Friday, August 5, 2011

Improving Your Story with Self-Editing

I recently completed some revisions on two short stories I'll be placing on Amazon soon. THE CASEBOOK OF CAROLINE RHODES will feature the main character in my "Rhodes To Murder" series, first in The Case of the Fugitive Farmer, a cold case concerning a farmer/soldier who went missing during World War I, and then in The Case of the Extra Ingredient, a present day puzzle in which Caroline witnesses a man die unexpectedly while on a whale-watching tour in Maine.

I was pleased with the stories when I first finished them. Then, while cleaning out some files, I came across a hand-out authored by Kathleen Nance, a piece on self-editing she'd written and distributed at a mystery conference. After reading the 8-page article, I decided to re-read my stories to see if I couldn't make them even better using Kathleen's advice.

Well, I could. And I did. Now all I have to do is format them for Kindle and they'll be up at Amazon in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I thought that other writers might want to take advantage of Kathleen's advice. Yes, you've probably heard all this before from writing instructors, or at conferences featuring speeches by best-selling authors. But I think most of us can benefit from hearing it again; definitely one of the biggest reasons manuscripts are turned down by agents or publishers is because they're poorly edited.

So what does Kathleen say about improving your work? She advises writers to make their stories more concise, more accurate, more precise, more logical, more dramatic, more memorable, more vivid, and more harmonious. Does the plot make sense with a logical flow of events and clear causes and effects? Do things happen because a plot needs it, not because it's a natural outcome?

Speaking to that point, I recently read a story where a man set out one afternoon to find a certain house in a village. Darkness fell while he was walking and he switched on his flashlight. The author hadn't mentioned the man having a flashlight previous to this, so to explain its presence, she wrote -- and I won't quote her exactly -- ("He'd stopped at a store and bought one before setting out for the house."). And yes, the author did put the sentence in parentheses. This is clearly a sign of a writer making something happen because the plot needed it rather than it being a natural thing for the character to do.

Continuing with plot, Kathleen asks if the writer has avoided coincidences, contrivances, conveniences. With characters, do they over-react or under-react to situations? Do they grow or change? Does each scene have a purpose? Does the scene advance the internal or external tension of the plot? Does the writer establish sufficient motivation for the characters' actions? Is there too much or too little backstory, and should it be broken up or trimmed? Has the writer planted information that will become important to the reader later on? Does the writer show, not tell when it comes to establishing a character's personality, physical description, motivation, goals? Does the dialogue sound natural when read aloud?

And of course, has the writer obeyed the basic rules of grammar and punctuation? Used adverbs and adjectives sparingly and precisely? Resisted overuse of words, passive construction, cliches, negative phrasing, and redundancies?

As Kathleen admits, it may take several read throughs to catch all the little problems in a manuscript. But self-editing and revising gets easier with time and will undoubtedly improve your story.

I know it improved mine. :)

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