By Kristen Hall-Geisler, Collaborative Editor
I’ve seen it a hundred times in manuscripts I’ve edited (and I’m guilty of it myself): Somewhere around the two-thirds mark, the writer has obviously gotten tired of writing and revising and writing and revising. The first half of the book shimmers with setting up the mystery, building the world, or establishing the protagonist’s existential crisis. The ending has a clever twist, it closes the book while leaving the series open, or it lands the existential airplane in a way that’s satisfying without spoonfeeding the reader.
But just before the ending, there are a handful of chapters that feel rushed. They seem as if the author is less interested in these penultimate problems and they just want to get to the ending. I mean, the ending is fun to write, for one thing. And getting to the end means you’re finally done extracting this story from your very tired brain.
How can I, an editor, tell that the author has a very tired brain? There are a few giveaways, but there are also ways to perk up these chapters.
Nounless Pronouns. Let’s go back to high school English for a second (sorry). Usually, pronouns refer back to a noun, known in this situation as an antecedent. Here’s an example: Harold became a sneakerhead because as a kid, he had to wear dress shoes as part of his school uniform. He and his are the pronouns, and Harold is the antecedent; the reader knows who he is because they know about Harold.
When writers get tired, they tend to skip over the antecedents. They’ve already written Harold five hundred times in this novel, surely they don’t have to do it again? Yes. This is especially important when establishing new chapters or scenes so the reader is clear on who is present. And if there’s more than one character using the same pronouns in the scene, it can get even more confusing.
The Fix: Make sure that every he, she, or they is referring back to a noun so that it’s clear to the reader who is in the scene and which character is speaking or performing an action.
The Recap. In some very specific circumstances, like particularly complicated mystery novels, a recap might help the reader in the later stages of the narrative to remind them of all the clues and suspects before the big reveal. But that’s a rare circumstance, and most other genres won’t require a recap at all.
More often, the tired writer will seem to be reminding themselves of what’s going on and force the characters to get together around someone’s dinner table to rehash the events of the plot. Or the writer’s worn-out brain will combine the Nounless Pronouns with the Recap to create a chapter opening like this one: They all got together to go over everything that had happened. It’s hardly stirring stuff to read.
The Fix: Recaps need to have a very good reason to be in a book, and they need to be handled with care. Or, more likely, they need to be cut. If you come across a recap before your big finale, ask if it needs to be there at all. And if you decide it does, remember to ask yourself what’s at stake for each character participating in the recap. What’s their angle in rehashing events at this point?
Voices in the Void. A brain that’s been running on narrative fumes will sometimes forget that their characters are conversing in a place. Stretches of dialog will go on for more than a page with no physical description of the characters or their surroundings. They could be faceless voices speaking in a void. They might have emotions, but they don’t have bodies or expressions or a chair to sit on.
The Fix: We’re in the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth, so a detailed description of chintz-covered couches and knickknacks on end tables isn’t necessary. Nor is an endless stream of busywork for your characters, such as describing every sip of coffee they take. A few hand gestures that show if they’re calm or angry, a sketch of the room that tells the reader if it’s messy, clean, modern, or old-fashioned—these kinds of details are enough for the mind’s eye to latch onto and create an image.
Writing is tiring business, and it can be challenging to maintain energy—on the page and off—in the chapters that come just before the end. But that part of the story is just as crucial as the beginning and the end, and it’s worth giving the manuscript another pass with these fixes in mind. Bring your best brain to the problems that can crop up in that section. I promise—you won’t be writing this book forever.
Kristen Hall-Geisler lives in Oregon. In 2012, she joined Indigo as a contract editor, and she has edited more than 125 projects under Indigo’s banner. She has edited a wide variety of books, but she specializes in creative nonfiction, historical fiction, and sci-fi/fantasy titles for adults.