Category Archives: Editing Workshops

Editing Workshop Part 5: Too Much or Too Little?

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Tools_smLast March, I offered a workshop series in honor of National Novel Editing Month—the revisionist’s answer to NaNoWriMo. Unfortunately, the folks behind NaNoEdMo have had to declare a hiatus this year, but I’m hoping many writers out there are forging ahead anyway. To cheer you on, I’ll do a couple more installments of my editing workshop series. And I have to say, now that I’ve launched my own editing career, it feels like a special treat to share some of my experiences with you.

Today, I’ll focus on two of the big-picture issues I’ve seen frequently, both as an editor and in my literary agency days.

Problem #1: Too much information. This is perhaps the most common problem in early drafts, whether you’re a seasoned writer or a novice. TMI happens when a writer over-explains or includes information not essential to world-building or moving the plot forward. It’s that thing that causes you to yawn when reading your writing partner’s first draft. Remember that in a tight, well-written novel, every single sentence serves a purpose—there is no room for extra fillers. This is also one of the most painful issues to correct, because it involves taking a pair of pruning shears to your hard-earned word count! For example, let’s say you decide to describe what your character is wearing. No problem—if it helps us understand something about her that we didn’t already know (she overdresses to cover her insecurities, she changes that low-cut top after picturing what her mother would say, etc.). It becomes a problem when we get a play-by-play of her entire make-up routine, when we already knew from earlier examples that she is fastidious. In that case, it’s best to trim the scene to a couple of well-chosen details, or cut it entirely.

How to gauge this in your writing? Consider this: a whole lot of overwriting happens when an author is trying to get to know his characters better. A helpful exercise is to sit down and free write (set a timer if it helps you stay focused), listing everything you know about your character. When you are finished, think about which behavior traits or items of description about her appearance are most essential for a reader’s understanding of who she is. Then choose a handful to weave into your story. It’s not that the rest of your material was a waste of time or words—they helped you get a clearer picture of your character so you could fine-tune her for your readers.

Problem #2: Hold on, you’ve lost me… In some ways, this issue is just the opposite of the previous one. It happens when there isn’t enough transition information for readers to orient themselves in space and time. Transitions are important whenever there is a scene change, whether the story follows a linear timeline or jumps back and forth, as in flashbacks or separate threads set in different historical periods. If you change scenes within a chapter, that has to be crystal clear to the reader. When you start a new chapter, readers need a well-placed cue to let them know whether it’s still the same day, whether the character has moved to a new location, etc. Sometimes it’s tempting to omit essential information to avoid seeming too obvious or committing the TMI mistake. But it’s better to err on the side of clarity than to leave readers scratching their heads—remember that your audience is flying blind unless you supply the radar. Here is an article that shows how to create elegant transitions that don’t call too much attention to themselves; it focuses on flashbacks but parallels can be drawn for simple scene changes as well: http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-all-articles/qp7-migration-fiction/3_tips_for_writing_successful_flashbacks

Often, the best way to catch missing cues in your writing is to set your manuscript aside for a bit. Coming back to it after a few weeks will allow you to see it more like a stranger would, and then you can start filling in the gaps.

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Ready to get serious about your revisions? I can help! For more information about my editing rates and services, send me an email at anitaedits(at)gmail(dot)com. I’d look forward to hearing more about your work. 

 

Getting Both Ends of Your Novel Right (Thank You, Mr. Chekhov!)

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WomanEditing“My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.”
  – Anton Chekhov

So here I am with the second installment of the Famous Writing Quotes series. This one caught my eye because it’s a problem I see often in my editing work.

What I think Chekhov is referring to is the fact that writers tend to work more self-consciously on the first and last sections of a story, because we’ve all been told those are the most important for catching readers’ attention and leaving them satisfied. In that sense, the writing here is less authentic, less “true,” than the middle sections, where you’ve become so immersed in the story and the merciless task of getting it on paper that you’ve forgotten about trying to impress anyone.

Let’s look at a couple of things that can go wrong and how to tackle this issue in your self-editing process.

Beginnings

So, how much do you cut?

Probably more than you think. Try going back to your opening pages and asking yourself: how much of this is just me getting to know my characters? You may be spending precious pages telling readers about your character’s childhood, her likes and dislikes, her dreams. But is anything happening? If not, it’s time to whittle it down to only the most essential descriptive information and back story and begin weaving it in once you find the spot where the real story begins.

How to do that?

Identify your inciting incident (also called the plot catalyst)—the thing that sparks the action and sets your plot in motion. (For a nice overview, read this article.) It’s not that you have to have it on page 1, but it had better happen very early on (it can even happen off-stage, so to speak, before p. 1, especially in mysteries). In The Hobbit, Bilbo didn’t start his journey till p. 34 (of my edition), but he sure knew something was afoot by p. 5, when a big stubborn wizard came to pay him a visit. That was the spark.

The scary part is that in doing this, you may well be faced with a bigger question: do I have a plot that’s strong enough to carry readers through an entire novel? Sometimes writers are disheartened to find that they’ve been writing back story, or simply listing events for the first hundred pages, with no real story arc to connect them. After paring that down to a bit of essential descriptive information, you’re left with only a piece of what you thought was a finished novel. In that case, it’s time to make something compelling happen to these wonderful characters you’ve created—without a strong plot to act as the spine, you’re left with just a bag of rattling bones.

Endings

Now to the other end of the writing journey. What could go so wrong with an ending that Chekhov wants us to cross it out?

Well, lots of things, but the one I’ve seen the most in manuscripts over the years is the “race to the finish line.” This is where the writer has set everything up beautifully, the action is about to explode. . . and then you notice there are only five pages left in the book. Even if the right things happen to create a satisfying ending, there simply isn’t room to develop it and get the pacing right. You can’t rush the climax—or the resolution—of your novel.

There’s an easy way to know whether you’ve got it right: ask people. If you have a writing partner, or better yet, a critique group (the more eyes on your manuscript, the better), ask them to be brutally honest about the final pages. Did the ending feel rushed, the writing sparse? And what was their gut reaction to what happened to the characters? A good ending always gets a strong response—be it positive or negative. You’ll never get everyone to like it (every NYT bestseller has a critic or two who hated the ending), but they should always feel something. A lukewarm response means back to the drawing board.

If you see any of these problems, it’s vital to sit down and do the slicing—or the fleshing out—at both ends of your novel, no matter how much you wanted this to be your final draft. It could make all the difference.

There’s still time to win my query critique giveaway! Just post a comment here on Word Cafe or on Facebook and mention “query critique drawing.” I’ll announce the winners on January 31. Best of luck!

Editing Workshop Part 4: Boost Your Line Editing Skills

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EyeglassesEarlier this month, I promised to talk about line editing, so I’m squeezing it in as my final NaNoEdMo post for March—phew! As with developmental editing, every manuscript will have a different set of issues to address in a line edit. But here are a few of the most common ones I see in the manuscripts I work with.

Confusing, awkward, or excessively long sentences. It’s usually hard to recognize awkward or confusing structures in your own work, so you may need help from a friend or critique partner. But you can train yourself to fix long, wordy sentences. As George R.R. Martin puts it in his WD interview, “I’ll write, John got up from the chair and walked across the room and pulled up the Venetian blinds, then lowered the window, latched it, and returned to his chair. Then I change it to, John got up and closed the window.” I love that example!

Pop culture references that may quickly go out of style. There are exceptions that warrant these—say, a novel about actors set in modern day Hollywood. But in general, you want to avoid anything that will soon become dated, and thus kill your book’s chance at longevity. This is especially relevant to slang in YA novels—while it may be tempting to show how well you know teens by peppering dialogue with up-to-the minute slang, it may sound phony and can quickly become old-fashioned. Use sparingly.

Repetition. Didn’t your character just tell us the same thing five pages ago? You may have forgotten because you wrote that line last month, but readers will have an unpleasant feeling of déjà vu. This is an easy mistake to make when you are rearranging scenes or adding to previously written ones. That’s why it’s important to do a final read of your entire manuscript (even if you’ve done multiple edits on individual scenes) to help catch these oversights.

Logistical errors. Time out, your reader says. How can Madame Dupont be wearing the priceless bracelet that fell off the cliff in the previous scene? As with repetition, this problem can crop up when you are moving and rearranging scenes. How to avoid it? As you’re doing a read-through, jot notes in the margins: Where exactly are the characters in the room/castle/cruise ship/dormant volcano (and are they where they should be)? If there is a crucial object in the scene, where is it? What are your characters wearing (and did it change unexpectedly)?

Inconsistencies in character behavior, dialogue, etc. Some of this falls in the realm of developmental (big picture) editing—Why did your main character just kill X—she seemed to like him and don’t we need him for the climax scene? But it can be involved in line editing, too. Why did your character just slip out of dialect in the first half of the page? Why is he now shouting—for now apparent reason—when three lines ago he seemed pretty zen?

Pronouns or dialogue without anchors. Readers can easily be confused if you use pronouns like “he” without a clear reference to one of the three guys in the room; “them” can be even more confusing when it only refers to some of the people in the scene. So make sure you provide enough context in the surrounding sentences. The same goes for dialogue. Cormac McCarthy gets along fine without ever using “he said” or “Rawlins said” to anchor dialogue, but that’s a difficult technique to master. Ask your test readers to mark places where they got lost in the conversation.

Passive voice or unnecessarily complex verb structures. Passages full of sentences like She was handed the letter, or He was sent into a panic by her response, usually feel muted or stodgy. Use Roger handed her the letter, or Her response sent him into a panic. Scrap this sentence: He had been doing laundry when she had dropped by to tell him the news, for this one: He was doing the laundry when she dropped by to tell him the news. Overly complex verb structures add a layer of distance you don’t want your readers to feel.

Reporting. Years ago, a writing teacher pointed out that the short story I’d written was full of “reporting,” a term I was unfamiliar with at the time. Once she pointed it out, I saw exactly what she meant. I was saying things like: I remembered doing X, Y, Z…, and I thought to myself that…, and He wondered whether… This is another form of passive writing that adds an unnecessary layer between the writer and reader. It’s okay to use these structures occasionally, but make active ones your default—instead of having a character wonder about something, let him simply ask a question.

I imagine every writer’s goal is to do less line editing. But how do you get there? Try looking for patterns in your critique group/beta reader comments and make a list of your most common issues. By going back to fix them, you’ll train your brain to catch those problems in the future, and to start avoiding them altogether.

Happy editing!