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Make the Mountain Before Climbing It
T
ips on self-editing and revising
by Ben Antao

A friend recently asked if I would edit his manuscript in progress. “It’s like making a film,” I said, “You’ve to have the complete film ready before editing it.” 

Similarly, in editing a short story or a novel, we need to have the first draft completed. In other words, we have to make the mountain before we can climb it.

Look at the opening.  Does it introduce the main character and his/her problem? Does it make the reader interested or involved in the initial conflict? And is it all done ASAP so the reader can get on with the story?

Richard Ford, the American Pulitzer prize winner, has a short story titled Under the Radar with this opening:

“During a ride to a friend’s place for dinner, the wife tells her husband that she had an affair with the host a year earlier. The husband pulls over on the shoulder of the highway to consider her confession.”

This opening paragraph immediately grabs the reader’s attention and brings the conflict into focus.

Another tip: Avoid flashbacks in the opening because they tend to stall the story –the opening should tease the reader and grab his attention.

Next, look at the whole story again and cut out what’s not essential like repetitions, personal rants, over-amplifications, and overextending a scene. Since this is often difficult for a writer to do, it’s best to give the story to another person to read. But not any person! Certainly not your boyfriend or girlfriend or relatives! Why? For obvious reasons like bias and conflict of interest. If you are serious about your writing, you want a professional opinion. Therefore, seek the evaluation from a professional even if it means paying for it.

Next, ask yourself if the characters are shown in action. This will hold the reader’s attention. Because a writer experiences full freedom in fiction, he often tends to rant through his characters. It’s crucial to control this urge, however, and allow the characters to talk and act only to advance the plot and heighten the conflict.       

Next, look at the dialogue and see if it fits the character and moves the action forward. Watch out for tag problems of identification, often not needed between two speakers. However, it helps the narrative flow to identify the speaker after a series of four lines of dialogue between two characters. 

Read the story again – Add what is essential 

A writer’s task is to create an imaginative dream for the reader, to make the reader believe in the reality or the surreality of the situation, to make the reader see, hear, touch, taste and smell what the characters do.

This is where description comes in—showing the character in action, with a setting in a definite time and place

While thinking about what else to add, ask yourself.:

Do my characters need to talk more, do more, think more, be described more, exist in a vivid setting? To everything in fiction there is a season – a time to cut and a time to add.

In revising the plot, look at the chronology as well as the psychology of the story elements – are they connected or out of order?  Unlike in real life, everything is connected in fiction because the writer is the Creator who controls his fictional universe. So rearrange episodes and scenes, if necessary.

The ending – it must resolve the conflict, be unexpected yet believable, and it must leave a lasting impact on the reader. 

Therefore, cut out dreams to resolve conflicts. Avoid such temptations as deus ex machine interventions, or accidents, or phone calls, or trick endings.

Read the short story The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant and look at the ending. Madame Forestier tells Madame Loisel, the protagonist, that her diamond necklace was a fake that cost merely 500 francs. And Mme Loisel, who had borrowed the necklace, then lost it, and replaced it by borrowing 10,000 francs and working for 10 years as a cleaning woman to pay for it, is left shattered.

Now the final revising – editing your prose. Delete all unnecessary words and phrases, adjectives and adverbs. Remember that adverbs modify a verb or an adjective or another adverb, which means that the action of the verb or the description of the adjective is weakened when modified.

Examples:

Jane was very beautiful. Here the adverb ‘very’ is unnecessary. Either Jane is beautiful or not beautiful. If she is more than beautiful, then find another suitable adjective to describe her.

The same goes for this sentence – Jane worked very hard.  Or for this – Jane walked very slowly to school.

Adverbs such as ‘very’ and adjectives like ‘nice’ need to be shunned. 

To enhance your style, use a variety of sentence structure – a combination of simple, compound and complex sentences.  To emphasize your point, place the phrase at the beginning of the sentence.

Look at the first sentence above. It could be written as ‘Use a variety of sentence structure to enhance your style.’  However, the emphasis would be shifted.

Also, the overuse of the passive voice (I was awakened by a vivid dream) weakens the action by making it sound less dramatic. A vivid dream awakened me (Active voice) is better.    

Watch out for the participle phrases in faulty modification.  

Look at the following sentences:
1. Driving over the hill, Niagara Falls came into view.
2. Trimmed in black lace, Janet's husband loved her new negligee.

Who was driving over the hill? Not Niagara Falls.

Was Janet’s husband trimmed in black lace?

Corrected: Driving over the hill, I saw Niagara Falls.

                    Janet’s husband loved her new negligee trimmed in black lace.

Also, avoid excessive subordination as in:

These are lobsters which were caught off the coast of Nova Scotia, where the water is cold, and which were flown in today.

Improved: These lobsters, caught in Nova Scotia’s cold coastal waters, were flown in today.

A writer should be careful to avoid faulty parallelism. In writing, parallel means similar or having close resemblance.

Wrong: My ambition is to win an Atkinson scholarship and that I might graduate from York.

Right: My ambition is to win an Atkinson scholarship and to graduate from York.

Or: I have two ambitions – to win an Atkinson scholarship and to graduate from York.

Finally, double check your punctuation. Avoid the overuse of commas and sentence fragments. 

Make sure your prose resonates with your own voice; if you’re true to it, it will follow as the day the night that you won’t be false to any reader.

Ben Antao, a veteran journalist and writer, is president of the Canadian Authors Association – Toronto Branch. His email: ben.antao@rogers.com

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