Editing Fiction is more than Dotting I’s and Crossing T’s
by J. Stephen Howard
As the author of five books, I’ve come to appreciate multiple drafts of a story. I remember sprinting to the end of my first novel, just hoping I’d find a way to conclude what was, to me at the time, a cumbersome narrative. I was out of breath, so to speak, and distracted by the light at the end of the tunnel when I should’ve gone back to dive deeper.
I’ve come to see the first draft of a book now as capturing the basic shape of the story. Imagine Leonardo Davinci drawing the rough outlines of figures for a fresco and then going back to fill them in with color and shading.
Instead of a painter’s palette, writers have sensory details, and as such, we must realize that the job is not done after the ink dries on the first draft. When I go back and revisit my narratives, I put myself in the story as a reader, and if I can’t envision what it’s like to be there, that’s a problem.
Suspension of disbelief is the cornerstone of fiction. Especially in the case of genre stories—science-fiction, fantasy, and horror—writers have to give their readers something to hang their suspension on.
I recently reread the short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” by the master of sensory details, Edgar Allen Poe. Poe, in this classic haunted house story, makes the centerpiece of his setting stand out in ways that virtual reality these days could not.
“The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves… and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of individual stones.”
Usher’s house is described as if it’s infected by a virus. Indeed, later on the protagonist personifies it, claiming every stone is “sentient.”
A lot of us would vaguely depict the house as being ancient and scary-looking. In rushing to the next plot point, we forget to take a beat to soak up the scenery.
Of course, one can overdo it, but that’s where the artist’s eye is needed. Writers must develop an understanding of when the work is done and when it’s incomplete.
When editing my latest novel, Bountiful Harvest, after tackling mechanical issues, I went back and reread the whole book, a chapter at a time. In trying to mimic a painter who squints at his work, I closely examined each scene within each chapter.
As I did this, I made sure I included sensory details on every page. If I couldn’t picture myself there, I would add a visual cue, which is the most common sensory detail. But, also, I would consider adding auditory, tactile, or olfactory touches which are often neglected in stories.
The trick, though, is not to do too much. Doing so would be like the painter ruining his original vision. It goes back to putting yourself in the scene and making yourself believe.
Without your own suspension of disbelief, how could you expect as much from your readers?
J. Stephen Howard has written several paranormal, sci-fi, fantasy and horror books, including the short story collections Frankenstein’s Confessional and The Legend of a Blues Guitar. He has also written the novels Fear in Appleton, Fabled Circus and its sequel, Bountiful Harvest, which will launch exclusively on Amazon this November 27th for 90 days before being available on all major digital platforms.