A year and a half ago I finished the first draft of The Librex. But when I came back to it after a break, I knew it needed more than a check for punctuation errors. The entire structure needed a re-haul.
But it was hard to know where to start. I wasted time, knowing a scene didn’t work, but not knowing how to fix it.
But last year I also had the privilege of doing a Fantasy writing course with writer CS Pacat. One of the most helpful things she covered was what keeps readers engaged, or as she calls it ‘Narrative traction’. She argued readers keep reading because of the promise that what will be on the next page will be even better than what you are reading now. Narrative traction can be tension or suspence, but it is more than that. What’s the reader waiting for? It might be crucial information about the world and how it works. It might be a romantic moment between characters. And drawing on her lessons, I came up with some helpful questions to ask as I worked on my second draft.
What will the readers want to know? AND What will readers want to see?
Is there any information that the reader will want to know? Information about a particular magic system? A character’s past? Something that the reader will be curious to find out about your story, characters or world.
And what will readers want to see? What aspects of the story are fun or novel? What characters are entertaining? They might be things that are already in your story. Or there might be things that you decide to add because you know the readers will be wishing it was there.
And once you know the answers to these questions, you can structure the novel accordingly.
If there is something the reader will want to know, you might decide to hold off telling it to keep the reader hooked.
Similarly, if there is something you readers want to see you might hint that it will happen eventually to keep them turning the page.
Or alternatively, it might involve giving the people want they want. I knew, from my own feelings and from the few people who read my book, that one minor character was compelling. So I used that. I included more scene’s with him. I used him to get across information that the reader needed to know. And I gave him a history with a character who comes up later in the book, so that when we met said character, we are already pre-disposed to care about him by association.
The secret is, you always want the reader wanting more. If you give a tasty piece of info, or if you give the readers what they want, make sure there there is a question left hanging, or a new scene they are dying to see, to keep them hooked.
What scenes will excite your readers (and what about them make them work)?
The question “What scenes will excite your readers?” is helpful in two ways. First it tells you where you have nailed it! These are the scene’s that are worth keeping. But secondly, it will help you work out how to make your other scenes better, or what scenes to add. There is a type of magic in my novel that my husband loves, and every time we talk about my novel he demands I add more. Knowing which scene’s work and why, can help you to give the readers more of what they want.
But then you have to look at what is not working.
What will the reader skim through?
My husband ‘read’ my first draft by listening to me read it aloud as he offered special comments along the way. This was fun, occasionally painful, and a great learning experience. If my husband insisted we kept going, I knew the scene was working. But if he ended a scene by saying, “that’s enough for now, let’s read some more tomorrow”, it was almost guaranteed that the scene was dull.
And even without a guinea pig, if we are honest with ourselves, we can usually work out which scene don’t work.
So what happens when you realise that a scene is the kind of scene a reader will skim through? You then are faced with two options:
Add drama and tension to the scene to make it engaging.
Some scene’s just need to be scrapped and that is okay. A big part of structural editing is getting rid of dead-weight. If a scene isn’t engaging, or doesn’t move the story forward, then it doesn’t belong in the novel. If there is something important that the reader needs to know, but it is otherwise a boring scene, either change up the scene so it engages, or add the info to another scene.
ACT II of the Librex started with a skim forward in time, and a navel gazing internal monologue from the protagonist about how much she had changed, and how she hadn’t. It was (embarrassingly) terrible and I scrapped it.
But I was able to add in a scene where two characters (in the protagonist’s hearing), argued about whether she was ready for a particular promotion. It was two characters we had never seen alone together, who had a complicated history and huge stakes in the protagonists path. It got across the same information as the navel gaze, but was now full of drama and tension.
Exposition is one of the banes of Fantasy writing. You have created your own world, and so there is copious tomes of information to pass on to the reader, so they can understand the world and the story. But no one picks up a fantasy book because they are dying to read an essay about imaginary fauna. They pick it up for the story.
One struggle at the moment in my other novel is that that I have lots of information to get across about a particular crop (which is unique to my world and quite crucial to the story). But not everyone (okay, almost no one) is interested in fabricated, fantasy agriculture by itself.
I was grappling with this when a member of my writing group gave me two helpful questions to ask when struggling with how to do exposition:
When will the reader be most excited to get this info?
How can I make the reader want to know this info?
I realised that the start of a novel was NOT the time for dumping info about my beloved grain. Much better to give little information early (on a needs to know basis) and then to get more information across when it was relevant to the story, and the reader cares.
Or in The Librex, I had a character explain, before we meet a someone, that they did a terrible thing. But in my second draft, I took that scene out. Now we met the character with a fresh slate. We grew to like them. So BANG, when I dropped the news of what they had done, we cared. This news now had a significant emotional impact on the protagonists, and hopefully the reader.
So those are the questions that are helping me through my second draft.
What about other writers out there? What questions help you edit your second draft?