Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hunting down those gremlins

It’s very rare for me to read a book nowadays without wanting to reach for a red pen. In my day-job and my after-hours work, I wrestle with words. I write, edit and proofread everything from advertorial and press releases through to paranormal romance. This has obvious benefits for my own writing but I’d like to share some tips for writers wanting to clean up their writing before they start submitting to publishers and literary agents. These tips are by no means exhaustive but they’ll go a long way toward helping you self-edit your manuscripts and saving your poor, dear editor so she can concentrate on other aspects of your story. At any rate, these five gremlins are the ones I catch most often, so I’d like to share the love.

Filter words
He said, she thought, Paul heard…
These are filter words that clutter up text and steal some of the immediacy and impact a stronger sentence construction. Granted, there are times when this kind of construction is unavoidable, but when overused, it chokes the flow of a sentence. Here are a few examples.

Davy heard the sound of water falling and saw the rain falling outside the window.

This sentence would be much more effective if:
Rain drummed on the tin roof and splattered on the paving outside.

If you’ve already introduced Davy as a viewpoint character then you don’t need to keep mentioning his name and, by using more descriptive words as active verbs, you’re saying helluva lot more about the situation. Words are not acting as separators and you can create more mood.

I want to weep every time I see characters chuckle, smile or laugh words. These are physical actions and are not related to how we speak. I’m a big fan of “said”. Such a simple little word but it’s almost invisible. Laughing happens before or after we speak. Here are some examples.

“You ate my grandma!” Little Red Riding Hood said, stomping her foot.

Can be simplified thus:
“You ate my grandma!” Little Red Riding Hood stomped her foot.
You avoid overusing “said” by turning a dialogue tag into an action tag.

“You big bad wolf, I’m gonna get you,” Little Red Riding Hood smiled wickedly.
This one should read:
“You big bad wolf, I’m gonna get you.” Little Red Riding Hood smiled wickedly.

Little Red Riding Hood's smile is a separate action from the speaking and can also be appended before the dialogue, to have her smile before she speaks. A full-stop closes the dialogue, on the inside of the quotation marks. When I see punctuation on the outside, I weep.

While house styles may differ from publisher to publisher, my personal preference is for “said” as a dialogue tag, aiming for action tags when I don’t want to overdo a “he said, she said” kind of conversation. Also, by using action tags in large stretches of dialogue, you also give a better idea of how the characters are feeling or what they may be doing.

I have a suspicion that because many of us watch a lot of films and TV programmes, which by their very nature offer us an omniscient viewpoint, many beginner writers feel the need to tell their readers everything. Although a third-person omniscient viewpoint is not wrong, it takes a masterful storyteller of the calibre of Terry Pratchett or William Horwood to pull this sort of writing off successfully. Current trends in commercial fiction show a preference for a deep-third point of view, either in first- or third-person, with one viewpoint per scene.

My advice to writers: Resist the temptation of giving away all your secrets. What keeps readers turning pages is not knowing what will happen next, and by sticking with the limited and often unreliable narration of one or two characters, readers know only as much as the characters and you can gradually build up to a denouement that will have people staying up late at night to see what happens next.

THAT word
We all have pet words, like that, really, actually, practically, virtually… or insert any of your choice that you end up using too often. That, more often than not, is one of the words I end up cutting. Most times it’s used it’s not necessary and more often than not acts as a word that fills space without adding real meaning. As for the others, I try to limit them to dialogue because hey, let’s keep the way people speak natural. But I expunge them from the narrative unless I’m using them in the correct context.

Let’s look at practically:
Little Red Riding Hood practically gave up hope.
Should read:
Little Red Riding Hood almost gave up hope.

Correct use of practically:

Little Red Riding Hood was practically orientated, and manipulated a hair pin to unlock the cupboard door.

Look at your manuscript and see if you have other pet words. Some of mine include however, perhaps… Find them and kill them, and you may see an immediate improvement in your writing.

Attack of the killer He or She
Watch out for too many similar words at the start of consecutive sentences. For instance:
He walked to the bank. He took out his wallet and drew money. He turned around and left.
Granted, that’s an extreme example but I see it. Often.

Look out for repeats, especially of names of characters, he, she, her, his and the. Watch also for the opening words of paragraphs being the same. Be alert for other words repeating within the same paragraph and jump out. Sometimes repetition of words that jump out is unavoidable, but catching the ones that are, for instance too many characters whispering at each other on one page, or overusing the word kiss… As an author, it is vital that you make an effort to increase your vocabulary, to become a walking thesaurus, if you must.

In closing, when you do reach the point where you are working with an editor, take time to analyse which points he or she highlights. Which gremlins crop up again and again? Internalise those gremlins and, when you begin work on your next manuscript, try avoiding making those same mistakes again. It will make you a better writer, and help you push your boundaries, which in a very competitive market is important if you want to make a go of being successful.

* * * *

Nerine is a published author and content editor for Lyrical Press, inc.
Email her at nerine@lyricalpress.com


Michelle Scott said...

Great post! I know what you mean about wanting to take out a red pencil when reading a book. My pet peeves, though, tend to be more punctuation oriented.

Thanks for the help : )

Stephanie said...

As a fellow Lyrical Press author, I have my check list of things I go through before submitting! It's amazing how much stronger my writing is now that I've learned all these little tips. I automatically write with these rules in mind instead of having to go back and fix it all after the fact!

Sandra Sookoo said...

Amen! I wish more writers would pay attention to this stuff. I can't tell you how many times writers think they're too good to learn any of this stuff and no matter how many times it's said, they make the same mistakes in every single book.

Shout it out over the 'net. Make posters, cross stitch pillows to get the word out :-)

Great post!

Silke said...

You know... I can't wait to see the feedback I'll get from you.
I cull that (yes, I know, I know!) stuff constantly. I will count specific words and make sure I don't use them too close to each other, or too often. I double check words for meanings. (The amount of times I've seen a "Lightening strike" in a book makes me cringe. Or I see a rider tighten the "reigns" of the horse. Or a heroine who "can't breath".
It's BREATHE, for crying out loud. (Pet peeve, right there.)
I also hate it when a sentence runs on and on and on and on and on and....... You get the idea. Take a BREATH, people. Split up the monsters. (Yes, here it's breath. You breathe a breath. Lightning is lightening the sky.)
And I'm with you on the "Oh no!" she laughed. It took me a long while to stop doing this though, so novice writers, don't beat yourself up over it. Just make sure you don't send it off with those left in the story.

Nerine Dorman said...

Silke, trust me, I still am quite capable of some shiners myself. it's just easier picking it out when it's someone else's writing. I'm particularly adept at very long, complicated sentences.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Yes. Hmm. I was guilty of all these. My apologies.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing. Cheers~