Updated: Oct 17, 2022
A-number one advice for new writers especially: Don’t rush the process. Man oh man. How many writers approach me who think they’re going to hand me their first or second draft of a novel and after one developmental edit they’re going to be done? Far too many. In this new landscape of 21st century ‘everyone’s a writer’ world, the culture has simply been infected with the idea that ‘anyone can do it.’ This isn’t to mock or knock anyone. Believe me. I take every email I receive seriously. But my point is: Respect the craft of writing.
Like anything—plumbing, law, construction, acting—there is much to learn before you can really write a serious novel. Some go to college and do the MFA. Some join a professional workshop. Some simply read constantly and write every day. There is no one right way to become a writer. Mostly I think it’s about drive, ambition, life experience, perseverance. Ambitious, nascent writers will go to writers’ conferences, join critique groups, carve out a daily or several-times-weekly writing discipline. They take it seriously. When they write a novel, they go through half a dozen or more drafts before even considering it anywhere near being “done.”
Referring to my opening paragraph, I’m not saying a writer can’t approach me—or any other editor—early in the stages of their novel-in-progress, or in their career. They can and should. But be aware that when you do, at this early stage, you will most likely be asked—encouraged—to follow up with several developmental edits. This isn’t because I want your money and am trying to squeeze you. Yes, I do editing more or less fulltime, and yes, I need to eat and survive. But, honestly, it’s really all about the fact that serious novels take serious time and care.
Debut novelist Gabriel Tallent (“My Absolute Darling”) took eight years to create the final draft of his book. It took Stephanie Danler many, many years and drafts and hardship to create “Sweetbitter.” Emma Cline took several years writing “The Girls.” My ex neo-Nazi skinhead client, Christian Picciolini, worked on his book, “Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead” for years before at last coming to me in 2014 and then working with me for a full year before his book was released in early 2015. My mom worked arguably for 15 years—on and off—until she finally finished a solid draft of her novel (published 2015), Lori Mohr’s “The Road at My Door.”
My point? It takes TIME. Be patient. Respect the process and the craft. Don’t rush it. Accept that you’re going to have to spend time and money. No, it’s not as easy as the media may make it seem. Writing a book is like raising a child. Think of it that way. It’ll wake you up in the middle of the night, torturing you. It’ll scream at you when you’re so tired you feel like you can’t go on. It takes finesse and kindness and love and every ounce of your energy and attention and respect.
I do developmental editing, focusing on plot and structure and voice and tone and dialogue and character-development and logic issues, etc. I zoom the camera out and look at the big picture of your novel. I will look at almost any type of book, except for children’s or mystery or serious fantasy. I prefer adult literary novels, gritty, real, raw YA, and memoir. If you aren’t sure, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Browse the rest of my website. Again, I am more than happy to assist you from the very early stages. But be aware of what, precisely, you are jumping into. You’ll likely spend six months, a year, two years. You’ll spend money. But you’ll grow as a writer, and you’ll end up with a strong, drum-tight, diamond-sharp product.
It’s up to you, writers.
You said it, let’s edit.
One of the toughest things to do in fiction or creative nonfiction writing, in my professional opinion, is to create strong, believable tension. Without tension—between the protagonist and a villain, the protagonist and him/herself, the protagonist and the environment, etc—you really don’t have much of a story. And it’s unlikely readers will want to follow you far through the jungle of your narrative.
Tension seems to be lumped in usually with plot. I agree that plot and tension often go hand in hand, but I also think that stories which essentially lack, for the most part, any real sense of “A-plus-B-equals-C” type of standard plot (meaning one thing happens which forces another to happen, etc, a sort of “causes and conditions” situation) can still grab readers’ interest and hold our attention for 250, 300 pages…as long as you’ve got real, authentic tension.
Some obvious examples: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers’ 2000 memoir); The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway); On the Road (Jack Kerouac); and Dave Eggers’ latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier. There are, of course, many, many other examples, both contemporary and from the past. I mention only a few here for the sake of example.
In all of the works listed above, there is, in the “standard” sense, a lack of “plot.” These tales are really more “anecdotal” in nature: This happens, then this, then this, then that, and on and on. Left bare-bones, this would bore the fur off a chipmunk. But they all have a few things in common: Fantastic writing; fabulous, three-dimensional characters that are believable; a rich, authentic setting; driving motivations from the protagonist; a deep, richly told interior landscape for the main character, as well as high emotional stakes and empathy; and, last but definitely not least: They all have, in various forms, strong, palpable tension that drives the story forward.
In the case of A Heartbreaking Work, the tension is between the narrator’s youthful self and his new self after his parents have died; between the youthful idealist and the fresh, startling kid suddenly thrust into the role of a parent; between who he once wanted to be and who he now must be, in order for him to successfully survive emotionally and to raise his younger brother.
In The Sun Also Rises, we see the protagonist in a constant state of tension between his love for Bret—the woman who is the center of almost all the characters’ desires—and his knowledge that she must carve her own path, be with who she wants, be her own woman; between his own desire to write and be a serious author and yet to be with his wife and build his family; between his yearning for the United States, his home, and being in Paris, his temporary literary hideout. In On the Road, the tension is between Sal Paradise’s need to run away, be “on the road,” and his need to write and be a successful author; between his sort of male existential lust for Neal Cassady’s semi-questionable friendship and his desire to be free of the road-warrior he sometimes wants to be rid of and doesn’t always understand; between his childish, naïve urge to do everything and be everywhere, and his growing notion that, to be a man, he must, at some point, slow down, settle, get married, and grow up.
In Heroes of the Frontier, the tension is between the protagonist’s wavering belief that she is doing right by her kids, taking them out of school and driving them around the lurid, lush landscape of Alaska, and knowing that she is being an irresponsible mother; between her need to prove to herself that she is a good person, a worthy human being, and knowing that, at least in part, in her mind, she is partially broken, due to her harrowing upbringing; between her sense of self love and self worth and the sense that she is not worth much at all, possibly nothing in fact; between her past and her present; between her desire for being around people and her need to be alone.
The above list is not, of course, any kind of definitive or by any means exhaustive list of tension, the books that include it, or of all the forms of tension the books mentioned take advantage of. It is only meant as a brief example.
So, the question arrives: How do you create tension? What, exactly, is tension anyway?
Tension creates drama: friction; movement. Like two sticks rubbing together to create fire. And that’s what you want in fiction or memoir: A burst of flames. We can all relate to things we want but can’t quite ever have. Perhaps by the end of the story you’ve written the character does finally get that thing, whatever it is, whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological.
Think of a character. Now make sure that character wants something. Your whole book, or a significant portion of it, should include your character trying to get that thing and not achieving it. If you design a fully-rounded character, one that we care about, one that’s fully fleshed-out and realistic, then we should be able to empathize with that created character’s wants/desires. Once we care, you’re in. Now all you have to do is find that tension.
Example. I recently reread Philip Caputo’s brilliant 1977 Vietnam War memoir, A Rumor of War. There is clear, obvious tension in this book from the beginning, of course: They’re preparing to go from peacetime America to war-torn Vietnam. (Actually, he was one of the first Marine platoons to actually fight in Vietnam; he went there in early 1965, when we were supposedly still “aiding” the ARVN (South Vietnamese). That strategy soon changed.) So, in this case, there’s almost a sort of built in sense of impending tension.
But he also finds many other methods for demonstrating tension: The tension between the narrator’s sense of morality and what he is commanded to do in war; the tension between humanizing the enemy (The Viet Cong) and seeing them as brute savages; the tension between following orders without question and internally questioning why it was they were there, fighting a horrific guerilla war in a faraway country in Southeast Asia. There are many more forms of tension in Caputo’s book. Another one I really enjoyed is his use of tension between himself (and the other soldiers) and the environment; the jungle. He describes the jungle as “malevolent,” as if it were trying to crush them into powder; the brutal, bashing heat as a terrible, lecherous demon, intent on murdering them; the sun as a horrid thing, wanting nothing more than their demise.
The point here is that, in any way possible, create real tension between your narrator and either external and/or internal forces and I can almost guarantee—again, as long as you have the other essentials of story: well-written prose sentences; well-rounded, believable characters; character and story arc (transformation); a hero’s journey; point of no return; strong setting; etc—that readers will most likely want to keep reading, turning the page again and again and again. Have a strong, well-written story or strong characters and setting etc with NO tension? You’re unlikely to get very far with readers.
Think about real life: the uncle who drives you nuts; the parent who presses that annoying internal button every time you see them; that prize or award you yearn for but never get; the self love you can’t quite seem to ever grasp; the love from Dad you can’t ever quite seem to get, at least not in the way you desire; the job you want but are somehow blocked from; the need to be two conflicting people somehow, one at work, one at home with your partner; the need for external validation and never getting it; the action of leaving something (a job, a boyfriend) and then feeling like you can’t live without them, but knowing you must, etc. The list could go on and on and on. The point is: Create that character, that story framework/foundation, and then inject tension into it. You’ll be grateful you did.
Hurdles are one thing—obvious preventatives that get in your main character’s way—but some tension can be more subtle and interior. Either way, learn to traverse the lush landscape of a character’s inner and outer world, using tension, by questioning your own life and experience: What has led to your own true tension? Answer that and you’ve got a start. From there keep digging.
Play with this. If your novel/memoir lacks tension, go through the MS and find out where you can add it in. It is key.
If you need a second pair of eyes, I do developmental book editing. As a former literary agent’s assistant, a published writer (with a degree in writing), and a fine-eyed scanner of literary prose, I can locate those areas which are lacking in plot, pace, character-development, voice, dialogue-believability, logic, etc. I can help you find areas to add in tension, to push the level of internal/external dissonance to a higher apex, to move your story forward using fictive techniques of story arc, character arc, and strong setting.
Email me at: email@example.com. I work with YA and adult books and will look at just about anything other than middle grade or poetry, etc. I work solely with novels and memoir.
“You said it. Let’s edit.”
It has taken me years and years of writing my own novels, stories and nonfiction, not to mention editing countless others’ manuscripts, to finally over time realize that there is such a thing as bread and meat in writing.
What the hell am I talking about? Simple. I am constantly telling my book clients to work on SCENE versus summary, back story, explanation. Basically the old Tried and True: Show don’t tell. Of course your novel needs some back story, to explain what happened to the character prior to now, ergo illuminating the character’s psychological/emotional wound, which is relevant to the current story being told. Yes, we sometimes need some well-written TELLING sections, also explaining important moments or key ideas in the book.
But, for the most part, you’re going to land your readers’ love of the characters, setting, conflict, tension, plot, etc, by SHOWING us what happens, aka, by using SCENES. In other words: action. Make the characters actually DO things, interact, bump into each other, react, fight, argue. But make sure that their fighting and arguing and conflict actually moves the story forward. When A happens it must force B to happen which will initiate C. If characters simply fight or argue and nothing results from that…essentially that is anecdotal and is not relevant because it doesn’t truly drive the story forward. That’s a lack of plot issue.
Here’s where the “bread and meat” idea comes in. This is a common mistake. When you have your scene in mind—and every chapter should contain scene; characters doing things—it is your job, as the author, to get us to that scene, the authentic driver of the story and plot, as fast as you can. I see this all the time: pages upon pages of setup (the bread) before we finally get to the scene (the meat). I refer to them as bread and meat because, like bread being full of carbs, an opening anecdotal setup in a chapter is full of carbs: It might be tasty and filling for a second, but soon you’ll be hungry again. You need meat. Protein. The solution is to eliminate or severely trim down that slow, boring opening stuff and lead us as directly as possible to the scene that actually contributes to the story.
Again, I am not, for the sake of clarification here, suggesting that 100 percent of your novel should be action. That would be too much. Even in thriller novels you need introspection, character development, and telling sections that expound upon the thoughts and ideas, emotions, etc of the characters and the plot. There’s no escaping that. But again, for the vast majority of novels, you must face off with scenes, your character moving and grooving, shaking and baking. They have to interact and react to push the story forward.
So my advice? Go through each chapter of your book and check to see how long it takes in each chapter to get from A to B, from the bread to the meat. Cut down the bread or eliminate the bread as much as possible. Think of it as trying to lose weight. Bread isn’t going to be your friend. (For vegetarians out there, I’m sorry.)
You have to write your True North when you write novels; you have to come from the heart. No one can deny that. On the flip side, you have to consider your readers. Most readers are just like you: They have busy lives, husbands and wives, kids, work, etc. In other words: They have limited time. Every author has a nonverbal contract with their reader: This will be an interesting, worthy, worth it journey; you won’t regret plowing through 300 pages of my book. It’s sort of an Author’s Promise to the reader. Some call it the “physics of reading,” this notion that there are unspoken “rules” you must more or less follow in order to keep readers’ respect and interest. No doubt it is a chore, especially throwing craft into the bag. You must write well, write true, and yet also write entertainingly.
Give it a try on your own novel or short story. Reread your work with objective eyes. If you can’t, then put it away for a month, work on other projects, and return to it when ready. Or hand it to someone you trust, giving them a red pen. Next, try your best (or ask your friend to try their best) to cut out/trim as much from before the “meat” scene as you can. Do this with a few chapters and then reread it. See how much faster and more interesting the story becomes? Usually, the “bread” is really the fear of the author (thinking the reader “needs to understand” A, B and C) and the scene is the actual story. Walk through your fear and get us to the story. Believe in yourself and the reader is that much more likely to believe in the fictional world you’ve created.
Go for it.
Out for now. See you next week.
Interested in book editing? Contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org (memoir and fiction)