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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Elements

The Editing Agenda: Adding Layers

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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Once you’ve finished your first draft and you’re ready to delve into the editing process, one of the first things you should tackle is adding layers. Layers make every great story come to life. They make a well-rounded character realistic, a plot and its details that much juicier, and they have a way of making the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place. And while there is definitely a time and a place for punctuation, grammar, and all things syntax, without layers, your story will always fall flat. So where should you start?

Plot

While there’s really no right or wrong answer to that question, the place I tend to start is overall plot. Take a look at your outline, timeline, storyboard, or whatever you have in the way of notes for your story, and review the major plot points. Don’t have an outline? I strongly suggest making one at this point. It will help you weed out any inconsistencies in your plot, and it will become increasingly crucial in tightening your story. Once you have a rough outline in place, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does the plot make sense?
  2. Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end?
  3. Does the first two-thirds of the book build tension and conflict?
  4. Do the subplots make sense? Do they make sense on a timeline?
  5. Are there any inconsistencies, particularly with placement and foreshadowing?

Those may seem like rudimentary questions, but if the answer to any one of these is no, you have some corrections to make before you begin adding in layers to the plot. As anyone who has ever attempted to write a book can tell you, a solid foundation is immensely important to a writing a successful book. Without it, your work will break down and eventually cave in on itself like a house of cards, leaving you both frustrated and discouraged.

After you’ve made any necessary revisions and can answer yes to all of those questions, it’s time to add more layers. For plots, this means adding additional subplots, minor conflicts that will build more tension along the way. But don’t add conflict in haphazardly. Each subplot that you add MUST contribute to the overall plot or character development. If it doesn’t, it’s fluff, and it doesn’t belong in your masterpiece-in-the-making.

Characters

When you’re done tackling the plot, it’s time to move on to characters. Again, it’s always a good idea to keep a catalog of all your characters and their bios. There are a lot of writing programs out there that can help you with this if, like me, you like to keep things organized electronically, but plain old index cards work just fine too. Whatever your method, keep your character notes handy. You’ll need this during the editing process both for fact-checking and for layering. If you need help with writing character bios, I highly recommend using scribbledwriting’s (Kayla Detton's) character analysis worksheet. It’s got just about every question you could ever imagine on it.

After you’ve gathered all your character notes, use your outline to go through your book piece by piece and find your weakest characters, the ones who should stand out but don’t, or the ones who just don’t seem realistic enough. Those are the ones you’ll want to focus on. Pull their character charts and pick a handful of dominant traits you know you want to use in the story or that should be focused on in the plot. Then ask yourself these questions:

  1. What does this character want and why?
  2. What sacrifices are they willing to make to get what they want?
  3. What obstacles does this character have to overcome along the way?
  4. Is this character successful, or do they fail?
  5. How does this character change along the way?

By understanding what drives your characters and using their traits to affect their actions, you’ll be able to layer in scenes that reflect that and further develop them, making them more realistic to the reader. Dialogue is a great way to do this, and occasionally so are thoughts or backstory. But again, when you add in scenes, it’s important to keep only those that propel the plot or the character. Anything else would likely be seen an as info dump.

Environment and Worldbuilding

Next is environment and worldbuilding. This is my favorite part of the layering process, mostly because it gives the author a chance to really shine and bring to life the world they’ve created. Even if your story takes place in a real location, you still have to make the events of that location believable, and that’s where environment and worldbuilding come in.

The first step is to, yet again, dig up any notes you have about the world you’re dealing with. If it’s a real location, pull actual blueprints if you can find them, dig up articles about the kind of plants and trees that grow there, the weather, and the general atmosphere of that area and the surrounding ones. If your location is made-up, create a list of guidelines, rules, and/or any laws of physics that may come into play. Now it’s time for the questions:

  1. Do the rules of this world make sense?
  2. Are the rules consistent with each other and with the plot?
  3. If a character breaks a rule, can it be justified in the plot?
  4. Is the world easy to picture? Are there enough descriptions?
  5. Does each location serve a purpose?

If you answered no to any of these, it’s time to go back and rework the environment, or perhaps the rules involving it. Consistency is by far the most important thing since it’s the thing readers will probably call you out on first. If you make a rule, stick to it. If you have a character that breaks it, it should be justified. And each location you mention in your story should absolutely serve some purpose in the overall plot. After all, you want to relay the events in your book that matter the most. Most readers don’t like consuming empty calories.

Once your answer is yes to all the questions, you get to my favorite part—the incredibly artistic part—of writing fiction. You can add layers by bringing in new vivid descriptions and extra details to areas that were previously lacking them. One of the best ways to do this is through the eyes of the characters, describing the environment and objects when they first come across them, slowly adding more detail bit by bit as the scene unfolds. This part of the layering process is a lot like painting a picture—probably another reason why it’s easily a favorite of mine. Just remember, there is a line with adding description that you don’t want to cross. Too much detail or wordiness will leave your world looking more like a toddler’s finger painting than a Picasso masterpiece.

Backstory and Final Touches

After you’ve made it through all the other stages of layering, you’re ready for the final step: finishing touches. This including weaving in a bit more backstory and any other last-minute details that help put the final pieces of the puzzle together. The best way to do this is to examine the story scene by scene (a storyboard comes in handy for this one), breaking it down into chunks. You can then add in any remaining details that you wish, but please do so sparingly, or you’ll be left with—yep, you guessed it—fluff. Too much frosting on a cake, and you can no longer taste the cake.

Detailed Dialogue

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

In my Why Good Writing Matters series, I covered dialogue as a whole. Now I'd like to go more in-depth with dialogue and give suggestions for sprucing it up and making it natural and easy to follow. Just as variation in  prose shapes good writing, so does variation in characters' speech. Sentence length and style, topics of conversation, and vocabulary/language are the main areas where dialogue can be enhanced. That dialogue can then be used to accent the surrounding prose.

Dialogue as Prose
One of the great things about dialogue is that it can be used for manipulating the reader and building plot. For instance, if you have a scene where you are unraveling delicate information, incorporating backstory, introducing new conflicts, or a combination of these, one option is to explain the actions of the events through characters' conversations. Take this scene from Catching Fire (Book 2 of The Hunger Games trilogy):

             She [Madge] saw my reflection behind her and smiled. "Look at you. Like you came right off the streets of the Capitol."
            I [Katniss] stepped in closer. My fingers touched the mockingjay. "Even my pin now. Mockingjays are all the rage in the Capitol, thanks to you. Are you sure you don't want it back?" I asked.
            "Don't be silly, it was a gift," said Madge. She tied back her hair in a festive gold ribbon.
            "Where did you get it, anyway?" I asked.
            "It was my aunt's," she said. "But I think it's been in the family a long time."
            "It's a funny choice, a mockingjay," I said. "I mean, because of what happened in the rebellion. With the jabberyjays backfiring on the Capitol and all."

Notice all of the context surrounding this short stretch of dialogue. There is mention of a place called the Capitol, and it is clear by Madge's comment that Katniss looks out of place. By the next few sentences, one can ascertain the Capitol is a place of influence. A small amount of backstory regarding the pin is then mentioned, and the subsequent dialogue serves as an introduction for more history on the symbol and the place called the Capitol. It is clear from their conversation the symbol has become somewhat taboo and holds a dark past directly tied to the Capitol. All of this information is revealed to the reader through simple conversation, and the style allows the author to control how much of the information the reader absorbs in this scene.

Although this wasn't true for the above excerpt, sentences in dialogue don't always have to be completed and can actually be very useful in building suspense and tension. Take this short exchange from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5 of the Harry Potter series):

            "Don't call them that!" Hermione said furiously, but Umbridge did not appear to have heard her. Still pointing her shaking want at Magorian, she continued, "Law Fifteen B states clearly that 'Any attack by a magical creature who is deemed to have near-human intelligence, and therefore considered responsible of its actions—'"
            "'Near-human intelligence'?" repeated Magorian, as Bane and several other roared with rather and pawed the ground. "We consider that a great insult, human! Our intelligence, thankfully, far outstrips your own—"
            "What are you doing in our forest?" bellowed the hard-faced gray centaur whom Harry and Hermione had seen on their last trip into the forest. "Why are you here?"

Each time a character speaking is cut off, tension and anger emits from the other characters, shown through the intense remarks and accompanying body language. The suspense then builds, as inevitable confrontation approaches.

Reasons one might choose this method of prose:

1.      This is a great way to control which parts of the plot unfold and what information is relayed to the reader.

2.      This method can be used to switch from one character's thoughts to another (reserved mainly for limited omniscient narrative). For example, if Character A is the main focus of a story, a conversation with Character B can then act as a bridge into Character B's thoughts and point of view.

3.      Dialogue can simply be used as an alternative kind of prose to keep the reader's interest.


Vocabulary and Accents
Vocabulary and accents can clue readers into a number of attributes about a character, including educational background, origin, and preferences in friends. However, it can also be used to purposely lead the reader astray. At some point in our lives, most of us make our own choices about accents, whether consciously or subconsciously. And although it's true that cultures and subcultures have a great influence on our speech, so does peer pressure.

During college, I had a professor who taught linguistics. In his first lecture, there was nothing out of the ordinary about him or his lesson; he taught us the basics of how language worked and spoke with the same accent as everyone else. At the end of his first class, he turned and informed us that the whole lesson had been an experiment. When he spoke next, his accent was no longer the one we'd heard all throughout the lesson; it was unmistakably West Virginian, something none of us were accustomed to. The reaction was immediate. Several students giggled quietly. Others started whispering to their friends. After several moments of the commotion, the professor raised his hand to signal silence to the class and resumed speaking with a Midwestern accent, the one he'd been using.

He informed us that he could tell many of us weren't used to second accent. He went on to confess that accent he had been using to teach us during the whole lesson was in fact not his own, that he actually spoke with a West Virginian accent. However, like our class, his peers in school often laughed and him and judged him. It was at that point he chose to teach himself how to speak with a Midwestern accent so that he would be viewed as normal.

Just as with my professor, characters sometimes choose the way in which they speak. Incorporating dialects in writing can provide a richness that no other method will. However, the dialect should be consistent and not overdone; you'll know you've done a good job if others can easily follow the text and understand what the character is saying without having to pause to figure out articulation. A great example of a well-written accent is Hagrid's in the Harry Potter series.

Incorporating Body Language
Body language is also a topic mentioned in my previous article on dialogue, but it's important enough to repeat. One sure sign of amateur dialogue is the occurrence of talking heads. This term can be applied when characters engage in conversation without having accompanying body language or action to propel the plot. Often when talking heads emerge in a book, it's unclear who is speaking. You don't need to have a tag on every line of dialogue, but they are necessary when clarifying identity or when there is an abundance of action. Even when few tags are needed, body language should take the place of adjectives and adverbs.


Dialogue is difficult to master, even for the best of writers. It's a fine balance between exposing plot while remaining concise. Use a combination of all the aforementioned methods to achieve the most efficient and natural dialogue. Also, keep dialogue short and appropriate for the character/scene, and avoid stating the obvious. Pay particular attention to dialogue in tense action scenes; a character will not have time to stop and ramble when they are under attack. Judgements, and therefore words, will likely be quick and brash during these scenes.

Avoiding Clichés

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Clichés make everyone cringe. They hurt your writing, and they usually trigger an involuntarily eye roll or groan from readers. It's best just to avoid them altogether. But sometimes it's hard to determine whether or not something is clichéd. Colors are easy. If it's something you've heard quite often--fire engine red, pitch black, or sky blue for example--you know it's probably one of those descriptions with a cliché tag attached. But what about characters, opening scenes, and individual lines? Though clichés vary from genre to genre and there are many of them, there are a few key ones that spread across all genres that you'll want to watch out for. Mary Sue/Gary Stu If you've been writing for any length of time, you've probably heard of a Mary Sue (Gary Stu for the male counterpart). These characters are very predictable, stereotypical, and downright boring. They are neither very well-developed nor original. Though not always true, Mary Sues/Gary are often protagonists, and can even be a reflection of the author's personality. While sharing just one or two quirks, habits, or interests with the author isn't a big deal, the protagonist shouldn't be a portrayal of the author. In fact, each character needs to be his/her own person. No two people on this planet are exactly alike, and no two characters should be either.

Tips for avoiding clichéd characters:

1.      Give each character a distinct and different personality.
2.      Avoid making them a Plain Jane or an outcast. This type of character is way overdone, especially for a protagonist. If you're going to make your main character typical in either of these ways, be sure to include something extraordinary about them, setting them apart from the rest.
3.      Avoid using stereotypes for characters, such as nerd, jock, dumb blonde, etc.
4.      Give characters a realistic body type. Having no physical flaws at all--or at least not having a body part the character is unhappy with--is impractical.
5.      Be specific. The more details you provide about your character, the clearer and more unique he/she will be.
6.      Make them well-rounded; give them more than one interest. Pick hobbies that fit the individual.
7.      Give them several faults of any type. Everybody has them. Just as there are no perfect people, there should be no perfect characters.

Life Stories and Death Scenes One of the quickest ways to diminish any interest a potential agent or publisher might have in your book is by having a "My name is..." opening. This is a habit many inexperienced writers develop during their early years of writing. They use this type of opening in an effort to show the importance of the story itself. I've certainly been guilty of it before, and I have to force myself to dive right into the story sometimes. It's tempting to give an introduction to the main character; after all, they are usually the most important person in the story. However, if a book is well-written, introductions aren't necessary in the general sense. The author does not need to make the character address the reader in any way. If the plot and action are good in the beginning chapters, the reader/agent/publisher will be hooked regardless.

Another often used opening is a death scene. It's a great, dramatic entrance, and lets the reader know that something big happened. The idea is to make the reader want to read more about what happened, capturing their interest and preparing them for the rest of the book. But sometimes method has the opposite effect. When someone picks up a book to read, they expect a good story to be told. They expect there to be a plot with substance, one that builds up and leads to a climactic point. By starting with a huge death scene, the author has already given away a valuable asset in storytelling, the climax. My advice is this: If you're going to start with a death scene, make it make it odd. Make it small or meaningless. Make it a joyous event, or something else unexpected. Have it be a cause and effect event. In other words, make it completely unique to any other death scene you have ever read, or make it so ordinary that that reader flips through it without much thought. This will give you a personalized opening without giving away key moments in the story right off the bat.

Tips for avoiding clichéd opening scenes:

1.      Avoid introduction speeches.
2.      Avoid giving away a climactic moment.
3.      Make the scene have at least one unique element to any other story.
4.      Research clichéd opening scenes, and avoid them. These include dreams, storms (especially at sea), and daily morning routines. Here's a great source about clichés when writing scenes: http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2010/05/06/8-common-cliche-mistakes/.

Dark and Stormy Nights Clichéd lines are just about as annoying as clichéd characters. These lines include those such as the infamous, "It was a dark and stormy night," "Houston, we have a problem," and "Is it just me, or is it hot in here?" Most of the time, these lines are part of dialogue, but not always. However, there is a way to overcome clichés: avoid them, or make fun of them. If you use them and it's obvious that you're poking fun at the line, go right ahead. Some of the most successful television series are ones that make fun of themselves from time to time. Just use this tactic sparingly.

Tips for avoiding clichéd lines:

1.      Research. It's pretty easy to know what is a cliché and what isn't, especially if you've heard the line before, but here are examples of a few just to get you started: http://digitalderon.com/top-ten-lists/digitalderos-top-10-worst-cliche-lines-of-dialogue/.
2.      If it's a line that doesn't just hint at what's coming but makes it blatantly obvious, skip it.
3.      Pay attention to the weather. Yucky weather can certainly make a bad day worse, but that doesn't mean it always has to rain. If your character is heartbroken or depressed, making it dark and rainy outside just sets you up for one of those used-one-too-many-times lines.

Toying with Time

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

When you mention the genre fantasy, some people imagine dragons and faraway lands, some steer toward vampires, werewolves, and witches, and others--like myself--tend to be drawn toward the element of time. Time is a mysterious idea, even to modern-day scholars. It fascinates scientists and writers alike, spawning many theories and stories revolving around the variables of this fluid beast. We know that over time organic matter breaks down, and new matter can take its place. Time propels us forward, making progression possible. We use time to categorize and arrange past events. But little is known about time other than how it affects us. However, it is something that we religiously base our routines and everyday lives around. Acceptance of time means changes are inevitable; some things can be completely replaced over time, and others simply altered.

The sheer magnitude of the concept of time is one of the things that makes it so fascinating to us. There is almost an unspoken knowledge of its power. It's something that we have absolutely no control over, causing anxiety for some and a sense of relief for others. For writers, time is one of those magical toys that can be dreamt about contorted. It defines the lives and journeys of the character that we craft.

But playing with time is like playing with fire; it's a difficult to harness but is extremely dynamic. Most writers use this capability to their advantage, even in the most basic sense. They establish a chronological order of events but present them in a way that is the most effective for conveying the story. However, when time is presented as an object in a fantastical story, it becomes a living creature capable of wreaking havoc on the characters and story being told.

In order to best utilize this tool, there are three main areas a writer should focus on.

Idea or Object? Time is either going to be seen as an idea or an object in a story. If it is simply an idea, it will usually follow a linear path and affect the characters much like time in the real world as a unit of measure to signify when certain events occurred. If time as seen as an object, it is elevated and personified, and can be captured, manipulated, or even stopped. This view of time is most likely to occur in a story where there is sorcery. It will require the creation of extra rules which must be consistently maintained. Toying with time in this way alone can certainly hold a great amount of potential for plot development and unexpected twists.

Time Travel The next thing you'll want to establish is how flexible time will be: Will time manipulation and/or time travel be possible? Managing this view of time is tricky. There are whole shows based on this idea. Some are executed quite well, but ones that aren't are monstrosities. The best aid for writing this kind of a story is research. See what's out there, what works well, and what doesn't. Come up with your own rules and try them out. Just make sure that every action has a consequence. Based on context of the story, readers will know how devastating the consequence should be. When something as big as time travel is involved, readers will expect long-term effects to characters' actions. Even if an immediate consequence isn't appropriate, one should be queued for later.

Weave in History If there is any sort of manipulation of time in your story, a history of why and how time came to be that way is absolutely crucial to a well-developed plot. Without it, the actions of the characters toward the object of time are meaningless. Be careful to avoid long blocks of backstory though; doing so can simultaneously bore readers and give away too much of the plot. Use it instead as a detail to enhance the current point in the plot and peak interest in past events.

Why Good Writing Matters: Internal Consistency

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

This is the final blog post in my "Why Good Writing Matters" series. My husband gets credit for the idea on this one. His profession is pretty much the complete opposite of writing, but he always holds great insight in the field nonetheless. One of the many reasons I love him! Now, onto the good stuff...

Have you ever read a book that had a great plot, intriguing characters, and a distinct voice but lacked consistency throughout? If so, did it irritate you and ruin the book for you, or did you view it as no big deal?

This may not be the case for everyone, but stories that lack internal consistency—that is, they have plot holes or material that contradicts some other part of the book—really grate on my nerves. In my brief research mentioned in the introductory post for this series, I found this topic held the most disagreements. Some readers weren't overly bothered by inconsistencies, and others equated them to blasphemy, ruining an otherwise perfectly good book. There was also a spectrum of opinions in between. Where people stood within that spectrum depended on the type of inconsistency and the frequency of it for any given book.

That just goes to show, there’s a lot of gray area with this one. I'm not certain only a few minor inconsistencies are enough to deem an otherwise well-written book garbage. However, there are a few things regarding internal consistency that really do matter. These are the things that your readers will pick up on and remember even after they've finished the book.

Rules of the Universe
Know the physical rules and laws of your universe. Record them. Memorize them. Following the rules of the universe is a tip for writers of any genre, but breaking said rules results in differing consequences depending on the genre. If you bend or break a given rule in a strictly standard fiction, your readers may notice but be a bit forgiving so long as it's infrequent. If you make this mistake in a fantasy novel, watch out. Not only will there be a dip in believability, but your readers will likely become irritated and more critical as they continue flipping pages, making the experience for them much less enjoyable. By sticking to the rules you set, you'll gain even more credibility for your awesome writing skills.

Writing Through the Ages
Historical fiction novels and even standard fiction pieces taking place a few decades ago lend themselves to a minefield of problems: clothing, language, and objects (particularly medicine and media devices) that are downright tedious to get right. In a full-blown fantasy novel, the author can make up materials, clothes, language, and whatever they wish. So long as they stick to the rules for those things, there is no problem. But when fiction is part of reality, consistency in these things isn't just a good idea; it's a necessity. Novels that take place in the early 1700s need to reflect the era being written. The same is true even with a more modern time period like the 1950s. If you try writing a novel that takes place (in the USA) in 1959 and mention someone getting a mumps vaccine, you're in for a bashing from your readers. The bottom line? Do your homework. Writing a novel that takes place in another era can be fascinating. It can also be frustrating as heck. But if you’re dedicated to doing the research required and you respond to critiques from your beta readers, editor(s), and sensitivity readers when needed, you’ll be greatly rewarded. Well-written pieces of these genres are easily some of the best books out there! Get them right, and you'll gain serious respect from your fans.

Character Facts
By far, the most common and widespread issues has to be with character facts. Think date of birth, relations to other characters, physical features, dialect and word choice, personality traits, etc. If you make a mistake in one of these areas, your readers will notice, and you’ll likely get flogged for it. Since this has nothing to do with research (unless you're dealing with a specific mental or physical illness) and everything to do with organization, make a point to catalog every character during the planning and drafting stages when you write a book. Find a method that works for you, whether it be index cards, a spreadsheet, a writing program, or something else. Then use it as a reference point any time you add a new fact, change an existing one, or are unsure what the existing ones are with any of your characters.

Cross-reference your facts constantly. Even when you've checked and rechecked everything ten times over, go back and check again. Have your editor (who should already be looking for them) check too. An inconsistency in this area can best be described as one of those nagging thoughts in the back of your head. When readers come across one of these errors, they make a mental note of it and never forget it. So do yourself and your readers a favor by making sure to keep even the smallest of facts about your characters straight.

This is an area that I personally struggle with the most; I tend to leap first, then go back and try to undo all the knots I've created. I can tell you from experience that this isn't the best approach. All it takes is just a few knots to produce a major unwanted kink in your plot. So set the facts and adhere your story to them, not the other way around.

Internal consistency soothes readers, increases credibility and believability, and is congruent with good writing. Inconsistencies stand out like a sore thumb. Avoid them, and you'll avoid having to endure a painful sore that will blemish your otherwise beautiful masterpiece.