Self-Editing for Novelists: a Workshop
Hello from the Festival of Writing in York! I’m grateful to be here due to generous funding from Canterbury Council and Arts Council England, and it’s only right that I pass on all I’m learning, one workshop at a time. With kind permission from wonderful writers and tutors Emma Darwin and Debi Alper, here is a look at today’s four hour taster-workshop, Self-Editing for Novelists, ordinarily a 6 week on-line class. If you like the sound of it, the next course starts in October. The workshop and course are designed to help writers get a handle on the process of self-editing, revisiting all the decisions you made in the first draft and looking at them, knowing what you know now, in terms of the story and the characters. This one’s a long one, so hold onto your pens!
CHARACTER: After a quick writing warm-up,we begin on a discussion of developing characters and how they are inextricably entwined to plot. If story is the journey you take your readers on, plot is the pathway, the line getting you from beginning to end. Characters come from interacting with the plot, reacting to what happens, and changing – and, as they change, their reactions change.
Beyond the basics of character: name, age appearance, background, circumstances, taste, a character is revealed through interactions with the plot – actions, choices and changes – as well as what they do and say, what their bodies and faces do, as well as, their physical sensations and their internal thoughts. Foremost is developing a sense of what a character wants – and what a character needs. What will they do to get it? What gets in their way? And how do the wanting and the not-getting change them? And, as they change, does it change what they want? Characters are effectively revealed under pressure – putting characters under pressure is “how you get plot”.
Debi and Emma find “obstacle” a more useful term than “conflict”, in creating the opposing force for a character. In drama, conflict is usually embodied in an antagonist, a separate character, while in a novel the obstacle can be a dilemma, a moral dilemma, or an internal conflict. It can be the weather. When self-editing, check that characters are consistent, even as they are changing, and that the plot is consistent with the character.
VOICE: Voice is the human interface with the story. It’s one of the reasons why agents and editors go on about the voice – as if it’s the thing that can’t be taught. Which isn’t true – it can be learned, like any part of writing can. Voice, in a novel, is the combination of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. The human interface between the reader and the story. Voice is what draws the reader in, before you know the character – that first half page before you know what’s going on. If the voice doesn’t work, it’s a much bigger problem than plot and character. Who’s telling the story? Your character acting as a narrator – in first person. Character narrators have two “characters” – as narrators and as characters.In self-editing, make the voice as strong as you can. In terms of the writer’s psychic distance to a character, the “closer” you are in third person, (meaning that you are looking “through them” rather than “at” them) the more the character’s voice is likely to colour the prose.
In their person, the narrator may be a character or not. They may be a character who is the main character, or a character interacting with the main character, as in The Great Gatsby, or may be a storyteller, standing outside or above the action. Whichever, the narrator is still a “character” with a voice and peculiarities. External narrators can have privileges, what they can know and what they cannot. The narrator is a character, even if we never see them as a character. A storyteller narrator can control points of view, pointing out what two characters are thinking about at the same time. POV: what the character can see, vocabulary, style, emotional response, motivation. Are they trustworthy, can we believe them? The deeper we are inside the character, apparent contradictions will lead to unreliable narrators.
As you edit, look at if what you have is the right voice for the story? Is it consistent? Does it change? If it changes, which is best – beginning or end, in style? Differentiate between voices – look at how they can look different. Different lengths of sentences, short and long, simple and twisty, finishing sentences or not. Slangy, colloquial, how is the grammar. Rhythms. Similes and metaphors – which do they use and do they use them at all? Structure – fluid or chunky. Vocal tics. Is their tone consistent – do they change how they speak to different people.
How do you get closer to your character, to work on voice? Debi suggests taking a ride on the bus as your character, see the journey with their eyes and start to build a sense of their vocabulary, what they notice. Emma suggests making a list of all the characters own, because we expect them to (the successful lawyer with a flash car, etc.) and then a list of 10 things we expect them to own, but they don’t (the model who doesn’t own a toothbrush, etc.) How can characters surprise and wrong foot a reader’s assumptions? Even with secondary characters, they must have specificity and a voice of their own. All characters have arcs and different characters see each other differently. All must have a vital role. And – challenge your assumptions. Must the bus driver be a man? Are all French characters stylish? Etc. Lastly? Give your character the “kick the dog test” – this belongs to JoJo Moyes, they said: your character sees someone kicking a dog – how do they react? Lastly – write in first person and then change to third, retaining the sense of the first person closeness and specificity as you do so.
STRUCTURE: Sometimes our first drafts are in a muddle. If we write without planning, self-editing can impose “retrospective planning” on the text we have. Emma chalked out a character arc, the rising and falling of actions and expectations, the gradual increase of what’s a stake. For a more thorough examination of the mechanics of structure, they recommend John York’s Into the Woods, who says that scene structure is “fractals”. Rising stakes consist of what a character hopes for and dreads. Scenes comprise of unites of “getting wants” and getting disappointed, leading toward the mid-point of the novel where the “want” of a character turns to a “need”. Scenes are units of change. They suggest looking at every chapter and writing down, in three lines only, what happens and what changes. This is quite a hard exercise! In analysing your scenes, look at what changes – and if nothing changes, maybe you don’t need the scene – maybe it can be reported instead.
Look at scenes like railway carriages. The coupling between them is how you get from scene to scene. These need to be strong. Jump cutting from carriage to carriage makes the reader start from cold, every time. A good honest couple of sentences can help you and the reader move from one to the other and help with pace. Emma’s blog, This Itch of Writing has a toolkit on this:
MICROSCOPE EDITING: The last stage of self-editing is looking at the text close up. Every word has to earn its place. Looking at prose – you can cut it, expand it, or change it. Look at every line – is it right? Too long? Too short? Not right? Then what about it is not right – what kind of different? Is it voice or character or punctuation – and individual decision. Then move on to the next sentence. Look at the rhythm of your prose. Mix it up. Look at the variety of sentence structures, lengths, for texture and variety. Use wordle.com to see what your particular word tics are – do you use “just” or “suddenly” too often? Do you have too many adverbs – and too many adjectives? Make everything vivid. Choose the best words. Check not too many adjectives. But don’t fiddle with your text. Too many rewrites in, your eyes get a bit dead to it. Don’t work on your book unless you know what you’re going to work on and keep track of what you’re changing, as you do. Save new versions, so that you can go back, if you need to, or use track changes in MS Word. Print out drafts and mark them up. You don’t have to solve the problem on paper, just find it. Emma suggests keeping track of the novel on a spreadsheet grid. You can read more about it here, as well as great blog posts on psychic distance, which is, for them, the key to character and story. Check out This Itch of Writing and its equally marvellous resource, the Tool Kit.