NOTE: In this series of articles we’re looking specifically at how I self-edit, this doesn’t mean you have to use my methods, these articles are examples of the way I work. They may help you, or at least give you some tips, or they may not.
Before I can edit a story I need to have a grasp on what the story is. Now, you might point out I was writing Victorian Mistress as I went so how could I know the story while editing the first episode/chapter? When I edit I don’t think of the story simply as the overall story but the story of each scene. Some people will say that you need to break each scene down into little pieces like it’s possible to do for an overall story. This could be a basic beginning, middle and end or a more complex list of turning points and climaxes, but this doesn’t work for everyone. Importantly, just because you don’t think ‘this is my turning point’ doesn’t mean you don’t have one. As we gain experience we get a sense of how stories work and build turning points and so on into stories without always having to label them. For clarity, this doesn’t mean that breaking you scene down is a bad thing, as I always say different methods work for different people.
Personally I don’t break my scenes down, I feel my way through them as I write the first draft then, once I work out how they go, I know what the story is. Once I have my scene/chapter I look at it and I ask myself two important questions. What do the characters want in this scene? We might also phrase this as: What is their goal? If it helps. The second question is: Why?
In Hysteria Charlotte has one goal/want: She wants to secure her position as Bran’s paid mistress because she fears ending up back in the workhouse, which is a terrible place.
As part of the story is Charlotte discovering Bran’s secrets I’ll leave out his motives to avoid spoilers, however we would apply these questions to each character. We can also ask these questions before we begin writing a scene but we may prefer to figure this out as we write, or we may discover by the end of the scene that the answers aren’t what we expected.
Now I’m certain what Charlotte is doing and why she is doing it I have a third question to address: How does she do it?
Obviously having written the scene I have a version of how Charlotte achieves her goal, or in another scene it might be how she fails to. However, when I edit sometimes I discover that the way she does something doesn’t fit whether because it doesn’t fit her character, the historical detail, the world’s logic or endless other reasons. Another reason could be that it doesn’t fit with what our first-person/subjective narrator, Charlotte, would tell us but we’ll address that in more detail in a later article.
A conspicuous chunk that got cut with my sword of shaping was this:
I turned to look towards the door The Earl had left by. ‘Rich is he?’
‘It’s a pity it would kill him,’ I replied and threw myself down into the armchair. ‘A woman could make a lot of money from a man of his resources.’
The note of red in Bran’s cheeks became more than distinct.
‘I don’t know what you’re blushing about.’ I said
Hysteria: The First Draft
Perhaps it’s an amusing bit of banter but why is Charlotte suggesting, even humorously, she’d go with another rich man for money when she’s attempting to convince Bran she wouldn’t? If she wants to convince Bran that he is wanted and special this seems counter-intuitive. Similarly the phrasing, particularly the last bit, sounds callus. Charlotte is never callus towards Bran so why would she say this? She’ll tease him, but this crosses the line between teasing and meanness.
Not only is Charlotte never callus to Bran but she’s also the woman with a plan. I could perhaps argue that she didn’t plan to meet The Earl but that is a slight deviation in an overall plan, not something that could derail it. A character of her mentality could easily adjust her plan in the circumstances so why say it?
Questions, questions, questions. During editing I’m always asking myself: Why does a character to this? Is there a more fitting approach? How does this action play into what’s to come?
I ask myself these questions because it’s the same questions a reader will be asking, they might not be asking them consciously but we’ve all read books or seen movies that have had us internally shouting, ‘But that makes no sense!’ These questions don’t make the story infallible, partly because no writer is infallible but also because a reader may interpret a character differently and not agree with something they do. However, questioning my story does help me find the plot holes and loose threads and better ways to tell the story. It also helps me find those little moments that can take on greater meaning when a story is reread.