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Editing hints and tricks

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All the world's a play - blocking and your characters

If you are not familiar with the concept of blocking, it comes from stage direction, but also applies to writing. By "blocking" I mean understanding where your characters are in relation to each other.

When I was in plays in high school, we'd often mark the stage with an X to indicate where certain actors were supposed to stand to deliver their lines. This shows them in relationship to the other characters and (in the case of high school drama) prevents the actors from forgetting where they're supposed to stand when they walk on stage in a blind panic. 

This also applies to writing in that you, as the writer, have to put those Xs on the floor for your characters and know where they are in relation to each other. The next step is to make sure your readers also know where your characters are at all times and where they are in relation to each other. 

If blocking isn't used in a novel, all you end up with is characters who stand around in a void (or worse, a white room) and read lines to each other. This is boring.

Instead, use blocking so we can envision where the characters are on the stage and how they’re moving around and with each other. They need to move, gesture, pace, or whatever a normal human (or green-eyed monster) would do in that situation.

All that being said, this movement needs to make sense. If they stand, then they need to sit before they can stand again. If one character is pacing, and the other one stands to pace as well, there needs to be a good reason or else they'll be chasing each other around the room. 

As with many of the posts in this blog, careful thought needs to go into what you're doing with your characters. Do a blocking sweep on your novel and make sure the characters are all moving in ways that make sense, and, most importantly, make sure they are moving in general.

 

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Telegraphing, and how not to do it

When you train in martial arts, one of the first things you learn is not to telegraph your punches. The minute you start showing your opponent what you're going to do next, the fight is over. 

Telegraphing in novels is almost as bad, because it ruins the tension and keeps the reader from caring about what happens next (because you've just told them, rather than showing him through the narrative). Be careful with sentences like "he had no idea that" or "unbeknownst to her" or anything similar. These are typical beginnings for sentences that telegraph what is going to happen in the next scene, the next chapter or (worse) the rest of the book. 

A lot of novice writers use sentences like this that act like a wind-up punch the reader's going to see a mile away. It comes across as overly dramatic (and often might have an unwritten, "dun dun duuuuun" after it) and indicates an inexperienced writer as well. 

Learn to look for instances of telegraphing like this in your own work. When you find them, ask yourself "what is the purpose of this phrase?" Often, it is to instill a false sense of tension and (in the writer's mind) set up conflict to come. 

This is, of course, lazy writing. If anything is told, or telegraphed by telling, then it is not being shown to the reader. And as everyone has heard, showing is superior to telling in ninety-nine percent of the time. This is not just because I said so, but also because by showing the story to the reader, you are allowing them to engage with the story on a level that you don't get by merely telling them what happens. 

If your goal is to engage the reader and get them to feel like they're a part of the story. You aren't just letting them watch a movie in their mind, you're letting them live it through your words. By telling them any part of your story except for the most non-vital information, you are depriving your readers of an way to experience the story and it will be less engaging, and, ultimately, less interesting. 

Therefore to engage the reader, you need to figure out how to work tension into your work without using telegraphing phrases. This involves many factors (and can be the topic of an entire book), but tends to rely on plot, characterization, setting, and even theme. It may be hard to develop tension, however, it only takes a phrase to destroy it. 

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What's it about again?

One of the things I've seen many novice authors do is attempt to hide what the novel is about for half the book or more. They appear to think that it adds to the suspense and mystery of the novel, but instead all it does is confuse and bore your reader. They want to know, at least on some level, what the novel is about within the first fifty pages at the very most (think more, the first five pages).

However, this doesn't mean that you have to spell everything out for your reader at the beginning. Please, no thesis statements at the beginning of your novel.

Instead, work to introduce the conflict early on, in some form so that your reader can get a handle on the story, or at least what the story needs to be about at the beginning. For example, say the main character is having problems with their mother and they get into a shouting match. This introduces the conflict (and will need backstory so we actually care about the characters), and also can lead us to wonder why this conflict is happening. As the story progresses and we learn more about the characters (and the reason why the main character hates their mother because their mother abandoned them at a  young age to go become a cantina singer), the conflict can evolve as well.

Don't think of your story as a static beginning to end sort of thing. Instead look at it as an interconnected web of events that tie into each other in new and interesting ways. Develop it from the beginning of the story and throw the reader into the story as early as possible.

This is the main reason I don't like prologues for the most part. Either they're glorified infodumps, or they're windups (preambles) to the novel. The action doesn't start until the first chapter, which is where the book should start. The windup, prologue, or preamble should be for the author to allow them to settle into the story, but not for the reader. 

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Engage the senses

As Peter Wacks has told me on several occasions, "Every sense builds a scene."

This is a really simple way to convey a basic, but also complex issue in writing. Often writers use only hearing or sight to describe the scenes in which their characters move. However, by incorporating, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch into each scene, not only are you engaging the reader on more than one level, you're also incorporating everything that we experience in our daily lives within your own universe. 

So how to do this? Basically in every scene, you need to go through and make sure all five senses are being represented at least once (and try to make these tactical decisions, rather than arbitrary ones). When you go through your novel and do a setting sweep (which I recommend for you to tighten up your setting and make sure all the details are there), make sure each and every scene has details that bring the scene to life for the reader.

Don’t assume the reader knows anything about your setting and don’t use cliché shorthand for scenes. Build them fresh for your reader. Especially key in this is to remember to use a couple senses each time (and mix it up a little each time) to let the reader know where they are.

Paying attention to each scene in this fashion is also a surefire way to make sure your novel and its scenes don't suffer from White Room Syndrome. This basically means any setting that is bland or underdescribed. In other words, if your setting can easily be substituted for a white room, it needs some improvement. 

The key to every setting is that you draw the reader into it and really make them feel it as part of their experience reading. Give them settings that make the story pop to life. 

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Point of view and choosing the best one for your novel

POV, there are only three basic types, but it's one of the issues the comes up consistently when I'm editing. Do you need first person, the every sneaky second person, third person limited (or even more tricky, third person omnescient)? 

Look at the needs of your novel. Do you want to stick with one character all the way through? Do you want to let the reader experience the story through the point of view of one particular character, and only them? Then first person (the "I/me" POV) might be for you.

(Please please please don't write more than one POV character in first person, it makes it very difficult to keep track of who is doing what. Only if you are very very sure of your control over tone should you even attempt this).

Going along with the above order, second person (the "you/your" POV) is very sneaky. If done for the extent of a novel, it can become very tiresome for the reader unless they're reading a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel. It is also very hard to do well, as it can become dictatorial instead of fun to read. 

The most common POV style in modern writing is third person (the he/she/they POV). This is possibly one of the more versatile POVs since it can be used to follow one character or many. Even limited (stuck in one character's head for the duration of the book, chapter, or scene), it has more options than just first person. 

However, it is important to keep the current point of view character very strongly in the reader's mind. In many novels, I find that if an author isn't careful, the POV grows more indistinct when there are more than one characters involved. It is important for the reader to not become a disembodied ghost above the action or to feel as if they are head hopping between characters. The POV character should never disappear during the scene.

Especially important (in many books, your mileage may vary) is the use of a strong POV character's voice, and not an all encompassing narrator voice within the story. Narrator voice has been done well in the past, but by few authors. Most often, it ends up yanking the reader from the story (often when combined with infodumps, i.e. improperly executed exposition). 

Most books in genre fiction are written in first person or third person limited. Omniscient POVs are less often used now than they were in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If you don’t want to confuse your reader or yank them around unnecessarily, it’s vital that each chapter or scene sticks with one POV and remains there, delving in as deeply as possible. Most often, novice authors utilize a vaguely omniscient POV shifting that doesn’t really let the reader settle into the characters and instead feels superficial.

Part of the reason, I feel, for this might be that we all grew up omniscient POV. It used to be acceptable to head jump and go from point of view to point of view within a scene, but that didn’t mean the writing was any good. It takes a very skilled writer to pull off omniscient POV today and make it so that the reader enjoys the book without noticing it. However, not only are those writers few and far between, no one wants to read omniscient anymore. We like to get cozy with the characters and see where their minds go, not jump from head to head.

Another reason readers avoid omniscient POV now is because they’ve been exposed to too many instances where it indicates sloppy writing. For many readers, limited POVs are more satisfying to read because they’re honed and carefully thought out. If the reader could just jump from the good guy to the bad guy’s head as easy as that, it destroys the tension and makes the book less interesting.

On a similar note, be very careful of "too many POVs"itis. The more characters you have, the longer the book will need to be in order to do them all justice. Don't give a character a point of view chapter or scene if we will never see them again since them having a POV leads the reader into thinking they're important to the novel. Also, be very careful to develop each character to whom you give a POV. Delve as deeply as you can into their experience, their thoughts, and their emotions. This will give the reader the best experience and make them truly invested in your writing. 

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Sentence structure and the tricky gerund.

Another vital way to look at sentence structure is to look at the diagram of the sentence. Now, I'm pretty sure no one diagrams sentences any more or (for our older readers) even remembers doing so with fondness. However, by looking at how sentences are built, we can examine how the reader's brain will process them. 

For example, if you only have sentences that are Subject + Verb + Object, and they follow each other in basically the same format within the same paragraph, this will also thud. Vary the clause inclusions, the use of gerunds and so forth. Instead of "the monkey bit the dog." Try "After the dog stole his banana, the monkey bit the dog." Or "Instead of running away, the monkey bit the dog." And so forth. 

Be careful with beginning sentences with gerunds though, as some structures are improper and can lead to confusion. For example, "Taking off my coat, I ate a sandwich". In this example, it is unlikely that someone would be taking off their coat and eating a sandwich at the same time. Instead this sentence should be structured as: "After taking off my coat, I ate a sandwich." This shows the sequence of events more clearly. 

Remember to always think of your sentences in the context of the whole as well. Read your novel out loud to get a sense of how the sentences string together. This will also tune your inner ear to hear the inconsistencies and issues within the pages and paragraphs. 

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She, he, it, a, the... how to start your sentences.

Variety is the spice of sentence structure, and in more ways than one. Understanding how sentences are structured and how to add variety to them can amp up your writing to make it not only more readable, but also more interesting on a fundamental level. 

When writing, try to avoid repeating the beginning of sentences with pronouns or articles. Look through your recent work. Are the sentences repetitive? Do they all start with "she" or "he"? 

This indicates a repetitive sentence structure that can end up "thudding" in the reader's ear. I.e. it can make the sound of the sentences repetitive and boring instead of striking and engaging. 

For example : She thought he should have worn aftershave. The smell would always entice her. She never understood why he didn't go the extra step to make himself attractive. 

Now, read it this way: Why didn't he wear that aftershave I got him last summer? She shook her head and looked at him as he concentrated on driving through the snowstorm. Taking that extra step wouldn't have killed him. 

See how varying the sentence structure forces the writing not only to be more interesting, but also provide more information? Consider each sentence and look at it in relationship to the other sentences. 

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To be or not to be... and other sundry things.

The "was" es, all the "was"es. An editor's number one sign that maybe a book isn't as polished as it needs to be. I've found anywhere from one thousand to three thousand "was"es and other iterations of the "to-be" construction in novels before (averaging close to six or seven times a page in some cases). 

But why are "was"es bad? Well, they aren't always bad, but in ninety percent of the cases I've found, they're indicative of passive voice in writing. Was, were, had been, is, are, to be... all of them tell instead of showing. 

When appearing in the narrative, these sentences with "was" (or any other to-be) should be rewritten to be more active, which will help engage the interest of the reader and more deeply engross them in the story. Passive writing is a really bad idea for many genres of fiction (as opposed to technical books about making cheese, or blog posts about passive voice) because the reader wants to feel like they are actively moving through the story, rather than being passively told about the story.

The leads to another issue with passive voice. Passive writing hides who is performing the action, or makes the action stand alone (and this sometimes doesn’t make sense). So instead of saying “the dog was bitten,” say “the monkey bit the dog.” This not only removes the passive voice, but also gives the reader more information in an active fashion.

Therefore, in descriptions, the use of “was” and “were” indicates “telling” instead of “showing.” Look at each instance of “was” and consider what information it is telling instead of showing. When telling the reader some things about the character is good, consider how this could be shown to let the reader experience it more fully. For example, "his hair was blonde" tells us information about the character, but "his blond hair fell in front of his brown eyes as he looked down at the lab experiment twitching on the specimen table" gives us significantly more information and ties in more components of setting and plot.  

Passive voice is especially harmful in action scenes since it makes the action happen more slowly and less immediately. Examine every sentence and make sure that you’re showing the reader what the character is doing in real time, not telling them in replay. A common offender of this is the combination of “was” + “-ing,” such as “was running.” This word can easily be replaced with the root verb to instantly make it active. Sometimes the was+ing is necessary, but ninety percent of the time, it makes the sentence unnecessarily passive. Also with passive voice and telling, it often doesn’t show who is enacting the action. “She was dragged away” doesn’t tell us by whom. “The guards dragged her away” is active and tells us who is doing the dragging.

Go through every sentence and see whether it is telling or showing what is going on. By this I mean: is the reader being told what is going on (this happened) or is the writer showing them and letting them experience what is going on (so and so did this)?

If you want to craft good fiction, first drop the "was"es and instead focus on making the characters and plot come alive for your reader. Show, don't tell. 

For more information on passive voice, please refer to this resource: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/3/

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