Before I get to today’s topic, I should mention that I’ve shifted my website software and given the website a new layout. Still a work in progress!
Sadly, writing isn’t just writing—it’s also re-writing. Perhaps you have a mental image of yourself typing frantically long into the night, then at last typing ‘THE END,’ and attaching your short story to an e-mail and sending it to a short-story market. That happens sometimes, but I suspect such stories are the easy rejects.
You don’t want to be rejected, so you’re not going to do that. You’re going to look over your story in detail before you send it in. You’re going to do some editing.
Ideally, you’ll take time to let the story sit for a time while you work on something else. How long? Best to give it a few weeks or even a couple of months. The idea here is to give your ego some distance, to enable you to look at the story fresh, as your readers will, as if someone else wrote it. You’ll view it with a more critical eye and find yourself reacting negatively to certain aspects, maybe asking “Huh?” or “So what?”
Take that first sentence, that first paragraph. Will your readers be hooked, I mean really hooked? As you read further, look for plot problems. Does the action proceed in a logical manner, making the conflict more and more difficult for your main character? Do you have tense scenes followed by more relaxing, reflective scenes? Does every paragraph, every sentence, every word really support your plot? Delete until that is true. This is a short story; you don’t have the leisure to go off on tangents.
Consider the setting descriptions for each scene. In each new scene, the reader likes to be oriented in that setting. The reader wants to feel he or she is there, with the characters. You’re looking to provide just enough detail, facts that trigger as many of the five senses as possible. You can add an occasional new detail as the scene progresses, to remind the reader where the characters are, but the bulk of the description should be early in the scene.
Think about all of your characters, paying particular attention to the protagonist and other major characters. Are they too stereotyped? Give the stock character an interesting twist, but one that ties in to your plot or theme. Do your characters behave and speak in a consistent manner throughout? It’s okay to have a major character change behavior at the end (recommended, in fact) but the change must be explained by the story. Look for “data dumps” in the story, where things are explained in narrative, or characters are just talking in dialogue to each other. Fix that by giving the reader the point-of-view character’s reaction to new developments or significant statements by other characters. Look for points in the story where you have significant actions without any reactions.
Next, look at your grammar. Target weak verbs, passive sentences, adverbs, and clichés. Check to see if your sentences vary in length. Note I said “target” and “check.” There are good reasons to keep some of these in your story, especially in dialogue, or in first person point of view narration. However, you must be consistent, don’t over-use them, and ensure they enhance the story. One trick with clichés is to give them a twist—take an old phrase and give it a new spin. As for sentence length, try shorter sentences in fast-moving action scenes and longer sentences in the tension-releasing scenes.
One way to find grammar problems as well as plot, scene, and character problems is to read your story aloud. I have no idea why this works but you will find yourself stumbling as you speak some words. That’s a signal something’s amiss. Your reader will stumble there too.
The last thing to do before sending in your story is to ensure you’ve followed the format specified by the market for which you’re aiming. Someday we’ll live in a perfect word with a single standard for manuscript format, but we’re not there yet. Editors will reject you for not following their instructions regarding mailing or e-mailing, attachments or text in e-mail, single or double line spacing, font sizes and types, one or two spaces between sentences, where and how to indicate page numbers, how to indicate italicized words, etc. You want them to publish your story? Follow their rules.
Once you’ve done all that, then you can hit send. This all sounds difficult, but it gets to be a habit and becomes a little easier with time. Here’s wishing you happy editing, from…