Tag Archives: Self Editing

Novel Girls: Reaction and Editing

24 Sep

This edition of Novel Girls is well overdue!  I left town for the weekend right after Nicole and I last met and only now am finding the time to type it up.  We had our regular get-together and went over chapters from each of our stories.  I love how much we are able to encourage each other to keep writing and to keep editing!  I owe everything to these girls for keeping me going.  Our biggest piece of advice was on reaction of characters, which helps to lend itself to believable dialogue and pacing.

Let’s say my character receives a big piece of news, that her grandma is very sick.  The raw dialogue (no tags) might to something like this.

“Your grandma is very ill”
“Is it serious?”
“It will probably kill her.”
“How long, doctor?”
“It’s hard to say.  At most a year.”
“Thank you, doctor.  We’ll fight this to the end.”

Does this read as believable dialogue?  Not to me, it doesn’t!  The character’s transition from “It will probably kill her” to “How long” covers a range of emotions that a normal human would experience.  It’s what goes between the lines, the tags, description, and injected emotion that make this believable dialogue.  So, I try to use the five sense to brighten up the scene (some are more applicable than others).

  • Sight: Sight is a big one for this scene!  How does the character look when she receives the news from the doctor?  Is there a tear?  A trembling lip perhaps?  And the doctor: is he sympathetic or straight-faced?  And the setting of course; is the grandma there, her heart-rate monitor clicking away?  Is the character at home and is receiving a phone call?  All of these sights make the scene richer and more believable.
  • Touch: This helps us set the scene and the spatial relations.  Does the doctor touch her shoulder reassuringly?  Does the character run her fingers over her sick grandma’s knuckles?  All of these things are part of human reaction.
  • Sound: The beep of the heart rate monitor, the tone the doctor uses, the sobs of the character.  (I’m getting really excited here, I’m trying not to end every sentence with an exclamation point.)
  • Smell: Ever hospital I’ve ever been to has smelled like urine.  I have to imagine that this one would.
  • Taste: Ok, not really applicable here.

So let’s get down to it, shall we?  Combining sensory description, we take a Hemingway-eque conversation and add on some Hawtorn-ian description to come up with something perfectly in the middle.

The doctor sat down at the chair across from me.  We were both listening to the steady beep of her heart rate monitor and her raspy breath.  He didn’t surprise me when he said “Your grandma is very ill.”
I reach out and touch her hand, running my thumb over her white knuckles.  Her skin feels like tissue paper, so thin I could break it.  “Is it serious?”  I’m afraid to hear the answer and breath slowly to keep myself from sobbing.
He responds gently.  “It will probably kill her.”
I let the emotion run through me, shaking me from my very core to my fingertips.  He reaches out and grabs my forearm.  It’s good to have something solid when everything is changing so quickly.
“How long, doctor?”  I can only think about the number of times we’ll have to come back to this moment; the slow beep of machinery and the smell of stale urine on over-washed sheets.
“It’s hard to say.”  He pauses, face contorted as he tries to figure out how close I am to breaking down.  “At most a year.”
He lets me cry for a minute and hands me a tissue that is truthfully no better than thin cardboard.  I use it to wipe my eyes, black streaks of eye liner coming away and undoubtedly staining my face.  “Thank you, doctor.  We’ll fight this to the end.”  He squeezes my arm reassuringly and walks out of the room to let me figure out how to tell grandma she’s dying.

I don’t know about you, reader, but I’m a much bigger fan of the later.  The words between the dialogue show that the character is reacting with more than just her words and gives a better flow from one sentence to the next.

The other thing I wanted to talk about in this post is self-editing.  This is a little different from most other posts about how to self edit and is rather about how to stop self editing.  I can’t stop doing it!  This weekend, my husband decided to finally bite the bullet and read my manuscript.  We decided this would be best accomplished in the car on the way to Iowa out loud.  We only got through two chapters.

The frustration was that I kept stopping him, asking him to make a note about a sentence that didn’t sound right or somewhere that needed more description or a passage that needed to be completely re-written in general.  He got so frustrated from the break in the flow that he stopped.

Readers, I need to know if I’m alone in this!  Do you self-edit every time you hear/read your own writing?  Is there a way to get past this or is it a good thing?  Is being able to recognize my flaws a gift?  Please let me a comment and let me know how you deal with self editing!