Self-Editing Tips: Characters

Fictional characters can be said to be more like musical instruments than real people. They play a role that adds to the overall atmosphere of the piece. They make their own unique sounds, possess their own timbre, and have their own specific range of notes. But they can also fall out of tune or become discordant with the rest of the instruments, or the piece as a whole.

Characters need to be true to their nature, play their role with verisimilitude, and add value to the piece. But they need to be believable. Their actions and words need to adhere to a set of rules a reader might expect to accept. So, yes, they can wield a wand or a light saber, but their dueling banter must still come off as genuine. Their motivations ought to be human, even if their species is not, unless there are well-described reasons for them to act differently. Do they askew romantic attraction, but it turns out they are compelled to find a mate every seven years? Do they grow back a new head if a secret agent shoots the old one off? And if so, then why is this important to the story?

It’s good to be imaginative. But it’s important to be plausible. And consistent. Keep notes, or use a spreadsheet to document idiosyncrasies of your characters, no matter how human or alien.

And listen to real people talking to each other. Go to the mall, or sit on a bench at a popular park, or at the beach, or anywhere people go and chat with each other. Listen. Take notes. What are they saying? What do you imagine they are actually hearing? How long do they focus on the Green Bay Packers before they start talking about baking fails or carburetors or medical procedures?

The more you study human conversation and discern the reasons people make choices, the more plausible your characters will be.

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Self-Editing Tip: Plot

If you’re writing fiction, you need a plot, dynamic characters, action, conflict, plausible dialogue, and a resolution (even if you are writing serially).

With regards to plot, you need an introduction, or Act I, where the primary characters (including all of the suspects in a crime story), the initial setting, and the main conflict are revealed. Too much backstory can put the reader to sleep. Not enough backstory means the reader is confused. One good way to reveal backstory is through a short vignette, where a microcosm of the story is told through a brief incident that reveals something important about a primary character. The brief scene in the original Tim Burton Batman, where young Bruce Wayne’s parents are shot by the young Joker–who says the Joker catch phrase to the boy before running off–is a great example of this kind of tease. In James Cameron’s Avatar, the uncut version (Blue Ray) shows a much longer introduction, where Jake is seen fighting, despite his wheelchair, and the viewer is shown scenes of planet Earth engulfed in smoke and devoid of greenery. This was cut for the theatrical version, where instead Jake simply says the Earth is devoid of greenery. Pick your battles.

The second part of the plot is the action, the meat of the story, or Act II. A story where the good guy swoops in and whoops on the bad guy is boring. It might make a decent Vine or YouTube video, but it doesn’t make for a good novel or movie. The hero has to suffer, lose, get embarrassed, and his or her story has to have stress and woe. Otherwise, the reader or viewer might not feel sympathetic. The hero’s hopes and dreams have to be dashed in the second act. It’s like pulling the rubber band as far back as you can. It stretches, it moans, it hurts, and you know something’s going to give soon.

The third act is where the hero finds a way to overcome the conflict, the bad guy, the negative situation. In Steven Spielberg’s Always, the third act is where Dorinda faces her greatest fear, flies into the heart of the forest fire, and then, with Pete’s help, she ditches the damaged plane and swims to the surface. Pete lets her finally go, and is free to move on to the next phase of existence.

When you finish your first draft, give your book a few days to cool. Then read over it and make notes (I use Excel) about your plot points. Are you following the three-act structure? Does your story reveal information in a way that makes sense to the reader? Is your plot pace variable, or does it march predictably?

These are some of the many things I look for when I edit my clients’ books. I want them to sing and shine. I want readers to eat up my clients’ books and beg for more.

Contact me at steppenwolfedww@hotmail.com, because your book deserves an extra dose of awesome!

Self-Editing Tip: Weak Modifiers

Before you submit your freshly-written book to your editor or proofreader, do a search through the document and locate every instance of the words very, a bit, slightly, lightly, kind of, sort of, really and maybe. Delete them. Then read through those sections to see if they need those weak modifiers. On rare occasions they might. Some dialog works better with them. But most of the time, they aren’t needed. Not even slightly. Really.

Writing and Editing Paranormal Romance

Strategically, from an author’s perspective, paranormal, science fiction and fantasy are all very similar genres to work on. In addition to strong character development and plot structure, these genres all require intriguing and careful world-building. While it’s true that a world of witches or ghosts is different from one involving aliens, robots, trolls or elves, I still think the environment has to be subtly but deftly imagined and described.

Many decades ago I began writing a fantasy novel set on a remote island in the distant future, where a young character was tasked with locating a certain number of mystic artifacts. I was 16 then, and no idea about the rules of myth or legend writing, coming of age stories, or the Three-Act structure. I just wrote. And while the story rambled on with no clear plot, I knew what the lay of the land was, what kind of obstacles my hero would face, and at least vaguely what the monster looked like.

I drew a map.

Astoundingly, I still have that story and the map, which are both still inside the 32 year-old notebook.

The point is not that the story was good. It wasn’t. But I could pick it up today and start it over again, and the world I imagined is still right there, ready to be described and shared.

Sympathetic characters in my paranormal stories all share a common trait. They have certain types of connections with ghosts. The rules of engagement in my ghost stories are consistent throughout my stories, even if the characters change from story to story.

So as you write paranormal, science fiction or fantasy stories, feel free to jot down your rules. You don’t have to follow established rules from films or literature regarding what zombies or Martians can or cannot do. But you need to consistently adhere to your own rules.

I can help you brainstorm descriptions for your world, or solidify your plot structure, help you develop characters, and, of course, copy edit or proofread your drafts. Contact me at steppenwolfedww@hotmail.com, because your book deserves an extra dose of awesome!

Editing Self-Help Books

Nonfiction can be about many things. It can be biographical or auto-biographical; like a documentary, it can be mostly exposition–informative and educational. But self-help books need to have more of a directive, a purpose specific to the reader. The author is giving advise, telling the reader what to do, how to solve a problem.

There are a number of ways to organize a self-help book. One way is to construct the book in three acts: Where you are; How you got there; and How you can get to a better place. Another is to take a chronological approach, with the author sharing her or his own story in order of how the events unfolded. And still another strategy is to attack the most powerful aspects of the problem first, and the smaller issues later.

I recently edited a book that set out to define the self-help process scientifically: What is holding you back? Do you really need those things in your life? What do you want your life to look like? What people or activities do you need in your life? And so on, like a flow chart.

One thing that is different about editing nonfiction, especially self-help, is that the editor has to be diligent in fact-checking. There are so many urban myths and bits of misinformation floating around, especially on the web; it’s easy for a writer to forget to check the veracity of every single claim he or she makes.

Here is a minor example: I remember being told years ago that Andrew Jackson and Jimmy Carter were the only two presidents not to earn a college degree. But if I included that in a story or article, I’d have to look into it deeper. It turns out that Jimmy Carter has a Bachelor of Science from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Jackson was educated, but may not have earned a degree. Still, he passed the bar and practiced law, and this was in a time before there were universities on every street corner, like coffee shops. So, as an editor, if my client was claiming that these two failed to earn degrees, I’d provide him or her with the appropriate information about Carter and Jackson. I would also be curious how common college degrees were in the early days of the fledgling United States. Were apprenticeships more the fashion then? How formal was the education?

An editor doesn’t have to be the expert on a broad range of subjects. My clients are! But I get to make sure everything they claim is backed up in solid research of the facts.

If you want to make your self-help or other nonfiction book sing, contact me at steppenwolfedww@hotmail.com.

Your book deserves an extra dose of awesome!

New Clients Welcome

With my established clients all either promoting the book they just published, or working hard to compose the next one, I have openings in my schedule. Contact me at steppenwolfedww@hotmail.com, and let’s give your book an extra dose of awesome!