October 24, 2013

It's The Little Things

Earlier this month I wrote about the three levels of problems that I'm addressing in my manuscript right now. I was most scared by the hard problems, such as ongoing character conflicts that my audience found unconvincing. These large-scale issues don't have a single source or a clear solution, and I was worried about how long they would take to fix.

I've been working on these problems for the past few weeks, and while it would still be lovely if I didn't have any huge issues to deal with, I've been pleased to find how well big problems can be addressed with little changes. When it's not really clear why a character keeps feeling or acting a particular, plot-important way, I don't have to rip apart and restructure the entire plot. Instead, I'm finding that small tweaks to the thoughts and behavior in each relevant scene goes a long way toward altering the overall perception of what's going on with that character. I'm accomplishing what I need to by adding and editing sentences or paragraphs, not by throwing out pages at a time. Sometimes even changing a word or two is all it takes to appropriately alter the tone.

I have a recurring problem with portraying characters in love, which I wrote about some years back (still a useful post, if I do say so myself). Once again I was faced with readers who pointed out, "He keeps telling us they're in love, but nothing is showing us they are, because we only see them fighting." A story is made out of conflict, so it's easy to gloss over the happy parts, and I do that too much, particularly when it comes to characters starting a relationship. I was concerned about needing to find room and reasons for long, lovey-dovey scenes. But when I got into analyzing the problem, I determined that half a page of the characters joking around happily was sufficient to change the balance of the chapter and make them not seem to merely fight all the time.

One part of the plot relies on the reader understanding that while a father and son don't get along, they had a good relationship when the son was growing up. While I was reading my manuscript aloud to my familial literary advisory board, I learned that my audience wasn't picking up on the backstory of the happy childhood. That wasn't surprising, because I noticed that I'd neglected to establish it much at all. I wasn't sure where and how I was going to show the situation of the past without adding a bunch of flashbacks to a novel that's already too long. But it turns out that a few sentences here and there mentioning happier times can plant the idea in the reader's mind so the scenario will be interpreted correctly.

Or at least that's what I hope. I won't be certain any of these fixes are working until I've run the new draft by some other readers. What I learned from the first set was that in some areas I was being far too subtle, while other ideas were beaten into the reader's head with way too much repetition, so I may not be the best judge of how the message is getting across. For now, though, I'm operating on the belief that these relatively small fixes are making a big difference. It's certainly making this round of revisions less scary.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Michael David Lukas writes at the Opinionator about When the News and the Novel Collide: "Fiction is supposed to reflect reality, in some way or another. But reality is constantly changing. It can take years to write a novel and in those years, history marches on. Wars break out and governments are toppled, perceptions shift and new gadgets are invented."


Andrea Blythe said...

It's interesting how small changes can make such improvements to the hard problems you mentioned, especially since they seem so overwhelming when you look at them from a distance. I'll definitely keep this in mind as I edit stories and (hopefully) novels of my own. :)

Lisa Eckstein said...

Yeah, assuming it's really working (!), this seems like it can be applied to a lot of revision work, so fingers crossed!

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