Friday, October 5, 2012

Beginnings, Endings, and the stuff in between--a post from Jenny on editing your ms

Lately I've been reading some really otherwise great manuscripts that seem to share the same three problems.  Since I'm seeing these missteps so much, I'm figuring that maybe I should write about them in the hopes that my advice will apply to the books of some of the readers of this blog as well.  The good news is that these problems are all very fixable--so read on and see if you think your book might be suffering from these same three writerly mistakes.

1. You don't need the first 50 pages.   Let me clarify.  You needed to *write* the first 50 pages.   You needed them to understand your characters better by giving them a back story.   But now that the book is done, your characters are alive and interesting and informed by the knowledge that these pages gave you.   So while you needed to write these pages, the reader doesn't need to read them.   Trust your characters to reveal themselves in the rest of the book and cut out the back story that is now slowing your book down.  

2. Your characters need to *feel* more.   I think "show don't tell" has been drummed into our heads so long and so often that we forget that we do need to let the reader into our characters' heads.   While we don't want you to do a big info dump of character development and we do want your characters to reveal themselves through action, you still also need to tell us sometimes what they are thinking and feeling along with that.  Let's call your main character Bob.  If you put Bob in a crazy situation, remember to tell us what his reaction is to that situation--or poor Bob will feel flat and lifeless to the reader.

3.  Your ending is rushed.  Readers love a satisfying ending.   Think of all the times you raced through a book only to feel let down by the ending.  Try to go in the opposite direction with your book.   I find a lot of writers want to have ambiguity or loose ends in an ending and I think that often that's the wrong impulse.   The beauty of a book, as opposed to life, is that we can have an ending that ties things up, or at least ties a lot of things up.   An ending should also provide a thorough, complex explanation of any motivations or happenings that seemed mysterious throughout the book.   I'm noticing that many of the endings I am reading in unpubbed manuscripts these days would be improved by adding at least an entire chapter of material.  

Do you feel your manuscript might share some of these issues?  Let me know in the comments.   And happy revising!



  1. That's spot on Jenny, I've been fully aware of all 3 points for some time, and I'm still absolutely guilty of them!

    I'm on my 2nd draft of my MS trying desperately to fix those exact issues.

    I've trimmed off around 30 pages from the beginning of the first draft in this revision.

    My characters felt actiony and flat because of 2 in the first draft so I'm reworking them (and cutting a few right out as viewpoint characters to give us more time to get to know who's really important).

    As for 3, yikes, I took a wrecking ball to the entire last third of my MS. I have a few "cool scenes" that are going to remain and get fixed up, and the rest is a complete re-outline and re-write from the ground up. It was an unmitigated disaster, full of holes and broken promises.

    I hope this draft is better, if it's not, the third revision is going to get dirty.

  2. Nailing the beginning and ending are the hardest parts. I'm trying to get enough information into the first 20 pages to let the reader know what's at stake -- but also get the characters clear and vibrant and doing things right from the start, so the reader will care.
    As for the ending... yes the writing for this goes fast. I've actually been forced by my life schedule to write it in small chunks, so I'm able to concentrate on many moments, addressing things that have been raised all through the manuscript. Hoping like hell that when I revise again, it all hangs together :) Thanks for this post.

  3. Alexander, you have a great attitude! I love that you're not afraid to keep trying.

  4. David, sounds like you are being very thoughtful about the process--and that will definitely pay off.

  5. Let me comment on how my second YA novel deals with each point.
    1. My novel start well with 3 pages of action and then slow down to dialogue and back story. So like your advice I'm cutting the dialogue and back story from the first 50 pages and move them to latter pages (not eliminating them). Hopefully a literary agent and afterward a book publisher's editor will decide what pages to cut from the first 50 pages based on their vast experience.
    2. The problem with "show not tell" is that you can't fully show feelings and thoughts. You can show it better via dialogue between the main characters.
    3. My ending is satisfying and fit well with the storyline.
    My main problem, which you didn't address here, is how to make young readers identify with the Heroine and also like her. I'm trying a new approach (at least new for me) by analyzing what is the main characters of a teenager and let the heroine talk about it with her mother. If I done it correctly, young readers will see themselves in the Heroine and identify with her. I'm still unable to determine how to make teens like my Heroine, not just identify with her.

  6. I was actually the opposite with the manuscript I am currently querying, my beginning was too rushed because I knew the characters so well and then I was trying to end the book for fifty pages or so because didn't know how to say goodbye. I hope it all works better now; I know I am far happier with the current MS.

    Thanks for your insights, Jenny!



  7. One of those rare and awesome industry blog posts where it's all great and succinct info, well explained. Saving this for myself and to share. :)

  8. Great post Jenny. Am guilty of 2 & 3 all the time - though hopefully I'll be more aware of them now ;-)


  9. Yes, thanks Jenny. First 50 pages guilty as charged :) Too much back-story. The red pen is poised and ready to strike....

  10. I've definitely struggled with #2, especially in my first novel. It's weird forcing myself to "tell" more, but you're right, characters feel flat without some telling. And I think I still struggle with #3. My endings are always succinct. Probably too succinct!

    Great post! Thank you!

  11. I'm taking the part about endings to heart. I tend to rush my endings because I'm just so exhausted by the time I get to the end.

  12. I noticed that my first drafts of my unpublished manuscripts are filled with too much of a back-story not enough character development.

    I could not agree with more about the whole "Show, don't tell" mantra. I know the mantra is so embedded that many writers, especially, new and developing writers are so timed that followed that mantra too literally. Characters reaction done without too delivering too much of exposition shows the humanity through emotional reactions to situations and conflicts. I always incorporate telling just enough of characters emotional reactions, to so that they are human beings are not two-dimensional stock characters.

    As for the endings, I discovered that for me the best way is too have a rough idea of how the story will end and make sure that story leads to that ending in organic way. However, it can be difficult in writing the ending, if at some point I want the story to move into a different direction that goes against the original envision ending. It's a fine line to walk between in how to bring the ending that the story and characters develop all the way through the manuscript, without coping out or derailing the story for some personal ending, for me as the writer, and not for the characters in the story.

    Thanks for an excellent, insightful and helpful post.

  13. Thanks for this! As I'm just about to start revising my first draft, your post got me thinking. Cutting the first 50 pages would mean cutting the events that start the story, but I've still found unnecessary backstory and scenes that can be merged.
    As for the ending, the important loose ends are tied up (as far as I can see now) but I'm planning a sequel in which the other loose ends will be tied up (e.g. where did minor character A go). Is that o.k.?
    As for character development, I've been trying very hard to avoid melodrama, but re-reads and revision will tell if I've overdone it... I'm a bit puzzled by the connection with the "show don't tell" guideline, though. I believe that "show don't tell" (if done well) is an excellent way to give characters more depth. Not sharing a protagonist's thoughts and feelings is more like "don't show, don't tell".

  14. I'm pretty 100% for sure my ending is a bit rushed now that I've read it over with fresh eyes. Only problem is, my ms is in your queue of manuscripts to read! Oh life haha

    Hoping the first two points don't apply to it, though! I think I'm fairly decent at delving into my main character's crazy thoughts, and I think my first fifty pages are definitely necessary to the story (unless you say they aren't, then oh my gosh they're so unnecessary it isn't even funny).

    Thanks for such an awesome post! I'm going to be directing a few writing friends here, for sure.

  15. Wonderful advice. I will have to take a look at my current MS and apply some of your tips!

  16. Jenny,
    Thanks for an insightful post. I am definitely guilty of #1. My first novel, told in the first person, started when the main character was 10 years old and took place over 30 years. I got feedback from agents that I sounded like an adult trying to sound like a child. I eventually lopped off the first four chapters and started the story when the MC was 14. It made all the difference in the world and the back story wasn't missed at all. Great post.

  17. These are great reminders for me! Thanks, Jenny!!

  18. #1 on the list rang a loud bell for me, as it matches my experiences when I was getting ready for publishing. I was never quite happy with the opening chapters of my first book, despite much nibbling and trimming. I finally took the plunge and more or less deleted the first five chapters, extracting the must-have information and sprinkling it later in the book. I was pleasantly surprised at how (relatively) easy it was to do - I had had to write those chapters to "write my way" into the characters, but after that they weren't needed - just as you said, Jenny.

    Those early chapters aren't lost, either. I have them on my website, like extras on a DVD set, and many readers enjoy them. But of course they're readers who already have an attachment to the characters and want to read even more about them, not readers just getting to know them for the first time.

    In my most recent book, too, I wrote whole sections (though not whole chapters!) knowing they would be deleted, but were necessary for me to get to know new characters.

  19. Thank you for this post. I'm revising my manuscript and while I'm really happy with the way the first fifteen pages are shaping up (mostly showing, internal thoughts where necessary to balance dialogue, action, showing the stakes for the main characters early on, etc.) but I'm still struggling to get past the info dump which should be world building. BAH!

    But I'm encouraged by your suggestions, so it's back to the salt mines.

  20. I worry that my ms might suffer from #2 and/or #3... in fact, I've ruthlessly interrogated my beta readers as to whether any of these might apply. But either my literary laypeople are extremely forgiving, or they're just afraid to tell me the truth and risk hurting my feelings.

    For my part, I'm beginning to feel like I suffer from "revision overload," and can no longer see the problems that may be staring me in the face.

    I guess the real question is, are these issues severe enough to cause an agent to hit the reject button? Or, if the author is ready and willing, can these plot holes be easily resolved after an agent-client relationship is formed?

    1. It's impossible to know without reading your manuscript. I can say if the writing is strong enough and the concept is strong enough, I can overlook a lot of problems.

  21. Great advice! I often end up really slashing my opening chapter.

  22. I've worked hard to improve one and two, but the last one is the one I really need to spend time improving. Thanks for the great reminders.

  23. The greatest comment I got about my manuscript, from a published author who I highly respect, was what you have as #1. To begin not quite at the beginning. When he told me this I was simply floored. It hit me in the face hard. Of course!

  24. At first I was wondering what you meant by number 1. I had to read it twice. I guess I'm a bit slow today. I've definitely been guilty of number 3. Sometimes wanting to type "The End" so much leads to sloppiness.

    Looking forward to seeing you at WriteAngles next weekend.

  25. Best advice ever! You are my new publishing guru!

  26. The advice about editing the ending of a manuscript is really helpful. I'm pretty sure I've rewritten the ending to mine at least three or four times already, but I tell myself that if I'm not satisfied with the way it ended, then neither will the reader. There's either too much going on in my ending--enough to keep the book going--or simply not enough. Thanks for the advice!

  27. I've been guilty of the second point before. I wanted to keep my story interesting and exciting and wasn't giving my characters time to process the events happening to them.

  28. This is a great post--thank you!

    I think I've conquered number 1 and number 2, but not number 3. I rushed the ending of my new book because it was so darn painful to write it. The character's life just falls apart and she can't fix it. Because it was painful, I hurried through and didn't slow down to absorb the scenes and their sensory details. That's my #1 job in revision. Here's to long nights, nothing on TV, and a medicinal dose of whiskey to get it all started.

  29. #2 is something I struggle to balance. The whole "show don't tell" mantra is so ingrained that I have to remind myself that it's okay to just tell something so the reader have to infer everything.