Shonna Slayton’s Editing Workshop

Shonna Slayton is the new writer in residence at Mesa Public Library. Last night, she led a workshop on editing, with a high-level overview of macro- and micro-level editing, some hands-on practice, and pointers to what sound like some really helpful resources. I love that she wrote her first draft during NaNoWriMo! And now she has two traditionally published books, another one coming out in a few months, and a fourth she self-published.

Starting out the editing process:

  • Set your draft aside – Months would be ideal, but at least set it aside for a couple of weeks so you can come to it fresh.
  • Have a system to objectively look at the draft – Find a story structure model that works for you. There’s a 3-act structure and another that shows the novel as a circle. There are others as well. The one she likes best is Larry Brooks‘ circus tent model – more about this one below.
  • There are other opinions – Steven James’ book Story Trumps Structure says the opposite, but for a beginning writer, Brooks is more helpful.
  • Plan for 3 rounds of edits – The first round is big picture stuff. Does the story make sense, are there plot holes, and so on. At this stage you can lose characters, add characters, and make big changes. The second round starts with seeing if you’ve fixed all the first-round problems, and then focuses on the character arc. The third round is the details. She follows Margie Lawson’s EDITS system for this round – more below.

The circus tent model:

  • StoryEngineeringLarry Brooks is the developer and authority on this model. She recommends his book, Story Engineering. He’s actually deconstructed several books, including The Help and Hunger Games, to illustrate how his principles apply.
  • For a cool graphic that illustrates the concepts, there’s a pdf poster developed by Rachel Savage at this link: The bare bones are in the picture below.
  • The first part introduces the setting, characters, and what normal life is like. At about 20%, a change happens where the character’s purpose shifts. Then at about 50%, there’s a twist or reveal that changes the context of everything. We looked at our own drafts to see what was happening at the 20% and 50% point; I think some of us had these things at those spots. I certainly didn’t!
  • When she’s planning her books, she has a rough idea of what these major points are going to be, but she doesn’t have it totally laid out.


The EDITS system:

  • Margie Lawson developed this system. Slayton’s old blog has an overview of the system. She recommends getting Lawson’s lecture packet, which she calls the best $22 she ever spent.
  • The system shows you where and how to add power to your writing. What could be better? (This has nothing to do with the POWER style of writing government audit reports, by the way, which I practiced for years at work.)
  • The basics of the system are that you highlight different elements in your writing with a different color highlighter, on paper or on screen.
    • Blue – dialogue. Do you have the right amount? Are the voices distinct? Does it sound real?
    • Pink – emotion shown through visceral reactions (racing heartbeat, skin crawling, that kind of thing). Do they ring true? Are there places where you should or could add it – have you missed opportunities?
    • Green – setting and character descriptions. Do you have the right amount? Too much?
    • Yellow – internalizations, narrative exposition, backstory, and flashbacks. If you have too much yellow and green, the reader tends to start skimming.
    • Orange – tension and conflict. You don’t highlight the text but instead put dots or shorter or longer lines in the margins. It’s good to end a chapter with some orange.
    • Red pen – underline nonverbal communication, like adverbs (“he said angrily”), choreography, body movements, the senses.
  • After you’ve done your highlighting and looked at the issues described above, start thinking about rhetorical devices. These go beyond the simile, metaphor, etc. that you learned about in school. For example:
    • A,B,A structure: Bond, James Bond. Run, Toto, Run. That kind of thing. It’s called diacope – there are Greek words for all these things.
    • Backloading: What’s the final word in your paragraph or sentence? Make sentences end on a more powerful word to propel the reader through your story.
    • Rhythm and music of the language.
    • Don’t go overboard! You don’t want to overwhelm the reader with fancy stuff.
    • There are loads of these devices, and there are lots of resources online. Lawson highlights 25 of them in her lesson packet.

Learning to be a better writer:

  • Use other books to study, and don’t be afraid to mark them up. She brought in a paperback copy of The Help that she used when studying Larry Brooks’ method. The entire book’s page edges were color coded with highlighters to indicate the four parts of the circus tent structure. She wrote notes inside about the plot points, shifts, twists, and pinch points.
  • Take notes when you read. She has a spiral notebook where she copies good ways to write that she comes across – original phrases, vivid descriptions, etc. She also has a computer file where she compiles and sorts her notes on things like “different things eyes can do.”

Here’s Shonna Slayton’s website:

Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.