Ruling Them All

I’m a fan of rules. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing have been invaluable to me as I’ve made progress towards being a better storyteller. Now that I’m in the realm of having to actually edit the things that I’m writing before I share them with anyone, I have a new set of rules to learn.

The two biggest influences on me as far as editing goes are Self-Editing for the Fiction Writer by Browne & King and David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife.

Both books are terrific primers for the writer who needs to take his writing to another level, the next level, whatever. I won’t go into them because, really, if you’re interested you’ll go find both books, flip through them and see what you think. You may have to go to a library to be able to look at them first (or maybe Amazon) but you definitely should.

What I want to talk about this week is what I’m doing with my current work in progress because I’m trying something different.

Instead of reading the story from start to finish, making notes and changing the little things that bug me in the draft, I’m working backwards. At least, I’m reading each chapter, noting what happens and also noting what changes I think should be made, jotting down things like “foreshadow this”. I’m doing this on paper with a red pen, which is terribly satisfying.

What I’m looking for are several things:

  • Is the POV consistent? I mean: am I head-hopping from one character to another? This is probably the biggest thing that I need to keep working on. If I’m jumping from one point of view to another, is there a reason for it? If not, fix it.
  • I also look for actions that keep getting repeated. For instance everyone ‘turns’ to someone or something else in every Zero Draft I’ve ever written. Along the same lines, actions have to be realistic and possible. It’s usually in the actions of a character that I’ve made some horrible mistake, like having them walk across a room to the glass they set down in the paragraph before.
  • Working backwards, I’m looking for things that are important to the ending in the beginning, so I’m making notes about foreshadowing things or mentioning things that are important at least twice before they become important later. I’ve read that is called The Rule of Three. It works for me, but it isn’t original.
  • Typos. Yeah, I look for typos and obvious mistakes like using ‘she’ when I meant ‘he’ and all the other things that get dropped or glossed over in the Zero Draft.

By the time I’ve gotten through the entire manuscript, I’ve got a legitimate First Draft. Not necessarily one that I want to show my Beta Readers, but one that I can be proud of and decide whether or not I want to go back through and ensure that the plot makes sense and the story is told. It’s in the First Draft status that I start actually refining the story into something readable.

This is all very mechanical and these are the rules that work for me. They’re becoming more ingrained as I go along, and I’m afraid it’s not very entertaining at this point. Make no mistake, readers, editing your work is Work. It has to be done. It’s that rare genius who can write a near-complete book in one pass. I’m not that genius.

I’m just the guy who has to have rules to work with.

Jason Arnett is a storyteller living in Kansas and writing in the plains of the fantastic. Some of his work can be found at

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