The Fiction Portal
Antonia Morton, Book Editor
Examples of Fix Notes
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Fix Note 3
This sample fix note was created for fiction writer Marisa, author of a contemporary romance
This is a seriously fun read! It’s as I said: you write with great verve and energy, and you have an offbeat sense of humour. I didn’t really doubt that things would work out well for Kaitlyn and Ryan, but I sure wanted them to.
That said, I’ve identified some large issues and some smaller ones with your story; so I’ll tackle the bigger ones first.
First, your main character. Although Kaitlyn comes across as a smart and sympathetic person, you need to devote more thought to her personality. Sometimes she’s a feisty girl, but other times she seems to melt into a puddle of self-pity or insecurity. Some lack of confidence in a heroine is an endearing quality: women readers can identify with that – because let’s face it, we’re none of us as tough, strong or in-control as we’d like to be (especially around men!). But too little confidence is a turn-off: we want to read about somebody who's entertaining to be with, not about somebody who’s neurotic.
There’s especially a disconnect between the way you first show us Kaitlyn – planning a naughty sexy surprise, and then whacking her faithless boyfriend – way cool! But then in later chapters you portray her as shy, retiring, and unable to get a word out. At the start, we think of her as a vibrant kind of person; so later on, when she gets less fun, your readers might start to think: “Hey, wait a minute, this isn’t the heroine I thought I was getting.”
There are two basic ways around this. One is to say, as you already do at the beginning, that Kaitlyn’s behaviour is out of the ordinary for her. (“I took a deep breath: I’d never done anything so bold before.”) But the telling Brad where to get off, and the dismissal of Bimbo (I like that word better than Hussy), both show a strength of character that then seems to disappear later.
So: make her either weaker early in the story, or stronger later on. Personally, I’d go with the latter.
This leads me to another point about Kaitlyn: she needs more filling in, to be a well-rounded person. You obviously imagine her as a person with strengths – the main one of which, I feel, is her photography. She must be a strongly visual person – you refer several times to her trusty Nikon – yet you don’t follow up on this. She may not like her current job as a fashion photographer, but she likes photography in general, right?
Once or twice, you touch on her taking pictures of the natural beauties of New Hampshire. I think you could pursue that further, making it a bigger element of the story. (Heck, since Ryan’s such a hunk, she could even take pics of him – naked, if you want!)
At one point, you have Kaitlyn say about herself that she was trying not to “hide behind a camera all the time.” I think that’s an excellent point – and it ties in well with the suggestion I made in my Comments about the camera club and the mean girls. Maybe Kaitlyn got into photography as a defence mechanism; then she learned to love the skill for its own sake; but then she found herself in a dead-end job that didn’t really allow her to be creative; and now – I dunno, maybe she can spend her time in NH working on her portfolio, taking scenery pix and submitting them to National Geographic? These are all ideas you can play with as you re-envision your heroine.
The process of “filling in” Kaitlyn's character could involve telling us something about her background: her tastes, her schooling, her hobbies, what books and music she likes, her family, where she comes from, how she got into photography. It would add to the reader’s liking for her as a person, since right now what we know about her is a bit sparse. These could come in the form of flashbacks, which would be appropriate since what she’s doing in NH is looking for peace of mind, and clarity. Reflecting back on her young life so far seems like a good way to do that, and also a good way for your readers to deepen their engagement with her.
The one thing you tell us about Kaitlyn’s pre-Brad life, for instance, is about the Untouchables at school. But everything you describe seems based on surfaces and appearances. It’s usual, in that kind of situation, to contrast the heroine’s rich inner life, special talents, and emotional maturity, with the superficial triviality of the Mean Girls. What was her family like? You talk about her parents; but they’re very much on the fringe of the action. If you can tell us even a few lines about what her dad and mom do, and what her relationship with them is like, that would help us to understand Kaitlyn better.
And then, when you finish with the memories of the Mean Girls, the handsome dude and the school janitor’s closet, you jump right ahead to … Brad. That’s a BIG gap there. I thought perhaps I’d dropped a manuscript page or two, but no – you tell us almost nothing about the most formative part of a woman’s life.
I’d like to see you get to work here, and invent a bit of background for Kaitlyn. Did she always play with her dad’s camera, ever since she was a kid? Did she maybe rub up against the Untouchables because she was in the camera club, or worked for the yearbook; and perhaps one of the bimbos was a fashion model who wanted a portfolio, and so they had a sort of uneasy friendship based on photography? (Could it even have been the school darkroom she hid in to watch Ted ignore her note?)
All this to say, there’s a lot of scope for your invention here. Did her parents live in Boston, or did she go away to university there? How did she get her first job? What happened to her between graduating high school at, what, 19 or so – and the time we meet her at 25, when she’d been with Brad for a few months? You touch on her earlier dating life only briefly. Expand that part, even if just to sketch in a few points.
Moving on from Kaitlyn to your other characters: I have to say that none of them really come alive for me. Even Ryan, your hero, seems to be more of a collection of adjectives than an actual person; and other minor figures – Lyssa, Ryan’s two brothers, Kaitlyn’s brother Andy – aren’t as well fleshed out as they could be.
I found myself wishing, in fact, that Kaitlyn actually had got together with Lyssa for that promised coffee date. It would be relatively easy for you to insert; it would be interesting to the reader; and if Kaitlyn and Lyssa became friends, it would make it more believable that the latter would then go to the trouble of setting up our heroine with Ryan at the bar later on.
The only snag would be that you’d somehow have to not reveal to your readers that Lyssa is Ryan’s sister. Maybe you could get around that by having the two gals get into such a good time over girlie chat (and maybe a couple of glasses of wine) that they don’t get around to talking about families? Lyssa could mention casually that she has brothers in town, but nothing need connect that with Ryan in Kaitlyn's mind – though perhaps smart readers might guess.
I’d really like to see Brad made a larger and more realistic character. As it is, he’s little more than a plot device – designed to be mean to Kaitlyn, and nothing else. There’s nothing wrong with a character starting as a mere plot device; lots of great stories begin that way. But part of the art of writing is to recognize that fact, and work to make your characters more realistic. Now that you’ve learned this once, I’m sure you’ll remember from now on.
I think you should develop Brad more, and focus more on the relationship between him and Kaitlyn. What you tell us about it – your history of how they got together, and how it progressed – is good, as far as it goes: I particularly liked your point that during their affair, Kaitlyn was more impressed by the fact that she was going out with this good-lookin’ dude, than she was by the actuality of their relationship.
But at the outset of the book, she seems to be into him well enough! They must have had some amorous good times together, surely? For that matter, what was Kaitlyn’s sexual history before Brad? Was he her first man, or her first good lover, or what? A bit of steamy dishing wouldn’t hurt your story. Was it good sex, but bad love? That would make sense.
One problem with the Brad flashbacks is that we see them only in the context of the terrible breakup – but in order to understand why Kaitlyn was so devastated by that breakup, we really need to know more about the relationship itself. Yes, Kaitlyn now has a “sour grapes” perspective – “he was always a bastard, he never appreciated me.” But at the time it was happening, it must have filled some needs for her. In fact, you say so: “Slowly, I had started to open myself up to new things, like wearing sexy lingerie and enjoying a good party. I had to if I wanted to keep Brad.”
(That made me think: is she trying to blame her boyfriend for showing her a good time? Those things – parties, lingerie – are fun for their own sake. Is she a puritan and a prude, to not WANT to have fun; or is she just conflicted, with parts of her heart telling her different things? If so, maybe you could say so.)
Actually, a big reason why Brad seems like more of a plot device than a person is the way he suddenly just appears in the story again, in Chapter 21. That it’s a big surprise for the reader, as well at Kaitlyn isn’t a problem – but it should be explained, in the conversation she has with Brad afterwards. What’s his motivation? Why, after doing nothing but texting feebly for months, had he suddenly got around to asking where she is, and coming after her? What are his feelings for her? Does he still love her, in his own twisted, unreliable, cheaterly way?
More to the point, why did he try – very belatedly and unconvincingly – to convince Kaitlyn that she hadn’t actually seen him and the bimbo shagging on the kitchen table? It’s obvious from your story that we’re not meant to believe him – he offers us no evidence, no alternative explanation.
“It was all just a big misunderstanding, babe,” he said softly. He didn’t answer my question.
And yet when I suggested that you rewrite the kitchen-table scene to be more vivid, you resisted because you said it wasn’t really true. I’m confused – do we believe Brad, or Kaitlyn?
A big part of your story is the contrast between Brad and Ryan – the “before and after” figures of K’s reinvention of her life. That means your readers should know more about Brad, in matters large and small, so that we (and Kaitlyn) can compare those aspects with Ryan, either explicitly or implicitly – to the benefit of the latter, naturally. You do this, for instance, when you tell us how well-dressed Brad was, and how down-to-earth Ryan’s clothes are. But dress is only one aspect: you could do much more of that kind of thing, weaving it into your flashbacks of Brad and your descriptions of Ryan.
I really think, as well, that Kaitlyn and Ryan need to do more serious talking, and less “just giggling over pancakes.” Can you get them away from the darn café for a few walks, or a drive in the country? Can their relationship progress as he drives her up to his favourite peak, for instance, so she can take photos of the stunning scenery? Can they talk about music, books, comic strips, their families, their work, their childhood ambitions – all the things that young people usually talk about when they first meet (and like) each other?
For instance, I must say it’s hard to believe that Kaitlyn would know that R.’s parents had been killed, and not say something along the lines of: “I’m so sorry to hear it, what a terrible thing – if you want to talk about it, my friendly ear is always willing to listen.” Saying something like that would add to our perception of your heroine as being a warm and caring person, instead of than just … a rather neurotic good-time girl.
Back to Ryan. We know that he’s gorgeous, and you describe his good looks in loving detail (I wonder: is he based on someone you actually know?!). But when two young people meet – in the real world, at least – they tend to talk about themselves, and exchange information, rather than just trading barbs or witticisms. If I were to add up all the things I know about Brad by the end of the book, it’s … very little. He needs almost as much fleshing out as Kaitlyn does.
And the relationship between the two: that’s something I had a hard time getting into. It seems to me that in writing this story, you were perhaps following a literary model – you might call it the “Harlequin Romance Model” – that has its own conventions, ones that are very different from real life. The “meet cute” convention, for instance – the girl falling into the boy’s lap. Well, that could work. The “girl keeping her distance from hot guy” convention – pretty unbelievable, in my view. That’s not how real people think and behave.
And my biggest beef of all is the whole “tragic misunderstanding” thing, which makes THIS reader (and possibly all other ones with brains) roll their eyes!
I’ll get to that later on.
For now, the meeting. Seriously, if you think back to the times in your own life when you met a boy you liked, did you talk the way Kaitlyn and Ryan do? I’d like to see some more substance there, as well as the fluff. To re-think the relationship, do as I suggested earlier: flesh out the two characters, and make them more real and more substantial.
One of the few things you show readers about Ryan is that he has superhuman patience with Kaitlyn and her shyness. We, your readers, think we know why: we guess something that Kaitlyn herself doesn’t seem to realize, which is that she must be quite a stunner for a handsome man to take such a sudden interest in her. But seriously, can a woman (especially a fashion photographer) be really gorgeous, and not know it?! It’s as I said earlier: a little self-deprecation is an endearing quality – but if it’s overdone, there’s a bit of a “duh factor” for the discerning reader.
Early on in the story, Kaitlyn says this of herself: “I have my health, I have my smarts, and a nice ass to boot, I think; but that’s not enough for me.” That caught my eye, because it’s one of the few things Kaitlyn says explicitly about her self-concept. In a way, it’s good that you’re so restrained about her appearance: I’ve edited some books where the writer goes on and on and ON about the heroine’s beauty, all the way from her sparkling green eyes to her rippling blond hair to her sensual lips to her pretty feet to her elegant bosom, etc., etc. You say “long wavy black hair,” and refer to the nice ass, and then leave us to imagine the rest – that’s not a bad thing.
But since a woman’s self-image tends to be bound up with how she looks, a truly beautiful woman who’s very shy and insecure seems an odd combination. I’m not sure how you could work around this – by having her NOT be quite so beautiful, and having her relationship with Ryan take longer to get off the ground? But then you’d have to lose the whole “tripping and falling into his lap” scene, which is kind of fun (though it’s way too long, as I’ll get to later). By having Kaitlyn be the victim of some kind of childhood trauma? That might be more work, and more depth, than you want to engage in.
I’ll just toss this out, FWIW: a normal woman of 25, with normal smarts and looks, wouldn’t let one bad breakup totally knock her on her ass, and turn her into a weepy hermit who doesn’t want to get close to a cute guy she meets. Anything you can do to inject a little psychological realism to the setup would be a big benefit to your story.
The Ryan crisis. Tragic misunderstandings are for Victorian melodrama, not contemporary fiction. Right after Kaitlyn and Ryan have bedded each other, he sees – or thinks he sees – her in her sexy undies, in the arms of some other guy. In that situation, a sensible modern man wouldn’t jump into his car and drive off in a huff; he'd charge up to the porch to demand what the hell was going on.
And if he DID drive away, all Kaitlyn had to do was text him:
“Ryan! That was my jerky ex-boyfriend, who just showed up out of nowhere.
I thought he was you – and I bashed my face on the door so hard I almost broke my jaw, and was barely conscious! Come back and check out my bruises, and help me chase away this dickhead!”
Crisis averted, cue happy ending.
There are some words that I started flagging as I went through the story – the primary offender being “sweet.” It appears something like 30 times in your MS, and only a few of those have to do with actual candy apples, blueberry pancakes, etc. That’s way too much; after a while, I felt like I was going into a diabetic coma. I’d delete just about every one of those uses. Sugar as a metaphor is all very well, in small doses; but it can easily become a saccharine cliché.
The same is true of “candy” – in fact, I hate to say it, but I don’t think your title really works. The main conceit – the literal candy apple with which Kaitlyn whacks Brad in the first page or so – vanishes from the scene later on (as does Kaitlyn’s passion, mentioned on p. 1, for sugary treats – how come the gal doesn’t weigh 300 lbs?!). You may need to think of a new title, one that reflects your book’s real focus once we get into the story proper.
Oh, and another word that gets overused is “poison” – it appears only 13 times in the story, but that’s still at least ten too many.
The “show, don’t tell” thing comes up several times in my notes on your text, though less than in some other books I’ve edited (in some manuscripts, I have to write it on almost every page). You seem to have quite a visual mind, a great benefit to a writer. That said, there ARE some times when I get the feeling you’re just sketching in a scene, rather than actually describing it – and I’ve made some notes on those sections.
Some mechanical issues. The main thing I noticed in your MS was your habit of making every sentence a new paragraph. There’s a time for that kind of one-sentence paragraph structure, when the action speeds up and gets pulse-pounding – but that’s not the case most of the time here. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t advise pages like Jane Austen's, full of solid text; but there is an art to proper paragraphing. Three to five sentences make a standard-length one; when your scene shifts or your focus changes, or when somebody speaks or has a thought, then is the time for a new one. You should go through your text again with an eye to your paragraphing.
You have a tendency to run-on sentences as well – three or four, or sometimes even five, sentence parts, all divided by commas. If I were editing your MS, I would break them up – to make them into two shorter sentences, or to use an em-dash (—) or a semi-colon instead. But for now, I’ll just let you know about that tendency, and you can correct it yourself.
Similarly, you very often use a period at the end of a speech, when the sentence isn’t yet over. You can just use a Search/Replace to correct this – here’s an example.
“He took off, I haven’t seen him since.” She said.
That should properly be:
“He took off, I haven’t seen him since,” she said.
Use Find to locate every .” and make sure it’s NOT followed by “I muttered” or “he said” or “Ryan shouted” or whatever. And make sure your pronoun (she or he) isn’t capitalized, since it shouldn’t be.
(On the point of dialogue tags, I admire your restraint: my last author used every imaginable word except “said” when people spoke. That’s a bad habit that novice writers are especially prone to, so I’m pleased you don’t do it.)
Another habit I notice – especially when Kaitlyn is responding to a whole bunch of phone or text messages – is that you put her response on the same line as the original message. Break it up, instead, like with this message from Andy:
“Do you want me to call someone to get you laid while you’re up there?” What?
That should be:
“Do you want me to call someone to get you laid while you’re up there?”
Bolding and italics: I like the way you use italics for “internal dialogue,” including the Ava episodes – that works well, and you’re consistent with it. That’s the best use for italics, other than for emphasis in conversation – so don’t use it for your chapter headings. Text messages is OK – right now they’re in bold face, but that’s distracting and unnecessary.
This is just a small thing, but do a S/R for “eachother” and make it into two words: “each other.”
You have a slight tendency to overuse the word “my”:
"I took my camera and my book out of my bag, put them on the table, and sank back in my seat.”
Try doing a search for all the times you use it, and seeing if they could be replaced with just “the.” That's better in most cases, unless the issue of possession is really important.
The Kaitlyn-Ava exchanges that open your chapters: this is a good literary device, in itself, and I like that some are shorter and some are longer. That said, I think some are definitely TOO long – I recommend trimming several exchanges. They feel repetitive; no new information is coming across, just rehashing.
I also like it when, at a certain stage in the action, you make the Ava interventions start occurring in the middle of the chapters. This corresponds, I think, to K’s inner awakening – her subconscious is with her more often, in an unplanned way, not just when she decides consciously to talk to her.
I notice that you don’t actually explain the Ava thing, and I’m in two minds about that. On the one hand, I get it – I think all your readers will get it. On the other hand, might it be another “reveal” about Kaitlyn, that she’s got this exchange of voices in her head? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
One perception about Ryan is that, at one point, he says “you don’t talk much.”
I have several responses to this:
1) A heroine who doesn’t talk much is, by definition, a bit boring.
2) That’s obviously NOT the case, because we’re hearing this whole story from Kaitlyn’s perspective – we readers know her as somebody with a voice.
3) That being the case, it’s obvious that this supposedly perfect guy has got hold of the wrong idea about our heroine. That makes him ... what? Not very perceptive or intelligent? Uncaring? Not really understanding of Kaitlyn?
This is something that needs fixing – and the best way is to ditch the notion of Kaitlyn as sitting there dumbly, not saying anything. Have her interact with Ryan in a more spunky way, as we perceive her.
Does Kaitlyn not drink – wine, beer, tequila, whatever? It struck me as odd enough that you ought to explain it, if that’s the case. (Not her not drinking coffee, that I totally get – I’m that way myself, for exactly K’s reasons!)
One of the things I’d like to see made a bit more explicit in your first few chapters, by the way (since you’re not exactly doing the “subtle and understated” thing in this story!) is something about your gal’s passion for footwear. In the original, you mentioned her apartment being cluttered with shoe boxes – it would be nice if you could tell us how it got that way. Is her entire closet full? (Why does she like to keep her shoes in boxes, anyway?)
I wonder if you yourself have ever visited the part of New Hampshire where the story is set? What’s missing from your story is a certain sense of place. I’m not sure if that’s because you were never there, or because you were focusing so much on your characters that you skimped on the local colour – the majestic mountains, sublime scenery, etc. But for your audience, reading a story set in a scenic place is almost like making a trip there themselves – so you might give them some “tourist value.”
The sex thing: the story starts off as though it’s going to be rather racy – then it gets quite tediously chaste for a long time. Kaitlyn’s obviously a young lady with a normal sex drive; but all those coy references to “hormones” started to irritate me after a while. (There are 13 of them – again, that’s at least ten too many.) Can you maybe find a less "medical" way for a young lady to refer to her attraction to a hot young guy?
For that matter, it wouldn’t hurt if you went into some detail – as discreet or as wild as you like – about the frolics she and Brad had together; and then, toward the end of the book, about her night of passion with Ryan. Is the latter as good as the former? Better? Worse? About the same? You’re the best judge of how to handle this; but even a little would make the story more interesting.
Two of the trickiest parts of a book are always the opening, and the closing.
I already said that I thought you could improve on your first line: “My name is Kaitlyn Mores, and I’m 25 years old today.” As I said, it’s not exactly wrong – but you could certainly up the oomph factor a bit.
The sexy scene we get into then is good – so good, in fact, that there’s a danger that your readers will expect this high-octane action to continue; and then be disappointed when it doesn’t. That’s why once we get into Chapter 3 – or maybe even sooner – it would be a good idea to do what I mentioned earlier: introduce Kaitlyn to the reader properly, by telling us her background and history. Once your audience feels a connection to your heroine, they’ll want to stick around and find out what happens to her. As it is, there’s a danger that your readers will lose interest.
As for the ending: I like the fact that our heroine and hero have kissed and made up, and are about to drive off into the sunset together (or at least off to Maine). And then suddenly ... wait, what? Brad is there again?!
What’s going through your authorial mind to make that happen? Does Brad’s job as a marketing director allow him unlimited time off to drive from Boston to N.H., in search of the former girlfriend who told him in no uncertain terms to buzz off? Or is this an atavistic “woman as prey” scene, where your heroine secretly longs to have two males fight over her? Or are you planning a sequel, a follow-up book that’ll start with the two men at fisticuffs? Seriously, ending your story on this cliff-hanger note is probably not a good idea. Can you think of a better way?
Reading through this note, you’ll see that much of my guidance is along the lines of “this part needs more work.” Don’t be discouraged: as the saying goes, 90% of successful writing is re-writing. My input will hopefully take your story from a rough first draft, to a later version you can be proud of.
Most famous and best-selling professional writers go through several drafts of their books before they’re satisfied with the result. That ability to be tough on yourself is what good writers develop over time, with experience – though it’s still always a good idea to have an editor as your “practice reader.”
Here’s a question: I assume you asked me to evaluate your story because you felt that it had certain weaknesses, and you wanted professional advice on how to deal with them. So I’d be very curious to find out how well my analysis matches your own estimate of what the problems are. Were the areas that I pointed out, the same ones that you felt most needed attention?
As well, in one of your emails, you jokingly said that you were being “difficult.” Marisa, please don’t think of yourself like that! The work you’re doing is difficult, and you’re still inexperienced with it – so props to you for going at it so hard, and taking your self-imposed task so seriously.
Believe me, not everybody has what it takes to do what you’re doing: many novice writers would just get discouraged, even by constructive criticism, and would lose their verve for tackling the job. Not you – you’ve obviously got guts and dedication, plus a serious loyalty to your vision of your story. That’s something all professional editors respect and admire. We know that OUR job is a lot easier than YOUR job. We also know how hard it is, for writers, to pay good money to be told what you're doing wrong!)
I completely understand that you need to reassess your heroine. She’s changing shape in your mind as we work together – for the better, I hope; she’ll be a more interesting, fully rounded person, with more dramatic weight to her character. So yes, it makes perfect sense that you “need to stop and get to know her again, and understand her, to better recreate her,” as you say.
You may find that your vision of Kaitlyn will have percolated away in your subconscious, and you’ll be able to view her with fresh eyes and have some new ideas about her – what she would say, how she would behave, etc.
The payoff, hopefully, will come in the end – when you look at the story you finally end up with, and feel you’ve really got something you can be proud of. You’ll know how hard you worked on it; but your audience will find it such a pleasant read that they’ll think you just sat down and dashed it off. As Mark Twain once said, “When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.”
You’ve got a vision inside your head, a story you’re committed to telling. But in writing, as in so much else, the devil is in the details: communicating your vision to your readers so they almost feel they’re there themselves, immersed in the action.
In this task of transferring your mental vision to the page, certain things are your friends:
sensory information: “showing, not telling”
realism: psychological, physical, social
clarity: both of thought, and of style.
Other things are your enemies:
not visualizing your scene clearly, or writing about it well
relying on stale clichés, rather than the freshness of genuine personal experience
cluttering up your story with stuff that takes up space, without pulling its weight (overwriting).
If you can focus on doing the former, and weeding out the latter, you’ll not only have a great story here – you’ll also be polishing your story-telling chops for your next one!