Self-Editing Checklist: golf balls, beans, sand and water.
There is a frequently told story about a college physics instructor who sat a pickle jar filled with golf balls on top of his desk and asked his students if it was ‘full.” When they agreed that it was, he poured a sack of dried beans in it and shook the jar until they settled. “Now is it full?” he asked. They had to admit it was, until he took a scoop of sand from a bucket and poured it in. When he shook it once more, they all concluded that now, at last, the jar must be full. Then he reached for a pitcher of water…
This is the first in a series of short self-editing steps that I follow in my own creative writing. They work for me, and I pass them on for any useful information they might provide for you. In successive posts, I’ll write about the golf balls, beans, sand and water in my own editing approach.
Beans – The Style Edit : The story has to read well. This is your style and is unique to you. (don’t confuse with the character’s voices). Hemingway’s style is journalistic; Elmore Leonard’s is compact, terse; Umberto Eco’s is convoluted, complex. The key for your own writing is to be consistent. This includes elements like
Consistency of narrative voice
First Person: (I, me, mine, etc.): narrator has a limited perspective; narrator is a part of the story; actions and events are described from one perspective.
Examples: personal experiences – memoirs, novels, biographies.
Second Person: (you, your, etc.): narrator directly addresses the reader, usually to command, direct, or explain how to do something.
Examples: how-to essays, instructions, manuals, recipes, directions. Rare in fiction
Third Person: (she, he, it, they, etc.): narrator has complete knowledge of all the characters’ thoughts and actions (the omniscient author), or the narrator has limited knowledge of the characters’ thoughts and actions; narrator does not participate in the action or the story; narrator can appear non-biased. Is also used in formal documents, newspaper articles, etc.
Consistency of language style (active vs. passive, tense, mood, etc.)
“Harry ate six shrimp at dinner.” (active)
”At dinner, six shrimp were eaten by Harry.” (passive) “Sue changed the flat tire.” (active)
”The flat tire was changed by Sue.” (passive). Active is the stronger, shorter approach, but passive has its place, e.g., you want to emphasize the person or thing acted on: “You ain’t gonna believe this Sherriff. That bank was robbed by a little ol’ gal in a calico dress and pigtails!”
Consistency in verb tenses – don’t fluctuate!
Example: Elizabeth Peabody was born in a school and thereafter felt destined to be a teacher. Her mother was a teacher and trains her daughters at her side. The academic life seems to suit Elizabeth, who thrived on the rigorous curriculum.
Consistency of Character
Make a card file of each of your main characters and well-rounded secondary characters. List their physical characteristics. Left handed, blue eyes, tattoos, nervous tic, lopsided smile to the right, etc., and list some personal observations: hates licorice, loves flannel sheets, wears a cross necklace, right ear is pierced, etc. Include a little personal history: born in December, adopted, broke arm playing HS football, won a tap dancing contest, etc. Make notes on voice and language. An accent? Hoarse? A slow drawl? A lisp or speech impediment?”
List their motivations and how they react in situations. A do gooder? Willful and stubborn? Shiftless and lazy? Energetic and passionate? Quick to pitch in and help, or wary and cautious?