Lessons While Editing My Novel

With so many writing conventions and diverging schools of thought, it’s impossible for a single human being to learn it all (except for Yeezus, of course). However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort to keep improving our craft. Giving up is for poets and the French (bonus tip: don’t make fun of poets or the French on your blog).

So, in the spirit of not giving up, here’s another list of writing-related lessons I’ve conjured up while drinking an ill-advised mix of Mountain Dew and Stella Artois (mostly lessons that were re-learned and reinforced):

1. Unnecessary scene changes to your readers is as tea to Phoebe Buffay (Hint: “Tea gives Phoebe the trots.”).

Maybe you actually want your book to make people rush to the toilet, but for those of you who don’t, you should carefully assess the number of settings you push your characters through in a single chapter.

Essentially, you have to consider whether a change in setting is necessary. Do you absolutely need the change in ambiance? Are you trying to jump through different settings to expose the reader to the different places you created during your manic world-building episode? Can you get the same plot advances, character development, and evoke the same emotions by having everything occur in the same place? If you answered yes to that last question, make it occur in the same place. Otherwise, you’ll waste time and word counts shuffling your characters between locations.

However, when combining events and dialogue that used to be in separate scenes, be careful to avoid shoddy transitions and convoluted dialogue/actions when putting it together.

2. Don’t apply critique from one beta reader at a time. Compile and synthesize feedback from several people before making major changes.

A single beta reader can offer useful insight. However, making substantial changes to your manuscript simply based on one person’s opinion may be jumping the gun. Instead of freaking out because this one guy thinks your character descriptions focus too much on left nostrils, wait until you get feedback from multiple people saying the same thing. When everyone loves or hates a certain aspect of your work, you can make your changes with a little more peace of mind.

This is advice I’d heard and read several times before but it’s easy to forget when your beta reader is so damn articulate and confident in his or her opinion.

Just remember the advice of Treebeard, and don’t be hasty.

3. Showing is better than telling, but give readers enough clues to infer important facts.

I’m a firm believer in showing character feelings through their actions and dialogue. Readers should be required to make some inferences to figure out the entire story. If the narrator expressly tells the reader too much of a character’s emotions, the writing is flawed—in terms of my old school perspective, anyway (there may be exceptions for first-person narrators reporting the POV character’s feelings).

When focusing on showing rather than telling, however, you need to provide enough evidence for the reader to make the proper inferences. As the author, you know your character’s psychology and proclivities, but your reader can only work off what you show. So, while something may be clear to you, it may be because you have inside information which your readers do not. Be sure the clues are in the writing and not stowed away in your head (or on One Note or Scrivener).

It’s also important to note that certain theories you’re aware of may not be in the reader’s library of knowledge. For example, if your narration reveals that a character’s parents were divorced while he was young, you might think your readers would infer that the character has commitment issues. However, not all your readers may be privy to this theory.

If you want your readers to infer a fact, be sure that you’ve given enough clues for the majority of your target audience to work with.

4. Dialogue tags should be included only when absolutely necessary.

Dialogue tags (e.g., “said,” “asked,” “answered,” “shouted,” “grunted”) indicate the speaker of a certain piece of dialogue. It would be odd not to see a single tag in a novel, but the ideal is to have as few as possible. The rationale is that tags detract from the flow of the narration.

Where the speaker can be reasonably identified by context, a dialogue tag probably should not be included unless it does something miraculous for the pace of the scene.

5. Not everyone appreciates a good joke, but not every scene should be made light for the sake of a laugh.

I’ve had readers admit to laughing out loud at a joke but tell me that particular joke is inappropriate because it kills the seriousness of the scene. It all comes down your intended balance of humor, tearjerker scenes, and character bad-assery. I personally like hearty helpings of comedy slathered over the entire narration, leaving only a few bits for emo kids to cry over.

Getting this feedback on my jokes, I’ve looked more carefully at the humor in my MS and realized that I need to do more to integrate my jokes with plot and character development. I also realized I need to stick some more pathos in there.

Now, as I go back to edit my novel (for what’s hopefully one of the last times), I’ll leave you with this:

Guardians of the Galaxy: pretty much my ideal for a balance of comedy to everything else.

Guardians of the Galaxy: pretty much my ideal for a balance of comedy, pathos, and action.

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19 thoughts on “Lessons While Editing My Novel

  1. Great advice. I second them all and am glad you mentioned #2. If one beta reader points something out, we CAN consider changing it. If two or more point the same thing out, we probably SHOULD consider changing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah. I’ve changed so many things in my MS since the first draft. Mostly things related to craft or oversights I’ve had. I don’t think I tend to change my story when people tell me to (unless it’s very craft-related).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is all rather brilliant, and I’m delighted to see that it’s not the same rehashed advice I’ve heard a hundred times. In my own experience, a pool of beta readers was VERY helpful compared to just one. I wouldn’t do it any other way. It’s great to see a consensus rather than just one person’s opinion. I think that’s great for your readers to know if they’ve never gotten to the beta point before.

    As far as showing vs. telling, I heard a writer once say “it’s okay to tell everything except what a character is feeling.” I try not to get too hung up on showing *everything*, as it can bog the story down. Sometimes you need to cut to the point and tell it like it is, especially when you’re handling some really dense plot elements/cast of thousands/etc. But on my edits, I try to highlight the word “feels” throughout the manuscript and replace each of them with something else.

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  3. You share wonderful tips. I liked the first one best. It’s amazing, when you think about the craft of writing, how many aspects to consider simultaneously like balancing dishes on a pole. I find I keep my settings to three arenas and move about quickly when I’m with a spirited character and sit still when I’m with a laid back character. I try to make the setting work for me in character development. .

    Liked by 1 person

    • So, your setting shifts reflect your characters’ personality and frame of mind. That’s interesting. I’ve never thought about in depth. Seems like it’d also work where the character is kind of on a trip (i.e., not thinking straight) and the narration pulls him or her through several settings. Maybe.

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  4. Some very clever commenters don’t tell you something – they ask questions. “Out of these two main characters, which do you think is the more developed?” could lead to you concluding one of those characters needed to be developed more.

    Oh, and giving up is for poets and the French? Why poets? Why French? I hope this isn’t that old American thing about French surrender in 1940. Since then the US has had the Vietnam war. Besides, many French went on fighting in the Free French or the Resistance, and the successful British evacuation from Dunkirk would have been a lot less successful if a French army hadn’t been fighting to protect their rear.;

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  5. We have the similar idea of what balances comedy, pathos and action in a good story: loved Guardians of the Galaxy. I’ve actually used the wind-up finger to bring down tempers.

    I’m still working on adding subtle humour to my books. I laugh at my jokes, but that doesn’t mean every reader will.

    Every writing of a novel teaches me new things, and you’ve pointed out ones I’ve learned before. The one about setting is new though. I assumed I was just being lazy, limiting my number of settings in a story, but now I see that was wise. And when I think about this further, it is better both for the writer and the reader to limit settings: less work and less confusion.

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    • I’ve paid some attention to which jokes people laugh at (a few times with in-person readings, but mostly through my beta readers’ little comments on my MS). I try to cut jokes that fall flat or replace them with better ones. Ultimately, comedy is pretty hard to pull off in a novel. It kind of depends a lot on the reader having a similar sense of humor and their ability to deliver the punchlines to themselves.

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  6. Well said/well written (except the comment about poets and the French which probably was supposed to be funny? but didn’t have enough context to make it so). I guess another rule would be if you want something to be funny, it has to have context.

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  7. Very helpful advice, especially what you said about dialogue tags. This is something I’ve been challenged with as I edit my stories, but what you said made sense 🙂

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  8. this is so shameless, BUT you followed my previous blog (thelastmuse.com), in reinvention i began a new one. if you have a moment please visit and follow
    https://emthewriter.wordpress.com/

    thanks!

    ps. thanks for this article! just finished a writing class, have not gotten 5 pages into a novel project but i’m looking for any and all advice. have you read method and madness by Laplante?

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