When Does It Make Sense to Make Big Revisions?

by Jami Gold on July 30, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Pile of cookies with text:

As I mentioned last time, I’m gearing up for the release of the next novel in my Mythos Legacy series, Pure Sacrifice, coming out August 12th. In my previous post, I alluded to the fact that revisions for this book were difficult. Very difficult.

In truth, revisions are never easy. Unlike just plain edits, which might have us questioning a word, sentence, paragraph, or scene, revisions might have us questioning everything:

  • the characters and their arcs
  • the plot arc and specific events
  • the conflicts and stakes
  • the goals and motivations
  • the story and core premise
  • the themes and messages we’re sending, etc.

Those are big ideas. And big ideas might require big changes.

The Fine Line of Developmental Edits

We are likely to face those kinds of questions when we receive feedback, especially if our developmental editor or beta readers are good. And stress is a normal reaction if we get feedback about those big elements because the changes often seem daunting or require a lot of work.

(Or if we’re neurotic, we could stress even if we don’t get that feedback. I didn’t receive any big-picture suggestions on the third book in the series, which will release this fall, and I freaked out rather than celebrate because I knew—I just knew—something had to be wrong with the story. *smile* Second-opinion editor: Nope. It’s all good.)

As I’ve discussed before, it’s not enough to rely on just copy editing. Jefferson Smith’s Immerse or Die study of story openings found that only 25% of the “strikes” that get him to close a book fall under copy editing.

Readers are just as likely (if not more likely) to hate a story for a plot hole or a Too Stupid To Live character as for missing commas or repeated words. So we need to make sure those big-picture issues are being examined.

Yet sometimes the feedback we receive might cause us to wonder if the suggestions are a good idea for our story. If we’re indie published, we can make any decision we think best.

If we’re in the midst of the query process, we might receive a “revise and resubmit” letter. Then we’d have to decide how much work to put into a story the agent or editor might still reject.

Or if we’re traditionally published and under contract, we might face an awkward choice. Our development editor is usually our acquiring editor, so we might feel pressured to make changes we disagree with, and we might doubt ourselves, wondering why they even wanted our story.

Whatever the situation, we might struggle with figuring out when suggestions will actually make our story better or when they’ll only make our story different:

“I’ve seen editors who want to change the premise(!). I’ve seen editors who want to change the tone (from dark to slapstick!). I’ve seen beta readers who want to change the whole plot(!). *sigh*

In all cases, if those changes would make the story closer to the story we intended to write, great! But we shouldn’t change just for the sake of change.”

Sometimes suggestions just tell us how they’d write the book, and that’s not going to help us tell our story. How can we tell the difference? And how can we know which battles we might want to pick when debating our publisher’s editor?

Be Wary of “Baking Soda Changes”

I came across a great post by Ally Carter about the sort of changes stories often go through during a book-to-film adaptation. She compares story chemistry to baking chemistry:

“If a cookie recipe calls for pecans and all you have is walnuts? Fine! If it calls for M&Ms and you’ve got chocolate chips? Well, that might work.

But only a fool would substitute baking soda for baking powder.

Why? Because that changes the chemistry and will throw the whole thing off whack and out of balance.

Good book-to-film adaptations know the difference between Baking Soda Changes and Walnut Changes. They know better than to mess with the chemistry.”

She goes on to explain that what constitutes a Baking Soda Change will be different for each book. For some books, the setting is an essential part of the story, and for some, it’s not. For some stories, removing a subplot won’t affect the main plot, and in others, they’re intricately linked.

She suggests focusing on how the change will affect other aspects of the story and gives examples from Harry Potter:

“”We found a great young actress for Hermione but she doesn’t need braces.”
—Walnut Change

“We decided to set Hogwarts in Ireland instead of Scotland.”
—Walnut Change (an unnecessary change, but a Walnut Change nonetheless)

“We decided to give Harry a spunky kid brother because there was a kid brother in Jurassic World and everyone loves a kid brother.”
—Baking Soda Change”

“Baking Soda” Changes: Not Always Bad

At the very least, Baking Soda Changes are those that affect:

  • what makes a story work
  • the essence of what makes a story feel like ours
  • the character arcs we want to explore
  • the themes or messages that resonate with us

That doesn’t mean every suggestion for a Baking Soda Change is bad. Unlike Ally’s comparison between finished books and movies, our in-process stories might need their chemistry adjusted.

The point is that for Walnut Changes, especially from an acquiring editor, it might not be worth it to argue. Those generally aren’t hills we need to die on. But again, what constitutes a Walnut Change will be different for each story.

On the other hand, with Baking Soda Changes, we want to look closer at whether those changes would bring us closer or further away from the story we want to tell. In other words, when we have to pick our battles, these are the changes to focus on.

Even as an indie author, I make myself justify every suggestion I ignore. So I have these debates in my head to make sure I’ve really analyzed the suggestions versus the affects on the story.

In short, understanding what the Baking Soda Changes are for our story helps us dig into the essence of our story’s elements. And with that understanding, we’ll be better able to make our case about whether the changes make sense for our story.

Case Study: Pure Sacrifice

One of my developmental editors (Jessa Slade of Red Circle Ink) made several Baking Soda Change suggestions for Pure Sacrifice. I wasn’t surprised, as pieces of the story had felt off to me as well.

Her suggestions included major changes to:

  • the worldbuilding,
  • the heroine’s arc, goals, and motivations,
  • the hero’s internal conflict and motivations,
  • the premise of the scenes leading up to the Climax,
  • a few plot events, and
  • the themes.

Huge, right? But…

When I stepped back from the suggestions that I knew wouldn’t work for the story I was trying to tell, I found several ideas among her examples that—although seemingly huge changes—would get me closer to that story essence in my head.

By skimming through each scene, I came up with a two-page list of questions to help me seamlessly patch the changes. The questions focused on what Ally mentioned above—how the changes affected the rest of the story—such as:

  • Why can’t she ABC?
  • How is XYZ supposed to work?
  • Why is he avoiding ABC?
  • What does XYZ mean for ABC?

In short, lots of whys, hows, and what does it means. *smile*

With that list in front of my keyboard, I was able to fix every aspect of the story (and maintain continuity) in one pass. Even better, by really understanding the baking soda elements at play, the changes turned out to be not so huge.

I didn’t delete or add any scenes. I didn’t rewrite any big sections. I didn’t change the main plot events or any turning points.

I changed some dialogue. I changed a lot of motivations and internal thoughts. I changed a few details about the questionable plot events. And I changed a few word choices to focus on different themes and messages.

By no means am I saying this revision was easy. I started out the post (and my last post) admitting that it was difficult.

But this key of understanding the underlying chemistry of the story, along with the two pages of questions to maintain story flow, helped me see how the pieces and parts fit together. In other words, the thinking about how to fix it and all the questions to answer took at least as long as making the actual changes.

After all that, the story is so much better. I addressed every single issue Jessa brought up. And more importantly, it’s so much closer to the story I wanted to tell. The changes didn’t break the chemistry—they fixed it.

There are many ways to approach revisions (one of my guest posters last month even shared a worksheet for her method), and there are many reasons why suggestions may or may not work for us or our story. Perhaps this idea of Baking Soda Changes will help us separate what we want to do from what we don’t and give us guidelines on how to get closer to the story of our imagination. *smile*

Have you ever received revision suggestions that felt wrong? Were you able to point to how it would break your story? How did you handle the situation? Does the analogy of Baking Soda Changes help your understanding? Have you been able to make any Baking Soda Changes work?

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20 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Kristen Luciani July 30, 2015 at 12:48 pm

Hi Jami! Kudos to you for powering through to make your manuscript as great as possible! And good luck with your upcoming release! I am always panicked to send my manuscripts to my editor and beta readers. Just because I think it’s great doesn’t mean they will! But it’s all part of the process and at the end of the day, I know that the right changes will make a much more compelling story. I won’t lie though…any criticism is a tough pill to swallow, at least at first. 🙂

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Jami Gold July 30, 2015 at 2:34 pm

Hi Kristen,

Thanks! I worry about what the feedback will say too, so I don’t know if that issue ever goes away. 🙂 But my current publishing team of beta readers and editors are also so good at finding what I need to fix that I appreciate the push–and the opportunity–to make my stories better.

I think that’s what keeps me mostly calm…trusting that the story will get better. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Deborah Makarios July 30, 2015 at 4:13 pm

Oh, this is SO where I am! I think I’ve got a few baking-soda changes to make, and a whole heap of walnuts.
One thing that’s really sticking out to me is that I keep going easy on my Lead – things get better and better, mostly, instead of worse and worse. Apart from how I nearly drown her four times. Maybe I need a bit of variety there…

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Jami Gold July 30, 2015 at 8:18 pm

Hi Deborah,

LOL! That sounds like a good place to start. And honestly, sometimes the hardest part of revisions is being open to changes, so you’ve already got that part down. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Davonne Burns July 31, 2015 at 7:09 pm

I love the analogy since I bake a lot and understand how adding (or even leaving out) baking soda can affect a recipe.

Last year I submitted a synopsis to an editor and she made several suggestions. I agreed with a couple but one in particular I refused to budge on. This wasn’t just a chocolate chip or baking soda issue. It was going from cheesecake to chocolate chip cookies. She wanted me to take out my character’s ‘crossdressing’ completely missing the point that they are genderfluid and as such do not crossdress. Their genderfluidity is a core part of their personality and not something I can just delete. They literally would not be the same person and most of the plot would no longer work and my core message would have been completely lost. This was a major change I could not agree with.

However on this same WIP I got to considering the opening chapter and realized I had completely mucked up a major plot point. A very important major plot point that required going in and rewriting whole chapters and had huge implications for the rest of the book. A chocolate chip change. Still cheesecake though.

Those changes are mostly made now and the book is so much better and the characters more that much more vibrant and real. It was a ton of work (I still have 6 chapters to go) but it has totally been worth it. The book is so much stronger and as you said, closer to what I wanted it to be in the first place.

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Jami Gold August 1, 2015 at 11:26 pm

Hi Davonne,

Even though I love making desserts, I pay attention only to the final product. 😉 So I don’t pretend to know what the difference is between baking power or baking soda. I just know you don’t want to mess it up. LOL!

Even so, the analogy really resonated with me. Every time we go into the kitchen (start a story), the possibilities are nearly endless. Choosing a genre is almost like choosing a main dish, side dish, or dessert. Voice, mood, and tone is like picking a flavor (chocolate vs. raspberry desserts). Etc.

So if we allow others to lead us astray with their ideas, we could end up with a three-bean side dish rather than the chocolate cookie we wanted. That perspective helps me see that different isn’t better. Yeah, it might be good, but if it’s not what we wanted, the work is kind of pointless. 🙂

I’m glad that your revisions have been going well! And you’re right that great edits or revisions are great because they help us bring our story up to its potential. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, and good luck with the rest of those chapters!

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Julie Glover August 2, 2015 at 4:04 pm

This couldn’t be more timely since I just dealt with editing notes, round #2, from my agent. I’ve agreed with 90%+ of her changes and easily see how they strengthen my story. However, one suggestion was something I simply didn’t want to do because I felt it took away from my goal. Rather than ignore it altogether, I recognized her change pinpointed an underlying problem I had to deal with in some way. If I didn’t want to use her fix, I had to come up with another path for making that scene work for the reader.

Sometimes, when a beta reader, critique partner, agent, or editor suggests a change, the important takeaway is that there is a problem. How to fix the problem might be negotiable, but if it’s not working on the page, something may need to change.

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Jami Gold August 2, 2015 at 10:16 pm

Hi Julie,

Great point! I’ve talked about that issue in other posts, but didn’t touch on it here. As you said, even when we disagree with a suggestion, we still want to see if there’s an underlying problem to fix. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Serena Yung August 6, 2015 at 11:16 am

Hey Jami,

I meant to comment on this post much earlier, but had too much to do lately! Anyway…

Nice way to put it, baking soda vs. walnut changes.

Somewhat related to this, I’ve been re-reading some of the long dialogues in my story for fun, but this re-reading could be useful for my future revisions too. Remember my worry about very long dialogue scenes? Well, from what I re-read and to my memory, these long dialogue scenes fall into these main categories:

1) High sexual/ romantic tension, romance or romantic comedy scene

2) Friendship scene that reveals the relationship between certain friends and the personalities and quirks of these friends.

3) An interpersonal conflict scene, e.g. with friends arguing, not over trivial matters, but over matters that could threaten their friendship. (The” hopefully no one will write any Dear John letters” kind of threat!) There are also for instance scenes of conflict between enemies or characters who just dislike each other.

4) Discussion scene on what to do next, or characters trying to make sense of things or guess what’s happening. These discussion scenes often involve more than two people, and the discussions may or may not include interpersonal conflict. Interpersonal conflict includes straight out arguing, insulting, mocking, criticizing, belittling, etc. And these discussion scenes discuss plot-relevant, usually main plot-relevant things.

In general, I made a rule for myself to never make a scene exceed 5-6 pages, because the reader’s patience can wear out by that time (or even earlier, especially if they aren’t used to books with long dialogue scenes.) However, I do have some dialogue scenes that are 7-10 pages long, some were 15 pages, and there was one that was 20 pages (that I split into two chapters)!

For some of these 7-10 pages ones, I fortunately, did not feel bored re-reading them, because they were romantic/ romantic comedy scenes that had great sexual tension all throughout. Hopefully, the reader would agree with me, lol, but for those specific scenes, I would be dissatisfied as a reader if that scene didn’t last for the whole ten pages, lol! Or maybe I’m just too into romantic comedy exchanges, haha! The long romantic comedy scenes are in fact my favorite scenes in the whole story…

So I’m not too worried about those scenes due to the high romantic/ sexual tension, their relevance to the plot (because it is a romantic comedy, so the romance arcs must progress, lol), how it reveals and develops characters, and how it’s just really pleasant and exciting to read. Reading these scenes makes me feel happy and energized. 😀 My target audience are romantic comedy fans, after all.

For the discussion scenes where a lot of plot (usually main plot) relevant information is discussed, discovered, and imparted, I’m not too worried about them either, because the info is at least necessary to the plot, and readers are usually more engaged if they know that they need to know the info to understand the plot. Plot relevant scenes are also often, or even usually, more engaging than non-plot-related scenes anyway.

For discussion scenes with interpersonal conflict, I’m especially confident about them, because conflict and negativity, hostility between people tend to grab the reader’s attention more than a calmer, no conflict scene. They aren’t just random conflict generated for the sake of conflict either. It’s just that those characters simply dislike each other and both happen to be people who don’t hide their feelings, lol, so whether I like it or not, they will snap at and mock each other when they meet, otherwise they would be out of character, haha.

Another reason why I generally feel good about discussion scenes is because when we see a group of characters interacting, we see what kinds of social roles they tend to fall into. You see that some characters almost always talk the most, some characters are almost always silent (but give sensible or even really good suggestions when they do speak up), some characters are more emotional, some are more calm and analytical, some like to think in extremes (black and white), some like to see the complexities of it all and combine both perspectives to come up with a “third solution”, some people tend to be the most aggressive in pushing a particular stance or solution, some other people tend to be the peacekeepers trying to reach some middle ground, some other people seem to not care or don’t mind or are too cowed to say anything in front of the more hot-headed, fiery characters, lol, and other social roles.

The cool thing is that you see this kind of thing in real life too, and you can start deriving some conclusions on how each character’s personality is like. It’s extra interesting if their behavior is dramatically different with a very different group of people, or when they are with a much smaller group or only with one other person.

You could say that this is an instance where I do like showing instead of telling, for my characters’ personalities, haha. It’s also simply because it’s so entertaining to watch them interact with each other, in pairs, in small groups, and in “the big gang”, lol.

Even the discussion scenes with everyone being pleasant to each other, we can see a lot of character development and revelation, and we learn about specific characters’ relationships with each other. Having no conflict MAY be less gripping to the reader, but it can still be gripping if the reader really likes one, both, several, or all of the characters in the scene, or if the reader is interested in the relationship between these particular characters in this scene. (Don’t we all love it when our favorite character pair, whether romantic or not, get together and have an interaction? I virtually squeal with joy when the characters whose relationship I’m most interested in meet and talk, even if there is no conflict or plot-relevant info. I just want to see how their relationship is like and how it will develop.)

My guess is that readers would in general be most interested in the interactions between the romance couples, though there are some friend pairs that people may be intrigued by. I personally love certain sibling pairs, and interactions between a parent and child can be really nice to read too. 😀

Anyhow, I’m not too worried about long discussion scenes, because of the character and relationship revelation opportunities, sometimes interpersonal conflict, and all the plot-relevant info. I may be less confident about scenes with no interpersonal conflict, but at least we still have the plot-relevant info and character and relationship revelation points, and if the reader likes those characters or specific character pairs, then the scene could still be gripping.

However, what do you think of this? If I keep all the plot-relevant info conveyed in the dialogue exchanges, then it keeps the scene animated and energetic, and quite quick because dialogue feels faster than narrative. Yet, I worry if the dialogue scene is TOO long, like that fifteen-page dialogue I have that talked about the core plot issues of the book. (Specifically it was all about the main villain and what to expect from them.)

Having it all in dialogue makes it interesting because I can see all these character interactions, and often learn more about individual characters because I sometimes dive into their minds and reveal things about their feelings, beliefs, personality, etc. But if the readers get too much of one thing for too long, i.e. a 10-15 page dialogue scene, would (at least some) readers get tired of it?

So I considered summarizing some of the plot-relevant info in narrative. Having some passages of narrative interspersed with the dialogue would give the reader more variety to experience while in the scene. But I thought of the opposite problem, which is: would this narrative summary of that plot-relevant info bog down the pace too much? Since it’s basically exposition?

More generally, I have conflicted (sort of pun!) feelings about putting exposition in dialogue vs. in narrative. If the info I need to know is spoken by a character, I as a reader tend to be more patient and attentive, whereas if it’s in the narrative, I’m more tempted to skim it if I can. But at the same time, if a character takes a long time to explain something, even if their dialogue is neatly separated into multiple bite-sized paragraphs, I can get impatient too. On the contrary, I might actually be more patient with multi-paragraphed narrative, because I expect narrative paragraphs to be longer than dialogue ones in general.

I do try my best to punctuate long (almost) monologues with quips, responses, reactions, and questions from other characters, to keep it spiced up and interesting, but sometimes even with that we feel that this “exposition” is taking a very long time.

Of course, I could try to only turn very short bits of dialogue into narrative paragraphs, so I would only have a short narrative passage each time. I saw one book do that and indeed the scene looks more varied, with dialogue interspersed with narration and indirect discourse. But I must admit that the pace kind of bogged down even during those short moments. And as there were A LOT of these short narrative and indirect discourse moments alternating with direct dialogue, the pace of the entire scene got slowed down overall. The scene still wasn’t “slow” per se, yet I couldn’t help but feel that putting approx. half of the exchanges in narrative or indirect discourse instead of in direct quotations, made the scene a lot less quick and less exciting than it could have been.

So argh! There’s my multi-sided dilemma! There are problems in every method. What do you think of this complicated issue? lol.

BTW I know a lot of people advise “peppering” info in little bits here and there instead of doing backstory or info dumps, yet this is much easier said than done! Sometimes you just want the reader to receive all the info right now, and not need to delay anything. I’m still thinking about what to do with my epic “backstory” dump (lol) that lasts 4 chapters, i.e., 44 pages.

This “epic backstory dump” occurs somewhere right in the middle of the story, and the characters featured in the backstories are characters that already appeared beforehand, and are mysterious characters, so hopefully the readers would be as feverishly curious about them and their backstory as I was when I wrote it.

Not sure about other readers, but when I see a character with such a mysterious aura, or who has so many uncanny, strange things about them that are still not explained, I get really excited when I finally see “the backstory that explains everything.” Lol. And I remember telling you about the “adrenalin rush” effect of tying up many loose ends at once.

Sorry, that was such a long tangent, haha, but it just shows how the issue can be a lot more complex than just “pepper the backstory in little bits here and there.” I remember proposing some solutions for this problem in one of my comments on one of your posts, and I don’t remember what I proposed, lol, so I should go back and look for it. I really should save it in a file somewhere.

Okay back to the topic of long dialogue scenes, I’ll stop discussing the discussion scenes, lol, and move on to the last two types: the friendship dialogue scenes and the interpersonal conflict scenes.

Well, I’m not really worried about the latter, because interpersonal conflict is quite gripping, especially if the conflict is on important matters, and most, if not all, of my “interpersonal conflict scenes” are on important matters. E.g. On a possible friendship breakup if character x continues to do y. E.g. 2: On an unrequited love frustration. D:

However, what if even the conflict, plot/ subplot progression (the issues at stake are related to relationship plots or subplots), and character development and revelations aren’t enough to engage the reader through ten pages? I thought of a few possible solutions, one of which was to turn some of the dialogue into indirect discourse or even into narrative summaries, to make the scene look more varied, as mentioned above.

Another solution is to split up the long dialogue scene into two or more scenes, so the readers can cheer when they reach a scene break early. XD Just joking, I hope the dialogue engages them enough so they wouldn’t feel that way, haha, but it would probably still give them a brief break to rest before continuing. It’s like how you’re listening to this fascinating but intellectual talk that lasts two hours. You love the talk, the speaker is engaging, yet physically you feel tired in the middle of it and you gradually lose concentration. However, if they put in a brief fifteen-minute break in the middle of the talk, then the happy audience is refreshed before sitting down to listen to the wonderful talk again.

Not saying that my dialogues are necessarily fascinating to everyone, just saying that even the most amazing of talks can become dull and a drag if they last too long, just because the audience physically can’t concentrate for so long and will get tired of your talk or scene, lol.

Well…I will think of something to handle each specific scene! But yeah those are the two ways I thought of to deal with really long dialogue scenes. Oh wait one more way is to crank up the emotion. I already like inserting brief emotion or psychological passages talking about the character’s fear, worry, hope, personality quirk, etc. So I could somehow do more of these, without overdoing them to bog down the pace too much or to make them too disruptive of the dialogue flow.

Emotion, especially negative emotion, tends to help me stay hooked to a long dialogue scene, whereas dialogue scenes with little emotion could become dull and tiresome to me. (I believe I told you about a book I read with this issue, and how I recognized the power of emotion to keep me engaged.)

Okay, so the last type of long dialogue scene is the friendship interaction scenes. I personally love them because I love friendship interactions and anything that promotes the beauty of friendship, haha, but I’m not sure if all readers will like it, especially if the scene is ten pages long.

In these scenes, when friends chat or talk about things, we REALLY see who they are as people because it again reveals their personality and quirks, e.g. their specific beliefs, interests, likes, dislikes, their preferred ways of interacting with others, etc. And again, these scenes show you in detail how the relationship is like between a certain two or several friends. I personally LOVE this kind of thing, but that doesn’t guarantee that everyone else will enjoy it too. So I could use some of the above techniques in making long dialogue scenes more palatable, putting in more emotion, splitting it into two or more smaller scenes, or changing some direct dialogue into indirect discourse or narrative summary.

Sorry for such a long comment, but haha you can see me “thinking out loud” on how to do my revisions. These were more walnut revisions, but some MAY become baking soda revisions, who knows? D: And man, yeah I want to dramatically shorten my book too, so something will have to be done about that but I’m not sure what, lol. Hope I’ll know when I come to edit my story.

P.S. This is related to my post on reading “bad” books: Another thing that I sometimes feel an author could improve on, is to make a very likable character even more likable, by deleting some unnecessary sentences that put the character in a bad light.

Have you ever read a book where you’re so in love with this character, yet once or a few times during the story, they say, think, or do something that is unnecessary to the plot that lowers them in your estimation? Well, I suggest that the author simply delete these sentences since they are unnecessary to the plot AND make their lovely character less lovely. It’s okay to have unflattering sentences if it’s something core to the character’s personality, psyche, or the plot, but if it’s just something extra, please take it away, haha.

Some writers would probably disagree with me, thinking this approach would be dishonest and would make a character look better than they really are by hiding (some of) their flaws. I understand this perspective, as I feel conflicted about wanting to be “honest” about my character (admit he’s not perfect! 🙁 ), but also wanting to put him in the most positive light possible. As well, if he has some unflattering moments, he would seem more “realistic” to readers.

Well in that case, maybe the solution would be to include SOME unflattering sentences showing that this guy (or girl) is flawed and “realistic”, but to remove all sentences that are unflattering in a more damaging way. So you could show that they are flawed in ways that aren’t very important or that wouldn’t bother you (too much), but conceal those flaws that would REALLY lower the character in your estimation. And I don’t mean lowering it from “perfect saint” to “a realistic human being”, but from “a really awesome amazing guy” to “a guy who has cool sides, but this flaw of his is such a shame! Such a disappointment!”

P.S. 2: On how writers may enjoy books less because they can see areas of improvement in the book, it’s strange that this doesn’t spoil my enjoyment! Instead of thinking, ” 🙁 the author could work more on this and that”, I think, “This is a great book, and the author could improve on this and that, but that’s okay because books will never be perfect. Also, since I was able to spot these areas of improvement in the first place, this means my ability to spot weaknesses has improved! (This ability had been pretty weak before, no pun intended.) And since I see these weaknesses, I learned something new and I’m going to avoid doing this when I edit my own stories. :D”

So yeah, I actually feel rather positively when I see things that can be improved on in a story. It’s also like “yay this amazing story is not perfect after all! I could improve it!” The pretending to be an editor or beta reader phenomenon, lol.

Yeah it might sound strange to you, but nowadays when I read a novel, I pretend to be the author’s beta reader, lol, which helps me spot a lot of both strengths and weaknesses in the story, especially in the concrete details and specific instances.

I don’t know. So maybe having a “no book is perfect, so seeing room for improvement is good, because you can make a great book even better” attitude would help writers enjoy reading books more?

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Jami Gold August 6, 2015 at 5:41 pm

Hi Serena,

Too much to do? I have no idea what that’s like. LOL!

Hmm, in reading your description, I had a thought… In genre stories (especially of the romance variety), most of our scenes are going to be centered on dialogue. So I don’t think long dialogue exchanges themselves are a problem.

The thing I’d recommend is making sure that you’re mixing in other elements, like narrative descriptions or action so it’s not just “talking heads.” 🙂 (And you might already do this. I just couldn’t remember if we’ve talked about it before or not.)

For example, a scene where two people are talking while doing dishes is automatically going to have more energy/motion/interest than when they just sit on the couch. (Although I have “couch scenes,” I mix in action for sexual tension or the topic itself is filled with tension and body reactions, etc. That mix is what’s important.)

The only time it would be a problem, I think, is if the scene is going on for pages, and they’re essentially just “shooting the breeze” without forward momentum for the story/plot itself. Or if there aren’t any non-dialogue paragraphs mixed in a couple times a page.

Do you remember my post about the two-paragraph guideline? That’s basically what I’m talking about here. A few paragraphs of dialogue, then an action paragraph, or an introspection/internal reaction/emotion paragraph, etc. As long as you do that, it shouldn’t feel too bogged down, and as you guessed, that’d usually be much better than giving exposition. 🙂

On the other hand, I’ve had to tighten/cut conflict dialogue scenes, just because they felt too repetitive (not enough new). So it’s always tricky to find the right balance.

One thing we can do to avoid the repetitive issue is think about what traits we want the reader to see, or what relationship dynamics, etc. Then if we have multiple scenes showing those same traits or dynamics, they will feel repetitive unless there’s a lot else new going on in the scene. (Meaning: That “reveal character/relationship” element does not count for the goal of trying to have enough important elements for the scene.)

So if we want to show that person A cares about person B but is scared to tell them, we don’t need multiple scenes showing the same thing unless we’re adding additional layers (realizations of love and not just caring, other scene elements, etc.). We don’t need multiple scenes of showing the same conflict between two characters unless there’s a change, etc.

Those changes are what keeps the sense of forward momentum, but if it feels like a rehash of the same traits or issues, the pacing stalls. Does that help?

As far as being “dishonest” about our characters… As a fellow pantser, I know what you mean about feeling the need to be true to our characters. 🙂

That said, I often have to tone down certain sentences or situations. It might just be a word change from one with a negative connotation to one more neutral. In other words, the flaw is still there, but it’s less harsh.

I think making sure that readers have the impression we want is being honest. We typically love our characters so much that it’s easy to forgive them, but if we can tone down a certain aspect that would create an extreme negative emotion in readers (that we don’t intend), that’s not being honest to the story. That’s IMHO anyway. LOL!

Oh! I like that attitude of being happy about knowing how to improve a story. You’re right that it’s a very important skill. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung August 6, 2015 at 9:42 pm

Thanks for your helpful tips, Jami! I copied and pasted them onto an MS Word doc and feel more confident dealing with these scenes now, lol!

Oh nice way to think of it–being honest to the story. And it may surprise you that I actually forgot that I would be concerned about this “honesty” issue partly because I’m a pantser! I.e. For a moment, I assumed that everyone , not just pantsers, would want to not lie or hide anything about their characters, haha.

“Too much to do? I have no idea what that’s like. LOL!”

HAHA! Yeah, I have never heard of “being crazy busy” either. And it is extremely easy to sleep early. 😉 LOL!!!

Yeah I’m really happy and proud of myself that I’m a much, much better beta reader than I was before. I notice so many more things and have more opinions too, lol.

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Jami Gold August 7, 2015 at 12:42 pm

Yay! I’m happy to help, Serena. 😀

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Dani September 15, 2015 at 2:40 pm

Love the concept of “Baking Soda” changes. I just went through a month of soul-searching to decide if I should essentially swap my main plot and my sub plot, after a year of feedback from readers who don’t believe the character would act based on the main plot. In the end I decided they’re right– just because the concept was my first idea doesn’t mean it’s the best idea for the book. Essentially I think it *needs* baking powder instead of backing soda. It is painful, though, to rework so much of what I had hoped was near completion. Just another reason to not waste time on superficial editing before you’re sure the ‘bones’ are sound.

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Jami Gold September 15, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Hi Dani,

Oh no! I’m so sorry you’re having to face that situation. *fingers crossed* that it all works out for a better story!

And you’re so right about how “polishing a turd” just wastes time. 😉 The bones need to be good first. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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