Ramping Up Dialogue

Blogging the Editing Day #9

Chapter 7. Scene 2. Hero #1 acts passive when Hero #2 starts telling  lies. Time to have a word with my character…

Me: Hey girl, I know you’ve been through a rough patch but, seriously, are you just going to hang onto Hero #2’s every word and let them get away with saying all that?

Hero #1: Well you wrote it, what else was I supposed to do?

Me: Yeah, sorry. I was too focussed on the scene’s destination and neglected the most important part: The Journey.

Hero #1: Yep, that’s how it feels from this end. But do you know what? Hero #2 can still end up in the same place if you let me tell them what I really think.

Me: You reckon?

Hero #1: Of course. They may be acting like an asshat, but that doesn’t mean they ARE one. After all, they’re going through a rough patch too.

Me: So what do you propose?

Hero #1: Get some sparks flying, physical and metaphorical.

Me: Oooooh, yes please.

Hero #1: Okay, take the bit where they start gaslighting me. I know they don’t see it that way, and dire circumstances have pushed them into clutching at straws, but gaslighting is gaslighting. I need to be more assertive and dish out a satisfying reaction. Check out your writerly toolkit. There’s a perfect reductio ad absurdum just begging to be used. I may well be angry and assertive, but I like to be funny too. Even if it does sound a bit sarcastic. But Hero #2 deserves it. The reader will agree.

Me: That’s sounding better already.

Hero #1: You’re welcome.

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.