A Museum Visit–and Four Editing Lessons

by Fae Rowen

As writers, we can use our lives to fuel our stories in many ways–from plots, to characters, to emotional journeys. This means that our daily lives become a field of rich experience to mine for writing gold. Let me share an excursion that resulted in unexpected treasure for my WIP.

Because I didn’t want to go by myself, I talked Laura Drake into going on a “field trip” with me to a small local museum. Lucky for me, she was willing to look at movie costumes and jewelry. I was excited by the visions of jewels and period clothing and never even considered that I’d receive a writing lesson amidst all the finery and shimmer.

In Madeleine Albright’s Read My Pins display, we ooh’d and ahh’d over the diplomat’s broaches, just a small part of her whole collection. Gold, jewels, and spectacular designs combined with commentary about when–and with whom–the pieces were worn. Many displays included newspaper pictures with attendant articles reporting the politics behind the meetings.

The display was small, but well put-together. The word “tight” came to mind and I thought how I always end up cutting words from my critique partners WIPs  to tighten the action.

Lesson 1: Check that every scene carries its weight. That it has essential elements of plot, characterization and emotion. Scenes will have these elements weighted differently, but every scene must be crucial to your story. Be ruthless. Even if you really like your clever writing or the snippet of story you told, if it doesn’t move your characters or plot to the next “offramp,” you have to edit it but either cutting or revising it. Try this: If you can cut a scene and not lose a plot point, a piece of the character arc, or an emotional connection to the reader, ask yourself what’s missing. (This is a great tool for that saggy middle!)

photo credit: nino63004 via photopin cc

photo credit: nino63004 via photopin cc

We moved on to Cut!, a display of period costumes from movies. At first we focused on the tiny waists. Each outfit was labeled with the movie and the actor or actress who wore the piece. We soon moved to the detail of the costume, as well as discovering an appreciation for the hat, gloves, cape, or jewelry that showed “the look” from the movie.  I hadn’t seen most of the movies represented with costumes, but I wished I had.

And I had my second  Aha! moment. Good editing made me want more. I had just watched the Oscar red carpet shows. The Fashion pundits commented on what made a winning outfit, and it seemed that less is often more. This goes not only for an outfit (always remove one piece of jewelry before you walk out the door) but also for writing.

Lesson 2: More description isn’t always better. Pare down the details by careful word choice. This helps with pacing by not bogging down your reader. This is one reason why we are all reminded to “Show, don’t tell.”

We recently had a blog about making scenes do double duty. Well, words can do double duty. If you are trying to describe a child’s behavior consider the differences between disobedient, mischievous, and playful. If you show a child’s behavior as seen through your adult character’s thoughts, the word you choose shows us your character’s mindset and could even give a window into backstory. With just one word.

By Sotakeit at en.wikipedia [see page for license], from Wikimedia Commons

By Sotakeit at en.wikipedia [see page for license], from Wikimedia Commons

Back to the museum. We moved on to the Faberge exhibit, which we saved for last. I’d seen a Faberge Egg exhibit fifteen years ago at the Reagan Library, and I toured his workshop in St. Petersburg. This was the real reason I wanted to visit the museum. I would have bought a ticket just for this exhibit.

There were lots of priceless jewels and gold. Though at first I was disappointed by the room’s size, it was the largest of the three exhibits with cases sandwiched close together to fill the room. And lots of people crowding around those cases. Some patrons were shepherded around the room by docents who shared interesting tidbits of information. (Did you know that Faberge’s enameling process died with him and no one has been able to duplicate it?) We viewed not only crowns, necklaces, eggs, and pins, but gift boxes, cigarette cases, and statues. A stunning wealth of sparkle and beauty.

And it was not my favorite exhibit.

I felt disappointed and wondered why. I could not have soaked up one more case of Faberge genius, so I couldn’t have wanted more. Why not? Though I would be hard pressed to pick pieces to omit from the displays, the show was not as well-edited as the other two. It overwhelmed my senses with its brilliance and diversity. But it wasn’t cohesive. It had no “theme.”

Lesson 3: No matter how brilliant your individual words or scenes may be, they must make your reader want to keep reading. A dazzling phrase here, an amazing analogy there is not enough to maintain interest to keep someone turning the pages. You want your readers to feel the emotions your characters feel, because that’s what will lead to a satisfying conclusion for them. That’s what will make them buy your next book. Yes, plot points, character arcs, black moments are necessary building blocks of our craft. Every time you sit down to write, you hone your craft–if you are conscious about wielding and sharpening your tools. It’s okay to be a pantster like me, but you have to be sure all the elements are there to make you story compelling.

We passed through a long hall where eight Tibetan thangkas hung on the walls. If you’ve ever seen Tibetan artwork, you understand when I say we stood before the eight-foot high wall coverings and marveled at the small details repeated thousands of times to produce the picture. Tiny brush strokes delicately affixed gold leaf in the narrowest of bands around a lotus. And the last piece of my editing lesson fell into place.

Lesson 4: Our writing is filled with everything we have to offer. All our craft, skillful plotting, and word-smithing combine with who we are to produce our books. And unless we take the time and care to edit our display, the brilliance of our efforts may not shine as brightly as it could. We can muddy our prose with strokes that are too big or “gold leaf” that distracts from the subtleties that readers love to find in our work.

I remember the words of one of the directors of a musical I was in. He was talking to me about one of my solo songs and “singing my heart out.” He said that was a good thing, but he cautioned me to remember to make my audience want more. In writing, that translates to a page turner.

I have to admit, I’ve never been a fan of editing. Editing means I didn’t write it right the first time, and I don’t like to admit that. (Yes, I know better, but old perfectionist traits die hard!) But good editing can be the difference between a page-turner and just another book. In fact, thoughtful editing just might help make a sale. And don’t we all want that?

It seems like I’ve been buried forever in the editing (at times it feels like a total re-write) process for my WIP. But thank goodness Laura and I went to the museum and I wanted just one more costume. I’m actually beginning to enjoy the editing process–and I can see how it is improving my book.

What are your thoughts on editing? Love it or hate it? Do you have editing tips that work well for you?

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24 Responses to A Museum Visit–and Four Editing Lessons

  1. jtailele says:

    This is a great post.and did great credit to the art of editing. Four valuable lessons from that art gallery. The room with the Faberge eggs really struck me. How you had been looking forward to that one display, yet it was the one that left you unfulfilled, perhaps because it was too filled. Great visual to keep me on track. Thanks.

    • Fae Rowen says:

      I was surprised by my response to that Faberge display, too, Joanne. It really pulled together the whole experience as a writing lesson for me. Thanks for your comments!

  2. Wow – an impressively woven article – very original and inspiring. As for views on editing, I used to think you wrote a novel, tweaked it a bit and were done. Now I understand that every word is rewritten several times. There is never a scrap of my first draft (of actual prose) by the time I consider a novel ‘finished’ and very little of even my second draft. Third or fourth drafts, that’s when I start getting something passable. If you’d told me that when I was first starting out, I don’t think I would have ever starts. Now it seems perfectly reasonable!

    • Fae Rowen says:

      It’s that the way with life? There are so many things that had I known what would happen on the journey, I would never have gotten on the train. And to think, how many years have I fought the editing process? Life experiences are wonderful when you can tie them together. Thanks for reading.

  3. Fae, I went through a time when I thought all I had to do was get the story on the page. The crush of emotion, the thrill of dancing through the pages, the feeling of satisfaction reaching the end. Then I began to learn about edits … revisions, rewrites, tweaks, deletions, clarifications. Ooops, did I say all that? Did I mean to ramble on about this when the main character was in the middle of that?

    The same lessons learned in film apply to us as writers. We must leave the excess verbiage on the cutting room floor or the reader might not enjoy our story. My love/hate relationship with editing resolved itself when, after weeks of hard work, I read the last edit. I decided to go back to the first draft and read that also. Funny, even I got annoyed reading the first draft. When was I going to get to the point? Didn’t I say that before?

    Eventually, we should all learn to love edits. They give us the true power of the word. Thanks for this great post🙂

    • Fae Rowen says:

      What a great tip to re-read your first draft after the final edit! Seems like I’d need to high-five myself after that read–and I can feel how good that would be. Thanks for a wonderful suggestion–and another reason to finish these edits!

  4. Laura Drake says:

    Fae, I SO loved going with you! The unexpected highlight was Madeline’s pins – She chose them to show accord, or show power, or to intimidate…fascinating stuff there!

    I missed the ‘edits’ exhibit! Went totally over my head (though I sure get it after reading this!) But my artist’s soul was renewed – and that was more than enough for me! Call me when you want to go somewhere else – great day!

  5. Sharla Rae says:

    Interesting blog Ro. and good lesson. What museum was this that you went to?

    • Fae Rowen says:

      The Bowers in Santa Ana. I’d never been there before, though there had been exhibits I’d read about. I was so impressed with their esthetic, I bought a membership!

  6. Cross pollination from other arts (in this case, the way the art was displayed) helps me get clearer on what to edit by clarifying the WHY.

  7. I’ve been writing and editing as I go (something that I can’t help but do). One thing that helps me as I do each is to imagine the scene as a movie scene. Then I ask myself, “What would keep me watching? How do I describe what I see and hear my characters doing?” “How do I know as the viewer (reader) what is motivating the characters in the scene? That’s what I write.And when I go over it, I make sure those questions are foremost in my mind.

    • Fae Rowen says:

      Oh, Lorna, I can’t sit down to write a scene without having that movie in my head. (Well, I do sometimes, and my friends here at Writers in the Storm are not happy!) But I hadn’t thought about being the film director again as I edit. That’s going to make the editing process more fun. Thank you!
      -Fae

  8. Wonderful post! Number 4 especially hits home.🙂

  9. Kate Wood says:

    Great post, Fae. I totally get your thought process on editing. I fall somewhere between Plotter and Pantser, but I feel the same way about editing as you do ;p

    BTW – which museum did you go to? I live in OC, as well, and would love to go! You can e-mail me the info at: celticsenaxi@gmail.com =)

    • Fae Rowen says:

      Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone in the galley of the editing boat, Kate.
      We went to the Bowers in Santa Ana. The Gems of the Medici exhibit starts April 16. Maybe I’ll see you there.
      -Fae

  10. Loved your editing lesson Fae.

  11. writerlysam says:

    From this post alone, I’ve garnered valuable advice for the editing process. I’ll be sure to visit often, as I need all the help I can get *shakes fist at editing current WIP series*
    Cheers!
    Sam

    • Hi Sam,
      Since I’m in the middle of a total re-write/edit, this information couldn’t have landed in my lap at a better time. Who knew personal growth would pay off in writerly benefits?
      -Fae

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