I’ll be honest. One of my biggest challenges as an author is editing. First drafts are easy. It’s pure creativity, dumping words on the page like sand into a sandbox. When you start editing, you have to turn that sand into the complex and well-thought-out sandcastle that will become your novel.
So, I was surprised to find out that there aren’t a lot of books on editing. There are hundreds of books on how to write a great work of fiction, but in my opinion, the pickings on editing are comparatively slim. I tried a few, but none really gave me a method. They gave me plenty to worry and think about while editing: plot, story structure, characters, pacing, dialogue, tense, point of view…but in what order? How do you edit for the macro and the micro issues your novel might have? To actually conceptualize the cohesive whole of those 90,000 words as they currently are, let alone how they should be. None of those books told me how the heck to actually go about self-editing a novel.
When I wrote my first novel Moonburner, I kinda winged it, cobbling together a method from these various suggestions. But before I wrote Sunburner, I found The Story Grid. This book is a game changer! The Story Grid, written by editor Shawn Coyne, gives you a method for full-on nerd-level dissection of your story. While other editing books generally said: make sure the patient doesn’t have one of these ten diseases…this book shows you in detail how to diagnose, and treat, those illnesses, right down to where to put the scalpel. Warning: this book is a tome. It took me months to read it and digest all of the nuggets in here, and by the time I got to the end I felt like I should re-read it all again! There’s that much good stuff in there.
Though this is a huge oversimplification, my key takeaways from the book fall into four main categories.
- Genre: Coyne has a complex view of genre that encompasses more than the categories we typically think of when we think of genre, e.g. mystery, western, sci-fi, etc. He looks at genre through a five-leaf clover of choices the author makes, from content (traditional view of genre) to structure, style, reality, and time. Each of these different elements come with different reader expectations, called “obligatory scenes.” You need to hit the right obligatory scenes, depending on what genre you are writing in, or your book won’t work. I have found these obligatory scenes to be a helpful road map for drafting and editing, to make sure you’re making your readers happy.
- Internal versus external arc: Books are often described as “plot driven” or “character driven.” But in most well-written novels, you will have some aspect of both an external story arc (plot), and an internal story arc (character) (though the ratios between the two will look different between a James-bond type thriller versus a literary novel). Coyne talks about this in terms of “internal content genre” and “external content genre” and explains how you have to know both (1) your protagonist’s external story arc, and (2) the transformation they are undergoing on the inside. While this may be intuitive to many authors, I found it super helpful to name my internal (maturation plot) and external arcs (savior plot-action genre), so I could keep this front of mind during my editing process.
- Units of story structure: Coyne breaks down story structure into its component parts. The smallest unit of story structure is the beat: which involves five steps–inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution. This structure then repeats itself in larger story units: the scene, the sequence of scenes, the act, and the story as a whole. This is a good gut check when something doesn’t seem to be working–often you find that you are missing one of these key elements.
- The Story Grid: The Story Grid is the most exciting take-away from the book for me. The Story Grid is a method by which you set up an excel spreadsheet with each of your scenes, identifying numerous elements: such as character, point of view, value at stake, and change in the scene. You then turn this itemization into the story grid, where you can generate a visual representation of the changes in your story (see below). In my opinion, the key element of this method is identifying the value-shift, or turning point, in each of your scenes. According to Coyne, each scene needs to have some shift in value, to move the story in some direction, either good or bad, otherwise you should cut it. Example: your characters are chatting over coffee. Nothing new or exciting is revealed that effects the plot or their character arcs. No value shift. You need to rework that scene. Versus a scene where your characters are chatting over coffee and one reveals that they’re sleeping with the other’s boyfriend…now there has been a value shift. From trust to distrust and belief to disillusionment. That will be an exciting scene for your reader!
I ran Sunburner through the Story Grid (a somewhat tedious process), but I learned that I had about six scenes that were effectively filler, with no real value shift. Often these were scenes where I was trying to reveal some tidbit or backstory about a character, but in the focus on character, the forward progress in my story totally stalled. The Story Grid told me I needed to re-work those scenes (see scenes below where I couldn’t come up with anything to put in the “value shift” column). Obviously, it’s ok to have moments where there isn’t traditional “action” happening in the story, but then revelations about your characters need to provide the value shift. If I include a tidbit about a character because I really like that tidbit but it doesn’t actually matter for the story…well, that’s the exact type of darling you should be killing in the editing stage.
There are a bunch of other story elements that the Story Grid will reveal to you, but identifying these turning points, or value shifts, was the most helpful aspect of the exercise for me.
If you’re a fiction writer who has struggled to find a tried and true method of self-editing, (especially large-scale, structural edits), I would highly recommend you check out The Story Grid! It will definitely play a big role in my editing process going forward.
Shawn also has a podcast called the Story Grid where he helps book marketing guru Tim Grahl try to write his first book, as well as a website and newsletter with great resources. Check out both at http://www.storygrid.com.