What Do Your Cerebral File Cabinets Look Like?

December 7, 2012


If someone took a tour through my cerebral cortex, they’d find open cabinets with my Vickie Secrets flung far and wide, some errant wisps of paper that need filing, and endless manuscripts awaiting my attention. In short, the inside of my brain is a disaster…but it’s a far sight better than the beagle’s, whose cabinets are filled with empty tequila bottles. But as disorganized as my cerebral files are, I somehow manage to paint a sentient thought or two when it comes to writing. But that doesn’t necessarily extend to everyone.

There are times during the editing process when I see a shortcut between what’s in the author’s head and what actually made it to cyber paper. This takes the form of an incomplete scene that’s crying out for more explanation. For example, you can’t have a scene about being arrested and not tell the reader what the infraction is, or having a surgery without explaining what kind of surgery and why it’s needed.

The result of these shortcuts is that the reader will begin asking questions…which takes them out of your story. If you shortcut too much, they’ll toss your book (or manuscript) across the room.

Your scenes need to be developed enough in order to satisfy your reader and keep them from asking basic questions. Of course, many stories are meant to confound and confuse because it’s the nature of the plot. But you can’t leave basics out. If your character is crossing the room, and in the next breath is pulling weeds in the garden, then your readers won’t be very happy. Neither will your editor.

The problem is that authors know their stories so well, that they don’t realize they haven’t connected all the dots. So think about cleaning up your cerebral file cabinets so you can arrange your thoughts in a logical, organized manner that won’t leave your readers scratching their heads, wondering where the lady with three belly buttons fits into your story.

Organization – Are you selling your vest near the pants and jacket?

October 14, 2010

I spent the past seven days up in San Francisco visiting The Daughter at college. Total fun zone. Daughter needed some grown up clothes, so we hit the mall in typical Mom/Daughter fashion, where we commenced to picking out clothes faster than the beagle cranks up the blender. After hours of trying on and making final decisions, we headed up to the cash register. There…clear across the store…were matching vests to the two suits we were buying.

WTF? methinks. Why on earth wouldn’t the store organize all the suit pieces WITH each other in order to entice shoppers to buy the entire set? Instead, they very nearly lost a sale. I say “nearly” because we jetted across the store and bought the vests as well. But geez, what idiots. How many sales have they lost because shoppers had no idea those vests exist?

Oh sure, I get it…stores think this strategy will encourage shoppers to go through the entire store – kind of how Costco continually mixes up the store shelves. Just when you get used to finding olive oil on the far right of the store, fifth aisle down, they screw things up and you have to search the whole store, only to find it on the left side, eighth aisle down. It forces shoppers to wander through the whole store. Irritating as hell because I’m always in a hurry.

And that’s what gets me about so many manuscripts I read. Information is scattered around a story and dumped in strange places, leaving me to wonder why the author buried it there, rather than putting it where it would have the most effect. If a character has an usual aversion to the color red and freaks out at seeing someone wearing a red raincoat, then this is a logical place to include a bit of backstory behind this particular peccadillo – not five chapters later when it doesn’t have the most impact.

This literary selling the vest across the store from the pants and jacket creates a disconnect from the ensemble. Because I don’t see a logical connection to the problem, I might decide to quit reading the book. It’s all about organization, baby.

If you make readers ask too many questions that go to the very foundation of your story, then you’ve blown it. They simply will not follow you. When I’m editing a book, I find myself asking the author to move bits of information to other parts of the book because I believe the reader needs that information in order for the story to make sense and flow evenly.

So give particular attention to where you’re selling your literary vest. Is it across the store? If so, is that the absolute best place to sell it? Or does it need to be hung next to the pants and jacket?

And don’t even get me started on shoes…!


Organizing the disorganization

September 18, 2008

I’m in the middle of reading my pile of advanced submissions for next week’s Southern California Writer’s Conference, and I keep noticing the same problem in every submission. Organization and character development.

Organization: Chapters have a reason for their existence; to gradually reveal the plot and impart information. That’s a total “duh” statement, but I’m alarmed at the consistency of this omission.

Set the scene in a way that doesn’t force the reader to ask questions. Make it clear what and why the scene is taking place. If there is something that needs explaining, EXPLAIN IT! In many cases I felt like I needed the author right next to me in order to ask what they meant by this or that. Since we haven’t perfected cloning, the burden is still on you, the writer, to convey your stories in a manner that the reader will understand. Such is the beauty (and bane) of our words.

A good way to avoid chapter disorganization is to bullet out each point for each chapter.

Character development: Lots of stories can get away with minimal character development because they are plot-based. Clancy, John Lescroart, Vince Vaughn are a few writers who come to my under-caffeinated mind. They don’t waste much space on developing their characters and that’s ok. The plots more than make up for it. However most of our stories aren’t plot-based, so those cardboard, one-dimensional pancake characters aren’t going to scratch our literary itch. We need to align ourselves with the something that’s as real as we are – dimension that makes us back away from our desks and look for that “move to the couch moment,” as super agent Peter Cox is fond of saying. It’s what makes the reader care.

With these two major elements missing from these works, the stories just can’t launch. Take a peek at your work and check to see if your chapters are disorganized and your characters are as dry as burnt wheat toast. Go on…check….I’ll wait…

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