Every writer knows the feeling.
You sit down to work on your manuscript, your fingers itching to begin the writing process, and then the Wall comes up — that impenetrable, unscalable white Wall between you and your muse. Any writing or editing you were planning on accomplishing now feels drained of any excitement.
In a previous post, I talked about eight questions your editor will ask when reading your manuscript. Today, I’m going to talk about a few fiction editing exercises that writers can try on their own. These exercises will not only inspire you to break through the Wall, they will also prepare you for the developmental editing process and help you make sure you are telling exactly the story you want to tell.
Exercise #1: Start The Book Somewhere Else
This is going to be the very first thing your editor asks themself. Should page one really be page one? Chances are, it shouldn’t — and that’s okay. Your current beginning has served a very important purpose: to get you to page two. But the eye of a professional story builder will probably know if you need to begin somewhere else, or cut your current beginning altogether.
Stretching your self-editing muscles by completing this exercise might also allow you to see your story with fresh eyes, realize that a crucial puzzle piece is missing, or inspire a new direction.
A) Write a prologue
More often than not, editors won’t suggest adding a prologue (and if you have a prologue, your editor will probably suggest cutting it). However, that shouldn’t stop you from experimenting. The best prologues are tantalizing snippets that are only tangentially related to the main plot, and can offer you a new perspective on the manuscript.
B) Start from chapter three
This is a tip that I heard from another editor a long time ago, and it really stuck. Most writers have a tendency to start their books a little too early in the plot, or include too much backstory. However, by chapter three, the action has usually started and the pace has picked up. So why not just start there?
C) Start from the end of the book
Copy and Paste are your best friends here. Open a duplicate document of your manuscript and start shuffling things around. Or write your scenes on notecards and do it manually (I find this method to be much more inspiring). See how much of your book you can write backwards, or if interspersing the first half of the book as flashbacks throughout the second half of the book changes the pace or tone. Consider it an exercise in editorial flexibility. And really, after you write your book backwards, nothing your editor suggests will be as daunting.
Exercise #2: End The Book Somewhere Else
If a developmental editor’s first question is about where the book begins, it follows that the last question they ask is about where the book ends. In the same way many writers tend to start too early in the story, they tend to end too late. Lord of the Rings is a great example of this; as much as I love Tolkien’s work, he really didn’t know when to end his trilogy. Even more disappointing, the ending he did choose was less than gut-punching.
Is your book ending where it’s supposed to? Does it leave the reader with a strong, intended emotion? This exercise can help you determine this.
A) Write an epilogue
Whether it’s revealing the characters twenty years later a la J.K. Rowling, or suggesting the continuation of the story at a later date like the ending credits of every Marvel movie, writing an epilogue can give you a great alternate perspective on your story.
B) Chop off the last chapter (or three)
On the other end of the spectrum, you can shorten your ending considerably by chopping off the last chapter. Quick endings, as long as everything necessary has either been addressed or inferred, are preferable to long ones. They also elicit stronger reactions from readers, which is never a bad thing. Your editor will be impressed if you can pull this off.
Exercise #3: Write A Scene From Multiple Points Of View
Spoiler alert: You’re probably writing your book from the wrong point of view (POV). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if it results in a first draft. (Pro tip: Anything that results in a first draft is automatically a good thing, even if it’s not a permanent thing.) Chances are you wrote your book in a POV that was most comfortable to you, or most evocative of the literary greats. But every book deserves a POV tailored to its individual story and message.
A good editor will ask you to justify your use of POV, and unless you can offer a specific, analytic reason you chose first person over third person limited, they’re going to suggest the following exercise:
A) Write the scene in first person
First person narratives often have an immediacy and intimacy that other POVs lack, which makes them highly sought after, especially for MG and YA fiction. They can also be super tricky: It can be tempting to simply write in your voice as the author, instead of the voice of the character, and the two should never be synonymous in a fictional work.
If your book isn’t written in first person POV, try letting your main character speak for themself. If you are already writing the book in first person POV, try telling the story from the perspective of someone other than the main character. See what narrative path it takes you down.
B) Write the scene in close third person limited
This is what I call the “Times New Roman” of the POVs. It’s the one everyone picks, most often for no other reason than that it’s the most expected form. It’s safe, comfortable, and innocuous. Done well, however, it can make for a seamless narrative experience, removing the author entirely and allowing the reader to follow a character uninhibited. It can also make for a very compelling unreliable narrator scenario.
If your book isn’t already in close third limited, try writing it that way. If you’re moving to this POV from first person, it can be helpful to get outside the character’s head and look at them from above. If you’re moving to this POV from distant third omniscient, it can help you feel more intimately connected with the main character without plunging you straight into intimidating first person pronouns.
C) Write the scene in distant third person omniscient
Try getting outside of your characters’ heads and looking at them from above. In this POV, the narrator is God. All characters’ perspectives available for contemplation, and internal dialogues or emotional turmoils are dissected from a distance instead of experienced firsthand. Think Dickens, Tolstoy, or almost any of the authors you read in your high school lit class.
If done intentionally and with skill, this can be a highly-effective narration style, especially for genres like fantasy or historical fiction or for plots with many moving parts. If done poorly, it can come across as confusing, disinterested, or even untrustworthy. If you choose this style of narration, definitely be ready with a defense for your editor.
Exercise #4: Substantially Change A Prominent Character
We tend to gravitate toward people like us, people who fit nicely within our own bubble. This is especially tempting when constructing characters. Whether that’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or race or ethnicity, we are most comfortable when our characters are like us. But this isn’t always a good thing, and besides perpetuating underrepresentation, it lets you — the writer — off without a challenge.
One way to shake up your manuscript can be to substantially change a prominent character. This doesn’t have to be the main character, but shouldn’t be a side character with only twelve lines throughout the book.
Important Note: The word “substantially” is in this exercise for a reason. Swapping identities (especially sexual or racial ones) without deep thought, self-reflection, and lots of research can perpetuate stereotypes or misrepresentation, both of which will be flagged instantly by a good editor. In order to change a character in an accurate, respectful, and meaningful way, you need to be committed to doing it as well as you can.
A) Sexual orientation
The number of LGBTQ people in the world are on the rise, thanks to Generations Y and Z. In fact, according to a recent survey, less than 50% of teens identify as straight. In order to accurately represent the world in your book, you’re probably going to need to include at least one LGBTQ individual. Try writing a prominent character as someone with a sexual orientation other than straight. Try not making them a cis white gay best friend.
B) Gender identity
Gender identity could be as simple as changing a character from male to female or vice versa. Make a list of your characters: chances are there are more men than women in it (this is often true for female writers as well). Try to even the playing field a bit. But don’t just stick to cis male and cis female: Changing a character’s gender identity could also mean making them genderqueer or trans, or having them not ascribe to a gender at all.
C) Race or ethnicity
It can (and should) be a little intimidating to write about a prominent character of another race, especially if you are white. It’s not enough to just change someone’s physical appearance. Writing a character of color means you need to avoid stereotypes and cultural appropriation, while also confronting your own thoughts on race and identity. It can be challenging, but a good editor can help to make sure you’ve done your research and written with sensitivity and an expanded worldview.
Exercise #5: Write An Elevator Pitch For The Book
Sometimes it can be helpful to articulate the end goal, the global perspective. Try writing out the elevator pitch for your book in a way that makes it both intriguing and relatable. This not only can help you look at your manuscript from a new angle, it can also be super helpful when talking with your editor or agent, or when you’re writing query letters down the line.
Agents and publishers want books they can condense into a paragraph and that are targeted to a very specific audience. If you have that paragraph ready, it can boost your chances of being acquired.
A) Keep it between 100–150 words
One paragraph is all you get in this exercise. It should be bulky enough to imply your book has substance, while short enough to be easily digestible. Keeping your paragraph short can help you home in on your main plot, your most crucial characters, and your target audience.
B) Focus on audience and genre
No book will appeal to everyone or be able to span every genre. Saying that your book will appeal to everyone — regardless of sex or age or reading preference — is unrealistic and will indicate to a publisher that you are an amateur that hasn’t invested the time into focusing your book in a marketable way. Make sure you specify who would be most likely to read your book, and what genre or combination of genres (no more than 3) it is.
C) Don’t use your own comp titles
Often, writers will use other books to describe their own: “Think Harry Potter meets Pride and Prejudice.” There are two problems with this. First, it’s the easy way out. Try to give that impression without using other people’s work. Second, it’s useless to publishers.
Publishers use comp titles as a way to determine whether your book will sell well in the current market. They pick books written by authors of similar repute, published by a publisher of similar size and budget between 3–5 years ago. This allows them to semi-accurately judge how well your own book will sell. Pride and Prejudice is both too old and too famous to gather sales data for, and JK Rowling’s rise to fame was an unexpected and unusual occurrence, one that no publisher would bet a marketing budget on.
Tearing Down The Wall
These five fiction editing exercises will have hopefully helped with your writer’s block, and also provided you with a sneak peek into the world of developmental editing. Once you run through these routines, you’ll be ready to come back to the page inspired and more confident in your writing and editing skills. What are some exercises you do to help with writer’s block? Comment below to share with the writing community.
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