Use Storybreaking to Edit Your Novel

One of the hardest things about editing your book is keeping all of the information straight and in the right order. That’s one reason I advocate for outlining. A plain outline doesn’t suit everyone during the drafting process, but once we reach the editing phase, having a visual depiction of the story will help us edit more efficiently.

One technique that’s not often taught to novel writers is storybreaking, which is a screenwriting technique. Screenwriter Vik Rubenfeld calls storybreaking “The Most Important Hollywood Writing Technique You’ve Never Heard Of.”

When Rubenfeld wrote his article, he expressed surprise that more writers don’t know this technique. He linked to this interview with Vince Gilligan, a screenwriter for The X-Files and one of the creators of Breaking Bad.


If you click through to Rubenfeld’s article, he has a transcript of Gilligan’s comments.

Storybreaking involves identifying each turning point within a narrative. This ensures that we hit all the points we need to and omit those that are not moving the story forward. In Hollywood, this is done at the creation stage, but we can also use it during our editing.

The key point Gilligan makes is that each plot beat the writers identify is indispensable to the scene. He explains that they might spend a week or two on this process for each episode, which might only be a 45-page screenplay. So you might not want to use this technique for an entire book. But if on reading through your first draft you identify weak scenes, storybreaking can be useful for working out what those scenes need to make them indispensable.

Storybreaking can be used in two directions. First, you can use it to figure out, from where the hero is now, what happens next? How does he get from Point A to Point B? Second, you can use it to reverse-engineer the desired ending. If he finishes at Point Z, what were Points Y and X?

Storybreaking can also be used to fill in gaps in a narrative that moves too fast or that loses readers because important information has been skipped over. For example, you might have a first draft in which the hero uses a rocket-propelled grenade to destroy the villain’s private jet. That’s a spectacular climax, but if you haven’t shown how the hero gets access to an RPG, storybreaking can help you figure out how to plant everything that’s needed for your climax.

Editing Your Book with Track Changes

When you work with an editor on your book, you will probably use the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word. This can be a little daunting if you’ve never used it before, especially when you get a file back with more red on it than Sweeney Todd’s apron.

First, don’t panic. Remember your editor is there to help you, and those red marks are meant to be instructive, not destructive.

Schedule a time when you can go through your manuscript slowly. If there‘s a change you don’t understand, feel free to ask. For example, one client asked why I had replaced e-mail with e‑mail, since she had in fact hyphenated it. I explained that I had replaced the regular hyphen with a nonbreaking hyphen so that if the word fell at the end of a line, the e‑ wouldn’t be stranded by itself.

Reject or change the edits you don’t like, and leave the ones you approve of. You should have many more approvals than rejections—like, 20 to 1. If you are rejecting more than 5 percent of your editor’s suggestions, there’s a bigger problem to address than how to use Track Changes. More on that next time.

Using Word Track Changes

Save time by accepting all changes at once.

If you’re sending your manuscript back to the editor for a second pass, leave the Tracked Changes and comments in place. That lets them see everything you’ve done in context with their original edit. Often if we’ve worked on other manuscripts since the last time we saw yours, we may not remember what the original text said, what changes we made, or what we asked you to fix. So leaving all those changes and notes gives us the background we need to assess your latest revision.

Once you and your editor agree that the editing is finished and you’re ready to submit the manuscript to agents and editors (or to send to a typesetter or Kindle converter), you can use the Accept All Changes command to clear all the approved edits at once. You’ll find this command in Ribbon’s Review tab, under the pull-down menu of the Accept button.

You’ll also need to delete all the comments from the manuscript. This command is also in the Review tab, under Comments. There’s a New button to create a new comment, and a Delete button for deleting comments once you’ve addressed whatever issue they brought up. The Delete button also has a drop-down menu, where you’ll find the Delete all Comments command.

Note that my screen shot is from Word for Mac 2011. Microsoft seems to delight in moving commands around from one version to the next and from one platform to the other, so that no two versions of any Office app are entirely the same. So use a bit of Google-fu to get what you need. Start your search terms with your operating system, then your version of Word, then the thing you’re trying to find. I might, for example, search for Mac Word 2011 nonbreaking hyphen. Hypothetically.

Microsoft Word is often accused of feature bloat, and it does contain myriad functions some of us will never use. But its powerful change tracking and commenting features are the main reason it is still the standard software for writing and editing books. If you plan a career as a writer, you’ll do well to take advantage of these features.

 

Let me know if further teaching on this would interest you. I’m thinking a screencast may be called for. What do you think?

When To Outsource Your Grammar

When we talk about the mechanics of a manuscript, we are ultimately talking about details: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the like. Style is also a component of mechanics, as is manuscript format.

But remember that when I introduced the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist I said it was in order of importance. There’s a reason Mechanics is the last category on the list. It’s the least important.

Which isn’t to say that it’s unimportant. Continue reading

Using Words as Words

Often when we’re writing nonfiction we need to refer to words in such a way that the term being used is itself the subject of the discussion, rather than the concept the term describes. If I say “My Sunday school students have difficulty understanding the concept of propitiation,” it means something very different from “English is her second language, so she has difficulty understanding the word propitiation.”

words

Photo by Brenton Nicholls • FreeImages

When in your writing you need to discuss the word or phrase itself rather than the concept described by the term, put the term in italics. Continue reading

Write With Clarity

When writing for a general audience, we want to ensure that the language we use is clear—the opposite of the kind of bafflegab we looked at earlier.

Language is clear and vocabulary is appropriate to the audience.

The key to keeping your language clear is ensuring that everything can be understood in context. This often requires a careful balance between the concrete and the abstract. Information technology solutions is an abstract. Computer networking hardware is slightly more concrete. Better still is devices that connect your computer to the Internet. Continue reading

Engaging Prose is Active and Varied

To keep readers engaged with the text, use strong nouns and verbs to construct active sentences. Which isn’t to say every sentence must be in the active voice.

The passive voice is used only when appropriate.

Writers are forever being told to avoid the passive voice.

You see the problem. Continue reading

Write Brightly, but with Restraint

As writers, we want to create strong mental pictures and evoke powerful emotions. Even if your writing is prescriptive rather than narrative, you want to give readers a clear idea of your concepts.

☐ The writing is illuminating and vivid.

The foundation of vivid writing is strong nouns and verbs. People doing things. The next important element is using precise words. It’s one thing to write about a girl riding a horse. It’s another to write about a twelve-year-old waif riding an elegant palomino. Continue reading