Writing One Novel, Editing Another

balanceBalancing Writing Tasks

It’s always good, I believe, to practice balance: between family time and work time, mandatory activities and discretionary activities, waistline measurement and that quart of fudge swirl ice cream in the freezer.

At the moment, I’m attempting to:

  • Put the final edits on my first novel, Thin Spots
  • Do marketing work, such as researching agents and publishers, for Thin Spots
  • Write my second novel, The Farthest Hour

Keeping these three plates twirling in the one hour per day , give or take, I have for fiction can be a bear, but I’m starting to get a handle on it. Here’s what I’m doing so far.

Fifty-two Card Pickup

Ever play the fifty-two card pickup joke on somebody? You get a deck of cards and ask the patsy if they want to play 52 card pickup. They say yes and you throw all the cards up into the air. Then you cry, “Okay, pick ‘em up!” It’s funny when you’re eleven. The first step is sort of like the prank. I just throw every task I can think of onto note cards, or a document, or sticky notes, whatever’s handy. At this stage, I don’t worry about the order of things, or even if the items make sense.

Order Up!

Once I’ve brainstormed the tasks, I start putting them in order by project and then by priority. The projects are the three mentioned above. The priorities are usually high, medium and low, or some version thereof. Now I have a good-looking list I can work from.

Week Mindedness

At the start of each week, I take a look at the list and pick the high priority items I think I can do in a week. If I think I can fit in some medium or low priority items, I’ll pick those, two. The selected items to into a list of things to do during the coming week.

Divide by Five

Now, I take the week’s list of to-dos and divide them into five sections, one for each business day of the week. I might decide to split a high priority item or two into five smaller pieces. I might pick one day to do several easily completed medium or low priority tasks, to clear the calendar a bit.

Why just five days and not seven? Day seven is devoted to social media tasks, like this blog, as well as to planning the next week. Day six is devoted to family, etc., but usually has enough down time in it to catch up on any fiction-related tasks from the previous five days.

Manage the Work, Don’t Let it Manage You

Whether or not you like my little method, I highly recommend you find something that works for you. I don’t believe a novelist has to write every single day to be effective, but you do need to write on a regular schedule, and pretty frequently. So figure out what works for you, and balance your way onto a best-seller list.

Got any cool ideas about time management for writers? Post it in a comment! Thanks.


Tools for Novel Writers: Critiques

thumbsButtonsSmallerCritiques: A Treasure

Few things are more valuable in crafting a novel than critiques from other people. Critiques give you viewpoints on your work you would never have come up with. Some readers find characterizations you thought perfectly clear to be confusing. Moments of conflict you thought were dramatic are, to some, just ho-hum. Witticisms you thought were hilarious are, in the eyes of some readers, just plain dumb. And just to make life more interesting, you’re bound to get the opposite opinions from other readers.

How do you figure out who is right and who is smoking dried coconut husk? I’ve been working with an excellent critique group for over four years now and have recently started getting commentary from beta readers, so I have some thoughts on the matter.

Go by the Numbers

In my critique group, we are all agreed that if just one person recommends a change, it’s likely a matter of that reader’s taste and therefore, optional for you. If two people recommend the same thing, the issue bears close inspection and, possibly, a change. If three or more call out a flaw, the best advice is to fix that sucker.

Trust Your Gut

Even in cases where a significant number of folks call out a flaw, you’re still probably dealing with a relatively small group of opinions, so the observations you’re getting are not always going to be absolutely correct. You are the judge of what changes go in and stay out. I believe the best way to decide is to trust your writer’s gut. If a change just doesn’t feel right, if it doesn’t hang with the rest of the story, and you have carefully considered it, then don’t make the change. Also, pay attention to the cases where only one person recommends a change and it feels spot on. Those are changes you want to make, as well.


Another way of dealing with changes is to try every one that’s suggested. Plugging your reviewers’ suggestions into the living body of your story is a great way to see what works and what doesn’t. This approach can also yield new plot or character developments you might not have thought of otherwise.

Work in Community

Whatever approach you take to judging input from your constructive critics, the most important thing to remember is to avoid working in a vacuum. Enlisting the brains of others to help polish your manuscript will not only make it better, it will get you away from your keyboard (or typewriter or note pad, if you’re working old-school style) and into a supportive community of writers and readers that will keep your writing going. (Note: If they’re not supportive, ditch ‘em!)

Do us all a favor and leave a comment about how you handle input from others. Thanks, and may your pages keep filling.

Tools for Novel Writers: The Fruits of Editing

apple-treeEditing Fruits

In the title for this post, I don’t mean “the fruits of editing” in the usual sense of “the results.” Instead, I’m thinking of an expression I hear in the day-job world a good bit: “let’s go after the low-hanging fruit first.” What this means is that when you’re resolving a business issue that has many facets, it’s often best to fix the easiest things first and the proceed to the more complicated stuff.

As I work on the near-final edit of my first novel, I’m discovering the fruit-tree analogy works pretty well in the fiction-writing biz, too.

I have a list of about a hundred items that need to be fixed to make the novel its best. These are categorized as fruit, which is odd, I guess, but more fun than just calling them high, medium and low.

Low-hanging Fruit:

The low-hanging fruit are things I can fix pretty quickly, without much heavy head-scratching. For example, there’s a location called “Angels’ Common.” I needed to be sure I called it that every time, and not “Angels’ Courtyard” by mistake. That was a simple matter of search-and-replace in Microsoft Word.

Halfway Up the Fruit Tree:

Halfway up the tree are items that take some thought and creativity to fix, but aren’t likely to make me bang my head against the wall. For example, my protagonist, who is a guy with his body in a coma and his soul caught in Hell, has a brother back on Earth. I got a lot of feedback indicating that I needed some more scenes with the brother, to bring a wider variety of emotions to the book, or, as one person said, “to give it heart.” So, I’m going through and adding some scenes. It’s a moderate effort to figure out where the scenes should go and then I have to write them, but the job isn’t a killer.

Way Up in the Top Branches:

High up among the skinny branches of the tree, where my perch is the most precarious, are the things that will be hardest to correct, like plot holes. One case is a contradiction I didn’t spot until I did a read-through of the whole novel. Remember how the protagonist’s body is in a coma, while his soul is in Hell? Well, at one point in the novel, Satan wants to destroy the protagonist’s body because soul-protagonist is too powerful and killing the body will weaken him. At another point, Satan is thrilled that soul-protagonist has a body on Earth because it makes him more powerful and thus more useful to Satan (assuming Satan’s nefarious plan works out). The whole body-on-Earth deal is a linchpin of the plot, so I’ve got to figure out how to resolve the contradiction without weakening the story. I am hoping that a solution will come to me as I fix the low-hanging and halfway-up issues.

Divide and Conquer

Whether you buy the whole fruit analogy or not, I strongly recommend dividing your editing work into some sort of layers. Writing a novel is complex and editing one, I’m finding, is even more so. Whatever you can do to ease your path on the way do “The (finally all edited and done) End” is worth a try.

Leave a comment about handy editing practices for the benefit of the other readers. Happy writing!

Tools for Novel Writers: Character Traits, Inner Resources

Character Who?Queen Elizabeth the first was quite a character

In a normal blog, you’d expect a post with “Character Traits” in the title to be about crafting great fictional characters. Well, that’s a good subject, but this pile of prose has nothing to do with it. What I want to talk about is your character—and mine, for that matter.

Lots of people start novels, but few finish them. I got to thinking about why and, in my uncontested position as Lord Mayor and Judge of All the World, I concluded that the non-finishers either don’t have the character traits needed, don’t have them in sufficient quantity, or they possess them but haven’t brought them to bear on their writing.


There’s nothing more important to a novelist than stick-to-itiveness. A novel is a multiple-draft journey of 50,000 words or better. You’ve got to plan and execute, then plan and execute again, until the thing is done enough to put a fork in. If you’re a part-time writer like me, composing in dribs and drabs during the week, just cranking out a first draft can take a couple of years—I speak from first-hand experience on that.

Once you get the novel ready for publication, then you’ve either got to market it to agents and publishers, if you’re going the traditional route, or directly to the public, if you’re self-publishing. Achieving success in either of these modes takes time, as well. And don’t forget the second novel, and the third, and all the others. Often it takes a writer several books to get anywhere at all.

So that’s persistence. If you don’t have it, get it. If you do have it, shine its light one your novel writing.


Patience goes hand in hand with persistence. While you’re walking the long road that is crafting a novel, you’re going to run into the heebie-jeebies of haste. You’ll be eager to finish every single draft, especially the last one. And then you’ll be tearing your hair out making changes from editors, agents, or other valued critics, like beta readers, wishing you could OMG just put it out there already!

At times like these you’ve got to push back from the desk (not for too long) and whisper “patience grasshopper” to yourself. (If you don’t know where the grasshopper thing is from, you owe it to yourself to find out!) Patience isn’t just the quality of calm endurance; it is also the quality of being in the present moment with whatever you’re doing. If you can focus on one day, one moment, one task of writing at a time, the patience comes a lot easier. Practice makes is easier, too.

So, that’s… wait for it…







See what I did there? Wasn’t that cute? No? Oh, well, on to the next topic.

Quiet and Solitude, Tolerance Thereof

You’re going to have to endure a certain amount of quiet isolation. When I say “silence” I’m not quite talking literally; for example, I like listening to some downtempo chill when I’m writing. Stephen King listens to hard rock and even metal, I think. Others like just freakin’ quiet, I’m sure. And I don’t know of anybody who writes in a crowded room where they are expected to respond to conversation; coffee houses work (for some) because, even though there are people around, you don’t have to deal with them.

What I mean is you have to create a space that makes it possible for you to create characters, plot and all that good stuff. Once you’ve made it, you have to commit to spending lots of time there; otherwise, no novel.


A person who lets themselves be distracted by a lot of different things is going to have a hard time completing a novel. I won’t say such a person can’t do it, just that it would be extra hard and extra slow. I know this very well, being of a somewhat “AD… ooh, shiny…” disposition myself. Even so, I have taught myself to focus little by little and after many years have become able to manage my distractible disposition. An hour is great for me; then I get up and stretch, or play a few minutes of guitar, or check on Facebook, or whatever—just for a few minutes. Then I get back to it. But during that hour, I am on task, not thinking about much else but the writing and taking the occasional sip of coffee.

Figure out what your focus rhythm is. If you can’t focus at all, you can learn. I learned a lot about focus by taking martial arts and yoga classes. Those physical pursuits require a level of attention that translates pretty well to writing. You can figure out something that will work for you, no doubt. But you’ve got to find it.

It’s Just Me

These observations on character traits needed for writing a novel are based on my own experience to date. Your mileage may vary. A lot. But I hope this piece gets you thinking about inner resources you can develop to make your writing better and more fun.

Let me and the other two readers know if you’ve got any other ideas about inner resources a novelist should develop and how they might do it.

Tools for Fiction Writers: Index Cards. Yes, Index Cards.

Index Cards in several colors

Index Cards for Invention

Howdy folks. Did you miss me? My apologies for being so long between posts. I’ve been focused on the fiction and on a writing conference I recently attended, at which I’m happy to say I was not marked as a complete loser who should never write fiction again. So, yay for that. Okay, enough about me and on to the main event:

note Cards in a BoxNote Cards!

I know, you’re falling over with excitement, right? Well, I am, because these cards, the plain old, paper, 3 x 5 or 4 x 6 index cards, are a thrilling new fiction writing tool for me.

Here’s the deal. I love my electronics. My laptops, large and small are particularly dear to me. My 7” and 10” tablets, my phone and even my small music player from that fruit company keep me going in a pleasant daily swirl of media.

I also love using my electronics for writing novels. Word processing changed my life. I used to type, people, on a manual, portable Smith-Corona typewriter (Google that word if you’re not familiar). So, when word processing came along, with its lack of white correction fluid and its ability to just make text bold with your having to backspace a hundred times and type over the same word ten times, I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.

I use the well-known suite of corporate software from a giant software company and I use Scrivener for Windows, the latter for my second novel (just starting) and the former for my first (gradually finishing).These are fine tools, but the sticking point I find with them both is:


In the corporate world we sometimes call this step “ideation.” In the fiction realm, some of us call this “dreaming stuff up,” which process lends its name to this blog. This is the pre-planning stage, where you’re just spewing up ideas from the inner recesses of your twisted mind like lumps of mud from a seldom-used well pump.

What you want during this process is for your mind to run free. You (meaning “I” – your mileage may vary) don’t want anything imposing order on these ideas or on your mind. You just want to generate, generate, generate. It’s brainstorming at its finest. At least, you hope it is.

I find the trouble when I do this brainstorming and record the notes on a computer, in any form, that I can’t curb the impulse to impose order on them. A word-processing or spreadsheet program puts the ideas into lines, which I then must rearrange into some order. Scrivener has its soft note cards, which I am compelled to start arranging into a story as I put ideas on them.

The result is that my dreaming-up process gets short-circuiting by the planning process, which doesn’t need to be happening at this stage. My recently discovered solution to this is:

funCardBoxA Box and Some Paper Cards!

I have an idea. I jot it on the index card. I stick the index card into a box. Now the card is hidden. I do this with several more index cards. Now I have several ideas, all hidden, arranged in no particular order. The ideas are not sitting there in front of me, begging to be arranged. When I think I have enough ideas, which is just an instinct, I pull out the cards and start arranging. Not until I have them in some rough order to I put the ideas into electronic format.

I tried this with the planning of novel number two and it worked really well. I am still a slow planner, but the index cards made the invention process a lot faster and a lot more fun. And fun is what this fiction writing deal is all about for me, at least until I get that $2,000,000 contract.

If your invention process is buggy, try the index card thing. It might work for you. And if not, I’m sure something else will. Heck, Faulkner used a wall for “The Sound and the Fury” (I think that was it). I’ve seen said wall. So find your cards, or your wall, or your clay tablet and go for it! I wish you happy writing.

Writing the Synopsis of a Novel

writers-block Man resting his head on his laptopWhen I write my next novel, I’m going to write the synopsis first. For one thing, my research tells me writing the thing first helps you frame up your novel and I’m certainly all over that. For another thing, I have recently discovered the writing the synopsis after the fact is a giant, festering pain in the wazoo.

This coming May, I’ll be attending the Atlanta Writer’s Conference, where I will submitting not one, but two types of synopses in hopes of receiving useful pointers from the learned minds of real live editors and agents. The first is the short one in my query letter, the initial pitch one sends to an agent or editor. The second is the long one that stands on its own, the one you send when said agent or editor invites you to do so.

To start off with, I read a book about writing query letters and synopses, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyons. It’s especially strong on the long synopses, in my opinion, and isn’t bad with queries. My best advice on query letters came from agentquery.com, specifically, the page titled “How to Write a Query Letter.” It has solid, succinct advice and a link to many queries that have actually won their authors agent representation or requests from publishers.

I can be pretty slow, sometimes (some would say all the time), so even after reading these resources, I had a hard time producing the materials. I took a precious vacation day, spent nine hours working just on the query letter, wrote three versions, and they all stunk. Before this, I had spent many hours working on the long synopsis and produced a five-page document that was only slightly more exciting than the phone book. (Non-old people, see the definition of “phone book” here.)

It was slow. It was painful. I was discouraged.

But then something wonderful happened.

The Saturday after that awful vacation day, I sat down and wrote another short, query-letter synopsis. It just poured out, natural as you please, and the result wasn’t bad at all. The Sunday after that, I wrote a long synopsis that came almost as easily, was two pages shorter than the previous five-page monster, and read like I had written it, instead of some robot.

There’s plenty of polishing left to do, but the bones are there, and a lot of the meat, too. (And that, Virginia, is what we call a mixed metaphor.)

One interesting thing (about time, right?): When I complained to my wife about wasting that vacation day, she demurred, pointing out that the frustrating work of that Friday had been necessary to get my brain to the point of producing Saturday and Sunday’s good results.

So, one thing I’ve learned: If you are writing them after your novel is done, throw the synopses onto the page as best you can, then walk away for a while and let them marinate in your subconscious. When you come back for another try, you may find that they roll right out.

I’ll probably have more to say about synopses in my next post, but for now, I am sick of writing anything and I’m going to stop. See you next time.

Tools for Novel Writers: Multiple Editing Passes

old wooden fence post
Get it? It’s an old post!

Not too long ago I published a post entitled “Tools for Novel Writers: The Editing Checklist.” It’s about using a through-going list as a guide for making multiple passes through each scene of your novel, checking for things like overuse of simile and metaphor, grammar blunders and the like.

I’m still using the checklist and it’s still working out very well, thank you very much. My first rewrite is looking good, if you ask my writing group (you can trust them—I pay them handsomely).

After spending even more hours with the checklist, I’ve discovered an added benefit that was staring me in the face the whole time. It was just so big and obvious, I couldn’t see it. It was the forest, I guess, and I was down in the trees, as the age-old metaphor goes.

pass imageUsing the checklist forces you to make multiple passes through the same material over a period of days. In my case, that’s 19 mandatory passes and 14 optional ones. Granted, some of the mandatory items, like “Adrasteia as priestess – Perhaps make her Artemis priestess from the start” require just a quick “N/A” or a scan and then a little work putting in something about her priestess-hood, if it’s necessary.

Still, a quick scan is still a scan, and I do catch things when I’m doing these, as well as when I’m tackling one of the heftier items, like checking for telling versus showing. I’ll catch continuity errors, things that don’t make sense unless they get foreshadowed earlier, things that need splitting up or rearranging, and things that just plain stink (I often find those while working the “read aloud” item).

the word discovery under a magnifying glassOne of my favorite discoveries recently is the realization that I could flip-flop the roles of a couple of characters to increase the surprise later in the novel. Basically, the one who seems good at first turns out to be bad, and vice-versa. (Thank you, J. K. Rowling!) I was looking at the beat sheet to see if I had any changes to make noted there (that’s one of the checkpoints) and there was the change, begging to be made. If I hadn’t been making multiple passes through the sections, I probably wouldn’t have seen it.

Maybe you’re a checklist kind of person, or maybe you’re the laissez-faire type, or something in between. Whatever your bent, I’ll bet you a nickel your writing could benefit from your making pass after pass at it. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s dreary, but sometimes it’s fun, too and, besides, there’s gold in them there passes. Give it a shot.

The Unexpected Moment in Novel Writing

privetHedgeThe Privet Hedge of Writing Semi-Doom

Many times, when you’re writing or rewriting your novel, you’ll hit a brick wall. Well, maybe not a brick wall; more like a tall, thick privet hedge. You can’t seem to climb over it or dig under it and the sucker extends from horizon to horizon. It’s not exactly writer’s block, this condition. With writer’s block, you’re standing in front of that hedge and you’re certain there’s nothing on the other side and there’s never going to be (at least that’s the way I think of it, and it’s my blog, so there). This is more like writer’s blah. You’re pretty sure there’s something on the other side, but you have no idea what it is or how you’re going to get there.

A Real-Life Examplereallifelogo

Now that I’ve whiled away a little of your time with an analogy, let me give you a concrete example. (Yeah, yeah, I know… about time.) I’m currently in the process of planning my second novel, based on the assumption that I’m going to finish my first one before I shuffle off to the eternal Buffalo. (So I’m an optimist. Sue me.) I had a dandy start for the thing all drafted up in full prose, with shooting, blood, crazy characters and a briefcase full of shrunken heads. Unfortunately, upon doing further planning, I discovered that none of it worked, except that case of heads. Damned if I was going to let go of that. Trouble was, I didn’t know how to get the case into the hands of the hero, which was a problem, because I was pretty sure the whole plot revolved on that one circumstance.

I tried all my usual tricks. I stared at the ceiling. I wrote a few outlines. I did some free writing. I prayed. I cast the bones and threw the stones. I banged my forehead on the laptop.

All this availed me nothing.

Let-GoLet it Go (Not the Song, for Once)

Finally, I just walked away from it. After all, it’s novel number two and I’m just in the planning stages—there’s no hurry. A few days later, that beginning started nibbling at the corner of my brain again. I was doing something more or less mindless—driving, gardening, playing with a loaded handgun, something like that—and I decided to give that matter some play in the old brain, just on a casual basis.

And, boom! A new beginning presented itself. I don’t know if it’s the be-all, end-all new beginning, but it’s something to work with for the moment, at least. What a relief!

unexpectedMomentThe Unexpected Moment

It was an unexpected solution at an unexpected moment. I think it worked because:

  1. I had let the matter rest a while.
  2. When I thought about it again, I wasn’t trying so hard, I was just casual about it.

Maybe this is a sure-fire tool for me, maybe it’s not, but it worked once, so I’m going to try it again. Maybe it could work for you, too.

Keep writing and good luck reaching “The End.”

Rewriting Your Novel: Cutting the Fat to Improve the Story

movie extrasThe Coolest Cuts of All

The Extras

Not too long ago, my niece and nephew got roles as extras in The Hunger Games, a lot of which was shot in our city. Under normal circumstances, these two are as handsome a pair of humans as you could want, but the movie studio decided that their slender builds and pale complexions made them perfect for District 9. Put them in ragged clothes, smear some dirt on them and, voilà, half-starved, oppressed young coal-country yokels.

Family and friends were all a-quiver with excitement. Discussions of what scenes they might appear in and where they might be spotted ruled dinner tables across the land.

Then we found out that most of their scenes got cut. The land was filled with sighs of disappointment.

Man cutting down a treeCuts Most Cruel

So, why, oh why, were my relations deleted? While poor judgment on the part of the filmmakers remains a possibility, the real reason is probably that their scenes didn’t contribute enough to the film to make them worth keeping. After all, when you’ve got just two to three hours to tell a complex story, you’ve got to get pretty picky about what stays in and equally ruthless about what comes out, if not more so.

I’ve run across similar issues during the rewrite of novel #1. (Yeah, still working on it, and thinking of changing the title from “Thin Spots” to “The Neverending Story,” copyrights be damned. Anyway…) Some lovely bits have gone the way of the niece and nephew’s movie scenes, excised from the work to lie on the cutting-room floor.

girl with a chainsawThe Joy of Cutting

Alas and alackaday? Well, not really. With every scene I’ve cut, the novel has become a more sinewy thing, more lithe, not weighted down by a lot of literary belly fat.

It’s not so hard to tell when a scene can go. All you have to do is ask yourself if it’s moving the story forward. Is new information conveyed? Does a character change? If you took the thing out, would anybody know the difference or detect a hole in the story? If not, out it goes.

This rule applies even to scenes you really love. (Also to characters, sub-plots, everything.)

I have a scene I really like, where damned souls are playing baseball, the ball itself is the former dictator of a small island nation and a soul who can’t hit gets hung from a lamp post by the loin cloth. It’s so much fun! I loved writing it. But it doesn’t do a blessed thing to further the plot, so… yank.

I do save these cuttings. Some of them may make their way into future novels, but they won’t be in this one.

Go thou and do likewise.

Tools for Novel Writers: The Editing Checklist

guy marking off a checklistEditing Your Novel with a Checklist

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.