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I Know This is Fantasy-Faction, but Science-fiction Matters Too
 

Science-Fiction Matters, Too

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Interview With Brian Staveley
 

Brian Staveley

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After taking on the job of editor and the task of assessing submissions, I am finding a disturbing number of unpolished manuscripts crossing my desk. Therefore, I hope you can help me list a few of the simple problems we, as authors, can ‘fix’ before we submit our work to an acquisition editor.

When polishing a manuscript there is an easy way to make sure you present the best possible draft to a publisher. Fix the simple things. Take the time, make the effort, be your editor’s dream author!

Simple things first

Use the FIND option in Word… go through and FIND and remove (or rewrite) as many examples of these words as you can…

That              Had                 Was                Were
Will be          As if                 As though       About
But               And                 Then                And then
Would          Would be        Up                    Down
Out               Very                Which             Causing
Has been      Had been       Began             Began to
To be            Started to       Making            Like
When            Wore              Wearing          Went
Put                Just                So                   Much
Some            Something     Thing              Seemed
Suddenly      Almost            More
Anything ending in LY        excessive adverb use

Show don’t tell

The ‘telling’ words are: was, were, had, feel, felt, feeling, and because. Here are some examples. These lead to Tell rather than Show.

– Reduce ‘ing’ words (present participles – not gerunds).

Incorrect: We were thinking about going to the movies.
You can overcome this with dialogue if possible in the context.

– Avoid using the ‘ing’ word at the start of a paragraph.

Incorrect: Leaning against his car, he looked as if he owned the world.
It’s best to show his attitude instead.

Here’s a link with more information on present participles: http://www.tolearnenglish.com/free/news/0gpresentparticiples.htm

Keep it Simple

– Make sure you can justify every word in sentences with more than 25 words.

– Don’t repeat yourself. What I mean is beware of repetitive phrases or words within the same sentence or paragraph. The only time repeating yourself is justified is if it shows a personality trait or disability. Also, avoid echoes. Echoes are any words repeated in a sentence, or repeated in a paragraph.

– Dialogue tags. Avoid too many ‘he said’, ‘she said’. Use action tags where possible.

Phrase things carefully

– Do not allow body parts to take on their own actions. These might be subtle but if your head falls into your hands, or your eyes follow the blonde, or a hand drops into a lap, it could be a worry! They should not take on a POV.

Incorrect: Dark eyes searched the shadows.
Correct: She peered into the shadows, searching…

Incorrect: Trembling fingers sought comfort from the fire.
Correct: She held trembling fingers toward the fire, warming them.

– Avoid using Action before Reaction.

Incorrect: He flinched when he heard gunfire.
Correct: When he heard gunfire, he flinched.

Incorrect: She opened the umbrella when the storm broke.
Correct: When the storm broke, she opened the umbrella.

Incorrect: He flipped open his phone when he heard his ring tone.
Correct: He heard his ring tone and flipped open his phone.

Make it shine

All these pet peeves have been discussed before. Rest assured finding too many of these words or problems left uncorrected in a manuscript shows a lack of care in the author’s writing. Whether looking to join a publisher or making a move to self publish…make notes and take the time to go through your work.

If you have a great story, but haven’t done the work, don’t expect an editor to hold your hand. They have hundreds of manuscripts to read. Although they can empathise with the thrill of seeing your work in print/ ebook, it isn’t going to happen if your manuscript ends up in the reject pile.

Don’t be lazy. Apply your craft. Polish! Then your story has a chance to impress.

What can you add to the list? Do you have your own pet peeves?

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33 Comments

  1. Louise says:

    Ahh, I’m terrible at editing, especially when I’ve re-read my work so many times I can see it when I close my eyes. I either blitz everything into pieces because it all seems so horrible (even if there are some genuinely good parts), or I skip over it because it “sounds right” from where I’ve re-read it so much.

    This is a really useful article though, will definitely be using it to help shape up my writing and hopefully become better at the whole editing process. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

    • Louise, Glad you find these points helpful. There is a school of thought whereby you put your completed manuscript away for a few weeks/months… and leave it to mature. Then when you look at it again it is with almost fresh eyes. While it has been maturing, your writing skills will have too and often you see things more clearly. Thanks for commenting. Good luck with your writing. I am sure it’s not ‘so horrible. 🙂

  2. Excellent advice, Rosalie!

  3. Steve McCann says:

    I would add “could” to the list. I often see constructions such as, “She could see that the racks held bread” in unpolished manuscripts (mea culpa). Much better is “She saw the racks held bread.”

  4. J.L. Mbewe says:

    Thanks for such a concise post!

  5. Steven Johns says:

    Brilliant post! At first glance over your own writing I know there is that sense of “its perfect”, yes, in your own mind it is! Literally today a friend of mine read a short story of mine and had to ask so many questions, it wasn’t as finished as I thought. Now I’ll be taking some extra time and care to make sure my point is concise and also give it a once over with words ‘find’ feature as you suggest.

    Thank you!

    • Steven, you have learnt a valuable lesson already. Having a second set of eyes go over your work is invaluable. Often the author knows exactly what is happening in a scene and how the characters are motivated, but the reader doesn’t. Those questions your reader asked are priceless! Value your beta reader!

  6. Neerod says:

    Thanks for this article! Very good advice.
    I must go over my story (again)…

  7. You could also add these:

    – Please, for the love of all things small, furry and helpless, check your use of “there”, “their” and “they’re”.

    – Check your use of punctuation in dialogue – it goes *inside* the speechmarks: ‘”Look at this,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”‘ And don’t use a full stop if there’s a related dialogue tag to come after e.g. ‘”That’s wrong.” He said.’

    – Also on the subject of dialogue, too many he said/she saids are bad only if it’s already clear who’s speaking. Hoover those ones out, by all means, but don’t replace them all with interjected, exclaimed, expostulated and demanded, etc. Used judiciously, “said” is largely invisible in dialogue – think of it as a gentle nudge to remind you who spoke, without disturbing the flow of the conversation, but tags like “interjected” are four times as many syllables and take more effort for the reader to process, so be careful to use them only when you really need to.

    – And don’t use character names too often in dialogue. Unless the speaker needs to grab the person’s attention by naming them, e.g. “Lisa, wait!” or the rhythm of what they’re saying demands it, don’t do it. Conversations like this:

    “Hey, Bob!”

    “What’s up, Jim?”

    “Fancy a beer, Bob?”

    “Thanks, Jim, don’t mind if I do.”

    do not happen in real life.

    – Try not to have two things happening at once that are impossible, e.g: “Opening the door, Jim walked across the room” – he can’t be opening the door and crossing the room beyond it at the same time.

    – Not all adverbs are bad, and it’s perfectly fine to use a few if you can’t find a better, more active option (see below) but constructions such as “he whispered softly” and “she ran quickly” are redundant, ugly and need to be burned from your manuscript with the fire of a thousand suns.

    – Finally, don’t strangle a perfectly good sentence or tie it up with unreadable linguistic flourishes just to avoid using a gerund, or an adverb, or any other plain-language construction. It’s okay to break a “rule” for the sake of clarity or the rhythm of the prose: if your hero’s sprinting down the road in a breathless action scene, don’t start throwing in ten-dollar words just to avoid saying desperately, urgently or frantically. If your reader has to stop and pick up a dictionary every few lines, you’ve lost them.

  8. My comments have been tardy due my preoccupation with the release of book four in the Chronicles of Caleath . Sorry. Still, I have good news to share.
    For a limited time only… my publisher Museitup Publishing, is offering to anyone who buys an ebook copy of EXILED: The Battle for Enderseer Hold, (Book FOUR) an ebook copy of EXILED: Autumn’s Peril, (Book ONE)

    A link to find this offer… can be found at http://www.rosalieskinner.com
    Thanks.

  9. If there is one thing I need to get better at, it is catching things like this. It pays to be slow and steady, but it doesn’t help much when one feels pressure internally and externally.

    These are good tips, though I am surprised adverbs didn’t make it on here. I am not a huge fan of adverbs, but they have their place. However, silly adverbs don’t.

    Thanks for sharing, it is a good reminder for me to calm down and relax

    • Leif, I wonder if perhaps authors are becoming aware of the use of adverbs, because they haven’t been a huge problem in the manuscripts I have seen for assessment. Thanks goodness.
      Calm down and relax. Great advice! I also like ‘all things in moderation’… I am trying to keep this in mind as I edit. 😉

  10. Calamity says:

    What a great topic and following discussion. I don’t like ‘could’ either but I think Steve McCann’s both examples indicate Tell since ‘could see’ and ‘saw’ are both telling words. If the scene is in her pov then we know who it is who saw the bread. If we are looking through her eyes, what do WE see? Fresh bread filled the racks.
    [to take the Showing a little further] The rising scent of warm dough tickled her nose. Her mouth watered and tummy rumbled. She grabbed a loaf and hurried out to the kitchen. Elbowing the cook, she reached past him for the bread knife. “Care for some tea and toast?”

  11. Dan J. says:

    Excellent article but I’m not certain I agree with this one, at least as written:

    “Do not allow body parts to take on their own actions. These might be subtle but if your head falls into your hands, or your eyes follow the blonde, or a hand drops into a lap, it could be a worry! They should not take on a POV.”

    I’m more than willing to be educated but I don’t see anything wrong with this in some circumstances. In particular, I use this fairly regularly when the view point character is witnessing the reaction of another character. For example, this is from an entry for the March FF writing competition that I’m working on:
    ————————————————————-
    “That’s mine!” he blurted. “I just dropped it!”

    Her eyes crinkled and her smile widened, showing even rows of polished teeth.
    ————————————————————-
    In this excerpt, Darvin (the “he”) is the viewpoint character. The reader is seeing the “her” through Devin’s eyes and seeing what Darvin sees – the eyes and the mouth changing expression.

    • Hi Dan,
      ‘Eyes crinkled’ is fine… it is a problem when they do something eyes are not really capable of. They can’t ‘wander’ … they can’t ‘roam’ but they can glint, squint, or widen.
      Does that clarify the idea?
      Often you will find an author (myself included) will say.. Her head dropped into her hands. Meaning she lowered her head to rest on her hands… but taken literally it sounds like she’s been decapitated.
      It is the literal interpretation of ‘eyes roaming’ (free from a body) etc that can be a problem.

  12. Maria Grace says:

    I have a list of nearly 200 hundred over used words, words that signal passive voice, showing instead of telling ect that I run a check for when I edit. I also run a check for body parts, eyes, mouths, hands, eyes and the lot to make sure that there is some reasonable variety in the action beats I use. I had one section where my characters sighed seventeen times before the edit.

    One other pet peeve is punctuation. A writer has to learn to use commas correctly. There are a number of grammar website that explain how to use them properly. I actually went through several sites and compiled my own ‘comma cheat sheet’ that I have right with me when I do my punctuation edit. That set of hotes has been a huge help.

    • Maria Grace, Your editor will love you!
      Improving repeated actions and echoes before submission is a huge advantage. It is odd how (as authors) we seem to not notice them, till they are pointed out.
      Finding alternatives makes for richer writing.
      Thanks for your comment. Commas.. argh. Yeah.. a cheat sheet is a good idea.

  13. Topher Knowles says:

    Perhaps I’m a bad writer but in the ‘Phrase things carefully’ section I prefer the incorrect way of phrasing things to the correct way you have suggested in every single example!

  14. Calamity says:

    I can see your reasoning in the Phrase section, Rosalie. The ‘incorrect’ examples use disembodied parts, which editors in general prefer us not to use. But, Topher as a fantasy writer would naturally be comfortable with that, since fantasy might sometimes call for disembodied parts and that can be scary -like eyes in a portrait that follow you around the room.

    Still, I agree with you, even in fantasy I wouldn’t let the parts have their own pov -certainly not the dropped head or dark eyes searching – unless it really was a severed arm slithering across the floor towards me.

    With the action before reaction, I totally agree. We don’t flinch, gasp or have hair stand up on the back of our necks, for no reason and if you have to stop to explain why the person flinched, after he flinched, then that is ‘Telling’ which draws attention to the author and takes the reader out of the story, momentarily. This slows the pace and therefore breaks the tension the author worked so hard to build.

  15. Matthew says:

    Hey,

    As for your dialogue comment. I believe using tags other than he/she said and he/she asked are commonly accepted as an annoying distraction.

    • Matthew, there are several schools of thought on speech tags. Some say ‘he said’ ‘she said’ are invisible, yet another school of thought claims over use of them shows poor imagination skills. Conversely, using elaborate speech tags becomes intrusive and as you suggest, are an annoying distraction.
      All things in moderation… Show a speaker’s action, reaction, rather than telling the reader who spoke. Rather than saying ‘she said’,’ she asked’ , try showing her actions as she spoke.
      “Don’t you understand?” Her voice conveyed concern.
      He lifted a hand, dismissing her comment. “Will you come with me?”

      Does that make more sense. 😉

  16. Tracy says:

    Thanks I have found this very helpful. I have just finished my first draft. Again thank you for all the pointers for my editing stage.

    Tracy

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