One of the things I decided to do this year was an occasional post on things I’ve learned about being an author-publisher since I first started to send my stuff to agents in 2010. Once I decided to take the independent route, I had to brush up a whole load of business skills. Fortunately I’ve been self-employed for years. I know there are four core things, the 4 Ps, that need to be right to be successful – Product, Place, Price and Promotion. No point in getting the last three perfect if the Product is rubbish, so let’s start there today.
You’ve written a fab book. Someone will knock it into shape for you, right? No. You will knock it into shape. You will make it the best thing you can before you send it to your editor, and then your editor will point out all the things you missed or got wrong, or that didn’t make sense. Then you fix those, and go through it again to see all the things your editor missed. Then you go through it again to see all the things you still didn’t notice, or, worse, introduced during your last edit.
Even then, you may still miss the words you left out.
Missing words, incorrect words
“There’s a noise of oars or something, I tell you!” Princess Kira turned away from the window where she’d peering out into the mist. “I’m sure something’s going on out there.”
I think The Princelings and the Pirates had been out for nearly eighteen months before I noticed the problem with the first line in the story. Ouch. I suspect the only sure way to catch these is to read them out loud. Read the story to your children, your family, your cat, dog, budgie or guinea pig.
In case you didn’t see it straight away, the word ‘been’ is missing. Word’s grammar checker didn’t pick it up. Word’s grammar checker can be very useful, but is not infallible. Sometimes it’s plain wrong. It often gets subject-verb agreement wrong, and it usually doesn’t know the difference between that and which – although it will notice you’ve used one of them.
Word also doesn’t tell you what the correct spelling is for the word you are using. You have to work that out on your own. Reign is what monarchs do. If you want to stop a horse, or control your emotions, you rein them in. (You use the reins on the bridle). You and your comrades may have comradeship or camaraderie, but you not have comradery. It doesn’t exist. Word also doesn’t tell you when you meant but and have typed bur. I wish it would, since I have a huge problem with form and from, and nearly always type the one I don’t want. I do a search and replace on (space)form(space) to turn it back into from. Then spellcheck again.
There are zillions of books on punctuation, and plenty of websites telling you how to edit your book. I like Duolit, The Story Reading Ape and Steve King. The first two are websites, the last a blockbuster author’s book on writing. You may still disagree with your editor’s punctuation changes, but they are probably more correct than you. Give in unless you have very good reason. I notice a difference in style between the top UK books and my US editor’s style requirements. I think we’re both right, but she’s my editor, so I’m trying to do it her way, on the whole!
I twitch mightily whenever I see misplaced commas in other people’s books, though. It’s usually a sign of worse things to come. “The leader of the expedition raised his hand sharply, indicating for the rest of the team to stop…” A great sentence. Now put the name of the leader in front, with a comma…. and you need another comma after ‘expedition’. Name raised his hand sharply, and he was the leader of the expedition, therefore “Name, leader of the expedition, raised his hand sharply…. Ok, the author of the book I was reading didn’t understand that. It was in the first paragraph, and it certainly was a sign of things to come.
If you are ironic, or writing a pastiche, you can get away with cliches. For the rest of it, try writing the second thing that comes into your head instead of what everyone and his dog writes, especially in the press or on the news. I’m sure I have a few cliches out there in my books. They don’t tend to be cringeworthy ones, although Victor is somewhat given to cliches, and that’s different, if they are a character trait.
I remember somewhere reading a list of cliche words. Countless was one of them. ‘Countless victories’ – it goes in with ‘a lot’, ‘big’, and similar vague adjectives that should be rooted out or properly compared.
These can be great fun, once you have realised you are reading a book that hasn’t had enough attention from an editor. Are you a fan of those TV shows where you get the continuity blunders in films? It’s that sort of game.
A girl has been given a smelly drink which she cups in both hands.
“She plugged her nose with one hand, sipping cautiously, and raised the other to her temple.”
Clever girl! That’s at least three hands as far as I can see! No, she isn’t an alien. (I’ve been having trouble with an alien species in the start of my new book because his hands go too many places and I’m not sure people will appreciate yes, he has six or eight of them). At the end of that paragraph, the girl with the drink throws her arm down. Not sure where to, or whether it bounces. Maybe she does indeed have a third, spare, arm?
Another story: an important person has received terrible burns in an accident. It is implied that he is not going to live. “It’s not looking good” says the attendant. “I won’t miss sharing my last moments with my children,” the victim croaks. (Spot the cliches?) He is heavily bandaged, leaving ‘small slivers of eyes’. Yet he manages to reach for his children, talk to them firmly for a couple of pages, and then wipe his brow with the effort. Through the bandages? Even more amazingly, next day he gets up for his daughter’s wedding. Strong stuff these people are made of. Either that or someone was exaggerating when he said they were his last moments.
There are other physical impossibilities which display the author’s lack of awareness of how the world works. I know I like scifi, but planets have certain general climate rules which apply equally to earth and other human-habitable planets. In scifi and fantasy you can invent your own science rules if you like, but they have to be internally consistent.
“The morning air breathed its warm gusts into the far corners of the castle. Still before dawn…”
I have been considering very carefully whether any climate in any type of terrain on earth has warm gusts of air before the sun rises to warm the earth. Even in hot countries, it is cold, or at least cooler, before dawn. The planet cools when it is not exposed to the sun. Unless this planet has an internal heating mechanism that works during darkness, in which case, can it turn itself off when the sun rises? No, basically, this author does not know what he is talking about. I lose interest in both the science and the fiction in this book. It doesn’t hang together.
Does it matter? Well, maybe the story is good enough and these are minor blunders.
Overuse of words/phrases and ‘darlings’
We all know we shouldn’t use the same word over and over again. Repetition, right? Sometimes it works, for emphasis. Most of the time we use it because we don’t notice ourselves doing it. In one story I was reading before Christmas I swear a market was described as having ‘sweet scents’ six or more times before we were finally relieved by it having a ‘sweet mixture of flowers’. In the next chapter the word sweet occurred in three consecutive short paragraphs. I suppose I had become sensitised to it. It always reminds me of the 90s when “sweet” was a derogatory term you used when someone had done something stupid and you didn’t want to be too rude.
Root out your darlings! They are your favourite words or phrases of the moment. Do a search on things you suspect you might be over-using. You may be horrified by just how many times they have occurred. Find another way of saying it… nearly every time!
This used to be my worst problem. I get Word to grammar check – one thing it is very good at is picking out my long and obscure rambles.
I find it very useful to ask myself “What am I trying to say?”
I say out loud what I am trying to say, then write that down. I find it helps.
Finally, a word on inanimate objects like doors and windows. I remember reading (probably Stephen King) that we know someone opens the door. We know you open a door and go through it. It is not entirely necessary to say so. “He went through the door” is permissable, because it is understood that he opened it. However, consider these:
“With grand showmanship, the large doors opened, and the orchestra began.”
“Their eyes were closed as the shadow of the dragon passed through the glass windows.”
I can’t help feeling that it was not possible for the doors to open with grand showmanship. This one surely needs an agent to open them with grand showmanship? I’m also uncomfortable with the shadow of the dragon. It seems like Peter Pan’s shadow to me, coming through the window of its own accord. Maybe I’m being picky, but my editor would hang, draw and quarter me for doing this. Well, she’d throw my manuscript back at me and tell me to put it in order before wasting her valuable time on it.
But then, the relationship between an author and her editor is of a particular kind, as Lady de Bourgh would say.
7 thoughts on “On Editing”
Great post. I’ve read a number of books spoilt by some of the ‘issues’ you mention. When all you can do is fixate on the repeated words or laugh at the impossible narrative you lose the will to read on. I feel another careful reading of my WIP is in order. 🙂
Read it to your cat, out loud… although maybe not if she’s feeling poorly.
Reading out loud helps soooo much! That is great advice. Wonderful post, Jemima!
Another advocate here for reading out loud–that’s pretty nearly my last editing step. I also do a search for the letter combo “ly”. That catches all my adverbs, and I can decide which add something to the narrative and which are just filler (I don’t subscribe to the “no adverbs” school, but they are easy to abuse).
Love those examples. And good luck with the alien!
I’m thinking of saying he reached out with two of his six arms. That’ll make it plainer.
That’s laying it on the line, anyway! My approach is just to say it and keep writing–and spend time agonizing over it in the editing process. You might also get a good effect by making it very clear he’s doing something with two arms. . . and then reaches out with another. And another. . . a body could have fun with that!
I do too… it’s just that this is in the first paragraph, so I see it every time I open the file and wait for the whole thing to load 🙂
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