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Monday, April 23, 2012

A Scavenger Hunt In Reverse

One good thing about being a writer is you can talk about the best ways of burying bodies, and no one phones the local boys in blue.

(True story: I was knitting a sock at a writing convention when a woman said, "May I see?" Ordinarily I'd hand over the sock, but I was with other writers, so I handed over one of the double-pointed needles. The woman balanced it her hand, sighted along it, and said, "You could kill a man with this."  I replied, "I'd suggest a number five straight needle instead.")

There are better things to bury than bodies, however. Let's talk about burying details.

The details are where I have the most fun in my writing, and the majority of that fun happens in the editing phase. If you're one of those writers who hates editing, put down your number five straight needle and hear me out: most of the fun in an edit is the addition of depth.

Whether you're an outliner or a pantser, you don't know your main characters as well at the beginning of the book as you will at the end. That's just a factor of spending a hundred hours writing these guys. It's inevitable that as you go back through the book, you're going to find places where, early on, you just didn't know them as well and you glossed something which became more important later.

That's where it's fun. You find places to bury the details. You use that editorial needle and inject their deepest, most hidden motivations under the surface of the story. It emerges in one verb choice rather than another. In chapter three of the first draft, your MC is reading a book; now you'll know the title. In the first draft, your main character seems to have spent a lot of time looking at the moon; well, now you'll know why, and you can change the things she thinks while she gazes.

This phase is like a scavenger hunt in reverse. You know enough to go back and give the underlay. It's as if we need to know the contours of our characters before we can give them their bones.

Will every reader catch all these little moments? Of course not. In fact, I hope not. If someone does catch them all, you're not being subtle enough. But like real people, your characters will have thoughts and motives they're not aware they possess. There will be lies they believe, only they don't know either that they're lies or that they believe them. A lot of these details are there only for me, like a secret I'm telling myself. Why did Tabris look off at the trees when the other angels were joking about board games? A reader could figure it out, but most probably won't take the time.

In my own edits, my agent cautioned me that a certain change might be too much muddying of the character's motivation. I replied, "It's already there. It was already in her, and it took only a few changes in wording to evoke it."

In other words, sometimes you're not adding. You're just transforming potential into reality. You just needed to find it yourself before you could bury the clues for others.

In my sophomore year of college, my English professor spent the first ten minutes of class annoying the hell out of me. She was asking us why Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra was great literature, and no matter what answer we gave, it was wrong. Finally, I raised my hand. "Did you think it was great?" I said. (If you think I'm arrogant now, you really didn't want to know me in college.)  When she said yes, I said, "Why do you think it was great?"

She said, "Because it asks great questions."

A year later, another professor said that if you want people to talk about your work forever, leave a few unanswered questions. Leave them something to debate.

I'm not telling you how to get into the 2410 edition of the Norton Anthology. But I will tell you that if an agent or editor continues pondering your novel for days after finishing, you've got a better chance than if they close the book and never think of it again.

Not that you want to leave your story muddy. Instead, you want to leave us with the sense that all the answers are right there, right in our hands. That the characters, just like all the other people you know, are multifaceted and complex. That they resonate because of the many layers to their motivations, their thoughts, their decisions.

And so, without ever saying it explicitly, you convey that your character has a sweet tooth, or that she found a home base in her grandfather, or that he never feels entirely comfortable with the comfortable life he's inherited. Maybe she has an enigmatic tattoo you never fully explain. Maybe you never even tell us she has a tattoo, but her reaction to someone else's tells us she's got one somewhere under her clothes.

Editing isn't just fixing your errors. It's also fixing the underpinnings of your characters so that they resonate in our minds.


Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Lori Ann Freeland said...

Love your last few lines:

Editing isn't just fixing your errors. It's also fixing the underpinnings of your characters so that they resonate in our minds.

I do that when I edit and I just never thought about it before. My characters grow in layers. Thanks for sharing!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I do this too. This is why I love editing. :D

Awesome post, Jane. And as always, you cracked me up several times.

cweaks said...

Now I'm even more excited than ever to get to the editing phase :)

Lyle Blake Smythers said...

This is one of the best articles I have seen on this site. Maybe I feel that way because I am about to finish the first draft of a WIP and start trying to clean it up. :)

Very helpful.

Eric W. Trant said...

You nailed something I've been trying to put to words for quite some time, so thank you. I can now properly ponderize this, and have a proper place to file it in mental filing cabinet.

As for leaving questions, I don't think of it like that. Rather than leaving open questions, I want the reader to have a feeling that the story continued after they stopped reading. The show went on. I don't mean the killer who sticks his hand out of the grave (cheese), but something more subtle, like you said, or at least more creative.

For movies, I would say a good example was the ending of the first Matrix, where he flew off the planet. It felt like the end of the current story, and the beginning of the next.

Outstanding post.

- Eric