Last week I invited you to go along with me as I rip apart the first novel I wrote, which I finished way back in 2007. I’ve become a professional editor in the meantime, and I’ve finished three other novels since then too. I’ve learned a lot and have a lot to offer my clients, so I thought it would be interesting to shine the light on my own first effort. If you missed last week’s introduction to this, click here.
In my previous post, I talked about the perils of a backstory dump. On the third page–the THIRD page–of my book, I throw in a big one:
Emma had interviewed with both the metro editor, Tony Wells, and the managing editor, Clair Madison. Tony and Emma eventually developed a strong rapport, although it had not been his idea to give Emma the internship. Several months after she was hired, he had confided in her his initial misgivings – namely that there were other, more experienced writers who had applied for the position, and he felt they would be better suited to the Tribune than the long-legged, 28-year-old from Tennessee. Frankly, he had told her, her physical beauty had frightened him. She was in great shape, and although she wore classically cut suits for her interviews, there was no hiding her attributes. Her auburn hair fell in soft waves just past her shoulders and her eyes were the clearest blue he had ever seen.
Since graduating from the University of Tennessee, Emma had held increasingly important positions with smaller papers, one in Knoxville, another in Tampa and the last had been in Sacramento; none of which had the scope and depth of the Tribune. Her writing was strong and her interviewing instincts seemed to be right on target. But Tony feared what the city of Chicago would do to this fairly green reporter whose Tennessee drawl still caressed her words. He could not see anyone taking her seriously and imagined losing decent stories because of it. Emma abhorred the fact that Tony had been right, after all; today, he wouldn’t even look at her.
In the beginning, though, Clair Madison had seen something else in Emma. In her initial interviews, she had been impressed with the young woman’s quick mind and her thoughts on developing stories. Clair had thrown several different scenarios at Emma and asked her to explain how she would go about writing the story. Only one of Emma’s responses required some prodding from Clair; the others were what she would have expected from a veteran staff member. Tony had taken all of this in, too, but had still balked at the idea of hiring her.
Were you bored reading that? I was. It’s not just that it’s backstory, it’s that I’m telling you, the reader, instead of showing you what happened. Telling instead of showing is a common problem in early drafts, again early in terms of new writers and early in terms of first drafts for seasoned writers. It takes a while–and some revision and rewriting–to work out the kinks.
The excerpt above is a fantastic example of telling. Showing involves making the narrative more active. Here’s an example of what I could have done to show you instead of tell you:
“You know, since you’ve been here for a few months now, I want to be honest with you about something,” Tony said to Emma.
“What haven’t you been honest with me about?” Emma asked, raising her eyebrows as her palms began to sweat. She wanted her editor to trust her.
Taking a seat beside her at her desk and leaning in a little so that he could lower his voice, Tony said, “I didn’t want to hire you.”
Emma let out the breath she’d been holding. “Oh, that …,” she said, brushing a hand through the air. “I knew that when I was in your office with Clair that day interviewing for the job.” She frowned at him. “What I’ve never figured out is why. Will you tell me?”
“You had great competition,” he said. “I knew Clair really liked you, and since she’s the managing editor, it was her call. But we interviewed others that I thought were more experienced and better suited to the Tribune.”
“Hmph. Were they guys?” Her frown deepened.
He chuckled. He’d expected that. “A couple were. A couple weren’t,” he said. “And yes, you were the most attractive of them all. And yes, that was part of the problem.”
“Tony! I can’t believe–“
“Wait a minute,” he interrupted. “Hear me out. I didn’t think people here would take you seriously because of your appearance–or your southern drawl.” He shook his head and dropped his eyes for a moment before looking squarely at her again. “I’m ashamed to say it, Emma, I really am. But it’s the truth. I was afraid we’d lose stories, sources, who knows …”
She crossed her arms, leaned back in her chair, and glared at him, her legs crossed and the top one swinging almost violently back and forth.
“I’m telling you this,” he continued, “because I was wrong. I was wrong on many levels. First, I shouldn’t have judged you like that–and I’ll be careful about doing that in the future with other people. And second, I was wrong because you’re good at your job and we’re lucky to have you.”
“You’re damn right you are,” she said, still frowning, but he saw a smile teasing the corners of her lips.
He grinned. “Anyway,” he said as he stood, “I just thought I owed you that.”
She let him get a few feet away as he moved toward his own desk before she called out to him. “Thanks, Tony.”
He waved at her without turning around, and she bent her head and went back to work.
Now, this rewrite I’ve given you isn’t award-winning material, but it’s so much more active than the first version because instead of the narrator telling you these things, the characters are revealing them to you almost exclusively in their conversation and in their actions. Yes, there’s a little thinking going on, but not much, and even that is fairly active.
You should also notice a couple more things: First, I didn’t touch on every single thing that’s mentioned in the excerpt. That’s okay because I have a whole book to work more of it in, and not all of it is necessary to the story. The part I included here is necessary because Tony didn’t trust her, didn’t want to hire her, and it turns out that she screws up big time and gets fired. His initial feelings about her may not have been all wrong, even if the problem didn’t really stem from her looks. She hates it that she proved his initial mistrust to be correct.
Second, I spent a lot more time on the part I did rewrite–gave it a lot more space and attention–than I did in the original. By “blowing up” (expanding) the scene and giving it some room to breathe, I gave my characters time and space to show the reader more of who they are as people.
This draws to an end part 2 of the painful process of exposing my first novel to you, with all its warts and bad breath. The takeaways:
- Avoid backstory dumps.
- Show don’t tell.
- Don’t be afraid to cut, cut, cut.
- Don’t be afraid to spend time with a scene when it helps reveal character, plot, theme, conflict … any of the biggies.
Take heart, writers. You’re not alone.
When you’re at the point that an editor can help you polish the work you’ve put into your book and take it to the next level, please send me an email at email@example.com and tell me what’s happening and what I can do to help. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!
Learn from my mistakes, part 3, next week!