Finally, you get to prove what an awesome writer you are!
#3 of the 3 stages of a manuscript – for writers who want to actually finish something – and for readers who want to know why writers are crazy.
In recent conversations with writer friends, I’ve described a working mantra that helps me get over my mental impediments and get a manuscript or short story to THE END.
The mantra is: “Done; Right; Good.”
Sufferers of the of the malady Writophrenia can identify with the symptoms and use this simple remedy to work through it.
In Stage 1, we talked about how to just plow through the work to get the first draft Done without a ton of concerns and no excuses – because if you don’t have a manuscript that’s done, you still only have an idea. Stage 2 is about getting facts, details, and adherence to the rules of your story world Right. If you’ve done those, then you’re at:
Stage 3: Good
You’ve put in a lot of work. You’re chomping at the bit. You’re ready to show the world – or at least yourself – that you really can write. So, what can you – the writer, the artiste – do to polish the manuscript and get it ready for a debut?
Make it Good.
What does “Good” mean?
Two words come to mind when I ask that question: Precise and Authentic. I’ll hit 0n a few aspects of each as examples of how I manage Stage 3 in my own work.
Precision can also be called Economy. Ask: “Am I as the writer saying what needs to be said with the least amount of words necessary?”
This does not mean that every book/story needs to read like a haiku. The word necessary means the least amount of words for your genre, universe, style, characters, etc. – not junked up with a bunch of big words, flowery language, and great side notes and ideas.
Usually at this stage my answer to that question is “No” and I get to fix it. Here are some places to apply Precision.
Shorten the scene setting and descriptions.
I’ll admit this is one from me as a reader. I just don’t have the patience for trying to digest every single detail of every single scene.
As a writer, I don’t have the patience to write it – yet I still tend to have too much. There’s a sense of investment in the story and the world it takes place in that creeps into every chapter. I feel like I did all this research and thought up all this stuff and it should be in the book. And I’m usually wrong about that.
Not quite enough (from the writer’s point of view) is often enough for the reader. They’re smart and they’re recreating the world in their mind. Give them some room to do it.
Shave off extra words.
I’m from Minneapolis and have seen John Sandford, author of the exceptional crime thriller Prey series, speak several times. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with decades of experience, so I was surprised to hear him say that at this stage in his writing he’s learning to do little things like shave off the extra two words from each sentence.
His example: She closed the door behind her. If the narrator described her stepping into her apartment, are the extra two words “behind her” really necessary?
I was amazed by his analysis and it changed my writing. This is something I do now at the Good stage. Sometimes those extra two words are appropriate, but as I read through the manuscript I examine each sentence and delete them where they’re really not needed. It’s less burden for the narrative to carry.
Delete unnecessary or repetitive narrative.
Ugh! I hate this – because this is the step where I realize what a crappy writer I am sometimes. Usually, I’m trying to stay in the head of my narrator and – in a passive way – I’m trying to remind the reader that we’re seeing only what the narrator sees. So I overuse phrases like “I think”; “I see”; “I know”; “I realize” (replace I with he/she for third-person narrative).
When I write the first draft, I try not to worry too much about these bugs because it will slow me down getting to the Done stage. But, God help me, the gnats swarm in the Good stage!
Repeating words in close order become a distraction quickly for the reader and seem lazy to me as a writer. I try to eliminate and rewording them where possible – time to use my vocabulary and my thesaurus!
One other major thing I must look for is setting up and re-setting up a scene, an action, or a conversation. Often I find that I’ve doubled my work and, in Stage 3, must take the chapter apart and trim and combine the duplicate setups or dialog.
Eliminate passive language.
Passive language apologizes for what you’re writing. Stop it! You’re the writer, you have my attention, now get rid of the passive language and get BOLD – say what you intend to say!
One easy way to spot passive language is to look for -ing words: running; saying; reaching. These words always come with an auxiliary verb (I had to look that up) that flatten the power of your narrative: is running; were saying; am reaching.
Which sentence is stronger?
He was running across campus.
He ran across campus.
[By the way: I revised the first sentence in this section because of passive language. Which is stronger?
Original: Passive language is apologizing for writing what you're writing.
Revised: Passive language apologizes for what you're writing.]
Here are 3 variations of another common example – with a hidden -ing word:
I am not going to go to the store.
I am not going to the store.
I won’t go to the store.
Another way to break passive language is to commit to an action or point of view:
He was running across campus as fast he could.
He raced across campus, legs burning with the effort.
The second sentence says “as fast he could” with one word – raced – allowing me to eliminate passive words was, as, and could and add another layer to the experience that connects the reader with the character’s pain (legs burning).
Click here for J.T. Evans’ great and simple system for checking passive language in your writing.
Those are a couple of basic passive language elements to look for. Strong language is yet another skill that comes with a lot of writing and editing practice.
Authenticity is a quality about which most people would say, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” I’ll use the same cop-out because I don’t have time to sit and contemplate a definition.
Your readers know when Authenticity is missing but they usually can’t say why. Prospective agents and editors, because of their experience, can spot Authenticity (or lack of it) immediately – like in the first sentence of a manuscript. So, being “real” on the page is a crucial part of knowing the craft of writing. To achieve Authenticity in your writing, you can:
Ask: Would this character say/do that?
Uncharacteristic actions and words clutter the relationship your reader has with the characters you’re presenting. When a reader has to work hard to figure out what a character is saying/doing and why, the magic of the reading experience is broken.
You owe it to your reader – and your characters – to be consistent within the story and not take cheap shortcuts to advance plot or elicit phony connections. The harder work is making sure that everything gels naturally. That’s your job as the writer.
Punch up the dialog.
Observe the shorthand people use when they talk in real life (NOT ON TV!). Go to the mall or the grocery store and listen. Evesdrop on one side of someone’s cell phone conversation. People don’t often talk in complete sentences with perfect grammar. Even so, they understand what the other is saying, don’t they?
One thing I see in a lot of new writers is very stiff and correct dialog that in no way represents the way their characters would actually talk. It sounds more like a grammar textbook than a novel. There are lot of places in our writing where we must walk the line between being realistic and being clear – dialog, in my experience, is the un-engaged battlefield.
Good dialog that says just enough between people to advance the story and keep it moving (pace) is GOLDEN. Learn how to use it well – and by that I mean listen, listen, listen; write, write, write; edit, edit, edit!
[Note: Be careful about realism. One problem I tend to have when trying to be realistic, for example, is too much "Um ..." "Uh ..." and lots of repetition. People really do talk that way, but I need to get the flavor of realism without slowing the dialog down and sludging up the pace of the story.]
Dedicate to a Point of View.
A major part of Authenticity is choosing a Point of View for your story and sticking with it. This is also an issue of passivity – being afraid to choose the narrator’s and characters’ attitudes, their ways of expressing themselves, and how they experience the world.
How to choose a point of view? Ask what your character/narrator wants. If you and your character/narrator want different things to come of the story/situation/scene then you’ll have to adjust one or the other.
I honestly believe that trying to negotiate and meet in the middle is a huge mistake because what ends up on the page is a mishmash of (at least) two different people’s points of view – the character/narrator’s and the author’s – and neither is entirely clear or fully developed.
A lot of new writers I’ve read have this identity crisis with point of view. They have an opinion they want to get across through their characters and story and don’t make room for the surprise of a character speaking for themselves. Some people who write for years without success have the same problem – sticking to the writer’s point of view rather than investing in and expressing the unique experience of the character. This is sometimes called “editorializing”.
My best advice – developed through years of experience – is that if your character/narrator and you disagree on what to say and how to say it – GO WITH THE CHARACTER/NARRATOR. Believe it or not, this is a person trying to express themselves.
Point of view is the first layer of Authenticity in a story and it’s what agents, editors, and readers crave.
Develop your Authentic Voice.
Authenticity also includes your Authentic Voice. I won’t go deeply into Voice here because I’ll post about it later – it’s a crucial element for writers who want to succeed. And it’s something that typically only comes through hard work over a long period of time. I’ll just say here that “being yourself” on the page is something to consider in Stage 3: Good. It’s also something that comes naturally to the page once you develop it. Look for more on Authentic Voice later.
Keep working at it!
One pass through Stage 3 won’t be enough for new writers. Good may take several drafts. Get used to the idea that in the early days you’ll work your manuscripts over multiple times. What you’re really doing, Daniel-san, is making these elements more automatic so you can unleash your inner power and unique expression.
This is the phase where you work, work, work and learn, learn, learn. A frustrating feature of this stage is that you think you’re finished and that all this editing is cramping your creativity. I’ve been there – still am there sometimes! But I try to keep in mind that there is a lot of work to honing one’s craft.
It’s not the reader’s job to meet the writer halfway in their development. If one truly wants to connect with readers on a deep level – that is, to be an Author – then the writer is the one obligated to learn the craft.
Next week, the writophrenia clinic continues with a discussion on Authentic Voice. Come on back for coffee and day-old donuts.
Now, here’s the cheese on this Brain Burger.
3 simple joys of a Good manuscript:
- You can tell your high school composition teacher to suck it! (But not to their face, because you might still get detention.)
- You can take a day off from writing and do something – if you still remember how to have fun.
- Rereading a passage or two that you especially like but that no one else will ever notice.
SPREAD THE CONSPIRACY – GET “THE DELPHI DECEPTION: BOOK II OF THE DELPHI TRILOGY” NOW!