You’ve just finished your book and you’re ready to self-publish. You don’t have a lot of money, so hopefully you can do most things yourself. If you had a dream checklist that would help you feel more confident, what would that be?
Let’s start with 3 common issues that I often see come up for authors I have worked with over the years.
1) Too much telling, not enough showing
Many writers receive this input in a critique group, or from consultant edits. This is a lazy kind of comment, because it ignores the nuances of the writing craft. However, as with all tried-and-tested advice, there’s a reason this one has stuck.
Narration that focuses too much on itself places a distance between the reader and the story. This is telling. As the writer, especially the first-drafter discovering your story for the first time, you are prone to lots of telling because it helps you get the story down.
Narration that backs away and fades into the distance presses the reader close to the page. Your nose is touching the ink, your eyes paint images. This is showing. You’re letting the reader do the work. You’re trusting them to paint the images the words will conjure.
But it gets complicated, because of this question we must ask, each and every paragraph:
When is it appropriate for the narrator to vanish, and when for the narrator to come in and be a part of the story?
This will come down to the specific narrative mode you use. Narration is the manner by which your story is being told. Don’t just think about third person limited, or omniscient. This isn’t narration. Narration takes in more than that: who and exactly how are the very words being laid on the page coming from story to reader?
Are these the words of a bard who, at the end of his life, decided to pen his chronicles? Or is this a first-person account of a traveling detective’s side-kick, pertaining to events in the not-so-distant past? Or, is this the grand nighttime tale told by a creative grandfather before the fire, free to wander wherever his imagination fancies?
Take this story you’re reading right now. Point of view and genre would say this is a nonfiction blog post written in a variety of second and first person.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
What’s really happening, that I, the author, am aware of: the narrator (me) is an editor writing email advice to another writer who asked if he can write helpful revision/editing blog posts to her prompts. That’s the story unfolding — a story about how to write better. And with this come all my nuances, including the nature of how I’m telling it: a writer sitting at his desk at 4:08 p.m. (with a cat to the right judging him…well, me, technically). A writer trying to figure out blogging and trying something different each time, and here we are on this one, let’s see… (And any typos left behind, assume the cat walked across my keyboard.)
As you might notice, this narrator leans more toward telling right now, but it helps, because it reminds you I’m in the room with you. (As is the cat <3.) This isn’t just the story, but also the personality of the guy telling it to you.
Who is telling your story, and how? Before you can unpack the question of whether you should show or tell in a certain instance, you’ll need to understand just how your narrator would tell your story.
Show, don’t tell, is a good rule of thumb, but remember: a master seamstress has more than just her thumbs to measure thread, especially on a complex project where even a hairsbreadth of error will ruin the cloth.
You can always convert showing into telling, and telling into showing. Think of these are two sides of a coin. Right now, if you wanted to, you could strip back your narration and show us more inside the sensory and internal direct experience of your character. Conversely, you could take a very descriptive paragraph about facial movements and just write, “She smiled.”
Readers will not be thinking about if you’re telling too much, nor if you’re showing too much. They will notice though if you’re telling when you should be showing, or showing when you should be telling. The trick is figuring out when you want immersion in the present, or when you want some distance.
When in doubt, try to connect to the narrator of the story, as though this is another person at the keyboard with you, or floating on your shoulder full of wisdom. Ask just how they would want to spin this tale, then let that lead your creative fingertips.
2) Too much info-dumping
We all know info-dumping. It’s another word that causes anxiety at a writing critique session.
I once heard someone call it a “data-dump”. That’s a better term because it gets to the point:
You, the writer, are carrying lots and lots and lots of data about your story. This includes details of your characters, the plot, and the setting, all growing to life like a garden on fast-forward as you type your way through your early drafts.
Our instinct is to write down what we need to write down, especially the first time through. Where else is it going to go?
That leaves some fun when it comes to revision.
Imagine your first draft as messy, unbrushed hair. Each revision is one passage of the metal brush to get out all the tangles. Info-dumping is one common tangle that will tug your brush many times.
I’ve written before about the difference between a draft and a revision. Think of a revision as a lazy comb: instead of yanking out all the tangles, pain and all, you smooth out everything else. Typos, repeated words, bad grammar, contradictions, things that catch your eye, moments to shine, moments you quickly zip up your fly.
None of these will change your story on a deep level. Worse: all the time you spend fussing with this final-stage stuff is time might be pointless because you’ll end up deleting whole scenes, even whole chapters.
A draft is that ruthless tug of the metal brush, and with that tug comes out all the nasty snarls. It means rewriting, cutting, cutting, cutting, especially cutting. Lots of info-dumps come out in this process.
Info-dumping takes on many forms. The obvious one is a big paragraph made of more than 5 sentences that wanders completely off topic. So you entered an ancient castle. Wonderful. What atmosphere. Now you describe in great detail all the furniture, down to the last layout, and while we’re at it, why not add in something about the history of this place, because it’s so cool.
That one’s a bit obvious. Think of all the times in a conversation when someone has wandered off onto a topic that got them really excited, and then they’ve lost you and you’re just nodding, looking for an opportunity to change the topic. That’s an info-dump.
But info-dumping can be even more insidious.
When you’re writing a book, every single line counts. You need line by line tension that pulls the readers eyes down like a magnet. Give the reader some slack, and they have a moment to think about the hundred other things they have to still get done, that you’ve managed to somehow make them forget all about because you write so damn good.
That effect is the effect of well-brushed hair. The result is nothing left behind that doesn’t drive the story forward, not a single tangle. Ornamentation is fine, if that ornamentation is full of life. Exposition is fine if curiosity, so strong in your protagonist that the reader feels it, needs it, has led them both to it.
As you work your drafts, get in the habit of recognizing your story in a binary form:
Comb through your manuscript and apply this binary assessment, much like a metal brush through hair. I like to use Scrivener because it allows me to make a separate note that I can nest under a given scene’s file. I always call this “dump” because it helps remind me that “not the story” goes in the dump. If you use Word, you can achieve this effect by making a separate Word file and using Alt+Tab to bounce between.
Now, in each place where you cut “not the story”, try to bridge the gaps between “story” preceding it, and “story” following it. Write what the story needs. Move on to the next place you spot “not the story” and repeat.
Don’t get discouraged about “not the story” vanishing from your manuscript. Remember: valuable things can be found at the dump, and us writers believe in grassroots recycling. I like to organize my dump files as they come together. In fact, these usually turn into categorized information that eventually move onto my organized wiki for character and world-building details.
The key point is: don’t let info-dumps drag you down. They served a purpose. But now, in your next draft, they can serve a new purpose as they become the roots of your own mini-wiki, which you can consult later. And be rest assured: if the story needs them later, in some other form, it will tell you.
3) Developmental edit recommended
I’ll close off on this point for today because it’s worth talking about what a developmental edit is. Let’s start with what it’s not:
- A family member or close friend reading over and making notes for you in your Word file
- A beta reader going over the book and giving edits/suggestions
- An edit for grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.
Developmental editing is done by an editor. This is someone trained in the editing process who will analyze your story’s structure, character development, and plot, and give you both global suggestions (delivered in an editorial letter), as well as specific suggestions (mostly by way of comments in the manuscript).
A developmental edit will require rewriting. Sometimes, a developmental editor will fix obvious typos or make craft suggestions, i.e. spotting repetitive words or clumsy sentences. Mostly, though, they will be focused on the story as you’re telling it. If you have an info-dump, you’ll hear about it. If the line-by-line tension vanishes somewhere, they’ll point you toward it so you can tighten the rack. If you show when you should tell, or tell when you should show, they’ll be sure to tell you (or show by way of example).
A developmental edit will be mostly diagnostic, with some prescription. The editor’s job is to point you toward rewrites, giving you enough to work with, but not to do the actual rewriting.
Developmental editing happens early. Think of this like the metal brush in tangled hair. Copyediting and proofreading come after a developmental edit. This means all the rounds of revision and drafting to follow, based on your developmental editor’s notes, will be done. There’s no point polishing a diamond if you’re going to throw some of it away. Developmental editing helps you mine out all the diamonds and get rid of empty rock, so that copyediting can be about polishing the keepers.
You can do a developmental edit yourself, though in saying this, I am reminded of the knife-juggler who tells people, “Don’t try this at home.” See my earlier post on how to do a developmental edit, for those on a budget, but if you end up with cuts and scrapes, you know where to find me.
Along the same lines, you can also train a beta reader to assume the role of developmental editor, using the guidelines in that post. I also plan to write more detailed follow-up posts on this DIY approach in future, so stay tuned.
Please share any questions or your feedback on info-dumping, showing vs telling, and developmental editing!