Friday, January 27, 2012

A Personal Check List for Fiction Writers

Today we welcome a new third-Friday regular to the blog - Debby Harris who last visited us here. Welcome aboard, Debby!  
I’m an Honorary Lecturer for the School of English at the Scottish University of St. Andrews (a town probably better known outside of Scotland as the historic Home of Golf).  Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of providing editorial support for two Ph.D. candidates in Creative Writing.   To help them evaluate their own work during the writing process, I prepared a check-list of practical questions for fiction writers to ask themselves.  This check list has since proven so useful to me as a tool for  editorial assessment/self-assessment that it seems churlish to keep it to myself.

So here it is:

A)  Plot
1)  Does the work feature a strong/striking central idea around which the action of the plot revolves?

2) Is the central concept sufficiently robust  to be conveyed in 25 words or fewer?

3)  Does the action reflect an artful balance between incident and exposition?

4)  Do plots and sub-plots advance logically, evincing a chain of cause and effect underlying the course of events?

5)  Are individual incidents and episodes well-conceived and well-orchestrated?

B)  Characterisation 
1)  Do the principal characters evince personal and emotional depth, eliciting sympathy or antipathy according to their roles?

2)  Is character interaction dramatic and dynamic, contributing to the development of exposition,  plot and theme?

3)  Is the dialogue lively and natural?

4)  Do characters behave self-consistently with respect to their age, social and educational background, experience and temperament?

5)  Within the framework of dialogue, is the register of diction appropriate to the respective characters and the work’s intended audience?

C)  Setting and Atmosphere
1)  Is the setting well-established in terms of time and place by means of descriptive imagery and selective detailing?

2)  Have the back-story elements been artfully accounted for in terms of background research and character profiling?

3)  Are atmosphere and mood effectively generated by means of evocative language?

4)  Do setting and atmosphere enhance plot action and character tensions?

5)  Do setting and atmosphere contribute meaningfully to thematic development?

D) The Writer’s Craft
1)  Is exposition handled adroitly, via a variety of techniques?

2)  Does point of view function artfully for the conveyance of story?

3)  Is the angle of vision manipulated effectively to influence the reader’s perceptions, emotional affinities, and thematic evaluations?

4)  Are scenes artfully “staged” with the aid of props and choreography of action?

5)  Does the work throughout exhibit a polished command of diction, syntax, and the ornaments of language?

In my experience, these questions, answered honestly, can help you locate any areas of potential weakness in your work.  (Incidentally, it’s also a useful tool whenever you’re out to critique any work of fiction that comes your way.)

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

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  1. Great checklist, Debby! Thank you so much.

  2. Welcome, Debby. Your list is quite complete - the only item I might personally include, based on recent experience, would be avoidance of writer intrusion. For the first time in my years of editing, this became a serious issue with a writer whose intrusive commentary proved a major distraction in the story.

    Excellent post! We're delighted to have you onboard.

  3. Welcome, Debby! I can tell there's going to be a whole lotta book-marking going on with this comprehensive post.

  4. Welcome Debby. That's an extensive list. I wonder if writers can step out of their role as author and judge their work. (As a writer myself, I know how difficult this can be.)


  5. I was wondering the same thing, Helen. Then I thought, this would be a useful checklist for a writer to use while critiquing someone else's story.

  6. Welcome aboard, Debby!

    Your checklist is very helpful, especially for those without great critique groups to help them along the way.

    It's important to have someone else look over your manuscript for inconsistencies that can be overlooked. They make sense to the writer, but may not be clear to the reader.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. Wow, heavy credentials, Ms Harris ... having you look at my work would be like having Old Tom Morris critique my golf game.

  8. Welcome, Debby! I'm bookmarking this post, it's exactly what I need. Thanks.

  9. Hi Debby,
    This is a good, thorough list. It does have some subjectivity to it--words such as "effectively" and "polished" may be difficult for the most honest writer to decide for sure. Even so, these are important questions to ask oneself.

    I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  10. Sorry about the wonky spacing kids. Debby caught a couple of typos and when I fixed them, the spacing went mad. I hate Blogger. ;/

  11. Thank you, Debby, this is a valuable checklist. Welcome to the BRP!

  12. Welcome to BRP. This is a fantastic list.

  13. Great checklist, Debby! I'll be sending my writer clients here, and also using it for my editing.

  14. After a lifetime of writing, editing, and reviewing (as well as publishing) I have discovered that few authors can do all of those things without help.

    I especially stumble on several of Debby's points which is where good beta readers (like Debby) come in handy. Hit me enough times over the head, and I do inch forward.

    Jane Yolen


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