Three Dirty Birds Talk Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Keeping Things in Proportion


Welcome back to Chapter 4 of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Today we’re chattering about Proportion in your writing.

Kate: This section talks about how much time you should spend on different parts of your story, how much description you should do, how much detail to go into, and how that affects the way the reader perceives that part of the story.

Ana: One of the first things that’s mentioned is how it’s hard for writers to judge what impact your writing will have on your reader while you are writing. Again, this is why you need beta readers.

Kate: Oh, a good beta reader is worth their weight in gold. Or fine chocolate and Blue Mountain coffee.

Zoe: Yeah, the book doesn’t really mention beta readers, but the authors do give some tips on gaining some distance yourself before you read what you’ve written (though I think “waiting a few days” is probably not long enough).

Kate: No, I need a good bit longer to ‘forget’ this story that’s been inhabiting my brain for the past couple of months.

Ana: I do a first editing pass when the story’s still fresh on my mind. Mostly because my drafts are messy and I want to get the continuity errors and such ironed out. Then I do another editing pass after I’ve worked on something else for a while.

Zoe: I wait a few months between first and second, and a month or so between second and the slew of finals (which don’t get much of a waiting period between them, but by then I’m working off printed pages and changing fonts).

Kate: Kind of like at a wine tasting, I do my first drafts right after another, so that the details are still fresh in my mind, but then I put it aside for a bit and work on something else. A palate cleanser, sort of. 😛

Ana: Sounds like we’re doing the same thing, Kate.

Zoe: I really can’t face my story for another minute after I’ve done the final draft. So anyway…proportion. The authors talk about the various ways stories get out of proportion, particularly in the first draft, such as including every movement of the character or going into great detail describing a technology or process or whatnot (usually one the author has a lot of experience with).

Kate: I Lol’d at the story about the three pages on how to kill and dress a beaver. I can picture the looks on their faces as they passed the end of the second one. o.O

Zoe: I just cringed, recognizing that that’s something I’d do. (Write it out in detail, not necessarily kill and dress a beaver. What have beavers ever done to me?)

Kate: It is easy to go overboard when you’ve done so much research, and it’s all so cool, and you really want to share that coolness with the reader. (And, to be honest, sometimes it’s a great way to hit daily wordcount. Oops.) But the important thing to keep in mind is whether this information will be important later in the story, and whether it moves the plot forward at all.

Ana: I tend to underwrite. Unless it’s NaNo. Then all bets are off. So anyway. I have a sticky note on the part where she talks about a seven hundred pages ms that was accepted at one of the major houses only to be cut down by… well, it doesn’t say, but I’m assuming a lot. My first thought was: how did that get accepted? And what does she mean ‘when editing wasn’t so rare’ at major houses?

Kate: Honestly, I got that second part, because I’ve been struggling with finding books by new authors that aren’t missing some major part of the story–reader connection. Even in major houses. I know, you have to expect a dud every once in a while, because everyone has different tastes, but I’ve been surprised at how hard I’ve had to work to find one I even make it to the half-way point on.

Zoe: Even not-new authors. You run into books where it seems like the publisher was like, “Eh, he/she knows what they’re doing. No need to pay an editor the big bucks here.”

Kate: Sometimes that’s what it feels like. Or that the world concept of the book was so interesting, they winked at the author’s lack of connection with the reader. It was interesting that the editor in the case of the 700 page behemoth asked her to cut out all the character building scenes, but never touched the sex scenes. Where did that idea come from? And why didn’t the author question it?

Ana: You honestly wonder why they wanted to turn it into a steamy novel? $$ And to a lot of authors getting published is all that matters, no matter how.

Kate: There’s that, but I think it could have been plenty steamy and successful, even with a more even-handed approach to the cutting. I mean, you tell the story you love, and you send it out the way it is, loving it the way it is. Why would you agree to so drastically change the tone and personality of it?

Ana: Because when an editor at a big house tells you it sucks, you believe them. Obviously. It’s no news that writers often suffer from low self-esteem when it comes to their writing.

Zoe: You’ve just gone through a bazillion hoops to get that point. You worry that if you don’t go with it, your book will never get published. Thank god there are alternatives these days.

Kate: Jeepers, you guys are scaring me. I had just talked myself back into NOT doing something in that R&R/Sword of Damocles.

Zoe: We’re cynical birds.

Kate: *sad chirps*

Zoe: I like how the second half of this chapter in Self-Editing comes around to telling you, once you’ve fixed your proportion problems, how you can use proportion as a technique in your story.

Kate: Me too. I love, love, LOVE hiding the important stuff in a whole bunch of other things. That’s the bad birdie in me, I guess. But I hope that, if people ever come back to reread the book, they’ll hit that point and giggle in anticipation, because now they know what it means.

Zoe: In their advice, they say, “If you have some plot development that you want to come as a surprise, spend less space on it before you spring it on your readers. Or you could spend as much or more space on similar plot elements to mask the really important ones.” Like Kate and G.R.R.M. do.

And their final point in this chapter is to let your viewpoint character guide the details. Write what would be important to them, what they would notice, in the situation they’re in.

Ana: This is one of the things I’ve always kept in the back of my mind after first reading this book some years ago. Solid advice.

Kate: This whole chapter is, as Ana says, solid. I’m liking this book very much.

Zoe: I’d worried that it would be kind of boring, covering stuff I already knew—and in a lot of places it does, but some of it’s a good reminder. (Actually, all of it’s a good reminder, really.)

Ana: This was the first book on writing that I read, so it wasn’t boring to me the first time. But, I can appreciate some of the information in it better now than I could back then, which goes to show that just reading craft books isn’t enough to learn. You really need practise too.

Zoe: And to crit and be critted. Lots of valuable learning in that.

About the author: Kate Lowell

2 comments to “Three Dirty Birds Talk Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Keeping Things in Proportion”

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  1. gillianstkevern - September 3, 2014 Reply

    I’m jumping in late here, but this is a book I know well and am really excited to see it getting the three dirty bird treatment!

    • Kate Lowell - September 3, 2014 Reply

      Thank you! I’m already recommending it to people, because it’s so straightforward (and there’s no attitude in it, lol!)

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