Final Paint and Wax Job for Fiction:
A Complete Checklist for the Obsessive Compulsive
~ by Ellen Brundige
Flag "check this" words during initial sweeps, those details on which it's easy to make a mistake.
Examples: canonical names, terms from fanfiction source; Elvish; words with accents
TIDY STORY STRUCTURE.
Check each of these separately, in its own sweep.
- Incomplete scenes you meant to come back and finish later.
- Sequence of scenes: write one-line summary of mood, theme, the point of each scene. Collate these in separate document. Examine for redundancy, monotony of tone, pacing, vagueness, irrelevence of scenes. BE HONEST. Act accordingly.
- Remove excess angst-scenes.
- Mentally define length of time between and during scenes. Make sure it's plausible. Then make sure it's clear.
- For parts that parallel real events or those in fanfiction-source, check your sequence against canon. (If you've made a change, know why.)
- Define geography. Make sure it's clear where things are happening, getting from point A to B.
Go back and examine each scene alone. Do a few each sitting; this is time-consuming. Check the following details individually or perhaps 2-4 related "checks" in each pass.
- Incomplete lines or spots you meant to finish later.
- Details to aid visualization of scene. Be careful not to add too much and make it unwieldy or dragging, but consider:
- Atmosphere (literal and metaphorical), time of day, weather.
- Geography. Mentally define setting, space, furniture/objects. Embed characters' movements in 3D space.
- Clothing, physical description of characters. These folks aren't nekkid!
- Gestures, movements. Too many "he nods" create bobble-heads. Mentally or literally act out scene, then describe your movements, expressions, tone of voice. Remember people interact physically, not just verbally.
- Jot down/remember details of recurring settings, clothes, items. You may need them again for this part of checklist.
- Sound, style, and pacing:
- Read through for proper paragraph breaks and "grouping" of blocks of text. It needs to be like a stone wall, with different-sized chunks, rather than a brick wall with tediously similar ones, or a bed of gravel with tiny choppy ones.
- Check general flow and pacing.
- Vary dialogue. Don't always have "he said" at same spot in line. Intersperse non-speech bits with speech to avoid Talking Heads.
- Make sure characters each act and sound like themselves, and different from one another. (VITAL step. Don't skip this one.)
- Humor: make sure it's not forced. Make sure everything isn't always deadly serious.
- Formality. My style tends to be formal. I try to "casualize" parts that don't need it. You may have reverse problem.
- Ditch repeated phrases or words whenever possible.
- Vary prepositions. "at the same spot in the line," not "in the same spot in the line."
- Read it aloud. Takes forever, but if you stumble over a line, it's better to reword it until it doesn't take effort to read it without tripping. People mentally trip over awkward sentences.
- PRUNE BAD HABITS. Prune, not eradicate. Use them sparingly. Seek other ways to achieve same effect.
- Overuse of certain words (e.g. "softly").
- Overly dramatic or fancy language.
- Melodrama, angst.
- "Punchline" sentences. (short, dramatic lines in own paragraph. "There was no answer.")
- Telepathy. Characters guessing others' thoughts, reader put in a character's head. I frequently have to exorcise Deanna Troi from my protagonists.
- Narrator commentary. Don't tell reader how to take something. Make text speak for itself.
- Unneeded context, backstory. Unless reader needs info to comprehend scene, kill the tour guide.
- Kill Mary Sue. Got a main character? The world still doesn't revolve around her. Also, people who mostly talk about themselves are aggravating, not appealling.
- Prune unnecessary words. Don't do this unless you tend to say too much. I've started forcing myself to cut any phrases I can bear to cut, or at least make them more compact.
- Remove scene-summaries, editorial marks, orange safety cones, tape.
- Proofread grammar, spelling, punctuation, quotation marks, paragraph breaks.
- Kill ellipses and m-dashes wherever they breed.
- Look for dropped words. It's easy to snip something you didn't mean to when editing.
- Check formatting (italics, codes specific to the bulletin board on which you're posting).
Wait til later, then...
- See if "oh, I forgot to...!" thoughts occur to you.
- Read through as a reader, not an editor; just enjoy the story. If anything pops you out of reader-mode and back into critic-mode, it needs a polish.
General rules of thumb
- Never tell the reader about something if you can show it. Action and story should speak for itself.
- Nobody is perfect. (In the book, Aragorn's partly to blame for Weathertop fiasco.) Make sure characters goof up, lose their temper, forget something, or miss. Readers love figuring things out before characters do. Super-characters rapidly go stale.
- While writing or proofing, in order not to lose my train of thought, I'll flag things with *** which I don't want to deal with now but need to later. (Any flag will do; the other writers in my family use "gumby").
- Usefulness of any checklist is proportional to how honest, and how stern, you are with yourself.
- Remember the writer's proverb, "kill your darlings", meaning phrases, scenes, and details that are there only because you enjoyed writing them. I always wind up with an appendix or separate file of early brainstorming, alternate versions of scenes, and cutting-room floor scraps so that, in my mind, I haven't "lost" them. It's the only way I can force myself to be a stern editor.
The pay-off: sharing it with friends
- Resist the urge to tell them about it as much as you can. Brief intro is fine, but LET THE STORY SPEAK FOR ITSELF.
- The story is good even if no one ever sees it, or says much about it. Don't force your writing on people; they will not like it more or give more feedback if pushed. Be patient. Over time, you'll probably pick up a few more readers, but never enough to make it "worth" the labor if that's the only form of "worth" your heart recognizes.
- The only really effective way to attract readers is to write something so good they can't put it down. Your writing improves with practice, so every story is a journey towards this goal.
- The ache of "all that work and for what? Two readers?" goes away. I promise. Okay, sometimes it takes over a year, but it will go away. You must not write for money, fame, or recognition, or you will kill yourself. Write because you love what you write.
- (Yeah, right.) A compromise. Rather than hammering people to read, post it several different places which don't have the same reader-pool. But remember where, and take it down after a while except at "home base". Remember that if it's actually popular this runs the risk of people redistributing it, and/or making it unpublishable, and/or embarrassing you later.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Now the chances of me actually doing all this are zilch, but they're things to keep in mind. Hopefully by revealling my bad habits you won't start noticing them in my writing!
"I know, I know. It's a Russian thing. When we're about to do something stupid, we like to catalogue the full extent of our stupidity for future reference." ~ Susan Ivanova, B5