We started this series by assuming you already have a story arc. Or at least a story idea and possibly an outline. For many writers, next up would likely be your characters, who they are, descriptions and so on. (Actually, it’s not unusual to have your characters in mind first and build everything around them.)
Hopefully, as you were building your story, you kept notes. Notes about things like what you named your characters, their descriptions, places you took them to, facts from research you needed to do and anything else peculiar to your story, characters and settings. These notes are sometimes called a story bible, a fact sheet or a style sheet. Some writing software will actually provide these notes for you or, at least, provide a pre-formatted list where you can enter things from your story that you’ll want to keep track of.
(Much of this is covered in our Writing 101 workshop or most other workshops for those new to writing.)
In any case, you’ll want to have those notes handy as you go through and tweak your novel.
As you’ve been following our series, we hope you’ve been adding various locations, dialogue, scenes, as well as developing subplots and support characters. Weaving things together and adding to your story notes.
But, as you’ve built your story, it’s not unusual to find gaps in the story line, characters that simply don’t seem to fit the image you wanted and scenes and locations that are just not adding anything to your story. Quite often, these will jump out, nag at you or simply not read right as you self-edit; no matter how many times you try to rewrite them. Or they will be pointed out by your beta readers.
So, how do you find and fix these?
Let’s take the easy ones first.
Chapters and Paragraphs
Start with your longest chapters, the ones that are at least half again as long as the others.
- Why is each one long?
- Are you just rambling or is it long because it’s an important scene?
- Can it be broken in two?
- In some cases more?
If it’s the latter, you really need to take a hard look at it.
The same goes for paragraphs.
- Does each chapter and paragraph have more than one point?
- Do they flow well?
- Are they strong or do they sag in the middle or snail crawl to the end?
Quite often as we get more and more into writing our story, comfort wise, we can forget that there should be natural break points. Why? Because long or weak chapters, and paragraphs, wear out the reader. Unconsciously, they can be holding their breath, anticipating what will happen next, or worse, become bored and want to get on with the story.
So go through your longest chapters and paragraphs to look for natural break points. Check to make sure each flows well, is adding to the story line, that you’re not just rambling or repeating what’s already been said several times.
This last point is quite common, especially with new writers. Make your point, make sure it’s clear and get on with your story.
The easiest way to do this? Read it out loud. Your ears are your best friend. As soon as you stumble over something on your read-through, go back and read it out loud!
Scenes, Support Characters and Subplots
As you go through your chapters, keep track of how many scenes, support characters and subplots are in each. Are the scenes all related and reasonably balanced? Do any of the chapters jump out with too many scenes, too many characters, scenes or characters that don’t seem to fit?
- Does the plot and subplots comfortably flow from one scene to the next?
- If there’s a skip, is it intentional, such as a flashback?
- Do the subplots flow smoothly into and out of the main plot line and not take over the main story line or become a story of their own? **
- Finally, does each scene and character add to your story?
** subplots may often be a mini story on their own, but they shouldn’t detract from or be more interesting than the main story line.
Things That Don’t Make Sense or Aren’t Clear
Often a sentence, especially in dialogue, simply comes out wrong. It either doesn’t make sense, interprets wrong or doesn’t say what you wanted it to.
More often than not, these will stick in your head as you read through. Something will nag at you and make you go back and reread it.
“But, you and I are different.” Does that mean you and I are different from each other or we’re both different from everyone else?
“She reached up, pulled his head against her chest and looked into his eyes.” She can’t really look into his eyes with his head against her chest. How about, “She looked into his eyes, reached up and pulled his head against her chest.”
This brings up a good tool. When a compound sentence doesn’t make sense or read right, flip it around. This is also a great way to avoid consecutive sentences from starting with the same word.
“I love staring into your eyes, they fascinate me. I love your wavy brown hair, the little dimple in your chin and your rosy cheeks too.”
Rewritten it could be: “Your eyes fascinate me, I love staring into them. Then there’s your rosy cheeks, the little dimple in your chin and your wavy brown hair.” (The reader will automatically carry the words ‘I’ and ‘love’ over from the first sentence.)
Characters and Credibility
In many cases, this will require that you double check your research.
Review the traits you’ve given to each of your characters.
- Are they coming across as you envisioned them, as a reader would expect?
- Do you need to add more details to their physical description, make their emotional responses and actions more in line with their job or the image you want?
- Is your soldier or firefighter a hunk? Is he or she in shape to lug the equipment they need to or lift a person and carry them out of a burning building or out of harm’s way? Have you described their equipment correctly, their conversations using soldier, police or firefighter speak?
But it’s not just your characters you’ll need to review. The same goes for your scenes.
“He stood at the gate and watched her come up the boarding ramp.” Not going to happen; at least not after 911 when no one can get beyond security without a ticket.
“He scratched under Moonshine’s chin as he waited for Ciara to get ready.” The problem here is, several chapters before, they (we) named the kitten Moonlight.
This last example is actually from one of our stories, where Robyn and I, both experienced editors, missed that we had misnamed the kitten in this scene, which is the perfect lead in for our last point.
No matter how many times you’ve self-edited your work, always, always, always, have another set of eyes look at it. Preferably someone experienced in editing.
Why? Because you’re the author. You know what should be there and you’ll read it in, whether it’s there or not. You know the kitten’s name is Moonlight and that’s what you’ll see, just as we did.
Out of fairness, we had joked about naming the kitten Moonshine, which likely helped us to read over the error. A poor excuse and Moonshine would likely have nagged at an independent editor who would have checked it against the story’s fact sheet!
What critical things do you look for when you do your read through?