What I Learned From WANACon – Part 2: The Devil is in the Details

By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

This is part 2 in my WANACon blog series. This series isn’t about retyping pages of notes I took during the conference, nor is it a regurgitation of info. It's about a few things I thought worth mentioning and how they apply to my journey as a writer and developmental editor. Read Part 1: Community Building here.

Photo courtesy of Mimi Traillette on Flickr

Photo courtesy of Mimi Traillette on Flickr

In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I thought it would be a great reminder to talk about “Little Darlings" as Kristen Lamb calls them. Little Darlings are the detailed pieces of our writing we stop and fuss over when there’s a million things wrong with our story’s foundation.

Like dressing a China doll – only the doll is cracked and about to crumble, but we’re too busy loving and fussing with the doll’s clothes and hair to realize its body is falling apart.

Ditch Perfection and NaNoWriMo Your Heart Out

Concentrating on details trips us up and slows our writing pace. It prevents us from finishing the story and blinds us to the real story problems later on. Once we fall in love with Little Darlings, they’re that much harder to kill off when reality sinks in. No, don’t take away my precious!

Little Darlings also feed our insecurities. The need to write something beautiful and perfect and the need not to suck is one of the emotional driving forces of re-writing and revision. But those pesky Little Darlings make us ignore other areas of bad writing and our own fear of facing them.

I used to be a compulsive fixer of the little things in my own work. I could revise a chapter until I was gnashing teeth when the rest of my story wasn’t even written yet.

It sounds ridiculous, I know. It’s easier to say from the outside, “Of course that doesn’t make sense!” but when we’re invested in our story, we can get hung up on the little details and avoid deeper problems.

It’s a bad writing habit I’ve done my best to overcome.

This is why I love NaNoWriMo. It forces us to fast draft, to write with abandon, and FINISH.

Maybe there's plot holes and untied threads and tangents and the protagonist’s sister's name changed a few times. But we’ll have a skeleton of a story to work with, and that beats a blank page any day.

Shitty First Draft is Complete, But Don’t Get Sucked into the Details

When NaNoWriMo is over, then we can examine our messy story as a whole (think bird's-eye view) and start fixing the foundation.

Here’s some macro steps to help in the early stage of revision:

Can you pull out all the plot points within your 3 Act structure?

If not, flag the scene where a plot point is supposed to be (that makes the most sense within your story) and you can revise or fill it in when you’re ready.

**This isn’t about boxing your story into a formula, but to make sure the timing of events is forwarding your plot and leading to an arc. Remember that sagging middle? Plot points prop up that middle and give you direction.

Is the conflict strong enough to keep your protagonist from turning back?

I recommend looking at this early on because if the conflict isn’t strong, everything the main characters do will seem forced, like you’re playing puppet master. Make sure the conflict (usually near the inciting incident) is forcing the protagonist into action, an action that’s his only option to escape failure or death.

Did your characters grow emotionally?

Just like plot arcs, characters need arcs too. Pull out the big emotional turning points and see if these points map a trail of his inner journey. Does the protagonist do something in the end what he wasn’t willing to do in the beginning?

Then you can work on scene-to-scene fixes and sentence-level issues like transitions, organizing backstory and ideas, consistency in the details, padding the story with setting and description, etc.

But if we skip the big picture and start falling in love with scenes and secondary characters and primping and fluffing sentences, adding loving description after loving description until we have pockets of perfection buried in a mess, that’s when we start ignoring the big structural things that aren't working.

Working Big to Small Goes for Developmental Editing too

When we're really stuck and have tried our best (we’re aware we have problems, but we don’t know the solutions), that's when we call our beta readers, our critique partners, and our developmental editor for insight.

As a developmental editor, my first instinct is to check the story structure. I've trained my mind to focus on the foundation and not nitpick at the micro inconsistencies yet. The author and I will get to those details eventually (if time and money permits). Because who cares about the little things when readers could fall into plot holes?

In keeping with the big to small scale of revising a story, my last piece of advice is don’t bypass developmental editing and go straight to copyediting. Words can be polished to perfection, but that won’t fix content issues.

Back to the present! For the month of November, details are the devil. Get out of that tea party with your Little Darlings. Stay close to your story and put one word in front of the other. NaNoWriMo!