Here’s a trick for eliminating unnecessary exposition in your novel

dark willow buffy bored blah

As I revise my novel, one of the problems I’m working on is too much exposition, especially in the beginning chapters.

I’ve devised a little trick to help as it’s not always apparent to me when I have too much.

What is exposition, anyway?

Author Beth Amos defines exposition as “information that is offered to readers to help them understand the plot, characters, or setting in a story. Exposition is telling, not showing, and passive rather than active.”

What is too much exposition?

Amos has a nice way of explaining when you’re hitting the danger zone with exposition:

The key is to use it piecemeal, doling it out in small chunks and only when absolutely necessary. To involve readers in your story, you need to maintain their interest and pique their curiosity. You do that by revealing just enough details to make a character or situation intriguing without insulting the reader’s intelligence by spelling it out for them. And if you can offer those same revelations through dialogue and action, so much the better.

Think of real life. When we meet a person for the first time, we know nothing about their past, their personalities, or even much of their present day life. Over time, if we continue to be exposed to this person, we will glean these details through the person’s actions, interactions, and conversations. The more puzzling and complex a person seems, the more our interest is piqued. In contrast, when you meet someone who is so fascinated by his own life that he proceeds to tell you every aspect of it in excruciating detail, the impulse is to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

Here’s my trick to reducing exposition:

I’ve been rereading each scene and chapter looking only for tell-ish exposition — anywhere I’m stepping out of the “present” to explain something so the reader better understands the deeper context — and I highlight it in yellow. I especially look for exposition that feels like it could be taken out without affecting the action or flow of the scene. In other words, it’s just not that relevant or necessary.

If the highlighted portion is more than two lines, I trim it down to two (or less). But instead of simply deleting the offending text, I cut and paste it into a text document in my Scrivener project that I titled “Scraps.” This way, I’m not losing the extra information — and I don’t forget what it is, either. I’m taking it and moving it to the side, out of the way, so I can recycle it later, or so I can remember why it was so important in the first place.

What this has taught me:

First, it’s made this exercise has made it much easier to spot heavy exposition in my novel. It really is true that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to look for everything (character, exposition, description, etc.) at the same time — you need to take a pass for one thing, then a pass for another.

Second, I’ve learned to take out the bits I don’t need and find more creative ways to incorporate them. For example, in my novel, I realized I had told the reader what my character’s unusual routine was each morning when I could have shown her going through it at the start of the story.

What techniques do you use to eliminate unnecessary exposition in your stories?

A whole month of critiquing — DONE

frodo mordor

THE END

After critiquing over 100,000 words of another writer’s manuscript in a single month, those classic words took on new meaning.

Last month was the first time I had ever critiqued another writer’s entire manuscript, and it was a BIG JOB. I’m kind of exhausted right now. But I’m also excited, because this means that I get to dive into all the critiques she made on my manuscript and start a new, hopefully much more beneficial round of revisions.

I’m honored that I got to take part in shaping someone’s book. I mean, that’s downright cool. I feel like when I see it on shelves one day and sit down to read it in a glossy hardcover, I’m going to be teary-eyed and proud. Not because I was able to influence someone’s novel, but proud that I helped someone make their story better. Proud that she stuck through all the tough feedback and toiled through the edits to make it as good as it could be. Proud that I know someone who made her dream happen.

Because, hey — I BELIEVE in my critique partner. She’s gonna make it one day. I just know it.

Critiquing a full-length novel has also sharpened my eye as a writer. When you’re just reading a novel, there’s a bunch of little things you don’t notice or take for granted. And when you’re writing a novel, you’re too close to your work to see them. But when you’re critiquing someone else’s WIP and see issues come up time and again — well, you suddenly understand where all those writing rules came from. It clicks in a way that it didn’t before. I’m sure my critique partner could say the same thing from critiquing my story because every writer has their crutches.

Would I do a full manuscript swap again? Absolutely. It was definitely worth the investment to become a better critiquer, a more observant writer, and to receive a full critique in return. Would I do it again in the near future?

I think my brain needs a break first. :)

500 percent done

12 tips for new writers working on their first manuscript (aka, a letter to my past self)

writing a book

Writing a book is dang hard. And even though experienced writers know that writing the thing is the easy part, that doesn’t diminish what an amazing accomplishment it is to finish a book. A lot of people don’t get that far, so it’s pretty incredible if you do. I mean, you are awesome.

You learn a lot going from your first completed manuscript to your second. In no special order, here are 12 things I wish I could go back and tell my former self — a newbie fiction writer with a lot ahead of her.

#1: No one gets it right on the first try

Dear past self: You just finished that manuscript, wrote “the end,” and your whole body is shaking. YOU WROTE A BOOK. You’re excited and proud, and you damn well should be.

But as amazing as you think your book is, it’s going to need a lot of work — a little thing called revision. There’s a reason most writers consider their very first finished MS their “practice novel.” You’re flexing a muscle you’ve never used before, at least not so rigorously — it’s gonna take awhile before you compose a masterpiece.

So don’t feel bad if this isn’t “the one.” First drafts are never, ever perfect. First novels rarely ever are.

#2: Listen to what your gut is telling you

Dear past self: When you were writing that book, you thought that this was the hard part. But now revision looms ahead of you, and you just can’t bring yourself to get past the first few chapters. You’ve polished them each about ten times, and you still have tens of thousands of words left to go. How can you even.

Truth is, you’re procrastinating for a reason: You don’t love your book. You don’t believe in it. You think it’s boring, and that’s hard to admit, and it’s going to take you a year or two to finally concede to it. But hey. That’s okay. You can put this one in a drawer somewhere and start working on something that’s going to excite you again. Because if you don’t love your story, chances are no reader will.

writing happened

#3: Publishing isn’t the point

Dear past self: The totally delusional write to make millions. (Not gonna happen.) The semi-delusional write to get published. The realistic write because they love writing, and if publishing follows at some point, hey, that’s pretty awesome.

Every writer wants to get published, but as soon as you accept that that’s not why you’re doing this — that you’re writing because you can’t not write — then things will fall into place. You’ll become more disciplined, more serious about getting the work done in a timely manner. And that’s what counts. That you treat it like a profession. That you hone your skills. That you keep writing. Publishing is not proof that you’re a writer. Your writing habits are.

#4: Study your craft

Dear past self: You’ve got a lot to learn, kiddo, so you better study up. Start researching story structure. POV. Character development. Info dumps. Show versus tell. Internalization and dialogue. And most importantly, REVISION.

Fiction University is going to help you a lot. You’re going to recommend it to every writer you meet who’s struggling with the basics. You’re a whiz at grammar and punctuation, and that will take you far. Now it’s time to master technique.

#5: Get over your fear of sharing

Dear past self: The best revision you’ll ever do will be the product of having other writers look at your writing. No writer should revise in a vacuum — you’re too close to your work to see what needs fixing, and you have no sense of what you should be focusing on.

Without the guidance of critique partners and beta readers, you’ll be changing things that don’t need changed and making edits that don’t have much impact. Having someone provide feedback on your work will be ten times more valuable than trying to figure out revision when you have no idea where you should even begin. Revision is hard enough; don’t do it alone. The only way to get over your shyness about sharing your writing is to share your writing.

write trashy

#6: Negative feedback isn’t a death sentence

Getting critiqued is hard. You’re going to cry the first few times. You’re going to feel nervous. You’re going to have to train yourself not to get angry when someone thinks your story needs work.

But guess what: The more you do it, the less sensitive you’ll be to negative feedback, and the more you’ll crave it. Because this is the good stuff. This is going to make your writing better. And with time, you’ll start to realize that the difference between a bad chapter someone hates and a good chapter they love can come down to a few key edits. It’s not as a hard as you think. It’s practically magic.

#7: Revision will get easier

Dear past self: Just like getting critiqued, revising will get easier, too. Right now, you hate it. It’s so much work. You spend so many hours on one chapter. You feel like this is going to take forever and that you’ll never get there.

But listen: You will get there. And you will get used to revision. In fact, you’ll actually start to love it more than writing a first draft, because revision is how your story transforms. How it becomes everything you envisioned it to be. As the changes you make pile up, you’ll actually start seeing the forest for the trees. And revision becomes … fun. Imagine that.

#8: Schedules are VERY important

Dear past self: In order to write a book, you have to stick to a schedule. That could be anything — 300 words every day of the week, or 500 words every other day. You decide.

And just like with writing, revision only gets done when you set a schedule. And as soon as you make that schedule a habit that you follow, it won’t be so hard to stick to anymore. And hey — you’ll learn that if you plan your schedule at the start of each week, you’ll get so much done. And getting shit done is a GOOD FEELING. You’ll want as much of that good feeling as you can get.

#9: Stop worrying about word count

Dear past self: Okay, so you’re an underwriter. While other writers can churn out 130,000 words and then have to spend their time trimming, you’re stuck adding to your novel more than you need to take away. You basically have to flesh out every scene — paint in the details.

But for the love of god, stop obsessing about word count. You’re not doing yourself any favors. Sure, publishers expect certain genres to be within a certain word count range. But you’re going to drive yourself crazy with this one, trust me. Focus on the story now — word count later. Story matters more, and oftentimes in filling out and also tightening your story, word count will take care of itself.

word count gif

#10: Stop comparing yourself to other writers

Dear past (and present) self: On your worst days, you’re going to hate every word you write. Don’t look at your novel on these days. Don’t go anywhere near it. And above all, do not compare your writing to someone else’s.

Your style is your style, and trying to be like That Author You Love isn’t going to change that. In fact, trying to emulate them won’t get you published. A fresh voice will. A unique voice. Your voice.

Every writer’s journey to success — and to publication (which are separate things) — is different. Some take longer than others. Some are harder than others. So a published author you admire is just a writer who’s been at it longer. Who’s practiced more. Don’t get down on yourself because they’re far along in their own story and you’re just starting yours.

#11: You will get better

Dear past self: When you see how much better your second manuscript is going to be than your first, you’re going to flip. It’ll be so obvious in the writing, structure, and characters how much you’ve grown. You’ve learned from some of your mistakes. You’ve gotten better. And of course, you still have more to learn.

But when you go for your third time around, you’re going to use that new knowledge and write an even better story. All stories involve work — involve rewriting. That’s how it’s done. And even if novel one through novel four don’t get you published, the experience of writing them — of revising them — will make you stronger. So much more than you think.

#12: Never give up

Dear past (and present) self: Never give up on your dream.

Writing is hard. It’s a thankless job. It takes years of your life. And sometimes you’re going to wonder if it’s even worth doing.

But in your heart, you know it is. Because you love this. Because this is who you are. And because you’ll never be truly happy until you see your first book on the shelves — and then your next book, and the next. Writing stories makes you happy. And when you don’t write, you’re anxious and grumpy and restless, and you know it.

So keep writing. Keep going. Whether it takes you two manuscripts or ten to get published. Write to write. Write because you want to. Because you can. Because you’re unstoppable. Because you’ve got a story to tell, dammit. And never let anyone else tell you otherwise — especially yourself.

6 important questions to ask a potential critique partner

gravity falls pretending to write

All good writing is rewriting, and no good rewriting is done in a vacuum.

At least, that’s what I believe. I could go through a dozen self-edits on my manuscript, but I’d get less mileage than I would from one good critique from a couple beta readers or critique partners. If I don’t have a little guidance, for all I know I could be fixing all the wrong things because writers are too close to their work to assess what’s working and what’s not — at least until we get someone else’s perspective.

But searching for critique partners can be a total gamble, especially when you’re trusting strangers online. Twitter is a great place to look (search “critique partners” — boom) if you’re already combed forums and hit dead ends, but you can scout any number of places. Here are six good questions to ask a potential critique partner (and yourself) to determine if you might be a good match.

Keep in mind that you should generally look for critique partners writing within the same genre and/or age group as you, so I’m going to assume you already know to ask that question. ;)

What kind of critique schedule do you have in mind?

Answer this question yourself, too. Determine upfront — before you even begin talking to the other writer — how much you can handle, whether it’s per week or per month. Are you able to swap one chapter a week? Three chapters a week? Are you open to swapping a full manuscript all at once? Know how much and how often you’re willing to critique so that when you ask your potential partner about their expectations, you won’t feel pressured to agree to a schedule that you can’t stick to.

Don’t forget to ask how long their manuscript is, too. A month might sound like a reasonable time frame to return a full MS critique, but if their story is 200K, maybe not so much.

How often do you want to check in?

This is a really important one because it holds you and your potential critique partner accountable. Most critique partner relationships begin with a “first date” — where you swap first chapters to see what the other person’s critiquing style is like and if it’s going to work for you. Use this step as a measure to assess whether or not they’re serious about the partnership.

tried to care

Critiquing is a mutual responsibility, and you should be professional about it. There’s nothing more upsetting than firing off your critique of their first chapter, only to wait … and wait … and wait for their critique of yours. Sometimes, they’ll never even bother responding. This sucks, because you did the work and they didn’t. Word of advice? Even if you don’t think the other writer’s critique style is going to work for you, be a good human and critique their first chapter. I can’t stress this enough. Don’t sit around waiting for their critique to roll in and then ignore them because you plan to ditch them anyway. It’s not polite.

nope

If your potential critique partner gets that first chapter back to you within a few days and you both like each other’s style, then you’re good to go. But you should set an expectation of how often you want to touch base and exchange critiques. Once a week is a good starting point — maybe over the weekend.

The point isn’t to be strict but to judge how dependable they are. If your critique partner is constantly missing those “check-in” times, you may be better off without them. Having light deadlines will also ensure that you don’t end up doing all the work and then never getting anything back.

Where are you from?

The wonder of the Internet means you could be partnering with someone from a totally different country. Crazy, I know. It’s good to know upfront what time zone your partner is in because night for you might be morning for them.

What software do you use to critique?

There are all sorts of ways to annotate documents, but you might want to find out how your potential partner plans to critique so you can make sure you’re going to be able to access and read their comments. :)

Microsoft’s Track Changes is a safe route, but you could use other tools, like Google Docs. Just make sure that if your partner repels technology, you give them some tips or guidance to help them out. (Not everyone has used Track Changes before, for instance, or knows how to make the font in comment bubbles bigger.)

computer angry gif

What kind of critique are you looking for?

Some writers are looking for ovearching feedback, such as on big-picture issues, like character development and world-building. Others might need more help in the grammar and punctuation department. Asking what they’re seeking in a critique can reveal their strengths and weaknesses — and give you an idea of whether those strengths could come in handy for you.

If you’re good at grammar but suck at dialogue, for example, you may want to find someone who needs assistance with the mechanical stuff but has a knack for writing conversation.

Lastly, if you’re dumping them, is it for the right reasons?

If you read someone’s critique of your writing and flip out at what you’re seeing, take a moment before writing that “sorry, not gonna work” email and consider whether you’re rejecting them for the right reasons.

Criticism is hard to take, but remember: You’re not looking for someone to gush over your work and flatter you. You’re looking for someone who’s going to give you honest, constructive feedback that will improve your novel and challenge you as a writer.

Yes, you should try to be kind in how your phrase that feedback, but keep in mind that most writers, no matter how they critique, are coming from a good place. They mean well. So decide whether you’re saying “no” because they don’t think your work is perfect and you’re afraid you’ll have to do a little work, or because they’re just not giving you feedback you can use and grow from.

It’s tough love, baby.

grow up tough love

There are two types of writers in the world

sculptorThe world contains two types of creative writers.

While writing my current WIP, it’s occurred to me that people are either overwriters or underwriters — they either go crazy with the word count, or they struggle to hit their target. I’m an underwriter. I have about 40 chapters in my WIP, and my word count for my first draft was somewhere around 60,000. That’s not a whole lot for a novel, which means I’m knee-deep in some serious story, character, and world development.

Overwriters, on the other hand, have the challenge of whittling down their manuscripts into something with more shape and texture. There’s a lot of fat to trim. But how do you “fix” being an overwriter or an underwriter? How do you get your story in working order when what you put on the page is a mess?

I like to think of overwriters as sculptors. All writing is sculpting, in a way. You start with a block of a whole lotta nothing, and you carve it into a story. Overwriters spend a lot of time doing this. Even after their first draft is complete, they need to keep shaving off the edges. But if you’re an overwriter, don’t worry: You’re not going to chisel out a perfect story right away. Keep refining your manuscript here and there, in small measures, and eventually you’ll attain the dimension you want.

Underwriters are a little different — they’re more like painters, and painters work in layers. You might start with a manuscript that’s very bare, so you need to direct your focus toward fleshing out the details — every scene, character, and setting is going to take a lot more effort and thinking. Your second draft is the time to add color, tidy up the brushstrokes, and really make the whole picture pop. After a while, you’ll see that the measly sketch you started with has become a rich, complete work.

Are you an overwriter or an underwriter — a sculptor or a painter? How do you approach revisions?

Happy writing, and have a great New Year’s! See you in 2016.