Getting the “Beat” Right

I certainly didn’t know that a ‘beat’ is a brief bit of action which is included in dialog.  I thought it was a no-name, clever way of attributing some words or thoughts to a character without having to include ‘s/he said’.  For example:

John scowled.  “I don’t agree with that!”

Julia continued to peel the onions.  “I know you don’t, but in your heart, you know I’m right.”

In the April issue of The Florida Writer, Mary Ann de Stefano, the editor, gave a one-page lecture on the use of beats.

Mary Ann de Stefano

She said:  “The way you handle beats can enliven a scene when they reflect a character’s emotions and desires in fresh ways or dull your writing when they are used in a rote manner.” She suggested the following six tests of a writer’s use of beats:

  1. How often do you break up your dialogue with beats?  Do you sprinkle beats or lay them on with a heavy hand?  Too many beats can make dialogue unnecessarily busy, negatively affecting pacing, and overshadow the character’s speech.  On the other hand, no beats at all might make the reader feel she is experiencing disembodied voices floating in space.
  2. What is the effect of beat placements or long vs short beats?  A long beat could delay a character’s response and make her seem to hesitate without actually having to state that she was reluctant to answer.  Short beats or no beats can speed up a scene.
  3. Does the action beat come out of the character’s need – or the author’s?  If your character is going to get up out of her chair and move around the room, she needs to do it for reasons arising naturally from what is taking place in the scene, not merely because the author needs to break up the dialogue or attribute a piece of speech.
  4. Do you use the same beats repeatedly? Do your characters frequently pause, nod, shake their head, stare, shrug, glance, grin, smile, chuckle, laugh, wince, raise eyebrows, blink, tear up or sigh?  Please tell them to stop.  Any repetition in your work, unless carefully and consciously done well for effect, can be boring.
  5. Are your beats fresh?  Early drafts are often full of clichés, because pat phrases come to us easily.  Think of clichés as place markers, and root them out or replace them in revision.  Are your characters merely dialling phones, lighting cigarettes, inhaling or exhaling, looking out windows, or doing similar routine things that anyone could do anywhere?  Stale beats can sap the energy form your writing.
  6. Do your beats reveal character or advance your story?  Write beats that are specific to your characters and their circumstances.  Generic beats are missed opportunities.  A well-written beat is  meaningful.  It can betray a deception, convey an unspoken understanding, or reveal an emotion or character trait.  Beats can show us the scene’s setting, build tension, create suspense, or provide comic relief.  Put them to work.

Darkness in Kids Books

Last month, there was an essay in Time Magazine by Matt de la Pena, author of the childrens’ books, in which he discussed the importance of writing about painful experiences in the books he writes.

Matt de la Pena

He says, “A few weeks ago, illustrator Loren Long and I learned that a major gatekeeper would not support our forthcoming picture book, Love, an exploration of love in a child’s life, unless we “softened” a certain illustration. In the scene, a despondent young boy hides beneath a piano with his dog, while his parents argue across the living room. There is an empty old fashioned glass resting on top of the piano. The feedback our publisher received was that the moment was a little too heavy for children. And it might make parents uncomfortable. This discouraging news led me to really examine, maybe for the first time in my career, the purpose of my picture book manuscripts. What was I trying to accomplish with these stories? What thoughts and feelings did I hope to evoke in children?”

“This particular project began innocently enough. Finding myself overwhelmed by the current divisiveness in our country, I set out to write a comforting poem about love. It was going to be something I could share with my own young daughter as well as every kid I met in every state I visited, red or blue. But when I read over one of the early drafts, something didn’t ring true. It was reassuring, uplifting even, but I had failed to acknowledge any notion of adversity.

“So I started over.

“A few weeks into the revision process, my wife and I received some bad news, and my daughter saw my wife openly cry for the first time. This rocked her little world and she began sobbing and clinging to my wife’s leg, begging to know what was happening. We settled her down and talked to her and eventually got her ready for bed. And as my wife read her a story about two turtles who stumble across a single hat, I studied my daughter’s tear-stained face. I couldn’t help thinking a fraction of her innocence had been lost that day. But maybe these minor episodes of loss are just as vital to the well-adjusted child’s development as moments of joy. Maybe instead of anxiously trying to protect our children from every little hurt and heartache, our job is to simply support them through such experiences. To talk to them. To hold them.”

He went on to say that he was in Rome, Georgia, reading to some school children, when “I decided, on a whim, to read Love to them, too, even though it wasn’t out yet. I projected Loren’s illustrations as I recited the poem from memory, and after I finished, something remarkable happened. A boy immediately raised his hand, and I called on him, and he told me in front of the entire group, “When you just read that to us I got this feeling. In my heart. And I thought of my ancestors. Mostly my grandma, though … because she always gave us so much love. And she’s gone now.”

“And then he started quietly crying.

“And a handful of the teachers started crying, too.

“I nearly lost it myself. Right there in front of 150 third graders. It took me several minutes to compose myself and thank him for his comment.  On the way back to my hotel, I was still thinking about that boy, and his raw emotional response. I felt so lucky to have been there to witness it. I thought of all the boys growing up in working-class neighborhoods around the country who are terrified to show any emotion. Because that’s how I grew up, too — terrified. Yet this young guy was brave enough to raise his hand, in front of everyone, and share how he felt after listening to me read a book. And when he began to cry a few of his classmates patted his little shoulders in a show of support. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so moved inside the walls of a school.  That’s why I write books. Because the little story I’m working on alone in a room, day after day, might one day give some kid out there an opportunity to “feel.” And if I’m ever there to see it in person again, next time hopefully I’ll be brave enough to let myself cry, too.”

I have to add that the illustration Matt is talking about is evocative.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it on line, but is it focused on a grand piano with a small boy, hugging his legs, head down, sheltered beneath it.  His dog is cuddled up next to him.  On the left is a woman, covering her face with her hands, and on the right is a man, leaving the room.  The text says: “But it’s not only stars that flame out, you discover.  And friendships.  And people.”

Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles

I was searching my bookshelves for something to read on holiday and I found an old, paperback copy of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles – I have no idea where it came from.  I remember reading Far from the Madding Crowd in high school, and I thought it was time to get in touch with Hardy again.

Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in a rural community in Dorset, England to a working-class family which did not have the means to send him to university.  He trained as an architect in Dorchester, and moved to London to pursue a career, but he was never comfortable in London, where he was acutely conscious of his class and social inferiority.  Returning to Dorset in 1867, he began his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, which was rejected for publication; he subsequently destroyed the manuscript, but subsequently wrote three novels: two published anonymously and one, A Pair of Blue Eyes, in his own name.   This latter novel concerns his courtship of Emma Gifford, who became his wife and encouraged him to write full time.  In 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd was published and was followed be ten novels, which attracted an increasingly hostile reception for ‘pessimism’ and ‘immorality’.  In fact, Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s last novel (1895), was burned by the Bishop or Wakefield.  In his memoir, Hardy said: “After these [hostile] verdicts from the press, its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop – probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.”  Hardy then turned his attention to writing poetry and short stories until hes death in 1928.  Tess was also criticised for its immorality and its implied criticism of social and religious culture, which, viewed from a 21st century perspective, is difficult to understand.

Hardy’s themes include the examination of social themes in Victorian England: marriage, education and religion, that limited people’s lives and caused unhappiness.  Hardy’s religious beliefs seem to have been a combination of agnosticism and spiritualism; he rejected the religious doctrine of his time.  For him, education was an unfair badge of social status, and the sexual mores of Victorian England were often a millstone around people’s necks.

 

Thomas Hardy

Tess, the lead character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, is a beautiful farm girl whose lower class status is denied by her father who fancies that his family are descendants of the old, aristocratic, D’Urberville family.  She is sent to work for an old,  matriarch and her ne’er-do-well son, Alec, of the D’Urberville family.  She dislikes the son for his arrogance and his bothersome attentions, but she is taken advantage of by him and becomes pregnant.  How this happens is left to the reader’s imagination.  Her baby dies and she goes to work on a distant farm where she meets a middle class man, Angel Clare, with whom she falls in love.  When he asks her to marry him she is distraught, as his expectation must be that she is a virgin.  Finally, she accepts Angel’s proposal and commits to revealing her sin to him, which she does on their wedding night.  He, a man of strict morals, rejects her and emigrates to Brazil.  She is heartbroken, and goes to work on a hard-scrabble farm, where, once again, she meets Alec.  Separated by thousands of miles, Tess and Angel pine for one another, and he comes back to England to find her.  But, owing to dire financial circumstances, she has been taken by Alec as his mistress.  Angel follows her trail and finds her with Alec in a smart hotel.  The story ends tragically.

The first two thirds of the novel is beautifully written at a leisurely, captivating pace.  Hardy’s love of Tess, the English countryside and its culture shines through. At the same time there is a sense of impending disaster which pulls the reader along.

It seemed to me that the last third of the novel was written in a hurry by an author who wanted to get to the conclusion.  Character development in the first two thirds was measured and complete, but the changes in Alec and Tess toward the end seem somewhat dubious.  Alec’s transformation from scoundrel to preacher and back to a scoundrel seems barely plausible – as does Tess’ out of character change in the last few pages to pliant mistress with a hidden fury.  Strangely, Hardy has Tess swear an oath on an ancient stone monument, and one is braced for a repercussion, but none appears.  Then there is the character Lisa-Lu, Tess’s sister, who comes on stage at the last minute in an important role, without previous introduction.

I enjoyed reading Tess, and I also enjoyed finding what I think are errors by a great author.

Fake Rules

Mary Ann de Stefano has an article in the current issue of The Florida Writer entitled “Fake Rules and What Really Matters”.  She begins by saying, “Many of those so-called grammar and punctuation rules that people are pushing in online forums are not really rules at all. (No matter what your high school English teacher told you.)”  The article is light-hearted and I quote from it here.

Ms de Stefano is an independent editor with over 30 years of experience in publishing and consulting.  She works one-on-one with writers, organises writing workshops and designs author websites.

Mary Ann de Stefano

“If writers are not debating about the serial comma and the number of spaces after a period in online discussions, they’re often railing against the use of the ‘singular they’ in modern usage.  (The serial comma is a comma placed before a conjunction – usually ‘and’ or ‘or’ – in a list of three or more items.  For my part, I use serial commas and two spaces after the end of a sentence, although my publisher doesn’t approve of the latter.)  Critics say that ‘Somebody used the milk and they didn’t put it back in the refrigerator’, should be written, they say, as, ‘Somebody used the milk and he or she didn’t put it back in the refrigerator.’  The former construction, they say – even though it is less awkward and perfectly understandable – is evidence of a decline in our educational system.  But the fact is that the singular they has been used for hundreds of years by the likes of Chaucer, Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Oscar Wilde, and many more famous authors.  You may not like the singular they, but it is not wrong to use it, except, perhaps, in formal writing.

“Another tenaciously fake rule is the one about not ending a sentence with a preposition.  Following the fake rule can often result in sentences that are stilted or awkward.  There is no rule which compels you to write: ‘She asked him from where he had come’, rather than the more natural ‘She asked him where he had come from’.  Feel free to end a sentence with a preposition; famous writers have been doing it for hundreds of years.”

This discussion reminds me of a joke I like.  A shabbily dressed red neck is visiting the Harvard University campus, and he stops a distinguished, well-dressed professor to ask. ‘Where is the library at?’  To this the professor responds, ‘Don’t you know, my good man, not to end a sentence with a preposition?”  And the red neck says, ‘Oh, sorry.  Where is the library at, idiot?’

Ms de Stefano continues: “While you’re at it, split an infinitive and start a sentence or two with a conjunction.  But don’t just do it to thumb your nose at the prescriptivists.  Do it thoughtfully and for a reason. (A split infinitive is the insertion of an adverb or an adverbial phrase between ‘to’ and the verb: for example ‘to quickly go’.  Wikipedia says: “The construction is to some extent still the subject of disagreement but modern English usage guides have dropped the objection to it.”

Ms de Stefano concludes: “Perhaps the desire to lean on the rules is an attempt to grasp into certainty within a process – writing – that is inherently uncertain.  But here’s what really matters: Great writing doesn’t happen just because what you’re doing what is ‘correct’.  Great writing happens because you’re being very conscious and deliberate about the choices you’re making as a writer and how those choices will affect your reader.  I think, perhaps, we talk too much about the rules, about correctness, and to little about style and artistic expression.  Learn the rules, yes.  But also think about how employing them or breaking them might affect the clarity, grace, pacing, tone, voice and meaning in your writing.”

 

Why Children Need to Read

This was the title of the cover story in the Review section of The Daily Telegraph on 20 January 2018.  The author is Katherine Rundell, author of The Explorer, which won the 2017 Costa Children’s Book Award. She begins the article by talking about a “state of consciousness that comes without calling.  It is as if the clamorous world has quietened and thinned. . . The other times I have experienced it were as a child, while I read.  It would take perhaps three pages, then the world became mute.  Its urgency vanished and its demands fell silent.  I could sit waiting outside a ballet class, music vibrating through the walls, and hear nothing.

“Children’s fiction accounts for 39 of the 100 bestselling books of 2017, and for about 24% of the UK book market.  There’s a lot of it about.  Still, the question I get asked most, when people hear that I write for children, is: why?  Why not write real, serious books for adults?  Because, I think, only for a child, can fiction crowbar open the world.

“The intricacies of reading evade description in the same way that dreams and music evade it, but there is, I think, something unique about the way stories colour the imagination of a child.  What do you see as an adult, when you read?  Do you deck out the characters in shoes, buttons, fingernails.  I think I don’t.  I read ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich’, and I conjure up, in the space behind my eyes, an atmosphere rather than a distinct picture, colour, nose or lip. But children are doing something different when they read.  They have sometimes described to me in painstaking detail, scenes from books of mine which do not exist.  It happens relatively often: a child will tell me she loves the dance across the Paris rooftops in my book Roofhoppers, or the moment when a girl jumps from a tree onto the back of a wolf in The Wolf Wilder –  scenes I never wrote, although I wish I had.  Children, as they read, paint bright colours in the margins that fiction leaves open.  Their imaginations are snowballs.  When, as an adult, I read some of  my favourite childhood books, I was startled to see how slight some of them were, how many of the details I thought I knew by heart never even appeared; houses I had furnished myself, clothes I had embroidered, journeys  had added.  This is part of why I write for young people: children read the world into largeness.  When you write for a child, you build them a house; when they read, they expand it into a castle.

Ms Rundell tells about the illness of an older sister who died.  “I read through long periods of being alone, in hospital waiting rooms, and car journeys and friends’ houses.  Afraid, I took The Jungle Book or What Katy Did into bed with me alongside my bear, so that if my own fear overwhelmed me, there would be an exit door; I would fall asleep with an escape hatch clutched in one hand. . . . the stories I read then allowed me to believe that my sister didn’t only lose; she also won.  To fight with such gallantry and love is to win.

“The value of children’s books cannot, of course, be predicated on pain – books aren’t only valuable when we have something to escape – but, in fact, I am not sure that escapism is a large enough word for what those books did.  They taught me through the medium of wizards and lions and spies and talking spiders that this world I was newly inhabiting was one of wit and endurance.  Children’s books say: the stories of the world are infinite and various and unpredictable.  They say: you will count for something. They say: bravery will matter, love will matter.”

I was fortunate in having a mother and a grandmother who liked to read aloud.  They were probably motivated, in part, by the rapt attention I paid to stories by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and J Howard Pyle.

Rules for Writing Fiction

On the Guardian website, February 20, 2010, there is an article, Ten Rules for Writing Fiction Parts 1 & 2, which caught my eye, mainly because of the writers who were offering their opinions.  In this post I’ve picked out some that haven’t been covered before in this blog, and with which I agree or disagree.

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze from the article

Is this a metaphor for writing fiction or for the opinions about it?

  • Hilary Mantel: “Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.”      I agree!
  • Michael Moorcock: “If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.” and “Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery)”   Good point.
  • Will Self: ” You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.”    I find this quite interesting; I had only feelings of pride for my first book when completed.  More recently, with my eighth, I do feel that sense of inadequacy.
  • Zacie Smith: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”     This is very similar to Will Self’s comment.
  • Rose Tremain: “Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.”    I did just this with my last two novels.   By the way, when one does this, one has to be connected to the Internet – contrary to the advice of several authors.
  • Sarah Waters: “Writing fiction is not “self-­expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”     I like the analogy.
  • Jonathan Franzen: “Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.”    I think this is probably good advice.  Luckily the two novels I’ve written in the first person are distinctive.
  • Esther Freud: “Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.”   I don’t agree with this; I think that a whimsical, unexpected metaphor can be very enlightening.
  • Neil Gaiman: “Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”  I thought it was jut my compulsive self: noticing a problem in an earlier chapter and immediately rushing to find and fix it.
  • P D James: “Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more ­effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.”   I think this is an excellent point and it is contrary to some who encourage the use of common words or discourage the use of a thesaurus.

Internal Dialogue

“Internal Dialogue: the Greatest Tool for Gaining Reader Confidence” by Elizabeth Sims appeared in the June 2017 issue of The Florida Writer.  Ms Sims introduces the article with  a discussion about how con artists work.  “The best con artists don’t begin by asking for your confidence – they give you theirs first.  Here’s my story. I want you, you especially to hear this.  The request for help comes later.  But before either compassion or greed can be exploited, the mark must feel something for the con artist.  When you think about it, what is fiction but one beautiful long con?  The reader – the mark – opens a book craving a good story, thirsting to be part of something special.   We, as writers, do everything possible to gain the trust of our  readers so we can entertain, shock, delight and amuse them all the way to the end.

“And the greatest tool for gaining reader confidence is internal dialogue.  Because when a character reveals his thoughts, he’s confiding in the audience.  I’m counting on you to understand me – and possibly even help me understand myself.   Suddenly readers are in the thick of it; they feel involved and invested.

“Internal  dialogue is the inner voice of a character, which is a metaphysical subject.  In most modern cultures – and, consequently, most  modern literature – there’s a dichotomy within the self: there’s an I and a me.”

(I, the objective pronoun which takes the action and me, the subjective pronoun to which the action is done)

Ms Sims goes on to say: “with internal dialogue, you can:

  • Establish your characters and their unique voices
  • Show the difference between what a character thinks versus what she says or does; this can fuel tragedy or comedy
  • Trace a character’s growth and development, or a character’s degeneration
  • Develop you plot
  • Reveal things below the surface: pain, secrets, hopes, fears . . .
  • Create and develop suspense.  Especially when the reader knows more that the character
  • Change the subject.  A character’s thoughts may drive your story in a new direction
  • Reveal a character’s opinions
  • Describe.  A character can look around and comment on his surroundings; he can observe and analyze
  • Develop and reveal character motivation.  Why are they doing what they’re doing?
  • Reflection.  Let your character think through a problem or process an event to whatever degree she is capable of. A character can be a tad less smart than the reader, thus permitting the reader to feel on top of things.
  • Adjust the pace.  Let your character pause and reflect.  It will slow things down and let the reader absorb what just happened.

“Internal dialogue typically takes three basic forms: first-person narration (I thought . . .), third-person narration (She thought . . .), and direct thought-speech (where the character seems to speak directly to the reader).  Then there’s the issue of tense. . . . You’ll find that the majority of internal dialogue is written in the present tense, no matter whether the rest of the work is in the past.  As to format, the only rule is to avoid quotation marks, single or double, as they’re associated with spoken aloud dialogue and can confuse the reader.  It used to be the convention to put inner thoughts in italics . . . Now the trend seems to be to keep everything in Roman text, the idea being that italics are intrusive and unnecessary.”

Ms Sims mentions several pitfalls to avoid:

  • Making a character’s inner voice into a wisecracker,  “Such a voice can be entertaining but only if used sparingly.”
  • Head hopping among various characters
  • ‘I thought to myself . . .’  “Who but oneself does one think to?”
  • Telling chunks of backstory by having a character remember it
  • Putting in anything that doesn’t serve the story

I think this makes clear the power of internal dialogue, but, like any other written vehicle it must be used in a balanced, appropriate way.  My personal preference is to write internal dialogue in the first-person present and to use italics, which I don’t think is confusing.

Ms Sims quotes the following passage from Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel:

The encounter, though, had bruised her.  Gavin was the first person, she thought, that I was ever really frank and honest with; at home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen.

I would write this as:

The encounter, though, had bruised her.  Gavin was the first person that I was ever really frank and honest with.   At home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen.

The Florida Writer says: “Elizabeth Sims is the author of the Rita Farmer Mysteries and Goldie award-winning Lillian Byrd Crime Series.  She’s also a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine, specialising in the art and craft of fiction.  Her instructional title, You’ve Got a Book in You: a Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, has helped thousands of writers find their wings.

Elizabeth Sims

What Is a Novel?

When I first started writing, and someone asked me the question, “What is a novel?”, I would have replied, “A good story.”  But frequently, brief replies don’t really enlighten the questioner, and the more I write, the more I understand that a ‘good story’ is actually very complicated indeed – at least when it is written down, printed, publicised, sold to the general public, and liked by its readers well enough to earn its writer more than a trivial income.

So what does a ‘good story’ consist of?  There are a number of qualities of a ‘good story’, and while some may not be directly measurable, they are all, at least scrutinisable and subject to opinion:

  • The Plot:  A plan of what happens in the story.  Is it interesting?  Is it predictable or unpredictable?
  • The Characters:  The fictional people who populate the story.  Do they come alive?  Do we care about (like or despise) them?  Are they active or passive? Are their relationships to one another interesting?  Do the characters’ beginnings and end points support the Message?
  • The Setting:  The time(s) and place(s) in which the story takes place.  Is the particular setting of interest to the particular reader?  Is it easy to place oneself as the reader comfortably into the setting?
  • The Message:  What, in an overall sense, is the author trying to say to the reader? If nothing, do we care?  If something, is it clear?  Does it make us think?
  • The Tone:  The kind of emotion which is inherent in the language the author uses.  Is it sad? angry? melancholy?  matter-of fact?  Does the tone seem to support the Message?
  • The Narrator;  Who’s telling the story?  Is the choice of narrator supportive of the above five characteristics?
  • The Tense:  Is the story told in the present or the past tense?  Is the story supported by the choice of tense?
  • The Action:  Exactly what happens.  Is it credible?  Is it attention grabbing?  Is there too much or too little action?  Is the action relevant to the Message?

And then, there are the variables which define how the story is told:

  • The Language:  At what educational level is the story pitched (toddler vs college grad)?
  • The Words:  Do the words convey an exact (vs approximate) meaning?  Are there cliches?  Are there too many or too few words?  Do they convey appropriate feelings as well as facts.
  • The Sentences:  Does the author use correct grammar and punctuaton?  Do the sentence structures facilitate understanding?   Are they readable without difficulty: not too complex; not too simple?
  • Realism vs Fantasy:  Is the author’s choice of realism vs fantasy supportive of the story overall.  If there are elements of fantasy, does the reader automatically suspend disbelief?
  • Dialogue vs Backstory vs Narrative:  Is there a balanced use of these techniques?  Does their use support the story?
  • Tension:  How much tension does the author build into the story?  Does it support the plot? is there too much or too little tension?

Perhaps there are some variables I’ve overlooked.  Please don’t hesitate to mention them.

Revising

‘Revise’ has a number of synonyms, including: improve, reconsider, update, rewrite, amend and modify.  With my current novel, having finished writing it, I am doing all this and perhaps a bit more.  It is a tedious process, but, to my surprise, I’m enjoying it, because, as I get closer to the end – I’m now about half way through – I’m feeling an increasing sense of pride in the output.

You may recall that in an earlier post, I said that I would print each chapter out in an unusual font and read it aloud, marking anything that jarred on my senses for later correction.  I have done that, and I would recommend it for any author before submitting his/her manuscript for final editing.  Before I started my reading aloud process, I had made a list of ‘lingering concerns’: issues which I felt had to be addressed.  For example, I thought that I had left the characters’ feelings to much to the reader to interpret: they needed to be clearer.

So, here is what my revising process included:

  • Restructuring:  My draft manuscript was 16 chapters long, each about 17 pages.  I thought it would be better to shorten the chapters, particularly because there is a lot that happens in the book.  I’m in the process of reducing the chapter length to about 10 pages, so there will be over 25 chapters.  I also wanted to have a title alluding to the content of each chapter, believing that this would add to reader interest and attention.  The hard part was deciding where to separate the chapters, because previously, I didn’t worry much about that.  As a compromise, I have some material which relates to the topic of a preceding or a following chapter an the beginning or the end of some chapters, but I decided that this was a better solution than having some chapters as short as 6 or 7 pages.
  • Voices: Apart from the narrator, there are two other anonymous, contrarian voices.  I did not want their identity to be obvious, so I have reduced their roles.  But, at the same time, I wanted to reinforce the relevance of these voices to the characters, because they are part of the theme.  I’ve been doing this by having the characters make oblique references to the voices.
  • Characters: I have sharpened the characters so as to make their personalities more unique by having them do or say unusual things which are still in keeping with their individuality.  There are also two minor characters which are too neglected in the original manuscript.  As I’ve mentioned above, clarity of the character’s feelings is essential.  I’ve had to add passages which define the character’s thoughts or actions which reveal feelings, or something about their body language.  I’ve tried to avoid writing ‘the character felt . . .’, but I will let the narrator clarify the character’s feelings without using the word ‘feeling’.
  • Theme:  There is a theme based on Nietzsche which has to do with the development of the individual.  I felt that this theme was well introduced but faded in the later parts.  So, I’m bringing in reminders.
  • Dialog: I have been told that I write good, believable dialog, but I know it can be unnecessarily long.  There is a lot of pruning going on.
  • Unnecessary wording: Like the previous point, I have been unmerciful in deleting text which does not contribute to the reader’s understanding.
  • Time line: The story takes place over a period of about 15 years, but I sensed it was becoming difficult to keep a strict time line in order.  I’m deleting all references to sequence or the passage of time, believing that these milestones tend to be a distraction for the reader.
  • Consistency: I’ve found that I called a restaurant ‘Poseidon’ in the early chapters and ‘Neptune’ in later chapters.  I confess to being hopeless at remembering the names of people and places.  Similarly, in one chapter a terrorist organisation was called Dhul Fikar (Sword of the Prophet) and Dhul Fakir later.  The first spelling is correct.
  • Clichés: When one is reading aloud, clichés tend to reverberate, and they can be re-written
  • Inadequate words: Similarly, an adjective or a verb or even a noun can sound and feel inadequate in best defining the character’s feeling, the situation, or the setting.  Thesaurus to the rescue!
  • Typos: I’ve read the original manuscript three or four times, but I’ve still found (a few) typos!

Five Ways to Approach Revision

An article with the above title appeared in The Florida Writer, August edition; it was written by Mary Ann de Stefano who is the editor of the Writer.  She says in LinkedIn, “I am a word nerd with techie tendencies and a marketing bent, and I want you to believe in yourself and your writing.”  Through her website MAD about Words, she offers a number of services for writers.

Mary Ann de Stefano

What particularly interested me in her article is that I am on the verge of finishing my latest novel and I have a strong feeling that my work will benefit from a healthy does of editing (by me).

In the article Ms de Stefano says: “Literally revision means to ‘see again’.  But how do you see your writing from the detached perspective when you’ve been immersed in it?  Here are five ways you can approach revision with a fresh look at your manuscript.

1. Put it away.  Take the longest possible break between finishing your draft and revision.  Time away from your work will give you the intellectual, emotional and psychological distance you need to see it anew.  Unless your bound by a contest or contract deadline, let your book length work rest for six weeks or more.

2. Change the scenery.  If your habit is to write on a computer, print a hard copy of your manuscript for review.  Make the printout look different from the screen version by changing the font.  You might be surprised by how reading your work in Helvetica rather than Times New Roman changes not only how your eyes see the work, but how your mind sees it, too.  I know someone who had a bound book created from her manuscript on Lulu, which she said was cheaper than having it printed at one of the office supply stores.  She says looking at her work like a real book changed the way she read it.  She read quickly as she would a real book, and when she saw problem areas, she marked them quickly with a sticky note for later.  Then she went back through and reworked the areas that had caused her to stumble or pause on the first read.

3. Read it aloud.  Hearing your writing read aloud brings it out of your head and gives you a new opportunity to see it (hear it) with revitalized attention.  Read your manuscript aloud from beginning to end, even though a long work might take several days.  Resist the urge to stop and tinker with a sentence or a scene.  If you come across something that needs further work, mark it for further review and move on quickly.  You might try recording and playing back your reading or having a trusted friend or writing partner read the work to you.

4. Take a bird’s eye view.  Spread a chapter or two out on a long table- or on the floor –  so you can view each page individually.  Look at your pages from above.  See walls of unbroken text or dense paragraphs (all narrative?)  See pages with nothing but short loose paragraphs (all dialogue?)  See sections where all the paragraphs are virtually the same length?  Mark these sections for review, because they may indicate issues with balance between dialogue and narrative or problems with proportion, rhythm or pacing.

5. Do it again.  Retype your entire manuscript (or a problem chapter).  This tactile approach – going over your work word by word – is bound to spark new ideas.

Take the time to revise and revise again.  Resist the urge to seek unmitigated praise for a first draft or try to get others to ‘fix’ your work by sharing it with beta readers or sending it off to and editor.  Even the pros don’t get it ‘right’ the first time.”

My intention is to take all of Ms de Stefano’s advice (except no. 5) and I’ll add a sixth: work from a to do list.  As the writing has progressed, I’ve noticed some thematic issues, character development problems, and occasional bad writing habits that will need to be addressed.