Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
December 2010

Rules of Revision

There are at least two levels of revision. I will refer to them in this discussion as macro and micro, but they could also be referred to as storytelling versus writing or big concept versus script, anything that makes sense to you. I know that in reality, micro writing effects macro writing and that it is sometimes impossible to distinguish between the two, nonetheless, I am going to try.

Most writers spend far too much time on the micro writing level of their manuscripts and far too little on the macro level, but there are plenty of exceptions to this rule. If you find yourself being tempted to edit that chapter "just one last time" before you send it in to anyone, you are probably a natural micro editor. If people tell you that your writing is "very clean," then you are a natural micro editor. If, on the other hand, people tell you that your ideas are great, but they can't understand what is going on, you are most likely a natural macro editor. If you write quickly, without outlining or planning things out in your head, you will probably need help with macro editing and micro editing.

I am a natural micro editor. I write first drafts very quickly, but after all my years in academia, my writing tends to be fluid and easy to read. (Not to say there aren't some embarrassing exceptions to this.) I try not to focus too much on making my prose perfect, checking for punctuation and agreement, for example, until I am in the copyediting portion of the process. Hopefully, this doesn't drive my editors crazy. The problem for me is that if I start focusing on that micro editing process too soon, then I lose sight of the bigger picture, and that is a dangerous thing. I also become too attached to my words on a sentence by sentence level, and that makes it almost impossible for me to scythe through them with the viciousness that is sometimes necessary when it comes to the macro editing stage. Those of you who outline may do all of your editing there without actually writing scenes.

Macro Rules of Revision

1. Does your main character have a want or a need clearly defined from the first chapter? This need or want generally leads to the further action of the story, but it doesn't necessarily. A character can want to get a date with someone and end up on all sorts of adventures, but that need or want remains the same throughout, driving the character's actions.

2. Is your main character sympathetic? See next month's column on how to write a sympathetic main character, but in general, you want someone who is good or misused in some way, so that the audience will read on. Think about newspaper headlines. It may feel mechanical at first, and it is fairly simple. It will get complicated as the novel goes on.

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3. Do people have reasonable (not stupid) reactions to events so that the plot moves forward in a way that makes sense rather than a way that works for your outline? Even though I do not outline my books--on purpose to avoid this--I still occasionally struggle with my characters acting like stick figures because it will make the plot come out nicely. I am often absolutely wrong about this, and it turns out that the secret I wanted kept is actually better revealed to the audience and the characters, and then watch the consequences of it playing out.

4. Is the time frame reasonable? Do things happen too quickly, so that there is not enough time for characters to learn and grow? Do things happen too slowly, so that the events do not feel as urgent as they should? You are in charge of the time frame. You can change chapters around as necessary to compress time frame.

5. What are the rules of your world? If you have a fantasy, you should be able to explain them in a few sentences. Absolute power must have deterrents. I would recommend more limits rather than fewer, simply for the ease of writing characters who make sense to the average human. That is, we are not all-powerful. We come up against limits all the time. Rules of the world also exist for realistic fiction.

6. How many viewpoint characters do you have? Are each one of them absolutely necessary? I would cut back to as few as possible to tell the story outlined, and make sure that each has some balance of the story to tell, not just appearing at the end, for example.

7. Are you telling your story in the proper person? Generally, I am choosing between third person and first person. First person can feel too intimate at times, but third person needs to convey emotions. Sometimes I switch back and forth with a chapter, just to see which is working better, or to borrow some of the effect from the other.

8. How big is your cast? I cannot tell you how many times I have had an editor ask me to cut out or combine a character with another one. As writers we become attached to all of our characters, but our readers have not been working on the book for eight years. They have limited capacity to attach, so use it well.

9. Do you have conflict between your characters? I know that there are frequently quest stories where people band together to find a magical artifact that will save the world. But if the characters are always happy with each other, this makes for a very boring read. There need to be smaller conflicts as well as the large conflict that will set up the climax. Simple tension between characters can add this.

10. Are your characters three dimensional people? I am not talking about writing a complete history of every character. I know some writers have little charts for doing this kind of thing. The danger in filling those out is that I think you may have a tendency to write the story around a chance to make sure every detail about a character is revealed, since you have gone to such pains to figure them out. But you do want a few details about their past, a few details about who they might be outside of the story action.

11. Is the ending a satisfying one? One of my problems is ending too suddenly, and allowing the climactic moment to feel too easy. If they could have done that from the first, why didn't they just do it early on and save us all this trouble? Equally problematic is an ending that isn't an ending at all, but just a teaser for the next book. You know what I mean. There is a line between a book cut into three parts and a true trilogy. Please write books that have an ending. Your readers will thank you.

12. Does something heroic happen? If you have ordinary characters, you must still force them to do extraordinary things. The audience is reading to get adventure vicariously, and even in realistic fiction, readers want the characters to do something heroic by the end of the book, something they didn't know they could do, or something they wanted not to have to do. I am not saying you have to write comic book super heroes, but people who step up for even just one moment to do something that changes their part of the world.

Micro Rules of Revision

1. Cut anything that you've already said before once. Readers do not need to be hit over the head with things. I know, I know. There are a lot of writers who do this, and it makes for an easier read because you can skip every second paragraph, since the writer will only tell you again. But my standards of good writing decry this.

2. Make sure everything you say is absolutely clear. Sometimes we get this idea as writers that if we take a long time to say something, use lots of metaphors, and have characters talk about it, it is clear. Not true. Clear is simple. It is also not confused later on by second or third revisions of the text that mix things up. If your characters are confused, make it clear that this is so. Also make it clear when they are no longer confused.

3. He said/she said. "Said" is a great word because it's invisible. Use it as much as possible in dialog.

4. Tell details that are interesting and unique. One little detail is sometimes all that is necessary. Anything that is not interesting and unique as a detail should be cut out, or changed for one that is unique.

5. Cut out all the boring parts. If you as the writer are tempted to glaze over a section, this is a big warning sign.

6. Write in English. Especially a temptation in genre writing, but it bleeds into other writing, as well. Psychological explanations that go into jargon--don't do it. Courtroom jargon--cut. You are not writing an article in a magazine for experts. You are writing for the layperson.

7. Watch for dangling participles and noun/verb agreement. There are phrases in English that work colloquially in speech that don't work in a novel. You sometimes have to write around them. Someone doesn't want their coat, for example. Yuck.

8. Check for repetitions. Repetitious sentence structure and word choice are examples of this.

9. Read aloud. I do this sometimes at the computer, sometimes on paper. But the point is, sometimes things sound differently read aloud, and it will give you another angle to check your prose.

10. Check and double check spelling. Just because it is a word according to your word processor, that doesn't mean it's the right word. It's/its, theirs/there's, and so on. The editor in me comes out fiercely when I read manuscripts that make what seem to me to be simple mistakes. You want to look like a professional when presenting a manuscript to an editor or agent.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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