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Avoid Rejection – Editors’ Pet Peeves

Hi, my name is Rosalie and I am the first to admit there is a lot about writing I don’t know. There is however, a lot I have learned about writing fantasy since I have been studying the topic for the last fifteen years. Experience has taught me a great deal, often the hard way.

Like art, writing is an indefinite science, but there are rules that help improve your readability. There are guidelines that improve your chances of publication. If you plan to self-publish, it is vital these rules are part of your writing craft. Self-publication removes the support of a team of editors. Their advice and expertise can identify a weakness in a novel or in a writing style. Once recognized, correction and improvement should become a habit.

Anyhow, I contacted three editors who shared their ‘pet peeves’. We can discuss how to rectify these problems once we know what we are looking for.

Editors’ Pet Peeves

Barbara Ehrentreu, who edits for two publishing houses, said her pet peeves are:

– Run on sentences: So many authors keep adding clauses to their sentences and connecting them with commas.

– Long paragraphs with a ton of exposition that puts me to sleep.

– Too many dialogue tags with anything but said. I’ll take replied, but using anything else detracts from the sentence. Many times, you don’t even need a tag if the author has delineated the characters with one or two at the beginning of the dialogue.

Karen McGrath, Muse Content Editor said:

– I don’t like to see more than three POVs, preferably only one or two. It’s my worst pet peeve.

– Passive voice used inappropriately is another one.

– I really sigh when an author has characters use dialog out of line for their age or characterization.

Nancy Bell, Muse Editor said:

– I don’t like to see a lot of passive voice, also inadequate research resulting in a lot of rewrites for the author, too many and/or awkward dialogue tags, overuse of em dashes (–) and ellipses

– (. . .).

– General overuse of the same words or similar words, which we all are guilty of I might add. In particular the words, then, he, she, a character’s name, had, had been, that.

Thanks to these editors for their time and interest in our writing.

Now, can we recognize and replace, remove or somehow avoid those pitfalls?

Run on Sentences

Commas have their uses, but if they are creating run on sentences it is time to rethink their use. I heard that sentences should not exceed twenty-five words. Anything over that might constitute a ‘run on sentence.’ At least it could use looking at for improvement.

Paragraphs That Have Too Much Exposition

I have a feeling Barbara is describing what fantasy authors refer to as info-dumps.

The temptation with fantasy to explain things too early or too in-depth is hard to resist. Remember that as long as the author knows everything there is to know about the characters, the world and the conflict they are creating, then that’s fine. Readers are on a need to know basis, they are looking for action, emotion and a story to flow. Background is necessary but in small easy to absorb portions. As long as the author has all the information, it is their skill to share it carefully. A passing comment, a name dropped, a reference given can be all that the reader needs to follow the plot.

Dialogue Tags

Pronouns. The guidelines on the use of ‘he said’/‘she said’ vary from publisher to publisher. Barbara’s comment refers to the idea that these simple dialogue tags become invisible to the reader. These editors are working in today’s ebook industry. Their comments are up to date and apply to books about to be published. There are ways to limit the need for dialogue tags. Showing the reader actions and character emotions can give more information, identify who spoke and avoid repetition of ‘he said’/‘she said’.

Care needs to be taken using character names and pronouns. Keeping the reader in the loop is vital. Overdosing them with character names, ‘he’, and ‘she’ is not. How often in dialogue do we name our subject? When we talk among ourselves we know who we are talking to, so we should reflect that in our writing where we are able. An occasional name or pronoun is necessary. Overuse is something we need to watch out for.

Passive Voice

As writers we strive to use active voice. The rule of Show Don’t Tell applies here. To avoid passive voice, rethink forms of the verb ‘to be’: was, were, had and had been can often weaken our writing. Again, this topic deserves a discussion of its own.

Too many POVs

That’s an interesting one. Karen was not referring to ‘head hopping’ where the Point of View changes abruptly, but telling a novel from too many character viewpoints. Readers identify with the main POV characters and moving away from their story can cause the reader to lose interest. Not what we want!

Em dash, ellipses. (…)

When editing for the digital world the use of the em dash (–) ellipsis (. . .) and exclamation mark (!) becomes problematic. Although they have their uses, remember in this day and age we must cater for ebooks and not only print format. Besides the technical headache they can create, their overuse weakens writing across the board. They often indicate a break in the flow of thought. Any break can cause the reader to hesitate and should be justified before inclusion.

There are other pet peeves I have heard editors quote. This is my favorite.

Autonomous Body Parts

The most often used examples are ‘his eyes followed her’, ‘her hands fell into her lap’, ‘my nose is running.’ Avoid if possible. There has to be an alternative way of saying things. ‘His gaze followed her’. ‘She lowered her hands into her lap,’ and ‘I have a runny nose.’

There are other hints and tips that can help us avoid the dreaded rejection slip, or ensure our self-published novel is as good as we can produce. For now though, I am grateful to Barbara, Karen and Nancy for giving us an insight into what annoying problems we can eliminate from our work.

Next article will address the task of applying polish to our manuscript.

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27 Comments

  1. Agree with all except the number of POV scenes in a novel. With SF&F, oftentimes it works best to have several different POVs in a book. I admit that I haven’t seen this work well in other genres very often, but epic fantasy especially can really pull off several POVs.

  2. Paul Wiseall says:

    Fantastic article Rosalie. It’s great to get a look in to the world of the illusive editor.

    I definitely agree with the overuse of dialogue tags. There are few things more irritating that reading a short story where the author has tried to show off a ‘keen imagination’ or a verbose lexicon (sorry I couldn’t resist) by constantly putting ‘he retorted with a sneering tone,’ ‘she shot back like a veteran sniper’ or any over use of divulged/uttered/alleged or riposte.

    I recently read an interview with Neil Gaiman where he said (and I paraphrase) that the strength of dialogue and the intonation etc in which it is said should come from the prose. Where possible he tries to use nothing other than ‘he said, she said,’ as (like you said) they become invisible and anything else just detracts from the flow of the story.

    Awesome article, I look forward to reading more.

    Paul

  3. Very good article! As a reader, I couldn’t agree more. Especially about too many POVs. Unless the character is important to the story, why I do I need to read their POV? If it doesn’t add to the storyline, it isn’t necessary to read.

    When I write my novel, I will be sure to keep all these in mind.

  4. Sara says:

    Great post. The dialogue tag thing drives me nuts! I remember beta reading one manuscript for an author whose characters might shout, swear, yelp, grunt, holler, or aver, but NEVER say or reply. She refused to make any changes when I suggested it, so hopefully she finds an editor who doesn’t mind this one.

  5. Khaldun says:

    Wasn’t aware that em dashes and ellipses were annoying to some editors. I have 3 POV characters in the novel I’m currently working on, although each brings their own problems and so hopefully that justifies it.

    I think GRRM can break some of these “rules” just because when he does it, he does it so well. Thanks for the interesting article. Definitely some good things to keep in mind.

  6. Rysn says:

    Its a good thing Robert Jordan never sent his work in to that editor, POV’s galore.

  7. Thanks for your comments. It is good to see what gets under the skin of editors… they are the ones we need to impress.
    I now want to go back through my own work and see where I could improve things.
    I have to thank Barbara, Nancy and Karen for sharing their ideas so freely.

  8. Wendy says:

    This is an important article, Rosalie, one to be printed out and kept beside the writer while he/she is writing. If writers follow your advice in their first draft they will have a lot less work to do when writing the 2nd draft.

    Can I add a pet peeve of mine: the use of ,said he; said the great hairy beast, said Mary, etc used as tag lines. Placing ‘said’ before the pronoun or name might be fine for picture books, but, to me, it sounds immature in works aimed at adults. I’m reading a novel by a popular author and she does this. It really grates.

    Thank you to you and the editors who offered wise advice to those who have ears to hear.

  9. Krista, I know I have a few more than three POV in my early novels. I still try to limit them as I edit where possible. I did re write one book of 93,000 words because after leaving it for a while to percolate, when I re read it I wanted to skip forward to the main character’s POV again! If, as the author, I didn’t want to leave the MC pov… I doubt a reader would. So I re wrote the whole book. It’s different, but hopefully improved. (a lot). Now, when writing Fantasy I try to limit my POV to the main character. It just feels more involved to me.
    Somethimes though a vast landscape and story needs more than one limiting POV. That’s where good writing is essential along with good characters and plot development that holds the reader’s interest.

    Khaldun, I believe those pesky em dashes and ellipses are more a problem because of the writing programs and digital technology than actual grammar problems. They cause all sorts of problems when formatting for ebook publication. Even when posting online it is often wise to copy paste work into notepad or somewhere that removes all the icons…before you post online.

    Sara, some writers won’t listen. It is sad when there is so much to learn and so many ways to improve our work. To feel that there is nothing more to learn in any craft is a little shortsighted.

    Paul, if Neil Gaiman says it too.. well.. that makes it pretty right in my book!! lol

    Marilyn… I agree. Too many POV can lose the reader’s interest. Thanks for your feedback.

    • J T Buckley says:

      I try to use scene jumps instead of POV changes. You can change the camera without changing who’s head you are in. I usually only use 1 maybe 2 POVs the rest are scene changes.

  10. I suppose I need to watch out for the em-dash and ellipsis thing, but it seems pretty natural to put them in while I’m writing … there are places where you really need a pause! Apparently they are only a problem in e-books, and quite frankly, since I haven’t been doing e-books all that long, I’m not quite sure yet what the rules are. Eventually I’ll learn, I guess, but in the meantime I hope my editor(s) will gently correct what I have done so it becomes “e-book-safe,” and not slam me too hard.

    The other thing is this POV business. To me, it depends on the story. Some stories will go fine with one or two POV characters, but others really need a large cast of characters, and require that the POV move around among them as the story unfolds. Has to be done carefully, of course, but sometimes there is no other choice.

  11. Thank for the input from editors Rosalie.

    Regarding dialogue – Michael Stackpole has some great exercises in his 21 Days to a Novel ebook and some great information in his free edition of The Secrets podcast concerning dialogue and tags. My editor noticed a marked improvement in the dialogue I was writing after I completely those exercises.

    I also am starting to “stage my dialogue” by mixing it in with the characters body language and movement. I don’t really recall where I picked this tip up from but again my editor noticed it and encouraged me to keep doing that.

    I still get “got” on passive voice. 🙁

  12. A.J. Zaethe says:

    Great post, but one thing I disagree with is changing POV between more than a two characters. It worked with GRR Martin *not recommended to do exactly that, freak of nature that worked* and it worked for Robert Jordon *recommended*. My point being, it is possible to do it and do it well, where readers are drawn in. Its a matter on the author.

  13. Wendy, placing said before the pronoun seems like an odd practice, one I haven’t come across often. I agree it sounds like a children’s book formula.
    Thanks for your kind words. I am glad you found this article helpful.
    James, I hope the editors make my books ebook friendly too. It is hard to keep track of what makes the digital media meltdown.
    Paul, those exercises sound like a great idea! Passive voice… next month’s article covers some ways of working through that problem.
    A J, True, if an author can carry more than one POV and keep the reader glued to each page, then it WORKS. If it doesn’t glue the reader, then it might need re thinking. That’s where having an editor cast their eyes over your work is invaluable. They can look at the story and give feedback. It is their task to help get your work to a level that will grip readers and sell.
    It is our task as writers to give them the best story possible whether from a single POV or many.

  14. I agree with all those bits of advice, except maybe in an epic fantasy with a huge cast, there will likely be multiple POV speakers. However, it is a good idea to limit the number of voices as much as possible or the reader will feel like he/she is in a ping-pong match. I recently read an otherwise well-written fantasy novel that had 8 POV speakers. After the 4th, I felt very confused and had to stop and reread.

    Great post, Rosalie!

  15. Thanks for posting this…I can’t stand adverbs in dialogue tags, so I’m glad you’re helping to get the word out.

  16. Marsha, 8 POV… No wonder you were confused. Thanks for your comment.
    Ashley.. adverbs in dialogue tags. I am happy to spread the word!!

  17. Minesril says:

    Agree with most of this, but not the bit about ebook formatting – this is not something you should be worrying about when writing! A book is first published as just that, a book. Let others worry about ebooks, and don’t assume that everyone actually has a reader. Lots of people prefer the actual paper.

    I quite like more than one POV – I find that just the one can make the story feel slightly limited.

    I do get quite annoyed when writers use a comma instead of a full stop to try and link two sentences. It never works, it’s incredibly lazy and jarring.

  18. Minesril,
    The point about the ebook formatting is that having to ‘fix’ those em dashes etc is one of the editors pet peeves. When manuscript is complete and ready to submit for publication, if the target is for an ebook, then be aware they could cause a problem. I agree with you, getting a manuscript completed is first priority!
    Once that is done, then getting it to a publisher in an editor friendly format could make a difference. If print is your choice of publication, the suggestions might not matter so much. Still… even then I remember needing to remove all unnecessary icons from MSWord before publication.
    Commas… a good point. Interestingly not something these editors seemed to worry about, other than in run on sentences. Perhaps that is what they meant.
    POV preferences seem to vary. Somehow I think it depends on the quality of the storyteller and the tale.
    Thanks for your comment!

  19. Marcus says:

    Thank you for sharing this article with us. I agree with all the suggestions given here. They all make sense. However, avoiding the overuse of “he”, “she” etc could be quite challenging. To avoid them, one might need to resort to passive voice? If so, it’s probably not worthwhile, I guess? Any tips?

    Thanks!

  20. Carole Gill says:

    Very good, very helpful. Hope I’m not doing anything wrong now! Yikes!

  21. Daisy says:

    Great points! Thanks for sharing. I keep hearing an old Peter Schickele tune running through my head… “Only he who is running, knows.”

  22. Hi Marcus,
    He said, she said, can be interchanged with names. 😉 I understand your comment though. We try to limit the use of pronouns in our writing. I am not sure that resorting to passive voice is the answer. Clarifying a sentence that has too many pronouns can be challenging. I posted an article on my blog at rosalieskinner .blogspot .com (no spaces) that might help. It is about pronouns but it has some examples toward the end that might help.
    If you could share an example it might help me understand the need to use passive voice. Next article should cover ‘avoiding passive voice’ to some extent. When we discuss how to polish our manuscript.
    Interesting comment Marcus. I might use this topic for an article post. Thanks.

  23. Carole and Daisy,
    Carole, No one looks too closely at posts on line… I hope!!!
    Daisy, that’s the truth! Once you start there is always something new to learn. I know I am picking up bits of info every day. Discussing with other writers and readers is one of the most enjoyable ways of gathering new ideas. Having editors to approach is a bonus.
    Thanks for your comments.

  24. […] Skinner posted a great article several weeks ago about what agents and editors hate to see in manuscripts. One of the things the agents mentioned was passive voice. Passive voice is one of my pet peeves, […]

  25. […] a new or unpracticed writer. I find it interesting that one of the pet peeves noted by editors in this excellent article by Lady Rosalie Skinner is the run-on […]

  26. Renos says:

    Very interesting and helpful article. The only thing I disagree is also the too many POV characters. ASOIAF arguably one of the most successful series of our times uses that style.

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