Creating imaginary worlds filled with whatever weirdness your thinking noodle cooks up is, at it’s root (if you’re doing it correctly) fun. Sure, sometimes it’s hard forcing yourself into the chair to put words to paper, but once you’re in the flow and ideas start plopping out of your word-hole, the act of writing becomes a fairly fun activity.
Some people write because they have a syphilitic story-burn in their nether regions. They have a story chewing at their insides, begging to be loosed upon the world. If they don’t somehow manage to expel said story, it will literally consume them. Or so that’s how they feel.
Personally, I’m not one of those writers. I don’t have a Magnum Opus roiling about inside me. Nothing clamoring to crawl out of me. I just love stories. Whether it’s telling my own, or losing myself in somebody else’s, there is nothing in this world I enjoy more than a good story.
So when it comes to writing, sitting down and churning out a first draft ain’t no thang but a chicken wang (<– obligatory peculiar phrase for the day). Unfortunately, first draft’s are rarely any good. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that 99% of first drafts are abominations which is why most are thrown into a hyena pit and left for dead.
Which is too bad. Who knows how many great stories the world has been denied simply because the author didn’t sit down and do that most painful of steps: Edits.
I can’t remember who said it, but this gets to the gist of it:
Great Writers Are Great Rewriters.
Editing sucks, not least because it means descending into the literary depths of our current Masterpiece of shi—and absolutely eviscerating it, but because most of people simply don’t know where to begin in the editing process.
Literary gold awaits you down there…and bats. Definitely bats.
You’ve spent days, weeks, months, years, perhaps even decades, getting that first draft out. The words are one jumbled mess sprawled across hundreds of pages and you simply don’t know where to begin. Figuring out where to begin can be so difficult that most people simply give up. Of those people who stick it out, I’m afraid that a vast majority of them go about the editing process in the least efficient way conceivable.
What I see most often are writers diving back into their first drafts without any clear path or course of action. They read the story from beginning to end correcting commas and unruly apostrophes, minor word changes and occasionally editing a sentence for clarity. By the time they reach the end they’ll have done a significant amount of work, but none of it productive.
This is important, so it bares (bears? Someone help, homonyms are hard) repeating: They are doing a significant amount of work, but none of it productive.
Let’s use an analogy:
You’re driving along Highway 1 in your Miata. The top is down and your flowing mane of hair is blowing along with the ocean breeze. It’s a beautiful day: the sun is shining, birds are chirping, you have a little Jason Mraz blaring through the speakers. But then the unthinkable happens, the engine starts sputtering. The chassis shakes uncontrollably and now smoke is billowing out through the hood.
You pull over, because while you don’t know much about cars, you know smoke is bad. Besides, it totally smells bad and is stinging your eyeballs.
Now you’re on the side of the road, poor Miata refuses to go any further. You pop the hood and take a look inside, but your car know-how ends somewhere between “put gas in gas hole when Empty light comes on” and “smoke is bad”. You’re looking at the overheated engine, but you don’t have a clue what’s wrong or where to begin.
So what do you do?
Depends on what sort of person you are. Maybe you grab a chamois and Armor-All and start buffing your car’s paint. Maybe you pour some oil in the oil-hole while pretending to be Zorro with the dipstick. Hell, maybe you get the car jack out and change one of the tires.
Now, perhaps your tires are bald and it really is time to change them. But has your engine suddenly picked up a smoking addiction on account of a flat tire? Probably not.
But this is what I see writers doing with their manuscripts all the time. They start fixing random things that probably do need to be fixed, but aren’t the main priority.
Case in point: there is little to be gained by giving your Miata a car wash if you never manage to get it running again.
I’ve dragged this analogy out too long, let’s get concrete.
How To Be More Effective With Your Edits
Before you can engage in any sort of meaningful edits, you have to diagnose your stories problems. After finishing your first draft, put it aside for a couple weeks to gain time, distance, independence, a modicum of sanity and perspective.
After a suitable cooling down period, return to the manuscript and read that sucker from beginning to end as quickly as possible. On this read through you’re trying to cram the whole story into your brain at the same time and see if it actually makes sense, noting the really big changes it’s going to need along the way.
For instance, by the end of this read through you might have taken a handful of notes that look like this:
-Billy Jean needs more characterization
-Suzy’s sex change isn’t foreshadowed enough
-Joey chapters make me want to gouge my eyeballs out with dull pencils
-Archibald’s stripper-for-hire subplot doesn’t really fit with this Young Adult book
Notice these are pretty big/general changes. You can’t just go to page 134 and fix the problem. For most of these you’ll have to sprinkle new scenes and details across the entirety of the book like the Fairy Godmother of Diabetes with powdered sugar.
You have these really big issues you need to work out, right? Good, before working them out. Read the book again, this time slowly and critically. Note the places where you could squeeze more characterization in. Circle the places to cut out Archi’s stripping career.
The goal of this second read is not to add new material. It’s to refine your plan of attack so that your editing on the third read through can be as surgical as possible.
Identify the BIG/GENERAL problems your story faces before worrying about the little things like sentence structure, language, and grammar.
Because it’s a waste of time to make sentences sparkle if they are only going to be cut later on (as is the case with Archibald for example). Save yourself time and energy by locating your stories big problems first and then whittle them down.
In my own writing I keep track of all the editing I need to do in a journal with three columns. One for big changes, medium changes, and small changes. Always tackle the big changes first. Here’s an example from my journal to give you an idea:
All that, by the way, is for a 30,000 word Novella. Which goes to show that your work is only just beginning after you’ve completed the first draft.
Once you’ve diagnosed your story problems, pick them off one by one, starting at the top and moving your way down. The nice thing about this method is that as you get deeper into the edits, the easier the fixes become. It adds a sense of progress and direction that might otherwise be lacking.
After crossing everything off your list, go for another read thru and create ANOTHER list. This time paying attention to whether or not your original fixes actually work. Sometimes by trying to fix a problem you make it worse, sometimes you don’t go quite far enough and you need to slap a little more duct tape on there.
Whatever the case may be, you need to keep repeating this process until YOU as the author can no longer find any glaringly obvious problems. Then comes the painful part: Send it to your beta readers and editor. Get as many sets of eyeballs on your story as possible.
You’ll be surprised by just how much you missed. Don’t feel bad about that, it’s part of the process. We all do it. Take the feedback from your readers/editor, ignore the stuff you don’t agree with, and dive back in for another round of edits.
This is your structural edit and it is, by far, the most difficult part of the editing process. But once you get all the cogs in place and the engine turning over, it’s smooth sailing. All that’s left is a nice little polish.
For this, I go through, reading each and every sentence very, very carefully, paying attention for word usage, clarity, and originality.
Clarity is obvious, right? Make sure the sentence is saying what you intend for it to say.
Originality is obvious, too, but it’s hard to be… objective and honest with yourself. We all know to avoid cliches, right? Of course. But what’s even more insidious are personal turns of phrases that we subconsciously fall back on. For me, I love using the phrase “Hugged him like a baby koala.”
You’d be surprised how often I find an opportunity to throw that sentence into my works. Problem is I’ve used it in one of my stories and it’s a memorable enough line that if I ever use it again the astute reader will call foul.
I know this because my beta reader caught me trying to sneak my baby koala sentence into Mind Breach. Whoops.
Word usage is tricky and comes down to personal preference. In my fiction I hate using the same word multiple times in the same paragraph. In fact, I go so far as to avoid using the same word multiple times on the same page.
Why? Because it draws attention to itself and pulls the reader out of the story.
By the way, I’m not just talking about big show-offy words like indubitably or inexorably, which we all know to avoid overusing. I’m talking about really simple shit like:
“Bob walked over to the table where Kate sat reading her newspaper. She looked up from her newspaper and scowled. Bob circled the table before taking a seat. A bowl sitting on top of the table jangled as he sat spilling milk onto the newspaper in front of Bob.”
I’m being really obvious with the words I’m trying to overuse here, but the thing is, I’m not really exaggerating. This type of paragraph crops up all the time in new writer’s fiction. I hate it and you should hate it.
Avoid it like the plague.
Use your word processors Find Keyword function and whenever you notice certain words cropping up more than seems natural, search it out and annihilate it.
If you could only do one exercise before releasing your Kraken’esque manuscript into the world, it would be this: Read it Out Loud.
Everybody should do this at least once with their draft, perhaps even twice if you’re anal like me. Reading the words out loud lets our ears pick up on things that our mind would have otherwise glossed over. Stilted dialog stands out like a sore thumb and wandering exposition slaps you in the face like a wet towel.
Doesn’t that sound like a hoot? Sure does, now go do it.
At the very end of my editing process, I go through and use that Find Keyword functionality to search out this list of commonly overused words. I look at each instance of the word and decide on an individual basis whether or not the word actually needs to be there. If so, fine. If not?
Here’s the list I use:
Cause, As, Was, However, Though, Actually, Really, Likely, Of Course, As Well, Perhaps, Probably, There is, Always, Almost, Entire, Very, Quite, Already, Surely, Certainly, Obviously, Just, Maybe, Stuff, Things, Got, Seemed, But, Like
Cutting out the majority of these words will make your prose tighter. Tight prose = good prose.
A’ight, Folks. That’s all I got for you. Before you leave, waddle on over to the comments and tell me about your own editing process. I love contrasting and comparing different styles!
The websites been live for nearly 24 hours and hasn’t exploded in a demonstrative fireball–yet–so things seem to be off on a good foot. There’s a problem with the PIXEL’s review post not opening, but besides that there are only a couple bugs and most of those revolve around the Mobile site.
As a society, I don’t think we take enough time to adequately marvel at things doing their jobs. We rarely think about bridges that don’t fall down, or buildings that don’t collapse. And rightly so, if we expected those things to occur on a regular basis, than this would be one crazy-daisy place to call home. But since they do do (hehe, doo-doo) their jobs, they rarely get the recognition they deserve.
I bring this up because the fact that this website hasn’t imploded beneath its own weight is truly astounding to me. Mostly on account of the fact that I constructed this site with little more than paper machete and toothpicks.
No seriously, lean a bit closer and you’ll see it’s all smoke, mirrors, and a lot of toothpicks.
Anyways, since you’ve been a brave soul and stepped into my digital domain despite the leaky roof and creaking support beams, I want to reward you with a little something-something.
If you’ve already cruised around the website a bit you’ll have stumbled upon it, but in case you missed it I want to take a moment to share with you all the cover for Mind Breach, Firstborn Saga Book Two (AKA the sequel to Time Heist).
Special thanks goes out to Jeff Brown who did an absolutely phenomenal job on this cover. Needless to say I’m really excited to hold this one in print!
Mind Breach will be available for pre-order on Amazon in the coming months in anticipation for a November release date. If you’re interested in getting an Advanced Reader Copy, sign up for my Newsletter and you’ll be added to the list of peeps eligible to get their hands on a copy before the rest of the slathering masses.
Every great journey begins with a single step forward. Where your story is concerned, that first step is absolutely, without question, the most important one. Doesn’t matter how fantastic the rest of the book is, if the first few sentences don’t compel the reader into the next paragraph, and that paragraph doesn’t force them to finish the first chapter, then you’re sunk right out the gate.
Your opening line is the front line. It’s your readers first interaction with the story and everything, and I do mean everything, depends on those first few lines doing their job.
But it’s not just a matter of starting the story with whizz-bang-boom in the first few sentences and then resting on your laurels. That next paragraph has to latch onto your reader by the scruff of the neck like a rabid Daschund. The paragraph after that must add another meanie-weenie dog. The one after that? You guessed it. Another ferocious ankle biting fur-ball.
Ferocious and Delicious.
The first chapter of your story needs to heap puppy after puppy on the reader until they are crushed beneath the dog pile and couldn’t walk away even if they wanted to.
When it comes to opening your story, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and we’re playing for keeps. By the way, what’s up with all these dog metaphors? Hm… we’ll get to the bottom of that later, for now, let’s focus on what really matters: Writing beginnings that rock! Or, barring that, let’s at least write something that doesn’t completely suck.
Onwards and upwards as they say!
Okay, so now we grasp the importance of a great opening, but what does that even mean? What does a great opening look like?
When done properly, we barely notice a great opening. You know why? Because we are so enthralled that we don’t even stop to consider the fact that we’ve fallen headfirst into this majestic world of centaurs and jello fueled jetpacks until we come up for our first huge mouthful of air which, depending on how strong your opening is, could be hours later.
So what does a good opening need? I’m glad you asked, please refer to the handy-dandy list I’ve compiled down below:
What Every Good Beginning Needs
1) Hook the Reader
Hooking the reader can be done in all sorts of ways. Maybe there’s something really compelling about your character. Does he/she have a unique voice? A weird perspective on the world that immediately clashes with our own? If you’re from a more literary bent, then the language itself could be the hook. Read some Patrick Rothfuss and right off the bat you’re hooked by the sheer beauty of language.
Quick note: Not everybody can pull off this sort of opening. Nine times out of ten I’d say people fail because they come off as flowery and pompous. You don’t want to be that guy, so tread carefully.
Inevitably, whether you have a compelling character or beautiful language, the beginning comes down to the hook. The reason why the reader should invest their time in your story.
Most books do this with a question. Will Mary figure out who put the Butcher’s head in her freezer? Will she figure out whether or not she thinks it’s kind of sweet and romantic or a little too forward and a bit creepy?
Most books get put down because the reader is bored. They aren’t compelled forward; they aren’t hooked. If that happens, you have nobody to blame but yourself.
2) Establish Bond With Lead Character
Right off the bat we want to know who’s skin we’re going to be living inside for the next couple hundred pages. Introduce us to your lead character and then make us feel something for her. Do it quick, you’ve only got a hundred or so words to really grab me and yank me in. Don’t waste time.
Refer to the post Cheating Your Way to Likable Characters for ways to establish this bond. Here’s a quick list for you lazy SOB’s out there.
Don’t know what any of that means? Too bad, go read that other post.
3) Present the Story-world
This doesn’t mean info-dump or take a paragraph to describe the skyline and the underlying political system governing your little world. In the beginning every word counts double, so figure out ways to introduce the story-world without taking a step sideways to draw attention to the fact that you’re introducing us to the story-world.
I’ve done other post on exposition and infodumping (CLICK HERE and I’ll prove it), but here’s the nitty gritty to help you navigate the treacherous waters of your beginning.
Act First, Explain Later: I’m not going to stop and explain why Daryl is about to shoot Wesley in the kneecap. I’m gonna do it, and you’re gonna trust that it’ll all make sense in the near future.
Comprende? Bueno. Now get over here Wes, Daryl’s got something for you.
Iceberg Explanation: Give us only 20 percent of what you think we need. Leave the rest underwater.
Information Inside Confrontation: Whenever possible use confrontation, or interaction with another human, to sprinkle information and propel the story forward.
The gun bucked in Daryl’s hand harder than he expected. “That’s for fucking my wife.”
Wesley whimpered on the blistering plasticene sidewalk, clutching his gut. “I didn’t—”
Daryl didn’t have time for more lies. He took aim at the space between Wesley’s eyes and fired a second time.
Notice a couple things. We jump straight into the action without introductions or back-story. Daryl thinks Wes slept with his wife, so there’s his motivation conveniently dispensed in the form of dialogue rather than some kind of internal monologue.
Is Daryl justified in his actions or is he a jealous asshole? Don’t know. Is he even our point-of-view character? Maybe. Maybe not.
For instance, perhaps he has his wife tied up in the back of the car and he’s gonna kill her next. Maybe she’s our main character and has to get away from her insane husband. Then again, maybe we find out she’s been cheating on him for decades and Daryl just learned none of his three children are actually his. Now we can at least sympathize with his anger.
Either way, at this point, we don’t know, but hopefully we’re intrigued enough to find out.
What’s a plasticene sidewalk by the way? Shrug. Not a clue. That’s just a bit of world building to give you an idea that this storyworld isn’t exactly like our own world.
Also, that very first sentence “the gun bucked harder than expected” gives us some idea that Daryl probably hasn’t fired very many guns in his lifetime. So where did he get this weapon? Did he buy it from a crack addict on the corner of 28th and MLK? Possibly.
I guess we’ll just have to read on to find out, huh?
4) Establish Tone
The above example is sort of morbid, huh? It has the sort of grit that would play well in a detective noir or mystery/thriller piece. Which is going to be awfully disappointing if the story you’re telling is supposed to be humorous or a romantic comedy. You need to set the mood immediately, give the readers no doubt as to what sort of story they are reading.
Seriously, don’t get cute and write a super-gnarly murder scene only to undo it at the end of the chapter with the old:
“Joe and Beth sat on the couch as the movie ended, wide eyed and traumatized. Nobody said a word. Perhaps Die Hardest: Oblivion Now wasn’t a good first date movie choice, Joe reflected.”
Now, the example from above is gritty, but we could easily tone it down into something more lighthearted with a bit of work.
The gun bucked clean out of Daryl’s hand and landed in a puddle of rain water. Daryl stooped over to retrieve the weapon. “That’s for sleeping with my wife, douche-nozzel.”
“What the he–?” Wesley whimpered.
Daryl took aim at the space between Wesley’s eyes, compensated for the anticipated recoil, and fired a second time.
The bean-bag round glanced off Wesley’s kneecap.
Is this funny? Probably not. I’m not good at comedy, but the take-away is that it sets an entirely different tone from the first example. The action is pretty much the same but instead of murdering Wesley, Daryl has resolved to use a bean-bag gun. A weapon he is clearly not familiar with.
The important thing is that right out of the gate, with both of the examples, you more or less know the sort of story you’re in for.
5) Compel The Reader To Move Forward
Never give the reader a reason to put your story down. Make it difficult for them to say, “That’s enough for tonight”, by always compelling them to move forward. This means asking a variety of big questions and little questions.
In the examples with Wesley and Daryl we have a couple questions revolving around what brought the two men to that place in their lives, and what’s going to happen next. But you can only string action along for so long before it becomes wearisome. Daryl can’t just sit there shooting Wes in the kneecaps all day long.
No matter how beautifully it’s written, eventually we’ll get bored.
That’s when you as the writer need to…
6) Introduce Opposition
Oh, would you look at that, what a conveniently placed talking point.
The beginning of your story needs to set the stage for the larger conflicts to play out.
How do we do that?
Well, start putting the protagonist in situations beyond his/her control. Introducing us to their nemesis might be a bit premature, because we haven’t really gotten to sympathize with our Lead yet, but we can start making their life suck.
For instance, in that first example we don’t really know what happened in the moments leading up to Daryl shooting Wes. Perhaps Wes was actually the one who tracked down Daryl with the intent of killing him so Wes could marry his wife? There was a struggle for the gun and Daryl came out on top and took revenge. Now, let’s say a patrolling robo-cop-dog has heard the gunshots and is going to arrest Daryl.
Seriously, what’s up with all the dog references in this post?
What does Daryl do? Run or stay?
Questions have been asked, and now our MC has some decisions to make.
On the other hand, if this is the lighthearted comedic romp with bean-bag guns and the like then perhaps Wes is actually Daryl’s boss and while he isn’t going to press charges (mostly on account of the fact that he’s planning on marrying Daryl’s wife following their soon-to-be divorce), he is most definitely going to fire Daryl.
Now Daryl’s losing his wife and job, but he got to shoot his asshole boss with a bean-bag gun, so that’s cool. What’s he going to do now?
Questions and decisions.
This is getting on the long side, so let’s wrap it up with a quick list of things not to do in your beginning.
-backwards glancing: ie: flashbacks or navel gazing.
-lack of threat. <—No lack of threat? That’s a weird sentence, but you’re a smart person, I’m sure you’ll figure out. Right? Right.
And those, folks, in a really wordy nutshell, are the key elements to a really good beginning. In the future we’ll talk more about this because it’s just so damn important, but for now I want ya’ll to boogie on down to the comments and tell me what some of your favorite opening lines/chapters are, and why.
Go on, butt-scoot on out of here.
Dog Reference Quota: Exceeded