I was reading a manuscript the other week that included a lot of expository dialogue. In this instance, the characters relied on each other’s names too much when they were speaking to each other. This kind of telling in dialogue is, believe it or not, a common problem, as is this other, slightly related one: characters who know each other well giving us background information in dialogue… producing language that real, breathing humans would never say!
Example of Expository Dialogue
“My darling husband Danny, can you please pass the mashed potatoes?” the wife asked.
“Why, of course, my dear Laurie. How was your day as board member of the Greensboro Museum Society?”
“Just lovely. After I shuttled the kids, Jake and Emily, off to preschool and first grade, I went right over there.”
“Just what I like to hear, Laurie, darling.”
“Now, Danny, just what are you going to do about your problems down in the engineering department of the power company? Your boss has been making you livid for weeks!”
Tips for Avoiding Telling in Dialogue
Never use dialogue to introduce large swaths of character details that don’t belong in a scene between two people. This will almost certainly result in expository dialogue.
Don’t over-rely on names, especially in a scene with only two characters. Real people don’t talk like that. Try and remember the last time you said your best friend’s or your significant others’ name to them in casual conversation.
I’ll be writing up some thoughts on dialogue tags very soon. For me, endless name-dropping is a sign that the writer doesn’t trust their reader to follow the dialogue. That fear may be founded — if the author is doing crazy things like putting two indented lines of dialogue from the same character one right after the other — but in 95% of cases, your reader is following you. They know who’s talking.
I’ve said it once, twice, and I’m sure I’ll say it a zillion more times: trust your reader. Ditch the telling in dialogue. It’s okay. They’ll get it.
The only times I use more names than usual is when there are multiple characters in a scene and I get tired of dialogue tags. You can’t rely on dialogue tags alone. My current WIP has a section where five characters go on an adventure. To tell you the truth, orchestrating this many people in one scene makes me want to crawl back into bed. It’s the only time I’ll let the occasional name slip into dialogue.
Hire me for fiction editing. I will comment on all facets of your manuscript, including whether or not you’re slipping into expository dialogue.
If you’re wondering how to revise a novel with an eye towards trimming the fat, this post is for you. There’s almost nothing harder than “killing your babies” and axing chunks of your writing. Everybody loves their writing. It’s always hard to lose a word here, a line there, sometimes an entire paragraph. But cutting makes for a leaner, meaner, more amazing manuscript.
I’ll be posting some craft articles on revision techniques in the next few weeks. Maybe because I’m revising stuff myself right now, it’s on my mind.
How to Revise a Novel: Reductive Revision
At my MFA program, my teacher, Lewis Buzbee of Steinbeck’s Ghost fame, makes the class do reductive revisions. We turn in a manuscript of 20-30 pages, then everyone in the class takes two to three pages of that week’s submission and cuts, cuts, cuts until only one page remains.
It’s a lot easier to cut through the fat and be merciless when it’s someone else’s work. But how to edit your own writing is another animal. If you want to master reductive revision, you’ve got to develop that sort of keen ruthlessness toward your own precious manuscript. Especially after your First Draft Goggles wear off and you have to streamline.
Where are the Redundancies in Your Work?
One of the biggest problems some writers have is redundancy. They’re not sure the reader gets what they’re trying to do so they explain it. Then they explain it a different way. And then, just in case, they introduce another way of saying the same thing.
This is all fine and good. Maybe your subconscious is spinning all these repetitive statements so that you, the writer, understand the scene better. But the reader doesn’t need them. When you’re working out how to revise a novel. redundancy is the number one thing you should axe from your manuscript.
Let’s do a reductive revision together that’ll help you approach how to edit your own writing. The objective is to halve the length. Let’s give it a try. I’ll do my revisions and then you can do yours in comments, if you want, to see how ours match or don’t match.
Edna looked Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs. Her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
“I know, me too.”
“If we don’t find this book soon, the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the shelves. “But where could the book be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open.
Okay, so this scene is serviceable as is. But notice some redundancy issues. The characters are sneaking around and they’re nervous. We get it. We can convey it in a much simpler way. Our word count is 93. Let’s see if we can’t come in under 50.
Trimming the Fat
Edna looked at Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs, H her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
“I know, me Me too.”
“If we don’t find this book it soon… the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the forbidden shelves. “But w Where could the book it be?” Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open with an ear-splitting creak.
And this is how it reads without the delete lines:
Edna looked at Chris, her back to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around. “I’m scared,” she said.
“If we don’t find it soon…”
They scanned the forbidden shelves. Just then, the door flew open with a ear-splitting creak.
Reductive Revision for Quicker, Smoother Scenes
All I did was delete things the reader already knew, with the exception of rearranging the last sentence. Now, I was pretty ruthless. Notice, I took out all mention of the book and the library. That’s because they’re worried about the librarian and they’re scanning the shelves, so “book” and “library” are implied. I also got rid of all the emotional but cliched heart/eye/blood stuff that writers tend to lean on too heavily.
You might not want to go so sparse when you’re editing your own writing, but notice how much quicker the scene moves. We still get they’re scared and we still get a sense of danger. But guess what? Word count 49!
How do you revise a novel? Post it below. More memos from the office of repetitive redundancy office coming soon.
Struggling with how to edit your own writing? My book editing services will help you build on the revision steps you’ve already taken.
Today’s post is about reading like a writer, but here’s a little backstory to start. A few summers ago, I had a cringe-worthy conversation with an executive editor from a very large publishing house. I was at this conference as a writer, before I entered the industry from the business end, and blathering about a manuscript I was working on, a YA about a girl whose sister died.
“There’s Nothing Like That Out These Days” — Are You Sure?
As one of the only children’s writers at the conference, I definitely had a lot of this editor’s time. On this particular occasion, I used my limelight to open my big mouth and blab something along the lines of the following:
There are so many books out there like THE CLIQUE, ya know? All fluff and no substance! What I really wanna do is, like, write a book that’s deeper than that. One about real emotions and stuff. There’s nothing like that out these days.
Ha! Haha! Hahahahahahaha! Excuse me while I choke on my coffee. Boy howdy was I ever young and ignorant.
I think the word I was groping for is: “literary.” And, if you’ve been in a bookstore lately, you know that it’s impossible to turn around without bumping into a highly literary, emotionally charged YA book or two thousand. Death, drugs, divorce, heartbreak, YA has it all.
Now that I’ve been on the other side of the table and reading slush, I’ve seen ignorant statements like mine repeated by many authors. “There are like, totally no books about (insert totally common and well-represented theme or topic here).”
That’s called not reading like a writer. There are so many books out there that it’s impossible to read even a thousandth of one percent of your way through the shelves at a bookstore. More of them come out every day. While the average adult has abysmal reading habits, a writer has no excuse.
Published Work by Others is the Best Textbook
Ideally, when you read like a writer, you should read often and widely. In kidlit, writers shouldn’t just stick to fantasy or historical or literary, or even their age group, for that matter, but experience all the wonderful offerings on the shelves.
There are those writers who think their work will be corrupted by reading while they write. That makes little sense to me. More often than not, it’s these kinds of writers who convince themselves that there’s never been a YA book about a main character grieving over her dead sister. I guess I can understand this attitude if you’re reaching for something experimental with your manuscript, but not if you have commercial aspirations, like a lot of writers do. I can say for certain that my writing has improved immeasurably since I started reading like a writer.
Ditch the Competition Mindset When You’re Reading Like a Writer
Instead of feeling intimidated and viewing already published work in your genre as “competition,” view it as a learning exercise. Read like a writer, make note of what other authors are doing. If you spot things than could’ve worked better in a story, boy howdy, you’ve got material for your own manuscript! It will make you look even savvier if you can query an agent or editor and mention some “comp titles,” or works in the same vein as yours. Because all editors and agents know that a book like yours exists out there, somewhere. No idea or book is absolutely, completely unique (See “Someone is publishing my idea!” for more reassurance on this front). And that’s a good thing! Even better, if previous books like yours have has sold well, that’s great news for you and your project.
So read a lot, read widely and read like a writer. You’ll pick up new ideas, realize things about your own writing and feel like you belong in a community. And unless your novel concept is way, way, way, way out there, like zombies in the world of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE*, for example, keep your mouth shut in front of executive editors until you know what the real market for work like yours looks like.
There’s tons of fantasy worldbuilding going on nowadays, with all the manuscripts out there whose main characters have magic powers. This can be fun and interesting, but the more I read of them, the more a strange habit rears its little head. Writing magic systems is difficult work, since magic is, by its very nature, fantastical. But sometimes, characters’ magic powers are a little too, er, convenient. Not only does this affect the integrity of your novel worldbuilding, but the plot, too.
An Example of Convenient Fantasy Worldbuilding
Lizzie’s powers were absolutely ineffective against the charm-locked door. Not even her Open Sesame spell could break the lock. Conveniently, any wizard of the Caldecott Bloodline, which Lizzie just happened to be a descendant of, could breeze right through. Luckily I remembered that! Saved me a lot of trouble, Lizzie thought as she jumped through the enchanted doorway.
This is, obviously, an exaggeration. But note a few things here. First, we go from a situation with tension and potential danger (a door locked by magic) to a situation with no tension whatsoever. Instead of making it hard for the character, instead of making the character work, the author (in this case, me) has given the MC an easy way out. Also, every time you catch yourself using words like “conveniently” or “luckily” or “just happened to…” take another look at how you’re writing your magic system. See if you can’t scare up some more danger or tension.
Luck, Accidents, and Coincidences Feel Cheap to Readers
We don’t pick up fiction to read about characters in easy-breezy situations. We don’t read read to see a magical coincidence at work. Sure, there are coincidences and happy accidents in life. And sure, sometimes we’re getting chased by werewolves and realize that our blood is powerful lupine repellent, just as their jaws close around our throats, or whatever, but fiction isn’t life transcribed, it’s life enhanced and structured to bring out tension and high stakes.
When you’re writing magic systems, luck, accidents, coincidences and other “Whew! What a nice surprise!” moments feel…cheap to the reader. Like the writer ran out of ideas and needed to get out of a pinch. That makes the reader think two things: “Wow, all the tension fell out of this scene,” and, possibly, “Why should I bother getting invested in the next high stakes scene? The author might just whip out another magical coincidence.”
Some much wiser writer once said that the crux of good fiction is getting a character in trouble, getting them in deeper trouble, then getting them in the deepest trouble of their life. There are too many manuscripts where the character’s magic helps them out right when they should be getting into trouble instead.
When You’re Writing Magic Systems, Set the Rules Early On
Like I mentioned above, this is a rules and boundaries issue. Every time you have fantasy worldbuilding in a manuscript, you’ve got to set rules and boundaries for how the fantastical elements function. When can a power be used? When can’t it be used?
Sometimes an author will pull a character out of danger in a very contrived way. Other times, the author will land a character in the very lap of danger by convenient means instead of raising stakes realistically. Neither is a good strategy when you’re writing magic systems. An example of the latter:
Our valiant hero, Lizzie, squinted up at the cave opening. She was trapped so far down in this underground hole that she thought she’d never get out. Then she remembered her pole-vaulting superpower! She readied her pole and prepared to vault when her shoulder grazed part of the cave wall. Oh, no! Was this limestone? Her grandmother had repeatedly told her, when she was a child, that only limestone would make her pole-vaulting magic fizzle. Lizzie was stuck again and the leprechauns could be heard drawing ever closer!
Challenge Yourself to Overcome Writerly Laziness or Convenience
Next time you work on fantasy worldbuilding, make sure you’re not doing anything for the sake of writerly laziness or convenience. Outline the rules and set boundaries for the magic throughout the manuscript. Give us, if not the powers in action, a taste of every power that your character will have throughout the story in the first 100 pages. That way, your character, and the reader, will know their strengths and limitations as they head into the rest of the story and, especially, the climax. Ideally, once the character gets in a certain situation, you will have put the work into writing a magic system so the rules of their magic are clear. And I’m talking rules here. Like, the reader should be able to articulate and detail when magic can’t and can come into play in your story.
Introducing a new rule about magic right when the main character can either benefit or suffer from that rule is not usually a very provocative technique. It will be much easier to get your character out of trouble using convenient magic than it will to win your readers back after such a stroke of luck.
If you want to master fantasy worldbuilding, hire me as your developmental editor and we’ll dig deep together.
If you’re finished with your first draft and are wondering what to do with the mess on your hands, I have a quick and easy novel revision tip for you.
First Draft Goggles
Writing the first draft was so free, so easy! Discovery at every turn! That process is what I like to call First Draft Goggles. Like beer goggles, that first draft euphoria can sure make everything look great.
Then comes the crushing hangover: revision. You’ve got to look at the thing you enjoyed so much during the first draft. You feel sick. There’s a bile taste creeping up your throat. “Did I really just write that?”
And here it comes, the big question: “Am I really just fooling myself with this writing thing?”
Novel Revision Tip: Look at Your Work with Fresh Eyes
Well, here’s a nifty trick that I learned from David Morrell, a very seasoned writer. He took me under his wing at a conference one time and gave me a very simple, very effective novel revision tip. It truly was a “duh!” moment:
Every time you think you’re done with something, change the font, print it out and read it again.
This is a novel revision tip I like to use when I’m fairly far into my revision process, but I’ve found it helps with anything that’s getting you stuck. When you change the font, you’re more likely to slow down and read it more carefully, since your eyes aren’t as used to how the words look on the page or screen. Glaring errors and things that don’t sound right tend to stand out much more.
Some writers like to read a page bottom to top for much the same effect. That gives me a headache, so I just change the font. I like to go from Times New Roman to Courier New or, if I’m feeling extra frisky, Arial.
Try it and see what you think. This is literally a way to fool yourself into paying more careful attention and not getting complacent with your draft. Sometimes, fooling yourself is actually a good thing!
Feeling stuck on your WIP? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll offer a fresh perspective on your work.
From my study of past tense manuscripts, it’s become clear to me that there’s a serious grammatical issue snaking into some otherwise very readable work: overuse of past perfect tense. (Of course, you want more than just “readable” work, but, hey, fix the small stuff and then move on to the big stuff, right?)
In my experience, this is an instance where your Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler is incorrect. Sure, it may make your sixth grade English textbook happy if you pepper your manuscript with the past perfect tense: “had been,” “had thought,” “had said.” But it’s not necessary. In fact, it grates on a reader.
What is Past Perfect Tense?
When writing in the past tense, an author can choose to include a flashback or a memory or even a moment where they need to delve even further into the past. This is what the past perfect tense is for.
To a modern ear though, especially when you’re writing for children and young adults, the past perfect tense sounds stilted. And yes, I’m going to argue that too much past perfect tense — even when you’re writing historical — will clutter your manuscript.
Example of Past Perfect Tense
She remembered him well. Eric had just gone to the pool, so his hair had gotten wet and even cuter. After toweling off, he had settled down under the oak tree with a sandwich…
I’m exaggerating, for sure. But some things I read really do sound like this. Here’s a word of advice in the “had” department: trust your reader to follow you.
When I see a writer relying too much on the past perfect tense, it seems like they’re shouting: “Hey! Hey reader! I’m using past tense but I’m even more in the past, so stay with me while I keep reminding you!”
Minimizing Past Perfect Tense
The solution? Really ground your reader. Make sure they’re really clear that you’re disappearing into a different time. Then, use the past perfect tense once or twice, to satisfy Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler, and off you go. Stick with good old paste tense. You’ll be fine. I promise.
Amy thought back to last summer, to the lifeguard. Eric had just come out of the water and his hair was still wet. Fat, slick drops dribbled down his back as he toweled off. Before she could open her mouth and say one word to him, he slumped against the oak tree and tore into his sandwich. He never did find out how she felt.
She chased the memory away now…
Start in the narrative present, locate your reader, dip into the past, return us to where we left off and we’re good to go. There’s no need to keep using the past perfect tense if you frame the memory/flashback in a way that’s easy to follow.
Go back through your WIP and weed out some past perfect tense. I’m going to bet that, unless you’ve worked on this consciously before, there will be some stuff to revise.
Are you struggling with past perfect tense or other grammatical issues? Hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work through it together.
A friend of mine, a published adult writer whose characters have ranged from sixteen to twenty-five years old, mentioned an interesting opinion the other day. “I was thirty four when I wrote my twenty-five year-old character,” she said. “I wanted to write her then because, now that I’m older, I don’t think I can justifiably write someone that young.”
She writes for the adult market but her comment is even more applicable to kidlit. Most characters in our market are eighteen and under. Most writers, though, are older than that. Sometimes much older. And yet older writers manage, in most cases, to make their voices and their characters sound authentic and true-to-age.
Here’s a question for the writers out there. Aside from interacting with your kids and their friends/schools/lives, how do you keep in touch with your market? How do you bridge the age divide and keep yourself fresh?