Friday, September 09, 2022

Karen S. Wiesner: Fiction Fundamentals: Writing Elbow Grease, Part 5 Editing and Polishing Tricks & Tips

Writer's Craft Article

Fiction Fundamentals: Writing Elbow Grease, Part 5

Editing and Polishing Tricks and Tips

by Karen S. Wiesner

Based on Cohesive Story Building, Volume 2: 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection

In this three month, in-depth series, we're going to go over what could be considered the grunge work in building a cohesive story. Revising, editing, and polishing require a little or a lot of writing elbow grease to finish the job and bring forth a strong and beautiful book.

In Part 4 of this series, we discussed editing and polishing. This time we'll go over editing and polishing tricks, which--over the course of the next several weeks--will include highly-focused tip sheets. 

Bernard Malamud said that he wrote each book at least three times: "Once to understand it, a second time to improve the prose, and a third time to compel it to say what it still must say." While I won't argue the sequential order of doing these things stated with a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, writers unquestionably do need to remove clutter to make a story understandable, to prevent tripping hazards caused by clumsy prose, and to infuse a story with vivid, interesting narration that says succinctly what it is the author wants it to say, concurrently bringing the whole story to life.

Putting on work clothes for the final step closer to your dream--where a story really comes into its own--you'll no doubt feel a sense of gratification, realizing your baby is almost ready to leave the relatively safe nest you've provided, hopefully to make you proud. Over the next several weeks, I'll provide some basic tricks in the form of tip sheets to help you with this process. We'll start with description.

Tip Sheet: Description

• Don't write character descriptions in a single block (i.e., for more than three sentences) at any point in the book. As Renni Browne and Dave King say in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, "Your readers will find your story more engaging if they can meet your characters the way they meet people in real life: a little at a time. ..." Or, to put it another way, here's a gem from Tina Jens's "Such Horrible People" in On Writing Horror: "...don't drop chunks of your character sketch into the story like a brick into a fishbowl." Intersperse character description throughout a scene.

Unless the main character is the only one who has point of view in the story, avoid putting a POV character in the embarrassing position of having to describe herself. Preferably, character descriptions should never be written from the same character's point of view (i.e., her own POV). More effectively, write them from other characters' POVs. Describing herself from her own POV, she'll either sound like she's going on and on about herself with every little detail of her looks, or she'll sound outright conceited. Of course if your story only has a single character POV without an omniscient narrator, you will have to write descriptions from her POV, but, again, these need to be interspersed carefully and used with the purpose of revealing the character's unique personality and emotions.

• Don't inundate the reader with the same descriptions over and over, such as of eye color, hair color, etc. Mention descriptions only once or twice each throughout an entire story. You might want to use these in moments of intense intimacy or within dialogue. In general, though, trust your reader to already have the fact stored away and used in the vision whenever a particular character is in a scene. As Dwight V. Swain says in Creating Characters: "Show how the character looks and acts, and then let your readers extract whatever feelings they wish from it."

This example of effective description from Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen, equally conveys personality:

Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton's mother, was a good-humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who walked a great deal, seemed very happy and rather vulgar. She was full of jokes and laughter, and before dinner was over had said many witty things on the subject of lovers and husbands, hoped they had not left their hearts behind them in Sussex, and pretended to see them blush whether they did or not.

Descriptions are more than adjectives! Descriptions should never simply be adjectives tacked onto a person, place, or thing, such as in the following example of overdone description:

With a heavy sigh, he set down the black ceramic coffee mug, his green gaze settling heavily on the gilded clock ticking loudly against the familiar noises outside his solid oak office door.

When you reveal every last detail of your character and/or surroundings, as above, the reader--sure--can picture the scene, can even feel like she's right there...but she might not want to be now that you've hit her over the head with it. In the above paragraph, the reader does get a picture of the setting, the character, and the things around her. But it's the type of writing that calls attention to itself and thereby pulls the reader out of the story. Every writer's cardinal rule (and goal) should be to keep a reader reading.

Description can be turned into something vital to your story during your editing and polishing.

Next week, I'll present an editing and polishing tip sheet for dialogue.

Happy writing!

Karen S. Wiesner is the author of Cohesive Story Building, Volume 2 of the 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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