I’m focused on novel revisions and self-editing for a mystery manuscript, so I decided to publish a few posts based on segments of my Self-Editing One Step at a Time presentation/handout. Today I’m presenting a few clues to find spots in your novel that sag (as in that “sagging middle”) or drag (as in “boring the reader to death when she thought she was reading a fast-paced thriller”).
So, how do you identify passages that slow down the story and perhaps cause an agent or editor to toss your manuscript aside?
When viewing the novel as a whole and flipping through the pages (a printed version is easier for me to work with), I use these visual clues to identify scenes or chapters that might need work:
1. Very little white space (not counting the margins) – This indicates my paragraphs are too long, or I have an opportunity to break up the narrative with dialogue, if appropriate for the scene.
2. Backstory or flashbacks that last more than one page – If I set these insertions apart from the rest of the book by putting text in italics, or using asterisks or hash marks as separators, they’re easy to spot. Without these clues, however, I need to read carefully and mark the beginning and end of such passages. If too long, I move part of the backstory to another chapter, or tighten the prose so the section doesn’t drag.
While doing a page-by-page read of my manuscript, I look for examples like these:
1. Detailed descriptions of the waitress Sally Mae, who appears only once in Billy Jim’s life story when she brings him his biscuits and gravy; a tree the cowboy rides past on his way to the ranch; or a room the hero passes through on his way to the deadly dragon’s lair. If the information is not relevant to the story, and it’s not needed to further the reader’s understanding of the plot or characters, it probably shouldn’t be in my manuscript.
2. Moment by moment reports of the three-day fish festival in Fon’dor; every detail of each attack by the Goobles on the humans (especially if the Goobles attack in exactly the same way every time); or librarian Millie’s reaction every time Big Joe walks into the library, especially if he does that a lot and poor Millie emits the same sighs and has the same palpitations every time.
3. Information dumps. When I use historical facts, real natural disasters, scientific or technical knowledge, or current facts and figures in my novel, I need to weave the essential information into the narrative or dialogue throughout the story without disrupting the story arc. I don’t want to put large chunks of information in one place.
4. Memory dumps. This is similar to the information dump, but involves memories of a place or event, especially when I’m describing a fictional town strangely identical to my hometown, or a family scene that reminds me of the way Aunt Sissie chugs her wine. I tend to get caught up in the memories and go on and on. My best example is in The Prairie Grass Murders, my first published novel. I set part of the story on the old farm where I grew up and tossed in a steady stream of childhood memories which had nothing to do with the plot. I had to delete most of it when I did these crucial revise and self-edit tasks because they were of little interest to anyone but me and they slowed the pacing way down.
What additional suggestions do you have for identifying a dragging narrative?