Advice From Your Editor

A little helpful advice never hurt anyone.

We should talk about copyediting.

Dear ———

I’ve finished reading your manuscript and feel there was a great deal working for it. Based on our conversations last week, I can see what you’re trying to do, and there certainly a few areas of developmental opportunity we can talk about.

However, before I tuck into the big-picture stuff, we should talk about copyediting for a moment.

Whether you decide to move forward with substantive/developmental editing or not, you should know that your manuscript is eventually going to require the attention of a copyeditor. I want to be clear that this should not be taken as a criticism of your writing or interpreted so as to diminish what you’ve accomplished. The fact is all manuscripts require copyediting, which is the reason why traditional publishers subject their manuscripts, even those written by established authors, to at least one round of copyediting. Often times multiple rounds.

Writing and editing are two different skills, and even an individual blessed with ability in both can’t effectively write and edit at the same time. Furthermore, a disciplined author going back and trying to copyedit something they’ve already written is going to be naturally handicapped. Editing your own prose is difficult for a couple of reasons: (1) we tend to be blind to our own quirks and foibles, and (2) it is almost impossible to pass your eyes over something you’ve written without reading what you intended to write rather than what you actually made its way onto the page.

Which is certainly not to suggest that authors shouldn’t bother going back over their work with an eye to cleaning things up and tightening the prose. Rather I am trying to suggest that a fresh set of eyes—especially if they belong to a trained copyeditor—will usually find things that authors have missed.

I was a buyer in the book industry for a number of years and was once told by a rep that Alexander McCall Smith and Cormac McCarthy were known for submitting near letter-perfect manuscripts—the latter no doubt riding out of the setting sun with his latest novel tucked into his saddlebag. They were known for this precisely because it was noteworthy.

Most authors require copyediting, and you’re no exception.

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Soliloquy.

“To soliloquize or not to soliloquize, that is the question.”
And if that is the question, here is the answer: not to soliloquize.

Folks, for the love of God, do not have your characters talking to themselves. Don’t have them muttering things under their breath. Don’t have them absentmindedly articulating what’s going through their head. Do not have them shouting into dark, uncaring skies. Refrain from having them choking out teary promises in rainy, deserted graveyards.

Soliloquy of any kind is one of the corniest, most conspicuous forms of exposition available. Shakespeare got away with it because –A– he was Shakespeare and –B– it was an accepted dramatic device for revealing the inner thoughts of characters on stage. Here’s the thing though; you are not Shakespeare, soliloquies have fallen out of fashion, and furthermore, you have no need of this type of dramatic device if you are writing fiction. “Why is that?” you might ask—because you do not have an audience; you have readers, and readers have a narrator whose job it is to keep them informed.

Less problematic at times, but still potentially awkward, is the overuse of, or reliance upon, interior monologue as a way of stating what you, as a writer, are otherwise too damned lazy to portray. Now if you have a character with something to say but no one they can say it to, as a writer, you have a little more rope if you simply keep your character’s mouth shut and have them think it instead. But you had better keep it brief and to the point, or else you will hang yourself with that extra rope.

Example #1 (Not good)

In the apartment, the coppery musk of blood hung on the air. The signs of struggle were everywhere the detective turned.

“I’ll never get used to scenes like this,” he muttered into his coffee.

Example #2 (Better)

In the apartment, the coppery musk of blood hung on the air. The signs of struggle were everywhere the detective turned.

He sipped his coffee. I’ll never get used to scenes like this, he thought to himself.
[pet peeve: the redundancy of thinking to yourself]

Example #3 (Even Better)

In the apartment, the coppery musk of blood hung on the air. The signs of struggle were everywhere the detective turned.

He sipped his coffee. It tasted bitter, and he wished there was a place he could dump it. A detective with seven years under his belt, he’d long since abandoned the hope that he might one day get used to scenes like this.

There is an intrinsic theatricality to soliloquy that often rings false, which is not to say that it can’t be done well, only that it usually isn’t.

All that being said, if you are truly desperate to give voice to what is going on in your protagonist’s head, there is a way to give yourself carte blanche, and that is to write the entire story in the first person. Just remember that even a first person narrator shouldn’t ever be talking out loud to himself.

Dialogue & Exposition.

In the months to come, there will be a number of posts on the topic of dialogue. A manuscript can come to life—or die slow horrible death—based on the dialogue of its characters, and if your dialogue-writing skills are weak, your ability to effectively tell most stories is severely handicapped.

Writing crisp, intuitive, believable dialogue is an art that can take a lifetime to perfect. Simply writing good dialogue, on the other hand, involves little more than avoiding bad habits.

This particular bad habit is the worst—not because it so common but because the effect is so catastrophic. Do not ever have characters say something primarily for the benefit of the reader; this ties into my last post on motivation. Every word that comes out of a character’s mouth should make sense, and sound natural, from the point of view of the characters involved. Trying to spoon feed extra information to the reader by having your characters say things they would not say is the kiss of death. We need to be very clear on this point. Exposition is the job of the narrator. Characters don’t have jobs, they have roles, personality, and motivation.

Example #1 (Not good)

“As you know, I am mayor of this city and have been for over a decade. I am well respected member of this community. How dare you talk to me like that!”

Example #2 (Better)

“I didn’t get to be mayor just so that I could be badgered by snot-nosed junior reporter like you! I’ve been behind my desk for ten years, pal. How long have you been at your cubicle, or do you even have a cubicle yet?”

Example #3 (Even Better)

John McLaughlin had been mayor for over a decade, and his time in office had chipped away at his ability to suffer those he considered fools—there were more of them each year in his estimation—with grace and equanimity.
“Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?”

The moment a character says something out of character and for the sake of the reader, the gig is up. It is a shortcut and a cheap substitue for proper storytelling, and you will lose a reader very quickly that way. This in one of those slippery little habits that you need to recognize and avoid.

Motivation.

One of Kurt Vonnegut’s maxims for good writing is to ensure that every character wants something at all times, even if it’s just a glass of water.

And why is that? Because, when a character wants something, it will help inform their actions.

One of the most common mistakes made by new and established writers alike is not giving the underlying motivation of their characters—ALL their characters—the respect and due consideration it deserves.

People do things for their own reasons; let’s start there. We all have things we fear, hate, and desire. There are situations which fascinate us, situations which stir up complicated memories, and situations which we will go out of our way to avoid. Granted, it is not always clear why people do the things they do. Furthermore, an individual’s actions will, admittedly, at times seems inconsistent or even counterintuitive to their larger goals. It is hard to know what is going on in another person’s head, especially if that person is an individual with whom we are not particularly involved. Simply put, motivation, in real life, is a foggy business at best.

Writers, even very good writers, can sometimes wander too far into that fog and get lost. The danger is that, when a character’s motivation is unclear—or worse, unimportant—to the author, there is a near irresistible urge to have them start acting not for their own sake but for the sake of the story. A character, even an incidental character, needs to have a reason for doing what they do in the story. This is especially true if their actions affect the plot in even the smallest of ways.

When you have a character whose role is to advance the plot in some way, if their motivations are not clear and consistent, you run the risk of exposing the reader to the fact they they are reading a story. It is like having the boom mic suddenly in the shot.

I am not saying that every minor character needs to have a full page backstory, but what I am saying is that, unlike in real life, their motivations should seem reasonable and consistent, especially if their actions come within a stone’s throw of the plot.

Some advice from your editor.

All of this, anything you choose to read here, is nothing more than advice from a guy making a living as a freelance writer and editor. What you will find in this blog is a mixture of pet peeves, tips, and insights collected over the course of the last twenty years. While all good writing requires editing, I will be talking almost exclusively about fiction, for that is where my passion lies.

It is worth pointing out that nothing I say here is carved in stone anywhere. Rules can be broken. Any writer can break any rule they see fit to break;  the caveat being, of course, that not every writer can get away with it successfully. In fact, I would go so far as to say very few writers are talented enough to break rules without consequence.

If you’re a writer, you need an editor. You might not think you do, but you do. Trust me. If you are not in the habit of reading the acknowledgement pages of novels, you might want to give some of them a quick check. What you will soon discover is that successful writers –writers far more talented than either you or I– thank their editors.

This is all just friendly advice. I am not actually your editor (though I could be). I just want to help your manuscript be better a little bit better.