Reflections: Practical Reminders When Editing Your Fiction

The book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers has plenty of practical advice and exercises for editing fiction. The following are the reminders that stuck with me after reading the book. It should be noted that these aren’t as black or white as they may seem. Ultimately, the right balance is required in a story.

  1. Look out for over narration. Scenes can be harder to write which is why people slip into narrating a story rather than unpacking it. By merely summarizing some instance you can take away from the engagement of your story. Scenes are generally more engaging and they do a better job of bringing a story to life because you have to include specific details, dialogues, and characters in a scene. Good way to go about implementing this is by identifying those blocks/pages of texts and seeing if they can be broken up into smaller scenes or dialogue.
  2. Remember to Resist the Urge to Explain (R.U.E.). When it comes to your character’s emotions, make sure you aren’t just explaining them to the reader. The reader should be able to understand the emotions through action and dialogue. So, if you do your job correctly, you can simply cut away any explanation of a character’s emotions and not lose anything.
  3. Show the character. Unpack the characters’ personality through his actions, reactions, interior monologue, and dialogue. Or, if you have to describe the personality, let it come from the point of view or dialogue of another character who tells us his/her opinion of the character. Or let the personality come through the attitude of the character by describing something from the viewpoint of the character.
  4. Speaking of viewpoint, keep in mind what the character will notice and what will go unacknowledged. An 80-year-old man notices different things than an 8-year-old girl. For the 80-year-old, the falling snow may be a nuisance but for an 8-year-old it might be pleasant and fun. However, if there is no emotion attached to what the character is seeing, then your writing is emotionally detached, which only works if you’re aiming for an emotionally detached story.
  5. Well written dialogue should erase a lot of explanation. The dialogue itself should let the reader know that a character is astonished or scared. The reader shouldn’t need to read the descriptive tag. In fact, the best thing you can do for your dialogue is to never explain it.
  6. Be conscious of the beats in your text. For a tense dialogue scene, fewer beats the better. However, beats also allow you to ground your story. They can unpack setting and character traits/habits which allows the reader to use their imagination.
  7. Read your story out loud. By reading out loud you get the sense of the rhythm of your story, especially your dialogue. You can hear where the pauses should be, where some action is required, where there is too much talking and so on.
  8. Be aware of repetition. You don’t want your sentences to convey the same info or your paragraphs to establish the same traits or have multiple characters fulfilling the same role. Repetition can take away from your story.

Two Things That Have Made My Fiction Writing Easier

Stephen King Writing Tip: Build Your Toolbox

Writing/Life Advice: Don’t Get Overwhelmed

Vladimir Nabakov On What Makes A Great Writer

Tell Your Truth Through Writing

Vladimir Nabokov & Storytelling Techniques

Neil Gaiman & Generating Story Ideas

Writing Advice From William Faulkner

Haruki Murakami On Writing

Charles Bukowski & The Use Of Conflict In Storytelling

Ernest Hemingway On What To Write About

Simple Writing Advice From Stephen King


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Stephen King Writing Tip: Build Your Toolbox

I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.

What Stephen King means when he talks about constructing your own toolbox is that writing like any other job has much to do with problem-solving. An organized worker has his tools, screwdrivers, hammers, wrenches, batteries, tape measurer, different nuts and bolts and so on, in their toolbox so that when they need to fix something, all they have to do is pick up that toolbox and approach the problem. At which point they can assess the issue and see what tools would resolve it quickly. Certain problems require a screwdriver with a flat head, another might require a Phillips head or something may just need hammering, another might require loosening the bolts with a wrench or measuring the exact diameters and so it’s the simple process of finding what tool fits right.

In this manner, a writer also requires his own toolbox. So, instead of helplessly and blindly attacking a problem that arises in your writing, you can find the proper tool and aim it at fixing your problem.

The next question is then, what tools does a writer require?

The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary.

The way this tool works is that when you are reading markdown passages that you really enjoy reading. This is a good practice because right away you will notice how it’s not the vocabulary that is important but rather how the words are used. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway are both praised for their prose. Additionally, as you read, write down any word that you aren’t familiar with it. You don’t have to make a conscious effort to learn it and use it in your own writing but knowing that you have it in your toolbox, it can naturally come of use if you ever need it. Otherwise, it can just take up space like those random bolts that are never used but it’s better to have them there just in case.

After vocabulary comes grammar.

Vocabulary used in speech or writing organizes itself in seven parts of speech. Communication composed of these parts of speech must be organized by rules of grammar upon which we agree. When these rules break down, confusion and misunderstanding result. Bad grammar produces bad sentences. My favorite example from Strunk and White is this one: “as a mother of five, with another one on the way, my ironing board is always up.”

Grammar can be a complicated subject and also a boring one, however, it is essential to understand the basics because as Stephen King said “bad grammar produces bad sentences.” The last thing a writer wants is to write bad sentences. But at the same time getting bogged down by all the grammatical do’s and don’ts can be difficult. Which is why at the very least you have to understand how nouns and verbs work and interact with each other. Additionally, before you adopt the idea of “breaking the rules”, understand what the rules are and what you’re breaking.

Simple sentences are another way to ease the headache of grammar. So, if the sentence or paragraph starts to become overwhelming, just remember to simplify, return to your nouns and verbs.

The third tool comes in two parts: The verb and the adverb

Verbs themselves can be split into two.

With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

If you re-read the passages that you love you’ll quickly see how almost all of them are written in the active tense. What’s compelling to read is a character attempting things rather than constantly reacting. What goes with passive is timid and that’s how the writing ends up if you use passive tense.

This is why compiling writings that you enjoy is so important. You need something to compare your writing with when an issue arises. This way, you can spot the differences between your own writing and someone else’s and use their structure to resolve your problem.

Think of other prose as how-to videos, things to learn from and apply to your own writing. Speaking of which, the other part of this tool is adverbs.

The adverb is not your friend.

Often times the overuse of adverbs robs the writing of its emotions. We end up telling more and showing less which is reason alone to be sparse with your adverbs.

The last aspect your toolbox should have is an understanding of how paragraphs are written. However, this is just the base of a toolbox, your foundation, after this you can add whatever it is that you find useful or informative that can help you be a better writer.

The ideal expository graf contains a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first.

This pattern of a topic sentence followed by explanation and description of this topic sentence forces the writer to organize their thoughts, according to Stephen King.

However, that’s just one way of writing paragraphs. Once more, the more you read, the more examples you come across different ways of formulating what you’re trying to say.

The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own. And that’s what you want.

Often, the flow of the story narrates the form of the paragraphs. Stephen King believes that it’s this natural flow that you should stick with.

My main takeaway from this exercise is simple: writing is a skill and it needs work. You’re not going to come out the gates writing perfect sentences, possessing the exact vocabulary you need to vocalize what you want, in proper grammar and creating beautiful flowing paragraphs and stories. Rather, all of this takes dedication and discipline.

To deconstruct writing to its rawest form and build something that is your own. That’s the goal and with the understanding of the basics, we can get close to this. The toolbox itself is a tool in improving as a writer.

Simple Writing Advice From Stephen King

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

This is from Stephen King’s memoir On Writing.

The advice is straightforward and simple. A writer writes. You can spend all your time researching writing tips, habits, routines, reading lists and things of that nature but that is not writing. You can find writing exercises that make you describe some lake from four different perspectives but that is not writing. You can even spend weeks reading books on how to write and by doing all of this, give yourself this false notion that you are writing but you are not writing.

It may seem like you are working on your craft and improving your understanding as you try a new way of writing and learn through the habits of other writers, however, all of this can trick you into thinking that you are getting better as a writer but you really may not be. After all the hours spent on such activities, you may still be exactly where you started.

The reason being all of that is supplementary. Additional work to your core work. The core is the actual writing, your writing, no matter if it is good or bad, you must write your own writing. The easiest way to do this is either set a block of time which is dedicated to writing and nothing else or assign yourself X number of words that need to be written each day to consider that day a win. This makes up your core. After this is when all the supplementary work like reading books on writing, grammar, editing, biographies/memoirs, and writing exercises can be added to the routine.

I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book.

Along with writing, comes reading. Just as with writing, you have to assign yourself a certain number of pages to read or a block of time dedicated to just reading. You don’t have to read with the purpose of studying fiction but you must read.

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

What does a character do when he is in a heated argument? What will the landscape look like from the view of someone who does not know who they are? What creates an emotional connection with a character? How do you write a good battle scene? A good love scene? How can inner monologue flow? How do you incorporate symbolic meanings into the text? Questions like these and many others have all been answered. You just have to pick up a book and see.

A useful way to read is to read with attention. Take notes, understand what the writer has included and what he or she has omitted. Pay attention to the words used and how they differ depending on the character. See how an emotional scene was set up or a violent one. Take note of the details that bring a scene to life and the lack of detail that makes it mundane. Watch how the character struggles internally or how the character acts externally.

All books can be seen as textbooks for writing.

One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose […] good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.

Although the advice is simple, write a lot and read a lot, the application of it must be done with commitment and attention. In that way, the simple advice is all you need to become a better writer for the rest of the writing journey you will learn innately and those lessons are hard to forget while no matter how many writing tips and lists you read, the lessons will eventually fade from your mind.