Tag Archives: editing

The Life-Changing Magic of Editing the Shit Out of Your Story

You’ve just finished the first draft of your story and you can’t wait to revisit it, but when you do it feels like a blotted mess. It’s cluttered with character descriptions, meandering subplots, and quirky observations. You know you need to make some deep cuts, but you don’t know where exactly.

Here are some of the things that can bog down your story and what you can do to tidy them up.

Unnecessary Setups

Chekhov’s gun is a principle in storytelling based on Anton Chekhov’s quote, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

Every setup should pay off.

An author with a strictly structured story won’t have problems with this. They’ll check their math and know where everything fits before they start.

I like to write with a loose blueprint so I can discover things as I go. The problem is I’m more likely to jam my stories with impulse setups, like little mysteries I think are cool in the moment, but are often forgotten.


If you write by the seat of your pants color-code the paragraphs that contain setups within your document. This will make editing easier later on. Once you’ve finished your first draft go to these setups and ask yourself, “Did I pay this off?” If not give it the ax.

Setups that Suck as Scenes

Have you ever seen a film where everything slows down to draw attention to specific detail? Perhaps the hero’s mother mentions that her daughter used to love diving before her father died. Everyone in the audience nods their heads knowing the hero’s diving background will come up again. Now that heroic plunge might be a heart wrenching moment later on, but why did the setup have to feel so inorganic and superfluous?


If you’re setting something up to payoff later make sure the scene is entertaining in the here and now. Those scenes are where you’re most likely to lose your audience. Put something intriguing on the surface before you challenge people to read between the lines.

Try using micro setups and micro payoffs. Use the first few scenes to setup your overarching mysteries, but also setup something that will pay off in that scene. Show readers that you’ll reward them for paying attention.

Pacing Padding

Early writers feel a need to convey a passage of time by padding out their story. They show characters entering and exiting scenes. They come into conversations as they begin and exit with the goodbyes. They write transitions between locations, as if travel details are obligatory for believability.

They forget that time jumps are part of storytelling, that they don’t need to show the process that led a character from point A to B to C, so long as A connects to C in some way.


Rather than padding out the passage of time you should find clever ways to convey it.

  • Set a murder out on a frozen lake. Set the next scene in the springtime when fishermen find a bloated body.
  • Give a character a flesh wound in one scene show it scabbed over in the next.
  • Put your hero behind the wheel at sunset. Have an ominous moon hanging overhead when they arrive at their destination.

Arbitrary Emotional Cool Down

As a horror writer I try to consider how much emotional torture readers can take before they fling my book into the fireplace. If I just put the reader through a sequence of high tension and mounting dread, I want to ease off the throttle and give them a moment to breathe, to let them grieve the loss of a character, to allow the scales of hope and dread to balance back out.

My natural instinct will be to write a soft uneventful scene with some comic relief and a few minutes of character musings.

The thing is every scene should meet certain qualifications to justify their inclusion. There should be a conflict, something that advances the plot and reveals character details.

My first attempts at breather scenes eased back too much. They were boring. Not every conflict should be a matter of life and death, but there should always be something at stake.


It’s important to give readers an emotional cool down, an eye in the storm of blood, but you need to make these breaks eventful in their own way.

These seemingly innocuous scenes should plant things that will factor in later. Every story should see its hero go through a profound personal change. Now is a good time to check in on what their situation is teaching them. Might they learn a lesson here that could be essential to their survival? Fill these low tension scenes with meaningful developments.

Impulse Items

When I wrote He Has Many Names I spent a lot of time researching hell and the devil. It colored the way I saw the world and tuned my ear to devilish things. Whenever I heard an idiom related to Satan I thought, “Now I’ve got to shoehorn that in.” I felt a compulsion to add Satanic puns in places the story didn’t need them. Fortunately my editors caught what I was doing and put a stop to it.

Solution: If you’re writing a vampire story you didn’t need to wedge every Twilight quip you can think of in. Just because youe subject is a well-trodden topic doesn’t mean you need to reference every incarnation of it. Over-referencing is a rookie mistake.


William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

My first drafts have a lot of darlings, little wordplay witticisms that break up the action. I like to write in the first person, but my narrators can be overtly clever, snarky, and mean spirited.

I find most of my clever one-liners wear on me after a few edits. By the final draft my narrators are a lot more likeable.


I put my darlings into storage. It makes it easier to cut them. When a quirky line breaks up the flow of a scene I copy and paste it into its own document. Maybe I’ll re-gift it to a character who can wear it better later.

Closing Thoughts

When editing ask yourself if that extra character detail sparks joy, if your settings are cluttered with too many descriptions, and if all your plot points are load-bearing.

Sometimes when a story feels like it’s missing something it’s because it has too many things it doesn’t need and the parts that matter are underdeveloped.

Stop hording unnecessary details. Every aspect of your story should serve the central theme. If they don’t then you’re going to need to tidy that shit up.

Continue reading The Life-Changing Magic of Editing the Shit Out of Your Story

How to Keep Your Writing from Reading like a Bogus Essay Answer

In his book On Bullshit Harry G. Frankfurt wrote, “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”

Something magical happens when people are called upon to give information they don’t have: rather than admit the limits of their knowledge they give it the old college try. We all know what decisive conclusions sound like. We need not know what we’re talking about to draw them. So we riff to buy ourselves time until we stumble upon a point.

This article is going to explore this phenomenon, identify how it shows up in fiction writing, and what can be done to fix it so that would-be authors can seem like they actually know what they’re doing. Continue reading How to Keep Your Writing from Reading like a Bogus Essay Answer

When Perfectionism Goes Wrong

Visualize that perfect novel you’ve always wanted to write. See the simple yet elegant design. It’s covered in medals like a four star general’s chest: the Newbery Medal, the Noble Prize for Literature, and the coveted Oprah’s book club sticker. Feel your name bulging from the dust jacket, feel the perfect stitching in the binding, and the deckled edges of pages.

Flip the book over and see your flawless portrait filling out the back. You look so well read, charming, and confidant, nothing like a fraud at all. Crack the book open, see the inside flaps littered with endorsements from authors you’d wet yourself upon meeting.

Within this book’s pages are the most profound prose you could pry from your soul. It’s your personal philosophy laundered into a story. Your life experience is spread throughout its contents. Every least comma represents a broken shard of your heart. Your every skeleton is laid out between its lines.

Readers will think of their lives in terms of who they were before reading this novel and who they became afterward. They will carry it with them like a bible. They’ll quote it in arguments. They’ll page through it in moments of quiet desperation.

Hold this novel out in front of you like an offering to the Heavens. Now drop it and kick it like a football. Watch it go over the horizon. Accept that this false ideal will never happen. Continue reading When Perfectionism Goes Wrong

How to Reroute your Story For A New Twist

When I started my novel We the Damned my outline was no longer than a paragraph. All I wanted to know was the premise, the players, and the conflict.

In the story the demon Court of Skulls puts Eugene Black’s life on trial. They sabotage his defense by assigning him Murphy O’Dell, a day drinking public defender in the process of being disbarred. The courts rigs the evidence, alters procedure, and calls a series of couched witnesses to convince Eugene his life has no meaning. The court’s victory seems like a foregone conclusion until Murphy comes to care about his client.

I knew the surface conflict, but wanted to wait until I was in the thick of writing to understand the characters’ underlying motivations. All I knew was the Court of Skulls wanted to damn a soul while concealing its importance, and Murphy wanted to win, because it gave him a chance to stick it to the demons who he learned have been sabotaging his life all along. Continue reading How to Reroute your Story For A New Twist

How to Fix Your Story Without Going Back to the Drawing Board

The Case Against Editing as You Go

When I first started writing I scrutinized every paragraph the moment after typing. I counted the syllables so I could adjust for rhythm and flow. I checked my metaphors to see if they mixed wrong, I ran every verb through the thesaurus, and I dialed all my hyperboles back.

By the end of the day my word count hovered around the same number I’d started at. Sometimes it was in the negative. My effort to fine tune the perfect page kept me from finishing my stories. Continue reading How to Fix Your Story Without Going Back to the Drawing Board

Too Much Dread

These images were inspired by Karin Dreijer Andersson’s makeup in the Fever Ray’s music video for ‘If I Had A Heart.’
These images were inspired by Karin Dreijer Andersson’s makeup in the band Fever Ray’s music video for ‘If I Had A Heart.’

The Balance of Hope and Dread

Writing a compelling story is a balancing act between hope and dread.

When the hero staggers down the sidewalk with a pink slip in one hand and an eviction notice in the other, put a piece of dread on the scale. When the hero discovers an old cellphone, with a genie trapped inside, granting wishes through text messages, put a piece of hope on the scale. When the phone’s battery starts running out of juice, put a piece of dread on. Continue reading Too Much Dread

Reanimating the Corpse of Your Story

When my first draft is dead on arrival, I have to edit my story back to life. This is how I slice out the borrowed elements from my work and stitch something original together.


Reanimating the Corpse of Your Story

My early screenplays were full of placeholders, cop drama clichés, stock dialogue I had every intention of replacing. The margins were littered with comments like, “IOU one clever retort here,” or “IOU one line of romantic sentiment,” or “IOU one well reasoned argument to show the hero has learned a lesson.” My scripts looked like algebra equations. Editing meant scratching my head, wondering what to substitute for “X.” I knew what the result should feel like, but lacked the variables to get there.

The stories hinged on melodramatic scenes. Without the words to communicate the characters’ emotions, I went for longwinded declarations. Tender moments devolved into bloated monologues that read like essay answers, not revelations. The words didn’t come naturally. I wasn’t putting myself in the shoes of my characters. I was reckoning what they’d say based on things I’d already heard. My point of reference was not my life, but what I’d seen on TV.

My beta readers asked, “Why would the hero do something so completely out of character?” My answer was always, “The story needed him to.” The writer’s hand cast a shadow over the text.

My first drafts were nearly dead on arrival. A script doctor couldn’t save them. They needed a surgeon. Someone to remove the wordy wisdom-teeth, trivial tonsils, and asinine appendix. Someone to dig their gloves into the gooey schmalz and pull the bare bones out. Someone to take the hackneyed heart and infuse it with new life.

My second drafts limped along on life support. I was too attached to the work to gut it. Making minor alterations to the dialogue, I tried to punch lines up rather than shift conversations around. I tried to define redundant characters rather than combine them. I tried to justify entrance and exits scenes rather than slice them out. I used contractions to lower my word count rather than sacrifice one line of precious description.

Have you ever watched a movie that felt like one long montage, where no scene lasted longer than two minutes? The camera would whisk you from set to set, never stopping long enough to let you settle in. The story wasn’t pulling you along, it was tugging. These stories don’t stop moving long enough to find dry land. That was my problem. I was big on sequences and small on moments. I wrote a ninety page script with eighty-three scenes.

It took a while for the extent of my problems to sink in. My scripts hinged on scenes that needed to be cut. Needless characters had been made invaluable by their lone contribution to the story. The scenes were so short that the composer could stretch one song across ten of them.

I didn’t need to write a third draft. I needed to redo the first.

My placeholders had infected the story. All of those phrases like, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” or “I can’t believe I’m saying this, (insert the name of the villain here) has a point…” and “You should see the other guy,” stuck out.

These were the sayings I always passed over during my second draft. They weren’t my lines, but they had the whole of film history behind them. They felt secure, despite being hollow. They were safe investments, filler dialogue while I waited for the characters to speak for themselves.

Something happened when my characters got more refined. Their dialogue didn’t suit them. Han Solo didn’t fit into the stories I was writing. Mine was a universe where the plucky rogues couldn’t charm their way out of harm’s way. My heroes couldn’t afford to be this smug in the face of danger. They knew better than to engage in banter in the barracks. They lacked the confidence to wink as they rode into battle.

My first few drafts took an original premise and played it out with familiar heroes, settings and events. They’d make fine trailers, but terrible movies. My third draft had to honor that original premise with original characters and sequences. I had to gut the parts that felt safe. Rather than file down the jagged edges, I sharpened them. My third drafts were Frankenstein monsters, built from dangerous material.

Applying this approach to my novellas, I’ve discovered story elements along the way. Digging myself out of plot holes, by writing chapters in-between chapters.

Deleting the serviceable filler lines, I replaced them with something with genuine. This meant, holding back the zingers when they’re out of character, or inappropriate to the situation. This meant stealing from life experience, if not my own, then the accumulated experience of my peers. Challenging my character assumptions, my friends discovered plot holes I wasn’t looking for. They’d say, “Why doesn’t he just do this?…” or “What’s to stop the bad guys from just doing this?…”

They forced me to think of these ideas not as stories, but as events in my character’s lives. Donating the limbs my monster needed to stand on, they helped me rebuild it from the ground up.