Pacing, Dialogue, Emotion, Info Dump & Symbolism

Blogging the Editing Day #8

The biggest problem with Chapter 6 began with its pacing. Having followed on from a few intense scenes, this chapter needed time to build on characterisation and fill in a couple of plot holes before they grew into chasms. As my characters stopped to catch their breath, I realised it was the perfect opportunity for the reader to see them being themselves. After all, too much fast action can end up being as boring as too much slow.

Unfortunately Chapter 6 was both slow and boring for a number of reasons.

  1. The dialogue was wooden and unnatural.
  2. Too much info dump via dialogue.
  3. Too much description of setting told through the eyes of the writer instead of the POV character.
  4. Important stuff happened, and although emotion was shown through body language and introspection, it was not enough. Opportunities for irony, character-centric reactions and symbolism were mostly ignored.

Here’s a snippet of what I started with. First draft material with little sense of character:

Em had spent the entire week searching for him, wishing they’d not fought, afraid she’d not see him again, admonishing herself for not listening to him when he’d begged her to. It wasn’t until she knocked on his bare wooden door only to have it opened by a stranger, that she realised it was time to face the truth.

“Everyone’s moving out,” the woman said. “No one likes the new laws. Did you know you can’t even get a stamp on your work card unless you work overtime? Who’s going to look after my dead sister’s kids while I’m working? If I can’t pay the gas bill, we’ll freeze to death by winter.”

Em blinked back tears. That was it then, Forley was gone.

Yeah, conveniently contrived info dump. Meandering and wooden dialogue. Bland, clunky description for the sake of description. Furthermore, I’ve told my readers that Em is feeling regret, but I doubt they’re convinced.

To fix this, I had to figure out ways to deliver information by weaving it into the drama, while at the same time keeping the dialogue natural. I also needed to remind myself to not give out too much info dump at once. In this particular scene, it would be best to let things unfold naturally as it would in real life so the reader can experience it along with the character and feel their emotion without being told.

At first I stared at my computer screen, wondering how to start. Then I realised my mistake. I was thinking too much about plot and not enough about character. I took a step back and reminded myself of my hero’s inner and outer conflicts, motivations, temperament and backstory. I thought about what information needed to be given, then imagined my hero receiving it.

In the end I decided that after all that had happened in previous scenes — and all that would happen next — the only  piece of info dump required at this point was the fact that a small number of people were leaving town because they didn’t like the new laws. Next I needed to embed it in drama, which in this case, was Em receiving evidence that her fiancé had bailed.

Here’s what I ended up with, though it’s still in need of yet another edit and polish:

Yesterday, she’d called into Forley’s tenement for the fifth day in a row, only to find his room newly occupied by five skinny children and a dilapidated aunt. Everything Forley had owned — his clothes, bedding, utensils and furniture — was gone.

“Not our doing,” the aunt said. “The landlord told us the last tenant had shot through. Defaulted on his rent.”

“Blame Grimsby,” chimed in a neighbour wearing boots that looked decidedly like Forley’s. “He turfed out your suitor’s chattels and sold them off. Dirt cheap.”

“Did Forley tell you where he went?”

The neighbour shook his head. “He wouldn’t be the first to disappear. Not since the new laws. I wouldn’t put it past him to have found somewhere better.”

Em stared at his boots. Definitely Forley’s. The leather was already scuffed, but what did she expect? Like everything at The Edge they’d be overworked, worn out and discarded. 

“Those boots,” she said at last. “Make sure you look after them.”

This time, there is no blinking back tears because that was set up and dealt with in a different scene. Now she’s past denial, past crying and moving on to acceptance. The boots are a symbol of Forley and his reason for leaving. My aim is for the reader to feel Em’s current emotions without me having to tell them in stereotypical ways.

Oh Those Ambiguities…

Blogging The Editing Day #7

Usually I love ambiguity. A morally ambiguous character can challenge preconceived ideas. Ambiguous dialogue can show that the speaker is either dissembling or being awkwardly polite. Ambiguous settings are right at home in speculative fiction, while ambiguous endings mirror the bitter-sweetness of life. In humour, intentional ambiguity (pun) can be anything from clever to cringeworthy. If it sneaks in unintentionally, it can be delightfully serendipitous.

Or just plain wrong…

My ambiguous moment in Chapter Six managed to evade capture for an entire afternoon. I’d just finished rewriting a scene and was feeling chuffed about how well it eliminated a small plot hole.

A family member, also known as Beta Listener #1 (BL#1) just happened to ask how I was going.

Me: Have you got time to let me read out a half page? I’ve been staring at it for too long and need to know how it sounds.

BL#1: Yeah sure, go for it.

Me: [reading] blah blah blah … she’d called into the tenement for the fifth day in a row, only to find his room occupied by four skinny children and a dilapidated aunt—

BL#1: Wait wait wait! Four skinny?

Me: What?

BL#1: FOREskinny

Me: [winces, frantically deletes, rewrites] Five skinny children …

The Joys of Rewriting.

Blogging the Editing Day #6

Chapter Five was my favourite chapter from the start. I would happily rewrite my entire novel to make it work. Fortunately I don’t need to because I already did it three years ago. Back then, it was the absolute standout chapter, but when read in context with all that followed, it felt like it didn’t belong. I made a weak attempt at forcing it to fit; but in the end, each of my little patches were obviously just patches. If I couldn’t fool myself into believing they belonged, then how could I fool my reader?

At the time, I already knew about William Faulkner’s wise words: “Kill your darlings”. Easy when you say it quickly. Not so easy when you’re unsure of which darling to kill.

After a week of contemplation and angst, I realised that the problem was not with Chapter Five. It was, in fact, with Chapters Six to Thirty. In contrast, One to Four, needed a minor rewrite. Five shone. The rest were highly polished waffle, written several years before, when I’d yet to learn the difference between a first draft and a second.

Thus began what was rapidly becoming a habit. Another major rewrite.

Yep, I’d completely rewritten this novel more than once. This was attempt Number Three. Now it’s behind me, I can happily say, I have no regrets. My novel ended up with a narrower focus which gave me room enough to explore its major themes in a believable manner. Chapter Five is no longer just fun and edgy, but now foreshadows later events, develops character, progresses plot, reinforces world-building and ends with an unpredictable logical twist.

It’s still my favourite chapter. Better still, it fits.

The rewriting process turned out to be a bonus, allowing me to identify which sub-plots were working, which characters were necessary, and which weren’t. As a result, a few more darlings were sent to the gallows. C’est la vie.

Internal Inconsistency, Layering and Situational Irony

Blogging The Editing Day #5

In the end, Chapter Four needed more de-clunking than anticipated. Being an early chapter, I also had to make sure the fantastical elements had been set up well enough for the current happenings to make sense.

The next step had me wondering if my changes had created internal inconsistencies. I had the big picture sorted, but what about the little ones? For example, did rearranging the order of those paragraphs lead to a character stubbing out her cigar before she lit it? Did my hero’s strange behaviour still make sense, or had I unwittingly deleted her motivations?

All seemed fine, until it occurred to me that while I’d been focussing on plot, character and world-building, I’d neglected a perfect opportunity to ramp up the scene’s emotion with a touch of situational irony. Not only would it look cool, but it would also help the reader feel my hero’s outrage and disappointment.

Fortunately, it didn’t take much to fit it in. It was as if my subconscious had set it up from the start, but the part of me that’s supposed to be awake took a few months longer to figure it out.

This is something that happens a lot when I’m editing. There are so many things that need to be fixed: character, plot, sub-plots, dialogue, setting, world-building. Unless you’ve been writing for many years, it’s not going to happen in one go. An important touch such as irony can sneak up on you like an afterthought.

In contrast, when reading a well-written book, it feels as if those elements were sorted from the start. Now I wonder how many had been added over time, in much the same way as layers are added to a painting.

Choices, Action, Emotions and The Hero’s Journey

Blogging the Editing: Day #4

5th January 2018

I’m still tweaking the second half of Chapter Four which was overwritten in parts and underwritten in others. I needed a ruthless eye to catch it all, but warning signs appeared in the form of a character thinking about what to do next, choosing from a couple of alternatives, and then going ahead with the best option. This strategy assumes the reader won’t be wanting to take part in the novel, and is another form of telling instead of showing.

Having said that, it’s good that characters have choices open to them because that helps to prevent predictability. However, this is Chapter Four, not Chapter One. By now, my readers know my characters’ motivations, and have a reasonably good understanding of the novel’s world-building. In other words, if they’re paying attention, they can already see there are choices available. If they can’t, then perhaps they’re happy enough go with the flow. Or perhaps those opening chapters are still in need of a bit more editing.

Conclusion: If the writer spells out choices step-by-step before anything happens, where is the mystery?

Of course, there are always exceptions and every scene has different needs. This is what makes writing hard: that fine balance between too much and too little. Heavy brush strokes or light?

Then on to the next problem:

My previous draft had deftly managed to ruin an entire action scene by allowing unnecessary waffle and info dump to intrude. With that gone, the action came alive in the form of a life-threatening encounter that led to my hero being used as a scapegoat. My aim was for my reader to feel my character’s anger alongside her. Without using the words ‘angry’ or ‘anger’. Powerful writing demands that those kinds of emotions are for showing, not telling

Having identified all that, nothing major needed to be done to sort out the rest. I just needed to put myself in my character’s head, see the world as she saw it, and write it all down. Now, I’m confident that my protagonist’s narrative thread is well set up for a whole lot more conflict before her life can improve. Although I didn’t set out to follow The Hero’s Journey step-by-step — nor did I consciously use it — I’m starting to recognise bits of it in my plot. Having watched so many movies and read so much genre fiction, I’m sure I’ve internalised enough of the outline of The Hero’s Journey to be able to draw on it without thinking.

Waffling, De-Clunking and Passive Voice

Blogging the Editing: Day #3

4th January 2018

I only managed to edit half of Chapter Four today because 1) it’s a long one, and 2) I needed to eliminate a good deal of CLUNKINESS.

Chapter Four turned out to be structurally sound with good bones. It works for the way it builds on conflicts that have been set up in Chapters 1-3.  But, oh dear, what lost opportunities for CHARACTERISATION! What was I even thinking when I submitted it to publishers and agents three years ago?

Anyhow, half of Chapter Four has now been tightened, brightened and whipped into shape. Fortunately the dialogue was lively enough to not need more than the odd tweak.

Summary of Problems I sorted out:

  • Too much TELLING in places where SHOWING would elicit emotion.
  • SHOWING where TELLING would work better, because who wants to know the minutiae of every routine action?
  • Too much preamble at the beginning of scenes, also known as WAFFLING.
  • Not knowing when a scene has ended, and weighing it down with unnecessary epilogue — another example of WAFFLING.
  • An excess of repetition, unnecessary words, wrong words, awkward phrasing.
  • PASSIVE VOICE in places where ACTIVE VOICE works better, which is actually most places. Occasionally I use passive voice when I need to vary sentence structure or emphasise an interesting concept, but I make sure it’s pulling its weight before I let it stay.

Gender Pronouns and Overwriting

Blogging the Editing: Day #2

3rd January, 2018

I’ve been dreading revisiting Chapter Three because it was told from a non-human character’s perspective and was about a sudden and unwanted change. I had so much trouble with it when I tinkered with it two years ago, I was convinced I would now have to rewrite the whole damn thing. But it turned out to have good bones [phew], but was horrendously OVERWRITTEN.

Its other problem was due to the character being genderless. It therefore needed to be written without using gender pronouns. I also wanted to avoid using ‘it’,  a word that comes with a long history of objectification. If the character were human, it wouldn’t be so hard, because the SF megatext already has a good selection of genderless pronouns. But for me, even established conventions wouldn’t work because my character was not only genderless, but also completely alien (at least in the opening paragraphs of the chapter). However, as it turned out, my problems weren’t caused by the need for non-human pronouns, but were mostly because I was writing my character the wrong way.

With this in mind, I tightened up the prose by killing 500 words without changing any of the text’s meaning. Yep, definitely overwritten! Then I realised that the chapter was suffering from repetitions of certain words, a common writer’s tic that is usually eliminated before the final proofread. With those sorted, I had a much cleaner palette, and was then able to restructure sentences, choose better words and pay closer attention to one of the novel’s most important elements: characterisation. This not only eliminated the repetitions but also greatly reduced the need for pronouns.

Having said that, I ended up relying on the word ‘it’ a couple of times in the early stages, but as the chapter progresses and the reader begins to understand the true nature of the my non-human character, the need for ‘it’ disappears.


Blogging the Editing: Day #1

It’s been too long since I last blogged, but to be honest, I didn’t have all that much to blog about, apart from living between Australia and Singapore for three years, and now dividing my time between two major Australian cities. Not to say I haven’t been busy on the reading/writing front. I’ve read a book a week over the past couple of years, spent last year judging the Science Fiction Novel category for the Australian Aurealis awards, written a couple of short stories, and written the first draft of new SF novel during last year’s NaNoWriMo. All contributed toward my growth as a writer, but mostly I took a break and took notes as new ideas brewed.

Now I’m at the stage where I want to get things moving proper. My aim this year, is to redraft last year’s NaNoWriMo novel into a workable second draft, while also sorting out yet another major edit on my Steampunk Novel. This latter project has been a bit of an eye opener for me because I haven’t looked at it for two years and now have distance enough to see it for what it is. Warts and All. Unfortunately it has a lot of warts, and my task now is to eliminate them.

In doing so, I’m going to blog my day-to-day experiences of this — a kind of diary to remind me of my writing strengths and weaknesses and how I go about fixing and/or recognising them. If they help me with my next novel, bonus. If they don’t, at least I’ll know which mistakes I’m prone to making, and do my best to not repeat them.

Here’s Day #1 of Draft #Umpteen of my Steampunk Novel:

Getting Those First Chapters to Pull Their Weight

Late last year, I decided I was going to give my steampunk/fantasy/sf novel another good edit because I’m determined to get it as good as it can get, and up to a publishable standard. After not looking at it for two years, wow oh wow, did I find some clunky bits to get rid of! Worse still, I realised that when I did my last rewrite back in 2015, I stupidly cut out an entire scene that had worked really well to get my novel off to a powerful start. So now I’ve returned that scene to its well-earned place. With a little bit more tweaking throughout, I reckon Chapter One is all the better for it.

Then on to Chapter Two only to discover I’d missed a perfect opportunity to weave some important world building and characterisation in with the drama. Not blatantly, mind you. But kind of slant so it doesn’t hit the reader in the face as info dump. Well that’s my intention and at this point I’m confident it works, but I’ll need it to sit for a few weeks before I reread it.

Tomorrow it’s on to chapter 3, a difficult and pivotal chapter that I rewrote several times back in the day.