A former private detective and reporter for a small weekly newspaper, G.B.Pool writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line.”
Editing and Outlines
by Gayle Bartos-Pool
As a writer I have become a fanatical editor… of other people’s work. That’s not to say I don’t edit the heck out of my own work before I send it off for publication, but I can’t watch a TV show or a movie or even the nightly news without thinking of a better line to use or a better plot or a better word to describe what they are talking about. I have ripped apart old television shows when they were so outrageously bad and rewrote the plot before the final credits ran. Even my husband is getting into the act by pouncing on a plot line when it doesn’t fit.
The moral of this post is: Don’t Send Your Work Out if it Doesn’t Make Sense.
The advantage of dissecting other people’s work is to catch the same mistakes in our own writing… and fix them. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve changed in my own work after I saw the same error in someone else’s story. Little things like using the apostrophe in dates. The “1970s” doesn’t have the apostrophe unless it is used as an adjective. Example: He lived in the 1990’s but drove a 1970’s automobile… The first is incorrect; the second is correct. I have seen this mistake in books by big name authors.
But it’s the bigger things like not tying up a loose end or having the heroes show up in a spot where they had absolutely no reason to be just so they can find a clue that drives me nuts. (I saw this recently in an NCIS episode.) It’s like you cut out the linking scene just to shorten the story. But if the connection isn’t there, you have cheated your reader.
We were watching an old episode of Columbothe other evening and the story disintegrated into foolishness when the implausible kept happening. The audience always knows whodunit from the beginning in that show, but that can also play against credibility when we know what happened and Columbo seems to have watched the same opening and spots all the clues before there is a reason to question them as clues.
But there is a remedy.
I discovered this when writing the lesson plan for a course I teach called: The Anatomy of a Short Story. (It works for novels and screenplays as well.) A terrific way to see if your story hangs together during that editing phase is to write down each LOCATION and which CHARACTERSare in that scene IN ORDER. Write it like bullet points. Each location should add something new to the story or ask a question that needs to be answered later. If your characters go someplace and learn nothing, cut that scene.
Next, look at that list and see if the locations and what happens in each are a mix of HIGH and LOW points. If you have too many low points together, move a high point into the list to give your story movement. And vice versa.
Then look at those points and see if all the questions have been answered. If not, add that scene and wrap up that point.
Next, check to see if your opening is a GRABBER. Since readers are becoming scarcer and scarcer, you’ll want to pull them into the story as fast as you can and keep them. You do that by dangling a puzzle in front of them early so they have to finish reading just to find out what happens. This is what TV shows do with that four minute teaser at the beginning of the show. Works in short stories and novels, too.
Now ask yourself: Does the OPENING FIT the ENDING of your story? Any story: mystery, romance, adventure, has to have a satisfying ending. And the ending should answer the big question that is asked at the beginning.
Next, check to see if the story MAKES SENSE. This is tough because you might have a great idea in your head, but it might not have made its way onto the paper. What is your story about: Man against Man? Man against Nature? Man against Himself? Are there good reasons why your characters do what they do? Is there a resolution?
Last of all, see if your TITLE fits what you have learned while going through all those bullet points. Does the over-all meaning of your story fit that title? Sometimes you will discover a different meaning to your story and the title needs to be changed.
As one last pass-through in the editing process, while I am reading each sentence I ask myself THREE QUESTIONS:
Does it advance the story?
Does it enhance the story?
Is it redundant? Is it redundant?
For those who don’t outline before you write, remember, this outline happens AFTER you have written your story. It is a great EDITING TOOL. It lets you look at your work objectively and see if all the pieces fit. And one more benefit, it provides a TIMELINE so you can see if all the action you are writing fits into any given day. Nothing like finding out you have penciled in 32 hours of action in a 24-hour day.
Give it a try.
I am teaching a four-hour course, How to Open Your Story with a Bang, at the Woman’s Club of Hollywood on May 7th. It will cover this aspect of writing and a lot more. If you would like more information about the class, leave a note on this blog.
17 thoughts on “Editing and Outlines by Gayle Bartos-Pool”
Wow, another writing class at the Hollywood's Woomen's Club. Be careful, with your good teaching they will become your competition!
Having the ending fitting the opening and vice versa is key, I think. The set up should pay off. Thanks for the reminder. (And this applies to non-fiction as well.)
Yep…. Woomen's. A typo I should have caught, but hey, maybe these gals woo men there too! Hahahahaha!
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Funny, Jackie. But seriously, I often hear writers complain about revisions, as if once they've finished their first draft they don't want to bother with it any more. No surprise their work tends to be weak compared to writers who put in the effort to get their stories as close to perfect as possible. It's wine, not words, that improve with age – and only good wine at that.
You really know what you're talking about with editing. BTW: The first of Gayle's classes at the Woman's Club was amazing. There is already a waiting list for those wanting to attend this second workshop on May 7th. Great work, Gayle.
Jackie, Your typo is a great example of what writers do. I have over a million and a half words in print and no matter how much editing, professional as well as myself doing it, there are errors. But some people don't want to make even the slightest effort. I go over my work a dozen times because I know I should. I owe it to my readers and even to myself because I want to turn out a good product.
Such a good method for making sure it all hangs together, GB. Thanks!
I can understand when a writer doesn't want to fundamentally change something in their work, but a spelling typo or grammatical error is easy. I never want to get so “important” that I can't correct a mistake.
I have learned so much just getting ready for these workshops, that it has helped me in my own writing. And even though Jackie H. was kidding about the students being competition, if everybody improves their writing and enjoys it more, I will be happy.
I have found holes in my plot this way. I use it for all my stories, long or short.
Editing – it's the rest of writing! All great points here, Gayle. I can't seem to outline, though – my punishment is endless hours in revisions and edits.
One may cut the perfect gemstones, but then one needs to polish it. The results are always worth the effort. As for doing the outline, in the class I'm teaching at the Woman's Club, I mention that you can do the outline after you do the writing. It is just a matter of listing all the stops along your character's journey. You can see if you have too many highs in a row, or perhaps an unneeded stop. It also makes a terrific timeline so you don't cram too much in a 24-hour day.
I love that your advice appeals to my controlling left-brain desire for checklists. It sounds like a great way to catch oopsies, and I'm going to put together a chart so I can apply it. (Because I'm a geek.)
I use the bullet points feature on WORD and let that be my form. But I do have a form for listing the characters and a brief description of each so I remember their names, etc. Geek is good!
Excellent post, Gayle! You're an excellent and organized teacher. Funny about seeing “stuff” in others work, and not in your own–oh so true! For me editing of all types (line, content, whatever)is not an afterthought, but an integral part of the process–often what I later think are some of the best parts, arrived there during the editing process.
As for beginnings and endings, I have the ending in my mind, first, and am heading there from even the preface. So agree with what Jackie said, “Having the ending fitting the opening and vice versa is key, I think.”
I have printed off the beginning and ending of every story I have written. Most have a connection. All the new stuff does. It isn't a hard and fast rule, but I like the stories better when they have a connection.
Really good points, Gayle. And things we all need to remember. Thanks! — Paul