This was another of the wonderful panels / mini-workshops on various aspects of writing -- this time, on editing your own work -- by Arianne "Tex" Thompson. Like everything by Tex Thompson, her advice on editing was broken down into bullet points and sub-bullet points, each of which contained examples of how to accomplish it.
1. Eliminate happy coincidences. The coincidences that make the protagonist's life harder are mostly OK. Turn "but fortunately" into "oh, shit".
Example: if you have characters who are willing to help the protagonist, turn them into characters that are not really able to help. Or into character that are able to help, but not willing. Why should I help you? You should earn it. Or characters that are able and willing to help, but their help comes with strings attached.
2. Blow up the boring parts. You are bored reading them, but you don't know how your story should get from part A to part B.
Here are some examples how to make boring parts more exciting.
Instead of having a breakup conversation in a private place like home, or a Starbucks or a restaurant, have it in an unusual setting: in the middle of a traffic jam in a car, when no one could escape, on a whaling ship, or at an 8-year-old's birthday party at a roller rink. Can we do it at a paintball match? This can help you to spice it up and put some interesting twist on it. The world is dropping from under our feet, but we still have to do the hokey pokey, since it's an 8-year-old's birthday party. Or at the roller rink somebody falls and breaks their leg.
In a novel "Matterhorn" (by Karl Marlantes? There are other novels by that title, but I assume that's the one Tex meant -- E.), there is a long infodump when a character goes around a military camp and is introduced to lots of people and is told their military ranks and names. That would be boring, but at the same time there is a medical drama brewing, where somebody has to be medevacuated, but helicopters can't land because of high winds. So there is a ticking clock. The infodumpy introductions are alternated with the medical drama.
A race against time can definitely spice up the boring parts.
Another way to introduce suspense is to let your readers know that something dangerous or terrible is about to befall the characters, but the characters don't know it. For example, the audience knows there is a monster under a child's bed, but the kid doesn't know it. So any time when the kid rolls over and his arm drops off the bed, the audience winces.
Make them deliberate or delete them! A word or phrase repeated twice looks like accidental echo, but repeated three times sounds like you know what you are doing.
This applies not just to word usage, but to plot elements as well. For example: if the characters in your book take a road trip and are staying in motels, make the motels shabbier and shabbier as the characters run out of money. So when they are pulling up to the next motel, the reader will be cringing: what kind of bad things will be lurking at this place?
4. Sharpen relevant contrasts
Conflict is not enough, says Tex Thompson. Contrast is everything.
5. Multitask relentlessly
A great page should do at least two out of three: advance the story, develop the backstory or the setting, and build or reveal character.
Tex Thompson also gave tips on line editing, though I can't put them into nifty numbered-bullet-point format, because I didn't write all of them down. But here are some:
- Before every editing pass, change the format of the manuscript, such as the font or font size. The words line up differently. That way you'll see it more like a new reader. You'll see more what's actually there, not what you think is there. Have Stephen Hawking's robotic voice read it out to you. If your book sounds good while read in robotic monotone, it's good.
- Read it backwards (a basic rule of proofreading). Microsoft Office has a read-it-backward option.
- Delete distancing words: thought, said, saw, heard, felt, realized, wondered. They emphasize the distance between the character and the reader. We want the opposite -- immersion. Too much of that distance and you feel like you are watching someone playing a video game. You can google "filter words fiction" or "distancing words fiction" to find out which words you should consider deleting.
- Tex Thompson mentioned some software that can help with various aspects of writing, and the audience threw in their own suggestions. For example, Prowriting Aid is a good program that shows you how many times you've used various words. Hemingway can tell you when your sentences are too complicated. Also it's a good idea to get a readability score for your text, and the grade level. In the early chapters, while the reader doesn't yet care about the story, it's good to keep it lower grade.
- Do at least one "fast pass". Read the whole thing in a day, the way a reader who binges on your work would read it. That's the best way to find overused words / phrases. Also, you will catch inconsistencies.
Tex Thompson also gave tips for gathering and interpreting feedback.
- Try giving beta readers single chapters first. Don't give them the whole novel, because they most likely will get scared off, because they were not preprared to read this much material.
- Look for points of convergence. What comments do you keep getting? Are there common themes among them? Also remember this: people who notice a problem in your writing are usually right. People who suggest a solution are usually wrong.
Strive to have a mix of both readers AND writers among your beta readers. Each kind will be valuable in their own way. People who are just readers but not writers haven't internalized the rules of writers, they haven't chopped up the Hero's Journey and snorted if off of a mirror. They care more about the story. Does it hold their attention?
Also ask readers-that-are-not-writers: what other books that you've read would you compare it to? Hopefully they won't say, it's like War and Peace: I didn't finish it.
It is important to write at least as well as Dan Brown. If you pass the Dan Brown test, you're good. This is a guy who writes "he picked up the phone with one of his two hands", but his stories get people hooked.