Storyville: Evaluating Your Work in Progress—As Author, Editor, and Reader
So today we’re going to talk about how to evaluate a work in progress. I think it’s crucial to look at your work through a variety of different gazes in order to achieve different things. You have to put on different hats, in order to see the full picture here, and then edit accordingly. So let’s dig in and expand on this topic, and see if we can’t improve your process.
First: Read as the Audience
You have just finished crapping out your first draft—it’s great, it’s terrible, you can’t remember why you started this, you feel you have achieved some glorious moments, you don’t know if it works, it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. All of that. So what now?
The first time through you want to read your work as if you are the reader, the audience, the customer. Why? You want to see how you feel, and whether or not it works.
I encourage you, the first time through, to not edit in any way, shape, or form. I just want you to read your story. Even better—if you can put it aside for a few hours, days, or weeks and then come back to it after you’ve forgotten it a bit—do that. I know you won’t do it for weeks, but if you can let it sit for a few days, it will really help.
What are you looking for? What questions are you asking? I think you want to read your piece in terms of big picture and total experience. What were your goals? What genre is it? What was the vibe you were going for? Remember that, but don’t read this as you, the author, or you, the editor, just read it as the audience. What does that mean?
As the reader, just respond. Was the story immersive? Did you understand it? Did you believe it? Have you seen this done before? Was it totally expected? All of these questions (and certainly others) are basically adding up to this one big question—DID IT WORK?
Now is the time to jot down some big picture notes, and then hand those to your author self, who is eager to hear your thoughts.
Second: As the Author
Okay, you got your first response, and there were some notes. Did you want to write a horror story but it ended up being science fiction? Was it supposed to be funny, but you didn’t laugh? Was the goal to unsettle us with the final act, but you weren’t moved? Okay, now is the time to read back through as the author, and make those big picture edits.
Look at the horrific elements, and utilize that science fiction (Alien? Hello?) but work hard to make it more scary—balance the terror (the unknown, the hints, the clues, the tension) with the horror (the violence, the monster, the reveal) to make sure that those attributes come through. Look at the places you wanted to be funny, and ask yourself why they didn’t work, and fix them. Look at your ending and ask yourself why the ending didn’t resonate, didn’t unsettle. Did you not go far enough? Was it too predictable? Unearned? Did we not care enough, meaning you need to go deeper? Did the humor you thought was so important actually diffuse the tension instead of increase it?
EDIT. Edit as the author, behind the scenes, using all of your tricks, key elements (Freytag and more), and techniques, to try and get this story to work.
Now that you’ve done that, and it’s much better, hand it off to the editor.
Third: As an Editor
Now is the time where you really give this story a critical eye and EDIT. This is NOT the time to deal with big picture edits, cutting scenes and moving huge chunks of landscape around, adding new characters—any of that. The story should be close, so edit it for the smaller elements. What does that mean?
Edit for tense shifts (stay past, or stay present), edit out grammatical mistakes, check your punctuation (especially the dialogue), make sure proper names and titles are correct, check the research elements (do palm trees really grow in Chicago?), all of that. This is when you clean up the story, getting it as tight as you can. You went from editing with a chainsaw, to a hatchet, to a chef’s knife, to a scalpel. This is the scalpel. Tighten, don’t expand. Cut the fat, don’t add more, fine tune this for your final reading. Which is what’s coming up next, so hand that story off again.
Fourth: As a Reader Again
If you can, put this story aside again. At this point, you’re probably impatient, so maybe you can only last a few hours, but try to give it a day or two if possible. Then read it again with fresh eyes and ask yourself the same questions as you did earlier.
What did you feel?
Was it immersive?
Did you understand it?
Did you believe it?
Have you seen this done before?
Was it predictable?
And most importantly—DID IT WORK?
Depending on how you answered these questions, now is the time to do one of three things:
- Start over and do it all again. You didn’t get the right answers. It still needs work.
- Workshop it with your friends, peers, and classmates to make sure it’s ready.
- Send it out.
It’s crucial that in your writing process you can read your work as the audience, as the author of the story, and as an editor. Each pass, each level, does different things for your story. Your emotions and feelings on the first (and last) read are very important to understanding the experience. As the author, you need to make sure that you understand what you are trying to do, and that you did it well—all of the elements that we talk about in my classes. And finally, that you edit when it is TIME to edit—not when you are in the process of creating, building your world, and not when you are still shifting continents, moving huge elements around. Hopefully you only have to go through this process once, and then you can send the work out. Maybe you need to do it twice. Maybe it has to be workshopped, too.
Do what you need to do to make this story sing. Whether it takes you a day, a week, or a month, put everything you have into it. Your process will get faster, your instincts will improve, it will get less painful—as long as you are honest with yourself about what works (LEAVE THAT STUFF ALONE) and what doesn’t (FIX IT). A day will come when you can do all of this in six hours and turn it in to meet a deadline. But it takes practice. Put in your 10,000 hours, and hone your skills.
You’ve got this. I believe in you.
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