by Brenda W. Clough
This material is in the nature of an esprit d’escalier. Over Memorial Day I was at Balticon, on a panel about revising first drafts. Unfortunately the great editor Gardner Dozois had just passed away, and the panel, all writers and editors, became diverted into melancholy reminiscences about him. The number of Gardner anecdotes is just about endless, and we only lightly touched upon what the panel was actually supposed to be about. So this is what I -should- have said, on that panel.
Although this checklist is numbered, you do not have to do them in the order I have given. A case could be made that you should start at the bottom, with the big stuff, and go up to the small. Clearly, if you decide to add a chapter, you’re going to have to fix its punctuation and spelling, right? However, I have put the easiest things first. It’s less intimidating, to get in at the shallow end of the pool. Anybody can fix a comma!
- Micro stuff. Fix all the punctuation and all the spelling. Put invented names or words into your word processor’s dictionary, so that whenever you spell ‘Aragorn’ as ‘Arragon’ the system will put a wiggly red line under it and you know to fix it. Run all your invented names and words through Google, to be sure they don’t mean something obscene in another language, or are a famous soft drink in Malaysia. Peel out stylistic infelicities like using the same word twice in a sentence, or starting three sentences in a row with ‘And.’
- Everybody has words that they instinctively resort to. If you always use ‘clearly’ or ‘maybe’ or some such, a word search will kick them up in your ms. Change some of them, so your tic is less obvious, but don’t gut your personal ‘voice’ or lose the tone of the work.
- Add in the sensory detail that is missing. The work does not take place in a white box, does it? Smells, flavors, sound and colors make the work more real. Since you’re looking at the setting, ensure that there’s some variety. Do all the scenes take place indoors? Or on horseback? Make the characters visit Pizza Hut or go to the opera or climb Mount Everest. Make it rain – nothing like bad weather to increase the misery of the characters.
- Medium range stuff. Look at each paragraph. Can you cut any superfluous wordage? Flabby sentences? Do the same with scenes and chapters. A ms should be tight and fit, like an Olympic swimmer. No love handles and blubber! Within each paragraph (and scene and chapter too), do the sentences and events fall in their logical order? Fix all those places where the victim falls to the floor bleeding and only then you describe the crack of the gun.
- Envision each scene, not as words on a page but as actors on a stage. Your characters are doing things and you are sitting in the front row, watching them. Do those things make sense and look right? If a character lights one cigarette at the beginning of a paragraph, and another at the end, did half an hour pass or is he holding a cigarette in each hand? Is everybody participating in that crucial conversation on the stage, or do you need to bring someone on? Do they have all their props, their blasters or ladders or cars? If somebody is going to stab someone, get that knife into his pocket early enough.
- While you’re at it, go back a couple chapters and mention the knife in his possession at an earlier appearance. Put things, both prop items and emotional triggers, in place so that your characters can have them to hand later for the fight or the crisis. Having things, or thoughts, or actions, that run through the entire work help to tie it together from beginning to end. If the character can’t handle a Keurig machine at the beginning, he could learn. Alternatively, he could continue to be a dork about it to the very end, and his companions could razz him about it.
- Take each character and push him or her under the lens. Every character has a motivation and a story arc. The maid’s goal may not be very exciting or important (she wants to retain her job!) but all her actions must make sense with that motive in view. The maid is not going to suddenly let the burglars into the house just because you need a robbery to make the plot go; she needs a reason to risk her job. On the other hand, remember that you are in a sense the director of the movie that is this book. You direct the attention of the reader this way and that, just like Stephen Spielberg. If you put several pages into the maid, her appearance, motivations and so on, you are signaling to the reader that she is an important character. If she isn’t, don’t give her so much camera time. It then would be sufficient then to say, “Oh, boss, I was just kissing my boyfriend out back, and left the kitchen door open.” You can and should know a lot more stuff than actually gets onto the page. You do not have to tell the reader everything.
- Analyze the role each character plays in the work. Do you really need that maid? Perhaps the back door has a defective lock and the burglars can get in without her. If you can cut a character, or combine two minor ones to do all the work, you should. Occam’s Razor applies in fiction; there should be nothing and nobody in the work that does not do something for it. If this were a play, on stage, powerful forces would drive you to economy. You’d have to pay a salary to every actor, have the set people build a new drop for every fresh scene. Write as if you had to pay union scale to each character, and be economical. Tight and taut!
- As long as you’re looking at them, make sure that all characters’ names are sufficiently different to avoid reader confusion. Help their distinctiveness along by varying their speech, clothing, etc. If the work is in any way historical or ethnic, be sure you’re rock-solid on all the nomenclature. Do not write about a medieval Chinese maiden named Cindy. And, as long as you’re digging into authenticity, make sure the geography, weaponry, transport are all solid. If you’re making all this stuff up, be sure you’re consistent. Make spreadsheets, calendars, and lists if necessary, to keep your worldbuilding on track. Draw up a map of Middle Earth and be sure that it really does take five days for a hobbit to walk from Mirkwood to Gondor.
- Large-picture issues. Does the work begin as close to the main action as possible? Does it end at the right place? Gardner Dozois noted that a very common flaw is a long uninteresting runup to the real start of the book, and extra stuff after the real ending. Cut those bits. If the story is about an airplane trip, don’t begin with your drive to the airport and the going through security and the airplane trundling down the runway. Begin with the wheels leaving the tarmac.
- Consider the arc of the entire work. Does it climax at the right spot? If the plot digresses from the main drive to the climax are these secondary arcs begun and ended satisfactorily? Does each major character grow and change over the course of the work? Are there any pieces missing, a crucial scene omitted? Are there any angles that should be exploited for maximal conflict and excitement? Could you make the characters’ plight worse? Tighten the screws, up the ante.
- At this point you should be able to discern the theme of the work. Can you subtly enhance and reinforce it? Don’t weigh in with a heavy hand unless this is a sermon, or one of those Victorian novels with a Moral. You might call upon #6, tying the work together from beginning to end. When the reader closes the book and looks back on the whole, the theme should be visible from start to finish. Compare the first sentence or paragraph or chapter to the last. Do they speak to each other and help to bolt the work solidly together? In the last sentence of The Lord of the Rings Sam Gamgee says, “I’m back.” And we remember that at the very beginning, The Hobbit was subtitled “There and Back Again.” You could also contemplate symbolism. A symbol should emerge naturally from the work; don’t just go through and hammer in random references to shoes or flags or buffalo. If you read the completed work and notice those buffalo, then you can quietly enhance it a little by throwing another one in at the beginning, or the end.