The last two weeks have been a flurry of revisions (thus the relatively infrequent blog updates). I’m reworking the first novel in my Fire & Brimstone series, titled Devil’s Fire, to be released by RainTown Press in 2013. And boy, has this revision been a total bear. I’m working with two really fabulous editors at the Press who have cut open the seams on problems with the manuscript, and given me some great suggestions to make this the best final product it can possibly be.
But, as is often the case, large-scale developmental edits aren’t easy, or time-efficient. My deadline is Oct. 5. Let’s just say I’m losing some hair.
Nevertheless, I’d like to share some nuggets of wisdom I’ve discovered during this latest rewrite, and perhaps you will profit from my pain.
1. It’s the destination, not the journey.
This article came out last week, but I’ve been returning to it daily as a sort of cleansing ritual. “Nine Ways to Shorten a Long Story” by Rayne Hall discusses not just ways to cut length; these tips will reduce distance between reader and narrator (deleting introspection) and increase readability and tension (deleting backstory).
It seems counter-intuitive, I know. Won’t removing all that angst decrease the emotional content? Quite the contrary, in fact: reducing a character’s ruminations on a subject from one paragraph to one sentence makes that statement hit much closer and harder to home.
The focus in the article, and the focus I’m taking in these revisions, is on destination–i.e., avoiding drawn-out wind-ups, cutting or deleting “travel time” (cars, bikes, walking), and starting scenes right at the juiciest parts.
2. Let the dialogue do the talking.
As my writer’s group gals know, I have some trouble with inserting more-than-necessary amounts of non-verbals in the middle of dialogue–usually feelings, commentary on the speaker, or lengthy descriptions of arm positions/sighing/eating.
In this draft I decided to cut down on the non-verbal dialogue tags and let my characters do the talking. I picked up this advice after reading Tim Bowler’s Frozen Fire, in which you can find pages of quick, back-and-forth dialogue, without even an indication as to the speaker. And you know what? It was awesome. At first I thought, “God, this is going to be confusing. Who’s talking?” But the dialogue itself makes that pretty clear. When you’ve only got two speakers, why not? It lost nothing by cutting back on the non-verbals, and allowed the natural cleverness, humor, and tension in the dialogue to shine.
The best part? The non-verbals you do end up using really stick out. And I guess there’s another point to Hall.
I added a new scene to the second chapter of Devil’s Fire in order to introduce Sophie’s love interest, Everett Preston, a little sooner–and exercised some of my newfound powers:
“Just transferred in.”
“A transfer, huh. We don’t get a lot of those.”
I fixed my gaze on my shoes. “The school made an exception.”
Dang. Someone’s got an unresolved issue there.
3. Observations don’t make the character.
Boy, did this book have some lame character introductions. Here, let me just quote for you. This is Desiree’s original introduction:
Sitting with us was Veronica’s friend, a cool-tempered girl with wavy dark hair named Desiree Lewis.
Uck! How boring! I dropped like, four adjectives (I count the hyphenated one as two because it’s so bad) in one sentence. I have no picture of Desiree in my mind at all. Cool-tempered? How do we already know she’s cool-tempered? This is the first Sophie has seen of her, to my knowledge.
So what do I do? How do I make this description pop, to feel alive?
Well, obviously, show, don’t tell. But there’s more. I wanted to give Desiree flavor. I wanted to give her tangible character, to make her someone ironic and likable and easy to imagine as a real, living, breathing person.
A brunette, dressed in what could only be described as a business suit, leaned across the table. “They always have engines, Brian,” she said, as impassive as if she were delivering the morning weather. She turned to me before he could reply and extended a hand. “Hi. I’m Desiree.” We shook—or really, she shook me. “Desiree Lewis.”
Boom. She’s introduced by entering the conversation–delivering some typically-Desiree sarcasm. Instead of mere interpretations of Desiree (“cool-tempered”), we get physical evidence: she’s overdressed, stoic, and a little domineering. But still totally likable, and a good complement to the fast-talking, superficial Veronica.
It really lends her some voice right from the get-go, which is unbelievably important in YA fiction, and something my last draft was terribly lacking.
4. Voice is just a colloquialism away.
And while we’re on the subject of voice and removing emotional distance, I feel like I finally understand how to write first-person narration. I mean, it’s nothing spectacular. Sophie isn’t a particularly eccentric character–she’s more got the ring of an everygirl, thrust into a world she doesn’t understand.
But that, in itself, has presented some challenges. How do you write interesting and engaging voice, even for an everygirl?
A motto I’ve been carrying around this revision is to eliminate thoughts and make them statements–if they’re necessary enough to escape the chopping block. Frankly, I don’t know why Sophie “thought” things in the first few drafts. Maybe the writer that I was then figured that’s what “voice” meant–literally.
What Sophie needed was more honesty. She needed to talk like an everygirl, even in her musings. “He looks like a movie star, she thought,” becomes pretty clunky and unmanageable after a while. Why not just, “He looks like a movie star”?
Or, even better: is there a way to narrate the thought so it comes out sounding colloquial, like a girl speaking out loud?
“You look lost, little lamb.” A guy walked up next to me and swiped my map without so much as asking. “Where are you trying to get to?”
Orlando Bloom. It had to be. But like a younger, blonder version of Orlando Bloom, with a grin that could melt dry ice. His hair was tied back so only a few strands fell in front of his face, and it looked like a consultant at Ralph Lauren had been paid to dress him.
“Room F8,” I said, taking the map back and flipping it over to show him my schedule. My hands had inexplicably started trembling. Maybe it was because this guy looked like a freaking movie star. “I have history with Dr. Arnold.”
It took some time to wrap my head around Sophie as a character, but four drafts later, I think I’ve got a handle on it. She’s an everygirl with some pep, a quick wit, and a certain degree of educated skepticism. Even just nailing down a few descriptors of her helped shape her voice and gave it some added interest.
5. Source material.
My fifteen-year-old cousin has been instrumental in developing Devil’s Fire. Before I signed with RainTown Press, she helped me shape the first few chapters for maximum teen-girl-enjoyment. On top of that, earlier this year she returned to me a printed, fully-edited copy of the manuscript (!!) in a manila folder. Her comments are usually like, “I don’t think she would say this,” or “That’s kinda dumb.” I mean, seriously, who is this girl? I don’t know how I got so lucky.