As writers, writing means rewriting. Today’s post from the RU archives, written by author Loucinda McGary, addresses points to ponder when you’re revising your story.
In the past six years, I’ve judged a lot of writing contests for both published and unpublished work, though far more of the latter. I’ve judged entries in a variety of sub-genres, and the majority of unpublished work I’ve judged were pretty terrible. Honestly, I don’t think most of the entries were critiqued, edited, revised – nuttin’ honey!
Most of these entries shared common short-comings. I hesitate to call them mistakes because in most cases, they were easily fixable. I’ve lumped these “short-comings” into five major areas. So once you have finished your first draft and are ready to polish your manuscript, take a look at these five issues.
ISSUE #1 – The story starts in the wrong place.
I’ve done this many times and I’ll bet you have too: I pick up and book, start reading the first page, and it doesn’t hold my attention so I stop reading.
Don’t let this happen to your story! See if you recognize any of these “bad starts.”
- Nine out of ten prologues are unnecessary
Deb Dixon, the author of Goal, Motivation and Conflict says there are only three reasons to open your story with a prologue:
- Establish suspense,
- Establish an important character who won’t reappear for several chapters,
- Show a pivotal scene in a main character’s backstory.
Most of the prologues I’ve read don’t do any of these things. Most of them show (or worse TELL) a bunch of backstory that the reader doesn’t need to know yet, or maybe ever. Or the prologue shows an event unrelated to the present course of action in the story.
“If the prologue doesn’t have meat for the rest of the story then it is the wrong place to start.” Deb Dixon
- There is no hook.
I’ve heard a lot of editors and agents mention this one. Gone are the days when an author could meander around at the beginning of the book describing the setting or the characters. In these days of instant gratification, everyone has a short attention span. If you don’t pull the reader in on the very first page (or the first paragraph), she won’t stick around to read the second.
- The opening is a cliché.
How many times have you seen one of these? I’m afraid I’ve seen all of them multiple times.
- The hero/heroine has a dream
- The hero/heroine looks at self in a mirror
- The hero/heroine contemplates house/apartment
- The hero/heroine hates job
- The hero/heroine is late for something important
- The hero/heroine gets fired
I’m not saying you can’t make one of these openings work. I’m saying you need to put one helluva twist on it to make it feel fresh.
ISSUE #2 – The pacing is off.
- Glaciers move faster.
Remember those short attention spans. A slow moving story is a definite disadvantage. You do not want to risk losing the reader’s attention. Once they stop reading, they may not start again.
- The pace is uneven – story starts with fast action but suddenly shifts to slow introspection, or vice versa.
I love suspense in a story (that’s why I write romantic suspense), but I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been reading a fast-paced action sequence and suddenly the hero/heroine stops in mid-action to remember something in his/her past. There’s a time and place for flashbacks and backstory, but it’s not when the character is in mortal danger.
- Character development, setting, etc. are sacrificed for a fast-moving pace.
We’ve all seen this in movies. The story opens with a big battle or a frantic chase. People are fighting with each other or running from each other, and you have no idea why. We don’t know who these people are, what they are fighting agains, or funning from, what is at stake, nor do we care!
Readers need to know enough about your characters and their plight to become invested in your story.
ISSUE #3 – The hero/heroine is under-developed or unsympathetic
- If your hero and heroine don’t like each other at the beginning of your story, chances are one or both may strike the readers as unsympathetic.
I know there is something called an anti-hero, but most readers want a likeable main character. Just like with those opening clichés, why put your story at the disadvantage of an unsympathetic main character?
- If one of your main characters is not introduced right away (like Chapter 1) then the reader may not keep reading.
Sorry to harp on the short attention span again, but don’t risk losing your reader. Introduce your sympathetic main characters right away and get the reader’s empathy going.
- Pay careful attention to Point of View (POV)
Don’t be afraid of using multiple POVs. One way to make a character seem more sympathetic is to put the scene in his or her POV. Then you can use internal dialogue, show actions and reactions to other characters and situations. If you’re afraid the reader might not “get” one of your characters, try switching POV in a scene or two and see what happens.
ISSUE #4 – Info Dumps
- Use backstory like fertilizer, sprinkled lightly over a wide area. Large chunks of either tend to stink.
I know you are intimately acquainted with your main characters. But does the reader really need to be shown everything in the first or second chapter? Probably not, so be careful with the backstory.
- Same with descriptions (be they setting, characters, whatever), they are necessary, but need to be spread with a measure and thoughtful hand.
I know you have meticulously researched the flora, fauna, and architecture of the Outer Hebrides for your Scottish story. But you are not going to impress me (or 99 out of 100 other readers) if you dump all your findings on one page of your manuscript. More than likely you will annoy me. Worse – I’ll stop reading.
- Writing needs to flow. ‘Action then dump’ or ‘dialogue then dump’ is not flow (see pacing).
Remember what I mentioned already about dumping a bunch of information in the middle of a fight or chase. Don’t do it! Also, don’t end (or worse stop in the midst of) an intense conversation with a three paragraph dump of your character’s backstory.
ISSUE #5 – Dialogue
- Talking heads (also called ‘White Room Syndrome’)
This is a particular pet peeve of mine. Two characters are talking away – there might even be dialogue tags or some body language – but absolutely nothing is going on around them. If the characters are in a restaurant, then where is their waiter? The other diners? Their food? Anchor the scene with some action or descriptions.
- Everybody talks the same.
The well-educated and sophisticated Dallas lawyer is not going to talk like the cop from Jersey, and I’m not referring to dialect. I mean vocabulary and syntax. Do some research! Learn regional and ethnic speech differences and rhythms.
- People don’t really take that way, or they do and that’s the problem.
I don’t care if he is English, if your hero is trying to extract life and death information from your villain, he is not going to say, “Sorry old chap, if you don’t tell me, I’ll be forced to shoot you.”
And please don’t have your character give me that flora and fauna info dump in her conversation. She can say, “What pretty blue flowers.” But even if she is a botany professor, don’t have her give a lecture.
Dialogue is not meant to be a word-for-word transcription of actual conversation. Dialogue has a purpose. It should advance the plot or develop a character.
So those are the five major issues you need to consider when you are revising your work. This is your chance to polish your work until is shines. The real work in writing is rewriting.
Remember Nora Roberts’ words, “I can fix crap. I can’t fix a blank page.”
Good luck with making your story the best writing you can do!
Bio: A Golden Heart finalist, Loucinda McGary is the author of three contemporary romantic suspense novels, The Wild Sight, The Treasures of Venice and The Wild Irish Sea. Her later books, The Sidhe Prince, High Seas Deception, His Reluctant Bodyguard, Dead Girl in a Green Dress, and The Mozart Murders are available on Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes and Noble.
- Five Things to Consider During Revisions with Loucinda McGary
- Loucinda McGary – Five Things that Drive Contest Judges Bonkers
- Make backstory work for you by Kandy Shepherd
- Keep ‘Em Hooked by Laura Griffin
- Ask an Editor: Backstory and Pacing