About This Blog

This blog is about my books (of course), but it's also about writing in general and the editing process. I love the puzzle of a novel, and I'm happy to share anything I know about editing and revising. Any questions? Leave them in the comment box or send me an email, and I'll address them as quickly as I can.

Monday, April 28, 2014

For First-Time Authors: What to Cut on that First Round of Revisions (Part II: Plot Spurs)

In the previous post, we discussed cutting anecdotes, and incidental scenes and events. This time we’ll be looking at plot spurs, or threads that require you to deviate too far from the main conflict or storyline. Remember that sculpture you’re trying to make from the material in your first draft? Plot spurs are the equivalent of carving extra appendages out of your excess material. They detract from the main story, slow down the pace, throw off the story arc, and distract the reader.

Beware of Plot Spurs

Plot Spurs
A plot spur is a thread that requires spurring off the main conflict and away from the main storyline to explain, justify, or support an unessential element of the story. This includes any threads that need their own backstory or development separate from, and not connected to, the main storyline or conflict.

It’s fairly common for new authors to start threads that demand too much attention. Romances between supporting characters are often a problem because if they’re going to happen they require development. Scenes will need to be created to show the characters together, and the reader needs time to invest in their budding relationship – but at what expense? Sometimes this can be successfully done, but in many cases it causes problems with the pace as it requires interrupting the main storyline.

Every thread should be carefully examined, and if it requires you to create scenes, characters, or material in general just to support or develop it, it may be spurring too far from the main conflict and need to be dropped.

Now don’t get me wrong, building a character does require showing different aspects of his or her life. If you have a character who gets accidentally involved in an FBI investigation, for instance, there has to be more to your character than her interaction with the agents and suspects as the case builds. She’ll need to have some outside source of conflict – a neurotic mother, a land lord who is trying to evict her from her apartment, etc. – or both the character and the plotline will be too one-dimensional. The trick is in keeping those other threads concentrated around the necessary plot elements, and making sure you’re not winging off into the wild blue yonder and dragging your reader along with you.

Let’s take the neurotic mother. There is a lot of potential for spurring with a situation like this. There are all sorts of problems and antics the mother may get herself caught up in that can affect the main character, but that’s all the more reason for proceeding with caution. For instance, if the mother gets fed up with her nosy neighbor and decides on a whim to marry the much-younger, hot garbage man and move to Vegas, that’s fine. She may even dump her loud, yapping, skin-diseased poodle on your heroine because her new husband hates pets. All of this provides great material for showing your character under stress, gives her new of issues to deal with, and highlights her struggle with her mother.

However, if we meet Gertrude the nosy neighbor and watch Hank the garbage man propose to the mother, you’ve spurred too far from your storyline. You may need to write those scenes in order to get a good handle on the crazy mother’s character, but the reader definitely doesn't need that much information. Why not? Because the mother’s relationships with these people have nothing to do with your main character outside of the decisions the mother makes regarding them.

In other words, in terms of your character it doesn’t matter who Hank is, he only factors in because the mother is packing up and moving to Vegas because of him, and that she found a hot young guy to marry while the heroine remains single. We don’t need to see the cause, just the effect. A quick phone call or visit from the mother where she announces her news will adequately orient the reader to all the necessary info. Elaborating further than that pulls the attention too far from what’s happening (and going to happen next) to your main character, which stretches out your story arc and slows down your pace.

Plot spurs can be small and easily overlooked or big and cumbersome, but a manuscript is always better without them. Like anecdotes and incidental scenes, threads that spur off the main story line are fairly easy to isolate, and are therefore good elements for any author to focus on when it comes time to make that first round of cuts. You may feel they add interest, humor, or depth, but chances are they are also flat-lining your story arc and slowing down your pace. Once you identify a plot spur, be tough with yourself and cut it out of your book.

The good news is that like anecdotes, you can often find a way to use discarded threads as fan-features on your website. While these threads don’t always translate well into ‘deleted scenes’, some of them – like the mother’s scenes with Gertrude and Hank – can make great short stories that can be included on your blog or website. This gives you a chance to fully develop and create something of value from your deleted plot spurs, and I think we all know how fun it is to ‘finish’ reading a book and then discover there’s more to the story. But whether you find a way to salvage and use the superfluous material from your first draft or not, it still needs to be cut if you want your manuscript to become the best finished product possible.

Monday, April 21, 2014

For First-Time Authors: What to Cut on that First Round of Revisions (Part I: Anecdotes and Incidental Scenes and Events)

This can feel like a daunting task. By the time you’ve finished your manuscript it’s like another reality in your brain. You created it, and did not do so randomly but with great purpose. There was a reason for every word you wrote, and more than likely you still remember what most of those reasons were. This is generally the biggest stumbling block for authors on that first revision, but there are some considerations that can help when it comes time to cut the excess material from your manuscript.

The first consideration is to accept that there is excessive material in your manuscript. They say there is an exception to every rule, but I have yet to meet the exception to this one. Yes, there was a purpose for each and every word, but while all that information might have been important for the author, it isn’t all important for the reader.

Think of it this way: a novel is like a sculpture. It’s a finely honed piece of art that has to be carved from an existing chunk of material, and that first draft is the chunk of material you’ll be carving from. As the author there are things you need to put into that original chunk – backstory, conversations, minor incidents, general information and exposition, anecdotes, etc. – to help you understand the story you’re telling. A lot of that, however, can be condensed, woven through, summarized, or cut altogether, because in its entirety it’s too much. Too clunky, too heavy, and too expansive to create that perfect sculpture you’re visualizing in your mind.

On subsequent novels these things become easier to differentiate, but on that first attempt it can be very difficult to decipher the essential from the excess. Every author knows scenes that fail to move the story forward should be cut, but the first-time author is often left asking what that actually means. I remember asking that question myself regarding certain scenes that I felt offered necessary information or depth to my story, but that my editor felt were excessive and unnecessary. In the end she was right at least 90% of the time. Almost all of those scenes came out of the book, and instead I found ways to preserve the ideas or information that were actually critical to my story.

Some cuts are difficult to determine without outside critique, but other elements are fairly easy to isolate, analyze, and cut with confidence. The two that we’ll be looking at in this post are Anecdotes, and Incidental Scenes/Events.

·       Anecdotes
For the purposes of this discussion an ‘anecdote’ is a retelling or narrative of an interesting or amusing incident, often in the form of an aside or backstory.

These can be funny, poignant, amusing, telling, and often reveal important information about the main character. In pure anecdotal form, however, they are also almost always expendable.

The argument can be made that books revolve around anecdotes, but this is only true when the author uses the interesting and/or amusing incidents as main events in their plot. When used only to demonstrate ‘something that happened’ outside the main storyline, they often fail to contribute anything critical to the plot.

Sometimes anecdotes are included as flashbacks, and sometimes a character actually tells another character what happened. Either way, if you have a scene where your mc ‘remembers when’ and then recounts the entire incident, it should probably go. If the info is legitimately important, find a different way to incorporate it – summarize, put the critical details in dialogue, have another character question your mc about it – or see if you can do without it after all.

·       Incidental Scenes and Events
A scene or event is considered incidental if it serves only to further define or clarify, amuse the reader, or support a theme of the book.

In my first draft of Laryn Rising, there was scene where Laryn and her sisters went to the cafeteria kitchen for their first day of work. They arrived knowing nothing about ‘real food’, and during the scene they smelled their first onion, tasted their first cookie, and interacted with Wanda, the very large woman in charge of the kitchen who also happens to be one of my favorite characters. I loved this scene. It was interesting and enlightening, and it showcased the assimilation process of Laryn and her sisters, which is one of the main themes of the book. Unfortunately, it also slowed down the pace because nothing important happened here. There was nothing new for the reader to learn, it simply highlighted an interesting aspect of the story. There was no conflict, and the scene did not require a meaningful reaction or decision from any of my characters. It had to go.

While anecdotes and incidental scenes are some of the easiest elements to identify, isolate, and cut, they also tend to be some of the most difficult to let go. As stated earlier, we like these scenes. Often times, we learned the most about our characters by delving into their pasts or watching what they would do in normal, everyday situations. But don’t let this fool you into thinking that your readers need to see them as well. Instead, trust that the depth of characterization that happened as you developed these scenes will carry through every other aspect of your character, and let them go. I promise, it really will improve your book. Besides, there’s no need for great scenes to be wasted. We all love the ‘deleted scenes’ from our favorite movies, and books are no different, so save yours and post them on your book blog. They’ll make a great fan feature, and every reader who fell in love with your characters will be thrilled to discover them.

(Click here for What to Cut Part II: Plot Spurs)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Importance of Outside Critique for First-Time Authors

Let me start by saying that if you’re someone who’s vehemently opposed to critique groups -- or carting multiple copies of your manuscript to someone else’s living room where it may undergo public humiliation at the hands of the half dozen others in said group -- don’t panic. There are other options, I promise. Either way, outside constructive critique is something that every manuscript – particularly every first manuscript – needs.

Why is outside critique necessary?
Because as a first time author you need someone to help you see how well you have (or haven’t)
incorporated all that knowledge of ‘the craft’ into this first manuscript. You’re confident that your attempts at ‘showing’ aren’t ‘telling’ in disguise? You believe your understanding and use of plot-driving conflict is solid and effectively used? You’re positive that the threads of your story are well-integrated and essential to your main conflict and character development? You can’t find any place where your pace lags, and you’re certain there’s no ‘sagging middle’? Great! Maybe you’re right.

But maybe you’re wrong.

I can’t count the number of times a first-time author has said, “But I thought I was ‘showing’,” or “But that scene has to be there so the reader will know _____ about my main character,” or “But that thread adds humor because the aunt is funny,” or (possibly the most common) “You think it’s slow/boring/confusing/hard-to-get-through? But I think that [whole giant bulk of the middle] is so interesting! And the reader has to know all of that or there’s no point to the story.”

I don’t know why these things are so difficult to see in a first manuscript, but for some reason they are. Unfortunately, they’re also very difficult to hear, but hearing them is essential since often times we just can’t see them ourselves. New authors may ‘sense’ that something isn’t right, or that they aren’t quite accomplishing what they set out to accomplish, but usually the reasons triggering these instincts are almost impossible to ferret out alone.

Enter the Critique Group.

Or, more loosely termed, the writer or writers who look at your manuscript and tell you where you’ve succeeded and where you’ve failed. The varied critique gained from an actual group of writers can be a very valuable thing (especially since it’s usually accompanied with the opportunity to critique their work as well, which opens up a world’s worth of new insight on how to interpret a manuscript – all of which is sure to help in your own revisions) but sometimes multiple opinions can be a lot for a new author to process. Either way, someone knowledgeable needs to review your manuscript.

When is the best time for outside critique?
I recommend doing one big revision on your own, focusing on your pace and cutting excess material from your manuscript. And be brutal. Saving your original always makes this less stressful, and by all means create a file for everything you delete if that helps. I think I took a whopping 15,000 words out of my first behemoth of a manuscript all by myself. I was so proud. I felt so ruthless. And in the end, even though it was a mere fraction of the 70,000 words that would eventually be stripped from my ms (that’s SEVENTY. THOUSAND. WORDS. in case you think you read it wrong) taking out that initial 15,000 helped get me in the proper state of mind for purging my story of its unnecessary parts and pieces.

Cutting and condensing really does require a certain state of mind, and forcing yourself to take those first cuts is an important step in the right direction. If you really aren't sure what to take out start small, but start somewhere. And when you've taken out everything you can possibly justify, know that it was just the tip of the iceberg and get ready to listen to, and appreciate, the suggestions on your first real critique.

What qualifies as ‘Outside Critique’?
Or, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t? In my opinion, anyone predisposed to wade through and like your manuscript simply because it was written by you does not count as outside critique. Mothers commonly fall under this category, however, I do not believe in excluding anyone simply because of their relationship to you. It has much more to do with the inclinations and qualities someone possesses than it does with how well they know and love you.

For instance, my mother would not wade through or love my book just because I wrote it. On the other hand, she also doesn’t have the knowledge or inclination to read something that needs work or tell me how to fix it, so she still would not be a candidate for a first critique. Three of my sisters are actually the first people to ever look at anything I write. One of them reads every word along the way, disqualifying her for the job of outside critique because she’s already ‘invested’ in my characters and plot. The second reads for me after I’ve done my own first round of cutting and tightening, but she’s easy to please and not at all opinionated, so she too is disqualified for giving outside critique.

Then there’s my sister Annie. She’s super qualified. (Almost regretfully so, as illustrated by the 70,000 word elimination previously mentioned.) In the first place, she’s a writer (although she’s not a novelist – yet). In the second, she’s opinionated. And in the third, I know she’ll tell me what she thinks and have insight for me when it comes to fixing the problems. Tough love can be hard to take, but this is what you’re looking for when the time comes for knowledgeable feedback on your manuscript. It can be brutal, it will most likely be painful, but it is essential.

You may not have a sister (or mother, or friend) who possesses the right qualities for outside critique, but I suspect that somewhere amidst your acquaintances is another novelist. (Seriously, they’re everywhere. Just start casually mentioning that you’ve got a manuscript, and people will start confessing.) Trading critiques with another writer is a great option, and is mutually beneficial to both authors. Just make sure not to get caught in the trap of being mutually ‘nice’, as this isn’t beneficial to anyone. If there isn’t a suitable author available, keep looking. The first person who ever critiqued any of my writing was an old high school teacher, and almost everyone knows someone who knows enough about writing to make an effective critique partner.

If all else fails, there are writing groups. There are also online writing forums and other online resources for connecting with other authors and critique groups. Be creative, find something that will work for you, and don’t make the mistake of forgoing this important step in developing your first manuscript. Solid, knowledgeable critique is an essential step in turning any manuscript into a polished, sharp, well-paced novel.