Earlier this month I ran Keith Snyder on Novels in Progress as a Particle. I’ve been gradually finding out that not a lot of people clicked through to read it, mostly because it’s a .pdf. (Update: it’s now in HTML. I’ve redirected the link.) That’s too bad, because it’s stellar practical advice. It’s also, rarest of rarities, original: stuff I’ve never before seen, heard, or thought of. Let me give you some samples so you’ll go read it yourself:
No problem is just one kind of problem.This sheds a lot of light on a rule of thumb I’ve known for years: If someone tells you a passage doesn’t work, they’re almost always right. What they tell you you ought to do to fix it is less certain to be right. I’ve also known that one problem scene can elicit six different authoritative suggestions on how to fix it. These well-known phenomena suddenly make sense if you look at them in terms of there being an undiagnosed root cause of the problems.
Every weakness is a weakness in more than one way. a problem with “characterization” turns out to be, coincidentally, where the plot also happens to lose track of itself. Lack of sufficient description is also where character voice disappears.
That means several things. First, it means a story is a unified whole, and that discussing “plot,” “character,” and “setting” as though they are separate is a mistake. Second, it means there’s more than one way to attack the problem. In the case of insufficient description, it would be easy to say, “Put in more description!” However, it might prove as fruitful to say, “You’ve missed a chance to let your point-of-view character tell us how she sees the world.”
This may go partway toward explaining why I’m probably contradicting other authors from whom you may have had advice, and why the next author you consult will contradict me: Sometimes, it’s because somebody’s actually wrong, but it’s also possible that we’re all seeing the same weakness, and simply approaching from the particular angle with which we’re most comfortable. We see the same problems, but solve them differently. So if more than one reliable source complains, but they’re complaining about different things, try to figure out the root cause of the symptoms they’re pointing to.
If you can identify the function of a scene, it’s easier to solve your problems.This is why we’re forever telling students at Viable Paradise to finish the first draft, write straight through to the end of the book, instead of slowly creeping forward via rewrites of rewrites of rewrites. (“Epicyclic rewrites,” I say, and watch to see whether anyone gets it.) You can’t perfect a scene or chapter until you know what it’s doing, and you can’t know that until you know where the book goes and how it ends. Sometimes we hand out Certificates of Permission to Write Badly, if that’s what the student needs to start moving forward.*
Seeing your novel as a series of scenes, each of which has some sort of concrete purpose that you can articulate, can be helpful when trying to figure out how to attack problems.
For example, figuring out which dialogue to cut becomes clear when you know what the scene is for—you just cut whatever dialogue doesn’t agree with that function. Same with description, narrative, and everything else; there’s always going to be stuff that you keep because it’s fun, or chilling, or sad, or interesting, even if it doesn’t directly contribute to the scene’s function—but when you keep the scene’s function in mind while you’re cutting, it becomes easier to recognize what’s expendable and what’s not, and you’ll start making choices that make the scene feel taut.
Hide and Seek.Let me say a fervent “amen” to that one.
Some new writers love to withhold information so they can give the reader a surprise later. This is not necessarily a bad thing in all cases, but it can mean the reader is being denied the chance to enjoy the book now. It might also mean you’re relying too much on the idea of surprising the reader later instead of entertaining the reader now.
If you’re hiding information, the question I’d ask is why?
If the answer is that you’re writing a story with a twist ending—like The Sixth Sense—and all the hidden information builds toward it in concretely identifiable ways, then you may be fine.
If the answer is “I just like surprises,” then you may be reducing the dramatic impact of your story by sacrificing an interesting story now for a structurally meaningless surprise later.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. For some reason, we think springing a gotcha on the reader will make them go “Wow!” But it often doesn’t work out that way; by the time we get to the surprise, we’ve had to slog through too much that wasn’t interesting on its own.
And then—often—the surprise serves no identifiable purpose. So first there’s a slog, and then there’s no payoff.
Okay, so you got me. Big deal.
If this is one of your bad habits, the solution is simple: If you’ve got something interesting, use it sooner instead of later.
Why I’m not line-editing.I’m sometimes asked whether a book can be fixed with a good rewrite. In most cases I say no, because what it first needs is a good rethinking. That makes the outcome a lot more uncertain. Rewriting is a skill, but every rethinking is a different problem.
In most cases, you’re here because you’ve got a manuscript that you’re not entirely happy with. Usually, the source of your unhappiness will be something structural: A plot that doesn’t happen, a character who’s not really a person yet, an incompletely thought-out thing of some sort.
Line-editing doesn’t make sense in that context; there’s no point agonizing over a single line if the entire chapter might be cut during your next revision. A story with structural problems is like a car with six side-view mirrors, one wheel, and twelve front seats; we can work on polishing each of the mirrors, and congratulate each other on how nice the seat leather is, but how much good is that really going to do when what the car needs is three more wheels, eleven fewer front seats, and an engine?