Now that your head is spinning in a delightfully drunken sort of way, inebriated by the fizzy bubbles of commas and verbs, let’s step back a bit and take a look at the bigger picture.
The last thing you want to do is spend a ton of energy revising text that you’re just going to delete anyway.
Skulls Are Not Like Hopscotch
Within a single scene, you should only have a single point of view. Even if you are using third person (he said, she said) instead of first person (I said), you are still technically following a single character around.
If you imagine the story as a movie camera … you only get one shot per scene, and the camera should stay next to the main character for that scene.
(This is one of those breakable rules … but you should break it for IMPACT and ARTISTRY and not LAZINESS, okay? Okay.)
In our example, we start very briefly with our gunners, then swap over to the captain, and finally end up following Anrietta. The brief bit with the gunners is forgivable. Sloppy for a story opener, but we slide quickly into the captain’s point of view.
It’s the swap from the captain to Anrietta that’s a big nononever.
Anrietta has a name. I’m assuming she has a name because she’s important, and I’m assuming she’s important because she’s the main character.
When editing, we will move that camera away from it’s seasick swaying across the ship’s deck and keep it firmly and obviously at Anrietta’s side.
Speaking of the ship … is our example on an airship or a water ship?
Not sure? That’s because the writer wasn’t clear.
It does not matter if the writer has this incredibly detailed mental image of the airship, complete with brass fittings and cannon’s leering from openings in the hull like boys passing an exotic dancer’s club, the only thing that matters is the mental image of the reader.
If the reader didn’t get the details they need, the writer is at fault.
Please don’t fix this problem by over-detailing everything. The reader may not NEED a super-detailed image of the ship. They DO, however, need at least a basic understanding of whether they’re in the sky or on the sea.
When I edit this, I’m going to make sure it’s obviously an airship.
You should start new stories/chapters with a BIG HOOK. Start strong, get your readers excited or interested immediately.
We … um … start off with a random excited npc shouting out something forgettable.
Heh. What say we fix that in editing?
The Biggest Picture
Sometimes, a scene needs serious help. In that case, pull your despair from the brink and make a list.
What is the purpose of this scene?
Note that if you don’t have a good answer, you might consider cutting the whole kaboodle rather than futzing about with verb tenses and commas. Everything you write should propel either the story or character forward (ideally, both).
In this case, we want to do the following:
- Meet Anrietta
- Establish ship under enemy fire (minor)
- Establish purpose – new island found, need to land on it
We didn’t do a great job of that, did we? I mean, we TOLD you the ship was under fire, but the overall tone was one of bright excitement. There’s very little tension about the whole “people are shooting at us” thing, and the reader probably couldn’t tell me much about Anrietta at this point.
Even ignoring all the little fiddly bits, we didn’t do the BIG stuff right.
The Importance of Distance
Self-editing is more difficult than editing someone else’s writing, because it’s yours.
These are word-pictures that you’ve painted from glorious scenes in your mind. In your head, the characters are witty and beloved, the world is rich and lush, and the action is heart-stopping.
Unfortunately, it’s possible your writing has a character who is sarcastic and grating, a world that is cardboard thin, and action that reads more like an awkward puppet show.
Until you can set aside your own mind-picture and see only what actually made it to your canvas, you’re going to have a difficult time editing your own writing.
Distance is the key.
You can achieve distance through time — set a piece aside and edit it after you’ve got weeks or months between you and your original mind-picture.
You can also achieve distance by reading the story aloud.
It is amazing to me how often reading a story aloud will show flaws in sentence structure, stilted verbiage, repeated phrasings, and just-plain-not-what-I-meant-to-say wording.
It’s time consuming. Even your dog is going to stare at you like you’ve gone nutters when you start reading aloud.
Do it. You’ll be amazed at the difference.
Okay, that was one helluva crash course on editing.
Please, do not panic. You’re not going to be manually running through this list for everything that you write.
Why? Because you’re going to get BETTER. You’re going to internalize some of this stuff. You’re going to go through a period where you eyeball every comma like you caught it with its hand in your wallet. Then, one day before you even realize it, you’re just going to look at a sentence and know when there’s something wrong with it.
It won’t be immediate, but you’ll stop consciously thinking about subject/verb matching, and you’ll just know the right one to use. You’ll see the errors and you’ll have the tools to fix them.
There’s always more that can be learned on this subject. We barely touched on sentence structure and flow, and we didn’t even get into voice or style or characterization. We won’t even TOUCH on plotting.
Don’t sweat it. Write. Practice. Get better. You will develop your own style as you practice. Learn one thing at a time and remember … you write for yourself, and you edit for your readers.
If you want readers to enjoy your writing, you’ll learn how to edit.
So, what might our sample text look like if it were edited? Specifically, if it were edited by Tami?
Half-frozen fingers tangled in the steamship’s rigging, Anrietta braced herself against the salty sea wind. This might be her last chance to find out what clouds tasted like, and she wasn’t going to miss it.
Looking down past the deck to the frothing waters far below, the tangled and broken wreckage of yet another ship passed beneath them, bright Alliance banners flying in an ignored warning to turn back while they still could.
“Get down from there!” shouted a voice that Anrietta belatedly realized was aimed at her. She recognized her infantry captain on the deck and stuck her tongue out at his distant, blurry face.
As if he could see her tiny act of insubordination, he lifted his arm in a gesture of command that she couldn’t ignore.
She sighed and began to clamber down the icy rigging just as the entire ship shook from a direct hit by a Horde mortar. Shouting rose from the deck and she lost her grip, fingers burning as she scrabbled for a hold.
She caught her grip just as their ship turned away from the attackers, slicing neatly through a puffy cloud bank. At the last moment, she remembered to open her mouth. Anrietta tasted cloudstuff, freezing droplets coating her face and tangling her long black hair into stinging ropes.
They broke through the darkness of the cloud and back into the light of day, and she saw it.
The new continent.
A broad grin spread across her face and she shouted out, “Land, ho!”
Clouds, Anrietta thought as she stared at that tiny spot of green on the horizon, taste like adventure.
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