I’m an editor by trade, and recently a small publishing company hired me to do what we’d call in the business “a development edit” of a paranormal romance. (Not one of the Ladies’ books, I rush to add.) A development edit points out flaws in the characterization, plotting, pacing, or other essential elements of the story, without getting into grammar and typos.
Everything in this book was off—pacing, character development, conflict—and telling an author that she’s missed the boat is a hard and sorrowful task. I know that keeping all those ponies in harness and working together is complicated and difficult. It’s the same problem I’m having right now with my own WIP. But this is the novelist’s job.
Chuck Wendig wrote a post called “A Smattering Of Stupid Writer Tricks,” which reminds writers of what they need to do every day. A warning: I’ve taken liberties.
1) To improve pacing
Follow tension with calm. Take the story from high intensity (action, drama) to low intensity (dialogue, character development). Watch movies to see how this works. As you approach the end, the slower periods should get shorter and less frequent, and the action patches should get faster and sharper.
Chart your story. Use graphs. Give a number (1-100) to a particular aspect of the story (tension, drama, character development, pacing, physical/social/emotional elements). Use spreadsheets to create the graphs. What does the chart look like? Fix what looks flat.
Assess your work. At the end of the day, ask yourself: Was I bored today by the work? If so: why? Then fix it.
Differentiate writer’s block from writer’s error. If you get stuck, skip the section you’re working on and begin somewhere else. You don’t have to work in order. However, writer’s block might mean that something is wrong in the story.
Edit ruthlessly. Cut the first chapter of your book, the first paragraph of a chapter, or the first sentence of a paragraph. Tighten everywhere. Tell as little story as possible to get the point across and ensure that readers feel something about it and think about it after they’re done.
2) To improve conflict
Determine the stakes. Make the stakes appropriate for the conflict. Not everything has to result in the destruction of the galaxy, but the stakes have to be important to that character at that time.
Challenge yourself and your characters. Ask yourself: Why do I care? What about this engages me? Why will it engage others?
Focus on essential actions. Think about your book (or chapter or scene) like this: something happens, things worsen, then get complicated, something twists, and maybe the something gets fixed.
Find the kernel. What is this story about? Answer that question with one sentence only. Not, “what’s the plot,” but what are you trying to say with this story? Write your answer on a Post-It note and stick it on your monitor. Look at it daily as you write.
Try something new. Sometimes your story has to turn sharply in another direction. Blindside the characters, yourself, and your readers.
3) To improve character development
Start when your character’s life changes. Why does this story happen right now? What matters about this moment in time that the story has to play out this way?
Assign your character desires and needs. Something or someone stands in her way. Your character is tested on how far she’ll go (and what she’ll do) to accomplish her goals.
Give your character agency. To engage with readers, your characters should do things, not react to things.
In a discovery draft, it’s probably not critical to keep track of all these pieces. At that stage, you just want to get words on the page and figure out what your story is. You can tighten and refine later, in revision. Unfortunately for my author, she thought she had a finished, polished draft. My own ponies are wandering all over the pasture, and I’ll review these questions today when I sit down again to work on my story.
What about you? How is your WIP going? And can you keep all your ponies in harness while you’re working?