The Red Pen: Stating the Obvious that Obviously Needs Stating

I’ve been wearing my editor hat again the last couple weeks, working with someone’s raw manuscript that is pending rewrite for resubmission. For confidentiality reasons, I apologize that I can’t be more specific than I am. What follows below are merely some overarching concerns that a rookie can easily overlook (hey, I’m one, too!) and sometimes get the Monkey’s head beating against the trunk of its tree:

1. Research – They say, “Write what you know,” but one doesn’t have to live in a place or serve in a certain profession, for example, to be able to research authentic details relating to such. Writing fiction doesn’t give the liberty to entirely fabricate a place or occupation if it’s one that actually exists. The internet is a beautiful place for research, as are books, site visits, and interviews with people in the applicable locations/fields. Be knowledgeable of your story’s setting and subjects and use common sense to discern what claims need to be fact-checked, then verify them accordingly. (see also “Settingcategory)

2. Narrative – Do NOT “tell” versus “show”! That is Writing 101. Your story shouldn’t read like an extended synopsis that lists events rather than describes them in such a way that immerses the reader. Don’t say that your character is making a facial expression that looks angry, show that his brows are furrowed and lips screwed into a menacing sneer. Don’t say that the room is filled with expensive-looking furniture, show that it’s cluttered with ornately carved oak chairs upholstered in embroidered silk astride side-tables trimmed in gold leaf (I don’t know if that’s “expensive” or just tacky…). And don’t say something in dialogue that you then paraphrase in narrative—communicate the info/insight one way or the other; to do both is redundant.

Also, avoid an abundance of character introspection. Readers really don’t need to know every single thought and motivation of your character. Make them privy, yes, if it’s from a certain character’s POV, but it’s also more interesting and vivid to visualize if you concisely show their body language and actions and let the reader reasonably infer some of what they’re thinking or feeling. Telling all on characters and the labyrinth of questioning they’re wondering their way through is tedious and doesn’t let readers form questions of their own that’ll make them keep reading in search of answers. Leaving something to the imagination not only indulges one of the joys of reading but can heighten a story’s sense of conflict and climax when the reader isn’t already in the know of everything. (see alsoDescriptive LanguageandSensory Detailscategories)

3. Dialogue. In keeping with the above, character conversation can come across as unnatural when too much information is shared by this means. Be subtle when doling out back-story or insight via dialogue, otherwise it’s blunt and awkward: your manipulations of story become too transparent, and the characters don’t sound like real people. (see alsoDialoguecategory)

4. Characterization. The above narration/dialogue factors are just as important to building a strong sense of character. Do your characters sound believable? Are you showing enough description of features, mannerisms, and personality such that your reader can visualize your characters (yet not so much that you’re telling readers everything about them and leaving nothing to the imagination)? And are you giving your reader reason to remotely care about them and whether or not they reach their goals? Without any of this, characters aren’t even two dimensional; they’re stick-straight lines. Boring. Flesh ’em out and make them more interesting with flaws if they seem too goodie-goodie or benign—or with redeeming qualities if they’re otherwise the Devil incarnate. No one likes a purely good hero or a purely evil villain. (see alsoCharactercategory)

5. Story Arc. Tensions need to rise as the story progresses. Not overly telling and giving everything away (as discussed above) will help contribute to this as readers speculate character motivations and future actions and reactions; scan and replace lengthy sections of introspection with concise, external descriptions of character body language/expression and leave readers to their own interpretations. Add complexity by interweaving relevant back-story and subplot(s). Foreshadowing is also a useful device for enhancing curiosity along the way as readers form predictions, but it will blow up in your face if the seeds you plant are too obvious! Don’t lead up to your big reveal only for your reader to go, “Uh, derr!” That reeks of anticlimax.

It’s not to say everything should be a surprise for the reader—it can be just as suspenseful when the reader already knows something the character doesn’t (like in horror movies when you know the killer is lurking right around the corner from the innocent victim), but only when it’s deliberately played to this effect. There’s a craft in pulling that off, so don’t think simply telling your reader everything and leaving your character in the dark is an easy shortcut—be discerning in what you share and withhold.

Your big revelations can likewise be a let-down if your characters’ own responses fall flat. Think about what you’re wanting your readers to anticipate, to get excited about, and make sure you deliver it in a commensurately enthusiastic fashion. If there’s a big secret out there that your reader knows and is dying for your character to find out, is the character finding out in an exciting and unexpected way? Or is, for instance, another character just explaining it in a straight-forward conversation, garnering a reaction as enthralling as, “Oh.” (see alsoStory Arccategory and, more specifically, Pacing Your Pages” Parts I & II)

6. Other: Plot Elements (in general). Map out all the major and minor elements of your plot and subplot(s) alike and make sure every piece of them flows/connects logically. Ensure not a single important question they could raise is left unanswered if it’s vital to understanding and believing in the story. Loose ends that leave something to the imagination or tease for a sequel are one thing, but overlooking major gaps in how a character got from Point A to Point B (just because you want them to get there for the sake of driving the story forward in other ways) undermines a story’s entire credibility. Don’t just say something happened if it’s not entirely logical for it to have happened and assume your readers won’t notice, that they’ll just take your word for it. If something is complicated whether you like it or not, do the work to figure it out; stop writing and start reasoning through it (via outline or time-line, perhaps). Do more research if it’s necessary. And if it’s not working, accept it and change it to something that will.

Readers’ disbelief can only be suspended so far; you have to earn their trust if they’re going to follow the journey you want to take them on. Even the most fantastical of story-worlds need plausibility (working within the rules/parameters the author so designs for those worlds if it’s not the one we actually live in), so the reader must understand how plot events feasibly come to happen and tie together for the story to be realistic and identifiable.

Speaking of “Uh, durr!” and “Oh,” that’s probably your reader-response to all of the above. But you’d be surprised what we writers can’t see in our own writing that we so clearly do in others. As the author, the mental full-picture we see tends to automatically fill the gaps of the written story that our readers otherwise trip into. With that in mind, never underestimate a pair of fresh eyes; it really does pay to have others read your work. So toughen that skin and git ‘er done! Constructive criticism has groomed the Monkey’s own fur into a nice thick and glossy coat. 🙂

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About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

11 responses to “The Red Pen: Stating the Obvious that Obviously Needs Stating

  • Glen

    great stuff – as usual. totally agree about getting a fresh pair of eyes to read and review and critique (as long as it’s not your wife!) I managed to get a friend with an english degree to review a short story I wrote for a competition. Her recomendations made sense and the places where she asked what was going on turned out to be not so well explained as they were in my head. I re-wrote submitted and…. got Shortlisted! Result! the story is getting published and that is ace. i don’t doubt that those few changes made a difference

    • thefallenmonkey

      Glen, THAT IS AWESOME!!! Congratulations!!! So well deserved; your writing is terribly clever, with such a clear and unique sense of voice.

      I think with peer critiques the tendency is for writers to see criticism as a sign of terminal weakness in their writing, which isn’t the case – in recognizing weaknesses, you do build strengths. And for whatever someone else’s input might be, it’s still your own writing, still very much your own creativity – because what they point out usually brings to existence what you’d really intended for the story anyway, just didn’t realize wasn’t actually written down! I do that all the time, and my revisions have really benefited from someone else saying, “Huh? What? What the hell does this mean?” 🙂

      Anyways, so proud of you! Keep writing and submitting your magic!

      • Glen

        Thanks for the compliment – and yes, it’s really hard to hear critisism sometimes, but you really do learn from it, and when you get the hang of that it is all good. Talking of which – i really would appreciate hearing your opinion of the story in question – either publicly or privately if you prefer – as I’d respect your viewpoint. So if you can spare the time to check it I’d be almost cup of tea makingly grateful. Not coffee though – sorry.

        • thefallenmonkey

          You bet I will, Glen! I’ve got it loaded on my Kindle for when I can grab the time to read it. Mm, am delighting in the energizing coziness of that virtual cup of tea – why, thank you, kind sir. 🙂

  • Tahlia Newland

    Sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you with these manuscripts. At least they aren’t being published in that state.

  • Milo James Fowler

    Character introspection — yep, that’s where I struggle in my longer work. In my short stories, there’s no time for it, so I’m not tempted to delve into each character’s psychology as they weigh every choice they make. But in my longer stuff, I fall prey to avoiding the “Wham! Bam! Pow!” of my early (teenage years) novels by adding way too much introspection, suffering from the delusion that it’s more “literary” or “adult”.

    • thefallenmonkey

      I know, Milo – I recently went back and skimmed over sections of my manuscripts and am paranoid whenever I spot myself doing the same thing, but I guess it’s fair to remember that it is okay to do, just not in almost every paragraph! And that’s a great point about the short story form in that respect; that must thwart a multitude of writing sins out of necessity. I think it’s very easy to forget that even each word in a novel should be used sparingly – I remember writing my first manuscript and thinking I could go on and on and on as much as I wanted because how else would I write so many words? 😉

  • Eva

    Great points, all of them! They sound so “yeah, don’t we all know” but fact is that we keep forgetting about it unless a brave soul volunteers to open our eyes. I always find it especially challenging to keep the balance of how much you need to know about the characters and how it’s conveyed. The show-don’t-tell approach is great but also is interlinked with the plot/scene-setting, as showing a certain quality of the character cannot happen in an arbitrary scene. But guess that’s what I love about the whole novel adventure. It is so complex, like inventing your own recipe, but so rewarding when you have finally figured out the perfect flavour.

    And you know what also? Can’t believe you have your 2nd ms close to ready at hand. You are so productive, my dear, congrats! When are you flinging it at the craving public?!

    • thefallenmonkey

      I hesitated posting this for a few days, actually, because I knew it would be so, “No, duh!” (especially among my regular peeps here who have crazy talent and don’t need MY advice on a thing – *ahem* *ahem* you published author *ahem*). But just when I think everyone writing out there and actually submitting their work is well aware of these items and has painstakingly combed through their work, had someone else read it, and then revised, revised, revised for all of it, it turns out…nope! I think there are a lot of folks out there who think it’s enough to sit and write X-amount of words and call it a novel, so this one’s for them. 🙂

      “The show-don’t-tell approach is great but also is interlinked with the plot/scene-setting, as showing a certain quality of the character cannot happen in an arbitrary scene.” – EXCELLENT POINT. That’s when it really gets into the craft of the writing and brings it to a much more effective level.

      And I see you noticed my updated progress on ms2. 🙂 This one’s a bit of an experiment for me…It’s my precious little potboiler that I’m cranking through in trying to relax my writing a little and write something that’s perhaps a little lighter and more commercial than ms1. Still very much reflecting my warped mind, but perhaps more of a genre piece accessible to a different audience and, ergo, better chances to get picked up???

      • Eva

        Aaaaw, fingers crossed, my dear! I think one of the common problems of first novels is their amount of ambition, as sad as it is (as they keep saying you should aim high). Keeping things simple is such an art which sometimes is only possible after going through the first (and I should know with my over 100k words). Anyway, I can’t wait to see your new baby coming out. Goooood luck!

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