When Enough Is Enough for Your Novel

At what point is your novel is done? Completed? Finished? How many revisions and edits are enough? Basically, when is enough, enough?

I recently reread my own self-pubbed novel, The Days Without You, and damnit if I didn’t find another error—a missing word. Even though it was a teeny, tiny preposition that my eyes almost glossed right over, all I could think was, “Well, damn.” Fortunately, I didn’t find any others. But there are still things I consider changing. Long to change. It’s not that I didn’t pour over revisions and edits, round after round, to make my manuscript perfect. I put my heart and soul into revisions, trying to make every scene perfect and meaningful, adding something to the story, taking parts out. I never truly felt like my story was complete. Grueling, it was. But it does beg the question: How do you know when you’re done with revisions?

There are writers out there who will revise a novel for years. I, myself, spent years on The Days Without You. Let me just tell you this: You’ll probably never be fully satisfied with your manuscript, especially if you’re looking into self-publishing. At some point, you have to put it down for good and tell yourself it’s finished, even if you’re concerned about one thing or another. And let me tell you something else: That it’s perfectly fine. That was a hard lesson for me to learn. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Let me tell you something else: You thought that at some point you’d reach that ultimate dream that is a manuscript without needing a single change? You were wrong. A comma here, a semicolon there. You might think, “Maybe I should have changed this or that.”

Like previously mentioned, you need to make the decision to stop making those minute edits and changes. Here are some questions to ask yourself when it comes to making edits or revisions to your story:

Is this edit/revision adding anything to my story’s characterization, plot, etc.?
If the changes you are making alter the manuscript’s plot, characters, character goals, or other major pieces of your story (especially in a major way), you’re probably not done yet with revisions. Work through your characterization, any plot holes or any parts that drag or don’t add anything to the overall story.

Am I looking at my manuscript with fresh eyes?
I believe it’s important to put a manuscript to the side, leaving it untouched, for some time. Whether that’s just a week or several months for you, it’s crucial to be fresh and new again when rereading a story. You’ll be better prepared to find the parts of your novel that need revising or—as much as we hate to admit it sometimes—major rewrites or removal, in some cases. Once you’ve written the first draft, take time to work on other things or hobbies and set your manuscript aside for some time.

Am I simply tinkering or fiddling with my manuscript?
If you’re at the point when you find that you’re only making tiny changes or alterations, it’s probably time to say, “I’m DONE, mother{insert callous, crude, derogatory word that I won’t put here}!” and start looking for professional editors or proofreaders if you’re going the self-pub route, or start researching agents if you’re going the traditional route.

The time comes when you’re not making your book better; you’re only making it different. Still doubting yourself? Find some beta readers and get feedback.

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Leonardo da Vinci

Not Crazy: Writing Mental Illness

If there’s one thing that makes me angry, it’s when mental illness is written poorly in fiction. Bipolar is not just happy and sad. Schizophrenia is not multiple personalities. Over the years, people with mental illness have also been portrayed as violent. The truth is that people with mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of a violent crime. Only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to those with mental illness. There is also the misconception that people with serious mental illnesses can’t hold down a job. While I had a period of time during which I wasn’t working due to my illness, I now am a full-time copywriter with a marketing agency and have been for over two years. So, yes, people with severe mental illness can hold down a job.

The biggest piece of advice I have for anyone who wants to write a character with a mental illness? Do your research. Understand the illness. Get to know the diagnosis. Talk to someone living with that illness (if you have the opportunity). Want to hear a first-hand account of living with Type I Bipolar Disorder with Psychosis? Email me at lithiumskylar@yahoo.com.

Also, understand that not everyone is as open about their diagnosis as I am. It took me years to really be as comfortable with my illness as I am today. Here are some tips for writing about mental illness:

  1. Don’t make the entire life of the character about the illness, but understand that it can affect daily life. For example, I’m reminded three times a day that I have mental illness when it’s time for my meds.
  2. Words matter. Don’t use disorders as an insult or as an adjective. (“She’s so bipolar.” “Don’t be schizo.” “Ugh, she’s cleaning? She’s so OCD.”)
  3. Remember that there’s no cure for mental illness, so while your character may have a period of stability, they’re never suddenly “better.” It can take weeks for a new medication to take effect. And remember that medications have side effects!
  4. Again, do your research. Once you have a draft, have a beta reader with that illness or disability read it for feedback on your portrayal of their illness.
  5. The illness doesn’t necessarily have to be the central plot. (Unless, of course, you’re writing solely about mental illness.) It can be a barrier to your protagonist’s ultimate goal or desire or just simply a part of who they are.
  6. Treatment plans look different for everyone. Some folks find stability through therapy and medication, while others require more intensive treatments like multiple medications or even brain stimulation treatments such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), or even Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS) implants.
  7. Make your character with an illness relatable. Give them something that readers can relate to.
  8. Don’t make your character “crazy”—be sure to specify the illness in some way, even if it’s just in your head. Each of the diagnoses have a particular subset of symptoms.
  9. Lastly, be respectful when writing mental illness. Don’t use it as a mere plot device.

A brilliant book about life with mental illness is An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. I highly recommend it. I’ll say it one more time: Do your research on your character’s illness.

Is Said Dead? Writing Dialogue Tags

If you’re a writer, you probably have heard the phrase “Said is dead” given as writing advice. When I search that saying, I come up with hundreds of blogs that offer alternatives to the word said. (I also come up with some song on the first page of results. Interesting.) People say that this particular dialogue tag is overused and overdone, and that writers should use more descriptive tags that show the speaking character’s emotions and that describe how the character is speaking.

The thing is? I don’t think said is necessarily dead.

Dialogue tags are a funny thing. “Said” is an invisible word. Your eyes gloss right over it while reading, and it’s like your brain barely registers that it’s there. That’s the beauty of this funny little four-letter dialogue tag. You can lose yourself in a book when your brain can forget that you’re actually reading.

Some writers think bigger, fancier verbs are better as dialogue tags. Sure, I think they can be used occasionally, even sparingly. The problem with constantly using bigger verbs as tags? It reminds the reader that they are reading. If you’ve set up the scene right, set up the characters’ emotions, readers don’t always need big words to tell them what the character is doing or how they are speaking.

The real purpose of dialogue tags? To simply tell the reader who is speaking. Sometimes, you don’t even need a dialogue tag if it’s clear who is speaking. You could surround, precede, or follow the dialogue with action. If two people are alternating speaking and it’s still clear who is doing the talking, you could drop some tags here and there. Here is an example from my book, The Days Without You, in which the characters Adam and Samantha are talking:

Samantha cleared her throat while her hands quickly mixed the drink order. It was almost an art, Adam thought, how fast she did it.
“Thanks for ditching me at the concert on Friday, by the way,” she said, her lips pressed into a thin line.
He held back a snort. “You’re welcome.”
“I’m serious. I couldn’t find you after the show. I tried calling you.”
“Had my phone on mute.”
Her lips puckered into an even thinner line, her eyes narrowing. “Seriously, I had to call my friend to pick me up.”
“Sorry, sorry. Had an incident during the show, had to help someone. I’ll make it up to you one of these days.”
Her puckering lips loosened into a smile. “Fine, you can take me to lunch one day.”

The Days Without You, pg. 18, Skylar Wilson

Again, as long as it’s clear who is speaking, you could technically drop some dialogue tags. But, bear in mind that said is invisible. Unless it’s absolutely necessary for the reader to know exactly how something is being said (i.e. the need for a more descriptive dialogue tag), use said or no tag at all. Use your best judgment to decide when to use said, no tag, or a stronger verb.

No, said is not dead.

Crafting Characters: Tips for Creating People

No, I don’t mean procreation when I say “creating” people—that’s a whole separate topic we’re not going to get into. Here, we’re talking about making up characters for fictional stories. What’s great about creating characters for a story is that humans are so diverse. We, as people, are so utterly interesting as a species. From our personalities to our tastes and interests, we vary so much as people. My husband and I are total opposites. He loves sports. I hate sports, mostly because I can’t understand all the rules, for the most part. (Except for swimming—I was a competitive swimmer back in my younger days. Woo, breaststroke!) I’m a violinist and a music geek; he doesn’t understand my obsession with “Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saëns or with Yo-Yo Ma. (Actually, the reason why I’m such a big fan of the cellist and of violinist Joshua Bell is that my dad used to take me to see them perform with the Philadelphia orchestra.) You get my point. People vary greatly.

What does that mean for your storytelling? Your characters should be just as diverse, especially if you’re writing human characters. I’m not a Sci-Fi or Fantasy writer, so I can’t speak on creating characters in those genres (characters such as aliens, elves, hobbits, et cetera). However, I do write women’s fiction, romance (kind of a blend), and am currently working on a mystery novel. I love to read mysteries and suspense, so it was only natural to move my writing into that genre. Writing romance/women’s fiction, however, did help me study how people interact with each other.

Anyway, back to creating characters. Here are some tips for crafting your characters.

  1. Characters should have flaws.
    Humans aren’t perfect, which means your characters shouldn’t be perfect, either. Your main character’s flaws should help fuel the conflict. Examples of flaws could include greed, jealousy, prejudice, dishonesty, or arrogance.
  2. Characters should have strong motivations.
    There should be a reason why your characters act the way they do, whether it’s your antagonist looking to conquer the world because his life is being threatened or a protagonist simply seeking companionship. For a fantastic example of strong character motivation, check out one of my recent posts, A Case Study in Character Motivation: Legally Blonde. A great source for motivation ideas is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  3. Make your characters memorable.
    Don’t just write mundane descriptions such as hair color and eye color. Do they have vivid scars? A certain gait? (Think Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot in the show Gotham, based on the Batman series.) Funny preoccupation? (Like Ed Nygma and his fascination with riddles, as he ends up becoming The Riddler. I’m on a Gotham kick, if you can’t tell.) Ask yourself, “What makes my character stand out?”
  4. Each character should be well-developed.
    Every human has their own unique background. In my debut novel, The Days Without You, Kylie is losing her mother to cancer and already has a history of tragic loss. She has her own interests and aspirations (such as a surfing and her desire to be a crime journalist), as well as a reluctance toward her budding relationship with Adam due to her history with past relationships. What type of childhood did your characters have? Was it happy or sad? What are their personal goals? Their likes or dislikes? Make your characters as uniquely human as real people are.
  5. Characters should be diverse.
    This, of course, will depend somewhat on your setting (such as a monastery or a convent, for example, in which case your characters would all be monks or nuns, although there still would be some diversity amongst them). What I’m trying to say is that the world isn’t made up of all straight, white, neurotypical men. People have disabilities, illnesses (mental and physical), ailments, different sexual preferences, different physical appearances. Don’t make all your characters the same, and don’t only go into detail on the characters who aren’t straight, white dudes.

I suppose the ultimate idea I’m trying to convey here is that you should make your characters as real as possible. Stop and think about what it’s like to be human. Humans vary. We are diversely different as a species, and there’s no right or wrong way to be human. (And, if you’ve never listened to Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, I highly recommend it, especially the movements titled “The Elephant” and “The Swan”. Seriously, double bass never gets any love.) Happy writing!