Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Not-So-Minor-Changes, Part One

Many writers don't enjoy micro-editing: the teeny tiny little changes and grammar rules that they have to follow to make their fiction flawless. It can get a little tedious, and there are always going to be a few things that slip by. Beyond proofreading, I've also written a post about small changes to strengthen your story, little things to add or take away or watch out for.

Sometimes, though, the alternative is even more daunting. It's the scenario every writer is secretly afraid of: what if, reading over your manuscript, you find something that takes more than just a fine-tuning or an inserted sentence? What if it looks like you'll have to get rid of whole chapters, rework an entire sub-plot, or even *gasp* start over?

First, panic. Go ahead. It’s totally natural. The rest of this post will be here when you’re done having an emotional meltdown.
Basically, red ink is scary. Even if you're editing yourself.
Okay, if you’re back and ready for some advice, I have some for you. Basically, making major changes requires a balance between two opposite-yet-still-true-statements.

True Thing 1: you may not need to change everything. Sometimes, there are ways to solve even seemingly unsolvable problems with the plot or structure of a novel. Don’t assume you’ll have to scrap the entire thing.

True Thing 2: Sometimes you may have to change everything. Or, at least, it will feel this way. You might need to get rid of a cherished character, cut out a plot twist you found particularly clever, or say goodbye to a chapter that was crammed full of your most heart-wrenching dialogue.

Do it anyway. Your story will be better for it. (I feel a little bit like a camp counselor telling the little rookie that getting poison ivy, eating mystery meat, and sleeping in the rain “builds character.” But it’s still true, anyway.) When you get so attached to a line or chapter or event in your story that you can’t bear the thought of changing it, then you’ve stopped caring about the story you want your readers to hear. Basically, you get to choose: will I put in the effort to make this the best story possible, or will I cheat my readers by ignoring this change that needs to be made?

I'm going to give tips for three common big-picture edits over the next three Wednesdays. Obviously, that means I won't cover everything. These are just a few common panic moments that I've had or helped other writers work through.

One: “I made something important happen through a series of events that were too coincidental or unrealistic.”

First, good for you for admitting this. Honestly. Gold star for you. Often, as writers, we can find ways to justify our characters’ dumb luck. The reader, however, isn’t as forgiving. (Take a look at the lists of examples of this favorite is probably the trampoline delivered in The Emperor's New Groove right when Yzma is falling from the sky.)

General rule: coincidences that result in bad things happening to the protagonist are usually fine. If a teenager’s car breaks down on the way to the first date in the middle of the rain in a bad part of town, we’re okay with that as readers. If, on the other hand, a woman overhears a conversation about secret information buried in the old submarine, just happened to bring her scuba-gear with her, and finds out her date is really a government agent with knowledge about the coordinates of said submarine, we might go, “Um…okay, that’s a bit too much.”

Most of the time, though, there are legitimate ways to make things happen without relying on coincidences. For example, with our scuba-woman, what if she flirted with the guy knowing he was government agent? Or what if she has to run to the nearest scuba gear supplier, and finding the place closed, decides to break in? Or what if the government agent, wanting a witness, sent her over to the punch table where the two men were talking, not caring that it might put the woman in danger? All of those things make the plot more believable and more interesting.

Sometimes, though, little fixes won’t work. If you have a few chapters in your contemporary novel where a child is mistreated and starved in an Oliver-Twist-like orphanage and no one in the suburban neighborhood seems to notice or care, you might have to do some research into what the foster care system currently looks like. Keep in mind what your goal was for that chapter: in this example, let's say it was to create sympathy for the kid and establish that he has withdrawn into himself. You can accomplish that goal with other plot points. It just takes a little more work.

Important Note: as in the aforementioned Emperor's New Groove, if you want to be funny, coincidences are fine. Point them out if you want to. Put them everywhere. Make them as implausible as you want. Everyone loves a good trampoline-ex-machina every now and then.

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