Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

Too much information, what does that mean? Can an author have too much information about his characters, his story world, or too much research about the era or the background central to the story’s plot?

No. The more an author knows about his characters, the more realistic they become for the reader. An author’s imagination filled with a story world only brings about vivid pictures for his audience. A vast knowledge of the era and area in which the story revolves keeps both editors and readers from pulling out their hair simply because the information provided is viable.

The problem with “too much information” is not in the knowing of it but in the sharing of it. Beginning authors tend to want to share everything with the reader. I’d like to say that I’m exaggerating when I mention that some authors want to provide every detail about a character from the moment said character is born right up until the time the front story begins.

The reader does not need that information. Leave out the cute little scene where the heroine walks for the first time. Really, it’s not needed unless that is the last time the heroine ever walked.

Part of an author’s job is to wade through the extensive back story a character brings to the table and to pick out what it was in the character’s past that brought her to the reason the story is being told. That—and only that—is what needs to be included in the novel, and not in a large block of information dump. The relevant portions of the character’s past need to be woven into the story and brought out only when necessary. Back story is an author’s best friend when it comes to providing twists and turns in the plot.

What about the elaborate maps or house designs or the paintings of a scene so vividly etched into the writer’s mind? Again, description isn’t something that should be plastered on the page for description’s sake. Yes, the author can and should have a firm picture in his mind about every location in a scene, even the small things we call props. If a lamp shade with an old world map depicted upon it in a traveler’s library is actually a map to hidden treasure, that’s something the author will want to relay, but it needs to be brought in at an opportune moment. When the traveler’s niece has arrived because Uncle Horton has gone missing, have her turn on the light and think of Uncle Horton and everywhere he’s gone. Let her trace a route from Cairo to Istanbul with her finger. Not only is that description, but if the treasure lies on that route, it’s called foreshadowing.

Then we have research. The author has explored everything he knows about the space industry. He knows each fact about every key player in the race to gain the upper hand in technology. He understands every component of unmanned and manned transportation into outer space. He knows the trajectory that made it possible for the early astronauts to circle the globe. He even understands the phenomenon known as solar flares and the danger they pose for space travel. Unless that author is James A. Michener and the novel is entitled Space, all of that information is unnecessary.

Research is done in order to convey the truth to the reader. As a horrid example of a writer’s lack of research, I had the misfortune of reading a work of fictorial (yes, a word I made up to denote a manuscript that is supposed to be historical fiction, but even the history is fiction). This work was pre-Civil War. Every Southerner hated slaves, misused slaves, used foul language, scratched in the wrong places, spit every few seconds, and all of the men wanted to run off to war to fight for the Confederacy. He didn’t simply pick on the white Southerners. The slaves were also caricatures. If that wasn’t enough, the KKK was introduced pre-Civil War. They were lynching and cross burning and wearing their hoods long before the six veterans of the Confederate Army founded the Klan and had their first meeting in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865.

The author didn’t need to share the above research (had he done the research), but he did need to know it. If he had done a little research, he would have discovered that this information wasn’t necessary for a Pre-Civil War novel.

However, research would have proven to the author that not all white Southerners were slaveholders. Not all white Southerners were radical about state’s rights. Slaves would have been depicted with intelligence and keen observation about what was going on around them. He might have even discovered some interesting facts that could have brought a dimension to each character, both the good and the bad, slave, slaveholder, and Southerners who didn’t own slaves, that would have added layers to the story.

The bottom line is an author needs to research for facts, and just as it is with back story and description, only that which is imperative to the story needs to be introduced … correctly.
When self-editing search for areas where the back story, the description, and the research introduced are irrelevant to the manuscript. Then delete it.

Happy editing.


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