I rarely edit anything that hasn’t already been re-read and re-drafted by the author, read and critiqued by the agent and then re-drafted again, and finally read and given a structural edit and possibly a line edit by an in-house editor at the publisher before it lands on my desk. And I still find stuff that is inconsistent, awkwardly phrased, inaccurate and unbelievable. I am currently editing something that hasn’t been seen by anyone apart from the author and me, and it is very interesting to note what it is the professionals do that do not necessarily come naturally to someone who is new to writing a novel, even someone, like this author, who is clearly not a bad writer. Saying that, some of the tips below would also have improved the writing of a number of the professional authors whose work I’ve edited, too. Anyway, here are five tips for (new) writers, which might be helpful when getting your novel picked up by an agent or publisher, and will certainly make an editor’s life easier. They are in no particular order, and are in no way exhaustive – just five things I’ve noticed in my most recent edits.
Tip 1: Don’t introduce characters who are irrelevant to the plot.
This is frustrating to readers because, basically, you are wasting their time. If you’re going to give us a name and a physical description and fill us in on the character’s background to allow insight into her psychology, then that character had better appear in more than one scene. It doesn’t matter if she has a function – to show the protagonist helping someone out of the kindness of his heart, or to demonstrate how utterly, devastatingly attractive the protagonist is that someone so unattainable would fall for him – if that character disappears after only one scene, readers will be resentful that they invested so much in the character in the first place. Solution: Use a character who already exists to fulfil the necessary function (as well as being key to the main plot) or show us the trait you’re trying to highlight in the protagonist by working it into scenes that you already have (which drive your plot forward).
Tip 2: Don’t give background information only as it becomes relevant.
So your protagonist is desperately short of cash and has to sell her most treasured possession in order to make ends meet. Only, your readers haven’t heard anything about this treasured possession up until now. If you suddenly spring something like this on them, readers will see it as a weak and rather-too-convenient device to keep the plot going. And no amount of background information at the time when the thing becomes relevant will make it seem plausible. Solution: You will pack a much stronger emotional punch if we hear about this treasured possession earlier. Readers need to see how much it means to the protagonist in advance to make them care when it is finally taken away.
Tip 3: If an important conversation happens, give us dialogue.
This comes down to the oldest rule in the book: show, don’t tell. Some writers are great at dialogue, and some seem to fear it. There is often a tendency in early drafts to over explain what is being said and what it means and how it is interpreted by the characters, with the worst cases shunning dialogue completely and simply reporting what happened in one big paragraph. The only explanation I can give for this is that the author thinks the conversation is so important that it needs to be explained to the reader. It doesn’t. Solution: You can tell readers a massive amount by leaving a load of stuff out. Give us a gesture or a movement instead of telling us how someone was feeling when they said something. Readers want to imagine the scenes themselves. Give them the words that were spoken first and then add a few necessary details.
Tip 4: Watch what your first-person narrator tells us.
So, in first-person narration (or even close third-person), you need to remain acutely aware of your narrator’s state of mind. If they are drunk, or massively traumatised by something they’ve just seen, or if they’ve been knocked on the head and can’t see straight, they probably won’t be able to give us a lucid paragraph about exactly how they’re feeling or what the experience means to them. Equally, a first-person narrator should not, usually, say something like, ‘He was so concerned about me that he did everything he could to make my life easier.’ Unless, of course, your narrator is trying to convince themselves of this. A first-person narrator does not have access to other characters’ thoughts, so cannot tell readers what other characters are thinking or feeling. Solution: Use language to demonstrate drunkenness etc. Incomplete sentences, odd juxtapositions, etc. can help in speech, and you might get away with being slightly more lucid inside someone’s head, but their thoughts will still be affected and jumbled. Save any really profound thoughts for when your narrator is just getting back to normal. On the point of reading other characters’ minds, a first-person narrator can tell us what that character said (‘He told me how concerned he was about me’), or show us how they looked (‘I could see the concern in his expression’), or even have another character report back on what they have heard about that character (‘He’s really concerned about you, you know’). Any of these techniques works better than trespassing inside someone else’s head.
Tip 5: Avoid clichés.
It’s very easy to write in clichés, because we hear them so much in everyday speech. It is also horrible to hear that your writing is clichéd. The only way to avoid this is to read it back with an eagle eye (that’ll be a cliché, right there), and get rid of the blighters. The exception to this is where they appear in speech or ‘in voice’ (where you’re writing first person, or very close third person), but even then I’d recommend caution. Solution: It’s great if you can spot them as you’re writing, but this is often easier said than done (cliché alert!). Be sure to have a thorough check through once you’ve finished your first draft and sift any remaining ones out. You’re looking for things like ‘my heart skipped a beat’, ‘I felt sick to my stomach’, ‘it was a cold and rainy night’. You know the stuff – anything that you’ve heard a million times before.