The best piece of advice I ever received as an author was: You have the power to change it. It made me realise the words I’d written (definitely with sweat and tears, though possibly not blood) weren’t cast in stone. During those dreaded initial submission periods, when I was doing the rounds and inevitably receiving rejections, I would sometimes get feedback suggesting I change this or that, or rewrite… What? Rewrite? But what about the sweat and the tears? It took a while for me to realise that this advice was crucial. The tome I’d created wasn’t precious. I was a writer. I had the power to change it. I could rewrite it, any section of it, or all of it. The words were mine. The point is, if the words are not what the reader wants, then you have to take a breath and wield the red editing pen.
I soon realised that I was far too fond of my narrative voice, or voices. My characters inner monologues were slowing the action to the point where it was standing still. Not a good way of moving your story forwards. I think many writers are familiar with the three act structure:
Act I: Set up, characters, inciting incident and goal.
Act II: Rising tension and peaks. The high and low point (the rug-pulling moment for our character).
Act III: Plot climax. The central problem is confronted and we end with a satisfying resolution.
I’m simplifying it a little, but in realising I was getting far to immersed in my characters inner voice, I went back to this myself. Part of my MA in creative writing was a scriptwriting module, where you are basically telling the story using dialogue only, no exposition, no inner monologues. We had to see the action, low points and high points, problems resolved through dialogue only. Phew. The objective was to make me confront my writing technique. Concentrating on action and dialogue I was able to churn out the words. Yes, I would have to go back and rewrite if the idea was strong enough for a novel, but in parring my writing back to the bone, I was able to establish how much of the narrative was needed, how much of it might be ‘padding’ and not moving the story along. I’m still guilty of being too wordy, but it was a useful exercise, one that worked for me.
So, how do I apply this to my writing now? I do like to let my characters voices come through and I tend to write from multiple points of view, the protagonist – or protagonists – have a voice, and so does the antagonist. The danger with getting inside people’s heads is you might well present yourself with a dilemma. Are they in danger of spoiling the ‘Aha’ moments? When trying to make a character come alive, I’m looking at those defining traits that make them human. I want the reader to relate to them and want to know more about them. For me, a character’s most defining trait might be the secrets they keep (and we all have them). If one of your characters is about to reveal that secret, though, the pivotal revelations are rather spoiled. I’ve learned to reel my character’s back in, therefore, keeping the narrative concise.
This also helps me avoid clunky dialogue. In reading my work back, I notice that sometimes a character’s thoughts have run away with them, thus breaking up the dialogue to the point where it doesn’t sensibly lead on. I remind myself now to keep the narrative pertinent to the development, or growth, of the character. In short, I cut all superfluous narrative – and certainly those bits that will give the plot away and stop the unravelling of the story in its tracks. In my current work, for instance, without giving too much away, my antagonist is trying to emotionally manipulate someone. In revealing the hold he has over the character which gives him the power to do that, I realised I’d completely lost one of my big reveals. That was definitely a go back and change it moment.
My ‘you have the power to change it’ mantra also serves me well when faced with edits from my publisher, particularly huge structural edits which often entail a rewrite. An editor isn’t just arbitrarily making changes to your masterpiece because they’ve got nothing better to do. They want to work with you to sell your book. If you are at the publication stage, it’s because the publisher likes your idea, your writing style. They think your book will fit the market and they’ve taken you on. They have faith in you. You’ve got this far, despite a journey littered with potholes. If you need to make a few changes, the bones are there. Go for it. Feal the fear, but do it, because you have the power to.
My mantra serves me well in other areas too! Tackling phobias being one of them. I overcame my arachnophobia (but that’s a whole other scary story). I also … threw myself out of a plane, as you do if you are scared of heights.
Definitely a case of feeling the fear. I’m the small one in green, by the way.
Happy writing all!
(c) Sheryl Browne
About My Husband’s Girlfriend by Sheryl Browne:
She told my little boy a secret and now he’s gone…
Tucking her little boy Ollie into bed one night, Sarah notices his beloved teddy bear, which she bought him when he was born, is missing and in its place is a new toy given to him by her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, Laura. When she asks Ollie about it, he begins to shift uncomfortably, before whispering ‘Laura told me a big secret and she said I can never tell you’.
Sarah’s heart sinks. But when she raises her concerns, nobody wants to listen. To everyone else, Laura is the perfect stepmother and Sarah is just the jealous ex-wife. But Sarah knew the moment she met Laura she couldn’t trust her, from her overly perfect stepmother act to the way she evaded questions about her own history.
Soon Ollie is asking to spend more time with his dad and Laura, and shrinking away from Sarah. Then, when she calls to him in the garden one day, Ollie doesn’t answer back. The garden is silent. Ollie’s sandpit is empty. Ollie has disappeared.
If you love a book that keeps twisting and turning, then you’ll love My Husband’s Girlfriend – it’s guaranteed to keep you up all night. Perfect for fans of Claire McGowan, Shalini Boland and Lisa Jewell.
Order your copy online here.