Examples of Fix Notes
Fix Note 5
This sample fix note was created for fiction writer Colin, author of a sailing adventure story
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your manuscript. It’s a good story, with excellent dialogue (usually the sticking point for first-time writers) and some vividly drawn characters. The adventure element – particularly the sailing – is really exciting. I bet the book will sell well to sailors looking for a gripping novel for a long trip!
So let’s take all the good stuff as read, and move on to the stuff we can work on together to improve.
I’m putting a whole bunch of Comments in your MS to deal with specific points, so I won’t repeat those. The issues I'm raising here are major and ongoing ones – some things for you to be aware of throughout, and fix as necessary. (These are in no particular order, just as they occur to me.)
1) Pacing. Your “speeding up” and “slowing down” both need work. This is a purely technical thing, and it’s always hard. Just remember that the reader must shift gears quite a bit to go from following your story minute-by-minute, to then being told: “the next day” or even “two years later.”
2) Flashbacks. A side effect of the last point is getting in and out of the flashbacks. This problem bedevils you right from the opening. Your first para is very good – nothing like a body bobbing by one foot off a dock to set a scene! But instantly, without having properly established a presence in the here-and-now, you leave it and go dashing off into the background of Pip and Gus’s childhood.
Flashbacks do have their place, to provide a backstory; but try to use them sparingly. Much of the Gunn background, in particular, is excessive (see my point #11, below, about over-embroidering). I often feel you’re writing two books at once, and trying to squish everything into one. Your material is mostly well-conceived, but it doesn’t mesh very easily with the present action – and the tumult of detail is too much. Tell us only what we need to know.
3) Show, don’t tell. It's the most basic piece of writerly advice – and when a writer handles dialogue as well as you do, it’s particularly irritating to be told something rather than shown it. You do the showing well, so keep at it.
4) Action scenes. Make them bigger. From the reader’s viewpoint, these parts often just don’t have enough punch. You go from accompanying Pip in a non-violent situation, to all of a sudden keeping him company in a violent one – and your tone and pace don’t change. Figuratively speaking, your breathing is still calm, your pulse is still steady, etc. You need some Shock! and Wow! and Help! and Yikes! and How the hell do I get out of this?
(A tip: single lines and lots of new paragraphs are simple tools to help the reader feel the full force of your dramatic scenes.)
A prime example of this “lack of punch” is the explosion on the ship. I literally had to read that section several times before I figured out a) that there really was something bad going on; b) what exactly was happening (the mechanics of the situation); c) why this was happening; and d) exactly what Pip feels and thinks at the time. The nightmarish feeling of “My God, a moment ago this was a pleasure cruise, and now I’m about to die!” doesn’t come through as strongly as it should.
You need to set aside your own knowledge of the scene, and look at it from the reader’s point of view. You, the creator of this moment, have a clear idea in your mind of what’s happening. But the reader needs to have things explained, in a way that makes all the details clear – and inspires strong emotion, of whatever kind. Your tone in this section is so matter-of-fact, it has the effect of making the exciting, pivotal scene you wrote seem quite dull!
(I also don’t think you make quite enough of the creepiness of standing on something squishy that you later realize must be a dead body; which later still you realize is actually the dead body of your missing brother. This is a lovely touch, but I'm sure you could execute it better.
5) Love and sex. The relationship between Pip and Alba is something I personally had a lot of trouble with. Maybe it's just me, but I simply can’t see what it is about your protagonist that Alba likes so much! He seems quite passive, and lets her do everything for him, and to him. Unless he’s a really, really good-lookin’ guy (which you don’t indicate), it’s hard for a reader to see just what the attraction is. (Granted, he saves Mandy’s life in a state of dire physical extremity himself; but that’s about it for heroic behaviour.)
And at the end, after they’ve become lovers, he sneaks off in the most cowardly manner – that’s very hard to handle. Is he meant to be an anti-hero, as she’s an anti-heroine? But even so, there ought to be something about him that we readers can recognize is attractive to her.
Aside from that, there are also far too many sudden changes in Pip’s feelings for Alba. He likes her, then he doesn’t, then he does again, then he finds something new to dislike.... To use a nautical metaphor, too many tacks! I think many of these could be jettisoned, and the idea of it being a complex and changeable relationship would still be there. There ought to be a discernible overall pattern.
6) Useless verbs. Sadly, you have a terrible fondness – surprising in an editor! – for over-long, prissy words that don’t really contribute anything. (The major offender is your overuse of proves; runners-up are offered and appeared. Others are served, seemed, attempted, returned, provided, and remained, to name only a few.) Try to find more active, telling verbs than these; I’ve circled the ones that strike me. Use your Find function to locate every appearance of “proves,” for instance – 98% of them can be replaced with a better, more active verb.
7) Authorial omniscience. Although you have quite a number of nicely set-up moments (the prime one being the broken hatch hasp), several times I got the feeling – not a comfortable one for a reader – that you’re making it up as you go along, and not always backtracking to make the new material congruent with the old. I’ve flagged several of those places.
8) Plot twists. I think there are just TOO MANY of these. There’s one, and then another, and then another revelation, and then, gosh darn it, another one – until the brain is just reeling from all this new information, which throws a new light on everything that had gone before. (See below, when I return to this subject.)
9) Past tenses. You frequently confuse the past and imperfect past: so and so “did” something, when in fact he “HAD” done it.
10) Chapter breaks. You should review these, since often they seem to occur bang in the middle of a scene – which afterwards carries on just as it had before.
11) Over-embroidering. You have a tendency to tell elaborate stories, apparently just for the sheer joy of doing it; and you often throw in minor characters who do nothing but clutter up the narrative. Like most neophyte writers, you love inventing things and throwing them in. But the result is like a sundae with so many toppings, sauces, cherries, nuts, and sprinkles that the ice-cream itself gets lost! A talent for invention has to be used sparingly, especially in a mystery novel.
Enjoyable as these bits may be to you, they don’t always connect well with the plot; they detract readers’ attention from the story. Your plot is complex – don’t succumb to the temptation to make it even more ornate by throwing in more hints, red herrings, incidents and characters. Sometimes, less is more.
12) The body on the dock. Thinking it over, the whole business of Nosy/Dennis Parker, which opens the story, seems curiously unintegrated to the rest? Can you work at tying it in?
13) Prepositions. You tend to use “as though” when “like” is the proper word – the exact opposite of the usual fault. “Like” is overused, granted, but it has a correct function: to set up a comparison. It's an adjectival phrase (“His mouth felt like the bottom of a bird cage”), while “as though” is an adverbial phrase (“He leaped from his desk as though jet-propelled”). Use your Find function to search for and correct these.
14) Relationships. As I’ve said in my notes, the major simplification I’d like to see is the open avowal, from the get-go, that Alba is Brody’s daughter; that Val is his wife, and Alba’s stepmother; and that Mandy is Val and Brody’s daughter – and hence Alba's little sister. You can hold these pieces of info back a little, but not excessively. It places too much of a burden on Alba’s character if she’s required to lie, cheat and conceal all the time. The truth is, you can’t make a character believable if she’s merely a plot device, acting as an information bottleneck to your readers.
15) The shape of the story. I’ve made up a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book – what happens, where the scenes take place, who’s involved, etc. From this, I’ve broken your book down into four phases:
I) In L.A. before the accident (your characters are Pip, Gus, and the kids)
II) After the Elysian accident (Pip, Alba, Brody, Mandy, Val, etc.)
III) At sea aboard the Mahia (Pip, Alba, Mandy)
IV) The finale on Gunn (Pip, Alba, Mandy, Rita, Brody)
Each phase has its own separate problems, in addition to the ones that are common to all. In Phase I, for instance, the interaction between Pip and Gus never quite gels for me – I never get the feeling that I know Gus, that he’s a believable character rather than a collection of adjectives. The action with the kids is good, though maybe a bit prolonged. Opal and Rosie are effective characters.
In Phase II, you introduce Alba – then seem uncertain what to do with her. In one sense, the action bounces around like a ball in a squash court here, from locale to locale. In another sense, it rather bogs down; between suspicion and counter-suspicion, dodging Brody, looking for Gus, visiting Val, etc., etc. – it’s a big relief when the three main characters finally take to the open sea.
There’s not much wrong with Phase III, except that the talking-over of events – which in itself is quite appropriate to this relative lull – goes around in circles like a spider in a bathtub. That can get a bit wearying for your readers. Also, you really don’t quite seem to know where Pip and Alba’s relationship is going. However, the Mandy-overboard scene is great, as is the storm itself; those are the real stuff of adventure.
Phase IV should be a thrilling and gratifying resolution and conclusion; but instead it too gets rather bogged down. Some parts are just plain unbelievable: if a son sails two thousand miles to see his mother, she’s unlikely to just hector him on the dock for a few minutes before sending him and his friends on their way.
The series of revelations is also a bit too much – well, a LOT too much. A good climactic scene ought to be deeply satisfying: everything is explained, the bad guy gets his comeuppance. But this needs some major re-conceptualizing, and then a careful rewrite – keep in mind your characters’ various motivations.
16) Conclusion. The end of the story, on Gunn Island, is messy (and not just when Alba takes an axe to Brody!). I couldn’t shake the feeling that Philip and Alba really should have foreseen Brody’s being there – they may have been in limbo, cut off from the world, during their weeks at sea; but surely there are planes several times daily between L.A. and Seattle.
Your grand finale needs shortening and tightening; and personally, I always have a weakness for the kind of scene where some character asks all the questions that have puzzled the reader throughout the book, and the omniscient author patiently answers them.
17) Cut, cut, cut. Then cut some more. Cut with a brutal hand. Cut where I’ve indicated, and where I haven’t. Cut many of the reminiscences and flashbacks; cut rumination and reflection; cut repetition; cut aimless meandering dialogue. Cut the dull bits. Cut anything not strictly needed for character or plot development. If you can get this 300-page MS down to 200 pages or so, you’ll be doing your editor, your readers and yourself a big favour.
18) Reconceptualize. Then, when you’ve chopped everything not absolutely necessary or desirable, you can start to add material back in. Some scenes – such as your opening and ending – will require quite heavy rewriting. Other parts should clarify and explain. You can expand parts of the story to better capture your characters’ actions and thoughts. I often felt that you hadn’t fully thought about how the characters would best react to some event or news. At present, even Pip doesn’t react as strongly as he should (except for where he over-reacts, as if to compensate).
19) Your title. I hate to be a party-pooper, but I don’t think Thin Blue Man really works. We learn only late in the book that the name refers to Gus; but as I said earlier, he never really comes into any sort of focus for the reader. For all his presumed brotherly importance to Pip, he isn’t a powerful enough character in the book to be the title figure – and he vanishes from the scene early, being dead. (Also, that title clashes with any familiarity your readers may have with The Thin Man as a movie character.)
I’ve often found that in creative work, a useful piece of advice is that line from children’s counting games – ”Take away the number you first thought of.” The fact that some person, thing, act or scene is the original inspiration for your work, doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to wind up in the final cut. Your story can move beyond it. I think this one has. I suspect there’s a lot more in the book now than there was when you first thought up this title.
OK, I’m done now. Are you still standing?!
Please don’t take any of my criticism personally: as I said, the basic story is really, really good. Big chunks of it are quite memorable. It’s just that when I think back on it, I remember the scenes and characters that drive the action – but not the long stretches that contain only desultory chat, or seemingly unrelated flashbacks. Much of the charging to and fro is forgettable, and just clutters up the good stuff – it drags the story, slowing it down like barnacles and weeds on a hull. So scrape it all off!
Go back to work, and put your talent for invention to work again. If you do, I’ll be reading those glowing book reviews yet.