(Part Three in a three-part series about how to edit when you run into a major problem. Check out Parts One and Two.)
Three: “There are long sections of my novel where it feels like nothing is happening. But those chapters still have important information in them, so I kind of have to keep them.”
This has happened to me a lot, since I don’t usually outline before I start writing. Pace is a big reason to rewrite sections. The plot has to keep moving.
Before you do anything else, identify your “lullaby” sections. This is what I call the boring parts, the chapters readers would be tempted to skip if they were in a hurry to get to the end. Then try one (or more) of these ideas:
Add conflict. It’s fine to have chapters where there aren’t any explosions, shouting matches, or cave-ins. But it’s not acceptable to have a chapter without conflict. Easiest way to have conflict? Work with the characters you have. If you haven’t noticed in your interactions with others, people are experts at creating conflict. They have different goals, have the same goal but different ways of getting there, hate something the other likes, want to avoid confrontation, love confrontation, say things they don’t mean, refuse to say things they should have said a long time ago, and generally are excellent at adding tension to a scene. Also, people and their interactions—positive or negative—are extremely interesting to us. We are drawn toward dialogue because of that. Try putting a little conflict in to liven up scenes where not much is going on.
Cut to the chase. If you’ve got a boring chapter, read it straight through, then write out all of the story-relevant information it contains—anything foreshadowing, information about the plot, details about the character. It could look something like this: Maya doesn’t want to move to Dallas, there is something wrong with the new baby that no one wants to talk about, and there might be a blizzard coming. Then list a series of ways you could delete that chapter and still convey that information in another chapter, probably in a different, shorter way. Make sure all that information gets in there, though…don’t want any loose ends due to your editing.
Switch the setting. Playing with the location of your chapter can be an easy way to bust through cliches and add interest. Two people discussing something while sitting in the kitchen. Yawn. Two people discussing something while stuck in an elevator, avoiding someone on the other side of the crowded bar, or walking through the service tunnels under Disney World. Suddenly, things are more interesting. Or keep the kitchen and switch out the details: one person trying to discuss something while the other one is attempting to cover up the fact that the dishwasher is overflowing because he used the wrong kind of soap.
One final note: if you end up cutting out a beloved bit of description or witty dialogue exchange in your editing, do not mourn its early death. Save it somewhere. You might be able to use it (possibly in a modified form) later. At the very least, you can read over your file of scraps and cuts and be impressed at what a great writer you are. And the readers will thank you for staying on task and keeping the pace of your story going.