Focus on those Nitty Gritty Details

I hope you’re following Dory’s advice and staying persistent… just keep swimming (writing)!

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed yet, but editing really is my favorite part of the creative writing process. I know I might be alone in this, and that’s ok. My goal this week was to help you see that editing is not as hard as it seems… it just takes patience, persistence, and motivation. Today I want to leave you with some ideas to help you edit on a very detailed level. Beware, those faint of heart and annoyed by long posts, as this just might be my longest ever.

Timeline

Set up a timeline for editing your book. Do you want to finish editing a chapter a day? Whatever it is, make a pact with yourself to go through your draft once only. Be determined to catch every mistake the first time through. This will keep you focused and efficient.

Give yourself a break if life gets in the way of your editing timeline, too. There is nothing worse than feeling guilty about not working, and worse yet, the more upset you are with yourself about not working, the more your guilt will build. To the point that you won’t want to edit. Always, always, always avoid feeling like you don’t want to touch your work.

Editing the Beginning

This is by far the hardest and most frustrating part of the book to edit, it seems. Therefore, I’m going to apply this week’s editing tips to the introduction of my first book. That way you can see an example of how I’m thinking, and hopefully find similarities in your own work to know how to edit.

I started my first book, Catching the Rose, with narrative description because I read classics when younger and that’s what I was used to. It never occurred to me that reader preferences would change in 100+ years.

Silly me. Today’s readers expect to begin with action, whether by/to the main character or by/to a character who will affect the main character later. So let’s see an example of what my first paragraphs were, and what they would be if I were writing the book now.

As the morning sun ascended slumbering Richmond, a small bird crooned. Its song echoed in the winding, empty streets and alleys to land in the ears of a dog who sleepily snarled. Waiting for employment, the hose whickered at the dog who yipped in reply. The horse shoock his head from a persisting fly, which sailed from the threat and chanced upon an appealing rose.

It was on this solitary morning that a rose petal fell. It is not known whether the petal happened to be dropped by a hand, or whether it fell by the properties of gravity. But it is safe to say it began this story.

As the town began the morning regimen, windows awoke to the new day. The sun glided across a brown brick house, highlighting wear and tear. “Mrs. Beaumont’s,” the gold-plated plaque beside the large door read. The house was tall and wide, a mixture of town house and country mansion. The bay window, situated in what one might assume belonged to the parlor, energetically flung open its curtains.

Pure description, right? It’s not bad, but it’s not action-filled. I’d love to know how many of you are wondering, “When do we meet actual people? Where’s the main character?” It’s ok. You can tell me. I wrote this as a teenager and I’ve learned to accept criticism after five years and an English minor, I hope.

What’s wrong with it? There are three paragraphs and not one of them told you to keep reading. How do we make sure the reader wants and needs to keep reading? We throw something at them. Something unexpected, which makes them laugh, or gasp, or feel curious.

Let’s jump five pages into the book. This is a more appropriate beginning, but it still isn’t good enough.

Sighing, a young woman in a blue bonnet was yet again distracted from her book. The train was full of rowdy, chattering young men and women, all orbiting around the same tired subject: war. It was all anyone spoke of: war between the states, war between households, war between brothers. This war had chased her south. Squinting against the dimmed glare of the morning sun, the blue bonnet wished the train would move more quickly–she tired of this talk.

She slid the novel into her traveling valise. The air was hot and sticky, for windows did not open thanks to the soot spewed from the smokestack. Wondering what she could do to occupy her mind, the blue bonnet fingered the pressed petal her cousin had dropped into her hand the day of her departure. As the noise rose and abruptly dropped, the blue bonnet, hoping the returning trip would not be as worrisome, rolled her eyes and stared out the soot-stained window.

Still a very heavy two paragraphs, bogged down with narration and exposition. Let’s free Miss Blue Bonnet, shall we?

First of all, beginning a sentence with a verb ending in “-ing” (a.k.a. a gerund verb) is one of the weakest ways to begin a sentence. Why? Because we have the action without the noun associated with it yet. Who is sighing?

But there is something good about starting with Miss Blue Bonnet sighing… we want to know why she sighs. And while I’m talking about it, why haven’t I given Miss Blue Bonnet a real name yet? Give your characters a name, unless they’re part of a murder mystery where they die in the first couple of pages.

Scratch that. You might as well give the character a name so your reader doesn’t get confused. Or something distinctive about the character and refer to them according to that distinctive trait.

I also rely on adverbs to describe my verbs, rather than choosing a stronger, self-descriptive verb. Bad, Belinda, bad.

Each paragraph is four and five sentences long. Too much for an introduction, which should be punchy, if not with action, at least with writing style.

Let’s move on. The most important sentence in this entire introduction is buried in the first paragraph. Can you find it? This war had chased her south.

Why is this the most important? Because it gives us a reason to keep reading. Why did the war chase her south? Wouldn’t it, if anything, have chased her north? Is she a southerner running south? What is she running from? Most importantly, what is she running to?

The second paragraph, except for the second sentence, is all telling. We don’t need to tell the reader Miss B lue Bonnet wishes the train would move more quickly; this is the perfect opportunity to show her reactions to the shouting voices around her. So how would I change it? Let’s see what my re-write does.

Critique me in the comments section with the tips you’ve learned this week to enter the free Worderella critique contest. What would you do differently? If you’re curious, submit your first 50 words (ending with a full sentence) and we’ll all help critique it.

The young woman in the blue poke bonnet rolled her neck, popping free of an hours-long kink. She sat alone at the back of the packed, rocking train carriage. She gripped the edge of her seat with her gloved hand to stay upright. The other hand held a slim novel, whose pages she turned with a practiced flick of her thumb.

“You going south, too, brother?” One of the men at the front of the carriage shouted. His accent was thick and slow and lyrical, proud of its southern roots.

The young woman, named Amy Williams, flinched.

“Course!” Another man said. “Gotta join up, show those Yanks what’s what!”

The carriage roared with the shouts of forty men and women competing with the train’s piercing whistle.

Amy pressed her lips together into a grim line, snapping her book shut. War. What a tired subject. It was all anyone spoke of: war between the states, war between households, war between brothers.

This war had chased her south.

Thank you for participating this week. Come back next Tuesday to find out who won a free Worderella critique!

Links to reference: The only general writing advice you will ever need

This five part series is my participation in Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:

  1. Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
  2. Tuesday: Be brutally honest
  3. Wednesday: Show me, don’t tell me
  4. Thursday: Tell me, don’t show me
  5. Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details

Read more for details about winning a free Worderella critique at the end of this week!

9 thoughts on “Focus on those Nitty Gritty Details

  1. Great workshops all week!

    Also, I forget when you posted it, but your post about villains really helped me. Last night I wrote a new scene where I focused in on my villain and made him more villain-y. It's a good thing, becuase so far, he was kind of namby-pamby.

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  2. Great workshops all week!
    Also, I forget when you posted it, but your post about villains really helped me. Last night I wrote a new scene where I focused in on my villain and made him more villain-y. It’s a good thing, becuase so far, he was kind of namby-pamby.

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  3. Good! I never used to make my villains very villainous until this WIP, so I thought writing about the things I kept in mind would help other writers, too. So I'm glad it helped you. 🙂

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  4. Good! I never used to make my villains very villainous until this WIP, so I thought writing about the things I kept in mind would help other writers, too. So I’m glad it helped you. 🙂

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  5. I'm in the process of setting up a timeline/editing to-do list for my WIP so this topic (and all your workshops) have been very timely and helpful to me. Thank you!

    I loved your re-write, especially the last 2 paragraphs. They moved the action and gave a wonderful picture of Amy and her views. I could literally see and feel her sitting primly (at least in my head) while snapping that book shut.

    I was wondering (this is so minor) about the decision to hold off on mentioning her name. About mid-way you use the phrase 'named Amy Williams' which jarred me out of the scene (your opening had me on that train till then – great job pulling me in as a reader). Maybe using her name in the first sentence could avoid the phrase and help the reader immediately hone in on the main character. For example,

    Amy Williams adjusted her blue poke bonnet as she rolled her neck, popping free an hours-long kink.

    The phrase 'young woman' could replace the 'she' in the second sentence to get that detail in.

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  6. I’m in the process of setting up a timeline/editing to-do list for my WIP so this topic (and all your workshops) have been very timely and helpful to me. Thank you!

    I loved your re-write, especially the last 2 paragraphs. They moved the action and gave a wonderful picture of Amy and her views. I could literally see and feel her sitting primly (at least in my head) while snapping that book shut.

    I was wondering (this is so minor) about the decision to hold off on mentioning her name. About mid-way you use the phrase ‘named Amy Williams’ which jarred me out of the scene (your opening had me on that train till then – great job pulling me in as a reader). Maybe using her name in the first sentence could avoid the phrase and help the reader immediately hone in on the main character. For example,

    Amy Williams adjusted her blue poke bonnet as she rolled her neck, popping free an hours-long kink.

    The phrase ‘young woman’ could replace the ‘she’ in the second sentence to get that detail in.

    Like

  7. Shannon – I'm glad to help. And thank you about the re-write. Your point about mentioning her name earlier is very valid and a change that should occur in edits, for sure. Good job!

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  8. Shannon – I’m glad to help. And thank you about the re-write. Your point about mentioning her name earlier is very valid and a change that should occur in edits, for sure. Good job!

    Like

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