Tuesday, July 31, 2012

SHOW, DON’T TELL!

by Jodie Renner, editor & author  

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most important concepts for aspiring fiction writers to grasp, and often one of the most difficult to master. It’s about showing a scene in real time, with actions and dialogue, instead of telling your readers what happened after the fact. Done well, this technique brings the scene alive and puts the readers right there, inside your character, experiencing his fear along with him, feeling the sweat on his brow and his adrenaline racing, their pulse quickening right along with his, muscles tensed, ready to leap into action.

Until this concept is pointed out to them, a common mistake among newbie fiction writers is to describe or narrate (tell) events as if they took place at some point in the past, instead of putting the reader right in the middle of the action and showing the events as they occur, along with the characters’ actions, reactions, feelings, and actual words (direct dialogue). 

To clarify what is meant by “show, don’t tell,” think of it this way: Which would you rather do, go see a great movie in a theatre with a big screen and surround sound (“show”), or hear about the movie from someone else afterward (“tell”)? That’s the difference we’re talking about here.

According to Ingermanson and Economy, “Showing means presenting the story to the reader using sensory information. The reader wants to see the story, hear it, smell it, feel it, and taste it, all the while experiencing the thoughts and feelings of a living, breathing character. Telling means summarizing the story for the reader in a way that skips past the sensory information and goes straight to the facts.”

Janet Evanovich considers “show, don’t tell” to be one of the most important principles of fiction: “Instead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you're trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue. Showing brings your characters to life.” 

As Jack Bickham says, “Not only does moment-by-moment development make the scene seem most lifelike, it’s in a scene [with dialogue and action and reaction] where your reader gets most of his excitement. If you summarize, your reader will feel cheated – short-changed of what he reads for – without quite knowing why.”

Shelly Thacker points out, “Readers of popular fiction don’t want to experience the events of your novel at a distance; they want to FEEL what’s happening. They want to laugh, cry, hope, worry.” Shelly advises, “Strive for more dialogue than narrative. … Narrative tends to slow things down and usually leads to telling instead of showing…. Showing with action and dialogue creates vivid characters and a fast pace; telling only bogs down your story.”

Also, the bulk of the scene needs to be about a conflict of some kind between characters. No conflict = no scene. According to Jack Bickham, the conflict part of the scene “draws readers out through a moment-by-moment drama, extending the scene suspense with pleasurable agony.”

Of course, you can’t show everything, or your book would be way too long, and it would tire your readers out – or worse, end up boring them. According to James Scott Bell, “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.” 

The rule, says Bell, is “the more intense the moment, the more showing you do.” That’s the difference between scene and summary. You don’t want to describe every move your characters make at down times, or when going from one place to the other. That’s where you summarize or “tell,” to get them to the next important scene quickly, without a lot of boring detail.  

The main thing to keep in mind is to never to tell the reader, after the fact (or have a character telling another character), about a critical scene. Instead, dramatize it in the here and now, with dialogue, action, and lots of sensory details to bring it to life for the reader.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, 2012

Resources:
James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them)
Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies
Shelly Thacker (www.ShellyThacker.com), “10 Tips for a Top-Notch Novel”  

 Bio updated 2015:
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, at The Kill Zone blog alternate Mondays, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Open Your Novel in Your Protagonist's Head

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor

Unlike readers of decades or a century ago, who weren’t bombarded all day long with every kind of distracting media, all competing for their attention, today’s readers are less patient with rambling beginnings. They usually want to open a book and get sucked into the story world quickly. In the past, the more leisurely tradition was to start in omniscient point of view and describe the setting, followed by a kind of authorial overview of the situation and characters, and finally showing us the main character and his current situation. Today’s bestselling authors, for the most part, have gotten away from that type of opening. As literary agent and writing guru Donald Maass says, in rejecting submissions, “Too many manuscripts begin at a distance from their protagonists, as if opening with a long shot like in a movie. That’s a shame. Why keep readers at arm’s length?”

So nowadays, it’s more immediate and effective to start right out in your protagonist’s head and show him or her in motion, with attitude, actions, reactions and feelings. That way your reader, rather than being held at a distance while you introduce the setting or whatever, starts to become emotionally invested right away, and gets hooked in quickly, absorbed in your story, wanting to find out more. If you really want to start with the setting, make it brief, compelling and mood-setting.

Your first paragraph should be dynamic, not a meandering lead-up to something more interesting. Don’t rev your engines by starting your story with your character waking up to a normal day, or on the way to somewhere, with no tension. It’s more intriguing to readers if you open with the protagonist challenged somehow and the plot already moving forward. Also, an interaction with someone else, with some tension involved, is more compelling than internal musings, reflections, or thoughts about the weather or even upcoming events.

And it’s really best to get into the protagonist's POV right away, not some other character’s, and stay there for the first chapter, as readers start to identify with and bond with the first character they read about, and start worrying about them. If that person then gets killed off at the end of the chapter, or turns out to be a minor or even supporting character, many readers will feel cheated.

By starting in your main character’s head, you quickly answer the reader’s first question, “Whose story is this?” Don’t keep them wondering, trying to figure it out—that can be frustrating. They just want to know who to root for right off the bat, so they can relax and start enjoying the story. Similarly, start out each new chapter or scene with the name of the POV character for that scene, so we know right away who we’re concentrating on in this scene, whose head we’re in.

Also, I advise against starting with just “the detective” or “the police officer” or “the private investigator” or “the movie star” or some other anonymous, third-party, distancing description of your main character, without their name attached. That immediately creates an emotional distance from the character that can throw the reader off. Sure, use their title or other descriptor, but start right out in your protagonist’s head, and use his/her name. As Jack M. Bickham says, “Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character right away—and stay there [for most of the story].”

Here are some examples of first lines / paragraphs of bestselling novels that start right out in the point of view of the protagonist of the novel.

Lee Child, The Hard Way: “Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever.”

Louise Penny, Bury Your Dead: “Up the stairs they raced, taking them two at a time, trying to be as quiet as possible. Gamache struggled to keep his breathing steady, …”

David Baldacci, Hell’s Corner: “Oliver Stone was counting seconds, an exercise that had always calmed him. And he needed to be calm.”

Lisa Gardner, Love You More: “Sergeant Detective D.D. Warren prided herself on her excellent investigative skills.”

Andrew Gross, The Dark Tide: “As the morning sun canted sharply through the bedroom window, Charles Friedman dropped the baton. He hadn’t had the dream in years, yet there he was, gangly, twelve years old, running…”

Katherine Neville, The Fire: “Solarin gripped his little daughter’s mittened hand firmly in his own. He could hear the snow crunch beneath his boots and see their breath rise in silvery puffs, as together they crossed…”

Steve Berry, The Paris Vendetta: “The bullet tore into Cotton Malone’s left shoulder. He fought to ignore the pain and focused on the plaza. People rushed in all directions. Horns blared. Tires squealed.”

Karin Slaughter, Fallen: “Faith Mitchell dumped the contents of her purse onto the passenger seat of her Mini, trying to find something to eat. [..] The computer seminar she’d attended this morning was supposed to last only three hours, but…”

Lee Child, Tripwire: “Jack Reacher saw the guy step in through the door.”

Of course, we can all think of excellent novels that take several paragraphs or even pages to establish the POV character, but in general, delaying this vital info is on the decline. And aspiring authors who intend to go the agent and publisher route especially need to consider the short attention span of busy, time-pressured literary agents, most of whom won’t read past the first page if it confuses or bores them, many rejecting a manuscript after only a few paragraphs.

What do you think? What are some story openings that have hooked you in right away?

Copyright © Jodie Renner, July 2012
Resources:

Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction

For related articles, see my blog posts “Set up Your Story in the First Paragraphs, “Those Critical First Five Pages,” and "Act First, Explain Later." Also, “POV 101 – Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of your story)," and "Psychic Distance.”


Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013).
Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.
 
 









Friday, July 20, 2012

Notes on Thrillerfest 2012, NYC

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor

Steve Berry
I attended Thrillerfest in New York City July 11-14, for the third year in a row. Had a blast! As always, it was highly informative, stimulating, fun, inspiring, and exhausting! A whirlwind of attending workshops and panels and madly taking notes, chatting with others, buying the latest books at the bookstore and lining up to get them signed, and just generally bustling around trying to make the most of a high-powered, jam-packed experience!

Donald Maass
I usually just attend the first two days, Craftfest, which is more bang for your buck for aspiring authors and even published fiction writers, with its in-depth workshops presented by bestselling writers on every aspect of writing fiction that sells - especially suspense-thrillers. This year I added a day of Thrillerfest. The Craftfest seminars I attended included excellent presentations by Steve Berry, James Scott Bell, Steven James, Donald Maass, Robert Dugoni and others. I also did some volunteering, including for Agentfest.

Right off the bat, I want to recommend a nearby hotel that will save you hundreds of dollars. Thrillerfest is at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on East 42nd Street, right beside Grand Central Station. Even with the special rate for conference attendees, it's expensive to stay there. I found a much more reasonably priced hotel, the Bedford, on East 40th, just two short blocks from the conference. My normal-sized, clean hotel room had a small fridge, a microwave, a coffee-maker, a safe, free Wi-Fi, a desk, a closet (of course!) and even a big, deep bathtub -- a rarity in NYC hotels! I had no complaints whatsoever about the Hotel Bedford and recommend it for future Thrillerfest attendees who'd like to save a bit of money.

Jodie Renner & Beverly Purdy
But back to Craftfest and Thrillerfest, the workshops and panels were excellent (more on those in future posts), and the cocktail parties were a blast! I really enjoyed networking with writers and others in the writing biz, especially the thriller-writing industry. I met and spent great times with three of my thriller-writer clients, California psychiatrist Beverly Purdy, Ian Walkley, author of action-thriller No Remorse, and Dara Carr, a very talented new thriller writer, all of whom very successfully pitched to many agents at Agentfest. I really enjoyed hanging out with Beverly Purdy (right) at the conference! Such an awesome person! Watch for her upcoming psychological thriller!


Jodie and Doug Lyle
Also enjoyed chatting with award-winning writer DP Lyle, Craftfest Director and VP, National Events for ITW, whose blog, The Writer's Forensics Blog, I guest-post on a lot.



Jodie with Shane Gericke



And overall friendly guy, thriller writer Shane Gericke, organizer of Agentfest and general "ambassador" of Thrillerfest.




Also enjoyed talking with James Scott Bell, writer and presenter extraordinaire, whose how-to books I'm always quoting, especially Revision and Self-Editing.

Robert Dugoni

Went to two excellent workshops by excellent thriller writer and engaging writing instructor Robert Dugoni, and chatted with him for a while.




Also met and chatted with "recovering lawyer" Diane Capri, author of the riveting Don't Know Jack (The Hunt for Jack Reacher series) and other crime fiction. And networked with many more authors and friends/colleagues from Facebook, Twitter, and various blogs. Highly stimulating!

Lee Child
Kathleen Antrim's interview of Lee Child was jam-packed and centered mostly around the controversy of casting Tom Cruise to play Jack Reacher in the upcoming movie entitled Jack Reacher. Lee Child was intelligent and very down to earth, friendly and approachable - and an inspiring speaker!



Sandra Brown


At the Love is Murder Cocktail Party, I got one of my all-time favorite authors, Sandra Brown, to sign the anthology she edited, and pose for a picture with me.




I'll definitely be heading back to Thrillerfest again next year, especially since I discovered that more reasonable hotel close by!

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Please check out Jodie’s website and blog, as well as her group blog, Crime Fiction Collective.
Jodie’s craft of fiction articles appear regularly on various blogs, and she has published two popular craft-of-fiction e-books in the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller and Style that Sizzles and Pacing for Power.

Both are on sale at Amazon, and you don’t need to own a Kindle to buy and read Kindle e-books – you can download them to your PC, Mac, tablet or smartphone. Style that Sizzles will be out in paperback soon.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Set up Your Story in the First Paragraphs


 by Jodie Renner

I receive several first chapters every week as submissions for possible editing, and I always read the first page. Some are clear and compelling and make me want to read more. But too often, two main problems emerge: Either the author spends too much time revving his engine with description or backstory before we even care (boring); or we’re plunged right into the story but have no idea where we are or what’s going on (confusing). 

There are three cardinal rules of successful novelists: 

1. Don’t bore your reader! 

2. Don’t confuse your reader! 

3. Don’t annoy your reader!

I’ve discussed the negative effects of starting off too slow, with too much description and/or backstory, in other articles. Today, I’ll focus on the other problem that can turn readers off – fuzzy beginnings. Sometimes I feel confused and frustrated, wondering who this character is—and is it the main character, or someone else? Also, where the heck is she? And what’s she doing, exactly? It’s frustrating not being able to form a mental picture of who it is and what’s going on, right from the start.

Clue your reader in right from the start!

Your first paragraph and first page are absolutely critical! Not only do they need to hook your reader in quickly, set the tone for the rest of the book, and “show your stuff” in regards to your writing style, but the reader needs to know right away whose story it is and where and when it’s taking place, so they can get situated, then relax and start enjoying the story. If they have a lot of questions, they’re going to start getting frustrated and may put down your book by the end of the first page or two. Readers want to be able to get into a good story right away, not have to spend the first several pages – or more – trying to figure out what’s going on.

So try to work in the basics of the 5 W’s below in your first page – preferably within the first two or three paragraphs. Give the readers a quick snapshot of who, what, where, when, and why, without going in to a great deal of detail yet. Give them just enough to get oriented so they’re not totally confused and can start enjoying the story.

Who? Whose story is it? Your protagonist should appear in the first paragraph; better yet, in the first sentence – in his/her point of view, of course! Don’t start out with someone else, then introduce your main character in chapter two, or even later in chapter one. Readers will have started emotionally investing in someone else who may be a minor character, then be disappointed and annoyed when they find out they’re not the person they’re supposed to be caring about!

What? What’s going on? What is he/she doing, exactly? Can the reader visualize the situation? If not, add a few details.

Where? Where is he/she? Overall setting – country, state/province, city/town; and if inside, inside where? An office building? A log cabin? At home? Which room? It can be really annoying for a reader to start reading dialogue and have no idea where the speakers are.

When? What's the time frame? Is this story taking place in the present? The past? How far in the past? What season? What month? In the morning? Afternoon? Evening? Middle of the night?


Why should I care? Give the readers a good reason to care about your protagonist and keep reading. Make your protagonist likeable, resourceful, smart, and sympathetic, but conflicted and vulnerable. And pose an intriguing story question so the readers will want to read on to find the answer.

Also, your first page is a kind of promise to your readers. Readers want to get a feel quickly for your writing style and the genre or your handling of the genre, so be sure that your first page reflects the overall tone, style, and voice of the novel, and even hints at aspects like the level of violence they can expect, etc. Then keep your promise by delivering for the rest of the novel!

Just as I was about to first post this short article on Crime Fiction Collective blogspot in March, based on my own experiences reading, judging and editing fiction, I received the latest issue of Writer’s Digest magazine (March 2012), and serendipitously, noticed Steven James’ article, “5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make.” In a sidebar, James discusses writing an effective first sentence, paragraph and page. Here's the sidebar:

Evaluate Your Hook:

With each story you start, always remember that an effective hook needs to do seven things:

1. Grab the readers’ attention

2. Introduce a character readers care about.

3. Set the story’s mood.

4. Establish the storyteller’s voice.

5. Orient readers to the world of the protagonist (and enable them to picture it).

6. Lock in the genre.

7. End in a way that is both surprising and satisfying.

Copyright Jodie Renner, 2012
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who specializes in thrillers, mysteries, and other fast-paced fiction. Jodie publishes her craft-of-fiction articles here and on several other blogs. For more information on Jodie’s editing services and her books, please visit her website. Jodie has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing and Killer Thriller, a short e-book, and Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, which is available in paperback, as an e-book on Kindle, and in other e-book formats. And you don’t need to own an e-reader to purchase and enjoy e-books. You can download them to your computer, tablet, or smartphone.





Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Steve Berry’s 6 C’s

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor


Last week I attended Thrillerfest Writers’ Conference in New York City, for the third year in a row. As a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, I just love that conference! One of the highlights of this year's conference for me was an excellent workshop presented by well-known thriller-writer Steve Berry. I have attended several of Steve Berry’s talks and sessions over the years, and he’s always entertaining, informative and inspiring.

Berry’s workshop at Craftfest 2012 was entitled “Walk Before You Run: The Essentials of Story Structure.” He talked about the advantages of the age-old, time-tested three-act structure for stories, where about 20% of the story is in Act 1, the build-up; 60% in Act 2, the deepening of the plot; and 20% in Act 3, the conclusion. 

Berry also introduced his own catchy take-away list of six essential C’s:

Steve Berry’s Essential Six C’s: 

· Character

· Conflict

· Crucible

· Complications

· Crisis

· Conclusion


In Act 1, you establish CHARACTER and create CONFLICT, first with the inciting incident, followed by ever-increasing obstacles for your protagonist. You also pose the story question, which lays the groundwork for the plot line. And you introduce the CRUCIBLE, “that thing that gets a character to do what they normally will never do.”

In Act 2, you continue the story and deepen your characterization by introducing some COMPLICATIONS and a few subplots.

At the end of Act 2 and beginning of Act 3 is the CRISIS point or Climax. This is the protagonist’s darkest moment.

Act 3 is all about your CONCLUSION, where you present any final twists and wrap up your story with a satisfying, logical but unexpected ending.

Berry also spoke about POV and psychic distance, as well as effective, natural-sounding, compelling dialogue. More on these other ideas of Steve’s in future blog posts.


For more detailed information on Steve Berry’s 6 C’s and other words of wisdom to aspiring authors, as well as info on his bestselling novels and presentation schedule, visit his website at http://www.steveberry.org/


Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

To subscribe to Jodie’s Resources for Writers newsletter (published about 4-10 times a year), please click on this link and fill out the form. Your privacy is completely assured, you won’t receive any spam, ever, and you can unsubscribe at any time.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Don't Lecture Your Readers


- by Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor

Have you ever been reading a novel when suddenly the author interrupts the story to give you background or technical information about something, or he/she tries to sneak in some info via a dialogue, only it's really a monologue, with a character going on for a half page or more, uninterrupted, lecturing about something? Fortunately, this rarely happens to this extent anymore. Unlike 100 years ago, today's readers of fiction won't stand for this kind of heavy-handed, clunky imparting of information within a story.

Savvy authors know that readers choose fiction to be entertained and swept away by a compelling story. Stopping to fill them in on a topic as an aside jars them out of the story, slows down the pace, and runs the risk of boring many of them. If readers want to find out more information on a subject, they can do that very easily these days, through internet searches.

So unless you’re writing a historical saga like those of James Michener, or the one I’m reading right now, New York by Edward Rutherfurd, where readers welcome background info on historically relevant times and locations, I don't think fiction is the place to interrupt the story to insert a lot of detail on a particular subject. And of course, if you are writing a saga, it's best to include the info in a natural, character-specific way, so it doesn’t come across like a history textbook. (See below for some hints.)

So be careful not to dump a bunch of factual information willy-nilly into your story. A novel or short story is no place to go into a lot of detail on a technical subject –- or to get on your soapbox about a topic that's dear to your heart or makes your blood boil. Readers will feel annoyed, patronized or manipulated, when what they really want is to be entertained and captivated by your tale.

Here's why most readers of contemporary fiction don't like having their story interrupted by author explanations:

  • It takes them out of the character’s viewpoint, so the illusion of being right there in the story is shattered.
  • It creates a jarring interruption to the story line, which you then have to re-establish, and hook your readers back in.
  • Readers may feel you’re lecturing them or preaching to them, which has no place in fiction.
  • It’s distracting, annoying, and often boring.


What about info that’s essential or relevant to your story? There are ways to slip that in without interrupting the narrative flow or dumping a pile of information on the readers. For example:

  • Your viewpoint character has to recall some critical information she once knew, and works to remember or find it.

  • Your protagonist asks another character (or several) to fill him in on some info he’s fuzzy on –- but be sure it’s in a conversational way, and keep the information-imparting as brief as possible. (more on this below)

  • Your protagonist is researching critical information on the computer or in the library. Show what she learns as thoughts or in dialogue –- but only what is essential for the plotline. And give her emotional reaction to what she’s learned, and to how the new info changes things.

  • Your character is interviewing people to solve a problem. Show some of the interview in real time, with dialogue.

  • She’s reading the newspaper or watching the news or other TV show, where she learns some new information on a subject.

  • For backstory, use flashbacks and play them in real time.

 And of course, don’t let your characters lecture or pontificate in dialogue, either. It’s just not natural, and will bore the readers just as much as an author aside or intrusion. Avoid “info dumps” in the guise of dialogue –- in real life, no one likes to be lectured to in a casual conversation. Replace long monologues of information with questions and answers or a lively discussion, and keep it relevant to the scene question. And, for more interest, insert some tension in the give-and-take –- a little (or a lot of) arguing about facts, or their significance, for example.

So if you need to give your readers some background or essential information, work it in as you go along, in natural, brief, interesting ways, with lots of interaction and some tension or out-and-out conflict. And perhaps rethink whether any more detailed information is really needed in your story. Remember, if any readers want to know more, they can always google the topic. Leave the lectures for the classroom, articles, or nonfiction books –- the goal of fiction is to entertain the readers with a riveting story. Period.
What are your thoughts on this, as a reader or a writer? Agree? Disagree? Why?

Writers - what are some techniques you've used successfully to impart some information to your readers without interrupting the narrative flow?
Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Please check out Jodie’s website and blog, as well as her group blog, Crime Fiction Collective.
Jodie’s craft of fiction articles appear regularly on various blogs, and she has published two popular craft-of-fiction e-books in the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller and Style that Sizzles and Pacing for Power.

Both are on sale at Amazon, and you don’t need to own a Kindle to buy and read Kindle e-books – you can download them to your PC, Mac, tablet or smartphone. Style that Sizzles will be out in paperback soon.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

REVISING AND POLISHING YOUR NOVEL

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor    

Congratulations! You’ve finally finished the first draft of your novel! Give yourself a huge pat on the back and go out and celebrate! Then put it away for at least two weeks while you concentrate on other things, before going back and starting on revisions.

—Yes, revisions — starting with big-picture issues, like plot, characters, point of view and pacing. It’s highly unlikely that your first draft is ready for proofreading, or even line editing yet — save that for the last step of the revision process, after any large issues are detected and dealt with. If you’re unable to hire a freelance developmental editor and/or a copy editor, this is where your critique group (online or in-person) or acquaintances who read a lot of fiction come in.

Based on my own experience and advice from writing gurus, I’ve compiled a recommended approach to the revision process:

1.    After you’ve finished your first draft, put your story away and concentrate on other things for a few weeks or even a month. Let the story percolate in your subconscious for a while.

2.    Meanwhile send/give the manuscript to “beta readers” — savvy people who read a lot of fiction, in your genre. For suggestions and a list of possible questions, see my blog post, “Questions for Your Beta Readers” on Crime Fiction Collective (and Publetariat.com). Get at least two volunteer readers, but no more than five, as too many contradictory opinions could get overwhelming. Stress to your readers that at this point you’re looking for big issues only — parts where they felt excited, curious, delighted, scared, worried, confused, bored, etc.

3.    After your break of a few weeks or so, collect the reactions of your volunteer readers or critique group. Go through them and note any that you really like; perhaps ask for clarification of suggestions, or more details.

4.    Change the font of your manuscript to one you really like and print it up to read, rather than on the screen. (A different medium to help you look at it with fresh eyes. Or you can save this step until you’ve incorporated some changes.)

5.    Reread your manuscript from start to finish, making separate notes only on big-picture changes you’d like to make, such as plot, characterization, point of view, pacing, etc. Cross out, delete or condense any boring scenes. Don’t get bogged down on wording or punctuation, etc. at this point.

6.    Update your story outline and “to-do list” or plan of action to take into account advice from your beta readers, and/or critique group, as well as your own new ideas.

7.    Save a new version of your manuscript under the current date and go through the whole thing, revising on-screen for big-picture changes only. Is your opening compelling enough? (See my blog posts on your first pages: “Act First, Explain Later” and “Those Crucial First Five Pages.”) Do all of the major plot points make sense? Do you see any inconsistencies in timing, setting, character or plot? Does the story drag in places? Is there enough conflict and tension? Suspense? (Check out my book, Writing a Killer Thriller.) Are your characters complex enough? Is your protagonist likeable? (“Creating Compelling Characters”) Do you have too many characters? Is your point of view all over the place? Anchor it in one of the main characters most of the time. (See my 3 articles on DP Lyle's blog, POV 101, POV 102, & POV 103.) Maybe rewrite a scene from the viewpoint of a different key character? Rearrange some chapters or scenes? Or change the chapter breaks to earlier or later?

8.    Now would be a good time to send your revised story to a freelance editor or to a few more volunteer readers — ones who haven’t read an earlier version.

9.    Incorporate any new suggestions you like, and resave each new version as you go along, using the current date in the file name.

10. Go back to the beginning and start editing for voice, style, and flow. Slash excess wording and repetitions, or overexplaining. Streamline your sentences. Take out whole sentences and paragraphs — even scenes or chapters — if they don’t add anything new or drive the story forward. Take out unneeded adverbs and adjectives, eliminate clich├ęs, and pump up your verbs to bring the action to life. See my popular book, Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power.

11. Read just the dialogue out loud, maybe role-playing with a buddy or two. Do the conversations sound natural? Or stilted or even boring in parts. Amp up the tension and cut down on those empty phrases, overly wordy monologues, complete sentences, too-perfect grammar, etc. See my article, Writing Effective Dialogue.

12. Go through and do a basic line edit for grammar, spelling, and punctuation — or better yet, hire a freelance fiction editor to do it.

13.  Change the font to one you like, and print up the manuscript, double-spaced. Sit down with it and read it through out loud, crossing out excess words and sentences, and noting changes and suggestions between the lines, in the margins, or on the back.

14.  Open up the screen version and type these new changes into your document; resave with today’s date.

15. Go over the whole thing again, on screen or on paper, looking for any new issues that crop up. Changes very often create new errors, so watch for those.

16. Repeat above steps as needed, until your manuscript is compelling and polished, before sending it off to a literary agent or acquiring editor, or self-publishing. This whole revision process could easily take several months. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by publishing it or sending it off too soon.

17. Better yet, at some point along this process, send it to a reputable freelance fiction editor so you can get a professional, unbiased look at it, from someone familiar with both the genre and industry standards.
 

18. Finally, if you’re seeking an agent, take as much care with that all-important query letter. See my blog post, “Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot” on Blood-Red Pencil BlogSpot.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, www.JodieRennerEditing.com

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). 

Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

 
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