Today’s post is a guest blog from the lovely Sarah Liu, fellow writer and freelance editor! As the title suggests, she’s going to chat about five common editing problems, and how to avoid them.
Hi all! I’m Sarah, and I’m an editor who works a lot with indie novels. Claerie invited me onto her blog to talk with you about the editing problems I encounter most often. I’m going to focus on things that will consistently have you producing better drafts, the kinds editors want to work with, the kinds that get editors excited about focusing on the important thing: the story.
- Sending me your first draft. Let’s compare this to a home renovation project. Say I want to hire a contractor to put in new laminate flooring in my living room. But I don’t clean anything. I don’t move the furniture. There are shoes and piles of laundry on the floor. Obviously, these kinds of things aren’t within the contractor’s scope. Will they do it if you pay them extra? Maybe. Editors who work with indie authors are more likely to accept rough drafts. But a good editor, like good contractor, will tell you what your tasks are to prepare the “room” (manuscript) before they can even begin working. A project rate is often quoted with consideration to the condition of the manuscript. So if you send an editor your first draft, you will almost certainly be paying more. And you will be paying more for things that you shouldn’t really have to be paying for—the editor to clean up your room before they even get to the story.
This is true at any level of editing. The contractor metaphor relates more directly to a developmental/structural editor. But the same goes for line editing or copyediting. The better condition your manuscript is in, the lower your rate will likely be, and the more your editor will be focused on the areas of your manuscript that you weren’t able to fix up yourself—you know, the reason you hired an editor in the first place.
So, revise, revise, revise. Unless you’re Kerouac incarnate. Then send me your first draft.
- Uncontrolled psychic distance. I could write an entire blog post about this, but many people already have. This is a good one if you want to read more about it. If you’re an author, one of the first things you often decide is what point of view you want to use. And if you’re setting out to write, it’s one of the first things you learn about. Point of view relates to who is telling us the information and how much of the information they have. But that’s really only the first step. Psychic distance is a term coined by John Gardner in the book The Art of Fiction. You can think of it as the balance between the narrator’s voice and the character’s voice. If you have a third person limited narrator and the POV character’s thoughts seem to blend with the narration, that’s considered a close psychic distance. You could almost imagine that sort of narration as first person. There are great examples at that blog post that I linked above. But the point of psychic distance isn’t that you have to choose one or maintain a certain level throughout a manuscript. It’s that you need an awareness of it. You can’t jump from a fable-like narrative directly into stream-of-consciousness writing. You’ll throw of your reader and confuse them, leaving them wondering who is doing the talking.
Close psychic distance is a great tool to help you show and not tell. The reader has access to a character’s direct sensory information. Newbie writers often recognize this and attempt to sprinkle it liberally throughout their manuscript. But you can’t do that. You must navigate naturally from one level to the next. The narrative should flow between levels. Jumping around abruptly is just as distracting as head-hopping.
- Formatting Dialogue Incorrectly. Finally, an easy one! Formatting dialogue is something that is straightforward and learnable. Yet, I find myself as an editor spending an inordinate amount of time on the task. Once learned, the rules of dialogue become so natural, they almost disappear as a problem at all. So let’s get the major ones down:
- Actions are not dialogue tags. Say it with me: actions are not dialogue tags!
This is wrong: “You’re obviously flirting with me,” she smiled.
This is right: “You’re obviously flirting with me.” She smiled.
If the verb following your dialogue has something to do with speaking (said, shouted, asked, responded, whispered, uttered, etc.), you attach it with a comma like in the first example. If, however, it’s a gesture or an action (laughed, sighed, crinkled her nose, huffed, etc.), separate it from the dialogue like in the second example.
- Change paragraphs when the speaker changes OR when the acting character changes. This is one of those rules that can be broken sometimes for stylistic reasons. But if you’re going to break it, know what the effect of breaking it has on your book, have a reason for doing it, and be prepared to give that reason to your editor.
- Use ellipses to end dialogue only when a character is trailing off or becoming lost in thought. If a character is being interrupted by another character, use an em dash. Easy, no? People tend to use ellipses far too often, and then they end up losing their effect, and become just a sort of larger comma.
- Inconsistent names. Now, to be honest, this does fall under an editor’s job moreso than the other things I’ve mentioned. However, it’s a really easy thing to prevent as you are writing, if you are using Microsoft Word! Ninety percent of the time I receive a sci-fi or fantasy manuscript, there is at least one character’s name that is inconsistently spelled throughout the manuscript. If your character’s names are made up and they trigger Word’s spellcheck feature, right click on the red line under “Aerandael” and click “add to dictionary.” That way, Word will actually check for you if you accidentally switch on and off between Aerandael and Aerandeal. A good editor will notice this, or will run a check system to catch this. But they’ll also be super impressed if they receive a manuscript full of complicated names that are all actually consistent!
- Show, don’t tell. Yeah, I just saw your eyes roll. First of all, yes, I know everyone knows this. But do they? (Hint, the answer is no.) Second of all, I know that telling works sometimes. I’m talking about a very specific kind of showing not telling. It has to do with triggers and character motivations. If you have a character reacting oddly to someone or something that is happening, and you explain the reason or have the character explain it for the first time in that very moment AFTER the fact, you are missing a golden opportunity. I’m sorry, it’s just that when I was a kid, this happened and then my father left us! If a character says this, be very sure that you have either previously mentioned this OR, better yet, you have a previous scene that actually shows this happening. That way, when the triggering interaction happens later, your reader will react simultaneously with your character. You can still have your character explain this. But they’ll be telling other characters, not the readers.
You would think that this seems like an easy thing to accomplish and that it wouldn’t be a big problem, but it’s one of the major problems I see. I think the reason is that often authors feel like if they keep some things hidden from their readers, it will build tension. This is true. But you can’t make it obvious that you withheld it on purpose. Your reader will feel cheated.
So, those are the five things! I’ll be honest, if you did even one of these perfectly, I would be ecstatic as an editor! And if you read this and think but that’s your job to help me with those, you’re absolutely right. I’ll do so happily. It’s just that these are the kinds of things that will also make you a better writer, and will in turn create better stories. I started my editing career through fangirling over particular indie authors, and really, that’s all I ever want: MORE GOOD STORIES!
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Thank you for the great advice Sarah! And as always, keep making magic, word weavers!