Last time I suggested a series of read-throughs once you finish the first draft to give you an overview of things that you need to focus on when you go in for the rewriting and editing. Sometimes, you have an entire scene whose essence is generally right, but maybe the order or the wording or the focus isn’t quite right. Even worse, you try to take a stick and scissors to it and it’s not doing anything, just staring at you with that bad prose. Here’s a technique I’ve found helpful, and hopefully you will too.
Step One: Change the font size to the smallest you can still bear to read, change the margins to 0.5 all the way around, and hit print on just that section. These changes will help you save paper, always a plus.
Step Two: Grab anywhere from 3-5 different colors of highlighters or markers. Designate the colors to the following plot arcs:
- main plot
- main character development
If you have more than one subplot, use a different color for each; same goes for if you have more than one main character. Be very discerning about who constitutes a main character and who is really a secondary with a large role acting as a subplot for the book. Try to whittle it down to those 3-5 colors. Less is preferable to more. What you’re going to do is break the story down into its most basic components. Write yourself a key/legend for the colors so you don’t get lost. For my piece that’s pictured, blue identifies the main plot, pink the subplot, and orange signifies character development for my main character. Transitional sentences that don’t have anything to do with anything except to facilitate scene or topic changes I left uncolored.
Step Three: Highlight each sentence according to its function in the story. Often times, whole paragraphs will be all one color, but every now and then, there will be a multicolored paragraph, or a color change halfway through. Be sure to color accordingly. Don’t get lazy and assume.
Step Four: Cut the story into pieces according to color.
Sometimes you’ll be left with one sentence awkwardly hanging out on its own slip, like that pink one right above the blue section in my piece. Try to keep things all in connected pieces of paper. If one paragraph goes onto the top of the next page and it’s the same color, tape them to make them one slip. You can see that a little bit with the blue paragraph.
Step Five: Switch things up! Move the pieces of your scene-puzzle around, keeping in mind that you’re trying to streamline this prose and also see what things simply don’t fit. By highlighting, you should be able to better see what things feel out of place or sections that might come off as choppy. Try moving things in a way that attempts to put related story lines together. Obviously not all the sections of each line need to be together, but the more you can connect things that go with each other, the smoother your scene will flow. Of course, there may also be sections you choose to remove because they no longer go in this scene. That’s okay. Set those aside and keep fiddling. Transition sentence can always be rewritten to fit the new flow, so don’t worry too much if right now the rearranged pieces don’t entirely fit. Sentence beginnings can be altered to fit with their new place, and sections you decide to remove from this scene can be fit into other places in you novel if you think they’re still necessary.
Step Six: Implement the changes into your digital copy, changing transitions and the little details to fit. This may include changing actions or setting to fit with your new order. My scene started out with my character on a rooftop, then she hopped into the street and had a conversation, then went up the street to observe something, hopped back on the rooftops to have another conversation, hopped back down into the streets to witness something else. In the new scene, she observes something, has her conversation in the street, witnesses something, then gets up on the roof and has her conversation. Those little changes about where she is had to be made, but it takes only a few word changes to clarify those.
Here’s a tip: Be very discerning and tough on your prose. When you are deciding if a slip needs to be kept or not, consider if there’s a better way to incorporate the information. If there is, chuck that slip. This technique allows you see if the focus of the scene is on what matters and not on something else.
Here’s what my piece started out looking like:
Here’s how it ended up:
(side note: the large white chunk at the top of the second column should be colored entirely blue, however I knew I needed to simply rewrite that whole section, so I left it uncolored.) Yes, some pieces stayed the same, and I didn’t get rid of a lot (the slips set aside at the bottom are ones that were removed), but what I was able to do was refocus on what mattered, remove excess fat, and recognize where things didn’t flow. Look at the first column of the top picture! What a mess! In the end, the scene smoothed out, and I felt a lot better about the whole section. When I first learned this technique I thought it was ridiculous and that it would never help, but if you’re really, truly stuck on a scene and can’t figure out what’s wrong with it, try this out.
(still need help? not sure how this would ever help you? my ask box is always open.)