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Recently on Wordplay I talked about the most common mistakes fiction editors see. Everyone should know them.
Joanna's game! She wants to go where angels fear to tread, beyond the most common fiction mistakes:
Machinated plot developments.
One of the hardest things to get a handle on is cause-&-effect.You've figured out your Climax—the catastrophic fate that lies at the heart of all great stories. And you've identified your Hook—the crookneck cane that yanks your characters willy-nilly to their fate, dragging the reader along with them. You've even planned your Development, one damn thing after another, characters buffeted from pillar to post until they tumble right off the map and lie on their backs, gasping. . .just before the Climax comes crashing down and squashes them flat. You've got it all plotted out!
Unfortunately, though, you don't know WHY. Why are they thrown from this particular pillar to that particular post? Why not the other way around? Or a different post? Or whole other row of pillars? Why are these the only possible pillars and posts that could ever in a million years work?Analyze your plot backward: Climax—caused by what? caused by what? caused by what? Backtrack from your characters' worst nightmare through every inevitable development they fought and lost and won until you get to that one point at which they made the original decision that doomed them to their fate—Hook.I spend all day every day asking my clients (from the innocent to the savvy), “How does A cause B? How does the choice between X and Y cause Z? When your characters follow their chosen path, why aren't they ever until the Climax able to get where they're going? And how does that Climax turn out, unexpectedly, to be both the one thing they always longed for and the last thing on earth they're going to want?”Filling in the gaps of that puzzle is the stuff of your novel.
What makes a character sympathetic? Two words: internal conflict. This is how so many villains steal the show.Many writers have quite a difficult time with this. The protagonist in their mind's eye has no villainous traits—they're an archetype of the Beloved, which is why they're so unbelievably delicious to write for the many, many moons it takes to write and revise and rewrite and polish an entire novel. They're the good guys.So I find myself telling even the most accomplished clients, “I know you love and adore this protagonist, and they are certainly a lovable and adorable critter. But they must be more. They must be a lovable and adorable rascal.”We as human beings are drawn to rascals. Because they're chocked to the nu-nu's with internal conflict. And internal conflict is the fuel that drives the engine that drags your reader by the hair through your extraordinary plot, whirls them around your head, and flings them off the metaphorical cliff into epiphany.Fling us into the stratosphere!
Of course, the first thing I do with every client manuscript I line edit, no matter how brilliant, is remove every spec of exposition possible. Unless it's a brief, necessary sentence or either hilarious or utterly unique—out it goes.I know the ‘literary' fiction out there these days is just exposition to the eyeballs. But I don't care. Exposition is almost always either difficult to wade through or just plain boring. Nobody needs hip boots to love Dickens. Or Austen. Or Twain.You know what exposition is for? Hilarious and utterly unique. And even if you can write it, you still have to use it as layering: not only furthering your plot, but also emphasizing the climax of an Act or important episode.
Now, I described on Writer Unboxed two weeks ago how to layer fiction—novel-level, scene-level, detail-level. And the whole time I was writing that I heard the voices of other editors in my head: “Warn them—Flammable & Explosive! Use Only Under Professional Supervision!”It's true. Layering is tricky, and if you try too hard to confuse your reader you find, to your great consternation, you've succeeded beyond your wildest dreams.Keep your head. Layering is essential to reader addiction. But it takes clear thinking, developed skills, and a whole heck of a lot of planning. Categorize your skills so you can develop them individually. Become accomplished at designing and redesigning patterns, at judging to a nicety exactly how far a reader will go down the Golden Path before they turn on you. Walk the highwire. Get used to falling off. Exercise your patience.All my clients realize, at some point in the editing process, that writing a really wonderful novel takes exponentially longer than they expected. Fortunately, they also realize at the exact same moment (coincidentally) just how much they love this process.
Uneven stylistic voice.
And everyone falls prey to this one, so don't beat yourself over the head. Every skull echoes inside. Everyone needs some help translating the voice from within onto the page. Even the most talented writer wants an objective outside eye to see where that voice falters and fails, wanders aimlessly, or reaches unexpected screeching heights.The longer you practice the craft, the stronger and more predictable your voice becomes and the less line editing you need. Once you've been writing professionally for a lot of years you'll get pretty accomplished at voice, plus you'll have professional writing friends willing to read a piece and X out the obvious places where you get in your own way. But I have acclaimed literary novelists who still come to me after all that for line editing.So sit down and start writing—log your hours. Love the process! Practice, practice, practice. You want to get good at this?Write.
A. Victoria Mixon is a professional writer and independent editor with over thirty years' experience in both fiction and nonfiction. She is the coauthor of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators and author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual. She can be reached through her blog, her Editing Services, and Twitter.