Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 23, 2015

The Most Important Edit No One Talks About

Everyone knows what I call the 10,000 foot edit – it’s the content/developmental edit – it’s looking at your story from a plane, to spot the plot mountains and canyons that need to be fixed. Genre no-no's? Unsatisfying ending? That night with the weasel scene?

Everyone knows about ground level edits – copy/line/stylistic edits that look at sentence structure and grammar – they’re small, but important.

We all know those two edits are critical.

But there’s another edit that is very seldom talked about, that could take your manuscript from good to sold.

I call it the 5,000 foot edit. It’s the edit for EMOTION. I don’t care if you’re writing a romance or a legal or espionage thriller; if you don’t have a solid bedrock of emotion in your book, you’re not going to have readers. It’s what they come for!  Think of your favorite author. Why is he your favorite? I’ll bet right up there with plot, is the emotion. If we don’t have emotion, the reader won’t care about your character. And that’s a story-killer.

Have I convinced you? Okay, let’s move on to how to do this thing.

In a book, regardless of genre, the character has to grow, right? So you need to follow the character’s arc, and be sure it happens in a timely, logical fashion. It’s okay if the character grows in fits and starts, or even if they progress, then back up a few steps. As long as their character arc doesn’t look like this:squiggly-line

A problem I've seen (and had) is that the character seems bipolar, going from laughing to angry to loving in three paragraphs. For emotion to be satisfying, it has to be deep. Take those three paragraphs, and dig deeper. It doesn't mean you have to turn three paragraphs into three pages - sometimes a visceral hit and a one sentence reminder of the emotion will do:

This is from my RITA winner, The Sweet Spot:

The red flowers had some brown edges, and looked a bit bug-eaten. She’d planned to stop at Wal-Mart and pick up a bouquet on the way to the cemetery, but . . . Her stomach settled a bit. “These are Benje’s flowers. He’s not going to care about a few bugs.” She headed for the tool shed, to find her clippers.

I added a sentence of dialog that added emotion - a reminder to the reader of an emotional memory: working in the garden with her child (the child she's going to visit in the cemetery). See?

No matter what genre you're writing, not all scenes are action. If they are, you're going to wear out your reader in no time. It'll be a fast read, but also, unsatisfying, because in action, you can only show flashes of emotion - like paint splattered on a canvas, rather that brush-stroked on. You need what Dwight Swain, in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer (a 'must have' on your craft shelf, IMHO) calls a 'sequel scene'.

A quiet scene, where the POV character can reflect on what just happened, and compare the results to his world-view. These are the scenes that move him along his growth arc. You can only do that by getting deep into the emotion - because that character's flaws in his world-view usually come from damage in his childhood: abuse, neglect, or even over-indulgence (poor little rich kid). And that's emotional. Be sure you're plumbing all that good stuff.

Ease into the sequel scene, naturally. You do this all the time, in your own head. This is from a Women's Fiction my agent is shopping now:

And yet, nothing had been different last night than the zillions of other times she sat in a group, alone.

Except maybe her.

I'll leave you with a Donald Maass-type (more must-have books for your craft shelf) homework lesson of where to edit for emotion :

  • Find 5 turning point scenes. Laser focus the emotion. Go deeper.
  • Find 5 small, quiet scenes. Laser focus the language.
  • Use turning point scenes to plot a graph for your protagonist, showing their progression on their growth arc - is it logical? 
  • First line/page – better be the best work you’re capable of.
  • The End – make it satisfying, using all the above.

So, Faithful WITS Readers, have I convinced you to use my 5,000 foot edit? Do you have any edits strategies to share?

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About Laura

Author Headshot SmallLaura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women's Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central.  The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Her 'biker-chick' novel, Her Road Home, sold to Harlequin's Superomance line (August, 2013) and has expanded to three more stories set in the same small town. The latest, Twice in a Blue Moon , released in July.

In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She's a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

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56 comments on “The Most Important Edit No One Talks About”

  1. Sold! Sequel scenes I learned from a Rhay Christou workshop (Margie Lawson academy). I instinctively used them before, but knowing what purpose they really served was an immense help. Another golden rule I go by--again from that workshop: make sure your POV character exits the scene in a different mood than the one she entered it with. If she keeps the mood throughout, delete. That's exactly where subtle emotion references come into play, building momentum for that final big shift that will end the chapter, not leaving the reader with the option to put the book down.

    Case in point: I just read a YA dystopian novel, packed with well executed action. It didn't draw me in. No emotion other than the obvious: soldiers pop up--the MCs were scared. Then they were determined. They fought, they escaped. Repeat. No conflict, no endgame. End of book. Will they keep on surviving? Enter second book. I'm not reading it.

    Great post, Laura, as always. Good luck with your new women's fiction!

      1. Rhay's classes are incredible. Although, clear your calendar because she will work your brain to emptiness. I've learned a lot from that lady. Margie's instructors are brilliant.

        1. I sure love Margie and I'm sure I'd like Rhay's class. I'm going to watch for it the next time it comes around because my November is already packed.

  2. I have to imagine that this part is easier when you have two co-writers, as I do. We're doing this as we develop the novel. We're constantly on the lookout for what we call "George the monkey" (perhaps the equivalent of that "night with the weasel" scene? ).

    1. Lucky you, to have co-writers, S.A.! Although I'm sure it comes with drawbacks, too. Would love to hear the story that launched your 'George the monkey' term! I'm not talking about the night with the weasel.

      1. Haha, it stems from a book one of us read that had a monkey in it (for no apparent reason), so for us, it has come to symbolize anything over-the-top, out-of-character, incongruous, etc. in our story.

  3. Well, it deleted my favorite sentence! Going to try again: A quiet scene, where the POV character can reflect on what just happened, and compare the results to his world-view. These are the scenes that move him along his growth arc.

  4. Hugs to Immersion-Grad Laura!

    You knew I'd love this blog about EMOTION!

    Every sentence in your blog carries a powerful message. This is one of my faves:

    ------ It doesn’t mean you have to turn three paragraphs into three pages – sometimes a visceral hit and a one sentence reminder of the emotion will do.

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

    Smart deep editing.

    Edit strategies? My courses (and lecture packets) and lots of the other online courses offered through Lawson Writer's Academy. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your brain!

    Can't wait to spend seven days with you on the CRUISING WRITERS cruise in December!

    1. I'm honored you stopped by, Margie! And yes - that cruise IS my Christmas this year! Cannot wait to get your wisdom on my WIP! Also can't wait to have you back on WITS after your long travel hiatus! Stay tuned for more Margie gems on November 20th!

  5. Laura, loved this post. And thinking of Margie's comment above ... I believe we can travel those 5,000 feet in one sentence. Ever sit back after reading but one single sentence and think ... OMG ?? That doesn't happen often, but when it does, I am frozen with book or kindle in hand thinking how on earth can I go on after reading that?

    Thanks for challenging us all to "go deeper." 🙂

    1. You're so right, Florence. Those sentences are what I read for! And live for, as a writer. They take SO much effort to seem effortless, don't they?

  6. Excellent blog, Laura! Emotion is the key to connecting to the characters. You've shown some great strategies. I'm bookmarking this page. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Yes! great point. My protagonist is Anna and the way I keep myself on track is to frequently stop and ask myself "What is Anna feeling?" That way, I remember to keep the reader engaged in her feelings, not just what's happening to and around her. And I like the point that the POV character should feel something different at the end of the scene vs the beginning. That's something anyone can examine and fix and it will keep the story moving.

    1. You're right, Maggie - if the character isn't feeling something, learning something every scene, I'd look really hard at whether you need that scene!

  8. So much to think about here, Laura--and very timely, since I'm deep into a new manuscript and trying to ramp up the emotions. Thanks for this!

    1. Best of luck with the new WIP, Holly - I just love the beginnings....it's all perfect in my head, and I haven't had a chance to mess anything up yet!

  9. Emphatically Yes! My characters lean heavy on emotion. I like building in emotional layers into my characters that take a reader's breathe away because you just can't believe they could go any further into whatever abyss they are in. You know shaking your head and yelling, "GIRL NO YOU DIDN'T!" type emotions. I want to not be cliche but research psychological implications to behaviors and what behaviors attaches to certain emotions/ experiences. I will review your resources but do you know of any such resources. Even if in Academia.

    1. Pizzos, honestly, not to sound like a commercial (no one pays anyone for anything on this blog - if you hear it here, it's because we believe in it), but Margie Lawson is the best teacher I've found for writing.

  10. A boat load of thanks, Laura! Just what I needed as I'm writing today. You helped me see another potential blind spot in creating and growing my WIP characters. I'm an emotional person (My eyes and throat burn when I allow myself to watch complete strangers sharing their farewells at the airport), so I need to push harder to infuse that into my characters. I know I can. And now I will.

    1. If you tear up at airport goodbyes, I KNOW you already know how, Chris! You just have to crawl into your character's head - put yourself in that situation, and let it fly!

    1. I know, Madilyn, it's frustrating not to know until after you know it, right? But better to go back and edit over and over (just ask the WITS bloggers, I edited my first book 3.546 times), and end up with a good book than edit less and end up with less, right?!

      Write on!

  11. Perfect timing, Laura, as I go through my readers' suggested edits. I have a lot of emotion in my book but I'm going to go through the MS again, at 5000 ft. Thanks.

    1. If you have enough emtotion, Ann, check the character arc and be sure your protag. is moving along at a realistic pace, and check that the emotion is commensurate with the situation!

      Happy cruising!

  12. Great post, Laura. I love revisions and each pass of the ms has a different function. I know that sends you into full out hives though. 🙂

  13. Thanks Laura, we definitely want the emotion to shift naturally or we end up giving the reader a whiplash effect (sometimes that's okay, but can't have too many black moments). Gradual build ups as the tension increases. Sequel Scenes are exhausting to write. Enjoy your Christmas get away! Just got back from Immersion in the Rockies! Love Margie Lawson!!

  14. Perfect timing for you post Laura! What an excellent job you did breaking down the importance of emotion/developmental editing. I am going back through my MS doing just this thing. And then it's off to the editor. Thank you so much! 🙂

  15. Great timing, Laura! I was just getting back into my revisions and looking for ways to add more depth to my characters. Love your examples and the fantastic Donald Maass-type homework lesson. I'm definitely going to use it as I do my edits.

  16. Great point, Deb! I too, love making the WIP look all pretty - but the emotional parts are the most fun to tidy up...there's SO much there to plumb!

  17. Great timing, Laura! I was just getting back into my revisions and looking for ways to add more depth to my characters. Love your examples and the fantastic Donald Maass-type homework lesson. I’m definitely going to use it as I do my edits.

  18. Fantastic teaching post, Laura! Thanks for advice that is easy to understand and implement. Have I mentioned lately, you rock!

  19. Excellent points made in this post for editing writing. Thanks so much. I've shared it generously.

  20. Oh my - I have so much editing to do... But first I'm writing for NaNo (4th book), and I think I might occasionally get the emotion deeper. Love your 10K high edits for plot issues, and 5K edits for EMOTIONS. This is an analogy which makes sense to me, and I've put it on a big note above my computer as I write.
    Much appreciated tips, Laura. Thank you so much for sharing with us all.

  21. I'm currently writing nonfiction, but I have some fiction that's rattling around in my head, as well, so thank you for this article.

    BTW, your piece from today (Saturday 12-5-15) disappeared from the WITS site. I received the opening bit via email, but all the links in it for the rest of the article lead to 404 Page Not Found. Please repost it. Thanks!

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