Using amnesia in your story can lead to a contrived plot. Without proper preparation, readers will be left annoyed and confused. Don’t fall into this trap. Follow these simple tips
Writing by Committee
When betas take control of your novel and how to get it back
Beta readers are one of the biggest issues beginning writers have. Either they don’t have any, or they have too many. Having too many beta readers swamps the new writer with advice, and that isn’t always helpful. Too often the new writer will become trapped in an endless loop of rewriting by trying to incorporate every piece of advice. In this process, the writer loses her own voice and ends up with a bland mess. While getting some feedback is a crucial part of revisions, don’t let your novel get stuck in this phase.
How to know you’ve lost control
Endless revision loop- While it may seem like revisions take forever, there is a point where they need to end. If you have been revising for a year or more, then you may need to reevaluate your process.
Eventually, you will reach a point of diminishing returns. If the novel still isn’t working after several rewrites, then you may need to scrap the idea.
Conflicting advice– The problem with beta advice is that it is just advice. I always tell clients that half of what I say will be helpful and half will not. It’s up to you, the writer, to decide which pieces of advice will help you reach your story’s goals. Everyone has their own preferences. Can you think of a novel that everyone else loved, but you were just so-so? Because preferences vary, you will get conflicting advice. This does not mean that one is right and one is wrong. It is simply subjective.
Lack of interest– This is a symptom that you are getting frustrated with your process. If the prospect of getting feedback from a new beta is more dreadful than exciting, then you may need to move on. Once you begin to lose interest in a project, this is your warning that it may be time to either put this project on hold or abandon it.
Changing something “because a beta said”– As an editor, I have frequently seen the same manuscript in various stages. Almost every time I see a revision, something that I really loved from the previous version is gone. When I ask about it, the conversation usually goes,
Her: “Oh a beta said I should change it.”
Me: “Did they give a reason why?” (pacing, plot, foreshadowing?)
Her: “They didn’t like it.”
The problem with this scenario isn’t because the author didn’t follow my advice, but because she didn’t follow her own. The author created the original version the way she liked it. There was nothing actually wrong, but the moment someone else criticized it, she gave in just to please a beta. Surrendering your story to beta readers will not get you a story that you love.
Evaluating Writing Advice
There are three types of writing advice: correct, subjective, and wrong
Correct advice is anything that fixes a mistake. Plot holes, consistency errors, POV errors, etc. These are things that can objectively be considered wrong.
Subjective advice is anything that falls under personal taste: pacing, levels of description, overall narrative distance, likability of a character, etc.
Wrong advice is anything that conflicts with the writer’s intention or is simply wrong (for example, never use “was” is a great example of terrible writing advice.)
How to evaluate writing advice
When you get feedback from a beta, you need to decide what advice to use in your revision. Yes, you can (and should) ignore some advice. Not all advice is good.
Question 1: Who is giving the advice?
Even if your beta is a published writer, that does not mean she is qualified to give you writing advice. Imagine a horror writer giving you feedback on your middle-grade feel-good adventure. Or an erotica writer giving advice on a Janette Oak-style Christian romance? All writers will have preconceived ideas about what makes a good novel based on their preferences. So try to get feedback from writers who read what you write.
Secondly, try to get feedback from another writer over a family member or friend. The average reader will be able to say whether they liked something, but won’t be able to articulate specific issues as well as another writer.
The friend: This part was boring
The writer: The pacing in this scene begins to drag. There is too much backstory that isn’t relevant to the character’s current conflict. Also, the stakes aren’t clear. Tighten up the sentences by eliminating extra description to increase the tension.
Which feedback would you prefer?
Question 2: Does the feedback match your vision?
Your beta says the main character should be nicer so she’s more likable, but you were planning a redemption arc. Following this advice would weaken your character arc and take your further from your story’s goal. When you decide which advice to implement, make sure you keep your personal vision of the story as your goal. If the advice is counter to that goal, it won’t help your story.
Question 3: Does the feedback improve the story?
Too often writers change things and the results are no better than the original. Before you make a change, decide if the new is actually better than the old. Positive changes are those that increase tension, clarify characterization, clarify motivation, increase the stakes, fix mistakes, etc. Switching the setting from the football field to the soccer field does nothing. Make sure you can identify a reason for the change.
Question 4: Am I chasing trends?
Nothing will date your story faster than writing to trends. So if you are making a change because something is more popular, think twice. There are certain exceptions. Genres like romance and urban fantasy have conventions that readers have been trained to expect. For example, many romance lines are written in 3rd person point-of-view, while urban fantasy is almost exclusively written in 1st person deep. There are exceptions, but if you are expecting to write for a specific publisher’s line, you will have to follow the conventions of that line.
Taking back control
Before you make any change ask:
- Why am I making this change?
- How is it improving the story?
- Do I like this version better?
If you can’t answer these questions, then reconsider whether you really need to make the change. Change for the sake of change isn’t progress.
Writing is subjective. No two people will agree on what makes it great. Don’t let beta feedback trap you in an endless editing loop. Learn to evaluate writing advice and take back control of your story.
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In novels, “stage directions” are sections where the author begins listing a character’s visible actions without giving the thoughts or feelings associated with them. As a result, the reader is bombarded with useless information, unable to discern which actions are meaningful.
The Manuscript Shredder’s Novel Revision and Editing Guide
You’ve just typed the end, now what? It’s time to revise, but revising without a plan can lead to hours of wasted effort and frustration. Rather than getting stuck in an endless editing loop, use this novel revision and editing guide to make sure you are doing the right edits in the right order.
Step 1: Take a step back
The first step in any revision checklist is to take a break from your book. Chances are you will be ready for one, but the real reason you need to take a break is your brain needs a rest. Writing a novel is an emotional experience. We writers love our characters, and we love our stories. If you try to begin your editing process when you are still wrapped up in the emotional release of finishing your story and seeing your characters finally win, then you will lose objectivity. Taking a break from your manuscript will give you time to regroup and get some perspective on the project. This will give you a chance to put your creative self aside and dust off your editing mode. An editor must be objective and even a little cold-hearted to kill all those little darlings.
Step 2: First pass
In the first pass, all you are doing is getting it ready for alpha readers. What does this mean? Making sure the novel is actually finished. As you read, make any notes of things that must be added for the story to make sense. This is not where you add that new subplot idea that you had. In fact, try not to add anything that isn’t critical for the reader to understand what is already on the page. Why? If the story makes sense as is, then adding extras is only padding the story with nonsense that will drag the pacing down. Few readers are looking for 1000 page epics. Today’s reader wants a fast-paced read and that means keeping everything centered on moving the plot forward.
The amount of work you will need to do will vary depending on if you are a plotter or a pantser. Plotters will have done most of this work when they were creating their outlines. Pantsers will use the first pass to really piece their novels together.
What to do: Pantsers
Your first task is to make an outline. This is a simple one or two line description of what happens in each scene. You can do this on paper, in a spreadsheet, or use the synopsis feature in Scrivener. Why? Having a list of your scenes and their function will make every step after, easier.
Using your outline:
- Identify any scenes that do not move your plot forward and cut them. (These are usually world-building exposition and character-building scenes that don’t have lasting consequences for the plot) Make a note of any important information in these scenes and make a plan to add it to another scene.
- Identify any characters that do not move the plot forward. (These will likely be eliminated in the useless scene purge.)
- Identify any subplots that do not impact the main plot, consider cutting these. Again, make sure any important information is inserted into another scene.
- Identify plot holes.
- Now make a short description of your character arc and check character arcs for logical progression.
Once you have this, you are ready to do your first rewrite or major edit. Go back through and fix these issues. This is the main difference between plotters and pantsers. Plotters do the majority of their work before the draft, and pantsers do the majority of their work after.
If you are a meticulous plotter, you have likely already finished these steps before you began your draft. If not, go back and take a look, otherwise continue to the next list.
What you are looking for on the first pass: Plotters (Second pass: Pantsers)
- Are all the scenes complete?
- Do scenes end in the right place, or do they stretch on too long?
- Do your scenes contain useless filler or chit-chat dialogue?
- Are any scenes missing or out of order?
- Does characterization follow a logical progression?
- Are your character reactions consistent with his/her place in the character arc?
- Look for characters who could be combined. Does your YA heroine really need an annoying work friend and an annoying school friend? Combine them into one person. Make it easier for your readers to keep track of your secondary characters by using as few as possible.
- Make sure your secondary characters make appearances throughout the story.
- If you use the XXX trick, (typing XXX when you cannot remember a word or detail.) do a “find” and fill in those missing vocabulary words.
- At this point in the process you may use spell-check to fix any spelling errors or incorrect words for clarity, otherwise, leave the grammar alone. Do not waste time reworking sentences or paragraphs at this stage, as you have not finalized which scenes will remain in the story.
Once you have a coherent plotline, you are ready to find your alpha readers.
What’s the difference between alpha readers and beta readers?
Alpha readers are the readers who read your book when it is still in its generation stages. These readers will give you feedback on overall structure, characterization, or world-building. Alpha readers focus on big-picture items. They may suggest large-scale changes, like those from the Pantser list above. I engage my alpha readers in the planning stages and pass out scenes before the draft is even finished. We bounce ideas off each other and brainstorm possible plot twists. My alpha readers keep me on track and point out potential problems before I have a chance to even write the scenes. (If you’re working with a professional editor, this stage is called a developmental edit, substantive edit, or manuscript evaluation. If you wish to work with an editor at this stage, make sure you have eliminated any unnecessary scenes and subplots before submitting. Editors charge by the word, so there is no reason to pay extra for words you already know you are going to delete.)
Using the feedback from your alpha readers, solidify your plot line and character arcs. Again, at this stage don’t worry about putzing with small details. There’s no reason to worry about commas or small line edits. Just get the plot and characters completely formed.
Now you are ready to look at the smaller details
In this pass, you need to focus on the prose.
Start by checking your MRU’s. Make sure your characters always react to something after the reader sees it. “I jumped three feet in the air when she poked me,” creates distance, but “Something poked me, and I jumped three feet in the air” lets us share the character’s experience. Often just switching sentences around will fix many paragraphs.
This is where you need to eliminate any exposition that doesn’t serve the scene. These are long paragraphs of characters thinking about things that do not affect their current situation. But what about world building? You need to show the reader why this particular aspect of the world building is affecting the character right now. Your readers won’t care about how many gods are in your character’s pantheon, but they will care if her God of War demands her little sister as a blood sacrifice. Make sure your world affects your characters, otherwise, it’s a pointless backdrop.
Once you have your MRU’s set, tighten the prose.
- Eliminate unnecessary words or phrases. (And make sure you are not using commas to tack things into sentences where they don’t belong.)
- Eliminate unnecessary passive voice (Not all passive voice is bad, click here for full details)
- Look for stronger verbs, etc. (Again, not all adverbs are bad. Use your best judgment)
- Double check your sentence constructions. Look out for repetitive sentence starts, participle phrase abuse, or otherwise convoluted sentence structures.
At this stage I have my computer read my manuscript back to me. This makes finding incorrect words or bizarre sentences stand out.
(Watch out for over-writing at this stage. Many writers get into trouble trying to blanket eliminate words like “that” and “was” from their manuscripts. Don’t write anything weird to avoid using these words. Keep your prose sounding natural. If no one would ever say that sentence aloud, then try again.)
Now look for point-of-view (POV) errors. Sentences that make statements the POV character couldn’t possibly know, for example, or unintentional instances of authorial intrusion (click here for more about authorial intrusion) Also, make sure you have consistent narrative focus. If you are using deep POV, look out for unintentional distancing: phrases like “I felt, I thought, I saw,” etc.
As you are making these scene-level edits keep an eye out for consistency errors. The gem in the dagger suddenly turns from blue to green, for example.
Once you have completed this pass, you are now ready for beta-readers.
Here’s where writers can get into trouble. You do not have to implement every change suggested by a beta reader. If you had good feedback at the alpha stage, then there shouldn’t be many large-scale changes at the beta stage. A beta may simply not like your book, that does not mean there is anything wrong with it. So don’t get caught in an editing loop trying to please everyone. You will never succeed. If you did not get feedback at the alpha stage, then you may need to rewrite large portions of your book. Go back to the beginning of this list and make sure you are proceeding in the right order.
Your beta should suggest small level revisions, like those on the stage two list. Once those are completed, you are ready to move to stage three.
Once you have finished the edits from your betas (remember only make the changes that you agree with) you are ready to move forward. If you are working with a professional editor at this stage you will be getting a line edit. Again, make sure you have done all you can before submitting to a professional. You want her to be fixing things you could not have fixed yourself.
Spelling, punctuation, and grammar. If you are having trouble focusing on these tiny details, do this edit from the back to the front. By reading the novel backward, you are forced to look at each sentence individually, and you won’t fall into the trap of just reading the novel.
After this edit is finished, you are ready to query. (Although, if you land an agent, then you will likely do this process over again with her.)
Now move on to proofreading.
Proofreading is done to make sure your text looks the way it’s supposed to on the page. This means removing phantom characters, extra spaces, soft returns, tabs and other inconsistencies in the text. This will make sure your text behaves correctly on any e-reader. Proofreading will also include all the visual elements in the body of your text. This means setting any illustrations or tables as well as making sure the margins, headers, footers, page numbers, chapters and scene break elements are all consistent throughout the book. This will also include the table of contents and making sure all additional pages (title page, acknowledgments, about the author, dedication, etc.) in your publications are consistently formatted. If you are doing your own typesetting, then you should have another party proof the copy. Also, make sure you view your book in several different formats on multiple devices.
Editing is a long and often tedious task. By using this plan as a guide, you can see where you are in the process and know what to do next. By keeping your editing steps in the correct order, you will avoid wasting time, making your editing process more efficient and more effective. Don’t wander around in the editing wilderness. Let this guide be your map to getting that manuscript done.
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Telling is a quick, efficient way to relate lots of information to a reader in a short amount of time. It works for writing transitions or other places where you need to move the timeline ahead, or where showing mundane details would bore readers. Despite its usefulness, “show don’t tell” is probably the most commonly given advice in writing. So why is it so hated?
Telling stops your story cold.
Every sentence spent telling your readers about something is time not spent moving the plot along. Imagine meeting someone for the first time over coffee and the entire conversation is her talking about people you have never met and her deepest darkest life experiences? You’d probably think she needs some serious counseling, but so many of the manuscripts I see begin this way.
Telling creates distance from your characters.
When readers don’t experience important parts of the character’s story with the character, they feel like they are hearing the story second-hand. Readers want to live the character’s life. This includes important events. Telling prevents the reader from discovering important information with your character.
Telling is boring to read.
Nothing is happening to your character. And no one likes a lecture.
Does the reader even need to know?
Before you spend your time trying to rewrite all your telling into showing, you must first decide if the reader even needs to know the information. Unnecessary information falls into two main categories: backstory and research.
Backstory is a critical piece of building your character, but not all of it is important to the reader, or it isn’t important at the time. Are you trying to slip in unrelated information where it isn’t needed?
He smiled at me showing his perfect white teeth and handed me the helmet. I took it reluctantly.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
I can’t ride a bike. I haven’t been on one since I was seven. The bike was a gift from my grandmother. She saved for an entire year to get it for me that Christmas.
You can see the exact point where the telling crosses over into information the reader doesn’t need to know. The author may think she is laying the foundation for something significant about the bike later, but the grandmother line is too much. The reader has no connection and, therefore, doesn’t really care.
Yes, you should do research for your novel. No, you should not dump all your new found knowledge on your unsuspecting reader.
Rather than spell things out, let the characters naturally use vocabulary and cultural norms specific to their world and leave enough context clues for your reader to understand what is happening.
“You are risking our position, our future, our lives for this girl. What happened during your huakaʻi? You were supposed to return a grown woman, but you’re obviously still a child.”
Allani throws another bunch of nama into the bucket, punishing the food for my stupidity. I reach toward the pile to help her, but she snatches it away.
Here we have two unfamiliar terms, but there is enough information in the context for readers to understand what is happening.
How do I know if I should turn telling into showing?
When you come across telling in your manuscript decide if the information is worth keeping or if it should be cut entirely. To keep details off the chopping block, they should meet two conditions:
1. Readers must want to know the information
This can be subjective, but the following questions can help increase reader interest.
Ask- Does the reader have a strong connection to the character?
This is why info dumping at the beginning of a story never works. Readers aren’t connected to the character, and they don’t have the opportunity to make a connection because the character isn’t doing anything but sitting at a table thinking big thinks. So no page 1 sob stories.
Ask: Does the information affect the character in a meaningful way?
In other words, is it relevant to their current conflict? If a character has an arrow sticking out of his chest, that affects the character in a meaningful way. Knowing that the arrow is made of ash wood and eagle feathers really does not.
2. The reader cannot understand what is happening in the book without it.
Either the reader must need to know the information for the plot to continue (set-up), or the reader needs to know the information because she would not understand the significance of a current event in the scene (backstory).
Once you have established the information is interesting and relevant we need to change the telling into showing.
Changing telling into showing
Identify the information the reader needs.
When did the character learn this information? (backstory, description, or transition)
1. Backstory (Sneaky telling)
Unless you are willing to resort to a flashback, (which may or may not work) you may have to cheat and sneak it in. (Which means you are still resorting to telling, but you will be doing it a more interesting way) A few suggestions.
- Have your characters argue. This will move the focus away from the telling and toward the tension between the characters. Something is still happening in the scene, and you get to throw information bombs at your reader.
“Do you have any idea what you are walking into?” That sounded a lot smarter in his head.
She rolled her eyes. “What? It’s a house. One that I’ve been invited to, I might add. And what are you doing here?”
That was a great question. One he wasn’t sure how to explain. “Look, I know what’s in that house, and it’s a little out of a Ghostbuster’s league.”
“Ghostbuster?” She poked a finger into his chest. “Listen, I don’t care what you think of me, but I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m perfectly capable of handling myself, and how would you even know why I was here?”
Her head tilted to the side. It wouldn’t take her long to figure it out. “And don’t lie to me, that was you in the shop. Were you spying on me?”
The shop was a little occult bookstore that she ran. Mostly useless trinkets and New Age nonsense, but a few things had surprised him.
“Look, this has nothing to do with you. I’m asking you to walk away,” he said.
She clicked her tongue. “Why should I do anything for you? You left. I don’t owe you anything. Not now, not ever.”
Through the argument we learn that she’s a paranormal investigator, the pair had a previous relationship, and he left her, all without resorting to an info dump.
- The second interesting telling strategy is to use subtext in your dialogue and context clues to help your reader puzzle out the information (see example above.)
- The final strategy is to drop a one line bombshell. In the following example the author spent an entire chapter showing how much the MC hates “outlanders,” then she closes the chapter with a bombshell. While it still counts as telling, it works here.
A shimmery glow that only I could see surrounded the woman.. It was blazing red, meaning she was a fire elemental, an Outlander traveler from the realm of Muspelheim.
I skirted around her like the flames I saw could actually burn me. Judging by the frown she gave me, she thought I was a weirdo. I didn’t really care. I just needed to get out of there before I choked on my own hypocrisy.
I feared and distrusted Outlanders. I also was one.
Rather than have your characters sit and describe what everything looks like, have them interact with the setting. Usually, this is enough to ground your characters in their world. The reader doesn’t need to know what the hairbrush looks like, but that the character used it to brush her hair exactly 100 times and that she nudged it until it was straight on the nightstand before clicking the light off and on and off again. By showing how the character interacts with the setting, you keep reader’s attention focused on the main action.
If you’ve summarized information and forced the reader to skip something the character experienced off camera, you’ve created a transition. While there are times where this is appropriate, important experiences should be shown to the reader. When you find these, expand them into a scene. Letting your reader discover the information with your character will creating a meaningful shared experience.
The simplest advice to change showing into telling is to treat your novel like a movie. If the reader can’t see it on the screen, (in novels the other senses count too) then you are telling.
Make sure you don’t fall into the telling trap. By changing showing into telling, you create a more engaging, living story that readers will never want to put down. Don’t let telling kill your story. Transform those passages and give readers the story they want.
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