Tag Archives: revising a novel first draft

The Red Pen: POed at POVs

red penHappy Monday, my Monkey friends! I’m putting my editor hat back on today to comment on an issue that’s plagued me a lot as of late: POV. I ranted on this topic a while back in my post “POV for Vendetta,” when I feared a colleague and I were nearing impasse, ironically because we shared different points of view on point of view. As I eventually related in my follow-up post, “The POVerdict,” we did find compromise, and, in retrospect after gaining more experience, I do think the book is better for it. At the crux of it, though, was when sharing multiple POVs is head-hopping or not. The reading and editing community at large has become increasingly intolerant toward shifting between characters’ thoughts and prefers the nice-n-tidy confines of limited POV. But even when multiple POVs are limited versus omniscient, when can such perspectives alternate without having to denote the shifts between them with an obvious section or chapter break?

Now, I’ll be honest that I do personally prefer when a scene or chapter is kept to one character’s perspective. It’s simply easier to understand and allows me more intimacy with that character, provides me more insight. Even JK Rowling’s expert use of third-person omniscient in The Casual Vacancy drove me a bit nuts at times, purely because I don’t care for those shifts occurring on a sentence or paragraph level. For me, it always comes down to the story and the writing, whether the alchemy of the two produces an effect that works for my brain or not. It can be a very personal choice and difficult thing to articulate.

What perplexes me at the moment, though, is a novel I just finished: the NY Times and international bestseller The Expats, by Chris Pavone. No doubt the writing is good (better than mine fo’ sho’), and the story well crafted (though arguably a bit underwhelming and in need of a wee bit of tightening), yet I can’t reconcile the straying POVs within it. The story is 99.5% told through the protagonist’s point of view, but every now and then, we jump inside another character’s head. It’s an easy mistake but a just-as-easily fixed one, leaving me to wonder how these shifts got through—via oversight or justification? If the latter, I’d love to know what that was. Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong.

But allow me to share a challenging POV predicament that recently came my way—something I could and did do something about. Unlike The Expats, this manuscript tried for third-person omniscient narration, not limited, so shifting between perspectives was acceptable. But unlike the omnisciently narrated The Casual Vacancy, these shifts were intolerable. Rather than recreate the wheel, I’ve pasted an excerpt of my actual notes (with specific story information removed for sake of anonymity):

The aim here is evidently third-person omniscient, in which an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator is observing from the outside yet still able to know characters’ thoughts. Consistent with that, we do get to follow everyone around […]. The dilemma, however, is that it treads a fine line between omniscience and head-hopping that our acquisitions and editorial teams found dizzying.

Head-hopping and third-person omniscient narration are not the same thing, so I’m not going to claim that a story can’t reveal different characters’ thoughts in the same scene or even same paragraph. Omniscient narration is common in classic literature, after all; it’s just less common these days for assorted reasons. For some, it sounds old-fashioned; for others, they prefer the intimacy they can have with characters under a limited POV. Those are largely personal preferences—for readers, it’s a choice of which POV they like to read, and for writers, it can also be what they like to write, but first and foremost POV has to suit the story. Regardless, many writers shy from third-person omniscient because it’s very difficult to pull off without lapsing into head-hopping.

The strength of your narration is that it does maintain a consistent sense of voice. Even if it dwells with one character a while, it doesn’t assume that character’s voice instead. That’s vital for omniscience. There are also times when ducking in and out characters’ minds lends comic relief and a colorful storytelling quality to that narrative voice. But the main thing you have to ask yourself when approaching any story is whose story is it? Who is the hero? Whose perspective matters most?

As one of your first readers, if I were to answer these questions for [your manuscript], I’d say [A] is the story’s heroine with [B] as her leading man. Next in the hierarchy are [C] (the heroine of her own subplot, which triggers [A]’s main plot) and [D] (the villain of the story). These four are very tightly intertwined, though, and drive the story collectively, so I like your choice to use multiple points of view. Each of them is worthwhile to follow around, and their individual POVs can take us places where the others don’t go to provide us important information to be gleaned from different locales at once.

But note that I didn’t list anyone beyond those four characters. [P]resenting bits of the story through secondary characters’ POVs is more difficult to justify. There’s the comic relief, yes, but that’s embedded in the narrative voice itself and certainly shines through the four main characters. This quality of your storytelling wouldn’t be lost even if we don’t get to hear every minor character’s internal quipping (like I said before about killing your darlings, if it means editing out a good joke or clever wordplay, use it another story that shares similar dynamics. Maybe write a sequel with the same cast of characters but different leading roles, etc.). And even if their thoughts have important bearing on the plot, most likely we can acquire that information ourselves through their body language and dialogue.

[Example from the text.]

The other factor at play here is not just that [A]’s, [B]’s, [C]’s, and [D]’s POVs should be the main ones but that they already are. We spend more time in their heads than anyone else’s, so the story seems to already want to limit itself to their perspectives. And I think that’s where the overall POV has an identity crisis of sorts between omniscient and limited that lends to the head-hopping quality. When we’re in one perspective for most of a scene, it’s jarring to shift out and then back into it during that scene. On the other end of the spectrum is when we’re not oriented in any one POV at length but, rather, shifting around frequently among several people. Even between a couple of characters, shifting on such a sentence/paragraph level is really disorienting.

Very long story short, I’m generally not inclined toward using a third-person omniscient POV for this story because it:

–   detracts from the main characters, whose perspectives matter most
–   can easily slip into head-hopping or produce a similar whiplash effect when shifting POVs across too many characters too many times in a scene

So based on my own observations and those across our acquisitions and editorial teams, I highly recommend switching to third-person limited POV. You could (and should) still use multiple points of view […], but try to keep scenes within a single character’s POV and use a section/chapter break whenever there’s a shift.

The idea is to keep readers oriented and not jar them by shifting without warning. If POV does shift at all within a scene, it needs to be very, very carefully controlled on an absolutely as-needed basis. And weed out the strays if one character’s POV clearly dominates a section—e.g., say you have five paragraphs in a single POV except for a few sentences of an alternative POV interspersed within them. The best solution is to delete or rewrite those few sentences into the dominant POV.

When your main characters separate, it’s easy to choose which one’s POV to follow for that scene. But remember also that they’re often in the same room with each other, so even having to choose one POV among them doesn’t mean we can’t still see and hear the other characters and draw conclusions based on their spoken/body language (and whoever’s head we’re in at the time can form those conclusions for us in their thoughts, too). And if you’re dealing with one scene but really, really want to show it through more than one perspective, look for shifts that naturally lend themselves to a section break. If we see a situation in [A]’s POV for several paragraphs but then [B]’s POV kicks in with his viewpoint of the same time and place for the next couple pages, those are sizable chunks that can be divided with a section break marker but, together, still constitute a single scene. Section/chapter breaks aren’t the end-all, be-all way to handle shifts, but they’re the safest when in doubt.

So there’s my two pence on that topic. And in case you’re wondering, yes, the author was on board with shifting POV from omniscient to limited multiple. Very enthusiastically so, actually. And yes, my editorial plans can be long-winded. 🙂 Especially when they go to the author for a preliminary rewrite rather than straight to the editor, as I try to be as specific as possible in my guidance for newer writers.

As a reader and/or writer, what are your thoughts on omniscient vs. limited point of view? Limited vs. limited multiple POV? And how do you define the difference between true omniscience and head-hopping?


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. 🙂


NaNoWriMonkey – Follow-up Reflections (Finally!)

Just over a month of recovery has transpired since my NaNoWriMo burnout. Like a Roman candle, the concentrated spew of writing was glorious, dazzling my eyes with a populated computer screen after a long stretch of spark-less procrastination. And then November ended and fffffzzztt. So did the writing. For the most part. Just like legs need a rest after a marathon, I needed to retrieve my eyeballs and fingers from where they’d fallen off onto the keyboard and step away from that project for a bit.

In the meantime, I’ve been tweaking my first manuscript and rewriting query letters over and over again to get ready for a much-delayed round of submission. I also headed Stateside for another two weeks for Christmas, which was crazy-busy but magical, just like the Disney trip before that. 🙂 Anyway, I’d promised to follow up on my NaNoWriMo experience, so let’s get on with it.

Writing 50,000 words in one month is a concept that makes folks wary, and understandably—for years I assumed it could only generate pure and utter crap; good writing is not to be rushed. But now having gone through it, there’s no question it was a useful exercise that I highly recommend, and here are some reasons why:

1. NaNoWriMo was like a writing enema. I’d been stopped up for a while in that respect, sitting on a story outline I’d completed in spring only to sputter out one chapter in summer and jack until November. It was shit-or-get-off-the-pot time, and NaNoWriMo was precisely the initiative I needed. So, to run with my disgusting metaphor, even if a lot of my massive brain-dump was crap, it was purifying to get it out of me. I did have an outline to keep me focused, but I think if you’re still in novel-brainstorming mode, it’s a perfect way to write your way into a storyline to run with beyond NaNoWriMo.

2. NaNoWriMo gave me discipline. For as much as I’ve preached on this blog that writing is a discipline, I still tend to fall in with the “I write when I feel like it” crowd. It’s incredibly difficult for me to establish routine in my writing, so having that NaNoWriMo goal was such a motivating force. Not only did my profile stats continually calculate how many words I had to average per day based on my actual pace, but punching in my new word counts and watching those bars climb on the chart was immensely satisfying. It pushed me each day to stick to a daily word goal and punch out a few more sentences just when I thought I had no words left in me. Contrary to such doubt, there’s always more waiting in the folds of our grey matter.

3. NaNoWriMo pushed me out of my comfort zone. There’s obviously no hard-and-fast “right” way to write. Some writers vomit out their stories first and revise later, and others revise as they write. I trend toward the latter category. It has merit, but I found it worthwhile to try a new approach, and the result broke some bad habits I’d naturally fallen into. One of the major flaws of my first manuscript was that its early drafts were overwritten. I pored way too much over every word and sentence and stopped writing new material in favor of revising finished chapters to death first. The writing needed to relax, and, what’s more, I hadn’t mapped out that entire story yet. To so painstakingly revise early chapters when I still had no idea where the later chapters were going was just stupid. It was only when I’d finished drafting the entire story that I realized what needed to change at the beginning to improve consistency. So, not only did I outline my second manuscript beforehand this time around, but NaNoWriMo forced me to keep driving this story forward and not complicate phrasing through over-thinking it—there simply wasn’t the time to. It’s not as though I had no opportunity for some thoughtful wordsmithing, logically thinking through plotting, or researching to enrich descriptive detail and authenticity. I simply mean that, overall, I had to write more off-the-cuff and to-the-point than I’m used to, a risk my writing in particular really needed to take.

4. NaNoWriMo powerfully immersed me in my storyworld. Curling up with a single story for so many hours of the day every day was the deepest sea-diving into my imagination I’d ever done. I was truly married to my characters, setting, and situations at that point; the level of commitment was tremendous when I promised to come back to them every day, and the short gaps between bouts of writing ensured I never really loved ’em and left ’em. It’s essential to at some point step away from a story and come back to it with fresher eyes (as I’m doing right now), but the benefits of sticking with it for better or worse in November included seeing my storyworld more vividly and improving its continuity—I remembered details more clearly and strung them together more efficiently since they were written only a matter of hours/days apart from each other.

5. NaNoWriMo was P90X for my brain. In view of all the aforementioned, my mind clearly got warmed up and broke a sweat trying to keep pace with my required daily average word count (~2,700/day thanks to my late start). The mind is a muscle, after all, and it needs to be flexed in order to grow. Pushing yourself to go as far as you can one day will strengthen you to do the same if not more the next. And haven’t you found that the more you exercise, the more you want to? In the same way, NaNoWriMo energized me to the point where I wasn’t writing because I had to. I wanted to. I honestly woke up every morning excited to get back to my computer to research and write.

Granted, there’s no way I could’ve sustained the intensity of NaNoWriMo beyond that month, but I do think the lessons it taught can be applied in realistic doses going forward on my project. I went into it with 10,000 words, came out with 60,000, and estimate I have about 15,000-20,000 more words to go until my first draft is finished. There’s no question I’ll have to revise the hell out of it, but I definitely don’t discount the earnest progress I initially made on it in a very, very concentrated amount of time—I think (*hope*) going into NaNoWriMo with an advance, focused vision of my story optimized how many of those 50,000 words actually have a shot at remaining in the final draft…the major ideas at the very least.  I tried my best to work smarter, not harder, so we’ll see one day what I have to show for it. 🙂


A Cage of One’s Own

Ya know, I usually play up the whole monkey thing because I think I’m so terribly clever and no one will ever get sick of it (shyeah right, you’re thinking), but, honestly, my flat really is starting to feel like a zoo right now.

Within one week of returning from two weeks in Singapore with my husband and in-laws, I already hosted two separate visitors and received news that another was scheduled to arrive, well, as of yesterday and staying for two weeks. Apparently so much poop flies around in here that my husband’s ears must’ve gotten clogged, because for the second time we have a scheduling conflict thanks to our stellar communication with each other. The first time was last fall when we double-booked my parents and a couple friends of ours—six adults in a wee flat of one bathroom + two beds + one punctured aerobed screamed nightmare to me, so I took my parents to the Cotswolds for most of the overlap while my husband hosted our friends. Problem solved.

Well, it turns out that I’m fleeing to the countryside yet again during my father-in-law’s present visit. Something about telling my husband, “If your father hasn’t decided on his dates yet, late August is out because I’m going on a writer’s retreat in the wake of our insane spring and summer,” got lost in translation, so he’d emailed his dad that late August still worked great. Great.

So here he is, and here I am packing up to leave on Sunday for five nights in Cornwall.

Could I have canceled? Sure.
Was there a chance in hell I was going to? No sir.
Do I feel a little bad about that? Of course!

But maybe this is a good time to mention that we’ve hosted over thirty (30) different people in less than three years since moving to London. And hosting is particularly problematic for those like me who work from home. And whose office is also the guest bedroom. In all fairness, though, this guest is super easy and independent, and we’ve given him the master bedroom so I can access my computer.

Nonetheless, after doing a little more basic math for this year alone, I estimate 30% of 2011 will have been spent hosting, traveling, and visiting home. Which leaves a lot of everyday life to be crammed into that remaining 70%. Which leaves not a lot of time for a reclusive writing life. (And I don’t even have kids!! How do you writers with children do it all??!!)

So I’m going, to a cage aaall to myself. No work, no hosting, undoubtedly a little hiking, but primarily writing. Selfishness has never tasted so delicious. See you in a week or so.

And how about you? How have you made a point to prioritize your writing, to give yourself some space to think, imagine, and create?


What Characters Looove to Do…


Characters love to—

* sigh *
and take deep breaths
when they’re not
catching their breath at the back of their throats
or gasping!
They like taking sidelong glances as they
look out the corner of their eyes,
and they’re fond of
muttering,
mumbling,
murmuring,
and growling
through clenched teeth.
They’ll pinch the bridge of their noses
or roll their eyes in frustration
or furrow/cock their brows in confusion.
And their mouths drop open in shock.
In good moods, they’re wild about
smirking
and
winking
and
blushing
as they
chuckle or snicker or giggle
with smug grins.
In tender moments, they’ll
whisper
and do everything
softly and gently.
And they absolutely get off on
beginning to do some things
while starting to do others.

These are just some of the things I see characters loving to do all over the place when I edit manuscripts. (I catch ’em with the naked eye, but a tool like “Wordle” might also help authors divide and conquer those tendencies)

What penchants do YOUR characters have?

*


Happy Endings

Friday night: Curled up on the sofa in a state of despondency. So quiet and lackluster that my husband continually asks me what’s wrong. To which I *sigh* and say I’m fine, just wiped out after a few days of steadily revising manuscript #1…yet again. What I don’t proceed to say is that I think my ending continues to suck, and I don’t know how to fix it, and I can’t wrap my brain around it anymore, and I’m so sick of my manuscript, and all I wanna do is lie curled there and sip from my glass of red wine and watch TV to lose myself in other people’s stories until I drift to sleep.

Saturday afternoon: Husband comes into our second bedroom/office to check on me at the computer because, masochist that I am, I couldn’t stay away from dear ms #1 for long. I look at him, smile, and proceed to bounce in my loudly creaking chair over and over and over again in a way that surely makes the neighbors think we’re up to something naughty. They’re not entirely wrong, because I am at  this point climaxing and reveling in a satisfying ending. My manuscript’s ending. The first version of it I’ve ever been happy with as providing decent resolution. My mind was massaged and able to get off in the end…it almost needed to smoke a cigarette afterward.

Sunday morning: I tweak a bit more at the ending and review how it follows after the climax (a bit tricky, this, as working with two narrative threads has kinda resulted in a climax-within-a-climax…I have zero clue if I’m handling it right, but it feels appropriate). And I realize that for all the work I just put into it, the revision of this ending wasn’t even a rewrite at all! Honestly, it was done through mainly structural changes in which I pulled earlier scenes (that worked better as falling versus rising action) and inserted them into the last couple chapters. It’s hard to explain how it works, but O-M-freaking-G it does!

One of my issues with story arc was an overly quick resolution. It wasn’t “satisfying” and failed to clarify what the heck had actually happened during the climax. This was a pure product of me thinking I’d be so clever and not hand-hold my readers through anything, make them work it out themselves and leave it fairly open-ended so the readers can do the work there, too, and form their own conclusions of what happens next…basically, make them do my job because I think I was honestly too tapped (or lazy) to figure it out myself. 🙂

Well, that’s fine and all, but when it comes down to it, I’ve learned we do need to throw readers an occasional bone. In my previous post on marketability, I’d mentioned the strategies I’d try to make my work more commercially viable but had come to realize: “Is that writing commercially exactly or just better?!” Writing in a way readers can understand and enjoy is not commercial. Writing a well-resolved, satisfying ending isn’t selling out. “Satisfying” doesn’t have mean “happily ever after” or that every single loose end is tied up and explained in full. No, we don’t have to dumb everything down so readers are not only hand-held but pushed along in an adult-sized stroller and spoon-fed a purée of the unthinking obvious—and that’s not me being a snob as a writer; that’s me being a snob as a reader who finds stories like that mind-numbingly dull if not insulting. Resolutions should be like “a flick of the wrist,” I’ve been told, so I think it’s left to the writer’s  judgment which matters can be wrapped up concisely, which developed a bit more, and which left to the reader’s imagination. I think a healthy mix of all of the above can be satisfying indeed for any novel.

I’m not saying I’ve written the perfect ending. It might not be satisfying yet to someone else or even to myself in a few days. It might go through dozens more face-lifts. But what I am saying is that the towel has been flicked at my arse, waking me up to the fact that the ending in my head wasn’t on the page, and mind-reading psychics aren’t necessarily my target demographic that would maybe make that okay. This is not only my story; it’s for future readers, so I need to be less selfish with what I share of it. And such is the moral at the end of this story. 🙂

How about YOU? What issues (if any) with your endings need some massaging out?


Pacing Your Pages – Part II

Playing the "Time Lord" is no matter to horse around with.

After surely leaving you in suspense all week with the dramatic hook at the end of my last post, “Pacing Your Pages – Part I,” I bring you the thrilling conclusion of the joke:

A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says

“WHY THE LONG FACE?”

Boddum-bum. *ching!*

Right. To get back on topic, last time I introduced the first part of author Julie Cohen‘s workshop on Pacing. She’d explained how we’re the “Time Lords” over our readers’ experience with our novel—how engaged they are and how quickly they move through it. We’ve already been over analyzing our use of conflicts, functions, hooks, and variety, so moving onward today…

Keeping secrets is another tool for creating a page-turning novel. As Cohen said:

“Readers are nosy.”

As the writer, we can choose to either keep a secret from the reader or let them in on one that’s kept from a character. However you approach it, try to keep that secret for as long as you can, as wanting to find out what it is (or see the character do so) is what will prompt readers to keep reading. That being said, know when to let it go, even if it’s earlier than you’d want to if it means not distracting or overly teasing the reader. You want them intrigued, not annoyed.

And just when we’ve been talking about how to pick up the pace of your novel, just as important is slowing down. Moments warranting a slow-down are dramatic events, sudden happenings, and emotional high points that we might want to prolong for their significance and to allow the reader to process them. Strategies for expanding on reader time include adding section breaks, changing point-of-view, and leaving an incident for a chapter before returning to it later.

Then there’s the matter of speeding up. If you want to get things rolling a little faster, avoid coffee-drinking scenes and the like with characters just sitting around and gabbing if it’s not moving the story forward, along with description for its own sake. Establishing atmosphere and such can be better achieved through a few concise, well-selected descriptions than rambling on over every detail of everything appearing in a scene—and remember your R.U.E.: Resist the Urge to Explain! Other areas to cut include naturalistic but unneeded dialogue, bits that aren’t hooks at the beginning and end of scenes, and things necessary to real life but not fiction (think going to the bathroom or getting from one side of the room to the other).

Where making these cuts are concerned, Cohen says:

“If you have a sneaking suspicion something shouldn’t be in there, cut it.”

We new writers hear this advice at every turn. That’s because it’s essential, but it doesn’t have to be painful. Looking on the bright side of cutting things out, we can: 1) accept that we’ve learned something from writing it; and, 2) use it again somehow…perhaps in another story, as a “free read” on your website or blog as a means of drawing readership, or, quite possibly, it might even have to be stuck back in the story it originally came from! Cohen herself had this experience—she’d cut a scene out by her own choice, but when her editor later suggested that that part of the story was lacking a certain something, the bit that she’d cut was exactly the solution!

Finally, I’d mentioned her color-coding system before for determining the appearance and interplay of conflict throughout a manuscript. She likewise closed her session with a similar method for outlining other aspects of plot. Basically, however you’d like to slice and dice it, assign each plot element a color (e.g., interaction between hero and heroine, interaction between hero and his mother, etc.) and jot it on a Post-It note. Then go chapter by chapter and apply the Post-Its to a sheet of paper for each to see your story’s development. This isn’t so much for outlining in advance as it is a post-draft diagnostic tool.

* To see a photo of this strategy and read Cohen’s own description of it, see her blog post, “Post-It Plotting“:
http://www.julie-cohen.com/blog/2010/09/17/post-it-plotting/

What pacing strategies have worked for you? Would you give any of these from Part I or II a go?


Pacing Your Pages – Part I

Whoa there, horsie! Slow-n-steady does NOT always win the race...

Ah yes, welcome back to the Animal Kingdom, where if I’m not a monkey, I’m evidently a horse…let’s just say my husband and I are big fans of the Grand National and cheer the horses on the best way we know how from the pub. Now the Grand National is a looong-lasting steeplechase, so, just as in the London marathon two days ago, the runners have to pace themselves strategically so they have enough energy to race through the climactic finish. But that doesn’t mean they start walking, and, of course, it’s crucial they stay on track. Likewise, the workshop I attended, “Pacing: Or, How To Keep ‘Em Turning Pages,” at the York Festival of Writing instructed on how to keep the pace of your novel moving without meandering off course.

To start, as you can see on the right side of the screen, I’ve just started reading the novel Getting Away With It. I’m doing so for entertainment, yes, but also as a lesson in pacing—it so happens that its author, Julie Cohen, led the above-mentioned workshop, so I thought I’d check ‘er out.

Cohen started out by noting “novel time” and recommended using a blank calendar to map out the story’s timeframe (bearing in mind “reader time,” the timeframe during which the readers actually read it…you want to keep a novel moving, but you also want to work in enough time for your readers to catch their breath). And while a longer novel versus a shorter one can allow more breathing room for character introspection (which are necessary moments), she recommends against over-using it.

As for conflict, Cohen calls us the “Time Lords” over reading time. 🙂 What she means is that reader time is subjective; it’s the writer who manipulates it. And she advocates doing so by including as much conflict as possible in each page, which I’m sure we’ve all heard before:

A lot of well-handled conflict will go quickly, no matter how many pages.”
Julie Cohen

She’s not talking car-chase, high-drama conflict at all turns but, rather, varying types of conflict—this could be any of the usual types: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Nature. A blend of these conflicts are likely occurring in your novel, and Cohen suggests tracking them via a color-coding system to map out how they coincide chronologically. This can help you visualize the interplay of conflict as well as an approximation of your story’s shape.

Next up is function. A pacey book is efficient in its storytelling. Among the functions its chapters/scenes serve is moving the plot/subplot forward, developing character, creating emotion/atmosphere/conflict, and imparting information. But if you find you have several scenes serving the same function, either condense them or add in additional functions. A good way to determine this is to make a “scene function” list.

Also essential to pacing is starting and ending each scene with a hook, as well as giving your reader variety in mood, topic, theme, and style. To demonstrate the efficacy of this, Cohen had us do a simple exercise with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (it took a teacher to identify another teacher right off the bat, by the way—her presentation style was straight out of the trenches of keeping teenagers engaged, complete with energy, worksheets, and jigsaw activity. Everyone loved her! :)). Anyway, she’d provided a list of consecutive events from Act 1 Scene 1 to Act 2 Scene 2, and we were to label each with symbols denoting different tones, emotions, characters, and dramatic points of the story. The result is…*drum-roll*…That’s right, variety. You see an interplay of different elements without formulaic repetition.

Putting your readers on a rollercoaster is going to make them think and feel like they’re going faster.
Julie Cohen

So in an attempt to pace myself and allow time to digest the above, I’ll quit here and resume with the rest in Part II. But to practice my lessons, I’ll end on a hook. While I haven’t yet shared the punch-line to my “Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?” joke, I’ll leave you with this one, in keeping with today’s theme:

A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says


Leggo My Ego

I am a sensitive artist.
Nobody understands me because I am so deep.– King Missile

I can’t help it
Because I am so much more intelligent
And well-rounded

Than everyone who surrounds me. […]

I stay home
Reading books that are beneath me,
And working on my work,
Which no one understands.”

Yep, there are a lot of divas out there like this, particularly among those of an artistic temperament, so we writers are no exception. Well, becoming a teacher certainly knocked any such pride out of me, reducing me to such a state of humility on a daily basis that I finally learned it’s okay to admit when I don’t know something. No one could know all information, master all skills, and we certainly won’t grow in any respect until we can learn to acknowledge our limitations and accept help from others. 

That’s what I’ve been enjoying so much about the blogging community I’ve shared in for the last year—aspiring writers who are proud of their work, yet willing to put their vulnerabilities and uncertainties out there in their blog posts for all to know and empathize with. By doing so, we’re learning and improving. We also learn and improve from having our work critiqued, be it by peers in a writing group, an informal beta-reader, editor/agent feedback, etc. When taking on such a personal task as writing that inherently possesses so much passion, however, it can be difficult to accept criticism of our babies. What we write is who we are, and who likes hearing that they’re anything less than perfect? I’d say not a single one of us, if I were a bettin’ man (or a man at all, for that matter).

Yet take it in stride we must. It’s hard to control how another will respond to our work, but we can control how graciously we respond to their feedback. I love the tale I’ve written and certainly want to retain ultimate creative license, but as agent rejections already start rolling in (2 so far), I understand that there will always be something to adjust. And in this case I just hope I can handle it as gracefully as the author whose work I’m presently editing. I just got her edits back, along with this lovely email:

“I must say, your editorial was wonderful, so user friendly and in tune with what I was aiming for and didn’t quite reach.  I particularly appreciated how you explained why certain patterns weren’t working or how they could work better.  I believe that your input will benefit my future writing as well, and not just this work. […] I did take your suggestions to heart, and I’m pleased with the result. Really, your editorial was invaluable. I’m looking forward to your opinion of the revised work.”

Not that I’m letting this go to my head ;)…but it was an inspiration, not to mention such a relief! So time now to get over myself and help this author reach her personal best. Ego begone! But confidence, stay.

How about you? Has a dose of humility ever caught you getting a bit too stubborn during the writing process? How do you know when to assert what you believe are your strengths and when to concede your weaknesses?


The Red Pen: Editing Another’s Manuscript – Part II

Hello again! Just accommodating the overspill from yesterday’s post, as I yet wanted to address developmental edits on my first manuscript assignment in this capacity. Again, I can’t share any comments that would give away plot/character specifics, and I’m obviously not including the little microediting minutiae here (like reworking sentence structures), but what I am doing is grabbing the meatier highlights of what I found to be the most prevalent issues in the hope it helps reinforce what to check for in your own manuscript as it did for mine.

So to speak on a macroediting level today, this author’s main focus now as she makes her edits (due back to me later this month) needs to be on her ending. We’ve talked story arc before, and a scene after a critical moment of rising action in a later chapter seemed to drag out too long as the reader nears the story’s climax, for which I noted:

[…] I’m not suggesting cutting these parts out, as they serve a purpose in the story and provide important information. Yet perhaps if they’re condensed a bit the pacing could keep flowing toward that climax. What’s key is to determine what you perceive as this story’s pinnacle and make sure everything is building up and up to that, keeping the reader compelled and not bogged down in too much talk or description that tends to flatten out the story’s trajectory when it should be climbing. Dialogue can be [tightened], limiting it to what keeps moving [the characters] and the reader forward.

And whereas that section seemed to drag on too long, the last chapter forced too much into too short a space in seeking a complete resolution. This is a romance novel, so that resolution naturally involves the two main characters attaining closure on where their relationship stands:

Hm, this sounds like a lot to load onto [him] all of a sudden […] when they’re only just working out whether they’ll stay together. I know in assessing that they may as well get all the big deal-breaker topics out of the way, but it still seems like a lot at once. Could she possibly just reference [her wants] in such a way that’s meant to show [him] she’s in for the long-haul with [him], too, in the spirit of taking it one step at a time?

And with romance novels, there’s always the risk of confusing “romance” with “sex,” so when the latter comes up (“up,” quite literally) right at the end and after a sweet moment of sentiment, I suggested:

Hm, seems to undermine the sincerity of the emotion. Maybe [this] can just be coinciding with his revelations of love for her, helping to unleash these realizations rather than being the way he chooses to show her his love after the fact (it’s a little caveman). Some description of her engagement with it might help as well to show this love as something they share in both the emotional and physical sense.

I expressed this merely as my reader’s POV, and not as a prude or a feminist. There’s a way sex can be written romantically, but this just wasn’t it, and I think the author agrees that the resolution can take a less easy, but higher road out.

Another item on the agenda is character development, and, in this work, I felt the two main characters were developed fully. I genuinely liked them and, from the romance aspect, really wanted them to get together—they made sense as a couple. Most importantly, I believed in them—they felt real, through their dialogue, actions, back-stories, chemistry, etc., and that’s all to the credit of this writer and her keen insights into people and engaging writing style. Where I did encounter some mixed feelings concerned the female protagonist and her ex-lover, a secondary character who is integral to the plot and the protagonist’s growth, yet himself appears very rarely in the story. Even so, his development felt too one-dimensional to me:

He is just so vile, and this makes perfect sense given his animosity toward [her revenge] and that he’s just a bad fit for her. What it leaves me wondering, though, is what it was about him that she used to care for. While I can see her insecurities leading her to choose the wrong men, [she] also has too much substance to go for someone with zero redeeming qualities beyond the materialistic.

Not that this would have to be developed in depth, but consider such opportunities where she’s [already] reflecting on him to somewhere incorporate (even just a sentence or two) the appeal he did once have for her, even if it only ended up being fake or that he changed.

In this case, the secondary character’s lack of believability could impact the protagonist’s, so this was a strongly suggested change to preserve consistency in her character—and, even better, it’s a quick, easy fix. Likewise with the following case where the protagonist still seemed to pine over her ex during the final scene with her new love:

From the way you’ve depicted him, I’m highly doubting [her ex-lover] would ever want [what she claims here], so I don’t see this as being the issue with him that would come to light at this point. I’m actually surprised that she’d be talking about him at all right now and getting choked up in residual emotion over it – [there was] sufficient enough closure [earlier]. Plus, she just [made several  grand gestures to win her new lover]—she’s all about [that guy] right now, and it doesn’t seem appropriate for her to bring up old flames in this intimate setting. […] Her not reflecting on him as anything that ever mattered would be a most convincing way of [showing her growth].

But that’s my take on it, which is why I label this as a “suggested” change, albeit a very strongly suggested one because I felt disappointed in [her] when she started saying all this.

And this last comment shows how I do try to approach my edits of another’s work delicately, keeping ultimate stylistic/plot control with the author while also trying to earn trust in my feedback. It’s very easy for all of us to get protective of our writing, but if we really want it to become its best, we need to consider reader response seriously. (Tahlia Newland addresses this fact and several other awesome tips on ms revision in her recent Lethal Inheritance post on how to know when your manuscript is ready.) And as I learned in teaching, the key with feedback is balancing the positive with the constructive so a writer isn’t feeling like there’s nothing of merit in his/her work; be honest, but preserve some pluck for carrying out those revisions effectively!

How about you? Have you ever had to edit someone else’s writing? How did it help you with your own?


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