3.1: Themes & Motifs
Confession time! Of the sections in this rundown, I had the hardest time with this one. Probably because unlike the others that are subjective but tangible, this is subjective and intangible. A list of mixed reading material follows in the resources section.
To quote Chuck Wendig:
Theme is you saying something with your fiction
He goes on to explain/suggest that theme is not a single word, it’s not a logline, it’s not a question. It’s the proven thesis, and motifs are part of the arguments to support it. It doesn’t need to be a nice conclusion ("a woman needs a man in her life" is equally valid to "friendship is the strongest force"), but it needs to take a stand, and take a side.
Over to motifs as supporting the theme. They are:
a recurring subject, item, idea, etc., especially in a literary, artistic, or musical work.
An example from classical music is the idée fixe of the theme signifying the artist’s beloved in Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. Through five movements, we pick up the same melody, including the grotesque, corrupted melody in the fifth movement, where the artist is in Hell.
If your theme is "time heals all wounds", then maybe a motif can be the seasons: starting in winter when all is dead, and moving into spring and summer. Or maybe signifying this with birds, or bugs, or something like that. You will have to look through your own manuscript to see what your theme and motifs are.
- Seeing the story as a whole, what does it say/prove? If it doesn’t say anything, what do you want it to say? Think of it in terms such as "X leads to Y", or "X wins over Y": a strong statement that your story should prove without a doubt. Oh, and no. You really don’t need to have a preachy theme, just own what your fiction is saying.
- Go through your scenes and figure out if you have any recurring motifs that you could expand on. If not, is there anything that would deepen the story?
- Once again go through the scenes, and figure out how you want to expand motifs, or for that matter remove ones that you feel aren’t adding anything to the story.
- The Writing Cafe: Motifs
- Julie Eshbaugh: Add depth to your story with motifs
- C.S. Lakin: Motifs for Cohesion and Depth
- Chuck Wendig: 25 things writers should know about theme
For each character (no matter how minor–this is when it’s good to have added keywords for every recurring character in the scenes), evaluate their dialogue. They should be:
- Distinct. This means that when looking at a line, you should immediately know whether it’s Character A or Character B (within reason, obviously). See if you can find some way to help show that it’s this character. For instance, one of my characters speaks with asides, so her dialogue is littered with "I talked to X yesterday–you remember X? We went to school together–and he said …". Other quirks can include specific sayings, or just that they have different vocabularies. The voice should fit each character, but don’t base it off of stereotype, but rather the specific character.
- Consistent. Unless there’s a reason for a change in speech pattern, it should be enforced throughout.
3.3: Narrative Voice
Narrative voice is like the character voice in the sense that it’s filtered through that character’s experience, but separate in the sense that it’s not what comes out of the character’s voice, but how they see the world.
For example, my fashion designer Katja is likelier to notice the cut of someone’s clothes, while her girlfriend Sia is likelier to notice the colours. To Belinda, the world is a painful reminder of her trauma, and the classically educated Andrej is a romantic at heart.
This both comes down to how they’d structure sentences, what they would notice in a scene, how they would notice it, and word choice. What colour is her dress, is it red or oxblood? For that matter, is it a dress, or is it a gown?
For each PoV, go through the wording and sentence structure and make sure that everything they notice is described in the way they would, and that the sensory impressions match what they would perceive.
If there is a single PoV, you have a bit more freedom (though it should be consistent), but if you have several PoVs, they need to be distinct. Given a paragraph, it should be immediately obvious who we’re seeing this through.
3.4: Tailor language to setting
Now I’m about to get almost as abstract as when talking about themes and motifs, and I do believe that this is for a higher grade than most of the other things. This is also very heavily subjective and based on my writing, which is florid and packed with vivid, ensouled imagery. If you write differently, this may not be as relevant to you. This is also more of thing for "realism slipping into the fantastic", rather than purely realism or purely fantastic.
Consider every scene whether it’s supposed to be realistic or fantastic.
In a realistic scene, pare down the language and ground things with realistic details: gravel against feet, fire burning fingers, the smell of french-fry oil or the light of a smartphone. And then, to muddy the realistic waters, throw in details that make it more magical. Like suddenly using a minor chord in a major song. Just a bit, try to keep the realism high in realistic scenes.
In a fantastic scene, use the magical metaphors that build up the fantastic. Even if there is nothing overtly magical, use language to suggest that something could be. But, keep the layer of realism to ground the reader. Keep them on their toes, but still on the ground.
3.5: Remove filter words & adverbs
Filter words are things that either a) doesn’t add anything to the narrative, or b) actively adds a barrier between the Point of View and the reader. I recommend removing any word that doesn’t add to either the rhythm or clarifies the meaning, though unless you have a list of words to search through your manuscript, wait with it until step 3.7 when you’re going through the sentences with a fine-toothed comb.
I use Rayne Hall’s book The Word-Loss Diet for this, as well as trying to compile a list of words for myself.
Consider the word then, such as in "if there’s a will, then there’s a way". That sentence can be written as: "if there’s a will, there’s a way", and won’t lose any meaning. You can also consider words such as really, very, totally, so. If they’re used as an intensifier, does that say anything that the item itself doesn’t?
Barrier between Point of View and reader
Anything that reminds the reader that they’re reading a narrative can jolt them out of the story. Examples of those filter words:
- to see (if it’s visually described, they can see it)
- to hear (if it’s audible described, they can hear it)
- to think (just write the thought)
- to touch (if it’s tactily described, they can touch it)
- to wonder (just write the thought)
- to realise (just write the realisation)
- to watch (it’s often assumed that in dialogue one will watch the other)
- to look (it’s often assumed that in dialogue one will look at the other)
- to seem (acceptable if it’s a conclusion about another person who’s mind you can’t read)
- to feel (or feel like) (describe how they’re feeling instead, unless it’s about someone else)
- can (just do it)
- to decide (just write their decision)
- to sound (or sound like) (describe how they’re sounding instead, unless it’s about someone else)
- to start/begin (just do it)
Of course, there’s exceptions even beyond the ones I mentioned in my notes above. Maybe the importance lies in the tactile sensation, or in the decision, etc. That’s fine, just try to avoid using them without good cause.
There is nothing inherently wrong with adverbs, they’re an important part of a writer’s toolbox. However, they are often used when you should be using a stronger verb instead.
Search through your manuscript for the filter words and rephrase to remove them.
When it comes to adverbs, just look for -ly one by one and revise each sentence there. That removes a lot of the effort from the future changing of wordings.
3.6: Grammar & Spelling
Since I use Scrivener, I compile the document for each of these steps and then transfer the changes back to Scrivener before the next step.
Scrivener has its own spellchecker, so hopefully some has been caught while you’ve been working.
- Start with your trusty word processor, whichever it is
- Print the document and go to town with a red marker. It’s easier to catch errors in a new format
- Google Docs uses Google Search to do spellchecking, so it’s a good third option
After that, you should have minimised the number of errors your copyeditor finds, which will be cheaper for you in the long run.
The Hemingway App is a decent text-analysing tool that you can either try for free online, or buy for the desktop. As of yet I’ve mainly used the online tool. Now, keep in mind that everything that the app does is give suggestions. Not even Hemingway would’ve "passed" using this app! However, to me it is useful getting an overview of the complexity of your sentences.
3.7: Repeat step 2.3
What gives; we’re repeating this? Yes! You’ve changed a whole bunch of things with grammar, changing up heaviness of sentences and reworked the narrative voice, so your pretty MRUs have probably become all messed up.
This time, however, you’re also keeping an eye on the pacing, so you don’t mess that up. I also recommend printing it out and work it over with highlighters to evaluate the senses, and heighten them even more if necessary. Remember, deep Point of View.
- Is it necessary?
- Is the PoV perceiving things that’s beyond them?
- Is the PoV deep enough?
- Is it a Motivation or a Reaction?
3.8: Own your words
These are a few disjointed thoughts on what the right word is.
First, the frenemy of any writer: the thesaurus. There’s nothing wrong with using a thesaurus to find the perfect word, however you shouldn’t go overboard with it. Ensure that you pick words that you (and your PoV!) understand and can use in a sentence. Do you actually know how to use pernickety? And would your character use it in dialogue or narrative? If so, go ahead. If you don’t, either find a better word, or research the meaning, synonyms and etymology of it before you use it.
Next up, problematic words. This is a lot harder, and goes back to knowing the meaning and the etymology of the words you’re using, to do your best to avoid furthering bad stereotypes. As an example, let us go with a series of words that all have some meaning of "swindle".
- Gyp, gip, jip: from the term gypsy–a sometimes slur for a member of the Romani–, meaning to swindle someone
- Jew: etymology fairly clear, meaning to defraud someone
- Welsh: once again, etymology fairly clear, meaning to "swindle by defaulting on a debt"
All three of these words are xenophobic, derived from negative stereotypes of a particular group of people. If you use them willy-nilly, you will be furthering those stereotypes, and will hurt some of your readers. Those kind of words are microaggressions, one of a thousand needle-stings that marginalised people get every day.
Language is powerful, and it’s been used to shape a narrative for many years against groups that are so-called outside the norm. Look up your words, ensure you know and understand them.
You wrote them; you own them.
For a good video that covers some racist origins of common idioms, see Franchesca Ramsey on Decoded
A sidenote about hurtful content
Just because you clean up the language doesn’t mean that your writing isn’t hurtful. If you feature a nomadic group of people in colourful outfits with a penchant for magic, stealing and swindling–especially if they’re all brown people–you are going to have people associate them with the Romani. If brown people or black people are treated badly without the perpetrators getting called out, you are hurting people. If none of your queer characters get a happy ending, you are perpetuating a stereotype that is quite prevalent in modern fiction.
Be very mindful when you write, and consider your inspiration. Especially when dealing with groups that are historically marginalised.
3.9: Evaluate the rhythm of each unit
Stories are meant to be read out loud. Word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, scene-by-scene, chapter-by-chapter: ensure that you are using the appropriate word, etc. Are you using weak verbs with (or without!) adverbs? Are you using convoluted synonyms to avoid a verb + adverb?
Read it again and again. Test the rhythm, check your words, find the perfect word at the perfect place for every bit of the story. If you have someone who’d listen, that is immensely helpful.