Grace's Mosaic Moments

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Questions Fiction Writers Should Ask Themselves

Sunrise en route to Miami  - not bad for thru the windshield of a moving car

Daughter Susie  - photographer on both photos above - crowing on Facebook about the lowest temperature in Orlando since May, but take a good look at the odometer on her Honda SUV!

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Grace Note:  I had an interesting experience last weekend at Moonlight & Magnolias, a conference presented by the Georgia Romance Writers. Five minutes before my 2-hour workshop - TOTAL BLACKOUT. When the hotel's generators kicked in, we had Exit lights, hall lights & an elevator no one quite trusted. (A friend told me she refused to chance it to get from the 10th floor down to my workshop in the ballroom.) Waiters put a slender taper in the center of each round table, which seated eight, and one on the podium. I laughed and said, "Anyone have a flashlight?" I sat near the edge of the stage and went through 11 of 13 pages of my workshop before the lights were finally restored over an hour later. (We skipped the "writing" bits as no one could see well enough to write. Sigh.) Anyway, it was an adventure. Glad I hadn't planned a power point presentation.

(The final installment in my latest Editing series)

Before you edit, whether it's chapter by chapter, or the whole thing at once, there are some questions you should ask yourself. Keep them in mind as you read all those precious bon mots you wrote. Should they go or stay? Do they need amplification or a "Sayonara, Baby"? 

Note: Other than saving the conference workshop questions for last, most of the following were scribbled down some time ago, and I have typed them up with no effort to organize them into any particular order.

1.  Have you identified your characters as each appears "on stage"? Or have you given your readers nothing more than first names and not so much as a hint of who they are, what they do, or why you bothered to put them in your book?

2.  Have you ignored those names briefly mentioned on page one, proceeding with "he, she, him, her, they, them" until the reader is ready to scream? Not only are readers unable to identify who you mean as they haven't had time to absorb the hero's or heroine's names, but they have no idea if you're referring to the main characters, secondary characters, or the housemaid who stumbled into the room to light a fire. Using people's names not only makes them real to the reader, it avoids massive confusion in the manuscript.

3.  Did you start off your book with the Point of View of a secondary character?   Not a good idea. Readers expect the initial POV to be that of the Hero or the Heroine. Or the Villain, if that's the genre you're writing.

4.  Did you make your secondary characters so interesting you detracted from the impact of your Hero and Heroine?  (I'm amazed at the number of times I've seen this particular error.) In a nutshell - don't do it!

5.  Have you added "color" to your descriptions? For Characters,  move beyond hair and eye color to a more in-depth description, including hints of personality if possible. (Admittedly, this is harder to do in an era where Author POV is frowned upon, but find a way to get it in there somehow.)  For Setting - don't have your characters speaking in front of a blank canvas. Let your readers see through their eyes where they are - private home, condo, mansion, big business, small shop, city, country, cruise, US, Europe, Asia, etc. Readers will be so much more comfortable if they can not only picture the characters but see them against a well-drawn background.

6.  Are you writing in Present Tense - quite common in Young Adult & New Adult these days?  If so, stick to it. Don't wander back into Past Tense.

7.  Have you developed the romance over a period of time? It's a real disappointment to most readers when the Hero and Heroine have just met and suddenly they're having all sorts of wild emotional thoughts about each other. A good romance, the ones readers savor, develop the romance over many chapters, with the protagonists' feelings for each other (often hostile at the beginning) gradually changing from toleration to interest (or possibly one-sided interest, frustrated interest, etc.) before finally metamorphosing into something we can all agree is a romantic relationship (whether sex is involved or not).

8.  Have you added Narrative and Action to your Dialogue scenes?  Yes, clever dialogue can add color and move your story forward, but readers also want to know what the characters looked like when they spoke, their inner (silent) reactions to what the other person said, and what they were doing while they spoke.  Action and Introspection, as well as clear "tags" are needed in Dialogue. Note:  if three or more characters are "on scene," you must add a tag every time. Don't leave readers frowning at the page, scratching their heads.

9.  Did you take enough time to emphasize important points?  For example, I've seen manuscripts which said something like, "Jack fell down the stairs," and then went on to something entirely different, leaving readers to wonder how Jack fell. Was he hurt? How is the story affected by Jack's fall? If an "event" happens in your manuscript, make sure readers can not only see it but understand it and feel its impact.

10.  Did you dump the whole backstory in the first few pages, boring your readers to tears? By now I think almost all authors know they shouldn't do this, that backstory needs to be inserted a bit at a time, enough to identify our characters, give readers an idea of who these people are, etc., but definitely not loaded all at once into the beginning of a book.

11.  Did you heed all those warnings about backstory and were afraid to put in any backstory at all?  Believe me, this is worse than dumping it all at once. I don't know how many manuscripts I've read where the characters were simply miraculously there on the page - no identification, no hints given why their conversation, action, or thoughts might be of interest, no indication the book is a romance, suspense, mystery, or whatever. Again, talking heads against a blank background.  This is wall-banger stuff. The reader doesn't know who these people are, why he/she should bother to read about them. Frankly, if the plot/conflict/characters are that confusing, this one's for the Goodwill pile.

12.  Are you writing a series and started your second book as if every reader read the first book just yesterday and remembers who all the characters are, all the details of the setting, plot, conflict, etc., so naturally you don't have to repeat yourself?  Allow me to tell you: 1) you want to expand your readership to those who never saw the first book; 2) even if every person did read your first book, they're not going to remember it! Everything you want readers to know about your characters, about the setting, about past events, must be in the pages of the new book. The characters must be identified all over again, the places where they live and work, and all past events relevant to the current plot. [The same advice applies to every book in a series, whether it's No. 2 or 22.]

13.  Is there enough Conflict to carry the story? Unless you're writing the simplest Category romance (Harlequin/Silhouette's shorter books, for example), Conflict has to be ramped up. Conflict is not bickering between the Hero and Heroine. It's a genuine, serious problem, like the enmity between the Montagues and Capulets. Both External and Internal Conflict are important. External Conflicts are the outside influences on the Hero and Heroine: Parents, Job, Bad Guys, Illness, a Bomb, etc. Internal Conflicts are the Hero's and Heroine's private thoughts when agonizing about these problems and about their relationship with each other.  For a good story, you need to have both strong External and Internal Conflict.

14.  Are you making an effort to use colorful or dramatic words, particularly when making important points? Or have you allowed yourself to stick to workaday words of one syllable and a string of clichés? Did you accept your first draft, or did you go back and work on that sentence, paragraph, page until it shines with color, emotion, action, and depth?

15.  Have you added interesting secondary characters - without allowing them to overshadow your main characters? Secondary characters can add an enormous amount to a story - the heroine's BFF, the hero's best buddy, wise Gramma or Grampa, or those marvelous weird ones à la Janet Evanovich. And then there are the endless supply of the really nasty, jealous, mad, or just plain mean. Secondary characters add sparkle, contrast, a chance for comic dialogue - or tragedy. Just keep them in their place!

16.  Do you have so many secondary characters that the Hero and Heroine are eclipsed? Don't let those colorful secondary characters seize the bit and run with your story. They are there to support your h/h, not overshadow them.

17.  Have you written 50 words to describe something when 20 words would draw a clearer picture? I've frequently seen writing where the author seemed to think that throwing erudite words or involved sentence structure into a paragraph made it sound more literary. Well, maybe it did. It was also less intelligible. In fact, in fiction it's downright disconcerting to see a simple thought or action, requiring ten words at most, twisted and tortured into twenty or thirty words which totally obscure what the author wants to convey. Find colorful words, active verbs. "Show" don't "tell, keep it simple. Draw a clear picture. Less is more. Whichever phrase works for you, hold it tight as a reminder not to drown your good intentions in a sea of unnecessary words.

18.  Is your plot an unintentional mystery, perhaps the thoughts and feelings of the main characters as well? Did you put all those important details of who, what, where, when, and why in your Synopsis and forget that readers never see a synopsis? Or did you simply live with your characters in your head for so long you forgot readers don't know Word One about them. Cardinal rule:  Everything you want readers to know must be in the pages of the manuscript.

19.  Have you ignored Motive?  It's amazing what you can have your characters get away with as long as you explain why they're doing it. Abberant behavior?  Give a reason - readers will likely forgive them. Without an explanation? Forgetabout it.  Goodwill box by page 20.

20.  Does every scene move the story forward?  There's nothing like a bunch of people sitting around, just chitchatting, to slow a book to zero. Do not write Dialogue for the sake of writing dialogue! Whether Dialogue, Narration, Action, or Introspection, every scene must move the story forward.

21. Have you made every effort to use proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Yes, it counts. Why should a publisher pay an editor and copy editor to "fix" your mistakes when they can get a book just as good from someone who knows the rules?

22. Did you check your facts? Did you do enough research that readers won't be tossing your book at the wall because you got the facts wrong for your hero's or heroine's profession? Or maybe you allowed a bastard or an adopted daughter (oh horrors!) to inherit a British title. Or did put your Georgian heroine in a simple Regency round gown? Don't shoot yourself in the foot by ignoring necessary research. 

Here are the six major questions I used to close my workshop in Atlanta:

1.  Have you created interesting characters your readers will want to root for?

2.  Have you made their motivations clear - why your characters do what they do?

3.  Have you amped up the Conflict, putting roadblocks in the path of Happily Ever After?

4.  Have you written clever, but relevant dialogue?

5.  Have you fleshed out your story with clear but colorful narration?

6.  Have you self-edited more than once? Have you proofread until you're sick of the whole blasted manuscript?

If so, you're probably ready to submit.  Go ahead, take the plunge.

Thanks for stopping by.


For a look at all Blair's books, covers & blurbs, please see Blair's Website

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, please click here.

1 comment:

  1. Great tips, Grace, and I'm emailing you for a brochure on your editing services as I have a WIP (a medieval) that I will be searching for an editor as it may be my first Indie pub.