Advice for Writers

  • Too much internal dialogue?

    Too much internal dialogue?
    Too much internal dialogue?

    One of the mainstream published novels I read recently had far too much internal dialogue. Internal dialogue is the stream of thoughts, which can be in monologue or dialogue, that many people have in real life. Though, interestingly, not everyone experiences internal dialogue.

    In fiction, showing a viewpoint character’s thoughts is an excellent way to strengthen characterisation. We can see the character’s changing emotions and thoughts, the questions they ask themself, their hopes and doubts.

    Internal dialogue shows us the interior life of a character, adding an extra dimension to a story.

    However, too much will interrupt scenes, cause lengthy breaks in external dialogue or action which can lead to readers struggling to pick up the story again. Too much will also slow down pacing.

    Imagine a scene where a conversation is taking place, and the conversation is constantly interrupted by an extended section of internal dialogue. The character might ruminate over what’s being said, and that’s fine and good, but if it goes on too long the external scene becomes fragmented and hard to follow.

    In the case of the gothic thriller I was reading, the internal dialogue also added far too much unnecessary word count.

    I think part of the issue was that the author was often using internal dialogue to emphasise the stakes, as if they didn’t trust the reader to work it out for themselves. But it would run on too long and become counterproductive.

    Stakes should add to tension and pacing in more dramatic scenes, but stringing out the internal dialogue actually blows the pace. The author’s editor could have suggested cutting it back. I could see loads of places where cutting it back would boost not just pacing but the stakes by keeping things more focused.

    I’ve read two books by this author and felt both were failed by the lack of proper developmental editing. There were also other issues including weak characterisation in relation to other characters. It was hard sometimes to tell the other characters apart. Less bloated sections of internal dialogue could have made room for better drawn characters.

    After I finished both novels, I checked the Amazon reviews and many other readers had the same issues.

    Do you want feedback on your novel?

    I’m currently open to new clients. And I’m adding a new version of my Opening Chapters Edit service. Previously this was always a developmental edit, featuring a report and comments in the margins of your manuscript. However, I’m also offering a manuscript critique version. This is basically just a report with no margin comments.

    If you’re interested in either of these services, or a full developmental edit or manuscript critique, you can check out my services page here.

    Or you can email me at karen@indiecateditorial.com to discuss your manuscript and what you’re looking for.

  • How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby

    How developmental editing feedback improved The Great Gatsby.
    How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby

    When Scott Fitzgerald heard his first novel This Side of Paradise was accepted, he immediately quit his job (repairing the roofs of railroad cars), and ran down the streets, stopping automobiles and friends to tell them the news.

    His novel had been accepted by the traditionally conservative New York publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons. And although Scott had sent previous drafts of the novel to Maxwell Perkins there, acceptance of This Side of Paradise marked the beginning of a professional relationship that would last for two decades.

    Soon F. Scott Fitzgerald would become the voice of a generation – forever associated with the Jazz Age and flappers.

    And Maxwell Perkins would go on to work with Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, making him possibly the most famous and influential fiction editor in history.

    Scott’s last letter to his editor, Max Perkins, was dated December 13th 1940. Scott died later that month from a heart attack. His final novel, The Last Tycoon, was left unfinished.

    The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel. It was preceded by This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned and followed by Tender is the Night. Additionally, his Jazz Age short stories solidified his reputation.

    Maxwell Perkins

    Perkins was exceedingly gifted at inspiring an author to produce their best work. While he could help with structure, think up plots and titles where needed, Perkins had a credo: “The book belongs to the author.”

    He also long avoided the spotlight believing that editors should be invisible, both for the benefit of the author and the public. To be visible could erode trust in the work or the writer involved.

    If you have a Mark Twain, he said, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare.

    But in Fitzgerald Max Perkins was dealing with a perfectionist. Consequently, there was less advice needed compared to some others. Nevertheless, as well as dishing out support, cheques against future earnings, and exchanges on other up and coming authors, Perkins would also give editorial feedback.

    In this blog post, I’ll specifically deal with his editorial commentary on the original draft he saw of Gatsby. Perkins would later say of the novel, his favourite Fitzgerald novel, that it was “as perfect a thing as I ever had any share in publishing.’

    What to call the third novel?

    Correspondence between Perkins and Fitzgerald shows Scott trying out different titles for the book. Some of these titles seem distinctly odd now: Trimalchio in West Egg is perhaps one of the least strange. Other suggestions included:

    Trimalchio

    Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires

    On the Road to West Egg

    Gold-hatted Gatsby

    Gatsby

    The High-bouncing Lover

    Under the Red, White and Blue

    While Scott worried over the title and was still fond of Trimalchio, this choice did not go down well with most of those at Scribner’s. And although The Great Gatsby ultimately won out, Scott felt the title wanting in some way.

    The editorial feedback

    There is a Cambridge edition of the early Gatsby manuscript, titled Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby. It also contains notes and two letters from Perkins. The value of this draft of Gatsby is in seeing what differs from the final version.

    For anyone particularly familiar with Gatsby, there will be obvious changes. However, the novel that most people know is still very much there.

    Previously, the novel Fitzgerald was writing was far longer, but he removed a lot of material. There is a long story called Absolution that was cut from the Gatsby narrative. By the time the first draft arrived on Perkins’ desk, the manuscript (Trimalchio) was very similar to the end product.

    Maxwell wrote back to Fitzgerald full of enthusiasm. Dear Scott, he wrote, I think the novel is a wonder. He goes on to say it has vitality and glamour.

    He brought up the issue of the title, which no one at the publisher liked but him. This letter was brief since he intended to take the novel home and read it again, before writing his impressions in full.

    His second letter was a bit longer, but it did not amount to what might be a modern manuscript critique. This is partly because Fitzgerald had already cut a lot out of his novel and shaped it before sending Perkins the first draft he saw. This was Scott’s third novel, so he knew what he was doing and was already a perfectionist.

    Perkins opens the second letter with, “I think you have every kind of right to be proud of this book.” He goes on to praise the use of a spectator narrator in Nick Carraway, which gives the readers more perspective on what is happening than the characters at the heart of the book. The eyes of Dr Eckleberg also look down on events.

    When it comes to actual criticisms, Perkins makes only a few points. He was not a very hands-on editor with Fitzgerald. He never wanted to impose his own vision and he was dealing with an exceptionally talented writer.

    The criticisms make perfect sense and while tiny in number, they do make an important difference.

    First of all Scott had worried that there was a slight sagging in chapters six and seven. Perkins agreed with him but didn’t offer a suggestion other than to say he knew Scott would come up with something to fix the pacing.

    Describing Gatsby

    One major difference between the first draft Perkins saw and the published version relates to the scene where Nick first finds himself looking at Gatsby.

    He was only a little older than me – somehow I had expected a florid and corpulent person in his middle years – yet he was somehow not a young man at all. There was a stiff dignity about him, and a formality of speech that just missed being absurd, that always trembled on the verge of absurdity until you wondered why you didn’t laugh. I got the distinct impression that he was picking his words with care.

    After that, Gatsby is distracted by his butler and leaves.

    Readers familiar with Gatsby will remember a more memorable description that more clearly outlines his youth. Perkins pointed out that Tom Buchanan was so well described that he’d know him if he met him on the street. By contrast, “Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim.

    While much about Gatsby is a mystery, Perkins felt that he should be described in as much detail as the others.

    Perkins adds that two people at the publishing house thought Gatsby was older than he was, even with the statement that the man was only a little older than Nick.

    In a later response to Perkins, Scott admitted that he himself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in (the nature of his business). He’d originally thought this was okay, but it was of course one of the problems Perkins picked up on.

    Here is the final version that Scott came up with:

    He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.

    Gatsby’s business

    Another point Perkins made related to the mysterious nature of Gatsby’s business. He clearly had a business relationship with Wolfsheim but the reader would still be puzzled by all his wealth.

    It wasn’t that Perkins wanted Fitzgerald to go into detail about the source of his money. But he thought the reader would wonder about it and that it would make sense to drop in hints here and there “that would suggest he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

    Perkins went on to say that the total lack of an explanation “through so large a part of the story does seem to me a defect.” Even the suggestion of an explanation would do. The details of what Gatsby is engaged in didn’t need to be outlined, including whether he was an innocent tool of someone else or not. But there did need to be more evidence of his activities.

    In his response letter (which can be read in Dear Scott/Dear Max), Scott said, “Gatsby’s business affairs I can fix. I get your point about them.

    And indeed in the next draft he does drop in more evidence of mysterious business activities that do not in any way undermine the mystery of Gatsby himself. The reader can fill in some of the remaining gaps themself.

    In a later letter Perkins (in Dear Scott/Dear Max) brought the subject up again, referring to the fact Gatsby was supposed to be a bootlegger – a little bit here and there about the bootlegging might be what’s needed.

    Gatsby’s biography

    In the earlier draft, the story of Gatsby’s background appears in chapter eight. Perkins felt that the way it was given to the narrator departs from the narrative technique in the rest of the book. Elsewhere, “everything is told, and beautifully told, in the regular flow of it, – in the succession of events or in accompaniment with them.” Dumping the backstory where it appears in the earlier draft interrupts the flow of the novel. Perkins thought it better to sprinkle the information bit by bit through the course of the narrative.

    In a later letter to Max, Scott listed his changes – that he’d brought Gatsby to life, accounted for his money, fixed up the two weak chapters (six and seven), improved his first party, and broken up the long narrative relating to Gatsby’s history.

    The outcome

    Although Scott still dithered over the title of the book – mentioning Gold-hatted Gatsby in a March 1925 letter – he also felt that Trimalchio might have been best after all. But it was The Great Gatsby that appeared in bookstores on April 10th 1925.

    Scott’s letters to Perkins show his nervousness, fear, and foreboding. He worried women wouldn’t like the book because it had no important woman in it. And he thought the critics wouldn’t like it because it dealt with the rich and “had no peasants borrowed out of Tess and sent to work in Idaho.

    He also worried that he wouldn’t sell enough to cover his debt to Scribner’s since they had often loaned him money in advance.

    Even on the day of the release, Scott was picking over the faults he could still see in the novel. Nevertheless, he considered the first five chapters and parts of the seventh and eighth to be the best things he’d ever done.

    Unfortunately, sales did not take off as hoped. The fact the book was around 50,000 words and therefore shorter than what the trade preferred did not help. At least two big distributors reduced their orders considerably at the last minute.

    Scott reflected that the title was only fair, “rather bad than good“. And he still considered the lack of an important woman character to be an issue since “women control the fiction market at present.”

    In the end, the book would establish itself as one of the greats of modern American literature and cement Fitzgerald’s reputation. But it didn’t happen overnight.

    Reference material

    Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby – The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by James W. L. West III

    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald- Perkins Correspondence – edited by John Kuehl and Jackson Bryer (out of print so check eBay)

    Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg

    Looking for editorial feedback yourself?

    Whether you’re a beginner writer like Fitzgerald once was, or you have more experience, editorial feedback offers a fresh insight into your characters, plot, story structure and more.

    There are different levels of feedback. I offer an Opening Chapters Developmental edit, a Manuscript Critique, a Beta Critique (a bit shorter and cheaper than a Manuscript Critique), or a full Developmental Edit.

    If you have any custom requests, feel free to contact me at karen@indiecateditorial.com or you can check my services page link below:

    My editing services page.

  • Terrified of reading your work in public?

    Terrified of Reading Your Work in Public?
    Terrified of Reading Your Work in Public?

    Terrified of reading your work in public? You should be. You’re a writer, not an actor!

    Unless of course you’re both. In which case you can stop reading now and do something else.

    There are many intimidating moments in a writer’s life. Getting the first feedback on your novel, hearing back from agents or editors. Reading reviews. The horror!

    Or having to stand up in public and read out your work. More horror!

    While author events are more associated with the mainstream publishing industry, indie authors too can read their work to a live audience.

    Some authors thrive in the spotlight, enjoying the opportunity to interact with readers or potential readers.

    But for other authors, standing in front of an audience represents death by a thousand cuts.

    It’s true that actors and musicians can be introverted in their private lives, then miraculously switch on for an audience. Prince would be an example of this – extroverted on stage, introverted and quiet-spoken in private.

    It’s easier of course when you’ve had a lot of experience performing, or even some training.

    Writers tend not to have any training in acting or performing.

    Is it worth taking acting classes ahead of a reading? Possibly.

    However, there are other ways to approach a reading. The obvious one would be to avoid reading in public altogether! But not so fast… You might want to scurry back into your author’s burrow, but that doesn’t get your work out to the public.

    Plus, if you attend an author’s event as a writer, the audience has made the effort to turn up. So you might as well make the effort to entertain them – and no, I don’t mean by falling off the stage or giving the worst reading in the history of worst readings!

    If you’ve been avoiding reading events, it’s time to develop some decent reading chops. No more sorry excuses. No more turning up to read, and quietly droning into the microphone until you finally get the damn thing over and sit down… hoping you didn’t humiliate yourself too much.

    There is an answer to this problem and it comes in two words:

    Anthony Hopkins

    Yes, you’re going to get some important tips from a master of acting. And you don’t need to become a master of acting yourself to benefit from this advice.

    In interviews, Anthony Hopkins has revealed he memorises his lines 250 times. He’s absorbing the text, ensuring that he really really knows it well. He describes 250 as a magical silly number. Yet something happens when he goes over the text so many times. By knowing the text so well, he has all the information he needs and his brain can relax.

    He goes on to say in one interview that once you’re relaxed, you can go on the stage and improvise within that text. He describes ‘becoming so free you get into the zone‘. Once he’s memorised the script, he puts it aside. He also advises putting ego aside if possible, and managing emotions and remembering that less is more in a performance.

    I’ve added some links below to interviews he’s given if you want to explore this some more. But the bottom line is that his advice can also apply to reading your own novel to an audience.

    How to prepare for your readings in advance

    This is very important. You should not start preparing just before a reading. Instead, you should start before your novel is even published. Going through the final draft, begin selecting passages you’d want to read to an audience. Most likely your opening pages, but you might have one or two other passages you also want to read.

    It’s worth remembering that these passages should act as a hook to reel in potential readers in the audience.

    Your reading is partly a marketing effort and it’s always worth remembering that.

    Begin memorising the final draft of these passages. Follow Hopkins’ example and do it over and over it again, many times.

    In the case of Hopkins, he’s absorbing the words to the point where the words are second nature, and this likely helps bring his facial expressions, body language and internal emotion into line with what he’s saying.

    An author doesn’t need to memorise to the point where they go on a stage and recite without the novel in front of them. In the case of a reading, it’s about absorbing the language until the words become second nature.

    You will be less likely to trip over words, lose your place on the page, and you will also likely become more immersed in the story. This in turn can help with feeling self-conscious.

    It can also ward off the kind of physical tension that can kick in and restrict your voice. Nerves and reading in a formal setting can lead to tension in the throat. This in turn can lead to a tendency to drone.

    But if you really know your material and can relax, you should find it easier to modulate tone and emotion in your voice.

    There’s a difference between reading text that you’re just scanning from a page, and reciting something you know so well that you get swept up in it and your voice can better modulate emotion.

    Rhythm, pauses, emphasis

    Once you’ve really memorised the passages you’ve chosen, to the point where you could recite them in your sleep, play with pauses, word emphasis, speeding up and slowing down speech.

    In a video essay on Anthony Hopkins, relating to a particular scene from Westworld, there’s an analysis of speed and pauses in his speech. I’ve linked to this video essay at the end of this blog post, so you can check it out for yourself.

    You too can experiment with how to break down your text and where to emphasise a word, include a pause or even a gesture, etc. And you can use highlighters or underlines to help you remember, if necessary. Look also for rhythm. Try tapping it out where it’s important in a text, then use it as a guide to how you might read that line.

    Costume

    Of course the reading itself is only part of the deal. What do you look like? Are you like most writers – ie, do you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards?

    You might be tempted to buy new clothes for your reading. (Let’s face it, any excuse to buy new clothes is an opportunity not to be passed up.)

    And there’s nothing wrong with splashing out on that eighteenth century dress in red silk brocade for your historical bodice ripper reading. In fact, the audience will never forget the effort you made.

    Never.

    They will remember it for years to come.

    But remember that if you’re wearing uncomfortable new clothes or clothes that leave you feeling self-conscious, you are making things harder for yourself.

    You can wear something different, including period costume, but make sure you walk around in those clothes (and shoes) a bit before you do your reading.

    Wear them to the point where you hardly notice the way they fit on your body. Make sure they’re also comfortable enough for the reading.

    It’s like costume rehearsals. The more comfortable you feel in your clothes, the less awkward you’ll feel on the stage. Own your costume, even if it’s just your usual jeans and sweater.

    And another thing…

    Own the stage

    When you arrive at the venue, see if you can visit the stage and walk around it a bit. Get a feel for the space. Don’t be afraid of it.

    Also, don’t huddle tightly into a small space behind the microphone or lectern when you’re performing. And stand up straight – body posture impacts emotions and your ability to project your voice.

    Video and audio readings

    Of course, you don’t have to turn up in person to do a reading. You could make a video – again, make sure you really know your text beforehand. If you’re camera shy, you could go straight to audio or use images that match your story to accompany your voice. This allows you to get more creative.

    You can also post readings to social media – be aware that if you have Twitter verification, you can post much longer videos. The algorithms like video content.

    Still terrified of reading your work in public?

    While reading in public for the first time can be a frightening experience, it’s not unusual to get a post-reading thrill. You might even wish you could go up and do it again. It all depends on how it went.

    And how your reading pans out will depend on the amount of preparation you put in.

    Don’t leave things to the last minute and wing it.

    Don’t see it as a painful rite of passage you have to go through for each book.

    Learn your text, prepare, and give it your best shot. This is your chance to win over the audience – especially if you’re appearing alongside other writers.

    Some of the audience will be there to see and hear someone else.

    Make sure that when they leave, it’s YOU they’ll remember and talk about.

    References

    Anthony Hopkins about his acting philosophy – particularly look for the section 10 minutes in called ‘Working on the text’.

    Westworld: What makes Anthony Hopkins great – video essay by Nerdwriter1

    Other IndieCat blogs you might find useful

    Services

    And if you’re interested in getting feedback on your novel, feel free to check out my services page. You can also contact me if you have a particular custom service in mind.

    Click for services page here.

  • When publishers drop the ball

    When publishers drop the ball.
    When publishers drop the ball

    I recently read a domestic noir thriller in which a woman found herself with a new neighbour. The neighbour from hell. A woman out for revenge who wreaks havoc on the main character and her group of friends. I’m not going to name the book or the author because this blog is not meant to target them. Instead, I wanted to examine some of the issues in the novel that should have been picked up by a developmental editor. Because this is one example of what happens when publishers drop the ball and don’t do their job.

    Since this novel had a mainstream publishing house, I’m assuming she had some level of editorial feedback regarding the story. But I also know, from reading a recent summary of a writing event, that editors and agents are finding themselves stretched. Inevitably, this will impact what happens to the books they promote.

    The book in question has a good premise. It was also obvious to me that it might be the kind of book that would appeal to the likes of reading groups. This would definitely be in the author’s favour.

    The problems were located in a number of areas:

    • rotating points of view that were not always clearly marked, leaving me a bit confused as to who I was following, and on consulting Goodreads I found out I wasn’t the only one
    • a main character who clearly felt she was drugged at some point, but never attempted to get herself tested
    • a main character who felt someone was breaking into her house regularly, yet she never got the locks changed
    • likewise, the MC did not attempt to leave any kind of surveillance device to catch the intruder on camera
    • when she finally gets a pair of bolts for her door, she finds she doesn’t have the right drill bit, so the bolts are not put on. Her house is still open to the intruder (who makes use of this) because there is no other attempt to keep the neighbour out
    • the MC’s best friend visits and is spooked by the antagonist, feels she’s seen the woman before, and promises to investigate when she returns to London. Then she never contacts the MC again. The MC texts her over and over, but doesn’t bother to call her work place to see if she’s okay, or even travel to London to find out. The woman is dead, but it’s a while before it’s revealed
    • the MC worked out the antagonist’s game (though not the motives), yet doesn’t turn the tables on her. Had she done so, it could have led to a pivot against the antagonist, where the MC briefly gains the upper hand and the antagonist is forced to up their game. This in turn would push up the stakes
    • once the MC realises the antagonist has killed her friend, and tried to kill someone else, she still takes pity on the antagonist at a key moment, thinking she’s just lonely, at which point the antagonist knocks her over the head and almost burns her to death. I had pretty much lost all sympathy for the protagonist at this point and thought she deserved whatever fate was coming to her
    • the MC’s character arc was extremely unsatisfying
    • the ending is also extremely unsatisfying
    • the MC’s friends are also (for reasons that are not entirely clear) targets for revenge, but since they don’t consult with each other, the shaky plot wagon rolls on

    In fact, there were more problems than those listed above. The main character was extremely passive and even ended up thinking she somehow deserved the neighbour’s revenge. This was clearly not true. Meanwhile the neighbour’s motives were a complete let down.

    Many reviewers on Goodreads were in agreement. They also pointed out that the book was longer than it needed to be, there were boring bits, and none of the characters were likeable.

    I did indeed feel that there was no one to like, other than the dog.

    Yet the publisher had majorly hyped the book on the cover, making claims it could not live up to. Something that some of the reviewers also pointed out.

    A decent developmental editor could have flagged these issues, encouraging the writer to develop a better motive for revenge on the part of the antagonist, cut out the unnecessary scenes and chapters, better flag up who the viewpoint character is at any one time, and address the passivity and general cluelessness of the MC.

    None of this would have meant completely changing the book either. It would have led to a tighter plot, with faster pacing, and a more credible protagonist and antagonist.

    No one in their right mind would notice their house was regularly being entered without changing the locks. Especially if they know the neighbour once had their keys.

    The novel’s plot rested on a lack of psychological credibility and character cluelessness. The antagonist is not an especially clever person, so it was hard to see how she managed to know so much about what everyone was getting up to – which she could later reveal out of revenge.

    The plot rested on weak decisions, massive holes, and a rotating viewpoint that possibly helped divert attention from the problems at times. There were genuinely gripping points in the book, which is why it was ultimately a let down. None of it was necessary. This was a debut novel and the writer would have benefited from a developmental editor who could have walked them through the weaknesses so they could have eliminated them one by one.

    Having said that, some readers have given the novel four or five stars. But it was the one to three star reviewers who really summed up my own observations.

    As to the exact nature of the edit that would have improved things – even a manuscript critique would have listed the issues and pointed out what to do about them. A developmental edit would have included margin comments next to the relevant parts of the novel.

    The writer’s book was certainly good enough to get a publisher. But the publisher didn’t do the necessary work. And that wasn’t fair to the author, the book or its readers. But if editors are stretched, it’s not surprising that this can happen.


    Are you an author looking for feedback on your novel? Are you concerned about plot holes, lack of character credibility, confusing viewpoints, or a weak ending? You can check out my services page below. I offer opening chapters edits for those who want a chunk of their novel edited for an affordable price. Otherwise, you can opt for a manuscript critique or a full developmental edit.

    Developmental Fiction Editing Services – IndieCat Editorial