You have finished your first draft. Congratulations. That’s a significant accomplishment. More manuscripts are abandoned than actually finished.
Most first drafts are wordy—and that’s okay, because your goal in the beginning is simply to turn a story into sentences on a page. But when you rewrite and edit that final draft, each word must prove its worth.
The problem with verbosity, vague word choice and generalizations is they distance the reader from your characters. The closer your reader gets to your character, the more likely she is to connect emotionally, and emotional connection is what a novel is all about.
You want your reader to feel what the character feels. Your goal should be to close the “aesthetic distance,” that space between the reader’s conscious reality and the illusory world. If the reader is so emotionally engaged with the novel that he’s unaware of the outside world, a clumsy or confusing sentence (the sort you have to read several times to understand the meaning) can jolt the reader right out of the fictional dimension.
Occasionally, a novel, movie or television program will intentionally violate the aesthetic distance by speaking directly to the reader. Kevin Spacey’s character often does that in the television program, “House of Cards.” William Goldman repeatedly interrupts his story and speaks to the reader in his meta-fictional novel, The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure.
Another way to close the aesthetic space is by eliminating “filtering” words, as Janet Burroway calls them in her book, Writing Fiction. Phrases such as “I thought,” “I heard,” “I saw,” and “I felt” are examples of filtering words. I call them “distancing words” because the narrator experiences the event rather than the reader. They also slow the pace. Most of the time, you can delete these words and let the rest of the sentence stand or make it more active.
Look at the difference:
I heard his head hit the floor with a thud.
His head hit the floor with a thud.
The first sentence conveys the information through the narrator. The second sentence puts the reader into the scene so she can hear the sound.
Ms. Burroway says it’s “a common fault and often difficult to recognize—although once the principle is grasped, cutting away filters is an easy means to more vivid writing. As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness.’ Yet when you step back and ask readers to observe the observer — to look at rather than through the character — you start to tell, not show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”
As you work on your second draft, make sure your plot is solid. I use a list of 26 questions, all of them concerning basic storytelling elements. If I have to answer no to any one of them, I rewrite that section.
Here are my questions with brief comments. Use this guide to make sure your manuscript is the best you can create.
1. Is your story fresh and original? Is it a tale about a cigar-chomping, alcoholic, misogynistic cop who calls women “dames”? I’m sorry but that’s been done—a lot. Try turning that stereotype on its head. Make the sheriff a quiet, intelligent, pregnant woman whose husband is an artist. Or take a story that’s been done many times and change the setting, the historical era and the characters. It worked for Jane Smiley, whose novel, A Thousand Acres, based on William Shakespeare's King Lear won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. What’s unique about your novel? Are there places you could make your plot or your characters more unusual?
2. Do you open your novel with a strong hook? Do you start out with the protagonist’s predicament? Does your plot have a significant story question on the first or second page? Will your beginning grab the reader?
3. Does your plot organize your story effectively? What is your inciting incident? The inciting incident is an event that seriously disrupts your protagonist’s life.
Does your protagonist want something, have opposing forces and expect a serious loss if she doesn’t reach her goal? Is the goal clear to the reader? If you’re having trouble organizing your plot, consider using the classic Hero’s Journey narrative as a guide. (http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero's_journey.htm)
4. Does your novel have conflict? What or who provides it? Your story must have opposing forces: a protagonist who wants something and an antagonist who wants to stop the protagonist from achieving his goal. The antagonist does not have to be evil but he should be a complex character who has clear motivation for his behavior.
5. Does your story have high stakes? A high-stakes situation has important consequences for the protagonist and the antagonist(s). If the character fails in reaching the goal, her life cannot return to the way it was. She will have lost something significant. Danger to someone’s life would be considered the highest stakes.
6. Does your protagonist take direct action as soon as possible, preferably within the first five pages? It’s okay if your protagonist resists getting involved at first, but when she does, she must drive the action throughout the novel. If she’s passive or weak, the reader will lose interest.
7. Are your characters complex (not necessarily likable but fascinating)? If you’ve watched the TV series, “House of Cards,” you’ll be familiar with the corrupt protagonist and his equally corrupt wife. They’re neither ethical nor pleasant but they’re certainly captivating. For your characters to be complex, they should have good traits as well as flaws.
8. Does your protagonist have some sort of special gift or ability?
We admire people who are exceptional, especially when they use their talents in a heroic way. That’s why comic book heroes (Examples: Batman, Superman, Spider-man, Captain Marvel) are so popular. They have talents that save the world.
9. Is your protagonist (and preferably some of your other characters, too) extraordinary? Your protagonist may start out as ordinary, but she quickly should do things ordinary people won’t do. Readers are fascinated with characters that have extreme qualities because they take on seemingly unattainable quests.
Examples: Katniss Everdeen, the young, resourceful heroine from The Hunger Games; Edward Cullen, the teenage vampire in Twilight; the eleven-year-old wizard in Harry Potter, the abused Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the brave Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings and the quintessential noble attorney Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Everyone loves an underdog.
10. Will readers connect emotionally with your protagonist?
A novel is all about emotion, but the author can’t manipulate the reader into feeling something unless the emotion is intrinsic in the story. For example, if the story is about a dying man, a character we have grown to like, you won’t have to tell us how he and the other characters feel. Simply describing the events and the characters’ behavior and dialogue will show us. Avoid maudlin emotion.
11. Do you show rather than tell and tell rather than show when it’s appropriate? You can’t show every real-life minute in a novel. It would have a gazillion pages. You show major events in the story and tell unimportant information.
12. What is your novel’s central dramatic question? The CDQ is that question that the reader wants answered. It might be: Will the protagonist be able to fix the spacecraft’s computer failure and land safely? Will the protagonist catch the killer? Will the protagonist win the race? It’s that question that hooks the reader in the beginning and must be answered for a satisfying ending.
13. Do you stick to your central dramatic question? Eliminate rambling, purposeless tangents and use subplots only when they strengthen and forward the main plot?
14. What are your novel’s theme and premise? The theme is the subject of the novel. The premise is the author’s position on that subject. Suppose the theme is racism. The author’s position would likely be racism should not be tolerated.
15. Are your characters’ motivations clear? It’s true that real life people often seem to act randomly, but characters in a novel should have a clear reason for behaving the way they do.
16. Do you use color and the five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell) to bring a scene to life and make the reader feel as though she has stepped into the story. If you’re worried that description will slow down the novel’s pace, put the characters in action. The reader will remember the description better than if the characters are static. Sensory details are almost as important as emotion and conflict in a novel.
17. Do you use figurative language (with caution) to enhance your prose? Metaphors, similes, symbols, literary motifs or similar narrative devices add depth and richness to your scenes and often help the reader visualize an abstraction.
18. Do your characters behave like real people?
Are they stereotypical, bland, boring, melodramatic? Believable? Do they have flaws as well as good attributes? Do their actions seem predictable? If so, consider adding a twist to your plot.
19. Do all your scenes advance the story? If you can remove a scene without losing anything significant, delete it. Or if it has only a small amount of important information, put that into another scene.
20. Does your dialogue sound believable and further the story?
Some writers have difficulty with dialogue. It is not conversation. It should indirectly communicate the speaker’s underlying thoughts and emotions. It should feel natural, reveal character and advance the plot. Study dialogue from various authors to see how it’s done well.
21. Do you create tension by:
b. Cutting out the boring parts?
c. Making the conflict and the stakes high enough to support an entire book? Putting your protagonist (or someone she loves) in danger or trouble and then making the situation worse? Having the scenes move toward a climax in which the protagonist either gets what she wants or doesn’t?
d. Using subtext to convey inner conflict, enhance dialogue and deepen emotion?
e. Maintaining an appropriate pace?
22. Does your protagonist have a character arc? Your protagonist is on an important journey that will change her life. She should be a different person at the end of that journey than she was at the beginning. The experience will reshape her, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
23. Eliminate filtering words. Use narrative techniques that close the aesthetic distance in your manuscript? Avoid “that” unless it makes the sentence clumsy without it. For example, instead of “How did you know that I like yellow roses?” use “How did you know I like yellow roses?” You can use a global search to find the unnecessary “thats” in your manuscript.
24. Avoid vague words (“nice,” “beautiful,” “good”). Show us what makes something nice, beautiful or good. Avoid “–ing” words. For example, use “He sat…” instead of “He was sitting…” Be specific. Use a Dodge Ram rather than a truck, a red St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap rather than a hat. Use words that evoke sensory feelings. Let the protagonist smell the smoke from the fire, hear the sirens and taste the ash in the air. Make the house green so the reader can visualize it. Avoid repetition and redundancy not only in words but also in ideas.
25. Do you give your characters the ending they deserve? A novel is about struggle. As the writer, you should put pressure on your protagonist until it seems he may not survive. If your protagonist has done the very best he can, he deserves to achieve his goal. If he fails, he may still acquire wisdom, which often is more important than what he originally wanted.
26. Is the manuscript clean, clear and well written? Your novel should be in the best condition possible. Poor spelling, odd formatting and lack of clarity are the signs of an amateur. One way to check your own work is to read it aloud. You may be surprised at the number of awkward sentences, typos and other problems you’ll find.