Our first week in Pitts has been spent unpacking and putting things in their new homes. We went from a large home to a townhouse (since we don’t know how long we’ll be in Pitts). Oddly enough, I love the smaller space. Feels cocoon-y and warm. But the offshoot is that we are wandering around with glazed eyes muttering, “Holy hell, where do we put this?”
This means we have to do more weeding out. And it’s hurting. A lot. Stuff I’ve had and loved for a long time now have no place in my life. It’s stuff I haven’t worn or used in years, but kept “just in case.” Well, “just in case” never arrived…so it’ll have to find a new home somewhere else. I’m considering whether to be sad about letting these things go, but when I stop to think what’s in the pile, I can’t remember. So it must be the right thing to do.
I see a lot of manuscripts like this as well. Until you’re up against a cranky pants editor, it’s hard to know how full your closets and drawers are. You write like you have all the room in the world to fit in those delicious little things that put the jam in your jelly doughnut. And really, you should be thinking about downsizing from a large five-bedroom home to a three-bedroom townhouse.
The Chapter(s) From Heaven
I can tell an author adored a certain chapter because it’s written with style and eloquence and invariably stands out from the rest of the manuscript. But as the unbiased unpacker of your literary boxes, I end up muttering, “Holy hell, where do you put this?”
I know what it’s like to write chapters that sing like angels, and I dearly want to keep them in because, well, they sing like angels. And yet, my washwoman of an editor made me toss them. My darlings. Oh, how it hurt; but I knew she was right because they did nothing to advance the plot or the character development. They were like the jeans I’ve been hanging onto for-ev-er. I kept them because I really liked the colors. But I never wore them. With my wee closet bursting at the seams, I had to bid them adieu. And so must you do with your chapters that don’t have a proper drawer or hanger. Save those chaps…it’s possible they may work in another book.
I refer to dialog as a disease in this post because I see so many writers who don’t use dialog to their advantage. Dialog is delicious, and I’ve written about it numerous times. The main thing to remember is that most of our real-life dialog is vomitus blather. We get away with it (for the most part) because speaking to one another is wholly different than what you see on the page.
How many times have you written dialog and thought that it sounded much better in your head but doesn’t work at all on the page? That is the kind of attention you need when writing dialog. Roll it around in your head, then go ahead and type it out. Then. Read. It. Carefully and Objectively. Does the dialog bring you in or repel you? Or worse…bore you?
Boring dialog is the Meet ‘n Greet kind.
“Hi, how are you?”
“I’m fine, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“Yes, thanks. Sugar and cream, if you have it.”
Blah blah blah. This kind of stuff can make a reader reach for the rafters with a solid piece of rope. Since we know we can bore readers quickly, we should keep our dialog snappy and filled with stuff that has to be there. Just like your chapters, ask yourself whether your dialog needs to be there. What impact does it make? How does it advance the plot, keep the action going, and further develop your character.
Dialog is one of my favorite writing tools because you can reveal so much with so little effort. Instead of saying your character is shy (the dreaded show vs. tell), you can use your dialog to get that idea across.
The beagle grabbed her manuscript and glanced over at the rottweiler, who had barely said a word all afternoon.”Hey, how ’bout going for some drinks after this critique session is over? We can talk about plot formation.”
The rotty seemed to turn in on himself. “Um, thanks. I-I’d like to, but, well, I’m a guard dog and not u-used to being around so m-many writers. I never know w-what to say.”
Backstory is like my penchant for purses. I don’t know what kind of sickness I have, but I never met a purse I didn’t love. Before the move, I tossed out a bunch. Apres le move, I tossed a few more. Yeah, it hurt, but it was the right thing to do…especially since I’d just ordered a new purse online. I need therapy, I know this.
Backstory is something that can creep up on a writer without their realizing it, and before you know it, your manuscript is bursting at the seams with a jillion little tidbits that probably slow down the pacing because it doesn’t play into the plot or character development.
Just like dialog, backstory is delicious if treated thoughtfully. Backstory is the stuff that took place “off camera,” and your story is the result of what happened “off camera.” It is NOT the story. Thar be a huge difference. Your “off camera” (backstory) is the catalyst for your story, so be mindful not to confuse the two. I see many manuscripts that are so crowded with backstory that I get confused as to which story the author is telling.
Effective backstory defines the character more clearly – like why Betsy freaks out whenever she sees a red Maserati – or it helps better clarify the plot – why Chris Baughman has such an unusual passion for saving victims of human trafficking.
These kinds of backstory give the reader their “ah ha” moment, so they can fully understand all aspects of the story and enjoy it more. Don’t leave your readers wondering, “Holy hell, why is this here?”
I’m still in the weeding-out process because it takes time to thoughtfully consider whether to keep something or toss it. And that’s the key here; grant yourself plenty of time to consider what stays in and what goes out. After all, you don’t want to toss that purse and decide a month later that you really wanted it after all.