Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Editing: Keeping Track of Characters

Wait, didn’t she have blue eyes?

Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing

I wanted to keep this for the last post because this is a little bit different—it’s more preemptive. Keeping track of your characters will help you edit when it comes down to it, yes, but it will also help you from making the mistakes in the first place. 

The characters in general

Thanks to our illustrious founder B. C. Marine, I have an information tracker for all of my characters. There is so much information in there that it can sometimes be a little overwhelming, but it’s been invaluable for making sure that I don’t forget names of minor characters or physical features of some of the more frequent characters. 

So what should you keep track of in this section?

Your columns

A lot of times this is information that you as the author will feel very obvious and unnecessary to write down, but let me tell you, you’ll be happy you did if you ever take a sabbatical from your WIP to start another one, or because life gets hectic. And right now, life is very easy to become hectic thanks to the pandemic. So, your very basics should at least be:

  • Names—first, last, and nickname

  • Birthplace—either their country of origin or city of origin, or both

  • Description—this will be their relation to the protagonist(s)

For me, I added a few extra bits of information because I’m keeping track of characters across a series of six books and otherwise, I might forget when the characters appear. These are the extras that I need a little help remembering sometimes:

  • Titles—this is both for the military titles and noble titles, and when they change in the series

  • Books in which they first appear

Physical appearance

My absolute favorite example to give of why it’s important to keep track of physical features both for yourself—and to hopefully share with your editors or publishers to ensure a cohesive picture—and your readers is from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series with Dell Publishing. Her main character Claire (Beauchamp Randall) Fraser is very well reported to have whiskey-colored eyes (light brown), but in one of the books her eye color was definitely not the correct one. With this information readily at your fingertips, it will be easier to avoid small mistakes like that. 

I will note, very strongly, that everyone makes mistakes, whether you're self published, published with a small press, or a large publishing company, and these mistakes should not be villainized. Authors and editors alike are human, and there’s only so much you can catch. 

Your columns

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m bad at writing character descriptions and leave them as scant as I can get away with. Unfortunately, you need to know the basics of what your characters look like aside from, “She’s pretty and has brown hair.” So what do you need to look for? Here is what I’ve got to help me keep track of my characters physical appearance:

  • Skin

  • Hair color, texture, and style

  • Eye color

  • Mouth

  • Nose

  • Height

  • Build

  • Distinguishing features

  • Corresponding actor—for those of you who are like me, you might need some visual aids to help you fill out your information or visualize facial expressions on a similar face

Personality Traits

This, I find, is one of the hardest to nail down as an author because a lot of times I want to keep track of characters in “good” and “bad” columns, but that’s just not how the world works in real life, and it’s now how your world should work in your books. Every person has positive and negative traits, and sometimes the positive traits that your characters have are actually negative because of their motivations. These are all the things that make well-rounded characters to make a richer world for your readers. 

Positive

The positive traits are almost always the easiest to come up with because we like to see the good in people. We’re breaking this down into a couple of categories. For your positive traits, you want to look at four things: moral, achievement, interactive, and identity. You might be looking at that list and say, “What in the heck does that mean?” Don’t worry, I’ll give a brief description of each. 

Moral is what influences the mortality of the character, like their loyalty and honesty. Achievement is the characteristic(s) that helps the characters reach their goals, like their adventurous nature, boldness, or curiosity. Interactive is how your characters interact with the other characters in the book, like being flirtatious or courteous. And finally, identity is how the characters truly identify with themselves, like being passionate about things or imaginative.

Negative

For the negative, there’s a little bit less to examine. You want to look at the character’s core flaws and their lesser flaws. There’s also the motivation behind the character’s actions, and you can tie that into both the positive and the negative traits, but I want to tie it mostly into the negative traits because often times we have more motivation for our negative traits than our positive ones, and sometimes our positive traits have negative motivations...which in turn makes them more negative than positive. So what would your core flaw and lesser flaws look like?

Your core flaw is the heart of the matter that will help influence your lesser flaws, like being manipulative and greedy. With these flaws, your lesser flaws would slide into being controlling and inflexible. Things are going to be the way that character wants, no matter what they have to do to get it. 

Now, this is where I think tying the motivations in the negative trait is a lot more useful to understanding the character compared to the positive traits. Let’s take the negative traits listed above and explore some internal and external motivations for why your character is the way they are. Greedy and manipulative could stem from growing up in poverty and wanting to better themselves by any means necessary, such as manipulating others and hoarding wealth so as not to lose it.


If all this sounds great, you can download a blank copy here.


Join us in two weeks when we start a series on another branch of editing: Continuity. 


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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Editing: Cutting the Fat

Snip, snip, snip.

Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing

Ironically, I already cut the fat from this blog series. Originally instead of the three posts, there were going to be four, one of which covered unnecessary words and phrases. You’ll notice that it’s one of the sections in this blog post. Cutting the fat doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get rid of everything, but that you must trim it down to be more purposeful.

Kill Your Darlings

In our Misused Writing Advice series last year, we had a post about this you can read here. As you’ll read in the post, killing your darlings isn’t about killing off your characters. (Though you might need to do that too.) These are the scenes or large sections that don’t add to the plot or character development, no matter how much fun you had writing them. They will weigh down your novel and make it more difficult for your reader to get through your work. 

One really good example of this is getting attached to a chapter in another character’s POV that could be easily summarized in a paragraph. Let’s call these Character A and Character B. Character A has the main POV through the book, but Character B has a chapter where they witness some important information happening. It’s great that we have the information, but because the reader and Character A only need that bit of info to move the plot forward, we don’t need to have a 3,000 to 4,000 word chapter to give a paragraph’s worth of retelling.

Like in the dialogue post, each scene and bit of information must have a point. It absolutely must push the plot forward toward the conclusion of the book or the series. There might be some bits that you can recycle that would be better in smaller chunks or even in another book, and please, by all means, do it. 

Just don’t be afraid to take out the knife and slice away because you’re too attached to a scene. 

Get Rid of the Clone Army

No one likes killing characters, except maybe George R. R. Martin because he subsists on his readers’ tears. In this section, however, I’m not talking about killing off characters that drive the plot forward or give your protagonist a driving point, motivation, or affects their character arc. I’m talking about the characters, or the Clone Army, that just in general don’t need to be there because they’re redundant, don’t drive the plot forward, or really make any difference whatsoever to your protagonist, or even antagonist. 

Your first thought might be going to the “sexy lamp test” that was proposed by comic book writer and editor Kelly Sue DeConnick, but those characters are better served by developing their characters rather than taking them out. If you haven’t heard of this test, Sexy Lamps are usually female characters who do nothing to affect the story by their actions and could be replaced by an inanimate object with changing the plot.

A great example of this is right in one of our founder’s own works. In book two, The Allurist’s Son by B. C. Marine, she combined the roles of the captain of the guard and the prison warden into a single character because one was redundant and didn’t need to be there when the second character could do the job of both without feeling the loss of either one. 

Another example is when you’ve got a character that shows up only for a scene or two that doesn’t play a role in later books in your series disseminating information but there’s a way for an established character that does affect the plot to give this information instead, get rid of the dead weight.

Unnecessary words

Remember that recycling I talked about in the first section? Well, here’s a great example. I’m recycling an entire blog post into here. 

Let’s talk a little bit about unnecessary words: they shouldn't be there unless they’re in dialogue and it’s the way your character speaks. There are plenty of us out there that don’t speak with the eloquence most of us strive for.

There are two categories that I think all authors need to look at in their edits. The first is looking at a sentence and seeing if you can say the same thing with fewer words while still conveying the same meaning. If you can, cut those words. The second is using the find function and getting rid of words like: 

  • That

  • Just

  • Like

  • Probably

  • Most likely

  • Literally

  • And your hedging verbs that don’t need to be there for anything other than clarity.

Redundancies

Redundancies are one of the first things that I look for when I get a new manuscript from our authors to nip in the bud. These are things that we all put into our manuscripts without thinking, but once you review them, they’re implied. Here are a couple of examples of phrases I take out to make things more succinct and take out the implied portions. 

He shrugged his shoulders. → He shrugged.

He nodded in agreement. → He nodded. 

He stood up. → He stood.

He sat down. → He sat. 

All of these can also be combined with whatever sentence is coming next.  For example:

Shrugging, he went into the next room. 


Join us in two weeks for the final blog in this mini-series where I talk about keeping track of your characters. 


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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Editing: Cleaning Up Dialogue

Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing

Ahh, the dreaded dialogue. I wanted to start with editing your dialogue because it’s simultaneously the easiest and the hardest thing to do. A lot of us struggle writing dialogue in the first place, and now we’ve got to edit to make it better? Gross. 

You don’t need every dialogue tag

Let’s start with the easiest part of cleaning up your dialogue, and that’s with the tags. 

What purpose do tags serve, you ask? Well, their most important purpose is to easily let the reader know who is speaking. It also lets the reader know how the character is speaking—but these aren’t always necessary. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean and how to clean them up.

“I can’t stay here anymore!” Alan yelled. “I can’t take it—I’m leaving.”

Now we know who’s talking in here, but Alan yelling is implied by the fact there’s an exclamation point. You’re better served by either taking out the dialogue tag altogether or using an action beat instead.

“I can’t stay here anymore!” Alan grabbed whatever he could and threw it into the open suitcase. “I can’t take it—I’m leaving.”

It’s more effective for setting the tone of the scene and how frustrated Alan is while he’s planning on leaving. Now let me give you a less clear example of where you can either keep or change the tag: 

“What do you mean you’re leaving?” Charlotte asked quietly, her lip quivering. 

If we take out the qualifier of asked, the dialogue tag becomes redundant and we don’t need it. But, with that qualifier, it’s telling us the intonation in which she asks, and becomes a little more important. However, I’m still a believer that it can always be improved:

Charlotte’s lip quivered. “What do you mean you’re leaving?” 

This cuts the unnecessary dialogue tag while still, to me, implying that she’s saying something quietly because she’s emotionally distressed. And don’t be afraid to move your action beat or tags around to make your dialogue more impactful!

Tone

Tone is one of the harder ones to fix, because it’s often a more pervasive problem throughout an author’s manuscript. Your characters need to have their own developed voices so that they become distinguishable from each other, and if there’s a narrator, the narrator’s voice. This is not only important for the readers, but the author to develop story arcs and series arcs for the characters.

My suggestion for keeping track of this is to create a character sheet with basic information about their personality and character arcs planned throughout the book or series so you can easily reference what kind of character they are.

Context matters

The context in which your characters speak to each other really matters. If you have a mother and daughter talking to each other, they might be a little more blunt and gossipy as compared to coworkers or people they’re trying to flirt with. Switching back and forth between the two might make it feel like there are some character discrepancies, so looking at the context in which things are said will help you determine if you’ve created a problem you need to edit away.

What’s the point?

Every piece of dialogue needs to have a point. While people will talk to fill up the space, your characters shouldn’t. Every bit of their dialogue should serve a purpose to move the plot and their character development forward. 

The biggest test of whether or not you’ve written your dialogue with purpose is if you can remove an entire scene of dialogue, or a sentence here and there, and the plot will remain the same. 

Keepin’ it Real

The way that we speak in real life is not the way that our characters talk in books—and for good reason. Truly realistic dialogue is going to sound inane and not going to interest your reader into “listening” to a conversation they could hear on the street or in their own living room. Like mentioned in the previous section, your dialogue must have a point that moves the plot forward. 

So when you’re going through your edits, take a close look at your dialogue and if your characters are stumbling over their words without purpose (like they’re naturally shy speakers and can’t get through a few sentences without saying um or pauses), take it out or change it to have purpose. 


Join us in two weeks for our next post in this series where I talk about cutting the fat.


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