Examples of Fix Notes
Fix Note 1
This sample fix note was created for fiction writer Cathy, author of a religious love story
This is certainly an interesting read, and has some good ideas in it. It’s unusual the way it starts out (we think) as a simple love story, and then turns into a tale of religious conversion.
Also, the Greek section is like a travelogue – interesting for those of us who’ve never had the chance to go to Athens! That’s definitely the heart of the story, where the action really picks up. That's why your best strategy is to get Michelle there as fast as possible.
What are the biggest problems that you need to fix, to make your story better? As I see it there are several, of varying degrees of seriousness. I’ll run through them quickly now, and get into more detail later.
1) First, your present opening just doesn’t work, I’m afraid. Michelle is driving home through her neighbourhood – as an introductory device, this leaves a certain amount to be desired. Your readers don’t learn much about her; and then we’re tossed into a flashback right away, before we’ve even had a chance to get to know your heroine. You need to fix both of those things.
2) Second, the story is just too weak for its length (as I knew it would be from your description). There’s enough content here to support maybe 50K words, but not 73K. That’s why the main editing task will be to cull a lot of that excess, tone down the over-writing, and rescue your core story from all the excess verbiage and repetition.
3) Third, and most importantly: I hate to say it, but the tone of the story just feels incredibly shallow. I’m sure you’re not a shallow person yourself! – but everything in the story seems to take place at a surface level. Often this is literally the case: I was particularly struck by the fact that when Michelle is about to make love with her future husband for the first time, you devote a tremendous amount of space to describing … the décor of the hotel room.
And surely when two adult human beings have been married for ten years, and have raised a couple of children together, a woman has grown beyond the stage of thinking “I must make myself look really pretty for my husband, or he won’t love me any more”? To me, all that primping sounded like a teenage girl on her first date, not like a mature married woman.
4) As well, the relationships between the characters feel merely sketched in; and the characters themselves don’t really come to life for me – they seem more like a collection of adjectives than fully fleshed-out people. Particularly, the children feel more like plot devices than adorable, maddening small humans around whom a mother’s life revolves.
So, those are the main points of my critique. In my detailed feedback, below, I give my comments in three parts: your overall concept, your storytelling strategy, and your mechanics.
It works, no problem there. Your readers may wonder what it means, but they’ll find out.
In terms of your plot, the story has a pretty nice narrative arc. We meet Michelle in Quebec, where she’s unhappy; she flies to Greece, meets new people, and has interesting experiences; a tragedy happens; she comes back home a sadder and wiser woman.
My only issue is that the ending feels a bit tacked-on. During the course of the story we’ve been with Michelle almost every moment, almost in real time … and then there’s a six-month gap between her discovery of the pregnancy, and the actual birth. I wonder if you could put the birth into an epilogue, aside from the main body of the novel – so readers can appreciate it as a kind of “six months later” coda to the story?
Plausibility and Realism
Only a very few aspects of your story made me roll my eyes a bit (unlike some other stories I’ve read, which are a total stretch from start to finish!) Mostly what you've written is pretty natural-sounding and realistic.
One thing that did bother me was the fact that Michelle’s children seem to exist only as plot devices. Granted, the story doesn’t focus on the wee tots; but they really seem almost like dolls – brought out when M’s personal drama requires their presence, and then tucked neatly away when not. We never see M interacting with them, or doing any of the thousand-and-one drudgery tasks that children require. Nor does she ever seem to lack for people who are happy to take them off her hands whenever she needs to be alone and fabulous. You have children yourself, you’ve told me, so you must know how unlikely that is!
Also, how likely is it that a nice lady like M would engage in road-rage-like stalking of that jerky young dude; and having done that, how likely (especially considering his garlic breath) that she’d let him kiss her?! I guess you included this to show that her passions overcame her against her will, in the absence of regular shagging (!) by her hubby. But both chase and kiss rang false to me. Can you think of a more plausible way to make the same point?
As well, Michelle seems to have preternatural powers of attraction. Every person encounters in the story seems to either come on to her (if he’s male) or instantly become her devoted best friend, ready to drop everything and do anything for her (if she’s female). Does that happen a lot in your life?!
The idea that M has been married to Nick for a decade, and has never before visited Greece, is rather a stretch too. It’s not as if they’re too poor to travel! I’d say they’d likely have been there at least once before, probably after their wedding. There seems no dramatic point in saving M’s first visit for this occasion.
Can’t M be just ordinarily distressed, nervous or jealous, rather than super-duper, majorly wigged out all the time? It feels more than a little melodramatic, to have her in such a state of extreme panic all the time – like a Victorian heroine, forever about to swoon. I found myself actually getting irritated with your heroine, and felt like telling her to “put on her big-girl pants” and buck up!
In fact, that Victorian attitude seems to dominate here: this book is cast in the old-fashioned mould of a shrinking, delicate heroine; a girl who needs the hero to take care of her, and make everything all right. But modern romances now tend to feature strong women who can handle their own lives, and approach the hero from a position of strength (and love).
On the same lines, why does everything have to be so darn perfect? (A much-overused word in your story, btw; see "Word Use," below.) I also find the “exceptional treats” aspect rather un-lifelike: the fancy hotel for M’s deflowering, the expensive cruise planned just before Nick’s death.
The “excessive prettification” of Michelle’s focus also makes me wince a bit. The emphasis on makeup, lingerie, clothes – even “a last-minute Brazilian” – seems to me to strike a wrong note. Can you ask your husband whether he cares about all that kind of stuff? If a hot-blooded Greek dude suddenly finds his wife arriving unexpectedly, demanding to make love right now, I can imagine he wouldn’t care less about the state of her underwear, still less her pubic hair!
Can Nick really drop what he’s doing in Greece – which is important enough for him to leave his family for – and just suddenly announce he’s going back home? That stretches the imagination. Surely he’s a responsible adult with an important (and well-paying) job, not just simply an amorous plaything for Michelle?
On that note, I suggest that instead of doing “research” in Greece – which is entirely voluntary and self-directed – Nick should take on an architectural project that was offered to him, for seriously big bucks and professional credit. Surely only that kind of career-making opportunity could take him away from his family, esp. with the little one sick – and only after much heartfelt discussion on both sides of the extended family, about the wisdom of his being away. Michelle would consent, naturally, even though it was hard for her, because it was such an excellent chance for “her man” to get ahead.
In that case, though, you’re faced even more with the last problem I pointed out: Nick suddenly dropping everything. Also, why didn’t he offer to bring the family over with him? Or does Athens not have the medical facilities that Montreal does, to continue David’s treatment?
And of course, the life-saving angel is a BIG lapse of realism … but since it’s presented as such, a divine one-off miracle, I give it a pass! :-)
Character Development and Motivation
Do you, Cathy, have a rich emotional landscape – filled with hopes and dreams, ambitions and desires, wishes and fears, affections and dislikes, plans and tasks, memories and sorrows, interests and beliefs? I bet you do: you’re a mature woman with a family, and you obviously have a vivid imagination.
If that’s the case, I wonder why you created such a one-note heroine?! No emotion seems to cross Michelle’s mind but yearning for her husband, and anxiety that he’ll disappoint her. We get no sense of the kind of person she really is – other than, obviously, one who notices only the surfaces of things.
You tell us only a few things about her as a person, other than the fact that she’s jealous of her husband. We know that she loves the countryside; that she finds her friend Chanel a bit irritating sometimes; that she’s quick to make friends with strangers; and that she’s seriously ADD-like in terms of her up-and-down emotional swings.
It would be great if you could put your imagination to work, and develop M into a more well-rounded character. What are her ambitions, interests, beliefs, dislikes, plans, wishes, etc.? As a child, what did she want to be when she grew up? As a teenager, what were her school days like? Did she work before she had her children? What are her hobbies, what does she do for fun? What are her hopes for the future? What are her tastes in music, art, clothing, food, politics? What kinds of things upset her or excite her?
As well, your readers would likely find your heroine more satisfying if she were slightly less of a nervous wreck. Since we only see the story through her eyes, we don’t know if other people perceive her to be a confident person. But there seems to be no reason – other than her imagined fears about Nick's fidelity – for her to melt into a puddle of self-pity and anxiety quite so often.
Some lack of confidence in a heroine is an endearing quality, one that women readers can identify with – because let’s face it, we’re none of us as strong and in-control as we’d like to be (especially around men!). But too little confidence can be a turn-off: we want to read about somebody who’s engaging and fun, not somebody who’s a total neurotic. Since you initially present her as somebody who’s so bubbly and fun that everybody takes to her immediately, it’s surprising that you also make her a closet depressive, with panic attacks.
There also seems to be no real reason for M’s obsessive jealousy. Presumably she and Nick have a happy marriage – that too is something you can tell us more about. Does she have any reason, other than just childish anxiety, for being so convinced he’s cheating on her? Yes, the suspicion could cross her mind; but it needn’t dominate her so. (Unless you’re channelling Othello: “Trifles light as air are to the jealous fancy, confirmations strong as holy writ.”)
The other main character in the story is Nick – though really his appearance is just sort of a blink-and-you’d-miss-it affair: we meet him on p. 65, and he’s dead by p. 87. For him too, there’s a lack of depth in your description: we know he’s an architect, but other than that he’s just a collection of adjectives – sexy, gorgeous, hunky, attractive, etc.
And I must say, I find his total focus on Michelle a bit unrealistic: do real men utter hardly a word that isn’t a swooning paean of love to their wives?! (Ask your hubby about that too.) I can see it for the first few hours of their reunion, until the novelty wears off; but then wouldn’t he perhaps move on to telling her stuff about his work, asking about home and the kids, describing the trips he’s made and the people he’s met, etc. etc.?
I also had difficulty believing that in this modern age, a husband and wife have to be entirely parted just because he’s half the world away. As long as wherever he is has an Internet connection, surely they can email and/or Skype? If he’s at a work site in a remote area, he could tell her so in advance: “I won’t be in touch again till Tuesday, honey – Aegina is just about off the grid, no email there.”
The other people in the story are all basically supporting characters: M's mom and dad, her friend Chanel, Cheri, Paul, Nick’s mother, etc. Still, it would be nice if we knew more about them: all we really learn is how they react to Michelle. Can you throw in a few details, to flesh them out?
Chanel: Every heroine needs a best friend – and in your brief description of her on p. 17, you actually tell us more about her than you do about Michelle herself! But then you tell us that M was perturbed that her conversations with Chanel lately always turned to the subject of God. However, since M does, in fact, find religion by the end of the book, you need to start weaving in that theme a little earlier, and more strongly. I guess you tell us about M’s initial feelings by way of a “before and after” position statement, so your readers can gauge the strength of her conversion – from “irritated by God” to “whole-hearted believer.”
Why does Chanel need to be so beautiful – because she needs to reflect well on the heroine? Would a “plain and dumpy” best friend not work? Why did her mother name her after a fashion house?! Or did the girl change her own name to something fancier, in her teens – as many young people do? Why does she work at a spa, and not as a teacher or secretary – or a lawyer, or a civic enforcement officer? Devote some thought to those things.
Cheri: It’s nice that you’ve given M a sympathetic neighbour for her flight to Greece. (In my own experience, your seat-mate on a plane is likely to be a grumpy businessman who hogs more than his fair share of arm and leg space, and insists on talking when you want to read.) But isn’t she maybe just a bit too good to be true? This nice person who instantly becomes M’s new best friend … I dunno, does that kind of thing happen to you a lot? I’m not saying it’s impossible, just unlikely. So since she turns out to be an important plot device, maybe you could make a bigger deal of M’s sense that she really hit the jackpot there.
Paul: Since M is his beloved brother’s wife, why would he come on to her? He must be a really sleazy character to do that, but you don’t present him as such. Why doesn’t he have a girlfriend or wife of his own? When the two of them go to Nick’s island together, you keep talking about how inappropriate his behaviour is, and how uncomfortable it makes M – so why did you write it that way? Why does she not tell him right away to knock it off? As I read one instance after another (highlighted in your MS) of forward behaviour that obviously irritates Michelle, I kept thinking: Why, why?
Nick’s mother and father: They’re just sketched-in stereotypes, adequate for their purpose but improvable. Maybe at least give them names: Sophia and Milos?
You should also give names to some of Nick’s other brothers; and it would make sense for several of them to be married. (It’s like you want Michelle to be the only woman around!)
As I said earlier, the way you present the relationship between M and Nick feels staged, unnatural, almost – dare I say it – “Harlequin Romance-ish.” For starters, there’s the big age difference. Why did you write it that way? When she meets him, aged 18 or so, you tell us he’s 30 – why? He’s full of flowery compliments, and a “storybook wedding” – is that your experience of real life?
Then ten years of marriage zip by in the beating of an eye; but in that time Michelle seems to develop no inner connection with her husband, no sense that the two of them are soulmates, no confidence in the decade-long partnership between them. She still seems to behave like a pouty teenager, all sexy longings and insecurities (really, I just can’t get over that Brazilian….)
It also struck me that a woman in love wants to do things for her husband, to show her affection and devotion – to make his life easier and happier. But the only way Michelle seems to do this (other than, obviously, by bearing his sons) is by looking good for him, and having sex. Granted, men are always keen on the latter; but you seem to present the relationship as Nick always giving, and Michelle taking. That’s not really a healthy or mature dynamic, is it? I’m pretty sure your own marriage doesn’t work along those lines.
Structure and Organization
The overall structure is fine – except for your first chapter, which needs a lot of work; pretty much to the point of rewriting it entirely. (Don’t feel bad about this; the opening of a story is always the hardest part to get right.) Your current first pages are a bit blah, frankly – you need to get a jump on your story, entice your readers right in, show them what an interesting person Michelle is going to be to spend a few hours with.
In particular, you need to establish M firmly in the present by illustrating her current life for us, with all the right details. Does she have a job? Can she be visiting her parents, when we first see her, or talking with Chanel? Having her hair cut, shopping, playing with her children? Anything is more expressive of character than just driving.
You need to convey certain bits of information, as stylishly as you can:
M’s husband is away, and she misses him.
The missing has reached a critical point, and now she can’t bear to be parted from him any more.
She discovers herself feeling attracted to another man (though NOT the jerky garlic dude!)
M is a passionate woman, and needs a man’s attention. You should replace the “car chase and kiss” scene with some slightly more believable way to indicate this to your readers.
M suddenly starts to worry that he too might be feeling lonely, and might start an affair with someone (even though he insists not).
For more realism, have Nick email and Skype regularly with Michelle, and call her whenever he can. It’s Greece where he’s working, not the planet Mars! He tells her ahead of time that he won’t be able to get in touch on their anniversary (because he’s considerate that way).
Some other points to consider:
A wedding anniversary is a good spur to the action, but does it need to be the tenth?
Why do the couple need to have children at all, when they form so little part of the story?
Why does “baby Davy” need to be so sick? If he has something serious – like leukemia, from which he could conceivably die – surely Nick wouldn’t go abroad in the first place?
Your flashback to when the couple first meet (and get married) should be moved to later in the story. It’s not bad in itself, but it’s in the wrong place now: readers always need to get to know characters in the present, before they can appreciate hearing about them in the past. A good place for this back-story, I suggest, would be where there's already a lull in the action: the long plane flight to Greece. You’ve already got some of it in that time-frame, so just move both bits to there, and join them up.
Also in the first chapter, you might include something of M’s parents and her childhood, in just a brief flashback – perhaps while she’s visiting them? You need to solidly ground her, as a person, in other contexts than just her adoration for Nick. Perhaps instead of driving home, she can be going to visit her parents with her sons? That would allow you to introduce your heroine as a fully rounded character.
Dialogue and Speech
Sometimes I have difficulty with the things your characters say to one another, because they feel a bit stiff and artificial. Have you tried saying your lines out loud, as if they were a script? That’s what many authors do, to make sure their dialogue sounds natural. Perhaps you and your husband/family could treat the lines as a scene from a play, and act them out – that might give you more insight into how they would strike your readers.
It’s important for authors to use direct speech as much as possible – it’s most engaging for your readers that way, rather than your just reporting what was said. For instance, on the plane, you wrote:
“The captain thanked the passengers over the loudspeaker.”
It would be more effective to say:
The loudspeaker came to life again. “This is Captain Milos Nikopolous. On behalf of Aegean Airlines, thank you for flying with us today.”
I’ve flagged a number of places in the text where you could do this, but there are many, many more. Any time a character “explains” or “states” or “reveals” or “tells” or “remarks” anything, that’s a good opportunity to slip in at least a few lines of direct speech.
As well, when people say things in a story, by far the best word to indicate this is “said” – rather than a lot of the other words writers tend to use: expressed, questioned, explained, opined, chuckled, laughed, stated, gasped, etc. There’s a word for such things: smart writers and editors call them “said-book-isms,” and they tend to give your story an amateurish look. (Google the term, and you’ll find dozens of websites for authors telling you not to use them.)
Descriptions and Exposition
It’s always difficult for writers to choose JUST the little details that tell readers about a character. One possible result of this difficulty is over-wordiness and excess detail. I found this particularly the case in Chapter 2, when – having told us that “Michelle had a lot to do before her flight” – you then proceed to describe all those things to us, in excruciating detail!
You know how fashion consultants often say that “less is more”? Well, editors feel the same way. Your story can easily become clogged with all this meandering, getting bogged down in too much information – which your readers have to process to get on with your story. You need to trust your readers’ intelligence: if you tell them something once, they’ll likely remember it. Feel free to remind them of things, if you want, just once or twice – for instance, that Michelle really, really loves and misses Nick – but no more than that. You have the authorial power to make their lives easier and more pleasant, or not – so use that power wisely!
One of the things I notice about your text is that you really need to break up those long, run-on paragraphs. If this story were laid out in a published book, just as it is now, I could see whole pages being nothing but one thought of Michelle’s after another, in a stream-of-consciousness flow!
Every line of dialogue should always have its own line of text, and should not be jumbled up into paragraphs. The same goes for much of M’s ongoing interior monologue. I notice you use italics for that, and this isn’t a bad thing – just be aware that italics are meant for occasional emphasis, not for long stretches of text. They can be hard to read in some fonts. Also, you occasionally go a bit overboard with the strategy – I've flagged some of those places for you.
A convention often used to break up text is the narrative gap – a line space that signals to your readers that there’s a pause in the action. This is usually accomplished by three asterisks, centred:
This tells your readers that the story picks up a few hours later, or the next day, or a week later, or whatever you choose.
Word Use and Spelling
In my experience, writers tend to unconsciously overuse certain words. They reach into their verbal toolbox for the mot juste, and grab the first thing that comes to hand – and that’s often the SAME word, time after time. Reading through your story, I noticed that certain words are massively overused – to the point of there being one in almost every paragraph.
Some words you use over and over include amazing, exciting, truly, perfect, felt, babe, and beautiful. To give you an idea of how many times you reach for each one, I used Word’s highlight/count feature. See my comments in your main text: 35 of one, 70 of another, 122 of your favourite word. To your readers, that kind of repetition quickly starts to feel like a writerly bad habit. You need to expand your vocabulary a little more.
This aspect of your story is fairly low-level stuff, so I’m not really focusing on it right now – it’s more important for you to take care of the big-picture, high-level issues first. This is just for your attention later on, after the rewrites – because the more things you take care of, for free, the less I’ll have to fix at the editing stage, on your dime!
You need MORE commas, to break up your run-on sentences. In particular, you seem to have difficulty with the conventions of getting in and out of dialogue, which generally requires a comma or two.
And you need FEWER exclamation marks: there are more than 600 in the book! Several places have more than one!! A few lines even have THREE!!! In my readerly opinion, that’s a rather teenage-girl level of enthusiasm. :-)
Re the commas, it’s particularly an issue in your sentences where somebody is addressing someone else – such as:
“I understand that ladies” = should be “I understand that, ladies.”
“We’re all in shock Paul” = should be “We’re all in shock, Paul.”
“I’m so happy my baby girl” = should be “I’m so happy, my baby girl.”
Also, you need more apostrophes, to create contractions in your dialogue. Very few people, in real-life conversation, say “I am” rather than “I’m,” or “we are” rather than “we’re.” Shorten every speech as much as you can.
You use ellipses … a lot (234x), so remember: it’s a space, three dots, and another space. Unless it happens at the end of a sentence, in which case it's no space, and four dots.
All “quote marks” should be double, not single (don’t use apostrophes); and the periods and commas go inside them (in North American English; Brits do things differently).
For some weird reason, some of your sentences are missing periods – you’ll find those on your next read-through.
Your story has a LOT of minor fiddly matters of grammar, spelling, word use, etc. – words misspelled or used wrongly, sentences run together or improperly broken up, redundancy and repetition, etc. But don’t worry, those are all things that I can take care of in the editing process.
You tend to over-use your heroine’s name, as well. Granted she’s the centre of the story, so it’s natural for that word to crop up a lot; but sometimes you say her name two or three times a paragraph – to the tune of 1,345 times in the story. If you use the Reading Highlight option of the Find feature, you can see where there are clusters. Mostly you can replace those just with “she,” unless there are other women in the scene – Joanne, Chanel, Cheri, Sophia, etc.
The main defect I see here is that – like most newbie authors – you take far too long to get a point across: you use 20 or 30 words where a professional would just use 10. All that deadwood weighs down your prose: it’s harder for your readers to appreciate the beautiful flowers of your thoughts, when the garden is choked with weeds. Overall, your text needs to be tightened a great deal. I can do a sample edit for you, showing you ways to do this.
Several of your plot points made me think not: “Yes, this is exactly right!” but rather: “Why did Cathy decide to introduce this complication?” Some of these “excess baggage” bits include:
baby David’s illness
the car chase and kiss
the creepy-house scene
the many décor descriptions
Paul making advances at her
the complete lack of communication between husband and wife
the fancy hotel, and the proposed cruise
Michelle’s tendency to have panic attacks. My perception of this book is that it isn’t a serious psychological study of a woman on the verge of a breakdown; it’s a frothy romance, with not much in it that’s serious (until nearly the end). The conventions of the modern genre are to give the heroine more spunk, less angst. You need to rethink her with that in mind.
Finally, a bit more humour would really help – everything in the story is so very serious. (Though at least you don’t go in for lame jokes, and humour that doesn’t work, the way some authors do!)
More realism, and less melodrama, would also be an asset.
I know it’s always hard for writers to go back to the drawing board on their ideas and assumptions – but if you’ve got somebody working with you, and holding your hand, the job gets easier. Once you’ve had time to digest all my suggestions and feedback here, we can bounce back and forth a bit on some ideas about how to make things better.
Your main task is to write a new Chapter 1 – once that’s taken care of, the rest should be relatively easy. I hope you’ll send me another, much-improved draft of your story soon!