Recently an author friend of mine passed along some of the editorial feedback about a manuscript which required rewrites. In a number of instances, the changes weren’t what a writer new to the publishing world would expect.
Yes, there were a few of the big issues — character motivation, for example — but a good number of the suggestions had to do with the small stuff, things like consistency in a character’s voice, additional details in describing the setting, and minor characters that needed to come alive.
Initially I thought it might be a helpful tip here to give a list of the details this one writing professional told this one writer to improve this one manuscript. But I think you can see the problem with that — what is true for one story and writer isn’t going to be true for all.
I might have great depth in my minor characters, for example, but overlook the missing details that create plot inconsistencies.
The key, then, isn’t to look at a list that some other author has received, but to create a list for ourselves. We need to pay attention to the small stuff in our own work in progress.
Thinking in details may be hard initially. For example, I as the author may know that a minor character will appear in the book this one time but not again, therefore I’m not particularly invested in fleshing him out. What that does, however, is make the character nothing but a prop, a two-dimensional piece of furniture that the author drops in at that one spot for convenience.
One of the most egregious examples of this “character as prop” effect was in a novel I read some time ago. The book was part historical love story and part mystery/adventure. At one point an older woman who was acting as chaperon was on board a small boat with the two main characters. But apparently after the chaperon said her lines, the author forgot about her because the two main characters went on to share a dark secret that no one else was to know. And no, they weren’t whispering, the minor character hadn’t fallen asleep or overboard and she wasn’t hard of hearing. The author simply did not account for her presence.
A small oversight like that can ruin the “fictive dream” for the reader. Instead of being lost in the tension and the surprise, the reader is thinking, Wait a minute, if this is such a great secret, why are they telling it in front of this minor character?
Details of a story setting are no less important. Readers need to be anchored in place and need to be able to picture where everyone is so the action they are reading makes sense. One story I read some time ago had the character under attack and running for his life. Imagine my surprise when he decided to hide in a barn I didn’t know existed until that moment.
Along with specifics in character and setting, an author needs to pay attention to the specifics of his prose. Word choice can alter mood, a more formal phrase can create inconsistency in tone, repetition and redundancy can slow the pace, too many fragments can make the prose stilted. A writer needs to look at such details.
By taking the time to look at the particulars on every level, a writer will discover two things: making up stories actually is work, and taking time to look at the small stuff pays off. You see, we call stories that keep readers ensnared by a special name: best-sellers. 😉