I’m kind of on an editing kick here, what with all the work I’ve been doing trying to prep Naked in Korea for publishing (I’m looking to have it out June 3rd if all goes according to plan!). This means I’ve been wading through several of my old editing and writing books scouring for things to keep in mind during this lengthy and infinitely important process. I’ve come across several good points along the way, and I just thought I’d share them for your approval/disapproval. Feel free to add other thoughts or suggestions in the comments. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive entry. I could write several on this topic; I’m just trying to get the conversation ball rolling.
Let’s all be adults about this kid’s writing assignment, please.
Technical Errors (Fiction/Non-Fiction): Regardless of which genre you’re writing or if you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, how to, etc., the Golden Rule of Editing is to always be on the lookout for technical errors, including lousy grammar (it happens to the best of us) and typos. While it is true that most word processors have some sort of spell check and grammar check application, many times these programs will not be 100% accurate or will misinterpret your grammar. I have been particularly annoyed with the most recent version of Microsoft Office Word because it will underline certain words that I consider to be fairly high vocabulary and recommend a completely different word with no meaning or context, practically insinuating that I’m not intelligent enough to have deliberately used a word like “rapacious”. Spell check is something else that writers should not simply rely upon because spell check still will not catch things like “your”/”you’re” and “there”/”their” most times without context, although sometimes it does. All I’m saying is that it is up to you and your editor to be more diligent than your software.
Mixed Points of View (Fiction): This one can be awkward for some people, but it’s a big no-no in many an editor’s book. Mixed points of view are especially important for fiction writers and, in case you’re not sure what I mean, it refers to changing up the character perspective from which the story is being told. Now, before people start coming after me with torches, I just want to say that I am NOT telling you to avoid mixed points of view altogether. It can be a fantastic narrative device and we’ve seen it used tons of time in books like Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and in the Game of Thrones saga, but the point there is that the books break up POVs by chapter so that the reader always knows whose head we’re in, simply put. If our POV is bouncing from one mind to another in the same chapter or, worse, on the same page or in the same paragraph, the reader might have a difficult time grasping just whose emotions were supposed to be feeling. Great writers can balance all of this just fine, but casual writers may want to avoid mixing up views.
This article by Kaye Dacus has another pretty good take on Mixed POV: http://kayedacus.com/2009/05/11/make-pov-work-for-you-mixed-point-of-view/
Poor Presentation (Fiction/Non-Fiction): It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, presentation is absolutely key to getting that book in people’s hands. Presentation influences who will read your book, who will buy your book, and can ultimately even influence how they will respond to your book. In prepping for this article, I’ve been coming through “Your First Novel” by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb again and they talk about NOT using gimmicks like “submitting fishing story manuscripts in tackle boxes, submitting werewolf stories that look like they have claw marks on them, and medical thrillers with fake blood stains on the cover”. I’ll assume you all are smarter than that. If I have to tell you not to pull some cheap stunt like that then you’re not really my demographic, anyway.
What I am talking about applies more to query letters than the manuscript itself. Make sure you present your book in its truest, most marketable form. If your book is a stunning and dark fantasy novel with vampires, ghouls, zombies, and a completely unique love story, don’t get bogged down in describing the characters in your query letter at the expense of all those wonderful elements that will help make your book appealing to people. Put your book’s best foot forward, in other words. Contemplate what truly makes your book tick. What about it would make YOU want to read it? Then, use that as your presentation platform. If you don’t have an easy answer for what would make you or a reader want to read it, chances are you need to go back and change your approach or change your plot. Increase the odds. If you’re dealing with vampires, what’s at stake? (rimshot)
Weak Protagonist (Fiction): The best advice I can give you here is to thoroughly plan out your protagonist beforehand and ensure that you know A) where he or she is headed, B) the inner conflict within that character, and C) how your character crucially reflects the tone of your story and the themes of the world you’ve created. That last point is especially if not principally true for fantasy/sci-fi writers. It’s going to be very difficult to establish yourself in a genre like fantasy and sci-fi if all you can do is riff on the great writers in those genres. Is your story a retread? If so, boooo! Is your character a retread? Well, that’s even worse.
Tyrion Lannister: (P)imp.
Before you even sit down to start writing, you should be thinking of character types and occupations that you have never seen in a genre? For your fantasy novel, are you considering a young squire of questionable birth who ends up taking a vast journey through enchanted lands in order to learn of his or her noble heritage? Yawn. Read Game of Thrones, seriously. There are so many great characters that you aren’t expecting, including Varys and Tyrion and Danaerys, and what makes those books so perfect is that Martin doesn’t pull any of the punches when it comes to those characters’ backgrounds and their underlying tragedies. They are interesting because all three of them feel like they have their own lives. They breathe on the page, their motivations are clear (or deliciously unclear in the case of Varys), and they command their scenes. If you can’t do the same with a character, that’s fine, but it may be the reason why agents or publishers are passing on your book.
“20 minutes ago I tried to kill all of you but now I’m totally cool because I arrived on a motorcycle. No hard feelings, right?” – Hulk
Plot Holes/Contradictions (Fiction): There are few things more unforgiving in fiction than plot holes, unless you’re a Hollywood screenwriter. In which case, you can come up with stories like Star Trek (2009), The Avengers, Prometheus, Avatar, etc. and you’ll make millions and millions of dollars to swim around in like Scrooge McDuck and you’ll never have to worry about writing something fully coherent ever again. All of those movies have gaping plot holes in them that you could drive a semi truck through, but I don’t have enough time to get into them right now. The point is, readers like to pick books apart, too. And be prepared to have readers pick your book apart and look for places where you perhaps inadvertently contradict yourself.
Did you accidentally say that a character has blue eyes in one chapter, but violet or green eyes later? Be on the lookout for those little details (also, consider why you’re mentioning his or her eye color more than once and whether or not doing so really adds anything) and try to catch them and fix them wherever possible. Also, make sure that your characters respond to what is happening and the world around them in realistic manners. Things shouldn’t just happen for a reason. Antagonists can be surprisingly difficult in this respect. Does your bad guy ever act in a “just because” manner in order to propel the storyline forward, without any clues to motivation or personal gain? I ask, because I was having that problem with a villain in one of my stories. If so, your baddie may not be seen as a particularly menacing threat. Food for thought.
Nothing Happens (Fiction/Non-Fiction): In fiction and non-fiction alike, the worst thing you can do as a writer is create pages and pages of material on which nothing happens. I promise you that readers read to see what will happen next. If you bait them along for ten pages without anything happening, most readers will jump ship and you’ve done it to yourself (I speak from experience). Most agents or editors won’t even stick with you for more than one or two pages if nothing is happening. My advice here is to look at your book as a TV show. Most of my books have about 20 chapters and most TV shows have roughly 20 episodes in a season. So if your chapters are episodes, you should ask yourself “what happens in tonight’s episode of (the book you’re writing)?” If nothing happens, why write it?
Imagine you’re watching “Mad Men”. Don Draper is a phenomenal character but do we want to see him just sitting at his desk, smoking a cigarette and sipping on bourbon and looking devilishly handsome for an entire hour? Well, my fiancée could probably think of worse ways to spend an evening. But, no, we love “Mad Men” because of the things those characters do (and who they do).
You might be able to slip a chapter of strictly character development or backstory in here and there, but make them brief and don’t try it more than once or twice. You have to be ruthless with your potential reader’s attention. Never give them a chance to see what else is on.