Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A word on self-editing

My journey as an author runs parallel to that of editor. I never intended for the latter to happen, but it was sort of one of those things that just did, through my love for genre fiction and my wish to see it improved, both in my country and farther afield. Because genre fiction authors often are even more isolate than authors of "normal" or "serious" fiction, I can't stress enough how important it is that they need to take very special care when it comes to creating their particular brand of fiction. Whether you write paranormal romance or dark fantasy, you must, must, must never stop improving your skills.

It all started innocently enough when I joined The Critters Workshop, possibly late 2003 or early 2004. That seemed easy: critiquing other writers' work in exchange for having my own receive critique. I had vague notions that I would try to get a short story or two published. The next thing I knew, I was working as a sub-editor for a newspaper, getting my novels published and freelancing as a content editor.

That was a serious, "Eh, what?" moment for me. In the space of five or so years, I'd made a complete change in focus in my career, receiving a thorough education in the publishing industry when it comes to being a wordsmith.

Thing is, I keep telling myself I've seen it all when it comes to how people, who consider themselves writers, can mangle the English language. You know what? I keep encountering nasty surprises.

Yeah, yeah... I'm not perfect and my writing does have quirks, but I'm lucky. I've had many editors, both at my day-job and my secondary career, help me by pointing out the worst of the problem areas. And you know what? I take their advice to heart. Some of them have been at this for decades and by now they should know what they're talking about. I take notes and I make damn sure I apply them.

So, today, I'm going to share some tips to improve your writing, that will make editors stop being grumpy for a few heartbeats while they're reading through the slushpile. Although this is no guarantee you'll get your work sold, I see these gremlins so often they make my eyes bleed.

There was/There were
Although it's not a mistake to start a sentence with "there was" or "there were", it's a lazy way to write. Which sentence is stronger?
"There were five shots of tequila on the bar counter."
"Five shots of tequila waited on the bar counter."

The second sentence is by far the stronger of the two. The verb "waited" also suggests more than "were", giving the idea of anticipation. Someone's going to down those five shots of tequila, which can only mean events may take a rather unexpected turn in the story.

An ugly little word called "that"
Seriously, most instances of "that" can be cut. As a content editor I do just that. **laughs**
Go back to your writing, use the "find" function in MS Word, and read the sentence where "that" appears. Ten to one, you can delete "that" and the sentence will be better for it. And your editor won't be reaching for her happy pills. Also, "that" is a filler word, in many cases, and if you need to knock down that word count, going on a "that" hunt is a decent place to start.

I saw, he saw, we all saw...
I'm sick to death of encountering sentences that start with words that act as separators. Jump right in with the action, don't tell us that your protagonist saw, heard or felt something, unless it's absolutely necessary. Consider the two sentences.

"He saw the man lift the knife and stab his brother."
"The man lifted the knife and stabbed his brother."

The second sentence has far more punch, don't you agree. When every thing that happens has a "he saw" or "she heard" or "I thought" attached to it, it slows down the pace, these words acting as separators, stealing the immediacy of an author's writing and creating a divide between the reader "experiencing" things for themselves.

Attack of the killer "She", "He" or "I"
I have one of my editors to thank for this phrase but really, sometimes I just get tired of counting how many times I encounter "She", "He" or "I" in a paragraph and I select the entire offending section and add this tag. Authors, watch out for this repetition. It's not a capital offence to start a sentence with these pronouns but if you've got five or six in a row in one paragraph, you have a problem.

Repeating words
When you revise your manuscript, keep an eye out for words that repeat themselves. While reading, try to scan for this kind of repetition, especially if it's an unusual word like "billowing" or "ungainly"... or something that's going to look odd when you repeat it two or three times in successive paragraphs. That's where a beta reader is good for you but really, you should train yourself to keep an eye out for these things in your own writing.

You need to know this. Homophones are words that sound the same as each other but have different meanings. This is death to you as an author when you write: "Their was a brake in the clouds and the son shone threw." That's when editors usually start to point and laugh.

In closing, these are the gremlins that are getting my goat at the moment. In a few weeks' time another set of authors will probably annoy me with an entirely different set of quirks, so here endeth the lesson... for now.