Revising Your Novel? Eliminate These Four Things.
You’ve written a draft of a novel and you’ve revised enough times to know that your story is pretty awesome. What other things need revision? I’ve got a list of four things to look for.
When I beta read novels, I see a lot of equivocating. Words and phrases like the following pop up everywhere: a little, almost, somewhat, rather, a bit. I challenge you to look for these scene deflating words and see if they can be switched out for something else. Take this example:
Jerome felt a little sad.
Do you see how a little robs the sentence of emotion? And what does a little sad mean? Think about Jerome’s sadness and how it relates to your story. Can you show us what his sadness looked like? Can you use a metaphor or simile to bring some texture to his sadness?
One use of a little or a bit or almost isn’t terrible. But if they are your go-to’s or even medium-to’s, find some other words and make your story that much richer for your readers.
Adverbs, for those of you who grew up in a time when only taught grammar in elementary school (raises hand) are “word[s]…typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a preposition, a phrase, a clause, or a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial…” That’s Merriam-Webster’s wordy definition.
Grammar Bytes (one of my favorite grammar resources) says: “Adverbs tweak the meaning of verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and clauses.”
The thing that makes adverbs easy to find? A lot of them end in -ly. And that’s what you should be looking for. Because those -ly adverbs are draining your novel of emotion. Look at this example:
Michelle opened the door quietly and carefully.
If this is one of the rare times that Michelle’s actions are going to be described using two adverbs, fine. But my experience reading pre-published manuscripts shows me that adverbs colonize the story from the first page and spread throughout the novel, killing a heck of a lot of feeling in the process.
Ask yourself why Michelle opened the door that way. Or ask yourself what it would look like if Michelle opened the door. Ask yourself what verb could help get across what you are thinking. You might get something like this:
Michelle knew that Kaden was a light sleeper so her touch was soft on the silver knob. When she stared through the crack, she could see he hadn’t stirred.
Michelle’s hand slipped twice from the door handle, leaving streaks of blood from the cut on her hand. Still, she had to get into the room without Jason knowing. On her third try, she turned the knob, and stopped it right before it clicked.
Michelle turned the knob as if she was removing the wishbone from Cavity Sam’s chest.
Sometimes you just need to get Michelle through that door. But if most of your story is being told by adverbs, your reader might feel like they are missing something.
Search and destroy your exclamation points.
I write email and social media posts peppered with exclamation points and so might you. And that’s fine. Those are mediums where using the minimum number of words and characters to get across your point is appreciated.
Novels are the opposite. People open books to have the words wash over them. And when you use exclamation points to let your reader know what’s going on, you are denying them the opportunity to read the words you’ve written.
I suggest you keep the number of exclamation points to three per novel. Fewer might even be better. Leave them for the biggest points of surprise. For the rest, find words so your reader can feel what it’s like to be there. This:
“I don’t like Roquefort cheese!” Edmund yelled.
“Well, I don’t like you getting to choose the cheese!” Sara replied.
Could become this:
“I don’t like Roquefort cheese.” The volume of Edmund’s sentence increased so that by the time the cat heard the last word, he leapt from the couch and ran to hide in the closet.
Sara matched his volume with her reply. “Well, I don’t like you getting to choose the cheese.” She heard the cat crawl further back into the closet. Ever since he was a kitten he hadn’t liked loud noises.
It’s fun to see what details will emerge when you let your words do the talking. And your readers won’t become fatigued from All! Those! Exclamation! Points!
Rampant ellipses are another sign of a manuscript in need of editing. The Chicago Manual of Style, the style guide used for trade publications, does allow in 13.41 that “An ellipsis may be used to suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity.”
What I see in pre-published novels is writers taking that “may” and running with it.
If our jobs as writers was to transcribe human speech, then by all means yes, ellipses would be sprinkled throughout. But writers are not transcribing speech, they are building a world for their readers. And just as eavesdropping on conversations most often results in learning boring information about daily schedules (I was wondering if…Can you pick up Doug…Tonight before the game?) rather than juicy life details, so do we also want to clean up the speech of our characters.
Plus, you could use those ellipses as a sign that—you guessed it—it’s time to write more words. Instead of:
“I told you I loved you that night…Because I did. But now…I just, I just don’t know if…”
“Ron…I wish you would make a decision. Whatever…whatever you decide it will be what’s best for us both. In the end, I guess…”
Your readers could read this:
“I told you I loved you that night,” Ron’s voice broke and he stared up at the ceiling blinking a few times before he looked back at me. “BecauseI did love you. That night. But,” Ron paced across the room and flopped into my wingback chair. He took another deep breath. “But now, I just don’t know.” His voice broke again.
“Ron,” I sucked in the stale air as if it would help me know what to reply. “I wish you would make a decision.”
I thought about how much he meant to me, how often I remembered that night. “Whatever,” my voice faltered, “whatever you decide will be what’s best.” I wondered why I was letting him choose. When did I get to choose? “In the end, I guess,” I broke off, hoping he would take my unfinished sentence as a sign.
If there is one tense point in your novel where your character is going all wobbly, it’s fine to use an ellipsis. But they shouldn’t become a crutch. Don’t make your reader fill in all the details around those ellipsis. Make them see what is going on in all that broken up speech.
By making these four changes to your novel, your manuscript will be stronger. And your readers will become more invested in your story.