In the space of a fortnight, two friends from very different circles of my life both asked if i'd have a look at some writing they were working on.
Normally i'd happily have a read through and give them a half-page of notes -- but they must have sensed that the time was ripe for procrastination. They asked for feedback -- and feedback is what they got. Once I put on the editor costume, it was hard to take it off.
Turns out that giving a full edit to someone else's work is almost as empowering as playing computer games.
So, with nothing else to do but wait for my editor to return my latest MS, I opened up word and cast my gaze on some work that was not my own.
Early on in this game I spoke about how lucky I was to have friends who not only gave me feedback, but helped shape my craft into something approaching competence. I wanted to return the favor, then along the way I realised that this is a crucial next step in my writing apprenticeship. Editing two manuscripts that were neither my own genre, length or style, consolidated much about what I have learned these last few years.
So, to try and sum up the feedback I gave in my little stint as an editor, here are five things to watch for when reviewing that first draft.
1. Clarify your POV.
Make sure you know who is telling your story. Yes I know YOU are -- but the best way for me to connect to your tale is for one of your characters to take me into their world as well as their desires. The trouble is, we often have multiple POV characters. This works fine when they are all off on their separate chapters, but what happens when they finally get together? Too often, the perspective becomes mixed. I was guilty of this in my early drafts, but seeing it again in another MS made me realise how important it is to limit the perspective. The good news is this can be really fun. In one chapter you may have character A observe something about character B, then in the next we see that character B thinks A is full of shit. As a reader we know what A thinks already, and it is a hoot to see the other character observe them in ignorance.
2. 'Dialogue Tags are important,' he said sincerely.
But it is a fine balance between too much and not enough. I recently read 'Redshirts' by John Scalzi -- and when I say read, I mean 'listened to', for as anyone who frequents this blog will know, I have not read a novel in years. The benefit of this is that as a spoken artform, writing has nowhere to hide. I almost abandoned Redshirts early on, for despite the excellent narration by Wil Wheaton, the dialogue was bogged down by too many 'She said's and 'He saids'. Every. Single. Line. It was all I heard after a while. Thankfully I stuck with it, as the novel turned out to be quite good, but the lesson stands. You have to mix it up. It goes the other way too. In one of MS I edited, it was often impossible to tell who said what. Once you get over three lines of speech, you really have to give me something that identifies the speaker. I am a fan of merely breaking up a line of dialogue with a small moment of character action -- what they are doing with their hands, or where they are looking for example -- this works much better than 'Character A said/answered/replied/exclaimed/asked. The real trick is to mix it up, and show more than tell. Which brings me to 3.
3. Show don't tell.
As a character from Game of Thrones might say, much and more has been written about this. As another might remind us, we know nothing. So I shall repeat it. Never, ever tell me what a character is thinking if there is a way to show me instead. (hint: there is always a way) In both pieces of work I edited, there were instances of exposition reflection where a character would come out and tell us their feelings. Worse, there were even examples of two characters telling each other how they feel -- as if that is a loop hole. It isn't. I can't remember the last time I sat down and had a good long internal dialogue reflection on my day, nor the last time someone asked me to go into detail about how I am feeling. (now you know why so many hollywood writers love psychologists as characters -- I forgive HBO's Hannibal because of his suits) To really SHOW and not TELL you have to realise how people actually are. We go about our lives reacting on instinct 80% of the time. These reactions and consequent actions we formulate reveal more about us than we know ourselves. In essence, the worst people to tell us what they are feeling are our protagonists. As a writer you can show us, and as a reader I will make up my own mind -- which is really whats so fun about books, right?
4. Make sure something happens in every scene.
Our classical hollywood script writer will also tell you this is all about conflict -- as in make sure that at the start of the scene your character wants something, then something gets in their way, and by the end they are closer to their goal (or their goal has changed) Again, if you have been reading this blog, you know I am more interested in different narrative structures -- namely Kishotenketsu. But whatever your chosen philosophy, something must still happen. Either information is revealed, a character is challenged, or an event occurs that has lasting ramifications. It doesn't have to be about conflict, although that will save your scene 99% of the time, what it does have to be is interesting... hopefully even surprising. There was one scene in one of the MS I edited that had me laughing out loud. It was such a surprise to the scene, and set up so much of the rest of the plot, that it sticks out in my mind as the defining moment of the story. The opposite to a scene like this is one where characters are merely recounting what happened off screen, or off text. All the interesting stuff has already happened, and whats worse, we didn't even see it. Far better to show us the good stuff -- even if it means introducing another POV character. Chances are that if interesting things are happening to them, then they should be part of the narrative.
5. Plot is the pilot, but prose is the propeller.
Don't be too clever for your own good. This is another one I was guilty of when I first started writing -- I wanted to show how much I knew about my genre and my story in every clever turn of phrase. What this lead to was my 'Voice' being far too invasive to the story. There are writers out there who have made an entire carear breaking this rule -- Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett to name a few. But for the rest of us, the best bet is to keep it simple. Winking to the audience feels nice in the first draft, but the first character to kill from your novel is you. Your voice will still exist, but now it will be driven by what happens, rather than how clever you tell it. Your prose is the propeller that has to be spinning fast and smooth just to keep you in the air. Once you have that down, then you can fly wherever you want to go.
There are many more, but these five sum up the obvious. As I told my friends -- use this advice at your discretion. It might help, hopefully it might even get you thinking about your own solutions. And if you come up with any good ones, please tell me...