Editing Challenge Day 18: First and Last Sentences of Every Paragraph

The Blairzone - 40This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Good character work this week, editors! We’ve asked some tough questions about building your character outward and inward and upward. Now it’s time to return to editing on a micro level, really polishing the piece from sentence to sentence. As I was reading one of my favorite stylists, Zadie Smith, I noticed something powerful and effective about her paragraphs. Check out an example from her New York Review of Books essay, “Joy”:

“…if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that I experience at least a little pleasure every day. I wonder if this is more than the usual amount? It was the same even in childhood when most people are miserable…”

And here’s another couple of paragraphs later on:

“An egg sandwich from one of these grimy food vans on Washington Square has the genuine power to turn my day around. Whatever is put in front of me, foodwise, will usually get a five-star review.

You’d think that people would like to cook for, or eat with, me—in fact I’m told it’s boring. Where there is no discernment there can be no awareness of expertise or gratitude for special effort. “Don’t say that was delicious,” my husband warns, “you say everything’s delicious.”

And how about just one more pair of paragraphs:

“…my husband nods a little impatiently; there was no need for the addition. My husband is also a professional gawker.

The advice one finds in ladies’ magazines is usually to be feared, but there is something in that old chestnut: “shared interests.” It does help.”

There is much to love in Zadie Smith’s clean, precise, gently comedic writing, but I want to focus today on her transitions. In the way we often do, Smith seems to be thinking about her topic from paragraph to paragraph; we can see each paragraph engaging with a different aspect of her subject (the differences between pleasure and joy). But she does a neat little trick that makes every paragraph seem to flow seamlessly from the next: the last sentence of each paragraph is actually the beginning of the thought of the next paragraph. See how that works? The first paragraph mentions everyday lives and then the next paragraph is about experiencing pleasure every day; the next one mentions the pleasure of food and the one that follows is about food and cooking; and the next one mentions a shared interest of her husband’s and the paragraph that follows is about their connection and bond.

It’s such a simple trick, but it’s the kind of thing that can usually only be caught in a second or third draft, not the first. We first think of the ideas and anecdotes we want to share in separate, discrete chunks, and put them in paragraphs accordingly. But what if we re-visited them and just made the first sentence of each paragraph the last of the previous one, or wrote a new transitional sentence? Suddenly the idea seems to flow naturally from the one that came before. This works for both fiction and nonfiction; we want to see a continuous thread of thought and narration, weaving seamlessly through the story.

So today, play around with the first and last sentences of each of your paragraphs in your story. See if you can just make them jump up to the previous paragraph, or throw in a quick image or phrase that will transition from one to the next. It makes things more suspenseful and also more inviting.

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Editing Challenge Day 17: Give Us Your Character’s Dreams

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Yesterday we talked about giving your character little details that make him or her seem real. But I often see student or professional stories that give us a believable person and milieu, and yet don’t think bigger. We want to read a story that has movement and direction, and we’ve discussed doing that in plot, but it’s also a journey that must be taken in character.

So today in your editing journal, take a few notes down about your character’s dreams and aspirations. What are his most potent desires? What does he imagine happening in a perfect world? And what would he do if only he were brave or talented or wise enough to get it done? I was thinking about this recently after setting a story at an artist’s colony and having my character meet various wacky characters. That was all well and good, I thought, but why was he really there? What was he hoping to accomplish? Was he there to finish the novel and make it big, or just as a curious observer, reporting on the funny people around him? What the heck did he want, anyway?

I think we have to have a strong sense of what a character wants if we are going to let the story’s plot points flow in a natural and believable way. Short stories often go off the deep end by having character go to stranger and stranger places and do stranger and stranger things — but I find those kinds of stories tedious unless I full understand why the character is really doing those things.

It’s back to basics today, folks. Why is your character there? What does he or she really want?

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Editing Challenge Day 16: Know Your Character Like Yourself

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

One of the great joys of sinking into a good story is feeling that we truly understand a character. Out of that understanding and knowledge comes sympathy and investment; even if the character ends up making terrible choices (see yesterday’s exercise about touching the bear), we can still empathize if we feel that the character is real and human. In the short space of a short story, this building of character is often neglected; we’ve got so much to do already, after all. We’ve got to get in and get out.

But today’s goal it to let your reader feel just a few more sparks of recognition in your story, to feel that the character is real. Pull out your editing journal and think about brainstorming five to ten possible details about your character that could be incorporated into a scene or as a quick mention about the character’s past. I remember in one story by a colleague, a quick mention of a character playing with her cereal in a certain way made me feel a powerful aha! because it was the exact way I played with my cereal as a kid.

Other examples might be:
*the way he or she drives a car or puts on clothes (does she hook the bra behind her back or hook it in the front and swivel it around?)
*how he stirs ice cubes in a glass
*the annoyed politeness she uses when speaking to telemarketers
*the way he brushes his teeth
*the sensual pleasures she finds in life: digging hands into sacks of rice, getting stuck glue out of a bottle, cleaning her ears

What examples can you think of that will make your reader say, “Aha”?

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Editing Challenge Day 15: Touch the Bear

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

I’ve made it my business to study one of my favorite writers of short stories, the incomparable Alice Munro. Rather than just sink into the stories with simple enjoyment, I’ve tried to examine them and wonder what makes them work. After all, Munro’s writing is not the flashiest or the most innovative; the events of her stories are often quiet; and the emotional drama going on is subtle. So why am I so utterly engrossed and delighted by her storytelling?

Munro has a number of cards in her hand, but one thing I’ve noticed again and again is that she is willing to make her character do the thing that we normally wouldn’t do. She often sets up situations in which a character comes right up to the edge of an uncomfortable moment. They are the kinds of events we do encounter in our own lives — whether to accept a marriage proposal, choosing to stay in school, choosing to parent or not, whether to be kind or not, whether to keep a secret or not. But whereas in real life, many of us would do the polite thing, the discrete thing, the prudent thing, and move on, Munro is willing to push her character into the discomfort. She has her character blurt out the thing no one will say, or get in the car with the stranger, or get off the train instead of riding on the way she is supposed to. These dangerous, uncomfortable choices are the stuff of great drama and riveting fiction.

So today, look back through your story and make sure you aren’t missing any opportunities for your character to take the risky choice. I think of this as my “touch the bear” advice ever since I wrote a story myself involving a character encountering a bear. In my first draft, I had the character look at the bear in the road, reflect a little on his relationship with his mother, and then move on. But in draft two, I suddenly realized that that wasn’t enough: I had to make my character go up and touch the bear. The bear was representing his longing for a powerful mother relationship in his life, and whereas I knew it was irrational and foolish to try to touch a wild animal, my character wasn’t me. He had to go up and touch that bear.

So what bear will you make your characters touch today?

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Editing Challenge Day 14: Read with a Ruler

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Today’s editing tip is a low-key one, in honor of it being a weekend, but it will still keep you thinking about your story and others in a new way. Sometimes we need to shake up our reading habits in order to edit better; the largest barrier to being smart editors of our own work is the blindness that sets in when it comes to reading our own sentences. We lose the forest for the trees, and we also start tolerating so-so sentences just because we’ve seen them again and again.

Today, read through your story with all the new changes you’ve made — but read it with a ruler underneath each line. This is what people used to do to read small type, and in fact it’s a trick I learned from reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. In that novel, a character seems to have a version of ADD or dyslexia and finds it hard to read because his eyes and his attention keep jumping all over the page. He devises a piece of paper with a rectangle cut out of it and reads that way, only able to look at one sentence or even just one phrase at a time.

As soon as I read about this, I was struck by it as a potentially useful technique not just for the ADD-afflicted among us, but for anyone who wants to increase her reading focus. It will force you to examine your own writing one sentence at a time. Does it sing? Does it feel clear, focused and forceful? Does one sentence follow naturally from the previous one?

Take it easy today, editors — but read thoughtfully, and you’ll be ready for some tougher editing challenges in the next week!

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Editing Challenge Day 13: Go Back and Plant Some Seeds

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Joyce Carol Oates said once that she doesn’t know what the first page of a novel should be until she has written the last page. Since she’s Joyce Carol Oates, the period between those two events is probably on the order of weeks, but the lesson stands for the rest of us: we often need to write to the end of a story before we truly discover what that story is about.

It might not be until we reach the climax that we realize what the climax should be, and we might not discover that the story is really all about the sister relationship rather than the romantic one (like Frozen!) until we’ve gotten to the end. Once you HAVE gotten to the end of a draft, though, it’s time to look back and actually do some hard thinking about what tensions and characters really floated to the top, regardless of what you originally intended.

This happens to me all the time: I’ll set out with teeth gritted, telling myself I’m writing a story about a husband and wife; but by the end, I realize I’ve been writing about the wife’s past, not really about her current relationship. Surprises like this can come along even in concrete plot points: Flannery O’Connor wrote about one story that she didn’t know a wayward Bible salesman was going to steal a woman’s artificial leg until he up and did.

But here’s a great pleasure of the editing process: now that you know what the story is really about, you can go back and plant some seeds to make it look like you were planning that all along. We often marvel at the cunning ways writers foreshadow or show themes or threads all along, but guess what: many of those have been planted retroactively.

It’s fun! Go ahead and re-visit that late night conversation, and throw in some flirtation now that you know they’re secretly in love. Add flower imagery to the first paragraph now that you know someone will be killed for her rare and priceless orchid collection. Show themes of growing up, now that you know the story is about growing up. This is one of my favorite editing tricks because it’s one of those things that looks hard, but is actually easy.

Did you ever read The Lupin Lady when you were a kid? It’s a delightful picture book about a woman who wants to spread beauty in the world, so she spends years merrily galavanting about her town, dropping lupin seeds wherever she goes. Years later, the town is a riot of beautiful purple flowers. So today, become the Lupin Lady — prance merrily through your story and plant seeds so that the climax and ending will feel natural and inevitable.

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Editing Challenge Day 12: Bake a Cake

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Sometimes I tell my students that writing a novel — or a good story, for that matter — is like baking a cake. The thing about cake is that it is a very rich and delicious material, but very soft and fragile. Cupcakes or simple layer cakes are all well and good. But once you start getting into advanced cake-making — a wedding cake, some elaborate cake sculpture — you discover that cake alone will not work. The cake is so soft that if you stack too much of it, it will begin to collapse under its own weight. You have to start putting in wooden struts or PVC pipe to hold up the cake; otherwise, it’s like an animal with no internal skeleton. There’s a reason insects and other creatures with exoskeletons have to stay fairly small.

So today, we’re going to examine the internal structure of your story, and make sure it has a sturdy enough inner construction. First, take a look at your hard copy, preferably two-up to a page so you can wrap your head around the thing more easily. Then notice what internal structure it seems to have. Are there short sections, each one at a different time of day? Is there a repeating theme or motif of time or space? Are we contained within a single or a single week or a single year? Is every section building to the winning shot of the big game, or are we alternating between his and hers versions of events?

Try to pin down the structure you had in mind. If it’s a first draft, chances are you will have a vague and fuzzy sense of internal structure, but you won’t have applied it consistently throughout. I remember one story I wrote about a high school writing teacher; I had the thought that it would be cool to start some sections with imagined writing prompts, but I didn’t follow through, throwing them in haphazardly instead. Just by applying the writing prompts consistently in the story, my piece suddenly felt organized; it felt like it had meaning and purpose as a document.

Is there a central structure you can wedge in there to hold your story up? What if it was in the form of an interview, or letters, or as a statement to a judge? What if we re-visited the same couple every two years? What if…? You’ll have to figure out what structure suits the story you’re trying to tell. But if you do use something, you’ll notice that your ideas will seem more focused. The scenes you’ve pulled together will be united and driving toward a common goal.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at

Editing Challenge Day 11: Turning Up the Heat

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Last time I talked about building a character that is multi-layered, existing in multiple spheres of existence. But that’s not enough for a compelling story; we also need to turn up the heat. If we think about great characters from stories that we loved, we are almost never seeing those characters at a time when everything is fine and dandy. In fact, we are dipping into the character’s life at exactly the point of greatest strain.

Think about when you’ve chosen to show us a slice of your character’s life. Is it a time when things are more or less all right? For a story to be memorable and compelling, we need to put a character under threat. That character’s very hold on life must be in question in one way or another. This threat can be physical or emotional or financial; but it must be real, and it must be targeted.

What I mean by that is that if you’ve established a character who deeply desires a stronger relationship with his father, then it’s not the right threat to have a bear going through his garbage. We need to find a threat that is tailor-made for this character’s particular insecurities. If we think back to the example of the Larry Brown story I mentioned, about a guy whose wife is flashed by a stranger, this is the right threat because the character has a great deal of insecurity about his own masculinity. The harassment from a strange man is a direct threat to his own sense of manly pride and ability to protect his wife.

So today, take a moment to examine the threat that you’ve selected for your character. Is it pushing the bruise? Accessing the weak points? We need to understand who the character is by seeing what makes him nearly buckle under the strain. If your character has a fear of spiders, then a spider has to walk in the door.

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Editing Challenge Day 10: Character Questionnaire

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It’s character week, editors! If you’ve completed a first draft of a story, it means you have a god inkling of what makes your character tick. You’ve showed a bit of his fears and desires, and had him take action in his life. But how well do you really know that character? And are you setting him to action in as dramatic a way as possible? Are you telling the right story for your character?

The only way to be sure is to dig deeper and examine what really pushes your character. That means looking into other elements of his life and seeing if you’ve really discovered the secrets and the choices that defined him. In the past I tried character questionnaires that made me come up with answers about a character’s favorite music and foods, but I’ve realized all those persnickety questions of taste aren’t all that relevant. Instead, I’ve designed a questionnaire that will help you shape your character’s purpose in the story. Today in your editing journal, try jotting down some noteform answers to the following questions, or finish the following sentences in the voice of your character.

First: rewriting clichés.

Many people see themselves as actors in familiar storylines. Which clichéd storyline does your character consider him or herself to be a part of? Here are a few examples:

1. Forbidden love

2. Dangerous love

3. Love triangles

4. Greed and ambition — stepping on people to get to the top

5. The exotic, mysterious foreigner comes to town

6. The rich jerk vs. the poor nice guy

7. Adultery

Second: Top Five “Firsts”

Make a list of your character’s top five “firsts” in his or her life.

e.g.: the first time he/she shoplifted

the first time he/she got his/her heart broken

the first time he/she knew parents were mortal

the first time he/she lied with real consequences

the first time he/she disappointed someone

Make a list of your character’s top five “lasts”.

The last time he/she saw another important character in the story

The last time he/she did an important activity

The last day of school

Third: Use memoir

This time, use your own experiences and alter them a bit to give your character a meaningful life experience.

Recount a significant event from your life, but change one significant aspect of it — if things went the other way, if it had happened in a different time period, etc.

Fourth: Finish the sentences for your character.

Now practice thinking from your character’s perspective. Finish the following sentences for him or her:

I never told anyone…

I did tell one person. God help me. He/she…

I never told anyone, but I’ll tell you…

Have fun filling out these questionnaires today, editors. You may discover things you never knew before about your character. But more important than just static knowledge, you’ll discover things that should change the story and how it unfolds.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at

Editing Challenge Day 9: Painting a Character Portrait

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

We’ve done good work so far on plot. We’ve raised important questions about story arc, suspense, and maintaining a sense of conflict. Now it’s time to delve into the second point of the big triumvirate of great stories: character.

Personally, I think I may read for character more than anything else. There’s nothing more satisfying than sinking into a deeply-realized character’s life, learning all the ups and downs and the spiky, crinkly bits of a person’s true self. It’s one of the principle pleasures of reading great writers such as Alice Munro. But remember that even writers such as Alice Munro isn’t getting all that wonderful character depth right from the get-go. It’s a process of layering and layering and layering some more, building in depth through many passes over the story. In that way, building a character is a lot like painting a portrait, passing over the same image with charcoal and pencil and oil until it feels deep enough to pop off the page.

So how do we build that layer cake for own characters? Let’s study a paragraph from a Munro story:

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went
to university. It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish. Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics. The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to his wife’s strange tirades with an absentminded smile. Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and her mother’s political activity was probably the reason. Not that she cared. Sororities were a joke to her, and so was politics—though she liked to play “The Four Insurgent Generals” on the phonograph, and sometimes also the “Internationale,” very loud, if there was a guest she thought she could make nervous. A curly-haired gloomy-looking foreigner was courting her—she said he was a Visigoth—and so were two or three quite respectable and uneasy young interns. She made fun of them all and of Grant as well. She would drolly repeat some of his small-town phrases. He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet.
“Do you think it would be fun—” Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”
He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.

This is the opening paragraph of Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Notice here that this opening is it not tremendously full of problem; Munro is able to get away with this more leisurely opening because she is patiently presenting a character to us, giving us a person bit by bit. And with strong writing, that can sometimes be just as compelling as plot. Do you feel like you know Fiona by the end of this paragraph? It’s an astonishing feat: giving us just the right few well-chosen details to make us feel connected to Fiona’s world, her context, her time, her family, and her spirit. It’s truly a multi-dimensional picture.

Today, look at the very first introduction of your principle character. Are you giving us a chance to understand him or her in a multi-dimensional way? Do you indicate his socioeconomic status as well as his voice? We don’t have to everything in an introduction, but we do want a process of triangulation, giving us a character from more than one angle. There are so many ways to understand human beings — through their race, their religion, their gender, their families, their quirks, their fears. Give us more than one in your character’s first scene. Then track that character throughout the story — do we get a chance to see other elements of this character’s world?

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