I’m going to start at THE END. It may seem an odd place to start, but I’ll explain.
A couple of weeks ago, I was able at last to write these words on my work in progress – I had, after almost a year, reached the conclusion of my novel. However, THE END only takes a writer straight back to the beginning, because with a first draft complete, the hard work of editing begins. Fellow blogger Janet Gover has talked before about the way she edits her manuscripts. It’s an essential part of the whole process and has many facets. I’d like to talk in particular about addressing the issue of pace.
Reading through my manuscript (the first time I’d seen all 110,000 words printed out), I could see all too clearly where the story moved forward at a cracking pace, where it slowed down, where I’d written too quickly in order to keep my imagination firing, and where I’d obviously become enamoured with my own rich descriptions and gone into too much detail.
Standing back from your own work isn’t always easy, but it has to be done. From the very first page, the characters and the situation should be interesting, perhaps intriguing. You might set up something horrifying (a kidnap, a murder, an act of mass terrorism), you might hint at some deep secret, or you might simply have an argument between two people, or your heroine arriving in a new city, not sure what she’s going to find there. Your heroine will face a challenge – saving the passengers on an aircraft, catching a killer, resolving a situation that has made her unhappy, realising that despite everything, she really does love the prickly man she met on page one. Not until she has saved the passengers, admitted she’s in love or whatever, can you offer a resolution to your story. (And once you do, the tension will be released as well!)
To ensure your readers want to keep reading, your characters must be believable and consistent, the set-up intriguing, the goal just out of reach until the end. But there are tricks of the trade you can employ to make sure your novel is a page-turner all the way through.
In the last week I discovered that:
- I have been so keen, when writing, to move my story forward that I have skipped essential information that will explain why my character acted as she did
- I have moved the story forward in places by ‘telling’ my readers what happened rather than letting the actions of my characters ‘show’ them. It’s much simpler and quicker to say, for example, ‘they went together across town to choose a new puppy’ – but it’s dull, dull, dull! In my redraft, I have my heroine interacting with one of the puppies, falling in love with his antics and, hopefully, making the reader fall in love with the scallywag too – as well as ‘seeing’ why having a dog is good for her!
- I have skimmed over scenes without giving the right balance of narrative, dialogue and action. In general, dialogue speeds up pace, narrative slows it down. It shouldn’t all be dialogue, however – sometimes taking a breather is good! The reader needs space to reflect and understand, as well as to immerse themselves in setting and place.
- I had several chapters in the middle where I’d managed to get in a real muddle over the timeline. It’s important to explain things as they happen, not after they happen, or you will really reduce the tension. This has taken some disentangling, but I think I have achieved it at last.
It is truly gratifying when a reader tells you, ‘I couldn’t put it down’. It means you’ve done something right! Here’s a brief checklist about what to look for when editing your own writing:
- Make us understand early on what your heroine wants. The story is over when she gets it!
- Make us see things as they happen – don’t explain them after they have happened.
- Thicken the plot, don’t thin it! Adding one or more subplots can enrich your tale, but make sure the subplots really add to the main story in a meaningful way.
- Show, don’t tell. Make us ‘see’ the scene, not just read about it.
- Use the active voice, not the passive. Root out passive verbs as much as possible – for example, not, ‘Peter felt appalled at her suggestion’, but ‘Peter’s mouth dropped open. “You can’t possibly want me to do that!” he whimpered.
- Ensure you have the right balance of narrative, dialogue and action.
It may take me another week or two to find myself back at THE END. Then I’ll print the whole thing out for a third time and read it all over again. At that stage, I might ask the views of a couple of beta readers. Getting an honest opinion from someone who has not read a word of your book can be really helpful (and sometimes salutary!).Only when I’m quite satisfied that I’ve done the very best I can will I send it away.
I really, really want my readers to tell me ‘I couldn’t put it down!’.