A rare and wonderful thing happened to me the other night. I was at my writers’ group meeting, getting a critique of my rewrite’s first 30 pages. Everybody said it worked—and believe me, they would say if it didn’t, bless them—and, best of all, one person called the submission “flawless.”
Let’s just take that in for a minute…
The Checklist Works
Okay, time to snap out of it. Praise great, but I always keep in mind it’s important to keep it in perspective and continue to be your own strictest judge of your work (inasmuch as you can do that without making yourself crazy). Still, it seems that in this case I did something right. This being a relatively rare occurrence, I thought I’d step back and try to figure out what it was, this thing of rightness.
After some consideration, I came up with this: After researching best practices, I came up with a rewriting checklist and started using it to grind through my first draft.
The best practices come from a variety of sources: My sainted wife, my writing group buddies and books like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne, The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel, by James Thayer and others.
My personal list is set up in Microsoft Project, because it’s great for tracking a sequence of tasks. I got a sweet price deal on it (thanks, day job!) and know how to use it (thanks again, day job!), so that works for me. For most people, a spreadsheet or a plain old word processor list would probably serve just as well. You could even go old-school and use some kind of paper setup.
The main thing is to have a list, regardless of how it’s physically constructed. I’m going to share mine, leaving out most of the the checkpoints specific to my particular story, except for examples.
To use the checklist, I edit one section/scene at a time, grinding through one task at a time until I’m ready to move on to the next. It’s not as much fun as writing the first draft, but it’s not as bad as it sounds, either. And yes, I am so retentive my checklist has sections. Don’t hate me because I’m over-organized; hate me because I’m beautiful.
Section 1: Make beat sheet changes.
This section doesn’t have any sub-headings. As part of the rewrite, I revised my beat sheet so the story elements are cleaner and hang together better. The first thing I want to do is make those changes.
Section 2: Writing checks.
This is the big kahuna. If I can fix these, I can be pretty sure that my prose isn’t garbage. It might be a day away from going sour, yes, but garbage, no. The checkpoints are:
Show/Tell: Is there anywhere I’m telling instead of showing, at least too much?
Watch for info dumps: Am I laying information on the reader and not trusting her to figure stuff out from context?
Minimize interior monologue. First-person italics best, but still minimize. In my novel, the lead character is alone a lot, so I use italicized interior monologue to show his thoughts. It’s easy to go overboard with that, so I try to pare it back.
Beats (bits of business) – balanced use: A beat, or bit of business, is something a character does during conversation or when you want to remind the reader that they’re there when perhaps they are just standing to one side. This is stuff like scratching, or unwrapping a stick of gum, or engaging in a nervous tic. Too much of this makes dialogue too busy, too little makes it drab and unrealistic, so you have to find a balance. Have fun.
Watch overuse of metaphor and simile. I love metaphor and simile like I love beer and chocolate! They are the shoals upon which the raft of my craft often runs aground… because I use them too damned much. Here is where I cut and weep, cut and weep.
POV clearly of the character, consistent, focused. Make sure the point of view is consistent and that it belongs to the character it’s supposed to. It’s easier that you think to whaz this up.
Section 3: Character checks
This section is mostly specific to the needs of my novel, but there are couple of ideas more than one person could find useful.
Characters arcs (especially lead): I got a big clue from my writer’s group that, in the first draft, the lead character hadn’t changed much by the end of the novel. So now, in every scene, I check to see how, or if, the POV character is developing at all, even a little bit. I pay special attention when the POV character is the lead. If there’s no character development at all, I have to ask if the scene needs revision or even if it needs to take the USS Scissors to Cuttingroomflooristan. Just last week I zapped an entire section because, despite its cool action sequences, it didn’t do squat to advance the characters… or the story.
Character-specific checks: This is a list to remind me to work on certain aspects of characters when they appear. For example, one of mine is “Adrasteia and Colin: build the love story.” Since the love story is new for the rewrite, I need to keep a watchful eye on it. Yours could be anything you like, from “Remember Fred has a nervous tic” to “Zelda sometimes has three legs, but not always.”
Section 4: Scene checks
I use this section to look at scene structure.
Action scene; goal, conflict, setback: Does the scene meet these criteria? Is it supposed to be an action scene?
Reaction scene; reaction, dilemma, decision: Does the scene meet these criteria? Is it supposed to be a reaction scene?
If the scene doesn’t match one structure or the other, what is it? A big blob of wordy goo clogging up your story, or a hidden gem that needs cleaning and polish?
Is the POV character the one with the most to lose in the scene: Be sure the scene centers on the right person. Not long ago I struggled with a section for days before realizing it wasn’t working because the character I was using as the POV wasn’t the one with the most to lose. Once I fixed that, the section worked.
Section 5: Novel structure checks
Here I have a list of the generic names for the main points in the novel, like “plot point one.” My list conforms, more or less, to the dramatic structure laid out by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering. You can use whichever structure you want, say, just Acts 1, 2, and 3. Brooks works for me.
Section 6: Specific scene/story checks
This is another list of reminders, like “more foreshadowing of the revolution,” and “Library Angel – pick him up later.” These are things I want to develop in the revision or make sure I come back around to. Pretty straightforward stuff, methinks.
Section 7: Read aloud
No subheadings or lists here, just the one thing: “read aloud.” Reading your stuff out loud is, I believe the primo way of catching your goofs and improving your writing. Reading aloud slows you down, making it easier to catch the missing commas and whatnot. It also makes it very clear when your prose is a malodorous pile. If you do nothing else, do this!
That’s it! Yes, it’s long, yes, it’s tedious, yes, working your way through it for each section is a festival of rump pain, but it seems to be working, at least for me. I expected writing a novel to include a lot of just plain, slogging hard work and I was right.
Yeah, I know… For once I’m right and it turns out to be that.
It’s a long road we’re on, fellow part-time novelists. I hope this helps. Good luck.