Monday, March 2, 2009

Take Down Your Scaffolding, Reveal Your Art

I’d like to thank Adele for asking me to guest blog for her. I’ve known her since we were in the Wellspring Writers’ Workshop, and I’m thrilled that she’s asked me to share what I’ve learned in my years of writing.

The topic I’m addressing is editing. Not the massive editing that happens after you complete the first draft of your novel. I’m assuming you’ve fixed the plot holes and gotten rid of unnecessary characters. What I’m talking about is much more subtle. Aspects we often overlook or excuse—things often referred to as “scaffolding.”

These instances may seem minor, and you may be tempted to think they're issues for a line editor once you’ve gotten “the deal.” That might have been true 15 or 20 years ago, but not today. Publishers and a very tight market demand nearly “perfect” writing. (We all know poorly written books that made The New York Times bestseller list, but these are exceptions, not the rule.) It’s no longer enough to have a great plot, because if the screener reading the first page of your novel spots enough “amateur” mistakes, your book goes into the rejects pile. No one will get far enough to even consider its other merits. A few days later, you receive the infamous, hateful much-copied rejection letter.

Even if you decide to hire a book editor, you need to learn how to discover amateur mistakes and get rid of them. To do this, I recommend a book called Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, by Chris Roerden. Chris is a former independent book editor for authors published by Intrigue, Midnight Ink, Rodale, St. Martin’s, Viking and others. She highlights which aspects announce that you’re a “beginner,” and gives examples of what to look for, how to fix mistakes and how to break the rules properly.

Here are some pointers I’ve discovered while editing my manuscript. One of the most important things to look for in your writing is “scaffolding.” Every writer uses words and phrases that support the story as they write the first draft. You can’t find the perfect word/phrase the first time around—you’re just trying to get the story on paper while the passion and energy are still hot. (If you struggle with this, I’d recommend Stephen King’s On Writing). But, once the story’s on paper, the scaffolding has to go. When art restorers finish their work, they have to take down the scaffolding; otherwise, the exquisite paintings are blocked from view.

Every writer has his/her structural supports, and here are some of mine. To provide the “beat” my dialogue needs, I often have the character make some physical movement. However, by the end of the first draft, there are so many instances of shook his/her heads that skulls should be rolling on the ground. And there are more look/looked/looking than I believed possible. Not to mention myriad mentions of he/she ran a hand through his/her hair. These all have to be dealt with. Often, they’re not easy to fix, because it’s not enough just to vary the phrases. The way to a beautiful novel is to replace these instances with texture. In other words, if a character is doing something, it has to have meaning—a significance that advances the plot or reveals the character. If not, it’s what I call a “cheap beat,” and it says “I’m an amateur writer” in big, neon letters. Then, you get a rejection letter before the agent has a chance to discover your bold, fascinating storyline.

If you learn to see these things in your writing, you can take them out and your story will shine through. Then, you’ll be on your way to getting that e-mail asking, “Hey, when can we talk about your book?”

For a way to put this method into action, see the top tip below. Good luck, and let us know how it goes.


Lady Glamis said...

Very good advice, thank you! I just did a post on my blog about eyes and looking - a huge scaffolding problem for me! I agree that every word and line needs to add forward motion to the book, not things that bog it down.

Adele Annesi said...

Thanks for commenting - one of the most common instances of scaffolding is the stage direction. We all do it - "he looked," "she looked." Thank heaven for editing!