Tips and Tricks for Editing Your Work – Part Two
A reader of self-editing tip one (here) followed up and messaged me to ask if it’s better to have two characters talking in a book’s first scene, to convey the information, rather than the main character thinking it. Yes, as an editor charged with assessing a submission, seeing dialogue on the first page rather than a block of narration punctuated by thoughts in italics and ending in an exclamation point will bring about an eyebrow raise (that’s for you, Jaqueline!) and a half-smile. I might even heave myself up again and get a biccy to go with my cuppa.
But ‘convey the information’ is quite a broad term, so let’s unpack what it means, and think about some issues people can run into with it when thinking of the opening scene—or any scene—in those terms.
So, conveying what information? That the MC is feeling in a rut / unappreciated / lonely / depressed / going to break out and jump at or create a new opportunity, for instance? It’s a typical enough theme of Existing Life / Opening Image / Ordinary World (whatever you want to call it) leading to the Inciting Incident, and it’s the scenario I described in the first article https://sassygirlsbookexpo.com/?p=2207. And by the way, whatever you call it, it needs some hook to keep us reading, some conflict, perhaps, or something that the MC’s lacking—something that will engender readers’ empathy and sympathy for the character.
So, if we don’t want the first chapter to read as the ‘woe is me’ thoughtfest I described in the other article, sure, you can have a conversation between the heroine and her bf, the latter of whom is usually a sassy firecracker of a gal who encourages said heroine to break out. But those other issues? As You Know, Bob, and/or talking heads syndrome.
Let us imagine…
“Charlotte, stop pacing about and calm down! It’s work that’s got you hopped up, isn’t it. As usual.”
Lulu knew. She’d worked at Blah PR too. It was how Charlotte had met her.
“Grrr! You’ve been busting your ass there for five years now and still not getting the recognition you deserve! No wonder you’re mad,” Lulu said accusingly. “You worked your way up from secretary to admin assistant and junior account manager and you’re still not getting any clients of your own!”
“Well, I’m being allowed to work for the Howard Group as a sort of trial. They’ve been the agency’s biggest clients for a decade now and we’re fighting to keep them,” Charlotte replied defensively.
“And they’re running you into the ground as a result! Okay, so the son who took over, Richard Howard, is one of the richest businessmen in the city, and looks like he stepped from the pages of a glossy magazine as well, but the way you take his calls at all hours, jump when he snaps his fingers—it’s like he’s your master, Char!”
“I know,” Charlotte answered defeatedly.
“You already made yourself ill running on too little sleep and too much coffee going above and beyond to cater to his whims. And then when that douche of an account manager stole your idea and—”
“Presented it as his own. Yes,” Charlotte admitted.
“And to think you were dating that slimeball at the time!” Lulu exploded. “No wonder you’ve been off guys ever since.”
Okay, that’s a bit exaggerated for dramatic effect, but not that much. Basically, in trying to convey that Charlotte is dissatisfied with her professional and romantic situation, all the two characters are doing is rehashing stuff they both know, and in the gritted-teeth focus on getting that info out there, there’s no details of or interaction of characters with the setting. What were the characters doing? Where did that scene take place? Was it indoors or outdoors, even?
Why not have them do something? Lulu could have taken Char out for an evening to relax her / get her away from work, so the dialogue—plus Charlotte’s interior monologue—could take place at a pottery class, say, or wall-climbing. Something that readers know what it is, but not details, so it’s interesting to them. That gives you the chance (to research wall climbing and pottery making!) to include sights, sounds and scents. The feel of the chalk on Charlotte’s hands, the squeaks and thuds as she climbs, how she feels swinging above the ground on the rope, the sense of achievement as she gets to the top. Or there’s the heat of the kiln, the smell of the wet clay, how it oozes back when she squishes it, the creative flair she feels in shaping it…
Or Charlotte’s dissatisfaction could be shown via her asking for promotion / more responsibility at work, putting her case to a director who doesn’t know her or her work history, so she’s showing slides of her achievements / campaigns / results. That a co-worker stole her idea could come up that way, with her interior monologue showing us she’s off men as a result.
And if that unsuccessful interview leads to the heroine rage-quitting Blah PR and going to work directly for the Howard Group…and the dishy Richard (but by having to misrepresent who she is, because the Howard Group dropped Blah PR as being out of touch / incompetent and wants nothing whatsoever to do with them now, but poor Char is desperate), or discovering Blah PR is ripping off clients / laundering drug / vice money through its books (depending on if you’re writing a romance or a romantic suspense, say), all the better!
And Bob and the talking heads shouldn’t just be banished from the opening scenes, where you’re focusing on the first impression your ms makes. Applying these tips to any scene, making sure you have a balance of anchored dialogue and narrative and action and that each page drives the plot forward, will help you self-edit your work. Or so my sassy firecracker of a best friend tells me…
If you found this article helpful, or there’s anything arising from it you want to discuss, please comment below. And if there’s any further aspect of self-editing you’d like tips on, please say.
Rebecca Fairfax, SGBE Staffer