Here’s the follow-up from yesterday’s post on appropriate use of tense:
Editing considerations (as I revised my short story, The Dangerous Kind)
1. One component I took care to delete were instances where the narrator says things like “I was surprised,” or when he made blatant judgements about his brother. This is overwriting and it’s easy to fall into. You want to give the readers enough to paint a picture but not so much that they can’t draw their own conclusions.
2. Try to avoid clichéd caricature. Don’t tell. Show character’s traits through their actions and dialogue.
3. Give your villains depth, so though the narrator of this story is the protagonist, he’s capable of evil and his mean big brother isn’t all bad, either.
4. This is a long short story at 8,500 words. The details are what’s going to draw readers into the slow build as the narrator discovers the evil of which he is capable. Show special knowledge along the way the reader might not know or detail that deepens the experience. (For instance, on the hunting trip, the reader learns or experiences details about the feel of moss underfoot, the sound of a rifle bolt slamming home, buck fever and what it feels like to be carried in your mother’s arms.)
5. Dialogue should advance plot, deepen character and, preferably, do so memorably. If the dialogue is neither of these things, it can often be summarized in narrative without quotes around it.
6. Revising means “seeing anew.” Evaluate what the story is really about. At first I kept present tense because I wanted to maintain mystery as to whether the narrator would survive the story (See yesterday’s post below.) As I unearthed the story, the plot took a turn away from that storyline. Instead, the stakes are not whether the narrator will survive, but will he allow his brother to die, get the inheritance and escape rural Maine for the bright lights of New York? Once the core of the story changed, past tense opened up to me so I could achieve a more subtle and nuanced story than I had originally intended. That’s okay for a short story. For a longer piece of fiction I’d do more planning, plotting and outlining ahead of time so as not to lose too much time backing and filling.
7. Vary sentence length and sentence construction.
8. Cut where you can without becoming terse or overwriting.
9. The most common failure of overwriting is to describe character features in detail. Don’t tell me in detail what anybody’s wearing and definitely avoid the trope of getting a character to describe him or herself in a mirror.
10. Dialogue should sound real, but without the ums and ahs of a transcript. Avoid dialect where possible as accents slow(and annoy readers.) Read your dialogue aloud to determine if you can believe someone saying your dialogue believably.
Below is the first-person present-tense excerpt from The Dangerous Kind and then the revision.
Compare these excerpts…and please ignore the formatting. That’s a text to screen issue :)
…I ask Jason if he cleaned the barrel. He shrugs and says he can still smell the gun oil so it is probably okay. He slings the rifle into the crook of his elbow and walks off toward the woods. I carry the pack, heavy with Jason’s beer. He does not have a hunting license. “Shouldn’t need one when you can get to the woods from your own back step.”
Halloween was the warmest I have ever known in Poeticule Bay, but this morning’s November chill cuts at my lungs. The forest goes quiet as we step into the tree line, as if the birds hear Jason coming and know they should be afraid. A squirrel rattles an alarm and skitters away as we push through a weave of dogwood.
The glass bottles give muffled clinks as I walk. We hike to the old logging road where trees bow and touch overhead. Grass fills the middle so high, the trail looks like two narrow paths, as if parallel by coincidence.
Jason puts a finger to his lips. Staying quiet is all Jason knows about hunting. I try to tread carefully so the bottles don’t knock against each other. When I start to fall behind, my brother curses me for falling behind.
The sun burns off the gray cloud cover. The trees cast another forest of shadows, adding another thickness and plane to the landscape. The pack’s straps pull at my shoulders. Despite the sun and the cold air’s green taste, my footsteps become heavier as we push on. The sweat trapped under the backpack sucks my shirt to my skin.
We walk another half hour and salt sweat burns my eyes before I ramp up the courage to complain. My breathing is heavy. “We’re going too far, Jason.”
…I asked Jason if he cleaned the barrel. He shrugged and said he could still smell the gun oil so it’s probably okay. He slung the rifle into the crook of his elbow and stalked off toward the woods. I carried the pack, heavy with Jason’s beer. He doesn’t have a hunting license. “Shouldn’t need one when you can get to the woods from your own back step.”
That Halloween had been the warmest I have ever known in Poeticule Bay, but this morning’s November chill cut at my lungs. The forest went quiet as we stepped into the tree line, as if the birds heard Jason coming and knew they should be afraid. A squirrel rattled an alarm and skittered away as we pushed through a weave of dogwood.
The glass bottles gave muffled clinks as I walked. We hiked to the old logging road where trees bowed to touch overhead. Grass filled the middle so high, the trail looked like two narrow paths, as if parallel by coincidence.
Jason put a finger to his lips. Staying quiet is all Jason knew about hunting. I tried to tread carefully so the bottles wouldn’t knock against each other. When I started to fall behind, my brother cursed me for falling behind.
The sun burned off the gray cloud cover. The trees cast another forest of shadows, adding another thickness and plane to the landscape. The pack’s straps pulled at my shoulders. Despite the sun and the cold air’s green taste, my footsteps became heavier. The sweat trapped under the backpack sucked my shirt to my skin.
We walk another half hour and salt sweat burns my eyes before I ramp up the courage to complain. My breathing heavy, I said,“We’re going too far, Jason.”
There are a lot of small changes here. Aside from changing the tense, there are a few other tactical changes worth noting. There’s a lot of walking through the woods in this story, so where appropriate I looked for more engaging verbs than “walking.” Instead I used “hiking” and “stalked.” Don’t touch your thesaurus , though. That’s a sign you’ve reached too far.
Careful use of uncommon verbs (like “skitters”) can be used to light the reader’s imagination as long as you don’t go over the top. If you overuse uncommon verbs, it’s usually for comedic effect. In the larger document I found other economies which I condensed into today’s Top 10 list.
Filed under: Editing, manuscript evaluation, My fiction, short stories, writing tips, editorial help, fiction, short story, Top 10 Tips, Writing and Editing