Often, readers see things in your manuscript that you can’t. As the author, you’re too close to be objective about the places that need work. We all are. I’ve just gotten feedback on my third novel, and I’ll be finishing up the edits in a couple of weeks, so I’m right there with you!
With this round of edits, I focused on fine-tuning character development, pacing, and building tension in my scenes. The editorial notes I received helped me do this effectively so I’m going to share some of them here. Each point, while specific to my novel, provided an insightful bit of writing advice that can be widely applied to any story.
One of my readers asked me this: “Did you know your characters say ‘thank you’ fifty-six times in the manuscript?” No. No, I did not.
A couple of things to take away here. First, everyone uses repetitive phrasing. It’s a habit. A simple ‘find and replace’ command on your word document will help you locate those places where you use the same word one too many times.
This comment was about more than just a lazy habit of mine, though. All my characters apparently have impeccable manners. And they shouldn’t – at least, not all the time. When the captain of the ship gives an order, he shouldn’t thank his crew for following it. Having him do so diminishes his authority, and it makes him sound too much like another character, the mild-mannered doctor, who would thank her colleagues and peers regularly.
Be sure your characters are speaking with the appropriate tone for their role, and within the context of the plot action. Also, be sure they sound distinctive from one another.
The Passage of Time
Another reader said she had trouble determining how much time had passed between scenes. One of my main characters spends months in a black-site prison facility. His teammates have no choice but to leave him behind after he’s captured. The fact that he’s gone for months, not weeks, takes a huge emotional toll on the crew, and increases the tension, anxiety, and stress they all feel as they try to complete their mission. This angst should be keenly felt by the reader. But it wasn’t, at least not as much as I’d intended, since the reader didn’t know just how long my poor character had been missing.
In the YA novel Dessert First, the main character’s brother is dying of leukemia. Once the family learns he’s not responding to treatment, and he has only a few short weeks left to live, the emotional pacing of the story picks up. Readers feel the ticking clock, and with it, dread at the impending heartbreak.
Some stories take place over the course of several years, some just a few days. Whatever the case, time itself is a factor in building emotion and creating tension. Be sure your readers can feel the passing of time in your narrative, whether it’s speeding along during an epic space battle, or feels slow as molasses while a loved one waits for news in a hospital lobby.
Seemingly simple comments from readers may indicate a deeper issue with your story, and they may help you fine-tune your manuscript. Once major plot issues are solved and your manuscript no longer requires developmental changes, another round of edits, with an eye toward fine-tuning can take your work from a solid manuscript to a polished novel.
An easy and non-intrusive way to show time passing is to mention seasonal weather changes. Over a longer timescale, children and pets grow up and age. Trees get taller and have to be cut back.