The Four Act Edit

I spend a lot of time thinking about story design before, during, and after writing each Act of my novels. I know this is not the usual advice of "PUSH-PUSH-PUSH", that simplistic idea that states: if you can write X words per hour, then all you have to do is write 5 times more hours/day and you can write your novel 5 times faster. Hmmmm. Not exactly.

So if I can run 6 miles/day, then ALL I would have to do is run 30 miles every day and I'll be in 5 times better shape? That's stupid. Ignoring the fact that I would destroy my knees attempting this, the theory doesn't address the framework of your life (how much time you have to do other things), and completely ignores the quality of attention (pushing through a word-count often results in fluffy descriptions and internal dialog). I don't think working to exhaustion is a good long-term strategy either.

Worse, the push-push strategy ignores the difference between physical labor and knowledge labor (yes they are different). When I was an archaeologist, some days I would hike all day, some days I would sit in the office and write reports all day. You can force yourself to crest another hill. You cannot force yourself to write another site form that requires attention to detail.

No matter which I was doing, I'd miss things when I rushed. During a field survey, that won't be as noticeable (because who would know?). In a report, an error is going to come up to bite you, perhaps causing you to redo your work (which may cost you months of delays, because of the long consultation process with other government agencies). So push-push-push can work, but not always. It depends on what attention to detail is required for the job.

If you've landed on this page I assume you understand that blundering ahead does not work for you. This may be because you are paralyzed by self-doubt (bad) or because something is actually wrong with your story (good to know) or because you are a careful writer (better to know). Writing fast does work for some people, by the way, but not for ALL people. So this advice is for the careful writer.

What I do is edit each day, adding words to shape and finish a scene. Once a scene is done, I write as quickly as possible for the next scene (so I do a little "just writing" too). Then I stop and start the editing and expansion process again. But I also stop writing completely for a few days, every time I hit a certain milestone.

I suggest that you stop 3-4 times during your fist draft, and reassess your story. Edit each Act after you finish. Assuming you are following the standard 3-act structure (which is actually 4 acts):

  • Act 1: First 25% - Opening through Lock-In
  • Act 2A: Second 25% - Buildup to Midpoint
  • Act 2B: Third 25% - Midpoint to All is Lost Moment
  • Act 3: Final 25% - Resolution to All is Well

Pause in between each act, and edit more completely. Clean things up. Take the time to analyze what has happened so far. Perhaps put the work up as a preview to build reader interest.

Is anything bothering you? Do any characters need to be combined? Has your ending changed because of some "just write" idea that popped up. It's better to address it early, so you don't go down the wrong path.

This will help to ensure the story is still on track. When your book is finished, you will have taken much longer than someone who writes quickly, but you'll also have a lot less editing to do.

I think it comes out in the wash. So if you hate editing: slow down, think carefully, and write the right words.

Thanks! Eric

Copyright (c) 2019 E.C. Stever

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