Good Morning, Seekerville! Mia Ross here with party hats and streamers, to celebrate all those completed Speedbo books with you. What did you do after you typed in those last few words? Me, I went out and got a gooey butterscotch sundae with LOTS of whipped cream. Then I got back to work, because I’ve learned that when you get to the end of a project, you’re really only half done.
I want to mention one thing before I really get going. I don’t have a critique partner. Yes, you read that right. So for all you folks who think that’s an excuse for less-than-thorough editing, guess again. There are plenty of techniques to make self-editing just as effective as trading pages with a friend. Not as much fun, but they work fine. And to prove it, here’s my story.
My Love Inspired debut Hometown Family came out last week, but its long journey started almost 2 years ago. I began writing it after meeting Melissa Endlich at the RWA conference in July 2010 and finished it that November. Yay! Or so I thought. My agent went through the manuscript and found more problems than I care to recall. It had likeable characters and a beginning, middle and an end. Aside from that, it needed a lot of TLC.
With her help, I started revising. That version wasn’t quite there, but it was closer. Yup, you guessed it-- ANOTHER round of edits. Just after Christmas, we sent it to Melissa. She liked it well enough to email a revision letter (4 pages!) and I made those changes, too. Working with these two pro’s, I learned that I needed some practice with self-editing. That way, they wouldn’t have as much to do at the other end. So I paid close attention to what they told me and discovered most things revolved around my 3 C’s: Character, Conflict, and Consistency. Not as fun as Clarity, Cut, and Carat size, but just as valuable to me as a writer.
Think about your all-time favorite book. Got it? Okay, WHY is it your favorite? Chances are the plot is funny or exciting or thought-provoking, maybe even all three. But the events wouldn’t stick with you if you didn’t like the characters. They’re the people you come to love, or sometimes despise, and they drive your attachment to the story. If you didn’t care about the characters, you wouldn’t care about what happens to them. So how do you build solid, vivid characters that rise up off the page and connect with readers?
One layer at a time. You don’t have to nail everything on the first pass, because—trust me—it’s impossible. Start with a description, since that’s fairly easy. Then ask yourself how does this blond former cheerleader FEEL about herself? Does she appreciate being born gorgeous but wish people would look deeper to find out she’s an accomplished artist? Is the successful businessman really as self-assured as he seems, or is he terrified that people will discover he’s dyslexic? An added bonus to this layering is you’ll uncover some things that will help you in the next step.
Conflict. I’ll be honest--this is my downfall. I’m a sensitive person, and I don’t like delving into negative things because it makes me sad. When someone has a tragic history, or is struggling to make their life work, my heart goes out to them. Then again, that’s exactly the reaction you want to elicit from your readers. Because you’ve allowed them to identify with the characters, readers will care about what happens to them. In romance, internal and external conflicts are wrapped together like a pretzel. The characters’ internal conflicts drive their behavior, which affects the way they deal with each other.
For me, the best stories have a level of conflict that won’t go away. She’s shy and hangs back, he’s outgoing and friendly. She had a bad marriage and doesn’t want to risk it again, he’s someone who’s had the best relationships imaginable. Her family’s farm was just auctioned off by the bank, and it turns out he’s the big-city developer who bought the land. These things won’t resolve themselves, and despite their attraction to one another, these two people will have to do a lot of compromising to form a lasting relationship out of this mess.
Another level of conflict that works for me as a reader is when characters have to confront something together. Despite their misgivings or initial dislike of each other, they’re thrown into a situation where they have to find a way to defeat the nasty ex-husband or raise enough money to put a new roof on the school. Working together, they develop a grudging respect for each other’s good points, which blurs the bad points they saw at first. Because real people have both, and it takes some wrestling to work it all out.
That leaves us with consistency. In movies, sometimes you’ll notice that at the beginning of a scene it’s morning, then by the end of the meal it’s dark outside. Hmmm…Whose job was it to catch that? As a writer, that’s YOUR job. I get tripped up with that kind of thing when I start moving scenes around in the story and things get out of sequence. For instance, let’s say that by halfway, your heroine doesn’t know who her real father is. Then you pull a section from near the end to the beginning. Now there’s a reference to her father BEFORE she even knows who he is. Sigh.
A good way to avoid this is to set the manuscript aside for a few days after your “final” edit. Read a book or do some yardwork so your brain isn’t fixed on your last project. Then pick it back up again. If you’re like me, errors will jump out at you, giving you a chance to fix them before anyone else sees them. You’ll also find spots where you can add in some details that make a so-so scene into one that will grab people’s attention and contribute more to the story than it did originally.
Finally, a bit of advice about revision letters. First of all, if you get one, CELEBRATE! Don’t read it in detail, especially if it’s long, because it will dim the joy you have every right to savor. Read the part that says “I really like this story” over and over until you believe it’s for real. You’ve probably gotten a few rejections, so that “maybe” is a huge accomplishment. For one day, just enjoy the feeling because as with the first of anything, it only comes once. Then, during your next work session, pick that letter up and get a few highlighters. You’ll need them J Read the letter through for the gist. Are the comments mostly about the characters? Conflict? Setting? Get a general idea of what the editor wants changed. Then mark the things that go together with the same color. That’s how I discovered my 3 C’s so I could improve on them for next time.
Because I really wanted a next time. I carefully went through Melissa’s notes and learned what she’s looking for and how to make sure she—and the readers—end up with a book they’ll love. It’s a good process, as long as I remember that when I’ve reached “The End,” my work has only just begun.
To give you an idea of what can happen when you keep revising, I’m offering 3 autographed copies of Hometown Family to today’s commenters. If you’d like to read an excerpt or learn a little more about me, visit www.miaross.com. Have a great day!