I often get asked to read other people's stories, especially lately. People want comments on their stories and advice on how to improve them with editing. And, editing fiction is a must! It's a good idea to get opinion on your writing or criticism to improve it. Sometimes the feedback is nice and inspires the author to write more, sometimes it's harsh and inspires the writer to improve; these are all good things.
But, I seem to find myself saying the same thing over and over again to different people. So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to write up a guide listing the methods that I use, which may help them.
One very important thing to remember is that preference comes into editing. There aren’t many fiction rules that can’t be broken. There is never a right or wrong answer, only opinion. The popular opinions are what lead to getting published, or having a successful book, but remember that like language, editing changes. So, right now what I am posting is my opinion, and the current opinion on editing. It’s a popular style right now.
So, if you are aiming to write a popular fiction that will be attractive to readers and therefore publishers, here are some good places to start editing your story:
Look at the beginning of your novel. I mean, really look at it. What does the first line describe? It should describe your main character as their life begins to get interesting. But if it describes any of the following, you probably need to rewrite it:
• The weather – No reader gives a shit if it’s raining or not. They want to read about your character doing exciting things. So, unless your book is about the weather, don't start it with the weather!
• A dream – No reader wants to read about a dream or a vision. It’s as boring as hearing someone tell you their dreams.
• A thousand years before the story – This is backstory, and no reader gives a damn about backstory. Only the author cares about it. Save this for your blog or a prequel. It’s a different story!
• A misused prologue – Prologues are often used to describe fantasy or science fiction worlds; to provide extraneous information that the reader may or may not bother reading. Too many authors call chapter one a prologue when it isn’t one! Also prologues are backstory in disguise. Avoid like the plague!
• A day in the life of my character – Nooooo! It’s boring! Readers don’t want to read about your character as they have a shower, shave and a shit! They want to read about when their life gets interesting. Preparing for work, school, a party, or doing anything in a daily life kind of way is the dullest beginning to a book ever. It doesn't provide deep insight into your character. It just bores your readers! The story begins when the character encounters the main conflict or hints of it. Delete all the chapters before then because they are backstory.
Here is an example of what you need to do with the first words in your book:
• Introduce the main character.
• Hint at the main conflict.
• Make it active. (eg: no passive sentences, and no backstory!).
So that’s the beginning of a novel; what to write and what to avoid.
Showing vs. Telling
Why do people bang on about this, and what is it? Well, in the simplest terms; it’s the author killing off the narrator and letting the characters ‘show’ the story. The narrator ‘tells’ a story, and the characters ‘show’ a story. ‘But why is telling bad?’ you may ask. Well, it all comes down to the reader experience.
Imagine a good book is a movie playing in your head. A lot of readers experience reading in this way. If the narrator ‘tells’ them the story then they are placed in a boring white room while being told a story. That doesn’t sound very exciting does it? That’s because it isn’t exciting, at all. It’s boring as hell, and also why many books lose their readers.
But, if the characters ‘show’ the story then the reader is inside the movie. They are pulled into the action; feeling the emotion, smelling the roses and fighting the dragons. They feel the blood, sweat and tears in your story, and their heart jumps when the hero and heroine kiss for the first time. This is how to make a story enjoyable for the reader, by showing it through the character's eyes.
You are the narrator, so if you try to tell a reader anything, it’s a dull version of your story compared to what your characters can show them.
Another way to look at it is with grammar rules: Adverbs, adjectives, passive sentences; these are all telling. Passive sentences often have ‘was’ and ‘by’ in them. Here’s an example:
“Cory walked into the bank and was held up by a bank robber.” <-- This is so beyond boring!
“Cory walked through the doors of the City Bank hoping his wages were in. If the landlord doesn’t get paid today I’m fucke—. His mind went blank when he found himself staring down the barrel of a shotgun. ‘Get down on the floor,’ the masked robber bellowed, and Cory froze in terror.” <-- This is so much more exciting!
So, that is why it is better to show rather than tell.
*This is not to be confused with first person
narrative, which reads like a lame ass diary to me, and I absolutely
despise. My personal preference is limited third person narrative; third
person narrative that is limited to the view of the characters. But on
narratives, it's a choice of the writer. Some writers can create amazing first person narratives or even epistolary novels, but not many.
Adjectives and Adverbs
Every time you use an adjective or an adverb, a puppy dies! Okay, perhaps not. But adjectives and adverbs are bad if you overuse them in your story because they are telling. Here’s an example:
"Don't walk away from me," he whispered softly. <-- Adverb = boring to read and really doesn’t do anything for the scene.
"Don't walk away from me," he whispered in a low voice. Menace darkened his eyes as he raised the gun. <-- Showing it instead = exciting to read, and I can tell the character is angry and threatening someone with a gun. So much more information is available about emotion and action from this method.
Sure, there are times when the adverb is needed. Sometimes the sentence is long, and you just want it to come to an end. Or maybe the scene isn’t very important, and it’s a simple one liner that you don’t want to evoke emotion in the reader. In these situations the adverbs and adjectives have their uses, but use them sparingly. There’s nothing worse than a novel with an adverb on every other line!
Adverbs are a crutch; safe words for writers to rest their heads on instead of working on a sentence, so it is active and exciting. It’s a shortcut to the meaning of the sentence, and—like most shortcuts—it creates a low quality product. Avoid the shortcut, and get into your character’s head, instead.
Adverbs are rife in dialogue in most books and again, for the same reasons listed above, they make some god awful sentences.
But even the innocent 'he said' can be overused. So, when it comes to any dialogue tags, less is more. A dialogue tag has one purpose and only one: To indicate who is speaking. That's it. If it's obvious who is speaking as there are only two people in the room then don't use the dialogue tag more than once. Often in dialogue there is only a need to mention the speaker in a tag once.
What new writers often do is try to use the dialogue tag to describe the scene, and this it where it all gets crappy to read. 'He said dryly.' -- no, no, no, no. It's not a dialogue, it's an expression of emotion, so express it! 'He flashed a dry smile and lit a cigarette.' <-- it's an action. Stop being lazy, and describe it!
So, that long list of dialogue tags you have stored on your desktop (yes, I know about that.) Delete it and think more about the action. Sure, there can be a tone of voice, but actions describe emotion a lot more effectively than some crappy adverb ever will.
Overall you want to provide your reader with a story that is both exciting to read and accessible. Everything you do during editing is about making the story easy to access. Confusing sentences should be smoothed out, main conflicts should be driven in every chapter, and characters should be showing the events through thoughts, dialogue and action. This is all so that the reader can access the story easily and enjoy it.
Reading a book should not be hard work, but writing one is! Embrace editing, and replace those shitty sentences with a truly addictive story.
Hopefully this helps.