You've probably heard the comment: "In these days of indie publishing, you can write a novel in the afternoon and have it for sale the next morning." Yet if you are serious about writing, you know that the editing and revising process is just as important as putting your ideas on paper in the first place. So grab your red pencil and consider these tips for a more professional product.
Point of View:
- Never "head-hop" within the same short story, scene, or chapter. This is the "golden rule" of fiction-writing. Always maintain one character's point of view throughout an entire cohesive section.
- Include only those details that your character can see, hear, smell, etc. I once wrote a short story in which a teenaged girl was sizing up her mother's new lover, who was driving, as she sat in the back seat of the car. She noted his "finely detailed cowboy boots." At my writers' group, someone asked me how she could see the boots. Obviously, she couldn't.
- Create a "narrative distance" for your characters from the event. For instance, are you writing the story as if the events are happening to the characters at the moment? If so, very little reflection is likely to happen on their parts. However, if your narrative/voice indicates that the character is reliving and retelling events that happened in the past, you can include some observations. Whichever you choose, you must always maintain your chosen distance/voice in your work. I was once told by a reader in my writing group that my first-person character, a girl of eighteen, seemed to have insights that were too sophisticated for her age and education level. To solve this, I decided to rewrite the novel as if she were telling it after a long period of time, sort of a "Hey, kids, listen up, here's my life story" approach. By doing this, I could show my character on the emotional seesaw of an eighteen-year-old in love while giving her the benefit of a more mature voice.
- Don't forget about sensory detail. Just as you created a certain vocabulary or way of speaking for each character, chart a sensory path for each individual. The way that each character makes sense of the world through his/her interpretation of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch can reveal important traits to your reader.
- We've all heard the catchy slogan, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." It's the exact opposite in fiction: What happens in Vegas comes home with the character and the consequences of it stay with him for the rest of his life. In other words, experience is accrued and compiled in our characters' lives (and our own). The writer must acknowledge and "carry forward" what has happened before.
- A good example of this comes from a fellow writer's autobiographically-based fiction. While writing about growing up in Buenos Aires during the Pinochet regime, her young characters, a brother and sister, witness the public arrest and beating of a beloved teacher from their school. They return home and start to bicker over who gets to play soccer (the boy doesn’t want to include his sister). There is no further mention of the teacher. The critics in our writing group pounced: This is a horrifying incident for these children (and for the reader). Why don't they talk about it? The writer explained that, in reality, everyone was so afraid of what was happening during the Pinochet reign that they suppressed it, forgot it, or pretended it didn't happen. For the reader who didn't know that, though, it seemed as if the author had simply been careless. The group suggested that the writer find a way to clarify the children's immediate reactions to the incident and to show how witnessing it had changed them forever--in other words, how the incident resonated throughout their lives, even as adults.
- Every work of fiction is fueled by some grand conflict or tension, but on the paragraph-to-paragraph level, the story gains momentum through microtension. Think of the Harry Potter series. All of the books are propelled by the eventual confrontation of Harry and Voldemort, but along the way, the characters face much more trivial problems that must be resolved or managed.
- Many of the suggestions listed above could fall in this category. Sharp, snappy dialogue creates microtension, as does a consistent point of view, and a lack of filters and other author intrusions in the writing. Microtension is also created when incidents continue to resonate in and influence the character's emotions, actions, and choices.
- Much of the microtension in a piece comes from the use of strong verbs. We've all been told to use action verbs in lieu of passive verbs, but it's easier to preach this concept than to put it into practice. A good place to start is to replace "to be" verbs (is, are, were) with stronger, more indicative and meaningful verbs. (Dialogue is exempted from this purge.)
- Author Ellen Gilchrist asks us to ponder "how to move the characters around so they bruise against each other and ring true.'' In general, relationships define themselves through conflicts (whether minor or major) and the resolutions (or not) of those problems. Choose a random paragraph in your manuscript. If you can't find at least one sentence that implies or states your characters' internal or external conflicts, think about how to rewrite it to achieve microtension.
I hope that this helps you to rethink and revise your work. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LAURIE MARR WASMUND has worked as a writer, editor, community college instructor, and writing workshop presenter. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Cimarron Review and Weber Studies. She is the author of My Heart Lies Here, a novel of the Ludlow Massacre; Clean Cut, A Romance of the Western Heart; and To Do Justice, the first book of the White Winter Trilogy, set during World War I.
Find her online at Lost Ranch Books.
Find her online at Lost Ranch Books.
- Arizona Authors’ Association is holding their 2017 Crafting the Written Word conference at the Embassy Suites Biltmore in Phoenix on February 25. She will present “Don’t Forget the Craft!” and “A Journey through Self-Publishing.”
- Parker Writers meets at the Parker (Colorado) Library between 2-4 every second and fourth Sunday. She will present “Pegging Your Tent to the Earth: Writing from the Senses” on April 9.
- Castle Rock Writers offers monthly workshops at Phillip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock (Colorado) the second Monday of every month at 6:30. She will present “Don’t Forget the Craft!” on June 12, 2017.