Friday, August 25, 2017

Self-editing a short story by Sarah Wisseman

Self-editing is hard, no two ways about it. I remember a workshop led by Nancy Pickard years ago that I found especially useful. She called her method CASTS (Conflict, Action, Senses, Turn, and Surprise) and encouraged all of us to evaluate each scene or chapter using these five criteria. The trickiest for us to understand was the difference between "turn" and "surprise." If memory serves me, a "turn" could be a shift in mood for the protagonist/narrator, e.g. start the scene excited and end up hopeless. "Surprise" could be an "aha" moment for either the protagonist or the reader, as in, "I never thought of that!"

I recently sent in a short story for an anthology contest that required intense self-editing. As I accepted feedback from friends and colleagues, I had to sort out what to incorporate and what to discard (my rule is: if two or more critics say something needs fixing, pay attention).

Here are some of the guidelines I developed. All of these apply to novels too, but were especially helpful to me as I refined my short story and tried to make every word count.

What is the story logic? Does it work for readers? Review major plot points and how they unfold.
I made an outline and read it out loud to myself. Sometimes the logic is obvious to me, but not to my readers because I have left out some portion of my reasoning.

Where are the red herrings? Are they inserted in the best possible way?
I want some misdirection, but not too much. There’s less space in a short story, and you have to balance misdirection with keeping up the pace of the story.

Follow each character: How do you reveal character? Is each character distinct, and do they interact with others consistently?
 One of my characters was a bit wooden, so I fixed that by adding phrases or action words as dialogue tags.

Do you have the right balance between dialogue and description?
This was especially difficult for me since I discovered halfway through that I was writing my first police procedural, with crucial dialogue between two detectives!  I added a little more description.

Is there tension on each page? How is it revealed?
I made my characters argue with each other, disagreeing on how to proceed. I increased their physical discomfort as well.

Is there a twist at the end?
This is crucial, since most short stories want an “aha!” moment at the end.

I find critique groups immensely valuable; the members are readers as much as they are fellow writers. Although I attend one group that has 15-20 participants, I prefer a much smaller group so we can each read longer sections and receive more detailed feedback.

Finally, here's a great quote:

“A writer is, after all, only half his book. The other half is the reader and from the reader the writer learns."  (P.L. Travers, creator of the "Mary Poppins" series) 


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Sarah,

Excellent questions to ask. The self-edit is just as difficult as actual initial writing--maybe even more so. But as you say, it's necessary. I agree about surprise and twist. And these are not just needed for traditional mystery stories.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Very interesting piece, Sarah. The questions are an excellent guide to approaching a ms with a fresh eye.

Unknown said...

I agree about surprise and twist. And these are not just needed for traditional mystery stories.


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