As an editor myself, these are some of my suggestions:
PUNCTUATION, SENTENCE SYNTAX AND GRAMMAR
Strangely, proper punctuation is sometimes not desirable, because it has a way of expressing things, such as emphasis, questions, etc. Bearing in mind that we want the story to move quickly, things like question marks actually slow it down. Therefore, it is okay to just use a period instead of a question mark, unless you really want to emphasize the question. Similarly, exclamation points can be over-used, so use them sparingly. There are times when you REALLY want emphasis, and might want to use them. Of course, most punctuation rules do apply, and I will look for those.
- Misuse of a word or phrase
I have discovered that some writers actually use words incorrectly, and this could give a completely different meaning to their point. In this case I will try to suggest a better word or phrase for what I think they are trying to say.
- Sentence syntax
Syntax covers a wide range of things, but basically you want your sentences to make sense. You could have a complete sentence, but it might not say what you intend. For example: Jane couldn’t write the letter because she burned her right hand while taking the cake out of the oven that she wanted to write with. This might be more correctly written: While taking the cake out of the oven, Jane burned her right hand, with which she had intended to write a letter, and now she was unable to do so. Certainly she didn’t intend to write the letter with the cake, as the first example states. Most of these errors are easy to spot, because they don’t really make sense.
- Run-on sentences
When you are caught up in the speed of your story, it is easy to create long, run-on sentences. Watch for the use of “and” more than once. It may be that you just need a period and a new sentence. However, listen to your own sentence, and if it sounds good the way it is, by all means keep it. Usually though, it can be broken up.
- Starting a sentence with But or And
Beginning a sentence with “but” or “and” usually happens because the writer is trying to break up a run-on sentence. In this case it is usually fine to just drop the “but” or “and.” There are times when they seem to fit, though, so see how it sounds.
- Paragraph breaks
As an editor, I will expect paragraph breaks with a change of scene or topic, and certainly with a change of perspective. In conversation, there should be a paragraph break at least for each change of speaker.
Of course, I will always look for correct spelling. There are times when there is more than one way to spell a word. In this case, I will look for consistency.
PROPER HANDLING OF CONVERSATION
Writing conversation can be fun, and contributes greatly to a story, but it can be awkward if handled poorly. First of all, I will look for correct punctuation. Bad example: “Let’s ride our bikes to the store”. He said. Correct version: “Let’s ride our bikes to the store,” he said. First of all, I have changed the period after store to a comma. Next, the quote mark at the end goes after the comma, not before. Finally, I have changed He to lower case, as the sentence has not yet ended.
Of course, remember that you will change to a new paragraph for each change of speaker. Your character might speak for more than one paragraph, and this is fine, so long as the quote mark comes after the entire segment.
It is easy to get tripped up by expressing who is speaking. “Come here, little doggie,” John said. “You are sure a feisty one.” Notice that there are two sets of quote marks, because John said is not part of what he is saying.
In most cases, we recommend the simple he said over more descriptive words, such as he exclaimed because invisible (simple) words move the story along faster.
Another way to indicate who is speaking is by the action. “Come here, little doggie.” John reached down to scratch the stray’s head. Notice that in this case there is a period before the quote mark, as the sentence is actually complete. This is my favorite way of indicating the speaker, as it also shows what the character is doing, and feels more natural.
Once the speaker is identified, there is no need to keep saying “he said” until it becomes unclear who is speaking.
“It’s so good to see you!” John’s mother rushed up to hug him. “How long will you be able to stay?”
“I have to be back on base by Friday,” John said.
“I’ll fix you your favorite dinner tonight. Your father will be glad to see you.”
“I’ve really missed him, Mom.
“He is such a great father.” (Who is speaking here?) It seems that this would be a good time to identify the speaker, although some could argue that the new paragraph indicates that it is the mother.
Finally, be sure that your character is speaking in a fashion that is consistent with who they are. A college graduate, for example, would not say “I seen that show,” nor would a 5-year-old say that his dog is undisciplined. When using slang, use just enough to indicate how your character speaks, but don’t overdo it. You can use a few words here and there, and the reader will automatically read the slang into your other words. Ex: “I jest got throwed by that hoss.” Then later, “I’ll jest get the horses rounded up afore they run off.”
FLOWERY LANGUAGE AND METAPHORS
Some of us are also poets or poet wannabes, and this will tend to show up in our writing. Try to keep this at a minimum unless it significantly contributes to the flow of the book. If your hero is chasing the bad guy down the beach, don’t stop to describe the beautiful sunset. I doubt very much your characters are thinking about it right now.
Be careful with clichés or common metaphors. I have a rule of thumb I use for this: Once is enough. If you say, for example, he dismounted in one fluid motion, don’t use that same phrase again in this book. Regarding metaphors, if you hear it a lot, you probably don’t want to put it in your book. This gives the book a stale feeling. You want it to be fresh and new. However, a lot of writers have problems when creating new metaphors, as their creations may seem forced or awkward. Here, I suppose, is where the true poet can shine. We must say, “yes!” and not “huh?” As an editor, if it slows me down, even to admire the words, I will suggest it be changed.
Perspective is the view from which the story is seen by the characters. The narrator is the author. The narrator can talk about anybody or anything, as he sees all, but the characters must view things only from their own perspective. When Jane is crying on her mother’s shoulder because John broke up with her, and we are given her thoughts and feelings, we cannot also be given John’s thoughts and feelings. His is another perspective. For every change in perspective, you must have a break in the story.
MOVING THE STORY FORWARD
It is important to keep the reader’s attention, and to this end, you must keep your story moving forward rapidly. Anything that slows down or distracts the reader will detract from the appeal of your book. Here are some examples:
- Use simple words when they work just as well. Fancy words might be entertaining, but they slow us down to think about them. Ex: The cacophony from the saloon drew him in. How about, The noise coming from the saloon drew him in.
- Eliminate unnecessary words or phrases. For example: The grocery store that is in our town… could be The grocery store in our town… Another example might be as follows: (you have just told us that the boy was given a gun by his father) “He picked up the gun that his father had just given him…” could be simply, “he picked up the gun…”
- Let excitement build
Excitement is built by keeping the reader guessing. Don’t tell all. Maybe nothing bad is going to happen, but the reader doesn’t know that. Let him worry. He thought someone was following him. The bushes next to the trail were moving, and the birds had gotten quiet all of a sudden. Who was there? A real master at this was Alfred Hitchcock. He is worth studying. In essence, make your reader want to turn to the next page.
As stated above, always make your reader want to turn the page. At the very least, each chapter ending should have a hook. If your hero is going to round a corner and run into his girlfriend, make it a hook. He turned the corner, and stopped in his tracks. His mouth fell open. End of chapter.
- Don’t tell me what I already know
There are times when you will want to repeat an idea over and over, to help develop your character. You might, for example, periodically show Jane worrying about her appearance in order to show her insecurity. Whereas I appreciate this technique, sometimes I get very annoyed at too much repetition. I want to scream, “Alright, already!” I have read novels by famous authors where I felt that they were just saying it over and over to fill up the pages. I would much rather have them get on with the story.
More to the point, however, if you have just revealed a fact, there is no point in saying it again. Ex: In your story, Jane has been down to the river washing her hair. Your narrative continues, She climbed back up the hill after washing her hair. Didn’t you already tell me that she was washing her hair? It is annoying to be told again what you just told me. This type of writing makes your story feel muddy, instead of clear and crisp.
- Allow reader to participate
When it is your story, it is natural for you to want the reader to see and feel certain things, but you must be careful to lead them to conclusions, rather than telling them what to think. Bad example: (Sally’s mother has just died, and she is crying.) The tears rolled down Sally’s cheeks, and she wiped them with the corner of her apron. She was very sad that her Mother had died. Well, duh! Better example: “Tears rolled down Sally’s cheeks, and she wiped them with the corner of her apron. She sat at the kitchen window looking dully out at the garden where her mother had just yesterday been weeding the tomatoes. Now the reader gets to make up his own mind about how Sally is feeling, and if you have done it correctly, they will see what you intended for them to see.
- Don’t let author’s personality be seen or heard
Finally, unless you are writing in first person the narrator must be invisible. The narrative must be neutral in tone. It is very easy to put our own personality into the narrative if we are not careful. This happens by the use of slang, figures of speech, opinionated statements, clichés, etc. In short, if I have cause to think about the narrator, he is not invisible. Ex: If you want to say that Charlie was angry, do NOT say Charlie was pissed off. In fact, going back to what we discussed earlier, don’t even say Charlie was angry. Instead, SHOW us his anger.
I know it is very difficult for a writer to have his or her prized work “criticized” by an editor, but just think of it like a garden. The plants need to be pruned, and sometimes cut back, in order for them to put forth their best display. As an editor, I am looking for the book to be fresh, enjoyable and to move along quickly to a satisfying conclusion. All of the suggestions above are to that end. There is nothing so gratifying to an author as to hear someone say of this book, “I just couldn’t put it down!”
Judy Mitchell, Editor