There are things that happen in the natural course of writing the first draft that make it painful for people to read. DO NOT SHOW IT TO YOUR ADORING FANS JUST YET. This really is NOT the time to ask for feedback unless you want to be lied to. They will look at you with a possum-in-the-headlights smile, and say “Wow…this is really…nice.”
What they really are thinking is, “Holy s**t. This disjointed, hokey mess sucks.” That friend will poke needles in their eyes before they read another piece of your work again.
But even though the first draft is always stinkaroo, don’t try to edit as you write because it interferes with your creative processes and blocks the flow of ideas. While you’re writing the first draft these bloopers should be allowed to just fall where they may, because you just need to get the ideas down. You will reshape them in the 2nd draft. So, today I’m posting the first half of a two-part series on 10 Things to Do in the second draft of your manuscript.
Before you do anything, just put it to one side. Forget about it for a while.
A month or so later, after you have gained a different perspective is when you begin to look for these problems. Fine tuning and rephrasing will settle most of them, and a good flamethrower will take care of the rest!
First we will look at:
1. The Info Dump (my personal failing)
Often new authors feel they need to dump a lot of back story at a novel’s beginning before readers will understand the main story. I did this in my first novel, and I have regretted it ever since! It seems like logical thinking: “Before you get this, you need to know this.” But the problem was, I gave the info dump in the first five pages. Those are the pages that acquisition editors look at and decide whether or not to continue reading the submission. For those of us planning to go the indie route, those pages are also the pages the prospective buyer sees in the “look inside” option on Amazon dot com.
While back story is important for character and plot building, too much outright “telling” freezes the real-time story in its tracks. And for modern genre fiction, beginnings must be active—they need to move.
Here is the opening paragraph of my next novel in the Tower of Bones series, Mountains of the Moon. It is a prequel to the first two novels, and this is the way it currently reads in its second draft stage. It may be changed once the editor gets her hands on it, but right now this is how it stands with the info dump removed:
Wynn Farmer discovered his old boots had holes worn in the soles when he heard the soft, squishing sound, perfectly in sync with every step he took. If he’d known he would be dropped into some strange world when he left the house, he might have planned ahead a little better and slipped some new cardboard into his boots, just until he could get them resoled. Now he trudged along a faint path through a dark, eerie prairie with wet feet, shivering in the cold, misty rain and completely lost.
In the second draft we alter the original words we wrote, subtly slipping little details into the narrative while showing the real-time story, and doing it in such a way that it is part of the action and the dialogue, fading into the background. The reader will understand what you are showing them without feeling bludgeoned by it.
2. Telling Instead of Showing in Prose (heh, heh–my own personal failing)
In the rush of the first draft, of getting all our thoughts about the storyline down, sometime our minds go faster than we can write. We use a kind of ‘mental shorthand’ and write things such as:
Erving was furious.
Martha was discouraged.
These are really just notes telling us what direction this tale is supposed to go. Modern readers don’t want to be told how the characters felt—they want to see. When you come across this in a novel, it is clear the author has published a first draft.
Thus, when you come across this in your first draft, now is the time to follow those road signs and expand on the scene a little. Instead of telling the reader that Martha was furious, you will show this emotion.
Martha stamped her foot, and clenched her fists.
Erving’s body shook with rage, and his face went white.
Show the reader the emotions. It adds word count, but you will also be taking word count away in other places in the manuscript as you go along.
3. Using Dialogue to Tell, Not Show (oh yeah–my personal failing)
“I’m simply not going to do it,” Vivian hissed. (Reader: “What, is she a snake?”)
“Why, oh why, did I ever trust her?” Greg said dejectedly. (Reader: “Aw, that’s sad. Boring!”) (Closes book.)
Please, OH please, avoid attaching adverbs ending in “ly” to speech tags. They are the devil!
If you want to convey an attitude in dialogue, the words themselves should communicate it. Greg’s words already communicate dejection. If you need more, add a line of action:
In low tones, Vivian said, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that.” She turned and walked away.
Greg threw up his hands. “Why did I trust her?”
This gives readers the opportunity to see for themselves the scene you painted with words.
4. A Lack of Contractions in Dialogue (Wait–this is my personal failing too! What’s going on here?)
“Arrabelle, I do not want you to leave me!”
This is one of the worst NaNoWriMo manuscript flaws BECAUSE when we are in the midst of November, we are desperate for word count. “Don’t use contractions” is one of the prime directives of Chris Baty’s “No Plot? No Problem” and if word-count is all you are in the game for, then fine. However, IF you ever intend to publish your work you should use contractions in dialogue. Depending on the type of story you are writing, you may want to use them elsewhere, if that is the style of your work.
This problem may also be a throwback to those days in your high school English class, when teachers deducted points for the use of contractions in term papers. But contractions are effective at conveying realistic speech.
You want dialogue to sound natural? Use contractions.
5. Too Many Speech Tags in Dialogue (Hey–I have that problem too! What the heck…?)
“Jake, are you okay?” Vaia wailed.
“Of course I’m all right,” Jake groaned. “What a silly question.”
“But your arm,” Vaia said. “I thought maybe you…well, the way you’re holding it…I guess I thought—”
“You thought I’d injured it,” Jake said.
“Well…yes,” Vaia said.
Especially when only two characters are talking, readers should be able to keep track of speaker ID with ease. In those situations, speech tags are rarely, if ever, needed. In fact, doing away with tags entirely, unless they are absolutely necessary, is frequently suggested to be a great strategy, although I don’t go that far. Instead of using a speech tag, insert a burst of action before or after a line of dialogue that identifies the speaker and lends opportunities to deepen character chemistry, conflict, and emotions.
Vaia felt something trickling down her cheek. She wiped it, and her hand came away with blood. Jake was pale, and held his arm at a strange angle. “Jake, are you okay?”
“Of course I’m all right. I’m always all right.”
She reached toward his shoulder, toward the torn shirt—but something held her back. “But your arm. I thought maybe ….”
“I’m hurt, but I think it’s fine. You thought maybe I had broken it.” He willed her to admit that she cared.
The intensity of his gaze forced her to look away. “Well…. I did think that. Can you still fight?”
Trade in empty speech tags for emotion-infused writing that can do so much more. HOWEVER—Remember that the reader needs to have clear direction as to who is speaking to whom, otherwise you will lose the reader. And I do recommend you don’t get too creative with them. Said, replied–those are usually all that is required. If you throw in hissed, or moaned, once in a great while for specific circumstances, fine, but not too much please. It’s too distracting for me as a reader. I close that book and move on to the next when the characters do too much hissing and moaning. Just sayin’.
This covers the first 5 things to look for in your second draft. Items 6 through 10 will be covered on Wednesday!
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