I Am The King Of The World – or, Following Your Own Rules

130801We can remake the world as we see fit. One of the main joys of writing stories is the ability to rewrite the rules – from giving voice and sensibility to farm animals to reimagining the laws of physics. One minor drawback – we have to follow the new rules we’ve made.

It’s called plausible narrative, or suspension of disbelief, or half a dozen other things, but it all comes down to not losing your reader. Readers love it when a writer comes up with a new take on the world, a subtle or overt twist on reality that allows for all sorts of exciting and impossible possibilities. Strand a boy in a boat with a tiger (Life Of Pi). Have someone go to Nigeria and stick it to the scammers (419). Flatten the world, dose it with everyday magic, and make it look like rural England (the Discworld series). Do whatever the heck you want. Make up any premise, any new rules, go nuts. That’s what creativity is all about.

But it better make sense, down to the last detail.

Aye, there’s the rub. If gravity doesn’t work in your story, don’t have a dropped knife falling down. If the bad guy suddenly breaks down and says he’s sorry at the climax, you’d better have shown some redeeming emotions in him earlier on. Readers catch these things. Readers put books down because of these things. A serious plausibility gaffe can turn a reader off an author forever. So we do not want to do this.

Plausible narratives are built in a few different ways. The first way is through the task of rewriting. Initial drafts are where we build our world, have fun with the new rules, make up the wild, unlikely and interesting combinations of character traits. Rewriting is where we take a sober look at what we’ve done, and ask if it all makes sense. It won’t, but we can fix it. A character’s inexplicable action in chapter 15 can be set up by a few lines about his emotional hot buttons in chapter 3. We can catch many inconsistencies and make them right in retrospect.

First readers are an invaluable resource for catching implausibilities. Quirky rules and situations that we see as fascinating might just be dumb, or hackneyed, or not worthy of the light of day. First readers will catch these for us before the editor or agent inquires after our sanity. Some of our dearest brainchildren need a little reworking in order to prosper. Some premises simply don’t make the cut. Other people have to tell us which is which.

Writing is making stuff up. Rewriting is, in part, making it all make sense. The first part feeds our passion, our wild abandon, our urge to create. The second part is where we cultivate the warm satisfaction of a job well done – both in our own self, and in the reader.

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Published in: on August 17, 2014 at 10:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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Writing Technique – Black Belt Manuscript Editing

samurai-swordWhen you meet twelve reputable agents in one afternoon and they all give you the exact same piece of advice, you kind of have to take notice.

It’s called Agentfest, an incredible afternoon in the middle of the incredible event called Thrillerfest. Three minutes of undivided attention to give an agent your pitch and hear the magic words – “Sounds interesting, send it to me.” Then line up for the next agent and do it again. I spent all morning getting help polishing my pitch with other writers, managed to talk to twelve agents in the afternoon, then slept for twelve hours. I kid you not, it’s an intense time.

I got eight positive responses, requests for partials or the full manuscript of The Night Nurse. An outstandingly successful day, I’d say. But all the agents – every single one of them – told me to take my story from 136,000 words to 100,000 or less.

I said, no problem. Be in touch in a couple of weeks.

Do the math. I needed to cut my story by almost a third. That’s a lot. In story-speak, that’s two and a half characters, ten scenes, or an entire subplot. Holy crap.

One agent, a delightful man named Bob Mecoy, gave me some sage advice. “Take a Sharpie to every line of description,” he said. “Polish what’s left to really bring out the story’s plot, character development, and themes. Then add back in the description that absolutely has to be there.”

Okay, that was good advice. I also found out that vigorous application of standard editing techniques helps, too. Here’s some of them.

How To Cut A Manuscript

Give your story the Mecoy treatment as described above.

Look at all those brilliant, illuminating, scintillating adjectives and pick one of them for the whole sentence or description. Better yet, kill them all in favour of the right verb.

Don’t belabour the point. If a character trait, plot point, or theme has been made once, don’t make it again. If your second mention of the point doesn’t make it grow or take it in a new direction, then out comes the sword.

Is that chunk of character history really necessary? You might love it, but if the reader doesn’t totally need to know about your character’s disturbed past, burn it.

Keep the end in mind. Your story has one overall thrust, one overall direction. Subplots can add colour and pattern to the weave, but if a scene or character takes the story off in a different direction entirely, that’s too much. That’s a distraction. Hit delete.

Each paragraph, each sentence, should move a character or plotline forward. If it doesn’t, it goes.

Give your baby over to someone else. I am lucky enough to be married to a detail-oriented prolific reader and writer with an analytical mind. When she edits my stories she sees everything I cannot. If you know someone who can really see your novel with the eyes of an editor, they will give you a second perspective on what needs to go and what needs to stay.

Getting It In The Bones

Some good stuff is coming out of this process. I can see how most of my cuts are making the story stronger and better. I can also feel that many of these editing tools are becoming ingrained in my thinking. They are becoming a part of the way I naturally write. Which means – hopefully – that novel 2 will be that much better out of the starting blocks.

My interested agents will have a damn good story on their desks soon. I’ll be diving into novel 2 soon, with a sharpened suite of editing tools at my fingertips. I’m pretty sure I’ll also stop writing at 100,000 words or so.

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