Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Rule#2: Make it Matter

While I'm on the subject of rules, which I am, I figure I should mention one of the most important ones. It has nothing to do with font size, paper quality, margins, or number of lines to be skipped before beginning a new chapter (if only I knew that one, I'd save my editing team a little trouble!). This rule is a little more difficult to define and a lot more difficult to execute. If you're a natural story teller you'll find it easier than if you're a naturally gifted writer who struggles with the story. Either way, rule number two can cause head-banging, hair-pulling, teeth-gritting frustration as we work toward making our manuscripts shine.

What's the rule (as if I didn't already give it away in the title)?

Make it matter. Every scene, every chapter, every well-chosen word should be leading toward the climax and to the conclusion. We have 300+ pages to build a story that compels our readers to keep turning pages, that allows them to both know and fall in love with our characters, and that gives them a satisfying ending that will bring them back to us for more. Those pages can either be filled with insight that helps further the plot, or fraught with pages of unnecessary information that leads to nothing but confusion and slows the pace of the story.

Believe me when I say, I know from whence I speak. This is my biggest problem. I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer. Sure, I sell on proposal now. I've got a nice synopsis all ready to use. But the fact is, I write by instinct rather than design and often find my first drafts rife with useless scenes, overwhelming details, and characters that appear once and never again.

The solution to this problem is easy (you're going to love this, Sabrina). Once your manuscript is complete, go back and read it like it's someone else's work. I like to do this from a hardcopy rather than computer. Ask yourself - Does this (scene, chapter) build the story? Does it tell the reader something they need to know to understand my characters better? Does it provide information vital to the furthering of the plot? Does it tie naturally with everything else that's happened, providing the reader with a bridge from one piece of information to another? Every time you answer no, cut the scene. If needed, reroute the chapter to head toward the conclusion the reader needs to draw. Leave hints of what is to come and clues as to characterization, weaving with master skill the pattern of your story.

My freelance editor can tell you how much my stories change from first to second draft. By cutting useless information and scenes, I create a tightly packed story that works well for the genre I write. Yes, I do major rewriting on second draft, but all that cutting and angst is worth it when I reread and realize I've accomplished my goal, creating a cohesive story that flows in natural progression from beginning to end.


Sabrina L. Fox said...

Ugh...Can you see me banging my head on the desk righ now? I'm struggling with this so much. Scenes that I see as part of the story in reality do nothing of great importance.

I had a friend in my local ACFW chapter tell me that any scene you love doesn't have to be completely tossed. She said you can rewrite and move around almost anything to make it work. Sounds easy enough. It's a theory anyway. ;)

Shirlee McCoy said...

I agree with her. I don't think I've ever completely cut a scene I've loved. I've taken things out of it that don't belong and added things that do!

Camy Tang said...

I totally agree with this rule. I do it after I make a detailed scene index (Yes, I'm anal), before I start on the rough draft. Or sometimes during the rough draft I'll realize, "This scene is boring!" and I'll toss it.