On Editing Manuscripts and Other Things That Suck
On Editing Manuscripts and Other Things That Suck
Things to think about before you see your copy editor. Courtesy of Julie Butcher, Miss Snark & Richard Shealy.
When you first start writing, everyone and their agent tells you not to query your manuscript until you edit. It must shine like the top of the Chrysler Building. The only problem with this is that no one tells you how. I mostly deal with very new writers, so I’ll be telling you three problems I consistently find in manuscripts. I have made all these mistakes myself so don’t be surprised if you see yourself in this article. It isn’t pointed at any one person. These are things that we’ve seen hundreds of times so don’t get your panties in a bunch. It’s not you, it’s all of us. Okay? Finding and fixing the problems are what is important.
The first problem that I see a lot of is an easy fix. It often happens when you’re typing quickly to get the movie in your head onto the page. This is a problem with ACTION/REACTION.
She jumped as the door slammed. Logically, the door has to slam before she jumps because it is the sound that makes her move. The action comes before the reaction. The door slammed and she jumped. Or better yet, The door slammed. She jumped. You might think this is a silly thing to worry about but I assure you, if I see problems with ACTION/REACTION, I know there are bigger problems ahead—like crazy-huge plot holes. Generally these mistakes are at the first of a paragraph so they’re easy to find and easy to fix.
MAIN CHARACTERS ALL ALONE
The second problem I see almost every day are MAIN CHARACTERS ALL ALONE and thinking full sentences in their head like crazy people. You have to give the reader a chance to meet and like your characters before you bring in the guy who needs a funny jacket with the arms that tie in the back. One of the easiest ways to introduce your characters is by putting them with other characters.
Let’s say you’re in line at the grocery store waiting in the check-out line. There are several people around you. In the next line over a woman waits with several small children. She looks like she should be a bad guy on a police procedural. Her baby is screaming bloody murder because she’s hiding stolen merchandise in its diaper. The other two are taking bites from candy bars and putting them back on the rack. Maybe they’re throwing magazines around and ripping out pages. They’re loud. They’re moving and breaking more laws than you can count.
If front of you is a couple. She’s crying, shouting at him, and waving her arms in a crazy manner because, evidently, he slept with her sister. He’s turning red and stuttering and you can’t help but look. Behind you is a guy, standing quietly and thinking. Behind him is a tired lady looking at the headlines on the newspaper rack.
You’re not noticing the guy standing alone. You skim over the tired lady. Heck, we’re all tired. That isn’t interesting. Instead, your attention goes one of the two groups of people. How they act, and how the people around them react is interesting. It holds you attention in a way that a guy standing and doing nothing cannot. When you put your main character alone for ages and ages, we get bored. Don’t do it.
NOT INCLUDING ALL FOUR ELEMENTS IN A SCENE
The third thing that makes me a little bit crazy (okay a lot crazy) is the lack of all FOUR ELEMENTS IN A SCENE. Every scene, every chapter has to have four elements. Some chapters are 7 pages long, and some are 30 pages. The plot decides how long your scene or chapter is. Do not end your chapter because you hit 25 pages. There is always a reason a chapter ends. Don’t give your reader permission to put down the story. This is how to start and end a scene.
GOAL: The main character needs to try and achieve a goal. For simplicity’s sake let’s say our character is making dinner. Company has come over and he is grilling steaks. His guests have drinks. He has the meat marinating in his super-secret blend of spices. Life is swell.
CONFLICT: There has to be something that keeps him from achieving his goal. Oh no! He doesn’t have charcoal for the grill. For some reason people seem to think conflict is some kind of argument when it is whatever keeps the main character from his goal.
RESOLUTION: Your main character overcomes the conflict. In this case, he leaves his guests at his house, gets into his new car, goes to the store, and buys charcoal. Bingo! The day is saved!
SETBACK: At the end of each scene/chapter something bigger happens to keep your character from achieving his goal. In this case, he comes out of the store with the charcoal, and his car has been stolen.
Now our main character is stuck at the store carrying a fifty pound bag of charcoal, his steaks are on the counter rotting in the heat, and his company is sitting around, drinking his liquor, and wondering where he is. All the man wanted to do was to grill steaks.
Next chapter: His new goal is to find the car thief, pound in his head, and get his car back.
Each scene and every chapter needs all four elements until the last scene of your story. There are no exceptions to this. Each scene moves the story forward. You are not allowed a scene simply because you think it will be darling, or funny, or horrible and scary. You’re not allowed a scene to introduce a character or because you have clever lines for a situation. Before you write a chapter have all four elements decided in your head or on your outline. You need all of the working parts.
If you look and can’t find all four, you need to rewrite the scene. Don’t even argue with me.
Miss Snark, Authoress
Since I too make mistakes, I’ve asked the one of the editors I trust with my own work, Authoress of Miss Snark’s First Victim to give you the three mistakes she sees the most.
CONFUSING “TENSION” WITH “ACTION” IN THE OPENING SCENE
This is a huge one. In the hundreds of contest entries I’ve read over the past few years, as well as in the work of some of my clients, I have been bombarded by first pages that drop me into the middle of an explosion or a car accident or assault weapon crossfire. I don’t know where I am, I don’t know what’s going on–I often don’t even know the protagonist’s name.
I understand why this happens–there is SO much advice-for-writers out there insisting that we draw our readers in right from the get-go by creating tension. Hence the explosions and blood and general mayhem on page one.
But! “Tension” does not necessarily mean “action”. In fact, it almost never does. Of course something needs to HAPPEN in those opening pages. We don’t want a description of the weather or several paragraphs of narcissistic navel-gazing. But throwing us into the belly of an erupting volcano without letting us catch our breath first is only going to confuse us.
HOW TO FIX IT:
Create TENSION by introducing CONFLICT. Marla is nervous because she is on her way to meet the boy her parents have betrothed her to, though she has already secretly agreed to marry someone else. Daniel is late for a career-changing meeting because he has just had a fight with his wife. D-736, an obsolete droid, receives notice that he is going to be deactivated and recycled. In other words, give us a reason to feel a bit tense, so that we will want to keep reading.
While is it certainly possible to create a compelling opening in media res, it’s still imperative that you give us a solid sense of setting, time, and character (including the name of the protagonist). Give us a chance to care about your characters before they are faced with mortal danger.
WRITING DIALOGUE THAT DOESN’T MOVE THE PLOT FORWARD
This is another fairly common problem. When two (or more) characters are rambling aimlessly–and often repetitively–without accomplishing anything important, your pacing comes to a screeching halt and your readers start yawning. And skipping entire passages.
A little bit of banter is fine; in fact, it’s an effective way to establish character voice and show us the relationships. But if it’s not doing any favors for your plot arc, it needs to go.
HOW TO FIX IT:
Before you begin to write dialogue, ask yourself the following:
Where is this scene going?
How will this dialogue contribute to the direction of this scene?
How much dialogue do I need to accomplish this? (And trust me–you’ll end up snipping bunches of dialogue when you edit.)
TELLING US THINGS AFTER THEY’VE HAPPENED INSTEAD OF SHOWING US WHILE THEY ARE HAPPENING
This is a strange beast, and I’m not sure where it comes from. Basically, it looks something like this:
We finish a scene and Protagonist goes home. Then we skip to the next afternoon. As we are embarking on the new scene, though, we are suddenly assailed with an account of what happened to Protagonist after he went home the night before.
And it’s all done in a very narrator-y, distanced way.
There are admittedly rare instances in stories where this sort of brief flashback can be effective. But I’ve seen this devise misused more often than not–and these flashbacks have definitely not been brief! And whenever a writer does this, it interrupts the story and pulls us out of the moment. And it can be incredibly confusing as well.
HOW TO FIX IT:
Create a careful plot arc (whatever that looks like for you). Reveal scenes as they occur, and keep us in the moment. Use flashbacks sparingly, and remember to SHOW US your story as it unfolds, instead of TELLING US ABOUT IT as though we are reading a news report.
After you’ve checked and fixed the problems you found, you’ll need a copy editor. Richard Shealy of SFFcopyediting.com has kindly outlined the three most obvious problems a copy editor finds. It isn’t what you think, either.
In general, despite the public conception of the copyeditor’s job, wrong doesn’t enter the picture most of the time in my work; it’s more a question of the intersection between “Does this fit the widely accepted guidelines for construction/etc.?” and “Will the reader actually get what the author intends that they get?” Still, there are a few things an author can do to save themselves time and worry.
Style sheet, spreadsheet, wiki. Whether you’re a planner or a pantser, recording names, spellings, preferred expressions and suchlike (either before you start the writing itself or as you encounter those things during the writing process) can help avoid heartache or annoyance in the long run. For example, if you call it the Department of Redundancy Department early on but then shift to Redundancy Department of Redundancy later, having your own style sheet can let you catch it and apply it throughout, no matter which of the two you choose (whether using a global Find to hunt down a few outliers or changing a lot to match the Sudden New Favorite, you can be consistent). A style sheet can be highly helpful to your editor and copyeditor as well; it will save them time trying to figure out your intent, and it will save you time by avoiding a potentially large number of “STET, you damn oxygen thief!” moments.
(Tangentially Related to 1)
Research. Please don’t hit me; I’m fully aware that authors will research things to within an inch of their lives. This point is more aimed at “Question your assumptions“: I can’t begin to count the number of times something simple and everyday has arisen as a possible stumbling block for the reader because it’s inconsistent or false to fact. For example, one book comes to mind where this carload of government spooks was tailing someone…in Manhattan. First, the density and sheer intensity of traffic in Manhattan makes this a dubious proposition at best (one traffic light at the wrong time or one fire truck on a cross street can mean that the target is suddenly long gone; in truth, trying to follow a driver in Manhattan can be better done on foot—not always, of course, and this is subject to a large number of possible uh-ohs as well, but it’s a fact that can be revealed by a few minutes of watching non-staged videos of Manhattan traffic). Second, the driver in this passage was supposedly an old pro at driving in Manhattan…but he took streets that anyone even somewhat familiar with the area would have known to be bad choices (i.e., they’re bottlenecks or even more heavily traveled than other, parallel streets). Third, the driver made a left turn onto a one-way street at one point. Now, I’m not saying that people don’t do this (it’s why I always look BOTH ways before crossing even one-way streets there—one instance of nearly becoming street pizza because I didn’t think Secret Agent Danger McDriverpants would be going in that direction, and now I always check for wrong-way drivers), but it would at least entail some in-text mention of car horns, dodging oncoming drivers, getting unwanted attention from police, etc.
This one is so broad as to present no universal fixes (in the example above, I suggested fuzzing out the turn-by-turn details except where absolutely necessary to the story, but had the author wished to keep those details, I would have suggested a combination of casting a wide net for people who knew the subject matter well and Google Maps Street View). The only thing I can propose is vigilance against assumptions. (Personally, I call this the Castle Maneuver; in the TV show Castle, the criminal they’re trying to find almost always turns out to be the one character you meet whom you subconsciously assume to be not only innocent but uninvolved, to the point that you never consciously even consider them, howsoever briefly. Can’t tell you how many times my wife and I nailed down the perpetrator’s identity in the first fifteen minutes of an episode!)
DO NOT WORRY ABOUT GRAMMAR
Don’t worry about the grammar; just write. Seriously. I’ve spent a lifetime with my Pay Attention to Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation and Such switch stuck permanently in the ON position, and I’ve enhanced that with many years working with the bones of language, including actual study of linguistics. This is my thing. You’ve spent a lifetime looking in other directions, thinking about story, analyzing character and so on. That’s your thing. You don’t expect me to have the expertise in story that you’ve amassed over the years, do you? So, don’t assume that I think you should have my level of word-nerdery. You do your thing; the copyeditor will be there to help when your thing is done.
If you still want to up your grammar game, may Cthulhu have mercy on your soul. You can, however, cheat a wee bit by getting a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style (the industry standard for style) and consulting it when you’re not sure what to do with some annoying linguistic particle in your text. Be warned: it is NOT presented in a way that would be considered user-friendly by anyone other than word nerds. And it tends not to explain why you “need” to employ the Aquarian declension when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, so your understanding of the rule/guideline won’t necessarily be improved. But if you do this enough, you might absorb it to the point that you start to see a pattern, and there’s often a deeper, unspoken logic to the patterns of language that just can’t be explained in any satisfactory manner. Not guaranteeing this will happen, mind; it just can…sometimes.
In the end, I should probably shut the frak up, because if all writers had the time and inclination to do all those things, I’d be out of a job. But there it is, all the same: doing your thing is your job, and doing my thing isn’t always to everyone’s taste and might even get in the way of doing your thing, but if you can integrate even a little of the above into your process, you might end up feeling your time and energy to be a touch less under fire…and not necessarily solely in the long run.
So, there you go lovely writers. If you pay attention and do all of the things in these articles, you’ve saved yourself thousands of dollars.
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