The view from my hotel window today… gotta love a liminal lifestyle.
In May I made it my project to rewrite one of my first novels, a rewrite that was almost entirely a narrative rewrite. The story itself has long been clear in my mind, but I’d let the project rest for six years after getting distracted by finishing (and publishing) other novels.
Returning to it caught me by surprise. I’d changed a lot as a writer in the last six years, in ways I hadn’t realized. In part because I’d been seriously writing for at least that long before writing the book, and had at the time rather plateaued as a writer. I felt in 2007 that my craft was solid and that it was more my plotting and characterization that needed work, and thus that was my focus more than the craft itself.
It turns out I had a lot farther to go. The writing so didn’t match my current style, that it was easier to rewrite the whole thing than edit. I feel very good about the result. After I had all 75k rewritten (and down from an original 80k), I realized I had a pile of unused crits from the 2007 version, so I opened them up and started going through them, chapter by chapter to make sure I’d covered those changes and plot holes.
Looking at both the text and the comments I discovered several overall themes in how my writing has shifted. Here are the 8 biggest early writer’s mistakes I made with the 2007 draft:
1) Passive Description — While people banter around terms like “passive voice” and “show don’t tell” I often find that people don’t actually understand what these mean. Often frustrated with people poking perfectly necessary be verbs or inappropriate placed people insisted I needed to show more, I tended to ignore this advice. However, time has proven some specific passive areas in my older writing that I’ve since changed, in particular, qualifying all my description with “he/she heard” or “he/she saw” etc.
Sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell are great to add to the story, but when the POV is clearly already in the main character’s head, it’s unnecessary and passive to keep qualifying it’s the MC who’s doing the sensing. ”The army charged forward” is better than “He saw the army charging forward” and so on. I constantly was rewording things into just describing and when I put the MC into it, I put him in with his physical and emotional reactions instead.
2) Boring Verbs — Similar to passive voice, it isn’t so much that these words are passive, it’s more that they’re dull. My biggest culprits were looked and turned. They’re fine and necessary verbs, but were overused. Now when I write, I rarely use them because I naturally find more interesting things to communicate what I mean. I slow down, picture the scene, and try to put more creative voice into the action.
3) Word Echoes — Both of these first two issues result in word echoes, or the repetition of a word close to itself in the text, but I found a great problem with echoes all through the novel in the older draft. In action scenes words like forward, towards, and moment were chronically overused. Battle scenes had too many slashes or blocks, and sometimes a more unusual word would get used a couple times in a chapter, which while that isn’t a problem with common one, you’re going to notice something like discombobulated if its used more than once a chapter.
4) Grammatical Echoes — This is where the structure of the sentences are too similar too close together, rather than the words used. While some people are very anti-adverb, for example, rather than simply cutting all the adverbs, I think it’s more important to look at how they’re used and if they are creating a grammatical echo. Two places adverbs do this most are on dialog tags, and when they’re at the beginning of a sentence followed by a comma.
But there’s a lot of ways that sentence structure can get echoed. The adverbs just jump out in beginner’s work. Now as an author I naturally seem to track what sort of structure I’m using and vary it, back in 2007 I did not. It changes the entire rhythm of the narration.
5) Abrupt Transitions — I was rather surprised in places to find very little transition from one scene to the next. One paragraph they’d be debating their plans, the next they’d be half a day’s travel from camp. In several places I added material, fleshing out the scene, while in others I cut back scenes and had formal breaks. Which is better depends on the style and flow of the novel, and the circumstances of the scenes. It’s something I have a much stronger sense for these days.
6) Chapter Header/Footer Info-dumps — A lot of my chapter breaks were used to forward the novel in time. In my 2007 draft I often had the first few paragraphs or last few paragraphs of a chapter highlight everything that happened during the time gap. I didn’t want my readers confused, which is a great goal, but it made for less than snappy opening or closing paragraphs.
In some places I worked in this information slowly throughout the scene, but in many of them, I simply didn’t tell the reader what happened, just made it clear time had passed. It surprised me to find a lot of the information I felt was essential originally actually wasn’t. Did we really need to know they hadn’t yet had dinner that night? Or that it was a 5 hour walk to the swamps? I could just show them being tired and hungry and leave the specifics to people’s imaginations. This helped me control the novel’s ballooning word count. It’s supposed to be a middle grade novel! It’s still a bit long, but I hope to lose even more words on my next pass.
7) Lack of Scenification — While we think of novels being broken up into chapters, a scene is a much more important basic unit. A scene has a beginning, an arc, an end, a place and time in which something happens. I’m sure much better definitions are out there, but what I noticed was that some chapters didn’t actually have defined scenes, or large sections that didn’t properly have them. Or that in others, scenes weren’t fully scenes, glossing over things a scene ought to have.
First, there were transitional chapters that sort of dipped in and out of the action, a couple of sentences of dialog, a few direct thoughts, a handful of actions, interspersed with a lot of narration. I had to pick what actual scenes I wanted and develop them fully.
Then there were character focused scenes that dissolved into what I call “talking heads” or “telephone conversations.” These scenes were focused on people talking to each other and the MC’s reactions to that, that all sense of setting tended to dissolve. The few actions involved were looking or turning to people, nodding, smiling, frowning, and tended to be repetitive.
In my rewrites I tended to pick something active people were doing while talking. Eating dinner, packing their bags, or walking through a specific sort of terrain. This gives far more interesting actions to frame the conversations, and in the few instances where people really were just standing around talking, I tried to bring out body language and have people touch each other. I’ve seen this technique overdone before, with the details being distracting, but there’s a balance between that and being pure informational.
On the other hand, sometimes my action scenes dissolved into just action. I wouldn’t have enough dialog or interior emotion/thoughts to keep the character aspect engaged in a proper arc. No scene should be all characterization or all action.
8) Overly Detailed Action – Going into the edit, I remembered that this draft suffered in the battle scenes in particular from too much detail. We don’t need to see exactly how the MC kills his enemies in epic Iliad style. Battle moves needed to be carefully paced between overall narration of the battle so that readers got the sense of the action without getting bored. The novel did need this, but what surprised me even more was how many other scenes also suffered from overly detailed action.
I remember rather clearly my eighth grade English teacher lecturing us on what she called a “bed to bed” narrative: the idea being you start with the person getting up in the morning and detail everything they do in order until they go to bed at night. I thought in 2007 that I was only including the important details in my story, yet so many times people entering and leaving rooms, picking up and setting down objects, or turning or looking (again) at people in conversations were exactly the sort of nit-picky details I didn’t need.
Details can add a sense of being there, but only the right details. The fact someone hands the character a plate with two golden sausages that smell deliciously tantalizing is a good picky detail. That the MC picked one up, ate it, swallowed, then picked up a second one and ate it, and set the plate down, less so. Apparently I’ve learned a lot about balancing that in the last six years.
I’m excited and proud to discover everything I’ve learned and all the ways I’ve grown, but the experience does make wonder–what will I be listing six years from now? I will fascinated to find out, but I really hope this novel is finally published by then and it’ll be on some other project!