Commit or Omit

This is more of a general writing advice/philosophy type of post, because I haven’t done one of those in a while. I’ve been giving this note a lot to editorial clients lately, and it has me thinking.

what to include in your novel, how to write a novel, novel writing
What do you focus in on and what do you let go of when you’re writing?

Picking and Choosing Elements to Include in Your Writing

One of the most difficult decisions you make as a writer is what you include in your novel or picture book. You can’t include everything. I often reference the image of a spotlight operator when I talk about this. It is, after all, your job to direct your reader’s attention to important elements, and downplay or omit those elements which aren’t important, at the end of the day.

For example, you are writing a YA novel set in a quaint beachside town. (For some reason, three of the novels I’ve worked on in October so far are all set in quaint beach towns! Maybe to make me homesick for California!) There is an adorable bed and breakfast in this quaint beach town, and you take great pains to describe its weathered lavender paint, curved gables, blah blah blah. Probably because you spent your honeymoon in an adorable bed and breakfast very much like this one. But we never see the B&B again, nor is it part of the action in any significant way (nobody has the decency to be murdered in it or anything!). It’s just, well, window dressing. So the question becomes, is your page and a half of description necessary?

Another example: you’re writing a picture book that isn’t in rhyme. But you have this totally awesome rhyming phrase that you want to use. Does it fit the manuscript you’re writing? Or is random rhyme in the middle of a non-rhyming story going to seem odd to the reader?

In both of these cases, I’d probably counsel you to remove those elements. These examples are rather clear-cut. But there’s also another consideration. What if you have a necessary element to your story, but you don’t exactly know what to do with it?

When Commitment Fades In and Out

I recently read two manuscripts, back-to-back, actually, where a character was clearly important to the story, but they disappeared for long stretches of time. One of these characters was, essentially, the story’s villain. Another of these characters was more of a symbolic foil to the protagonist who represented a big life change in the main character’s life.

The first character showed up pretty infrequently, and only when the plot had reached a crescendo. The second character only showed up twice–once in the middle, and once at the very, very end, to make sure the reader knew that Something Significant was happening.

In both cases, the mantra “Commit or omit” crossed my mind. Both writers knew this element they’d chosen was important, but neither seemed to know exactly how to integrate those elements.

Obviously the antagonist’s role is to stir up trouble. He’s not going out to coffee with your protagonist or spending a lot of time laying low. However, this character only did the bare minimum in terms of appearances in the plot, and as such, I felt the writer missed out on a lot of opportunities to develop the antagonist further. Remember, we want our villains to be fleshed out characters, too, not just caricatures. It almost seemed like the writer knew she needed an antagonist, so she threw this personality into the mix, but only when strictly necessary. If the villain had more “screen time”, perhaps they would’ve been a more compelling part of the action.

For the character who only came around during Emotionally Significant Moments, that’s an issue of giving him more to do, too. You don’t want someone who is just a walking/talking thematic element or harbinger of change. That character needs to become more real, or maybe the decision is that you don’t need him, and you can get your significance elsewhere. Commit or omit.

The common thread with both of these characters is that they end up in the novel but under-utilized and, as such, they end up feeling one-dimensional.

Checking Out Your Own Novel or Picture Book

The simplest check for any element in your manuscript is this: Does the character, setting, or plot point only play one role? Are you fully committed to developing this element, or are they just there because you feel you need them?

If you have critique partners (and if you don’t, the recent Critique Connection could help!), consider if there are any characters, plot points, settings, or writing choices that they’ve misunderstood or felt underwhelmed by. These might be the very elements you need to either commit to, or omit from the project.

Is something simply not working in your project, but you don’t know what, or you don’t know what to do about it? Invest in an expert set of eyes, and hire me as your freelance editor.

 

Starting a Novel With Setting Description

Today’s post is a video response, and it’s all about starting a novel with setting!

What follows here is a transcription of the video. You can watch for the advice, or read it below. I have a question today from Melissa who wrote in to ask, how do you open a novel? Is it wrong to start a novel by describing setting? What if the setting reveals something about character?

Novel Beginnings Are Incredibly Important

Writing a novel and starting a novel are two of the biggest question categories that I get. And a lot of writers have heard, yeah, maybe it’s not so great to start with setting because it’s static. It’s not active. There is really nothing going on.

There’s a concept called the objective correlative, which is a literary concept where you use something inanimate like the weather or setting to communicate emotion. So a really typical example is, starting a novel with setting like a storm, and that’s a literary device for conveying that there is something going on. There’s a big storm raging in the story.

And so I think Melissa is asking this question because maybe she’s been turned away from starting with setting. Maybe she has been told that starting with setting is not a really great thing. And my response to that would be when you’re starting a novel, you really want to ground the reader. And there are two components to grounding the reader.

One is the reader wants to know where they are, and then the reader wants to know when they are. And this applies to starting a new chapter as well. So when you’re starting a chapter after there has been a break, you really want the reader to catch up with where they are after you spit them out after the break and when they are relative to where they came from. The same concept applies for the very, very beginning of a novel which is excellent real estate.

Grounding the Reader But Giving Them Context, Too

So sure, you really want to ground the reader at the opening, and setting is a wonderful way of doing that because that takes care of the “Where are we?” question, right? But the other concern that you really have to have when you’re beginning a novel is action. There are way too many novels that begin in a completely static way. It’s the character in their room, and the room might tell the reader a lot about the character, you know. We’ll see kind of what kind of posters are on the wall. We’ll see the paint color is very, very dark which is meant to evoke something about character.

So the writer thinks , “I’m really doing my job here. I’m starting with this evocative setting. This setting tells the reader a lot about the character. My work here is done,” right? Well, that’s static. Nothing is actually happening, so I would say that the sweet spot would be, to answer Melissa’s question, a strong sense of setting which is essential for the beginning of a novel or a beginning of a chapter, but you can’t rest on your laurels with a really strong setting. You have to do a little bit more. You need to introduce the character, so the character does need to be on the scene, at least for me. That’s what I would recommend. It gives you a much stronger foot up in the beginning of your novel.

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Starting a novel with setting or weather or a big event is just one piece of the puzzle.

Adding Character and Plot to Setting

The point is, setting can’t be the end-all and be-all. Character, you need to put the character in the setting, and the character should be interacting with the setting somehow, or something needs to be happening which brings me to the third component which would be action, which would be a sense of plot. Now, you don’t have to kick right into your main plot at the beginning of a novel.

I think doing so is problematic because if you start…you come out swinging with a giant plot, readers are not gonna be invested enough emotionally in what’s going on. So they’re gonna have a hard time caring about it right at the onset. So if you come to us with a huge, huge plot right away, you’re gonna be overcoming some obstacles because the reader will be like, “Wait a minute. What’s going on? Who is this person? I don’t care about them yet, so I’m not really getting invested.”

So you need to have something, and Donald Maass who wrote the wonderful book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, calls it bridging action which is it is action, something is actually happening. It’s not just static at the beginning of your novel, but it can be a smaller conflict. So it’s something to get the reader a little invested, give them the come hither finger, but it doesn’t have to be, you know, high stakes, huge action right away because that could be a little alienating.

The Formula for Starting a Novel

So to recap the beginning formula for starting your novel, setting? Yes, Melissa, setting is very important, and you should be beginning with a strong sense of setting absolutely. But we also need character. We need a strong sense of who the character is. Ideally, they’re interacting with your setting. They’re existing in it but in an active way which brings me to three. Something needs to happen right away.

And when I hear writers asking about setting and why can’t I start with setting? It’s usually because they’ve created a setting, they’ve put the character in the setting, and they really wanna get away with the character sitting there and existing without anything happening on top of that. And that’s what I think a large pitfall could be with this question. If you have a setting, if you have the character and you’re hoping that that is enough magic for the start of a novel, what you really need to do is actually add plot.

Examples of Taking Setting to the Next Level

If we were to take the example that we started this video with a character sitting in their room, we have setting. We have character. We’re hoping that they are evocative and letting the reader into the character’s world. But something needs to start happening. For example, somebody comes home. Mom comes home and slams the door so hard that the whole house rattles, you know, so something literally happens to the setting. Something literally happens where the character’s emotions get involved because “Oh, no! What’s happening now?”

Or something, something…maybe the character is rearranging their room, for example. So they’re in their setting. We have the character, but there’s a lot of action. Maybe it’s like, you know, all of the pictures that the character has of them and their best friend, they’re ripping them down off the walls. And you know, throwing a picture frame and the glass breaks, you know, these examples are off the top of my head, so some of them might feel a little familiar. There could be some clichés, but they’re meant to illustrate a point.

So you don’t just have setting and character, you have plot as well. So something is happening between setting and character. So I would say that Melissa’s onto something, but the advice to not start in setting, there is a strong basis for that advice. So as long as you’re hitting these three points with the beginning of your novel, you can absolutely start in setting. It just has to be a little more dynamic than just straight-up setting description. I hope that helps, and thank you for asking.

Get actionable, personalized, one-on-one novel advice if you hire me as your developmental editor. We can work on your query, your novel beginning, or the entire manuscript.

Directing Reader Attention

Directing reader attention is an art. As the writer, it’s up to you where that precious resource goes. Are you doing a good job?

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It’s your mission to show the reader what’s important.

As the writer, you know what’s important about your story. Your reader doesn’t. They’re brand new to the thing and eager to learn what matters about your character and plot. It would be terrible to just tell them. So instead you show them. But how?

You Are the Curator

You need to pick the elements that are important to the story, and leave everything else by the wayside. Act like an art curator when you sit down to write a novel. You need to pick the characters and events that are crucial to the telling of your tale. Then you need to layer in every other element that needs to be noticed.

How do you do this in a way that readers can interpret clearly? Think of the metaphor of a spotlight operator. They sit in the back of a darkened theater. Their objective is to direct the audience’s attention. If there’s a love scene going on downstage, they aren’t going to focus their spot on a big player dancing upstage. That doesn’t make any sense.

As you craft your manuscript, you don’t have a spotlight at your disposal. But you do have other tools. These are the amount of description, and the type of description.

Directing Reader Attention With Amount of Description

One consideration when directing reader attention to what’s important is the amount of writing that you’re going to lavish on the element in question. If an amulet is going to become very important in your fantasy novel, for example, you may not want to mention it in one sentence and move on. That will not be enough to pique the reader’s interest.

But it’s a balance. If you lavish too much attention on describing the amulet, the reader will think, “Ah ha! This writer is trying to tell me something. This isn’t the last we’ll see of this amulet.” So if you’re looking to draw attention without giving away any big reveals, keep your description notable but short.

The adverse is true, too. If something isn’t important, don’t spend time there. If you go into great detail describing the man at the bus stop, his five o’clock shadow, his wrinkled silk tie, and we never see him again, then you’ve wasted the reader’s time. The man was just set dressing. Interesting set dressing, sure, but there was no reason to treat him like the star of the show.

Directing Reader Attention With Type of Description

When you think about how to describe certain elements of your story, think of the emotion you’re attaching to your description. Important elements should have some kind of voice attached to them, they shouldn’t just lie neutrally on the page.

Look at these two examples:

The dog came over and sat on my lap.

The dog trundled over and lolled into my lap, letting his head rest heavily on my knee.

We may not know a lot about the dog yet, but the second description tells me, as a reader, that there’s probably more to know. The first description is so generic, there’s no emotional signature at all. The second uses interesting words and some sensory details. It paints more of a picture. If you want to be especially emotional, you could even do something like:

The little bastard pranced into my lap and nuzzled his homework-chewing chin into the palm of my hand. I couldn’t stay mad at him, but Mrs. Turner would have my neck for missing yet another assignment!

Here, there’s a clear emotional signature to the description. It’s also a good example of the concept of interiority. We can’t help but start forming a relationship with this dog because, clearly, the narrator already has one. I’m also getting some more context about the situation here, and how the dog fits into it.

Of all three descriptions, I’m going to remember that third dog the most, because it was described in an emotional way. It’s also the longest description, practically guaranteeing that my attention is drawn to it.

When you’re revising, think about directing reader attention like a spot operator and curator with your descriptions. Let them work for you, and guide the reader through your story.

Is your descriptive language hitting the mark? Hire me as your novel editor, and I’ll help you take your writing voice to the next level.

Positive Versus Negative Description

When I say “negative description,” I’m not talking about describing something nicely versus being mean. It’s more about how to best be direct in your description.

negative description in fiction, writing voice, positive and negative description
The difference between positive and negative description.

I think of a “positive” description as a description of something that IS. A “negative” description, then, attempts to describe what something isn’t.

Examples of Negative Description in Fiction

Examples:

Her purse didn’t hold the normal wallet/sunglasses/keys combination.
His smile didn’t invite you to sit down for a chat.
The garage was remarkable because it didn’t contain a vehicle.

You get my drift. Sometimes, like with the middle example, a negative description is an interesting, perhaps voice-y or sarcastic way of getting your point across. The guy in the example isn’t happy to see whoever, and it’s obvious, no matter that he’s trying to smile. I’d buy that.

The other descriptions, though, draw out the narrative because they are roundabout. Instead of revealing just what’s in the purse (a gun, say) or garage (alien laboratory, perhaps), we’re first told: “What you’re expecting to be in this purse or garage is, in fact, not in this garage.”

Be Direct in Your Descriptions

Well, yeah. If a gun is in the purse or an alien laboratory is in the garage, the reader will immediately know that this isn’t Grandma’s purse or Dad’s garage. So that part can remain implied, as all of our purse- and garage-related illusions are about to shatter.

Long story short, the negative description can sometimes be interesting. Sometimes, though, it’s more direct and less redundant to cut to the chase, cut out negative description, and describe what IS rather than what ISN’T.

Struggling with writing voice and description? Turn to me for fiction editing.

Connecting Secondary Elements

You’re writing a novel and putting a lot of images, events, characters, settings, and objects into it. Grand! A lot of manuscripts don’t take the necessary step after this, however, and connect the dots. If you introduce a character early on, they should work their way deeper and deeper into the fabric of your plot. Images should reappear and gain significance each time. A bird in chapter one will ideally have new shades of meaning halfway through the book, and then even more in the final chapter. Settings should change as the plot unfolds, meaning that the quarry your protagonist runs away to on a carefree summer day might change drastically when she takes a boyfriend there at night. Not only might your character experience these images, events, places, and people, you should keep in mind how your protagonist reacts to them.

Imagine a photograph of two people you’ve never seen before, young girls playing table tennis. To a random stranger, this elicits little or no reaction. But imagine if you were the girls’ mother, looking at the photograph? Or one of the girls, but maybe thirty years down the line? That object has now become imbued with some very personal emotions. Give the important secondary elements of your manuscript significance by building a relationship between them and your main character. These relationships can change and evolve over time.

Mimic the human brain and don’t let your characters think linearly. This means that you shouldn’t just bring an important secondary element to the page when it’s convenient or right when it’s needed. In between encounters with that bird that keeps reappearing or a character who is crucial to the plot, let your main character remember them or wonder about them. That’s too convenient, and it plays on the surface. Free yourself from only referencing one of your carefully chosen story points when it’s needed and let them form a richer tapestry using your character’s inner life.

Historical Fiction in Children’s Books

Some editors are definitely changing their minds about historical fiction in children’s books and period settings. They are looking for these kinds of projects more actively, but it’s no secret that they have been a bit of a hard sell in the last few years. The market is cyclical, though, so nothing stays down forever. While I’m not calling historical a trend or anything, by any stretch of the imagination, I wanted to talk a little bit about how to use a historical setting in the best possible way in your book.

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If you write a novel with a historical setting, it’ll automatically look like this.

Making Historical Fiction in Children’s Books Work

The number one (and, really, only good) reason to set your book in a historical period is if the book’s events depend on that historical period. For example, if a lot of your plot is going to be informed by the political climate in Germany, say, in 1934, when a new leader has taken the political stage, and about the tensions boiling then, etc., then 1934 it is. That’s a great reason.

Or if you’re writing a Victorian period piece. Or something set in San Francisco or Berkeley during the Summer of Love. Maybe a story about the Columbine shootings or another famous, time-specific event or historical period.

Now, there is a caveat to this. The event or period really has to be central to the events of your own novel. In other words, there has to be a dang good reason for you to be setting your book in another time. If you’re setting your book in the 90s just because there’s a scene of your characters finding out that Princess Di has died in a car crash and then reacting to that, but there’s really no bigger plot or theme connection than that one scene, I don’t think that’s a strong enough reason for the “historical” setting.

The 20th Century is Considered Historical Fiction (Don’t Shoot the Messenger)

Just in case I offended you there, that wasn’t my intention. While I think it sounds a little silly, believe it or not, the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s are “dated” now in terms of MG and YA fiction, especially in a market where the overwhelming number of books are set in an undefined contemporary, near-future, or future setting. So if you think you’re writing an awesome contemporary book that just so happens to be set in the 80s and everyone is doing their hair like Molly Ringwald…you’re writing historical.

So the good reason for historical is if the time period is woven inextricably with your plot. There are several bad reasons for writing historical, and some of them are difficult to let go of.

What to Avoid When Writing Historical Fiction

First, don’t set a book in a past decade just because you grew up that way. Sure, there are coming of age stories that are set in various 20th century decades that go on to win awards and whatnot. Rebecca Stead set WHEN YOU REACH ME in the 70s not because it had to be set in the 70s, but because she grew up in that era in New York City and really loved it…that’s when, to her, kids were given more freedom and independence than they are in the cities now.

That’s totally valid. But that’s also Rebecca Stead and the book is brilliantly done. At no point does it fail to be relatable or seem dated.

While it’s really tempting to “write what you know” in this regard, do be aware that books that seem “old-fashioned” are a really tough sell right now. I know I’m always looking for fresh, modern voices, as are a lot of editors.

There’s a balance between making something resonate currently and writing something timeless…but the answer isn’t always to set it in the past. (Going back to Molly Ringwald for a second…there was one summer, when chick lit YA was still pretty big, when it seemed like every spunky YA heroine I read in slush had the cute “quirk” of just loooooving 80s movies and watching them with all her friends. Is that really the YA character talking…or the thirtysomething writer who is obsessed with John Hughes?)

Writing Historical Fiction Around Technology

Second, don’t set a book in a past decade to eliminate the biggest thriller/adventure/mystery plot problems: cell phones and the Internet. Lots of writers think about setting their action stories in the past so that the kids can’t just call the police or so that the answer isn’t immediately obvious to all parties after five minutes on Google. This is a tough one.

For all of those writers crafting twisty yarns that rely on the character getting in high danger or the withholding of important information, cell phones and the Internet are hugely problematic. I can really, really get why a writer would long for the disconnected 80s for their serial killer novel. I’d imagine the same ruffling of feathers happened when pay phones hit the streets. Now the girl being chased by the murderer could potentially save herself. Remember pay phones? Well, fiction survived that, too (though pay phones didn’t…).

Here’s the reality: Kids today are attached to their cell phones and their computers. There are fewer and fewer places on this planet where we are cut off from communication, achieving that total isolation that lets evil characters and conspiracies and mysterious plot twists work their machinations. But technology and connectedness are, for better or worse, how kids relate to the world today.

While this is at odds with a lot of good and suspenseful fiction, writers are going to have to adapt, especially in the future, as information becomes more and more accessible. You have to figure out your own solutions to cutting characters off from information, because in 20 years, all of our mystery novels just can’t be set in the 80s to take the shortcut around it. That’s not realistic.

Integrating Technology Instead

In this battle of Writers vs. Technology, Technology has won, so it’s up to you to use your writerly imagination to make your plot work. It’s, personally, a pet peeve of mine when a writer doesn’t acknowledge that technology exists. I always find myself asking, “Why doesn’t s/he just Google this? I know everyone who writes books is in love with libraries, but does s/he really have to go to the musty old archives?” And I’m over a decade older than your target market. It’s a knee-jerk thought even for me.

Now, I know not everyone has a cell phone or an Internet connection — there’s a big socioeconomic divide here — but everyone can have access to technology in class and at the library. So put on your creative cap for the Technology Problem, and at least acknowledge that technology exists…that’s what your reader will be thinking.

So don’t fall back on the decade of your youth, and don’t go back to the 90s to avoid technology. If you really have a great reason for using a historical setting, do it. If not, I always recommend contemporary, near-future, or the far future as a setting for your story in today’s market.

I’ve worked on dozens of historical novels and read hundreds more. Let me bring my experience to your project and hire me as your freelance editor.