Fiction editing: lessons from the read-aloud, continued

It took me a month away from this site, all of my mornings, most of my evenings, and lunch hour scribble time, but the Beta copy is finished.  I’ve voiced every character, looked at every scene, solved final plot points, and slammed out a finish.

The next thing on my list: Send this version to beta readers for comments on continuity, consistent character, plot holes, pace, and whatever else they feel needs said.

Terrifying and exhilarating.  My characters out in the world!

But before I do that, I want to share just a few last lessons from this portion of the editing process, in the hopes they will be helpful to other writers, as always.

Lesson eighteen: Know thyself (and thy tics)

tic

tic-2

As you go about your read-aloud, you will probably notice that there are certain words or syntactical tics that you encounter all. the. damn. time.  Your job will be to recognize this and pare the hell down.

For instance, I found that I had a lot of characters starting their dialogue with “Oh, well,” formations.  I kept a few instances of this, where it made sense for a character to express a bit of surprise or gain themselves a second of thought-formulation before speaking.  But most of them went out the window.

I also noticed that I had a tendency to overuse one particularly clunky dialogue tag style.  I wouldn’t even call it a style…a tag mistake.

The mistake:  “I don’t know about that,” Elise said, leaning on the table.

*Twitches*

In the above formation, I’ve buried the action in a subordinate clause.  It becomes totally unclear why Elise is even leaning on the table.  I’m saying she is, but why?  What’s the point.  Is this useful information for the reader to have, or just plain filler?

The fix:  Elise leaned on the table. “I don’t know about that.”  -or- “I don’t know about that.” Elise leaned on the table.

Either fix is fine.  The important part is that the dialogue and the action are on equal footing now–one is not subordinate to the other.  If the action goes before the dialogue, it reads a bit more assertively.  Elise might be issuing a challenge.  If it goes after the dialogue, it reads like an after-thought, but one indicative of her character.

If I made the fix, and suddenly the action seemed unnecessary, I cut it out.  Which leads to my next point…

Lesson nineteen: Don’t stage direct

stage-directing

Your characters don’t announce in dialogue what they’re about to do, so you don’t need to announce it in the narrative.

Are your characters spending a lot of time looking? watching? turning? moving? going? sure.  But you don’t need to write about it every time they do.

For example, “Elise looked to the door as the sprite came through it” is….well, it’s a terrible sentence in many ways, but it’s also a stage direction.  If a sprite is coming through her door, no doubt she’d be watching it.  I don’t have to tell you that for you to know it.

So, the sentence might become something simple: “The sprite sailed through the door.”

Or, it could become something that gives you further information about the world.  “The sprite sailed through the door and reassembled himself on the other side.”

OR, if you write from character POV, it could be a useful spot to tell the reader not only something about the world, but also Elise’s way of thinking about it, or her mood.  E.g. “The sprite sailed through the door and reassembled on the other side, pouring himself back into formal bearing and attire.  Elise considered, with a neck-tie that smart, he really ought to have known to knock before entering.”

The variations will depend on how you write (what POV) and how much information you need to impart in that particular moment.

Also, avoid the words “just” and “then” as much as possible.  There are better ways to show the passage of time.

Lesson twenty: Resist the urge to explain

Mary Poppins is a badass.  She flounces through Edwardian London casting magical spells, summoning animals, and utilizing obviously enchanted items, and she never, not once, tells us how the hell she does it.  In fact, she makes a point not to.

mary-explains

In writing, we can’t always achieve this level of sass.  There are worlds to build, systems to develop, and strange places to go, all without the assistance of visuals.

But we can keep it in mind.  We can keep our characters from info-dumping, we can build explanation into description (showing vs. telling), and we can let our characters make discoveries, go on adventures, and retool systems, letting the world build itself as we go.

Info-dumping is easy to spot in a read-aloud.  If you’re going along and you find that you haven’t encountered dialogue in three pages, that’s a red flag.  Or, if you find that you’ve read three pages of dialogue, but there’s no actual characterization in it, just information, that’s a red flag.  Etc.

It’s a little harder to spot where you’re over-explaining smaller things: emotions, reactions, decisions.  But in general, look out for the following:

  • Places where you’ve used dialogue to explain action, or vice versa,
  • Places where you’ve over-used inner dialogue to clarify something a character said
  • Places where you’ve qualified “said”, e.g., she said in astonishment; she said testily
  • Anything that comes after “she thought” or “he felt” etc.  (and never say “she thought” or “he felt” etc.)

And remember, any time you stop to explain something, you signal to the reader that you are writing.  You break the world a bit.  You abandon your character.  So if you *must* explain, make sure it’s worth it.

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Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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