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February 16, 2011
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March 3, 2011
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Finessing the Story


1. Refinement and delicacy of performance, execution, or artisanship.

2. Skillful, subtle handling of a situation; tactful, diplomatic maneuvering.

The discovery of an exquisite passage or an elegantly crafted sentence is the reader’s prize. The journey to those moments can be deeply satisfying or unsettling and frustrating. The trip rests exclusively in the hands of the author. The flaws the careful editor fixes… or when ignored, the trusting reader suffers, give meaning to the experience. The reader may slip over a lapse without realizing anything was amiss, but the story catches and on a deeper level the problem lodges like a splinter in flesh.

Smooth and Easy

I enjoy reading books from an author in succession and in chronological order. The development of character and themes in a series is interesting – especially in fast-forward – one book after another over several weeks. I’m currently on an M.C. Beaton kick. Her Hamish McBeth series has style. The plot moves seamlessly, the details are clear and straightforward. I run a movie through my mind the entire time I am reading her books. She’s the kind of writer that makes plotting her story appear easy – but the effort behind that seamless writing is deceiving! She has mastered the art of finessing the story. She works through the details, one sentence at a time, until every word serves a purpose. It is time intensive and terribly hard work, but it is what sets a great story apart from the rest.

Some writers are better at catching the flaws in their writing than others. Writer’s groups and workshops can help develop the critiquer’s eye. Whether it is you, or a significant other, the careful attention to detail will be worth the effort.

Here’s an example from my first edit of The Territory:

Background: The scene takes place in the trauma unit of a small Texas border town. A member of a Mexican cartel is in surgery, dying, and a trauma team has been pulled together for surgery. The team knows that at any moment rival gang members will arrive to finish the failed assassination attempt. It is an intense scene where I am trying to build suspense. The young nurse mentioned below is a very minor character in the story.

My original:

Behind the blue mask, Josie saw the fear in her eyes. Vie told Josie before surgery that the girl had just graduated from nursing school by a prayer and was not expected to make it through her first week on the job.

Editor’s Comment:

“We might cut this. I think we should, too distracting.”


When I was writing the scene I was attempting to provide detail about the young nurse. To make her more real on the page. In reality, it took away from the drama I was trying to create. The reader is taken out of the moment to consider what effect the nurse’s incompetence might have on the situation. And, that had nothing to do with the story. I cut the sentence and it made the scene tighter. Finessing: the skillful and subtle crafting of a story to remove all obstacles from the reader’s experience.

Next time – outlining