As you know, I'm in the process of editing the first draft of my novel. Wow–it's much harder to do than writing the first draft. I find my brain is constantly overwhelmed, almost to a state of numbness. Could it be I'm just obsessing too much at this point and should be concentrating on smoothing out the story instead of agonizing over every. single. word?

One of the more challenging aspects of this task is figuring out how and where to incorporate back story and description. For example, I've edited my first chapter to within an inch of its life. I even said to Mick, "This is really good!" Then I re-read it (again) and found that every other paragraph consisted of long, drawn out descriptions. Um, how could I have missed that during all those hours of re-writing?

I do not consider myself a visual learner (I'm not exactly sure what kind of learner I am) but I realized I needed some kind of visual tool to guide me in weaving description and back story into my narrative.

I got some highlighters and a paperback I didn't mind defacing and highlighted description in green and back story in pink:


The photo above is just a random page in the first chapter, but it gives you an idea of how much this author describes people/things and how she includes back story.

I think it's important to pick books in your genre for this exercise (especially in my case since mystery/crime tends to stick to a fairly strict structure). I'd also do it with a book you've already read since this is a tedious process that takes a lot of enjoyment out of reading the story itself.

The next task is to go back to my manuscript and highlight description and backstory the same way I did with the book. Is there too much pink or green? Can I figure out a more effective way to weave in the back story?

Obviously, every writer is going to incorporate these elements in a different way and my aim isn't to duplicate another writer's method. However, since I'm still learning the process, exercises like this are a good way to illustrate the way novels are structured. Of coures you don't have to do it only with back story and description. Try highlighting dialogue or simply all the times you write "said." It will give you an idea of whether or not you are overusing certain words.

What tips and tricks have you used to help you in the writing process?

4 Replies to “Highlights for… Writers?”

  1. Mike says: September 8, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    This is a good idea! I have broken down a mystery novel before, but it was a list of when things happened in the story. i.e. – The murder happens on page 10, the killer is introduced on page 17… it’s a good way to pull apart a mystery you think is well crafted and see how the writer paced it and put all the elements together. I think pacing is just as important as a lot of elements of the mystery.
    It’s confusing when a mystery writer tries to pack every important detail about the story/backstory into the first chapter, instead of letting it unfold at a more natural pace.

  2. Paige Bruce says: September 8, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Wow. What a brilliant idea. So simple, but probably very effective for those who will find it visually appealing. I hope you don’t mind if I borrow it for myself!
    Thank you!

  3. Holly West says: September 8, 2009 at 8:35 am

    I was struck by that as well. There are other passages (especially in the second chapter) which are much heavier with the descriptions, but this author tends to describe people, especially, in just a few words.

  4. says: September 8, 2009 at 8:22 am

    I was struck by how short the bits are in your photo–the backstory and description are throughout, just phrases and sentences here and there, rather than in big blocks. I’ll bet this makes the reading flow more–you’re not thinking, oh, here’s the character’s past or whatever. With description, especially, sometimes I forget that all it takes is a word (“green” … “shiny”) to distinguish or start an image forming.

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