Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is your narrative smooth sailing or failing?

Last night I read part of a short story I found on a website. The story had typos, was cliché-laden, and the narrative was stagnant. This was a reminder to both my friend and me as we continue to edit each other’s work. We hate editing but after discussing how on earth this story made its way online, we definitely realize how crucial editing is.

Historical novelist, Sara Sheridan reminds us of some techniques that help the narrative of a story.

1. Think of your story as a storyboard, like a comic or graphic novel. Run through it action by action. Anything in your text that isn’t part of the storyboard simply isn’t pacey enough. If you have pages and pages of description, you’re asking a lot of your reader. They won’t stick with you. But give them something to see happening, and they’ll stay up all night with your book.

2. Consider the tone of the narrative voice of your story.
What vocabulary have you used? Ornate language can distract a reader or evoke a particular place or time, so it’s a tightrope of which you have to be aware. Also, what is the balance between prose and dialogue? To assess this, read chapter endings in isolation to check that the narrative voice is compelling. That might sound odd. After all, no one is going to only read the endings of your chapters. But this is a great way to get a sense of the narrative voice of the whole book.

3. The easiest way to improve narrative drive is to simplify your verbs as much as possible.
In English we have a huge amount of tense formations and a high proportion of irregular verbs. It’s astoundingly easy to use three or four words where one will do. Keep it simple—make every word count. Stick to the simple present, past, and future where possible. If you can write in the present tense your prose will have especial immediacy.

3a. Be very careful of deluging your reader with adjectives.
It is far more evocative to use the action to create a description and a reader, in any case, can only process so much description at once. Choose your adjectives carefully and use them sparingly.

4. Editing.
Unlike writing itself, publication is a team activity. You have to edit. I have learned more from working with editors than from reading or going to any kind of course. There is a sense in which the act of writing the book often makes you less able to comprehensively edit it. Novice writers are often ambivalent about editors, and think their book is perfect. No one’s book is perfect. I’d say that it’s absolutely worth getting an appraisal from a professional editor. However painful it’s going to be, ask for any criticism, and ask about suggested changes to narrative drive specifically. Your book won’t sell without it!

Does your narrative have what it takes? Ask fellow writers and friends and when in doubt, hire a professional editor. I have! Boy, did I learn tons in the process.

Original article appears as a guest post in the Writer’s Digest on August 17, 2010.


  1. I've seen this article fly around somewhere on the web this past week. Very accurate and to-the-point. Thanks for sharing it again.

    May I add another point? During the editing/second draft phase, edit the chapters like you would edit short stories. This way you won't fall in the "next chapter" trap.

    "I'll explain this in the next chapter"

    "Action will pick up in the next chapter"


    Every chapter needs to be solid if you want a solid novel. Anyway, that helped me!

  2. Hi Ben,
    Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I took this article from the Writer's Digest and I gave due credit at the bottom of my post. I don't want to be accused of plagiarism ;)

    Thanks for sharing your input on how to edit each chapter.


  3. I didn't want to imply that you plagiarized, only that it was a pertinent repost. Sorry, if it lead to a misinterpretation. I repost stuff from time to time too.

  4. It's cool, Ben. I understood what you meant. I just wanted to reiterate to my readers in general just in never know. I do research for a lot of my posts and I definitely give credit wherever due. Some of my posts come from my own experience or from my mentors. ;)
    Thanks for your concern.

  5. I hope it will have what it takes! I'm workin with an editor now and learning loads! It's been a great process.

  6. Hi Claudia! Thanks for your sweet comments over at my blog! Great post today! Lots of important info! Although I write memoir I know how important it is to edit, edit, edit!! It can be a tedious process but worth it in the end!

  7. Hi Talli,
    I'm glad you chose that route. It's better to be safe than sorry ;) Isn't it amazing how much we learn in this grueling process? Good luck!

  8. Hi Cathy,
    Glad to see you on this neck of the woods. You're right, editing is vital no matter what genre we write.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  9. This post is awesome! Great reminders for me.
    Nice to meet you, I found your blog from Carol Kilgore's blog. I love the content of your blog. I'm always trying to be a better writer so this is all good stuff for me!

  10. Welcome to my blog community, Lydia!
    Isn't blogging amazing? Carol and I are blogging buddies now. She even awarded my blog ;) She's a sweetheart. Glad to hear you liked my blog content. I know we'll be exchanging a lot of tips since we're both writers. I'll swing by your community in a bit.
    Keep on writing!

  11. I think it's so true. Nothing bothers me more than seeing work that hasn't been edited well enough. I understand if they want to put it up before it's done but to leave it without finishing or improving their craft is not enough.


  12. I have edited/revised for months on a short story. Gave it a "nap" and hauled it back out. More edits and revisions. Got a new critique partner and thought she wouldn't have much to comment on. Surprise! Lots of comments. And they were all great and helpful. Back to the revisions...again!

    I haven't used an editor yet, but seriously considering it. I'm sure it could only improve my stories.

  13. Hi Clarissa,
    Do you think we're becoming complacent? I've even seen typos and words incorrectly used in Yahoo. So I agree, it bothers me. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

    Hi Donna,
    OMG! Where have you been? I missed you. I know you were under the weather. Are you feeling better? Your comment hits close to home. I have a short story that I wrote a year ago. It's been revised dozens of times. I went over it last month and put it away. Today a fellow writer read it and gave me wonderful feedback. Well, the story needed more tweaking :( Yikes!
    So editing is neverending process (sigh!)
    Hope to see more of you, Donna!

  14. These are great tips - thanks for sharing! I think a trap many writers make is to skip the step of editing entirely. They are so happy with having written anything that they forget that this is only the start. Incidentally I need to keep this in mind myself... Ack...

  15. Hi C.C.,
    My pleasure! Good observation, CC. Editing is only the start of the writing process ;)

  16. I like the idea of reading chapter endings to check the tone. Thanks.

  17. Claudia - thanks for visiting my blog recently. I have just returned from a wonderful time in Italy and look forward to writing about my life there and reviewing some of the books that I read during this Summer. A presto! Linda.