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?
Holly Jahangiri says
#4 is probably my biggest issue. It’s like cleaning out a drawer and finding all the little treasures in the back of it. You want to reminisce and not let go. It’s hard to let go. So you tell their backstory. And it leads you down that rabbit hole…
Hey, I want to be sure you see this: http://jahangiri.us/2013/good-morning-sunshine/
I can’t post it and tell you about it on Facebook, because: http://jahangiri.us/2013/observing-lent/
And a deep rabbit hole it is, Holly. I think I deleted a good 5,000 words of irrelevant memories from that first novel.
L. Diane Wolfe says
I think I’ve been guilty of everything but the memory dump.
Try writing a novel set in the town you grew up, Diane. That should trigger all kinds of anecdotes.
Marian Allen says
Great points! Johanna Harness suggests printing off your story in small print, two columns on each page in landscape orientation. Then you use different colors to mark backstory, memory, description, and exposition. The colors make these easy to spot, the small print makes it easy to SEE the structure instead of falling in love with the words, and you can lay out the manuscript page by page on the floor and see the overall structure. I haven’t tried this yet, but your guidelines might make it doable for me!
That sounds like a great idea, Marian. I do get lost in the words even while trying to evaluate the absence of white space.
Margot Kinberg says
Oh, this is so useful, Pat! Thank you. I always benefit from what other writers do. And dragging narrative can be a real problem, too. We want to paint a picture for the reader, but sometimes, instead, it gets way too detailed. I know my own narrative is getting too clumsy when I see too much minutia. People don’t really need to know exactly how high someone’s heels are unless they are 100% relevant for the plot.
I agree, Margot. It’s funny how we get in the zone and start putting down everything that pops into our heads.
M. K. Theodoratus says
Some great points. Printed it off for when I finally finish my own un-ending manuscript.
I know what you mean by un-ending, Kay. I can’t seem to get this one finished, although I’ll admit procrastination is mostly to blame.
Alex J. Cavanaugh says
Just how do Goobles attack?
I remember reading a book where the author spent a whole page describing this woman’s dress – and not only did it not matter in the story, the woman was never seen again.
I say if it kind of bores you, then it will certainly bore the reader.
Oh, Alex, a Gooble attack is very complex, but even so, it should only be described once because they never vary in their plan.
Jacqueline Seewald says
These comments are very helpful. I know I’m guilty of over-describing at times as well since editors have cut scenes and/or descriptions in my work. I see what they’re saying but it’s often hard to accept.
I know what you mean, Jacqueline. I guess we’re okay with leaving more to the reader’s imagination.
Allan J Emerson says
Good points, Pat. The lack of white space is a tip-off for me too. Another thing I try to do (I say “try” because it’s so boring) is read the ms aloud. When I hear my voice going on and on , it draws my attention to scenes that drag.
That technique is another lesson I talk about later in my presentation handout, Allan. I also do that when I’m proofreading someone else’s work. It’s amazing what I hear but don’t catch when I read silently.