Story Editing as You Write Forward
Story Editing as You Write Forward. What do you do from here on out? How do you write forward? And the one thing I would say before I get into any of this is if you don't know the answer to something, if you have a character doing something and you don't know why, if you have a problem and somebody's out looking for something and you don't know what actually happened, or where the body's buried, do not write forward. Go back and figure all of that out first. Never have a character solving a problem that you haven't already completely created. So what do you want to do as you go forward? The first thing is that as you go forward and you wanna do this up until you get to your very last draft, which is you're looking for story logic editing, meaning, as I just said, anything that doesn't make sense. Anytime you don't know the answer to why and I mean, as we'll talk in a minute, a deep why, not a surface why, plumb until you know it. Anything you've got that a character's doing and it feel...
s like it's wonky, go back and figure it out. I'll give you a very quick example. In the book that I wrote, Story Genius, Jennie Nash, who some of you, some of you at home might know too, who is a really great writing coach, she very kindly agreed to write her new novel, to begin her new novel within the pages of Story Genius. And so at one point we had her main character, she had her main character, Lucy, who is a 47-year-old woman, who's very successful, has a lot of money and something's happened where, and I won't go into all the details now, because we don't have enough time, but something has happened and she's really knocked off base. And her older sister, Nora, is worried that she's gonna self-harm. She's not going to but that's what her sister, Nora, thinks is gonna happen. And so Nora swoops in and says, "You can't stay in your house," which she needs to do for reasons, again, that I don't want to go into at this moment, because it'd just take too long. She says, "I'm gonna come tomorrow and I'm gonna take you. You have to leave your house." Now Lucy's 47, she's got lots of money. What could Nora do, how could she have the power to make her leave her house unless she hired some guy to like throw her in a van and take her away? That's just not a thing that a person could do, but it sounded good because that's what then ticked the plot into motion. But when we looked at it, we went yeah, but that doesn't make any sense. And when my editor at Ten Speed looked at it, she said, "Yeah, but that doesn't make any sense," so why? What would give her that power? So she went back and she thought okay, well how about this? She already knew that Lisa and Nora, her sister, were sort of estranged. Nora's much older, and that they had very cold parents and she said, "Well, here's what it was." She said the parents were cold, they were really way more invested in Nora than Lucy, and so they had left their house to Nora, figuring she'd be the responsible one, and then like all parents in novels, apparently, they're killed in a plane, in a car crash (laughs). Like, it seems to be the way to get rid of parents. It's easy, it's bloodless, or at least minorly bloodless and quick. And so Nora inherited the house, felt really bad about the way Lucy had been treated. Lucy was always lived in it and said, "Fine, live in the house, it's no problem." So that solved it. So at that moment, the reason wasn't just because, the reason was well because Nora actually owns the house and so now she has the power to threaten to kick her out of the house. It also allowed her, as we're saying all the time, when you dive in and you're looking for story logic and one thing, you tend to find even more, you tend to find goldmines. So she was able to plumb a lot more than just how could she make her leave the house. So what you're looking for is story logic editing, not prose editing. Prose editing is making it sound lovely and luscious and beautiful and not only, it's not like, oh just don't do it now, don't take the time. It's like absolutely don't do it now because what happens is if you start editing a prose, it's like frosting a cake you haven't baked yet. What happens is it makes this big mess but you fall in love with it. So now you've got something you've spent so much time on and it sounds so beautiful and the fact that it doesn't make any sense logically, yeah, but it sounds so beautiful. In other words, it's really hard to kill your darlings. I'm sure you have heard that. If you polish it before it's ready, it will be even harder, nigh on impossible and you'll keep things in your novel that are really going to be tearing it down. It cannot develop in the way that it needs to develop. It's not gonna make sense. You're gonna end up with, dare I say it, a bunch of things that happen, so don't do that. So when you're writing forward, there's some tests that you can use as you write and the first and simplest is the Eyes Wide Shut Test, and what that means is when you're envisioning something, especially as your envisioning things that are gonna go forward, you wanna be sure that you can see it. Is it just conceptual or can you close your eyes and literally see it happening? And it's sort of like writers will sometimes go yeah, I'm gonna write the scene and John is gonna have a really bad day at work and then he's gonna come home and have a fight with his wife, Martha. Well you know, okay, well what happens? Well, I just told you what happens. Okay, well if you close your eyes, can you see that? Not really because you can't see concepts. You want to make everything specific, the stories in the specific. Specific begets specific because John could have had a bad day at work. Bad day at work could be John, did I mention, is a complete and total slacker and for the past six months he's done nothing but watch video games and watch porn on his computer at work and his boss just came in and they now have a log of everything he's done and watched for the past six months, and if he doesn't turn it around immediately, he's gonna be fired? Now that's a really bad day at work and you can see why he'd go home and have a fight with his wife. Or John might be one of those guys who is a total workaholic and he has spent nights, weekends, and days working on this report that he wants to turn in so he can get that promotion and as he's finally about to take it to his boss's door, he knocks but in the office he finds his archrival nemesis who has hacked into his computer and is now passing off his work as his own? That's a really sucky day too and you can see, again, (laughs) a very different reason why his wife would already be angry at him. Same thing with John the slacker. It's already a problem and now you can see where that's gonna go. So you wanna be sure that always you have concretized everything, but here's the thing. Just seeing it isn't enough 'cause here's a really sobering study that was done. They took writers and they took accomplished writers, writers who were successful novelists, and then they took writers who were just trying to break in or people who weren't writers and they hooked them up and they monitored their brainwaves to see what was being activated when they were writing. And what they discovered is that writers who were just trying to break in, it was their visual sense that kicked into gear, that they were seeing it and that's it, and I find that a lot with manuscripts I get. I'm watching it like I'm locked out and it's a movie and I'm seeing it on a screen. So just seeing it isn't enough. The writers who were successful writers, the part of their brain that was activated was the language center because what they were doing is they were taking that reality and they were turning it into language and taking us inside. So it's not enough just to be able to see it. You want to also use what I call the And So Test, and the And So Test is crucial and it will help you so much. And part of it, this is the most surface and basic part, is when you're giving us anything, you wanna ask yourself and so why does this need to be here? And so why does the reader need to know this right now? What is the point of this? But deeper because that could lead you into info dump territory, which is the reader needs to know this now, so I'm just gonna kind of dump it in and now they'll know. What the and so test really is is and so, and you can do it after every sentence, which might be a bit much, but still. After every paragraph, after every page, every chapter, and so what is the point? And so what conclusion is my protagonist or point-of-view character drawing from what just happened? Because the point isn't what happens, the point isn't what they see, they point is how they are making strategic sense out of it, given what their agenda is. You want them to draw a conclusion. For instance, an example I often give, I'm gonna paraphrase this. It's from Elmore Leonard's Freaky Deaky and it's a character. I don't think she's a big character. I read the book so long ago. I don't think she's a big character and I think she's about to get killed actually, right after this scene. And it's a woman, Robin, and she's at a bar with a guy and the sentence begins, "Robin reached out "and touched his arm." And the writer might just leave it at that. I told you what she I'd, she reached out and touched his arm. But then he goes a bit further. Robin reached out and touched his arm and felt it stiffen. Okay, something happened there and we could leave it at that, but that's the last thing you ever wanna do. "Robin reached out, touched his arm, felt it stiffen, "and took that as a good sign." Aha, that's the and so. She drew a conclusion, strategic meaning, which as I recall, she was really wrong (laughs). That's not a good sign at all, but she read meaning into it and that's what that and so is, and so what's the point? The point is always the strategic meaning that your character is going to read into what's happening in the moment as they're trying to make sense of what the hell is going on and what the hell should I do about it? Now again, I can't say it strongly enough. Nothing's ever a one-off, this is all part of that trajectory, that one problem, that's growing, escalating, and complicating the external plot problem and how that is then exacerbating and forcing your protagonist to deal with that inner issue that they've got. The next thing that you wanna think of is you want to ask why of everything, that why and how. You wanna ask why and you wanna ask it relentlessly because the first answer you're gonna get or that you'll give yourself is going to be a surface, general answer. I remember reading a column. The New York Times, I was on the Sunday Business section, used to have this great column that was called The Corner Office and they'd interview CEOs and how they started, and how they interviewed people, and what they were looking for. And this one woman, a CEO, she was talking about how she interviewed, and she said a mentor told her at one point, when you're interviewing people, she said, he said, "You ask why and you leave it at that. "No one will ever admit anything with the first why, "you have to continue to ask why six or seven times "before you dig down to the actual vulnerable reason." That is what you wanna do in your story, ask yourself why of everything. Why did the character do that, what would make them do it, how was it landing on them, how did they get into that situation, why? What sense did they make of it? Go all the way down until you can't ask another why. If you don't know the answer, don't write forward. Go backwards until you do and as I said before, be sure it's not a simple declarative sentence. Be sure you can go all the way down and dig to that moment where that came into being, whatever it is. Now we come to something that will really help you going forward. This is really going forward, and this is the notion of keeping track of who knows what when. This is where stories go wonky because here is the thing, we've been saying from the beginning that your protagonist has an agenda that they step onto the page with and then in every scene, they are trying to move that agenda forward. Well, guess what? That is not only true of your protagonist, that is true of every single character in your novel. They are all going to step onto the page with agendas and they are all going to be trying to bring that agenda to fruition in every scene therein. What tends to happen is that writers will let go of that, they'll focus, if they focus, they'll focus on what the protagonist is doing and why the protagonist is doing it and what's happening on the plot, and what's going on with the secondary characters kind of starts to go wonky and loose and starts to be there solely to help the protagonist get what they want solely to make the scene go in the direction that they need for it to go in. I was working with a writer at one point who had her main character, it was 19, a lot of 'em 1969. It was the '60s, it was during the war, she was very young, she was in college, she was married, her husband was a soldier in the war. She had a very good friend, whose name was Gwen. Julia was the main character and now suddenly, Julia and Gwen are in a scene together and Gwen is being really mean to Julia and she's poking at her and saying really mean things and that makes Julia have this realization and I said to her, "I don't understand, why is Gwen doing that? "Did they have some fight somewhere?" Like, Gwen is supposed to be, why would she do that? I said, "I think the reason that Gwen is doing it "is because you needed Julia to have that realization," and she went, "Yeah, that's exactly what I did," and it's like okay, now you gotta go back and figure out really, on a deeper level going forward what their relationship is and you gotta find another way to get that onto the page. So what you want to do is when you go into any scene, make a list before you write the scene who's gonna be in that scene and in what way in that scene are they going to try to move their story-specific agenda forward just in that scene because it's gonna add up. It's gonna be, you know, you know that that agenda is. Here in that scene, how are they trying to move it forward because you will see how characters are across purposes. This is where the beauty of story comes in and I'll tell you, it's interesting. This is what makes writers writers. I read a paper several years ago. In fact, I think I mentioned it in Wired for Story and it was written by, and I'm gonna read his, I'm gonna read who he is because I could never memorize this. It's written by a guy named Robin Dunbar and he is an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist. He had the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, and that is Oxford in the UK, not Oxford, Mississippi, which I'm sure is a great school, but it's still not Oxford. And he wrote a paper that was basically if all of us are wired for story, if all of us know what a story is from the beginning, why are there so few good writers (laughs)? Like, wouldn't we all be great writers? And what he came up with is what he calls levels or layers of intentionality, another $50 word. And what he meant by that was the ability to hold in your head what different people know and believe in the same moment. He said most of us, in a pinch, can do five. Four is more likely. People like Shakespeare could do five, six, or seven, and he gave an example, the fourth level of intentionality would be I believe that Iago intends that Othello supposes that Desdemona wants to love someone else. All of those people have a different reality in their head in the same scene and they believe different things about each other. You need to be able to hold all of that in your head at one time and it is hard, which is why if you've decided okay, here's what each character's agenda is, and again, your secondary characters are going to be there to move your protagonist's story forward always. They are created to move your protagonist story forward. Doesn't mean they're not really great characters and doesn't mean that they couldn't have a novel of their own, and doesn't mean that in the novel you're writing, they don't think that they are the protagonist because every character does, but you know they're not and you know you've created them to move your protagonist's story forward. So you want to not only keep track of what they're doing scene by scene by scene by scene as each character earns their way to the next scene, but you might also try to keep in mind, especially if you're writing anything that is like a thriller or anything that has a lot of nefarious stuff going off on, off the page, what are they doing in scenes that are not in the novel if they're not gonna show up for a while? 'Cause writers will often, they'll have a character in a scene and then it's like they press the pause button and now we got, 10 scenes later, now here they are, un-pause 'em and like, nothing's happened to them (laughs) in all of that time, but things would. So you really want to keep track of that as much as possible and yeah, it's hard (laughs) and it takes a long time, but it's really worth it. Do not worry, as I said about polishing before. I once worked with a lawyer who was a writer and he said, "The bigger the word, 'cause I learned this "early in my law career, the bigger the word, "the less emotion it conveys." All story is emotion-based. If we can't immediately get it and feel it, we're not reading. So as opposed to using he prose to polish, what you need to know is the story polishes the prose. The deeper you dive into what we're talking about, what someone's really thinking, what they're really feeling, what they're going through, what that raging mess on the inside that we talked about in that first or second lesson. The deeper you dive into that, the more your prose are going to shine. You don't need big words to make it shine, you need meaning and that's what you're going to be diving into, but again, it's hard and so it's amazing that you do it. I love this quote, I totally agree with it. E.B. White who said, "I admire anyone who has the guts "to write anything at all." You are incredibly brave. I tend to agree with Dorothy Parker (laughs) who once said, "I hate writing, but I love having written." (audience laughs) And that is really true. And the last, I know, this is all, I'm leaving you with all sorts of mottoes, but the other one I really love, and this is a military motto, actually and it's "You gotta "love the suck," and that is true. (audience laughs) This is gonna be hard and there'll be those times that might go, we talked about in an earlier lesson, you know, the dark night of the soul that might go on for months. Embrace it! That's not there to make you stop. That's part of the process. That's there. It's hard because it makes you dig deep and it's hard to dig deep, but really do it. Writing is had, writing is messy, but writing is also probably the most empowering thing that you will ever do. You will change the lives of the people out there that you don't even know. You'll change the world. Writers change the world. Story is the most powerful tool in the world. Every story is a call to action. That's the power that you have. You can change the world and you have the tools now to do it. So the only thing I would ask of you from this point out is take that power and use it wisely, and that is the end. We are done! We have reached the end of this course. So congratulations, all of you, you're still here (laughs). (audience applauds)