Grace's Mosaic Moments

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Writing 101 - the Final Steps

Welcome back to Writing 101. Today, in Self-editing, Part 2, we look at the “hard stuff.” Most of the problems below won’t jump out at you on your first edit. It takes time, tenacity, and an open mind to find them. That’s why there’s more to editing than checking each chapter as you go. How many times do you have to read the darn thing? Hopefully, until you’ve got it right. Most professional authors, I would estimate, average three edits per manuscript.

As for myself, I edit after each chapter. I edit again after every five chapters (1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, etc.). And when I've finished the whole book, I go back to the beginning and read from the first word to the last. I’m still keeping an eye out for typos, continuity, etc., but primarily I’m looking for the “hard stuff,” the things mentioned below. And—sigh—if I make a lot of changes on this supposedly final edit (and sometimes that happens), I type in the revisions and go back and read the whole thing again to make sure it still flows smoothly with all the new additions and/or deletions.

Am I sick of it by then? Very likely. But I know I’m turning in the best possible manuscript I can provide without putting it away for a year and editing it again. Which I don’t do, or I’d never submit anything!

Attention: Contest Entrants. If you only have three chapters, you still need to go through all three editing steps: Easy, Harder, Hardest. (Easy & Harder can be found in "I ran Spell Check. I'm done, right?" (Self-Editing, Part 1) For the hardest things to look for, keep reading.


Plot. Have you made your plot clear? Or did you leave too many details in your head, causing the reader confusion about what is going on? This is very common, particularly with newbie writers. Please remember that readers never see a synopsis. Everything you want them to know must be in the pages of the manuscript itself.

Did you drop hints about your plot in the opening chapters? The primary plot line shouldn’t suddenly appear in Chapter 4 with no previous set-up. I have read contest entries where the pages I received (usually Chapters 1-3) seemed to have nothing to do with the plot outlined in the Synopsis. This is a no-no. There should be hints of the main plot from the very first chapter.

Do you have enough plot to carry your story? If you’re writing a simple 50,000-word boy-meets-girl category romance, you don’t need nearly as much plot as you do for a 100,000-word romantic suspense. For a longer book, you need sub-plots, a series of lesser goals, more action (which can range from a party to a high-speed car chase to murder).

Example of possible sub-plot: secondary characters have problems of their own.

Do you have so much plot that you’ve obscured the point of your story? Did you digress into too much history, into a side plot that does not move the story forward, perhaps into scenes that have clever dialogue, but again do not move the story forward. Do you have so many characters that the plot is lost behind a screen of talking heads?

Does your plot make sense, or did you throw a whole bucketful of events onto the pages, figuring something would make sense? Is your ending a downer, not acceptable in romance? Remember what you’re writing. Happily Ever After is a requirement.

Basically, your h/h need a major goal to achieve (not always the same goal). Readers must be able to understand why these goals are important to them (motivation). And there must be conflict that almost makes the goal(s) nearly impossible to reach.

Most importantly, never assume the readers know the story as well as you do. Make your plot clear, with enough hints early on that readers will understand the larger issues facing the hero and heroine.

Conflict. It’s all too easy to assume that bickering between the hero and heroine provides conflict. Not so. Yes, they can have surface conflict if it fits the story, but true conflict is much more serious. The hero and heroine need External conflict that keeps them apart. This is usually from outside forces that are trying to get them to do something they don’t want to do. (I recall one memorable book where the h/h feared to marry because madness ran in the heroine’s family.) External conflict can be as common as family pressure or something as serious as someone is trying to kill them. Whatever the External conflict, it should be strong, not simply banter between the h/h. Internal conflict is also very important. This is the angst suffered by both hero and heroine over some problem. For example, the separate reactions of both hero and heroine to the possibility of having to sacrifice something important so they can be together. In introspection (their private thoughts), they agonize over this problem. Or perhaps the Internal conflict is simply the heroine trying to decide between two men. Just keep in mind that books without true conflict don’t make it into print. Or e-pub.

Characterization. Did you give a physical description of your main characters and your important secondary characters? Did you identify them? (It’s so easy to forget readers don’t know these people the way you do.) Readers want to empathize with the main characters. They want you to get inside the hero’s and heroine’s heads and let them see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. They want to care about these characters. This is hard to do if you don’t give them enough description and background to go on. This can be done in just a few sentences, but when judging contests, I so often find that newbie writers forget that readers don’t know their characters the way they do. They simply don’t give us the information we need to understand and invest ourselves in these characters. It’s all right for the h/h to have flaws, but we need to get the feeling they are truly likable, and in the end they will learn to be better people.

Dialogue. Is your dialogue natural? Do your characters sound like real people? Do they sound like the individual characters you have created? Stilted dialogue stops a story dead. Each character should have his/her way of speaking and stick to that style. And, above all, do not write dialogue for the sake of dialogue or because it’s so much easier to write. Yes, dialogue can add color, but it needs to move the story forward, not wander off on a tangent unconnected with your main storyline. And have you punctuated the tags correctly? (No full sentences as dialogue tags.)

Narration. Have you added description and/or action to your dialogue? See example below from The Courtesan’s Letters by Blair Bancroft, showing the integration of narration into dialogue.

“That was the promise I made.” The Earl of Langley resumed his long strides toward Arbor Cottage.

Lunging forward, Captain Verney planted himself in his brother’s path. “But why?” he demanded.

Around them the woods shimmered in the late afternoon of one of summer’s longest days. Birds still twittered. Small creatures scurried through the underbrush, their passage marked only by a soft rustling of leaves and twigs. Jared Verney raised his pewter eyes to another set so like his own. “I’ve walked this path countless times,” he said. “I liked her. She was kind, generous, always willing to listen. Even after I was grown, I continued to visit. She was the one person who would listen—”

“Listen?” Is that what an old tart is reduced to? Listening?”

“It’s not a bad attribute,” Jared chided softly. “Looking back, I could have wished more of my chère amies had been so gifted.”

“Are your bones so ancient then, brother, that you’ve given up the muslin company?”

“Perhaps.” Jared took time to consider his reply. “I confess I found a certain ennui when looking over the fresh crop at Hetty Jamison’s establishment. As much, I dare say, as you found in the new bevy of maidens at Almack’s. And even if I could afford to stay in town, I could scarce sport the blunt to set up an opera dancer or even a ripe widow. So you may have the right of it. I am getting old.” Jared turned his back and strode off toward Arbor Cottage, leaving Myles to stare after him, wondering how his brotherly teasing had gone awry.
Have you included the thoughts (introspection) of the person whose viewpoint you’re in? Have you added color to your story by describing settings—locations, landscapes, room furnishings, etc.? Example below from The Courtesan’s Letters, illustrating setting and introspection.

Abby’s feet seemed stuck to the shimmering pastels of the Persian carpet. At least, now that she was alone, she could openly gawk. The room was huge, with two pink marble fireplaces. Floor-to-ceiling windows, arched at the top in Gothic style, lit the far end of the room on three sides where the bedchamber extended beyond the confines of the main structure. The windowed area was set up as a sitting room, with furniture upholstered in cream brocade and accented by throw cushions in rose and palest pink. The occasional tables and chests were decorated with the finest marqueterie. The bed . . . Abby swallowed, felt a quiver of something quite strange flutter her insides. Got the old earl to buy her the best of everything, she did. Oh my, yes. The bed was big enough to accommodate a dozen earls. The tester bed was walnut, at least seven feet long and six across, both canopy and posts elaborately carved. The scalloped valance skirting the wooden canopy was of heavy raw silk embroidered in a crewel design, as was the matching quilt. Rose silk hangings were tied back at each of the four corners by graceful ropes of metallic gold. The room’s remaining furnishings, the chests and wardrobes were chinoiserie. Museum pieces, Abby speculated, each elaborately painted in fantastic designs of a quality only Boston’s most wealthy Brahmins could afford to purchase from the cargos of its world-traveling merchant fleet. She had come these thousands of miles, expecting little but the adventure of it. And because an unknown woman, now deceased, had wished her to. Now came the startling surprise. Obviously, Arbor Cottage was worth far more than she had expected.

The mystery deepened. Who was Miss Clarissa Bivens?
Curiosity unglued Abby’s feet. She strode to the wall, pulled the cord on the silk curtain covering what Mrs. Deering had indicated was a painting of her former mistress. Dear God in heaven! Abby closed the curtains faster than she had opened them. She stood, quivering, fighting the good fight with a long array of Puritan and Pilgrim ancestors. Her father might have been born in England, but her mother’s forebears had stepped off the Mayflower itself.

Gingerly, she tugged on the cord, gradually reopening the pink silk curtain. Perhaps on second view it wouldn’t be so . . .

It was.

Setting. Did you put your characters against a well-described background (location, time, environment)? Or did you have them speaking & thinking against a blank canvas? Readers like to be able to picture scenes in their head. Be sure you give them something to go on. Are we in the city or country? New England or England? The Deep South or South Africa? Is it hot, cold, raining, snowing? Is it the nineteenth century or the twelfth? You’re the author; don’t leave the reader struggling to paint the backdrop for you.

Style. Did you make the drama dramatic enough, the comedy, funny enough? Did you make the scary parts scary enough? The love scenes as sweet, tender, hot, or erotic enough, according to the sub-genre you’re writing? Or were you rushing when a big moment came and sloughed it off with no more than a couple of sentences?

Did you indulge in what I call Unintentional Mystery? This means that you failed to give readers information they needed to know in order to understand the story. For example, the hero’s or heroine’s background. Or plot information you put in the Synopsis but left out of the manuscript. Are there secondary characters you failed to introduce? (You knew who they were, but the readers haven’t a clue.) Or any other vital information readers need to understand what is going on.

Did you Show, not Tell? (Write an Active story or a Passive one?) If there is one thing that will kill a story fast, it’s writing in “storyteller” mode. You are not the narrator sitting around a campfire telling a story. You are a writer who must get inside her main characters’ heads and let readers see the action from their Point of View. A simple example of Show vs. Tell (Active vs. Passive):

Active: A daunting sight met her eyes.
Passive: The sight which met her eyes was daunting.

Example of Active ("Show") from The Courtesan’s Letters:

Miss Abigail Todd, far from the scrutiny of her pupils in Miss Todd’s Academy for Young Ladies in Boston, peered out the window of the post chaise with unabashed curiosity. Now that the city of London had been left behind, the countryside was remarkably familiar. New England had been aptly named, she decided. Although the fields here were smaller and laid out in a fantasy maze of uneven shapes framed in hedgerows, the overall feel of the land was so similar she might have been traveling the post road from Boston to Providence. There were fewer acres of towering trees in this much older country, she conceded, but that was a boon, surely, for highwaymen could shelter in heavy woods, lying in wait for two lone women traveling the road to Bath.
Enough! A woman of eight and twenty, owner and headmistress of her own school, had long since learned not to ask for trouble. She would leave the conjuring of bogeymen to her wide-eyed thirteen-year-olds.

“I cannot like it,” declared a voice beside Abby for perhaps the twentieth time in the past two days. Mrs. Hannah Greaves, a lady of imposing angular shape that belied a heart as soft as butter, had been pressed into service as Miss Abigail Todd’s companion for the long journey to England. “That man was surely hiding something,” Mrs. Greaves continued her complaint. “And I fear to know what. Here we are, off to some unknown spot in the English countryside, just the two of us—”

“But it’s an adventure,” Abby teased, her usually solemn features dancing into a grin. “With Mr. Smallwood making the arrangements, for all we know we could be headed for Gretna Green or some Gothic castle with dark dungeons—”

“Abigail Todd!” Forgetting her own doubts, the older woman was shocked. “You cannot truly suspect Mr. Smallwood of such ah—treachery.”

Example of Passive - The opening of The Courtesan’s Letters, restructured as an example of “Tell, not Show,” with a dash of “Unintentional Mystery,”and cliché. Note: This is an example of how NOT to write your opening scene.

Abigail peered out the window of the post chaise. She was surprised to discover England looked so much like the countryside back home in New England. She was grateful, however, that this older country did not have so many woods that might shelter highwaymen. Foolishness, she thought. She was twenty-eight years old, headmistress of her own school. She would not let her imagination run away with her.

“I cannot like it,” Hannah said. “That man was surely hiding something.”

“But it’s an adventure,” Abby teased. “With Mr. Smallwood making the arrangements, we could end up anywhere, perhaps even some dark castle.”

“Surely not!” Hannah was shocked.


Overall Impression. Did you draw your h/h well enough that readers will be intrigued, no matter what they get up to? Did you truly say what you wanted to say, or are the best parts still in your head? Please remember that putting essential details into the Synopsis is not enough. Repeat: A reader never sees the synopsis. Everything you want the reader to know must be in the pages of the manuscript itself.
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This is the last installment of Writing 101, at least for now. I am considering expanding and polishing these articles into book form and would really appreciate your comments. For example:
What did I leave out? (Obviously, a ton of stuff.)
What should I add?
What did I get wrong? If so, please explain.
Were there sections you found unclear? (Don’t forget to say which ones!)
Any other comments that pop into your mind.

As always, thanks so much for stopping by. The Courtesan’s Letters (formerly, The Indifferent Earl) will be available soon on Kindle and Smashwords, and c. a couple of weeks later on Nook, Sony, Palm, etc.

Come on back to Grace’s Mosaic Moments for some lighter fare next time around.


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