Monday, May 12, 2014

Editing in Layers: The Big Picture of Your Scene

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Last Monday I talked about the first layer of edits, which I think should be reading through your whole book and determining what needs to be kept, changed, added, researched, developed, and so forth.

Sometimes when I'm doing that initial read-through, I'll decide to add a subplot or create a major plot thread. If I do, then I I follow the process I've detailed here. I've found it's best to go ahead and add it before I do the scene-by-scene edits. That way when I start editing original scenes, I'm able to weave in the new subplot or plot thread.

If all I've noticed so far, however, is just a scene or two that needs to be added, I'll go ahead and start my scene-by-scene editing and then add the scene when I get to that point in the story.

When I do my scene-by-scene edits, I start by reading the scene as a whole so I can evaluate the foundation. The first question I ask myself is:

Am I using the right POV in this chapter?

Almost all my books are written with just one narrator, so sometimes this question is moot. But the book I'm working on now has two POV characters. I'll use samples from it because I happen to have done this part of the editing process just last week.

When trying to decide if it's the right POV character, you want to ask yourself "who has the most to lose in this scene?" Last week, as I was working on edits, I realized I had a scene from Paige's point of view that needed to be switched to Graham's. Paige was mourning the loss of her family business, so I initially thought we should see things from her point of view. But then I realized that Graham had more at stake in the scene, because Paige had already lost everything.

The next question I ask is:

Did I arrive late and leave early?

We talk a lot about starting books in the right place, but you should also be evaluating if you've started your scene in the right place.

For the scene that I'll show as an example, Paige has been having lunch with her parents after their family business imploded that morning. Her father has just told her that he's not going to fight to keep the company. I chose to start the scene right after he's said that to her for a few reasons:

  1. We don't need ten minutes of idle conversation before her father drops the bomb. Let's just get to it.
  2. In this situation, I didn't even feel like we needed the bomb. This is a gut thing, not a science. But for this book and this scene, I felt like the critical part was Paige's reaction, and that's where I wanted the focus to be.
  3. The publisher I'm targeting has strict rules about word count, so I'm trying to cut words wherever I can.
You also don't want to linger too long after you've achieved what you want to with a scene. Your reader gets a VIP party passthey get treated to only the best parts. Bring them to the party late when stuff is already going on, and then get them out of there early before things wind down.

And then I have a few more questions I ask ... and I actually make myself write this stuff down.
I've found it pushes me past being lazy and makes me think about details besides what my characters are saying to each other. (In my first drafts, you would think that's all that matters to me.)

Here's a link to print out your own copy, if you'd like.

What do I want to accomplish in this scene?

When I wrote my first draft, I likely had no idea what I was wanting to achieve with the scene because I was still exploring this place. But now I've explored and picked the shape of my cake pan (see Monday's post if that's confusing) and I need to figure out why this scene matters.

What does the POV character want and why?
My goal and my character's goals rarely align. In each scene, it's very helpful to know what your character wants to happen and why they want that.

What's at stake in this scene?
What happens if they don't get what they want? What will they lose because of it? Or what do they think will be lost?

Have I provided context for my readers?
Have you ever been reading through one of your first drafts and halfway through a scene, a character pipes up ... and you didn't even remember he was in the room? Or did you imagine this conversation was taking place in a school hall only to realize they're at soccer practice?

Make sure in your scenes you're providing context for your readers. Who is there? Where are we? What details stand out to the character? When is this taking place? What's going on around them? What is my character doing? Why are they there?

Have I included at least three of the five senses?
My first drafts have almost zero sensory details. Now is a great time to work in what your character can taste, touch, see, smell, and hear.

When I'm done, my sheet looks like this:

But now that I've filled out my orderly little sheet, what do I do with it? How do I go about adding the details I just thought of?

The first thing is, I (likely) don't use all the details. I may have written down that there are butterflies about, but then find I have no place in the story where it's natural to add my butterflies. That's okay. It doesn't all make the cut, but I like having ideas to draw from.

I keep my list beside me, and then I go about editing like I normally might. I try to fit the context details as early as possibleparticularly who's there and where we are. When I'm trying to figure out how I want to frame my dialogue, I might glance at my sheet to remember the details I had imagined.

If you're wanting to see samples of how the scene changes with this edit, I've posted my first draft and second draft of a scene from my manuscript

That was a ton of information crammed into one post! Anything I need to clarify?

The Go Teen Writers ebook continues to be on sale while we continue our Editing in Layers series. 

Also, our friend Alyson has a very fun book award nomination thing going on at her blog. Instead of nominating favorite books as a whole, you can nominate your favorite plot twists, antagonists, character development, etc. from your favorite books of 2013-14. If you're interested in nominating your favorites, you can do so here.


  1. Wow, Stephanie! You really make me want to read your book. Do you know when it's going to get published? Thanks for the tips, too.

    1. Thanks Sofia! We're still in the pitching process right now. I'm putting together my first three chapters. So, no idea yet when she might see the light of day :)

    2. Hope to see it in print soon. :)

  2. How old is Paige? By the way, I just love this line: "We can't be in front of you or beside you on this one, but your mother and I are behind you." Very nice. :)

    1. Paige is 27. This is all new ground for me... :)

  3. I need to read this new book. Now. I don't think I can wait much longer! I love how it's totally different than all of your other stuff; third person, two points of view, older characters. It'll be fantastic, I'm sure.

    1. Oh, you're so sweet. Right now most of it is still a rather messy blob, but I'm trusting the process to turn into a readable book :)

    2. I want to read it too! Sounds great, Steph. :-)

  4. This scene is like a cliffhanger!

    This post was really well timed, because I'm adding a new plot threat (what exactly is the difference between a subplot and a mayor plot threat, or is this a stupid question?) to my manuscript and it's not only adding a scene every now and then, it's looking through every scene to see if I can add some of this plot line in it. Which can be quite annoying, sometimes ;-)

    I've got a question, though: Do you use a scene editing checklist for all the scenes of your book?

    1. Not stupid at all! A subplot is like a miniature plot. It has a beginning, middle, and end. While it complements the main plot, you could also pull it out and have it be its own structurally sound story. A plot thread is another layer of main plot. (Sometimes it called a plot layer, actually.) A love interest, for example, might be a plot thread.

      These days, yes. I use the scene editing checklist for each scene. I haven't always, and I might not always, but currently it works well for me :)

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  6. This was a really helpful post, thanks! I'm still writing the first draft of my MG novel, Hazel, the Dreamer, but I should hopefully be finished by the first week in June. I'm also looking for a critique/brainstorming partner. I'll definitely use this method when I edit. :D

    1. You're so close to finishing! Congratulations!

    2. Thanks! Do you know a way I can find a good writing/critiquing partner?

    3. If you're on Facebook, you can join the Go Teen Writers Facebook group. There's always lots of conversation and critiquing going on there:

    4. Sadly, I'm not. Is there any other place?

    5. Patience BledsoeMay 16, 2014 at 11:05 AM

      ACFW - American Christian Fiction Writers - has a critique group that you can be a part of if you're a member. :)

    6. Try the G+ group too if you want, Liz :)

  7. Love all this editing information! Still debating which of my first drafts to edit. What was the fastest editing job you have ever done for one of your novels? From what others have told me, it is nearly impossible to edit in less then a year. Is that true? I can't decide if I want to devote time to editing something that isn't going to work out for publishing.

    1. No, that's not true at all. There are way too many variables for that to be a rule. How long is the book? How many times have you edited a novel before? How many hours a day/week do you get to work on it?

      See what I mean? A huge book is likely going to take a lot longer to edit than a shorter book. Someone who gets daily time to edit will get the job done faster than someone who only has once a week.

      My first published series, the Skylar Hoyt books, were all due within a year of when I got my contract. The first was mostly done, but I cranked out two completely edited books in about eight months. They were about 60k each. When I worked on the second Ellie book, however, I had a lot more life stuff going on. So I finished my first draft at the end of May, and then I was doing edits for a long time after. Practically June-October.

  8. Really cool post! I'm about to start editing my dystopian WIP, so this is all really timely for me! Including the senses and arriving at the right times I think are the things I struggle with most; I'll definitely be keeping them in mind for this go, though.

    Alexa Skrywer

  9. Patience BledsoeMay 13, 2014 at 3:22 PM

    I've really been enjoying your posts on editing. Thank you, Mrs. Morrill! Editing has always had its challenges for me, and I love hearing about how others do it and picking up new techniques to try with it. :) I've been learning a lot with your posts; I also thought it very neat and true about likening it all to a layers and a cake. :) My first novel in a series is in the editing process right now - third draft. :) I'm excited to try out some of these things with it!

    Thank you again!

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you! ;o) I am finishing my first draft and I feel like it's mostly dialogue. I thought for sure that I didn't have a story even after writing so much. After reading this post and your personal examples, I am excited to get to the editing and fleshing out part of the process. I'm glad that what I have written is a typical first draft! Thank you again.