By Russel D McLean
As with last week, I'm still working on some redrafts. For me the redrafting process starts two or three weeks after finishing a manuscript. I've put it aside. I've thought about what I'd like to achieve with the structure and after the distance of those weeks, I'm ready to start again. To look at the book with fresh eyes and start to shape it the way I want it. This may take three or four attempts, maybe more. Its not a one and done thing, and generally I'll need to do it all over again once my editor and agent take a look. But there are 5 basic rules I always follow once I've vomitted that first (always unreadable) draft onto the page. I've found they help me to create a readable manuscript. They don't help with plot issues that arise, of course, but for this week let's just focus on the writing.
1) Read it out loud.
Ever wondered why some phrases feel right and others feel wrong? Depending on the mood you're aiming for, you want to read out loud the words on the page. See how they feel coming out of your mouth. This works just as well for prose as for dialogue. Of course since I tend to work in first person, I don't see a massive difference between dialogue and prose, but there will be subtle differences all the same.
By the way I know of some writers who read out loud in the nude. The second part is not necessary. Unless of course that's your bag.
2) Long sentence? Cut it down.
Voice is what comes out when you take away all the supposedly writerly bullshit. Long sentences tend to disguise voice (unless they're there for a purpose). Cut the long sentence up. Put in full stops. Make it two or three sentences. See how that feels. Generally you'll find that the three sentences are clearer and more easily understood than that single behemoth.
3) Avoid all filters.
"I felt a sharp pain my leg."
"I heard the owls hooting in the dark"
"I saw the shark burst out of the water in front of me."
If you've done your job right then the reader will always know whose POV we're writing from. This means that constant repeats of "I" become annoying. It also means that every time you say, "I did this" you're putting a barrier between your character's sensation and your reader's experience. You want the reader to be as close as they can be to the reality of what's happening. So quit filtering:
"There was a sharp pain in my leg."
"The owls hooted in the dark."
"The shark burst out of the water in front of me."
Make everything as immediate as possible. Take out as many filters as you can. Try and put the reader as close to the POV character as you can.
4) Avoid repetition. Don't repeat yourself.
Any two sentences that mean the same thing in the same paragraph get cut. Unless there's a good dramatic reason for it. Same with repeated words or descriptions within a few paragraphs. And the same with information unless we really need to be reminded at that moment of whatever nugget of wisdom you believe may benefit your reader's understanding of the scene.
5) Don't start at the very beginning
I get very bored with properly constructed sentences in fiction. They tend to feel stiff and oddly unnatural. So I cut the beginnings of sentences where I can.
"He stepped into the apartment. There was a light in the bathroom that drew his attention."
"He stepped into the apartment. A light in the bathroom drew his attention."
So there we go, five tips that work for me. Note the second part of that sentence: that work for me. Writing is a hugely personal process and I think anyone who tells you they have the holy grail is lying. I tend to take what I need from other writers and ignore the parts that don't work. But hopefully some of these will help you tighten up your writing when it comes to that all important first pass through a completed manuscript.
In the meantime, I'm off to celebrate Valentine's Day in the traditional McLean manner: redrafting, redrafting, redrafting...