As writers, we know our stories well. We know our character's history, the world building events that shaped the setting, the past wounds that affect character motivation. It's all in our heads as we plot and plan and write.
Trouble is, we don't always get what's in our heads onto the page.
You'll know when this has happened when you get feedback like "I didn't understand why they did this here," and you're sure that the reasons are there. You can point to them in the text, and then the reader says "Oh, okay, I didn't pick up on that."
Odds are what's in the text is only a fraction of what's in your mind. The words you wrote have context for you that's missing for the reader. It feels like it's all there, but when you look closely, the words mean almost nothing if you don't understand that context.
Here's are some ways to make sure what's in your head does indeed make it onto the page.
Take a Break
It's hard to catch these little buggers because we can't just turn off our memories of what we know about our stories. The best way to self edit here is to set the book aside for a while (a month is usually good) and then read it again. A lot of things will pop out at you this time. Reading in in order also helps, as you'll have what just happened fresh in your mind and you'll pick up things more easily.
For a quick self-check, try asking:
- Do you find yourself skimming over parts you feel are "done"?
- Do you think about what a line or scene means as if it's a private joke and something the reader will enjoy or get later?
- Are you reading what's there or just checking the text for errors?
(Here's more on giving your manuscript some time off)
Check the Motivations
You can also try looking at your character's choices and actions and double checking to see where the groundwork for those are. Ask yourself if those motivations are clear by what's in the text. Most times all you'll need is a few extra words or a line or two to clarify everything.
For a quick self-check, try examining how every scene unfolds:
- Is it clear what the protagonist wants in this scene?
- Is is clear why they want to do that?
- Are the leaps in logic or decision-making process plausible?
- Do the motivations and choices lead the story where it needs to go?
(Here's more on showing character motivations)
Check the Descriptions
Description is another spot that often gets left behind, especially in the setting. You see the setting in your head, so you focus on what's going on in that scene instead. Doubly so if you've spent time on the setting earlier, so in your mind "it's done." The result--scenes turn into talking heads in a white room, with no sense of where the characters are.
For a quick self-check, try examining how every scene starts:
- Are details introduced right away that ground the reader in the scene?
- Do they know who's in the room?
- Have the characters changed location since the last scene?
- Have they changed times?
(Here's more on using the best words to describe your setting)
Sometimes just keeping in mind, "will new readers understand this?" as you read is enough to pick up on things that need a bit more fleshing out.
Do you and your manuscript take a "time out" between drafts?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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