Tag Archives: editing

Five Tips for New Writers

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.

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An Editor’s Brain

I never used to like reading multiple novels simultaneously. There was something about how I became immersed in the story that was tainted, diluted or confused if I dived into different books, splitting my empathy between disparate characters in separate times and places.

I suppose the idea is logical, to a degree, but it’s actually almost impossible not to read multiple novels simultaneously in my line of work. For a while I stuck to one novel at a time for pleasure, and I was dipping in and out of things all the time for work as an in-house editor, but it didn’t seem to matter because the books I was editing were so different from what I was reading at home.

Then I began to write a novel myself. This might have complicated matters, but the imaginative process is different, so it didn’t seem to clash. When I began my MA in creative writing, I was reading between six and ten extracts from different writers’ work each week for workshopping, as well as working on my own novel and producing shorter writing projects alongside that. I began freelancing during this time, so I would occasionally have a week or two where I was copy editing a novel on top of everything else.

I had to draw a line in my brain. It was very easy to slip into copy-editing mode with the extracts for workshopping, and workshop mode with the manuscripts for editing. It’s a common problem for freelance editors who line edit, copy edit and proofread. The different stages in the editorial process require different levels of intervention, and sometimes you have to editorially bite your tongue.

My method of working when I have an edit in is to sit down and get it done in one big chunk with as few interruptions as possible. Part of an editor’s job is to remember stuff. This might be the spelling of a character’s name, or it might be that a particular breed of dragon has no sense of smell, or that when the spy escaped from prison it was dawn. As you’re reading, you don’t know what will become relevant. It is only when those very same dragons sniff out the novel’s hero that your editorial alarm bells need to go off.

I’ve long been amazed with the human capacity to remember stuff. Most people’s brains must be a jangling mess of passwords and PINs. When I worked in an office, I needed one password to get into the building, another to log into my computer, another to access the invoice-processing system, another to access a client database and another to operate the photocopier. I’ve half a dozen passwords or more to log in to various websites, as well as the code for my burglar alarm and several bank card PINs.

Apparently, your brain develops a greater ability to remember if you practise. There have been studies of the brains of London black cab drivers, as well as the brains of piano tuners, which show how new neural pathways develop to accommodate our needs. I’m sure a study of editors’ brains would show something similar; we’re a pedantic, pernickety lot.

Since having my daughter over a year ago, I’ve thrown my one-book-at-a-time rule out of the window. I never know when or where I’m going to have a moment to sit down and read, or how long that moment will last. I have a book on the go in my bedroom, one in the living room and I have two that I’m midway through on my Kindle, which lives in my bag. So far, I haven’t noticed any ‘diluting’ effect. The only effect I’ve noticed is that, if the book’s a bit rubbish, I’m more likely to put it aside and read other things rather than feeling obligated to plough on to the end.

I’m also, for the first time ever, copy editing two things simultaneously. Or, rather, I took one urgent copy edit in the middle of a less-urgent one. I feel a bit bad about it, as if I’m doing a disservice to the less-urgent edit (although I’m pretty sure that’s just me being over-conscientious). I’m rather hoping my brain’s neural pathways have developed enough to cope with the break. Who knows how an editor’s brain works? Perhaps giving the opening section of the story time to sink in will mean I do an even better job than usual.

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Getting started…

So, I’ve decided to start a blog. This is something I’ve thought about doing for some time, but I always dismissed the idea. It seemed to me that it was arrogant to think that anyone would be interested in my life. Who cares? I’ve never been much of a blog reader myself. And, if I want to spend time writing, I really ought to be working on my novel, or that short story I started and shelved four months ago…

But I’ve changed my mind, haven’t I? It’s all tied up with becoming part of Editide with J – a real, functioning business – and actually trying to do the freelance editing thing properly. I’ve had loads of work the past couple of months, so it’s going well. I even read a book about it – How to Succeed as a Freelancer in Publishing, by Emma Murray and Charlie Wilson – and the authors reckon a blog is a good thing, so here we are.

My plan is this: I’ll write a bit about editing (without mentioning specific books and clients, obviously), a bit about my own writing and then some stuff about what I’m reading, where I’ve been, what I’ve seen and what’s grabbed my interest lately. It’s a personal blog. All views are my own. If you want to comment, or get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.

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