For the month of May 2020, we imagine many of you are thinking about your manuscripts. Isn’t it time to give yourself time away from focusing on hand washing and sterilizing the grocery bags? We think so. This month’s 10 on the 10th blog post is designed to help you spot story pot holes and set about fixing them. Happy writing!
1. Refuse to Revise: Perhaps someone, somewhere, sat down and wrote the perfect 87,000-word novel without making a single change, each word falling onto the page like an elegant dance of perfection. Um. No.
Truth is, for most of us, the successful novel or story is the result of repeated revisions. Not just proofreading and editing for spelling and grammar. We’re talking revisions. Dropping the first three chapters of backstory and starting just before the inciting incident. Rewriting the ending completely with a different purpose in mind than the original ending. Revision is not for the faint of heart, but getting your hands deep and dirty into your manuscript is part of shaping it into publisher-ready material.
2. Start in a perfect world: A perfect world without any hint of discord or danger is a fantasyland. From kids who leave dirty dishes in the basement to the pestering pets demanding attention, our ordinary lives are full of irritations and disappointments. But remember to save the big issues for the inciting incident. That big crack in your main character’s world is what drives the narrative into the meat of the story.
3. Only develop your protagonist: You know everything about your main character from favourite pets to emotional wounds, from the layout of a childhood bedroom to motivations for every action taken.
But the other characters in the novel circle like stage actors waiting to appear and act for the sole convenience of the protagonist. Life and stories don’t work that way. All characters should act from their own motivations and experiences. Ditch the cardboard, and put flesh on everyone’s bones.
4. Avoid Danger or Fear: For effective fiction, tension is necessary. There are degrees of tension used by writers. Some books (especially thrillers) can start with a bang but others gradually develop tension in a variety of ways. From a foreshadow (“Careful Maeve, that horse is skittish”) or bit of figurative language (looming dark skies, thunder in the distance, etc.), skillful writers learn to raise the stakes with tension as the story goes forward.
5. Rely on Expounding Exposition: Scenes with action, dialogue and tension propel your story forward. Lengthy passages of and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened will put your reader to sleep. Seek out places where you give information that could be better delivered in a scene between characters.
Ginny was worried that Dewa’an was afraid. It was his first sleepover at her house. She comforted him by reading a story and leaving the light on.
“Dewa’an, would you like me to stay and read you a story?”
He barely nodded, his eyes still wide and searching.
Ginny held up Stuart Little. “My kids loved this one. Maybe you will too.”
She’d barely read ten pages when he fell asleep. Ginny kept reading for two more pages just to be safe. Before she left the bedroom, she switched off the big light and turned on the wee nightlight on the dresser.
6. Clog with Filler Scenes: Sometimes we don’t realize we’re writing a filler scene. It’s a great scene with strong dialogue and character bits and foreshadowing and lots of great stuff. But if you look closer, it’s covering most — or even the same territory as a scene you wrote earlier. It’s advancing the same elements that the earlier scene advanced.
Time to murder this darling. Or revise it so it’s doing new work to move your story forward. All scenes need to add forward progression with at least some of the following: answer some questions and raise more, enhance character qualities or introduce new ones, add or enhance setting details, and so on. The scenes you write are meant to pull the reader’s engagement along to the next scene and all the way to The End.
7. Use Droning Dialogue: Dialogue in fiction is the illusion of conversation. And it has specific jobs to do when you use it: convey information that relates to the plot, to the characters, the setting and so on. So like Filler Scenes, mindless chit chat does nothing to add to the reading experience. What does your current dialogue do to advance your story? Learn to spot the fat and then pare it. And pare it again.
8. Pack in Know-It-All stuff: You’ve done your research. You know exactly how many steps it takes to get from the front door to the attic. The map of all the islands, ports, harbours and rocky shoals is ingrained in your mind and you want your readers to know you know. Don’t. Just don’t. There is a huge difference between a strategically placed reference or two to help ground your reader and a litany of details that soon become a list readers must wade through before getting back to the story.
9. Display your vocabulary: Yes, it’s important for writers to be widely read and in the process, you’ve developed quite a vocabulary. Whoopee for you, but like the know-it-all research, don’t try to impress your readers with a display and get in the way of the story. Use words suitable for the genre and audience and stand back and let them do their job. Don’t excavate a cavity, just dig a hole.
10. Be Predictable: It’s important that your characters react and that the story follows a logical path. But beware the characters that never veer from what we’ve come to expect or storylines that offer no surprises. Take this approach with your dialogue and try for exchanges that show two very different agendas. Many of our conversations don’t quite go as expected, like for this retail store customer:
“Good morning, I was wondering if you had any—”
“Did you close the door?”
“Ah. Yes. Now I was wondering—”
“They get in when you don’t close it tight.”
“I closed it. Now, listen, I’m looking for—”
“There’s one now. At your feet.”
“What— What is that?”
“A displaced soul.”
There you have it. Ten ideas to consider and help you take your manuscript forward. Happy writing.