Editing to Add: The Forgotten Stepchild

In an earlier post titled Thanos Editing, I showed you how to cut your manuscript in half, much like the ruthless and slightly-insane supervillain Thanos erases half of all life in the universe in Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. I felt really good about that article until someone commented with a simple question.

“What about those of us who need to add to our story?”

Crap.

I’d forgotten there was an entire group of people who have the opposite problem of many writers. Instead of explaining every conceivable facet of their world, necessary or not, down to the most excruciating detail, and later having to attack their work with a chainsaw whilst fighting the urge to smash their computer and/or cry themselves to sleep, these fabled “underwriters” have the opposite problem. When they look at their first draft, it isn’t cluttered with origins of the world, family lineages, ancient bits of context and history that don’t matter to the story, and long-winded explanations and observances.

Instead, when these folks look at their first draft, they see that it’s rather… thin. The scenes feel lacking, or perhaps disconnected from each other, like separate entities instead of sequential occurrences that are linked together as part of an overarching plot. It may feel like there isn’t enough meat on the bones of the story to offer the reader a full, satisfying experience. Maybe the characters and events are well-written, but there’s no context, no true environment, so the main content falls flat. There are a million reason why a story could lack depth, richness, or flow.

For these writers, the act of filling in those gaps, editing to add, can be pure torture. After all, if they had more to say, they probably would have done so already, right? It doesn’t help that most of the editing advice out there is focused on reducing your word count, chiseling away at your work until it’s a tightly-written fraction of the original draft.

Let’s change that.

Adding during your initial edits can be extremely helpful, even for the classic overwriter. It’ll give you more material to choose from once you begin whittling away at your content, smooth over any minor gaps in the storytelling (we all overlook things), and add some color & flavor to the page. You might end up cutting much of this out again, but the process will be worth it for those few moments where an extra detail or two brings a new level of authenticity and vividness to the scene.

I’m in the midst of my sixth or seventh editing wave (they all tend to blur together at some point), but I distinctly remember spending my first wave or two adding content, whether it was a bit of scene-setting or an entire chapter that served as a bridge between two other important events. While there are some things I struggle with, such as interior environments, scene-setting, and general description, I still find I’m able to add content rather easily. I may find it tough to come up with the proper description, but I can intuitively grasp that I need more description in the relevant section.

However, not all of us are so lucky.

If you don’t recognize what’s lacking in your story, you’re dead in the water. So let’s come up with a checklist to help you find the gaps in your story. You may not personally find all of these elements important, and, of course, you won’t find every single one of these in every chapter, but these should help you pinpoint what needs fleshing out.

For example, I generally dislike reading what characters are wearing. Descriptions of “long, flowing dresses the color of lilacs, laced with gold trim,” bore me into a coma. However, after my first draft, I realized I literally never said, not once, what anyone wore. So I included a few references to plain homespun dresses, purple robes, and black jerkins. Nothing fancy, but it filled an obvious gap in my writing and helped to dispel the troublesome notion that everyone runs around Corbryn totally naked.

Character Gaps

  1. Thoughts, feelings, fears, hopes & dreams: This is a big one. If the reader isn’t in your character’s head, privy to their innermost desires, thoughts, and reflections, you’re wasting a big opportunity to allow the reader to see the world as your character sees it.

  2. Core value systems, motivations, reasons for acting: What drives your character to make their decisions? Emotion? A code of honor? What do they believe in? Why do they do what they do? Make the reader understand.

  3. Quirks, habits, body language, speech patterns: Does your character smack their lips when they eat? Touch their ear when they’re nervous? Pick their nose, scratch their head, crack their knuckles? Do they have an accent or a lisp? Do they play with their food or spit a lot? Give them something unique that fits their personality.

  4. Appearance & clothing: Don’t go overboard here, but the reader should generally know what people look like. Even minor characters deserve a cursory description. “Tall with a hooked nose,” or “young, cheerful face” say plenty. Little details can paint a strong picture of an otherwise forgettable character.

  5. Backstory: Everyone has a history, and that extends to your characters. While a detailed account of their life after age ten isn’t necessary, a few lines here and there, a well-placed paragraph or two, or some sneaky dialogue can say a lot about a character and bond the reader to them that much more.

Plot Gaps

  1. Mechanics: How do the wheels of your story turn? Is everything linear, logical, and coherent? Does the plot make sense, progressing from choice to consequence to another choice with another consequence? Is it well-paced, with ample build up and investment before big payoff moments? Are character arcs and relationships given enough time to play out? If things feel choppy here, add a scene or two.

  2. Emotional significance: What do those consequences mean? How do they affect your characters? How do the consequences of their actions change them, and how do those characters interpret and deal with those consequences and changes? Think of mechanics as the battle, and emotional significance as the mourning period afterwards. What happens versus what it means for your characters and the story.

  3. Stakes: What do your characters stand to gain if they succeed, or more importantly, what do they stand to lose if they fail? It doesn’t always have to be the fate of the world. If your character stands to lose something dear to them, this will add weight to the story. Conflict must always have stakes to be interesting, and the more the stakes matter to your character, the more they will matter to the reader. Take the time to flesh out what exactly your character wants, why they want it, and what will happen if they fail.

  4. Future possibilities: Understand that for every choice your characters make, there are several potential outcomes branching out from that choice. The more of these possibilities the reader is aware of, the more tension they feel, because they can’t predict the plot as easily. Use uncertainty to your advantage by illuminating the various directions the story could go. This ties into the first category, but I differentiate them in this manner. Mechanics is what does happen, whereas this is what could happen. Your characters (and readers) should think about both quite a bit. Dangle the threads.

  5. Context: Sometimes, major plot events need additional information to be fully appreciated. Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead: Think about when Captain America is able to wield Mjolnir. That’s a “holy shit!” moment that gets the whole theater cheering. But if someone has no idea how special that hammer is, and how it can only be wielded by the purest, most worthy souls, then it goes from a mind-blowing, epic moment to “Oh cool, he has a weapon.” End spoilers: Weaving background information, lore, and detail into the story will give your big moments more impact.

Setting Gaps

  1. Geography & immediate environment: This is more important in some genres than others, but basically, where is everything happening? In sci-fi & fantasy, a vivid world with a sense of scale is absolutely crucial. Maybe your story takes place in a castle owned by a duke in service to a king who rules one of two rival kingdoms on one of three major continents in your fictional world. Understand and convey the scope and scale of your story and world. If you’re writing a romance novel set in a sleepy southern town, don’t worry. You can still create a rich atmosphere by detailing the town, the ranch, and so on. Weather, seasons, landmarks, and of course, the places where your characters live and spend their time are all important.

  2. Government & law: What sort of government is present in your story? Does it play a central role in the plot? Who holds power, and do they wield it responsibly? How does the government affect everyday life for your main character and others around them? For SFF, this is absolutely critical, but less so for other genres. Also consider the rules and laws of the society your characters are a part of, what behaviors are legal, illegal, frowned upon, expected, accepted, etc.

  3. Religion: Again, this won’t be necessary for every story, but it’s worth discussing. Even non SFF stories may want to consider the following. Are your characters spiritual or religious? Does it play a role in their everyday life? Religion can be a strong social bond in small communities and can affect peoples’ behavior on many levels. It can serve as the backbone of a given culture (think how powerful the church was in medieval Europe) and factor into a character’s core belief system.

  4. Economy: Does your character work? What do they do? How does it affect them, shape them? Is their job respected, stigmatized, or overlooked? What role do they play in the community, society? How do the wheels turn in the world around them? There’s no need to get into digressions about the country’s (real of fictional) GDP and chief exports, but a few lines about the livelihood of that east-coast fishing town or the bustling tech hub that anchors a metropolitan complex may fill in some gaps.

  5. General culture & attitude: This is a gigantic section that encompasses everything from the types of food people eat to their attitudes towards sex, relationships and marriage, the way they dress, views on family and relatives (some cultures, for example, venerate their elders while others shun them), how they spend their leisure time, and so much more. Dropping in little bits of culture will bring your setting to life and give your character walls to bounce off of in their journey through your story.

So there you have it- fifteen things that you might have overlooked in your first draft. Hopefully, when it comes time to add meat to the bones of your story, this list gets you going down the right track. Don’t throw everything in with reckless abandon, though. Stitch in the details carefully and invisibly over the course of the story, never hammering too specifically on one piece (the dreaded infodump), but always adding something to enrich your work. Rinse and repeat with various aspects of your story until you have a manuscript that feels complete.

When you’re done with that, you can give yourself a pat on the back and scrub the tears from your eyes to make way for new ones, because now you’re ready to edit everything back down. And we all know how brutal that is on our psyche. Isn’t being a writer fun?

Second Skin Cover Reveal

For those of you who have been keeping up with my launch countdown, thank you so much!

I won’t delay any further. As promised, here is the cover for Second Skin:

SS Final.jpg

If you participated in the twitter cover survey or gave me feedback, I really appreciate it. I used a combination of your input and my gut instinct to choose the cover, and I’m thrilled with the final product. If you’re as excited to read Second Skin as I am to release it, you only have to wait one more week! On May 7, it will be available on Amazon, free for a limited time.

Thanks for reading!

Plot, Character, & Setting: It's Complicated

How many times have you heard someone say any of the following? “Oh, I'm a plot writer.” “Yeah, my stories are all character-driven.” “My setting is my main character.” I understand the thinking behind these statements. I also disagree with the principle upon which they're based.

Let's start off with the larger premise. We all have strengths and weaknesses as writers. I, for example, struggle to visually imagine interior environments like castles, dungeons, and so on. The pictures don't form in my mind. That makes descriptions of these things tough to write. However, I've been told my dialogue and imagery is great. Feel free to disagree, my point is that we all excel and struggle with different aspects of our craft.

It's very easy to dig ourselves into this hole of “Ok, every story has three major components. I'm good at this one, fine at this one, and suck at this one.” It's like playing fuck/marry/kill with vital aspects of your story, which means part of your story dies with that mindset.

So, what's the solution?

I can't just say “well, if you struggle with writing interesting characters, just write characters who are more interesting.” That'll be the last visit you ever make to this blog.

Let's start with an analogy. Did anyone hate vegetables growing up? Only everyone reading this? Ok, great. Did anyone’s parents put cheese on their broccoli to help them stomach all that cruciferous nutrients?

Hang onto that thought. Let's say you struggle with characters. Your plot is fine, and you excel at worldbuilding and painting a rich setting.

The characters are your broccoli. The setting is your cheese.

By merging a shitty thing you dislike with a fun thing you're good at, you can gain insight into your weakness when viewing it through the lens of your strength.

What do I mean by that? My philosophy is three simple statements.

  1. Characters are products of their environment.

  2. Character decisions drive the plot.

  3. The events of the plot shape the setting.

See, it's not so much like fuck/marry/kill as it is rock/paper/scissors. Now that we have our framework, let's get detailed.

Characters are Products of Their Environment

Back to the broccoli and cheese (using worldbuilding skills to understand your characters).

If you have a solid grasp on your world‘s geography, climate, and kingdoms, you'll probably also have an intimate understanding of the cultures in your book. Their views on family, marriage, their religious beliefs and customs, traditions, rituals, their government, justice system, economy, and social ladder, their attitudes towards other kingdoms and cultures, the professions and trades that are respected or looked down upon, the way they dress, the things they value, even the food they eat.

Your characters are part of these cultures, right? Understanding the environment your characters grew up in can help you understand the character. When you’re unsure of how your character should react to a certain situation or issue, take a step back and think about them as a product of their culture.

Some quick examples:

Someone raised in a puritan society would likely be sexually chaste.

Someone born in the antebellum south probably wouldn't share today's attitudes towards race.

Someone born in a land-locked country wouldn't share the same enthusiasm for sailing as someone raised in a seafaring environment.

People born today generally think 2-3 children is ideal, while parents in pre-industrialized societies had as many children as possible.

Someone raised in extreme wealth might have a fundamental lack of empathy or understanding of the problems facing the poor.

We are products of our time and society. Our characters are no different.

Once you understand how they were raised, you can filter everything through their personal experience. After all, societies are not entirely homogeneous.

I’m about to go into a detailed personal example, but if you get the idea, feel free to skip to the next section.

We in America tend to idolize celebrities. Athletes, actors, musicians, models, talk show hosts, reality TV stars, and so on. I hate it. At best, we vastly overpay genuine, talented, hard-working people, and at worst, we worship vapid, narcissistic imbeciles because it appeals to a selfish and childish part of our innate nature. I understand the psychology of our obsession with celebrities. That doesn't mean I agree with it.

Every time I hear about the Kardashians, I want to break something. I get a visceral, blood-boiling reaction any time I hear about the “Real Housewives of,” (insert whatever community is cursed with their self-absorbed shrieking.)

It doesn't matter that I was raised in a society that reveres these people. I will never be a part of that particular aspect of our culture. Still, it's had a profound effect on me: A deep-seated resentment for the society that allows them to thrive and flourish like designer-fashion-wearing cockroaches. That resentment affects my core value system, because I see what narcissism and entitlement do to people. It has made me determined to live my life with integrity, honesty, and hard fucking work.

And of course, the irony is not lost on me that I still watch movies, sports, and scripted TV. Without the astronomical importance American culture puts on entertainment, these things I love wouldn't exist. So I, too, participate in that culture to some extent, which only brings…

More resentment. I could write an entire essay on this instead of a moderately long digression (I apologize), but I think you get the idea. That resentment, and even the value system that stems from it, is a product of our society, filtered through the lens of my own beliefs and experiences.  

This can form a complex network of attitudes, beliefs, and feelings, which you can then sort through to figure out what action that character will take.

Nobody is immune to the world around them. If your world is rich, immersive, and detailed, you can use that to bring your characters to life.

That's our cheese and broccoli example. Or the “rock and paper” of our rock/paper/scissors example.

Character Decisions Drive the Plot

In this section, we’ll discuss how to use good characters to improve your plot. This is the “paper and scissors.”

Who here writes plot first?

I do. I get struck with ideas about things happening before I imagine the people they happen to or the people that do those things.

This is dangerous territory. If you do this and let the plot run away unfettered, you run the risk of having work that looks like season eight of The Walking Dead. I love that show. It was my absolute favorite show for a little while. But season eight was so terrible, so laughably bad in every aspect of writing, that I nearly quit watching. I'm glad I didn't, because season nine is much better, and I'm optimistic about the show's future.

But season eight… what a Goddamn train wreck. And here's why: the writers basically decided that a bunch of “stuff” needed to happen, and then made their characters do said stuff with no regard to who the characters actually were. They had characters literally changing core ideologies (kill prisoners vs. spare them, etc.) in the span of a single episode.

And the dialogue… The dialogue was next-level bad. Aside from the lines themselves being terrible, it felt like the writers wrote the script with no speaker tags, just lines of vague, banal dialogue, and then assigned those lines to people at random. Seriously. If I couldn't hear the character’s voices and see them talking, I wouldn't have known who was speaking because the lines were all interchangeable.

That's bad.

Really, really bad.

That's what happens when you let the plot drive what the characters do. They become reactionary robots living in a world that moves without them, instead of breathing individuals that influence the world around them by taking action based off their core motivations.

So, knowing this, when I write plot first, I have to carefully consider what kinds of characters would react to these situations in a way that the plot demands. And because of that, nearly every character ends up different from how I initially imagined them.

About halfway through the book, I have a very firm grasp on who my characters are.

Then I go back and look at the plot and change anything that needs to be changed. Sometimes entire chapters hold up. Sometimes I have to chop or drastically alter them. I had to rewrite the entire ending to Sundering.

Twice.

Because otherwise it wouldn't have made as much sense, and characters would have betrayed aspects of themselves that I had meticulously cultivated over the course of the story.

Once I've rewritten anything in the past that doesn't align with who the characters are, I look ahead to make sure future events play out the way they logically would, given the characters in the story.

It's a weird process, and it may even seem contradictory to my entire premise since I start with the plot, but the end result is this: the characters have the final say in what happens in the story. Everything that happens should happen because of a decision your characters make based on who they are and their current circumstances. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to follow a plot when it's a logical extension of the characters’ motivations.

Look at Breaking Bad. Despite being a fast-paced whirlwind of drug deals, power plays, and manipulation, at no point is the plot unclear or convoluted, because every character is so clearly defined that every action we see makes perfect sense. We grasp their decisions naturally, instinctively, because we understand their motivations.

Before I get lost in another tangent on the greatest TV show of all time, let me repeat my main point.

The characters have the final say.

Let's pause to get our bearings. Remember our three initial points?

  1. Characters are products of their environment. (Rock and paper)

  2. Character decisions drive the plot. (Paper and scissors)

  3. The events of the plot shape the setting. (Scissors and rock)

The big takeaway from #1 is: If you struggle with character development, you can use your worldbuilding skills to foster it by understanding that your characters are products of their world.

The big takeaway from #2 is: If you struggle with plotting, you can use your understanding of your characters to improve the tightness and cohesiveness of your plot by relating every plot point to a character decision that aligns with their core motives.

So let's look at #3, now. Our “scissors and rock.”

The Events of the Plot Shape the Setting.

The big takeaway here will be: If you struggle with worldbuilding, you can use your plotting skills to determine the kind of world in which your plot would happen.

And this, by the way, is how I built the world of the Shattered Fate series. It was a struggle, but I looked back at my plot to determine the core elements of the setting, and used that as my base foundation for all the cool little details.

Write down your biggest plot elements.

Mine were:

  1. An elected leader refuses to surrender power to a newly-elected leader in a medieval setting

  2. This causes a big civil war and incites conflict with neighboring kingdoms

  3. There's some telepathic magic and time travel

Those were the core elements of the story that relate to the world and the realm of Corbryn. There are other personal elements for the characters, of course, but those are my three broadest strokes.

So I created a governmental system that I'll call “representative feudalism,” where a chosen leader rules with near-absolute power for seven years. That leader is chosen by other nobles, who are “supposed” to vote in accordance with the wishes of the commoners they govern. If that sounds like a blend of our modern representative democracy and medieval monarchical feudalism, that's because it is.

I then wrote a history that led up to such a system, which included a pair of civil wars and a rebellion. Basically, a corrupt king was a real piece of shit for a while, and when he was overthrown, his successor put into practice the current government seen in the story.

I then fleshed out the inciting incidents of those wars, the aftermath, and the attitudes today about those wars and the reasons they were fought. This ended up providing me with good insight into the two factions of the current civil war the book features, as well as the neighboring kingdoms, one of which has a heavy stake in the conflict.

After that, I developed the magic system and gave it a brief origin that will be explored as magic is further discovered in the series. Then I wrote the history from when magic was first discovered to present day, how it affected the common people and the magic users, and the role of the magic users in present day. (They're telepathic with each other and can sense people's emotions. They can't read minds, but they're close. They serve as advisors to powerful rulers and as communications vessels in armies. They're highly respected by those in power, but still mistreated by the common people.)

Those were the things that HAD to be a certain way for the plot I wanted. From there, I just branched out with more and more details that were consistent with the big foundations I had laid down.

It took several weeks, but after enough digging, I had about sixty pages of detailed notes on Corbryn and the surrounding world. And it all started with the plot.

Here are some other brief examples, in case you're tired of reading about me.

A story where the main character becomes a vigilante and goes on a murderous spree would probably feature an ineffective or corrupt government with a lot of organized crime.

A story featuring an LGBT romance would probably happen in a fair-minded, tolerant society. Unless the story revolved around the external conflict of being in such a relationship, in which case, it would have to take place in a sexually conservative/intolerant/bigoted community, depending on the severity of the conflict.

A story with heavy magic use would have to have that magic woven into the fabric of everyday life. Harry Potter is a fantastic example of this- pots and pans scrub themselves, technology is far behind because there's no need for it, broken bones are no big deal, so extremely dangerous sports can be played by children, etc.

The events of the world dictate what the world becomes, right?

Your fictional world is no different.

Conclusion

We’ve now covered all three main principles and their applications. Here they are, one last time.

  1. Characters are products of their environment. (Using setting to determine your characters.)

  2. Character decisions drive the plot. (Using characters to determine the plot.)

  3. The events of the plot shape the setting. (Using the plot to determine the setting.)

If you've been paying attention, you'll realize this is just a big circle. Setting determines character determines plot determines setting, and on and on it goes. Paper covers rock smashes scissors cuts paper. See, my analogies aren't entirely stupid.

Hopefully this gets the wheels turning, and you can use the aspects of storytelling you're good at to improve the aspects you struggle with. This philosophy is helpful in editing, too. After you have a full story in front of you, you can better understand what's necessary to truly make it shine, and again, use your strengths to hack your weaknesses.

After all, the writing industry is at an all-time competitive high, and we can no longer afford any missteps on any of those three crucial elements of storytelling. And even if you don't care about finding an agent or getting traditionally published, think about the reader. They deserve your absolute best effort.

So throw some cheese on that broccoli.