How You Write Determines How You Edit

Although I didn’t finish my YA mystery until December, I’ve been editing for months. Whenever my inspiration for writing my first draft failed to catch fire, I’d work on editing what I’d written so far. After working with my novel for so long, I understand how you write determines how you edit. Below are a few key insights into my writing style that helps me edit.

I write dialogue first.

In the first draft of a scene, my main concern is getting down the purpose of it. Since I write mysteries, the purpose is usually for my detective to gain information–a clue, an insight, or a conclusion. Sometimes a scene has a dual purpose, such uncovering a clue and developing a couple of characters. Most of the time these purposes are accomplished through dialogue, so the bare bones of my first draft are characters talking to each other.

When I go back to edit, I need to flesh out the scene with:

  • Descriptions for setting
  • Determining if it’s clear who is talking when.
  • Vivid action tags that reveal something about the character who’s talking
  • Thoughts of my main character.

I overwrite dialogue.

Since I write dialogue first, I tend to over explain. My family can tell you that’s a habit not confined to my writing. When I review a scene, I almost always cut down the dialogue. That’s helpful to know since I’ll add the other components I listed above.

I plot too much.

As my word count rose in A Shadow on the Snow, so did my anxiety as I realized I had shoved in too many characters with too many subplots. Once I knew my ending, I went back and edited out characters who weren’t necessary. I also simplified or eliminated the motivations of several minor characters. Not only did that lower my word count, it also allowed the necessary characters to become more important and complex.

What kind of a writer are you? Do you overwrite? Or do you write the bare minimum of a story and then beef it up during the editing process? I’d love to know what your writing style is and how it determines your editing style.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Every writer should own a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Yes, that E.B. White. I bought my copy when a professor required it for a class. I’d forgotten how essential it is until author Edwina Perkins recommended it in a workshop I took at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. The reason why I forgot is that this book teaches the very basics in good writing, going over rules I now know instinctively but forgot how I knew them. Those rules are so important to any kind of writing that I’m perusing the book. I can’t read it cover to cover or my brain will pop. But I’m finding it so helpful to review chapters as I tackle the edit of my WIP novel.

I own the third edition There’s a fourth available, but aside from a forward, I couldn’t find any differences. I studied the table of contents are identical in both volumes. But be sure to get the latest edition. Writing style does change over time and it might contain a few, small differences.

Including the index, my copy isn’t even a hundred pages long. But it has so much to offer. I’m eager to reread chapter four, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”, such as the substitution of “utilize” for “use” and the explanation that there are no degrees of unique. Unique means “without like or equal.” So if I’m describing a book, it can only be “unique”. The book can’t be “very unique” or “more unique”. I love seeing a pet peeve of mine upheld. Chapter five, “An Approach to Style”, lists twenty-one tips to make our writing understandable.

What books do you recommend for editing?

Final Advice on Writing Endings

It’s appropriate for my final post of the year on the final day of the year to be about final advice on writing endings. This advice comes from three YA authors, Jill Williamson, Stephanie Morrill, and Shannon Dittemore, in their recently released book Go Teen Writers: Write Your Novel. I finally received my copy once Amazon figured out that I didn’t live in Maryland. The advice these ladies offer on how to craft endings is worth the price of the book alone.

There’s no single way to craft an ending, and each author offers different approaches. Ms. Williamson discusses “the five-step finale”. Ms. Morrill uses the ending of Frozen to illustrate certain concepts and give tips on when to use an epilogue. I particularly like the section by Ms. Williamson entitled “Make Your Main Character Integral to Saving the Day.”

One of my biggest gripes about YA books is when I feel cheated because the main character is sidelined at the climax. I’ve followed the teen through the roller coaster of the plot, rooting for them through all their battles, only to have some adult character save them during the finale.

The questions the authors pose in this section are ones I’ve wrestled with as I’ve shaped the ending of my YA mystery, such as how to make the climax exciting and surprising but not shocking and the denouement satisfying. One way is look back at what you have built throughout my story. Ms. Williamson calls this bringing the story full circle. I’ve been calling it echoing. I need to echo themes I’ve woven into my story at the end.

And this is what I’ve gotten out of one chapter. If you need writing advice, check out Go Teen Writer: Write Your Novel. For more tips on writing endings, visit my blog post, “The Three Key Elements of an Ending”.

Any final thoughts on how to write endings or stories with great ones?

The Three Key Elements of an Ending

I seem to find more advice on how to begin a novel than how to end it. Both parts of the story are critical. A stellar beginning entices readers to keep reading. But a phenomenal ending makes them reread and wanting the author’s other stories. As I’ve wrestled with finishing my YA mystery, A Shadow in the Snow, I’ve learned a few lessons about the three key elements of an ending.

The Climax

My Webster’s dictionary defines the climax as “the point of greatest intensity in a series of events.” As I wrote to my climax, I had to make sure that I kept building the tension by raising the stakes for my main character. Half way through the novel, I have an action sequence that puts a big twist in the path of the plot. I wanted to make this scene suspenseful and exciting, but not more than the climax. It’s like a fireworks display. It’s all right to set off some really big ones in the middle, but I need to save the most impressive ones for the end.

The Denouement

Or the wrap up, where the loose ends of the plot are tied up. This is especially important in a mystery. In the climax, the detective reveals who the culprit is. In the denouement, he must explain how he solved the mystery. The danger with this part is I will write on and on, drawing out the ending, deflating the thrill of the climax.

That was a complaint of many people who watched The Return of the King when it came out in 2003. The climax was when the One Ring was destroyed in the flames of Mount Doom. The movie continued for fifteen or twenty minutes, resolving character developments and plot points. I didn’t mind because I’d read the novel and expected these scenes. But other people thought the denouement dragged on too long.

On the other hand, I don’t want to end too abruptly. We’ve all watched shows or read books where the storyline doesn’t so much ends as quits, as if the writer lost interest. My kids pointed this out when they watched The Rescuers Down Under. In this Disney cartoon, a little boy is kidnapped by a poacher, who is hunting a rare bird. The boy is rescued, the bird saved, but my kids felt they should have shown the boy being reunited with his mother. It was a loose end left dangling.

Last lines

I’ve struggled with this with my novel because it’s so important. It’s literally the last thing people read and probably one of the things that sticks with them. Whatever mood, message, feeling I’m trying to convey throughout the story should be there in the last lines.

For my short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I wanted an ending that would leave a smile on the face of readers. The climax is very emotional as my MC confronts the three men who could be her father and the one who tried to murder her mother. I wanted the last lines to be lighter but still carry the deep meaning of Rae finding her father.

I was inspired by the way Alfred Hitchcock ended The Man Who Knew Too Much. Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day play American parents, unwittingly involved in an international assassination plot. Their son Hank is kidnapped, and they chase the criminals across Europe, thwart the scheme, and rescue Hank unharmed in England. A few of their English friends have been waiting for them at their hotel. When the reunited family walks in, Jimmy Stewart says, “Sorry we were gone so long, but we had to pick up Hank.” I like how that line is perfectly honest, but the audience knows the true meaning while the friends only take it at face value.

What books or movies have great endings? Which ones have lousy ones?

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