Instead, Anne decided to dig in:
I just finished editing a 400 page MS called _____. It was a edifying experience I would recommend to anyone looking to improve their own writing. Being widely read is essential for writers, and an extremely close reading like this is well worth the countless hours necessary to do it properly.
Deconstruction: The Definition and How To
A close editing does not mean just providing comments on how to make the manuscript better. Rather, the process requires you to pull the story apart.
This deconstruction allows us to see exactly how a story is put together.
The first step is to identify the components you'll be looking for in every scene and/or chapter.
Anne, for example, looked for the following:
* Foreshadowing (which I love) - Heavy handed or just right? Did it pan out or just tease?
* Could I have drawn a map of the neighborhood in which this story took place? Were there enough signposts and landmarks for me to remember who was who and where they lived? (Consider To Kill a Mockingbird and how that neighborhood was described so you knew who lived where, which was essential to the story line.)
* Character traits - Were they maintained to the end? Did they serve a purpose or were they merely quirky/throwaway gimmickry? Did they support/enhance a theme?
* Foreign language usage (mostly in dialog) - gratuitous or integral? Translated gracefully via contextual info, spelled out too much, or inscrutable?
* Character placement hierarchy - How did the characters carve out their space in the story? Did they advance the story? Did I grow to care about them, even love them? (I did. And this made me lobby for more or less attention and dialog.)
* How well did the story flow to its apogee and resolution? In this case, I felt a flashback would have been much more effective than the resolution that felt more like an epilogue. (The author actually started out this way, but was persuaded to jettison the flashback by another editor.)
* How well did the figures of speech and literary devices work? Did the story have people spill their guts and then cry themselves to sleep, for example? (Which is a sign that the writer did not know what to do with them.)
The next step is to see if those components are appropriately and consistently applied. If not, you've found a hole that needs to be patched. If so, the author is running a tight ship that moves the story steadily toward the climax.
If you don't have the opportunity to edit the manuscript of an experienced writer, you can deconstruct one of your favorite books.
Deconstructing a book does, as Anne noted, take a lot of time. When I deconstructed Plainsong by Kent Haruf, the project took me about 25 hours. Anne said she spent about two hours per 30 pages.
The time spent, however, is well worth the effort for these reasons:
1. You'll become fantastic at identifying each part of a scene. Instead of guessing whether you've included everything that's necessary when it comes to your own story, you'll be able to develop a checklist that's specific to your needs.
2. You'll quickly find out if the writer knows what he/she is doing, or is simply "writing what he/she feels" without regard for structure.
3. You'll determine how the author is both succeeding and failing.
4. You'll begin to see the elements you can employ to make your own story a lot better, while identifying and destroying bad habits.
In a Nutshell
To get great at writing, it's not enough to keeping putting material together. We need to take the time to pull it apart in order to analyze each part and how those parts were joined so we can emulate what's gorgeously constructed and toss what's poorly designed.
As Anne said:
It was the best writing experience I have had in a long time - intimate, for sure, and instructive. Not a casual undertaking, but an important one for the writer and reader, both.
Thanks for the input, Anne.
Feel free to share your deconstruction stories.