by Fae Rowen
As writers, we can use our lives to fuel our stories in many ways–from plots, to characters, to emotional journeys. This means that our daily lives become a field of rich experience to mine for writing gold. Let me share an excursion that resulted in unexpected treasure for my WIP.
Because I didn’t want to go by myself, I talked Laura Drake into going on a “field trip” with me to a small local museum. Lucky for me, she was willing to look at movie costumes and jewelry. I was excited by the visions of jewels and period clothing and never even considered that I’d receive a writing lesson amidst all the finery and shimmer.
In Madeleine Albright’s Read My Pins display, we ooh’d and ahh’d over the diplomat’s broaches, just a small part of her whole collection. Gold, jewels, and spectacular designs combined with commentary about when–and with whom–the pieces were worn. Many displays included newspaper pictures with attendant articles reporting the politics behind the meetings.
The display was small, but well put-together. The word “tight” came to mind and I thought how I always end up cutting words from my critique partners WIPs to tighten the action.
Lesson 1: Check that every scene carries its weight. That it has essential elements of plot, characterization and emotion. Scenes will have these elements weighted differently, but every scene must be crucial to your story. Be ruthless. Even if you really like your clever writing or the snippet of story you told, if it doesn’t move your characters or plot to the next “offramp,” you have to edit it but either cutting or revising it. Try this: If you can cut a scene and not lose a plot point, a piece of the character arc, or an emotional connection to the reader, ask yourself what’s missing. (This is a great tool for that saggy middle!)
We moved on to Cut!, a display of period costumes from movies. At first we focused on the tiny waists. Each outfit was labeled with the movie and the actor or actress who wore the piece. We soon moved to the detail of the costume, as well as discovering an appreciation for the hat, gloves, cape, or jewelry that showed “the look” from the movie. I hadn’t seen most of the movies represented with costumes, but I wished I had.
And I had my second Aha! moment. Good editing made me want more. I had just watched the Oscar red carpet shows. The Fashion pundits commented on what made a winning outfit, and it seemed that less is often more. This goes not only for an outfit (always remove one piece of jewelry before you walk out the door) but also for writing.
Lesson 2: More description isn’t always better. Pare down the details by careful word choice. This helps with pacing by not bogging down your reader. This is one reason why we are all reminded to “Show, don’t tell.”
We recently had a blog about making scenes do double duty. Well, words can do double duty. If you are trying to describe a child’s behavior consider the differences between disobedient, mischievous, and playful. If you show a child’s behavior as seen through your adult character’s thoughts, the word you choose shows us your character’s mindset and could even give a window into backstory. With just one word.Back to the museum. We moved on to the Faberge exhibit, which we saved for last. I’d seen a Faberge Egg exhibit fifteen years ago at the Reagan Library, and I toured his workshop in St. Petersburg. This was the real reason I wanted to visit the museum. I would have bought a ticket just for this exhibit.
There were lots of priceless jewels and gold. Though at first I was disappointed by the room’s size, it was the largest of the three exhibits with cases sandwiched close together to fill the room. And lots of people crowding around those cases. Some patrons were shepherded around the room by docents who shared interesting tidbits of information. (Did you know that Faberge’s enameling process died with him and no one has been able to duplicate it?) We viewed not only crowns, necklaces, eggs, and pins, but gift boxes, cigarette cases, and statues. A stunning wealth of sparkle and beauty.
And it was not my favorite exhibit.
I felt disappointed and wondered why. I could not have soaked up one more case of Faberge genius, so I couldn’t have wanted more. Why not? Though I would be hard pressed to pick pieces to omit from the displays, the show was not as well-edited as the other two. It overwhelmed my senses with its brilliance and diversity. But it wasn’t cohesive. It had no “theme.”
Lesson 3: No matter how brilliant your individual words or scenes may be, they must make your reader want to keep reading. A dazzling phrase here, an amazing analogy there is not enough to maintain interest to keep someone turning the pages. You want your readers to feel the emotions your characters feel, because that’s what will lead to a satisfying conclusion for them. That’s what will make them buy your next book. Yes, plot points, character arcs, black moments are necessary building blocks of our craft. Every time you sit down to write, you hone your craft–if you are conscious about wielding and sharpening your tools. It’s okay to be a pantster like me, but you have to be sure all the elements are there to make you story compelling.
We passed through a long hall where eight Tibetan thangkas hung on the walls. If you’ve ever seen Tibetan artwork, you understand when I say we stood before the eight-foot high wall coverings and marveled at the small details repeated thousands of times to produce the picture. Tiny brush strokes delicately affixed gold leaf in the narrowest of bands around a lotus. And the last piece of my editing lesson fell into place.
Lesson 4: Our writing is filled with everything we have to offer. All our craft, skillful plotting, and word-smithing combine with who we are to produce our books. And unless we take the time and care to edit our display, the brilliance of our efforts may not shine as brightly as it could. We can muddy our prose with strokes that are too big or “gold leaf” that distracts from the subtleties that readers love to find in our work.
I remember the words of one of the directors of a musical I was in. He was talking to me about one of my solo songs and “singing my heart out.” He said that was a good thing, but he cautioned me to remember to make my audience want more. In writing, that translates to a page turner.
I have to admit, I’ve never been a fan of editing. Editing means I didn’t write it right the first time, and I don’t like to admit that. (Yes, I know better, but old perfectionist traits die hard!) But good editing can be the difference between a page-turner and just another book. In fact, thoughtful editing just might help make a sale. And don’t we all want that?
It seems like I’ve been buried forever in the editing (at times it feels like a total re-write) process for my WIP. But thank goodness Laura and I went to the museum and I wanted just one more costume. I’m actually beginning to enjoy the editing process–and I can see how it is improving my book.
What are your thoughts on editing? Love it or hate it? Do you have editing tips that work well for you?