Two events recently multiplied in my mind to give me four realizations about the fiction-writing process.
First, I just finished doing a developmental edit of two short novels (in rough draft form) by my longtime friend Ewart Rouse. Editing my own work is terrifying to me but I love the challenge of reviewing other people’s novels.
Then, last weekend I attended one of writer Peter Murphy’s terrific writing retreats held in Atlantic City. His approach resonated with me. We read seven pages of poems and short stories and then discussed them through the lenses of time, metaphor, and audacity. Then, he gave us something we rarely give ourselves: time and permission to write and to experiment and try new things.
These four observations coalesced after I reflected on the two experiences. They may not be original, but they struck me as being important to where I am now with writing fiction.
Think like a movie maker
When the movie opens, for example, you first see three people in a dimly lit living room from the 1920s. Then the camera zooms in on the chipped china teacup, painted with pink rosebuds, that is perched in the prize-fighter’s beefy hand and you see how the tea sloshes out of the cup as the woman sitting next to him clutches his arm as if she might faint. Together they are listening, enrapt, to the speaker, an old woman or perhaps an old man, who is telling them some revelation that will change their lives. That’s when you hear the pitch-perfect dialogue. My advice here is that sometimes as writers (and I have done this myself) forget to show all three people in the room. We focus so much on plot points, dialogue, and moving characters from place to place that we forget to invoke the reader’s senses with vibrant description. We forget how powerful it can be to invoke the memory of a rose’s scent, what it’s like to lean closer to hear a whispered confession, and how it feels to hold a china teacup when you are feeling awkward and clumsy. And, like filmmakers, we have to remind the reader who’s in a scene and why that is important.
Show the reader why you love your characters
People read novels to delve deeply into how characters respond to their challenges. So, show what your characters are feeling, thinking, and experiencing. Let the reader in on their little secrets and foibles and follies — those things happening behind lidded eyes and so personal that we ache for their sorrows, cheer for their triumphs and truly understand what makes them tick.
Ask yourself questions
For example, how does this particular element move the story forward? The element can be dialogue, inner thoughts, a secret or a lie, observations, revelations, a detail, etc. If the element moves the story forward, you’ve done your job as a writer. If not, consider deleting the scene or part of it or re-writing it to include the detail that you’ve inadvertently left out of the reader’s view.
Be an actor
In your final passes through your novel, read it out loud to hear the rhythm of the writing and learn where you stumble, how effective the dialogue is, if you are setting the scene in the reader’s mind, etc. And, like an actor, assess if the “lines” ring true and sound like real speech or the character’s appropriate speech. If you can record your reading — though the computer, digital recorder or even, an old-fashioned tape recorder — you can listen to your text in a fresh new way.
If you have any ideas for improving a first draft, please share them in the comments below.