THE CRAFT OF WRITING — JULY 2021
VISION AND REVISION
One of the great things about hosting the Craft of Writing blog is getting to meet so many accomplished professionals, and I’m thrilled to welcome craft expert Jodie Renner to the blog for the first time.
I titled this blog interview VISION AND REVISION since we’ll be talking about Jodie’s award-winning book Fire Up Your Fiction. Much of that book has to do with revising your first draft. However, it’s also a wonderful guide to read *before* you start that new novel.
So grab your literary blowtorch and let’s add some spark to our stories.
Jodie Renner is a sought-after freelance fiction editor and award-winning author of three Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS; as well as two QUICK CLICKS e-resources for writers and editors, SPELLING LIST and WORD USAGE. She has also organized and edited two anthologies for charity, VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories & Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers.
When she’s not editing, writing, blogging, or reading novels, Jodie loves to pursue her three other passions, dancing, photography and traveling. She has traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle East, and hopes to get away again soon to continue her explorations.
By the way, Jodie is also appearing today on The Kill Zone Blog. After you read (and comment on) the interview here, hop over to TKZ and take a look at her post entitled “Hook Your Readers with a Compelling Storyline, Tagline, & Back Cover Copy.” Lots of useful information.
Welcome to the Craft of Writing blog, Jodie Renner. Thank you for joining us!
Thanks so much for inviting me, Kay. I’m honored to be in the same company as some of my favorite writing craft gurus – James Scott Bell, Randy Ingermanson, Steven James, K.M. Weiland, Renni Browne, and Dave King, among others.
How important is the revision process when writing a novel?
The revision process is an indispensable step in the creation of an engrossing novel or short story. Of course, first, it’s important to just write with wild abandon. Get your ideas down without thinking about word choice or making the sentences perfect. But then, once you’ve written your first draft (or are at a point where your muse is taking a break), it’s time to go back and reread, revise, and polish.
Did you use the best word there? Would a different word choice bring the scene to life more vividly? Have you varied your sentence structure and included short, medium, and long sentences? Look at pacing. Are you keeping readers interested and intrigued? Is your writing bland or rambling and repetitive in places? It may be time to do some weeding and tighten it up by deleting excessive words, combining and shortening sentences, etc. Are some of your paragraphs too long? Condense them or break them up for more white space. Have you included a balance of narration and dialogue, not too much of one or the other?
Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural, like that character would actually speak? Or stilted, too correct, overly wordy, or more like the author would speak? In dialogue, cut many of those complete sentences down to a few words or even one word or a silence.
And of course, there are macro issues that may need to be considered, such as premise, plot, characterization, point of view, pacing, inconsistencies, discrepancies, and more. As writers, we’re too close to our work, so we don’t see what might confuse others. Often a fresh set of eyes will help with those.
How important is it for an author to work with a professional editor?
If you’re serious about getting your book published, selling well, and garnering great reviews, it’s essential. But never send an editor your first draft. You run the risk of having it rejected, or the editor could get bogged down on correcting basic errors and won’t have time to address bigger issues and really take it up several notches. Go through your manuscript several times, fine-tuning and polishing. Also, read writing craft books, as there may be several important fiction-writing techniques you’re not even aware of or have not yet mastered; for example, head-hopping, showing instead of telling, and info dumps.
Then try to find some volunteer beta readers (savvy, discerning readers who read in your genre; best to avoid family and close friends, who may not feel comfortable telling you what they really think) to go through your short story or novel to give you feedback on where the story lags, where it excites them, where they were confused, etc. You may know some grammar nerds who can help you with spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure, too. That would actually be a good first step, so your other beta readers aren’t distracted by grammatical errors and typos.
In Fire Up Your Fiction, you point out many areas where authors need to revise their first draft. As an experienced editor, what’s the most common mistake you see authors make?
New authors typically want to “tell” too much, explain too much, as the author or an omniscient narrator. Try to stay out of the story and let the characters interact in a natural way. Get in the point of view, the head and body, of your main character right from the start, and stay in the protagonist’s viewpoint for most of the story, only showing what he perceives and his physical, sensory, and emotional reactions to what’s happening around him. This provides the intimacy that today’s readers crave and brings the scene to life. And when you’re not in the viewpoint of the protagonist, you should be in the POV of another important character, like the love interest or the antagonist. Stay out of the head of minor characters unless it’s a critical scene where a major character is not present.
Don’t step back and explain things as the author/narrator. Avoid any kind of info dumps or backstory dumps. Just let the characters tell the story. Work in other details gradually and briefly, in a natural way as the story unfolds. Don’t stop to explain anything in a neutral paragraph to the readers. That takes the readers out of the story, away from the intimacy of the character, and is distracting and even annoying.
Here’s an example of “show, don’t tell”: Telling: He was overweight and obviously didn’t look after himself.” Showing: “He was pear-shaped, potbellied, and smoked constantly, even though one of his lungs had already been surgically removed.” – James Lee Burke, Heartwood.
Along the same lines, resist the temptation to tell readers all about the protagonist’s background early in the novel. Keep the readers intrigued and turning the pages to find out more by hinting at secrets, regrets, and other critical background info and revealing it in tidbits as you go along.
You recommend deep POV when writing in third-person. Can you explain the advantages to taking this approach?
Most popular fiction today uses first-person POV, close third-person point of view, or even deep POV, as opposed to the classics of 100 years ago or more, which were usually written in omniscient. Today’s readers want to identify immediately with the main character, to see what they see and feel what they feel. This approach engages the readers emotionally, makes them bond with the protagonist, and keeps them turning the pages, which is what they and you want.
Using this method, you start out your story in the head and body of your lead character and stay there for most of the novel. You show the setting and other characters from their point of view, including their physical sensations, thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Don’t zoom out and show that character from the outside, as the author or an omniscient narrator. That breaks the spell and can be off-putting to today’s readers, who prefer the more intimate approach. You may decide to show a scene or chapter from another character’s viewpoint, but be sure it’s an important character, and don’t head-hop back and forth.
I loved reading your recommendation to provide factual information by using attitude. Can you describe that method?
If you feel the need to impart some information to the readers to help them understand something better, don’t do it in a block, like an essay or lecture or nonfiction book. Work in only the necessary facts, briefly and in a more natural way, preferably through a dialogue with questions and answers or some kind of disagreement, or one character explaining to another, but not in long paragraphs. Break it up with interaction, maybe with some initial confusion or misunderstanding, then some disagreement or questioning. That makes it livelier and not like you’ve interrupted your story as the author to present a mini-lecture on the topic. That’s jarring and doesn’t feel authentic. And it takes the reader out of the story world, which you definitely don’t want. Stay in the character’s point of view. Let the characters tell the story!
For more on this topic, including examples and detailed tips on how to achieve this, see my blog post, “Need to Add Info to Your Story? Use Lots of Attitude!”
Do you have a preference between plotting and pantsing? Will your books help authors who use either one of those approaches?
Each author chooses the approach that works best for them – outlining first or “writing by the seat of their pants.” “Pantsing” often requires more extensive editing later, but plotting can feel restrictive to some writers. Both methods will produce a first draft that will then benefit from my books. The advantage of my three writing guides is that they are written for busy authors who want to quickly find what they’re looking for and get back to writing their novel or short story. I’ve made them all reader-friendly and easily scannable, with lots of bolded subheadings and before-and-after examples, so the information is really easy to find, read, and apply.
How important is it for an author to read other books in his/her genre?
If you want to succeed and sell lots of books, it’s critical to read a variety of best-selling novels in your genre. Analyze the techniques of the popular authors to find out why readers love them and post great reviews about their books. Study their first pages especially, and how they introduce the main character (usually right away, in his/her viewpoint) and handle dialogue and backstory or flashbacks. How do they hook you right from the start, keep you intrigued, and make you care about the characters? How do they keep you guessing and slowly dole out bits of critical information and secrets?
Your writing guides have won awards, and you’ve also acted as a judge for writing contests. Do you have any advice for new writers entering their short story or novel into a contest?
Yes, I’ve judged for many writing contests, including several times for Writer’s Digest. Right now, I’m busy judging the first 10 pages of unpublished novels for Page Turner Awards. My advice as a judge? Make sure you’ve revised and edited your work several times. Read it out loud or have Word’s “text to speech” app read it aloud to you. Get several volunteer beta readers to give you feedback. After your third or fourth revision, change the font to something visually different, make it single-spaced and 6”x9”, like a book, print it up (or put it on your phone or tablet), and read it in a different location, preferably away from your home. Make notes and revise again.
Get it edited and proofread. Your first few pages have to be stellar – polished to a shine. A boring or confusing beginning or grammatical and spelling errors are an instant turn-off. Judges often have hundreds of entries to pare down to their top ten, so they’re looking for reasons to quickly reject any non-contenders. When I have hundreds to read and assess, I reject obviously weak ones after reading only the first few paragraphs, which is what agents do all the time. Remember, these are contests and they’re looking for “la crème de la crème” for their awards. If they gave an award to a story with numerous careless errors, especially in the first pages, the organization would be laughed at.
For a checklist of judges’ criteria for submissions of stories and novels, go to: How Will Your Story Rate in a Contest? Evaluation Criteria.
What one piece of advice would you give to new writers?
Don’t be in a rush to publish your novel or send it off to agents. Be sure to go through it several times, then get some volunteer beta readers to go through it and give you their impressions. Then, if you can afford a professional editor, that would be invaluable. Agents and small publishers are flooded with submissions, so the slightest off-putting issue (wordiness, repetition, bland characters, stilted dialogue, not enough intrigue or tension, typos, punctuation errors, bloopers, etc.) will quickly land your story in the “rejects” pile. And if you rush to self-publish your novel before it’s vetted by others and revised and polished, you run the risk of getting a lot of negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and those reviews stay there forever. The only way to get them to go away is to unpublish your book. Then you’d have to publish a revised version with a different title and a new ISBN.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
You can visit my website, https://www.JodieRenner.com, my Amazon Author Page at https://www.amazon.com/Jodie-Renner/e/B008H80AIE, or my blog, https://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, which has been offering free advice on a variety of topics for writers since 2010.
Thank you, Jodie, for being with us today.
I’m honored that you invited me, Kay. Thank you. Love your blog!