The A, B, C, D and F of Editing Fiction

Here’s the process I’ll be trying out as I edit the nearly 500 pages of double-spaced text in my first draft.

First, some definitions using the grading system we all learned in school.

Fiction is built with several parts:

  • Action – What someone does, what happens as a result of that. It’s a long cascade of dominoes triggered by a finger-tip in Chapter One;
  • Background -Things that happened in the past that have an effect on the characters today;
  • Character – People who have specific appearances (looks, clothing, scars, etc.) and habits, mannerisms, quirks and faults;
  • Domain – Where are the characters or the action; and
  • Fluff – Anything else.

Action novels, not surprisingly, need lots of Action. In contemporary works this will be the great majority of the text. It may constitute 99% of the words on the page.

Background material, dropped in here and there but rarely more than one paragraph in one place, explains the whys and wherefores. (This overlaps somewhat with the next category when it’s about a specific person.) This information is important to the writer but only a little of it ends up in the book. Remember, only 1% of the book falls outside the first category. That’s not very much!

Character tells the reader about the people in the story, how they look, stand, dress, cuss, pick their nose, etc. Sometimes there are important facts about the person that are not in the direct action. Such information may be described as falling in this or the previous category.

Domain is about the place where the action takes place. It describes the location. Engaging the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell) is particularly useful but, again, remember this has to be combined with two other categories and the sum total still remain extremely small, perhaps less than 1% of the finished product.

And finally, everything else gets an F and must be expunged, deleted, excised, eradicated and obliterated. (Sadly, for the novice writer, this may be 90% of what they type. Purging large amounts of painstakingly written text seems to be part of the maturation process.)

Basically, As are good, Bs, Cs and Ds less and less desirable (although some would argue B and C should be in the opposite order as far as importance is concerned). And, of course, you don’t want any Fs on your report card.

So, here’s the process I intend to use.

  1. First, I’ll print and then mark-up the paragraphs in those 500 pages with one of those five letters. My green ink fountain pen is full and ready to go.
  2. I’ll then do a massive edit and separate all the parts. There will be a file of action material, and three different files for background, character and domain.
  3. Each will be edited separately. For everything except the action, I’ll be working to condense each segment to a sentence or two.
  4. Action be edited apart from the others but its condensation will focus on conciseness, color and pace.
  5. Once all of that is done, I’ll re-assemble the whole by trying to spread out little snippets of background, character and domain rather than clumping them toward the beginning.

Will that strategy be successful? Will I get a good result by arbitrarily limiting the number of words in background, character and domain categories to 1/99th those in the action?

I don’t know but I’m going to try it and see.

It’s a plan.

And plans are good because, when they don’t work, you can tweak them and try again.

See you on the other side!

5 thoughts on “The A, B, C, D and F of Editing Fiction

  1. You make writing a novel sound more grueling that what one would thing would be a pleasant experience. Do all writers follow such an arduous procedure, or are you just over analyzing the process? Analysis paralysis?

  2. I guess with practice it gets easier; at least, that’s what I read.
    But taking a year to write a novel is not that unusual. Some authors churn out a new book every few months but most take longer.
    This one is my first so, yes, you are probably correct about my “over analyzing” things. But that’s how I work so, whether it’s helpful or unnecessary habit, I’ve learned to indulge it. The work does get done.
    So be it.

  3. I’m told there are two kinds of novelists, plotters and plodders.

    Plotters work out the whole plot, the complete story before they start writing. They know where the story begins, every place it has to go, and where it ends up.

    Plodders just start writing and eventually bump into the ending.

    I’m definitely a “plotter” — I knew the story would start on Mount Luojia in Wuhan and end up on the roof of the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore. And the only way to get there was to plan (plot) each step of the way. That plan took about a month to work out but, once it was written down, I knew where each scene started, where it ended, and what had to happen each step of the way. Thereafter, it was just nine months of pounding on the keyboard with only a couple of “Oops!” along the way.

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