many narrative balls into the air as possible and catch what you can. In editing your novel, you can make your novel clean and sparse by stripping out pointless sub-plots, narrative dead ends and anything which doesn’t serve the story.
The modern novel, unlike the TV series, serialised novel or ongoing movie franchise does not need to carry the burden of unwanted plot threads. There should be no Chuck Cunningham Syndrome in your novel. Characters and scenes can be merged for dramatic purposes. Do not keep stuff in just because it is cute or well-written or – God help us – ‘true’. Through addition or subtraction, good editor will change the story to ensure it works.

Posted in 2012, How-to's, Writing Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,