Self Editing Advice from Novelist Trent Reedy

Trent Reedy is an award-winning YA novelist who wrote the excellent novels pictured above. His “Divided We Fall” trilogy was painfully prescient about our current moment. How did he get to be such a good writer? He has a skill that every writer needs: rigorous self-editing. I’m Facebook friends with Trent and he uses that forum to humorously beat himself up for things he finds as he self-edits his work, and I asked him if I could reprint some of those here. Here’s a few things we could all learn from Trent:

Avoid needless plot digressions:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! Nobody wants to read about the oh-so-brave explorers who go on a 3 page venture deep into a hole and back up for no reason. 

Avoid using the same word, even in different forms, in the same sentence:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! “These murderers had murdered members of his crew” Eh. Golly. No. Pound Sign: Worst Writer Ever

Don’t reuse descriptions:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! You can't keep describing every single fast action as happening “in seconds.” Pound Sign: WWE

Don’t describe things the hero wouldn’t notice, even in third person:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! Nobody swinging from a cable and crashing through a window into the Burj Khalifa to collide with a sofa is going to take the time to recognize that said sofa is “expensive-looking.” Pound Sign. Worst Writer Ever

Avoid unnecessary adverbs and similes:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot. It's just a hallway, even if it’s on a space ship. Nobody cares how they walk down it. Pound Sign: Worst Writer Ever.

Police yourself for phrases borrowed from other writers:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot, you can’t put “speed born of desperation” into a book. That “I've heard that phrase before” tingling in the back of your mind is right. Just Google it. Pound Sign. Worst Writer.

And, of course, like anyone trying to improve their behavior, sometimes Trent has to tell himself something twice, as these two separate posts attest:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot. People can say things. They can shout, yell, and maybe even exclaim, but unless it’s the king, nobody in this book is going to proclaim anything. Pound Sign: dialogue tags on steroids Pound Sign: WWE
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! It is almost never necessary to use “proclaimed” as a dialogue tag. If the words themselves don't convey a proclamation, the tag is never going to make up the difference!

Trent’s brand-new book is “Gamer Army” and it looks fantastic! Check it out right now…


How to Rewrite: The Archive

A series that mostly made it into the book, but the section below on Common First Draft notes was mostly cut, and is well-worth reading...

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Channel Master Thespian

Watch it here.  The bastards won’t let me embed.
When we read our own work, we always imagine Denzel Washington or Meryl Streep performing the dialogue: The very best actors who can discover all the nuance and deliver the lines with the proper amount or subtle gravitas or dry wit. But you need to remember that your readers may not do you the favor of imagining those actors.

Readers, you must always remember, are inclined to distrust you and your work. They’ll assume that you’re a bad writer until you prove otherwise. (This is true especially for readers you don’t know, but, truth be told, it’s often true for readers you do know.) And because they’re assuming that you’re a bad writer, they’ll naturally picture a bad actor reading your dialogue.

This is especially true if they detect even a hint of pomposity in your drama, or schtick in your comedy: a switch will flip in their minds and they’ll say, “Oh, I see, this is that kind of dialogue, and the voice in their head will become as hammy as possible. At that point you’re poisoned.

So your goal is to never flip that switch. Your distrustful reader just needs to stumble over one overdramatic line to unleash Master Thespian on the rest of your dialogue. But can you force them to picture a great actor instead? If you give them no hammy lines, they can’t picture a hammy actor!

Reread all of your dialogue and remove all of the potential ham-triggers. If you can hear it in Master Thespian’s voice, take it out. Be ungenerous with your dialogue. Try to hate it, and then work on until it’s hard to hate, no matter how hard you try.

This is not entirely hypothetical for me. I’ll have a very real-world reminder of this phenomenon soon. I wrote a play (kind of co-wrote, but we need to work that out), and a friend offered to have it read aloud by his actor-y friends at a small gathering, so I did a quick reread and rewrite of it, and frequently found myself freaking out. Can any of this survive being read aloud by a group of friends, who may or may not be taking this particular challenge seriously? At what point will the room turn on the script? What line will be the tipping point?

(Okay, this is weird, but I just realized something as I typed the above. In the play, which is based on a true story, there’s actually a scene where a theatrical troupe turns against a play they’re performing and starts to ham it up after a few bad lines cause them to lose respect for the text. So it’ll be pretty goddamn meta if that happens in person.)

So I tried to slice out all the ham. I’ve tried to force a possibly-flippant group of performers to respect the text, maybe against their natural inclination. That’s a high standard to hold yourself to, and so it’s a great trick to make your writing better.

Best of 2013 #4: Dallas Buyers Club (Process, Pace, and Motivation)

Warning: I will once again throw some mud on Mud
  • Revelation vs. Process: This is simply one of the best movies about medicine ever made, both about the peculiar evils of the American system and the painful universal dilemmas doctors and patients face everywhere. I wrote about how seeing a hero confront a character with information is often more interesting than watching the hero acquire that information, but this movie did the opposite: using masterful montages to show the process of McConaughey’s epic journey each step of the way, and making it fascinating. How did it do that? Well here’s a big part: It made sure to...
  • Embrace Teleportation: I loved how quickly this movie moved. As soon as you begin to suspect what might happen next, we suddenly leap ahead a few weeks and land knee-deep into the middle of that plot turn. We never see McConaughey make the decision to do the next thing: “Wait just a second, I just had a big idea, what if we…” We just see that he has made a big decision, and he’s already facing the next big complication. We’re constantly playing catch-up…which is exactly what we want. (More on this when I discuss my #1 movie)
  • Non-Selfless Motivation: I’ve always felt that he was a potentially great actor, so I was happy when I heard the buzz that this would be the “Year of McConaughey”…but then I saw Mud first and felt like I was in Bizarro-World: now I was the one saying that his performance was too pretty-boy, too charismatic, and too reliant on gee-shucks tricks, turning what was supposed to be a scary homeless outlaw into a big old sexy teddy bear. So now I came to this movie with my guard up…which just made his utterly-vanity-free performance all the more impressive. Not only did he ruin his looks, but he played this reptilian scheming bigot without a single “love-me” tic…which just meant that America was finally given a chance to fall in love with McConaughey on our terms, not his.
Next: #3!

How to Re-Write, Addendum: Motivation Too Weak? Don’t Multiply It—Simplify It!

Two of my very first Rulebook posts were on the topic of over-motivation (1,2), which has always been a big pet peeve for me.  Unfortunately, as a result, I’ve always been afraid to maximize the motivation for my heroes and they often wind up under-motivated, which is far worse.  In fact, in a later post, I talked about the need to have a huge motivation, and I never really resolved the contradiction.

So how on earth do you provide a huge motivation without over-motivating?  The answer lies in a comment on one of those original posts: “Infallible rule: Whenever someone gives you a lot of reasons, none of them is the real reason.”

In retrospect, in all of those over-motivated movies (Batman, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, Training Day, etc), the problem isn’t the qualityof motivation, it’s the quantity. In each movie, the original motivation fell short halfway through, so the second half piled on a new motivation to see the hero through.

I now realize that I shouldn’t be afraid to strengthen my motivation all the way to the stratosphere.  If my hero gets to page 70 and says “Ugh, I’m done, this problem isn’t worth dealing with anymore”, I should definitely listen to that…but I shouldn’t have a new motivation walk in the door at that late date, as all of the above movies do…I should go back and strengthen the originalmotivation. 

Those movies did it exactly wrong: they multiplied the motivation when they should have simplified it.  As that commenter pointed out, giving too many reasons invalidates them all.  It feels desperate and unfocussed, and it makes the hero seem weak and vacillating, jerked this way and that by outside events.

Give your hero a strong simple reason that he or she has to solve the problem right now.

There’s nothing I hate more than those movies where a cop takes a special interest in a disappearance case because the victim reminds him of another kid he failed to save years ago.  Ugh.  No.  Don’t do that. That’s not how the human mind works. 

And whatever you do, don’t say, “You see, John Carter’s fighting to protect the princess of Mars because he wants redemption for failing to protect his own family on Earth ten years ago!”  We will punch you in the face if you tell us that.

But it’s tricky.  It’s tempting to simply advise: “We’re animals.  We only want what we want.  We act out of self-interest.  Start with a simple, profound motivation: self-preservation, love, sex, family, revenge, etc... or if it’s merely justice, make it a quest to make right a specific injustice of which the hero (and the audience) has felt the pain, either through personal experience or through intense empathy.”  And that’s certainly the simplest safest recommendation for selling a screenplay to Hollywood... but as a viewer I get really sick of the results: these days, every movie is a revenge movie.

So it looks like I’ve backed myself into another corner: how do you simplify the motivation without lowering everything to the level of revenge?  Looks like this is going to spill over to tomorrow...

Common First Draft Notes, Part 3: Dialogue Notes

Okay, to conclude this series the notes I most often give to first drafts, let’s look at some dialogue notes: 
  1. Too much how it is, not enough how it feels, When we write a first draft, our primary concern is laying out the plot and making it make sense.  We tend to have characters explain their situation carefully, so that the reader understands the story.  But resist this urge: The characters don’t know they’re in a story and they don’t know that anyone is listening.  Furthermore, since they’re in a crisis, they’re going to be emotional and not very analytical.  From a character perspective, this is great for you, because you want them to display a lot of personality, but from a plot perspective, it’s more problematic, since they’re not going to explain their actions very well.  This is why the best plots visualize the problem, freeing the characters up to talk about other things.
  2. Plotting on the page: In first drafts, characters spend too much time discussing what they can and can’t do before they act.  Even worse, they discuss what they did and didn’t do afterthey act.  This is death.  Figuring out the plot is your job, not theirs.  Let the audience see their motivation and their obstacles before they act, without a lot of discussion, and never let them Monday-morning-quarterback their decisions. 
  3. More personality: All too often in a first draft, a character’s reactions aren’t unique enough… They say what anyone would say, or they ask something in the way that anyone would ask it.
  4. Nobody would say that.  Here’s an example from The Hurt Locker of dialogue that drives me crazy. The guys are going though Jeremy Renner’s stuff and asking about it.  He explains, “This box is full of stuff that almost killed me.”  Then Anthony Mackie takes out a wedding ring and blankly asks, “And what about this one?” Renner smiles ruefully: “It's my wedding ring.”  Mackie looks confused until Renner says “Like I said, stuff that almost killed me.”  The problem, of course, is that people don’t give each other big, fat set-ups like these. We’re always trying to guess what the other person’s going to say.  If one of your characters has something clever to say, let them jump right in and say it, don’t force another character to set them up for the line. 
  5. Characters are listening too much, not interrupting each other enough: Unless someone is explicitly making a speech, they shouldn’t get in more than four lines of dialogue before they’re interrupted.  Speaking of which, I’ll talk more about this tomorrow…

Common First Draft Notes, Part 2: Character Notes

Okay, yesterday we talked about some of the general notes that I typically give when I read people’s first drafts.  Now let’s talk about some of the character notes: 
  1. Why does the character feel this way? And/Or: What were they expecting to happen?  Too often, especially if the hero is based on yourself, you assume that the reader will instantly share your character’s crushes, grudges and expectations.  But when someone else reads it, you’re shocked to discover that the reader doesn’t know why the character would have that crush or that grudge, or resent that particular piece of advice from dad.  This is your world and you have to create it from scratch… and that includes creating the feelings.  Even if these are feelings that the character already has (such as a long-standing crush), you have to create those feeling in the audience for the first time.  In order to empathize, we have to fall in love ourselves, based on behavior, notlooks. Superman Returns, in addition to a thousand other faults, never thought to show why Superman, or the audience, might like Lois Lane.  From the first moment, it was all anguished sighs on both sides. 
  2. Too passive: First draft heroes are almost always too passive.  Could the hero have made this happen, instead of this just happening? Instead of this clue landing in their lap, could the hero have sought out the clue?  Instead of the villain finding the hero, could the hero have found the villain?
  3. Hero just says no:  The hero should be the person pushing the forward, not the one holding everything back.  If heroes say no, they must propose alternatives, not just say “No, this is wrong, I’m not going to do it,” even if “it” is a despicable thing. 
  4. Too easy: In order to coax our heroes all the way to page 110, we tend to make things too easy for them in our first drafts.  Rather than scatter a dozen small obstacles in their way which are easily overcome, substitute a few big conflicts that really force the hero to change. 
  5. Judging your characters:  If youdon’t empathize with your hero, then nobody else will.  If your hero, or even your villain, is stupid or shallow or a hypocrite, then you have to portray this flaw in a way that makes us identify and recognize the same flaw in ourselves.  Don’t just mock their failings.  Scoring points off your own characters is the easiest thing in the world to do, so it’s boring.  In life as in screenwriting, every failure of empathy begins with the assumption that people you dislike have no real reason for what they do. Your job as a writer is to show that everybody has their reasons and their own rules.
Tomorrow, well wrap up with dialogue notes...

Common First Draft Notes, Part 1: General Notes

We spent the last week and a half talking about how to re-write a script based on notes.  As part of that, I went back and re-read the notes I gave to several peers when they send me first drafts of their scripts.  The notes I gave the most fit pretty nicely into three groups of five, so let’s start with some general notes… 
  1. Too generic and/or cliché: This is the most common note.  First drafts are filled with generic stuff, and thats fine, but now it’s time to dig deeper and find something specific. 
  2. Repeated beat: You don’t want the same basic plot point to happen twice. You don’t want to have someone get cold feet twice, or confront their dad about their childhood twice, or reminisce about the past with their ex twice, or defeat two villains using the same method.  One strong scene is better than two weak ones. Some directors go so far as to insist that the characters never visit the same location twice.  That’s a bit extreme, but it’s a good way to keep moving forward. 
  3. Extraneous characters: Producers don’t hire great actors for one-day roles, so you want to have as few characters as possible and give the remaining characters as many lines as possible.  In your second draft, look for ways to combine two uninteresting characters into one interesting character. Can the love interest be combined with an obstacle character?  
  4. Not differentiating between important characters and unimportant characters: It’s considered “cheating” in the screenplay world, but there are a million ways to let us know which characters are more or less important.  You can give totally unimportant characters no name or description (SECURITY GUARD), somewhat important characters one name and an age range (FLEISHMAN, mid-30s) and major characters a full name, specific age, and trait (ANNE RENAULT, 29, not someone you want to mess with).  When I introduce my hero, especially if he or she doesn’t appear in the first scene, I come right out and say (SCOTT, 24, our hero, a charming rogue…)  Screenwriting purists will say, “You can’t shoot that”, but they’re wrong—Directors have special camera moves reserved for introducing the hero.
  5. Emotion causes action, not action causes emotion: It’s usually stronger to have the emotion be the set-up and the action be the pay-off, rather than the other way around. He felt bad so he punched somebody, not he punched somebody so he felt bad.  You can do it the other way if you want, but it will be less satisfying to the audience, who want to build to a cathartic release.  But wait, does this mean you can never make a movie about regret?  Well, you can — I prefer Fat City to Rocky any day— but it’s a hard sell.  In most movies, action is the solution of problems, not the cause.    
Tomorrow, we move on to character notes...

How to Re-Write, Part 7: Allow Your Changes to Snowball

So now you have a list of all the changes you want to make, but you’re still not quite ready to dive into the rewrite.  Before you implement any of your changes, it’s good to go back to outline form and figure out the cumulative impact of each one. 

I convert my first drafts back into beatsheet-form, then I plug that beatsheet into the left hand column of a two-column chart.  Alongside those beats, in the right hand column, I note which scenes will be deleted and which will have major surgery.  Then I look at the restof the scenes, the ones that I didn’t plan to change, and I figure out how each of those scenes will be affected as my big changes begin to ripple through the scipt.   

Every change, for better or for worse, is like a snowball at the top of a ski-lift: as soon as you start it rolling, it will get bigger and bigger.  If you decide to eliminate one minor character, you’ll be shocked to realize how many scenes he was in, and how many little contributions to the plot he made that will now have to be handed off to other characters.   

Summer blockbusters, which always have a million cooks in the kitchen, tend to do a terrible job at this.  The Avengers was a really fun movie, but it had several plot holes, motivation holes and empathy holes, many of which were obviously caused by last-minute notes.  As with Van Helsing, I could read the notes as if they were written directly on the screen. 
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN:  Clearly they got a note that said “Give Agent Coulson a more heroic death,” so they had him pull out a big-ass laser cannon and shoot down Loki with his dying breath.  Yay!  But the next time we see Loki, later on in the same action sequence, he’s happily completing his escape, none the worse for wear.  They addressed the note but ignored the effect it would have on subsequent scenes.  

Another example: It’s not hard to guess that they got a bigger note saying, “The Avengers are just tools of the government the whole time, they should show some independence!”  So they added in a very awkward subplot in which the Avengers work together to uncover Fury’s dirty secret: he’s not just using the tesseract for energy, he’sbuilding weapons!  Gasp! 

This tacked-on subplot not only goes nowhere, it’s also totally out of character.  The Avengers loveweapons.  They’re each defined by their weapons…Quick quiz, who’s who:  Shield.  Hammer.  Armor.  Bow.  Guns.  Muscles.  Any questions?  They’re also at war.  This is a movie that ends with Iron Man happily wiping out his enemies with a nuclear missile!  

If they wanted to add a quick anti-weapons-proliferation sub-plot in the middle of an intensely pro-weapon movie, then they should have figured out a way to have that issue resonate in the second half of the movie as well, instead of being instantly forgotten.    

Okay, so now youre pretty much ready to re-write, but before you do, lets do a few days on common first draft problems...

How to Re-Write, Part 6: Pair Off Your Problems

It’s important to get lots of notes piled up before you start fixing any of them individually.  The danger is that you’ll deal with notes one by one, adding dozens of “fixes” to your screenplay that don’t integrate with each other or the story as a whole.  

For example, let’s look at my old series The Meddler, where I suggested fixes for problematic screenplays and books.  In each of these cases, I suggested ways to fix two huge problems with one simple change:
  1. In The Ghost Writer, We never get to see the supposed charm or Brosnan’s Tony Blair-like character, and McGregor’s hero is a passive protagonist who doesn’t really care about the mystery.  If we saw Brosnan charmingly seduce McGregor into joining his cause, then the revelation of Brosnan’s lies would feel like a personal betrayal and give McGregor a stronger motivation to investigate. 
  2. The title character inHugo has no reason to assume that the automaton will have a message for him, and his good father and bad uncle are inert characters who serve overly-similar roles in the narrative.  If they were combined into one complex father-figure who lies to Hugo about the automaton, his quest would have more motivation, it would be more touching, and the backstory would be more streamlined.
  3. In “Harry Potter” Book 4, Hermione’s “pet cause” of freeing the house elves is too awkward, and it’s weird that the kids suddenly stop caring that Sirius Black was falsely accused.  It would be more streamlined and compelling if her pet cause was a new trial for Sirius Black. 
  4. In “Harry Potter” Book 5, the flashes of Voldemort’s doings that Harry gets are overly convenient, and his Occlumency classes are too passive. Instead of merely trying to block out Voldemort, if Harry was being trained to pry into Voldemort’s mind, then he can actually earn the useful flashes he gets, and feel more culpable when it turns out that Voldemort has been trapping him as well.
Don’t just dive in and start fixing your problems one by one.   First make a list of every problem, then brainstorm a list of dozens of possible solution to each problem.  Truly brainstorm: If you’re trying to avoid the dumb solutions, you’ll block up your mind.  When you write your worst ideas down, either you’ll realize they’re not so dumb, or you’ll spot how to improve them, or you’ll open up a blocked neural pathway and discover a better solution hidden behind the dumb one. 

Now you have dozens of problems and dozens of possible solutions for each one.  Scan through them all to find those solutions that will eliminate multiple problems.  What if the person trying to kill them was changed from an angry postal worker to a corrupt cop?  That would explain why they can’t go the police and also how the killer was able to identify to track them down (by using their fingerprints).

Now you’ve got a list of fixes that are each doing double-duty, but you’re nevertheless going to be making a lot of changes.  How do you keep track of them all?  Tomorrow we’ll look at what happens when you start rolling a snowball down a mountain…