Making Final Edits with Surgical Fixes

Let’s talk about final edits on a project, specifically a novel, where, unlike with a memoir, you can change the plot and character actions if you feel the need. The key at this point, assuming you like the vast majority of the work, is to edit with surgical fixes. That means going in and adding, changing, or subtracting one slight thing that doesn’t change the direction of the plot.

This is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds, because everything changes the direction of the plot. If the character decides to do something generous, then that’s a part of her character now. If she does something selfish, later, that’s going to be hard to justify. If a character takes the left fork in the road but later has to end up on the right side of town, he’s going to have to get across town, later on.

He could take a hot air balloon to get across town, but something has to justify the balloon’s existence. Afterward, what happens to the hot air balloon? It can’t just float away after its fulfilled its part of the plot, or it will look like a plant. That’s the deux ex machina effect–the idea that something appears just when it happens to be convenient to the plot, to save a character or save the day or whatever, and it’s just a matter of luck. That type of stuff really makes readers groan.

Sci-Fi writer Ian M. Banks called this kind of thing an excession event–something the book’s characters could never have prepared for because it comes from out of the blue–kind of like Columbus landing his ships in North America. How could the Native Americans have known that was going to happen?

Excession events are fine as the catalyst for an entire storyline–Columbus lands, thus bringing smallpox to North America and introducing natives to guns and horses and the idea of land ownership, and the story takes off from there. But such events are terrible as solutions to story problems. After all, every story is a mystery, in a way. Readers’ minds are always focused on figuring out what happens next, even if they don’t realize it.

In fact, that’s one of the techniques for teaching children to read. You read them one page of the book and ask them to predict what might happen next. That ability to predict is a big part of the act of reading, which becomes so subconscious people don’t realize they’re doing it UNTIL someone throws in a red herring that comes out of the blue.

Man, that steams people up because it negates all the logical predicting they’ve been doing unconsciously. So, I’m just saying, when you’re making surgical fixes to a plotline, take into account what has already been established–the character traits already existing and the plot elements already in play–and alter with these things in mind. When doing edits, the time for imagination has passed and the time for Xtreme logic is here.

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