Through the Editor’s Eyes–What Editors Look For
Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music!
ASK THE AUTHOR: Bill Giovannetti via Facebook: Have you ever written yourself into a blind alley? How do you get out of it?
AARON: This is another way of saying “have you written yourself into a corner?” My answer is yes. All the time. It’s something I aspire to. It’s what makes a good story. However, outline writers probably don’t do this as much because they already know the corner they’re painting their characters into and always have a sneaky way out. I like to do a quick inventory when my characters are stuck. What do they have available to them? How can they use it in a way they haven’t before? Or, what do they NEED to get out of the situation (this suggestion comes from Writing Excuses). Once you figure that out, go back to previous chapters and find a believable way to get them what they need, so that the solution doesn’t read like Deus Ex Machina.
POPS: I had to laugh when I read the question. My first memory of writing fiction goes back to elementary school. I had a little sci-fi story going with a lone astronaut who has landed on an asteroid. It was a childish story, but then, I was, you know, a child. He even had his pet parrot with him. Apparently in my world, they made space suits in parrot size. Anyway, the poor guy slipped into a crater and couldn’t get out. The parrot was no use. He needed Lassie. Anyway, I couldn’t figure out how to free him. He’s still stuck on that asteroid. When I became a professional, I got stuck in my second book. I had a character walk out on me, but later becomes a hero. I remember walking around in the house acting out possibilities to save my ensemble team from certain death. I think I spent an entire morning coming up with ideas and throwing them away. Finally I hit on a solution. Short answer, you either change the string of action that causes the problem or you wrestle with it until a reluctant idea shows its face.
Heather: I’m not sure I know how to write any other way. When I write I sit down with that spark of an idea, usually vague, and ask myself, “What next?” With no outline and a constant drive to make the “what next” something compelling, I often find myself in a corner. The important part is to remember the corner isn’t made of stone on all four sides. If I need to go back in the draft and make sure I’ve left myself an escape route, I can do that, it’s allowed! But my desire to avoid going back into the draft again and again usually forces me to be pretty creative in finding a way out of things for my character. So, as Alton said: either change what got you there in the first place or wrestle yourself a solution.
MJ: I think every writer writes themselves into a blind alley or corner. We love to experiment, to “go there”, and see what does and doesn’t work. A few months ago, NOLA went sideways. I rewrote the same two chapters about four times before I finally realized what wasn’t working. I kept the best parts (dialogue, moments), evaluated what I wanted the end result to be, and asked my characters how they wanted to get there. After a few days of arguing back and forth, I stopped directing and started transcribing, and the scenes worked themselves out.
Firsts in Fiction
Through the Editor’s Eyes: What Editors Look For
In addition to being writers, your humble FIF crew has done their fair share of editing. And editors are as unique as writers. Each looks for different things. However, there are some commonalities among editors and what they’re searching for. For this episode, we’ll go host by host detailing what we look for in manuscripts and why.
Clean prose: I know it’s terrible to start, and no one wants to hear the easy answer of “good grammar,” but this is a very important place to begin. Clean prose separates the professionals from the amateurs (which I misspelled on my first try–I always do). This is not to say that your MS has to be perfect. It won’t be. A mistake here or there is not the end of the world, and no one will fault you for it. A mistake every sentence, however, is another matter altogether. Especially if they’re easy fixes, things grammar checkers will catch. Those types of numerous, careless mistakes mean the writer is not taking proper time to send in a polished draft.
Original use of language and voice: This one is hard to pin down. I’m not sure how else to say it, but I want original description. Cliche settings, characters, and plots don’t do much for me. Rehashed stories with new skins don’t get me going. What’s the old saying about lipstick on a pig? Instead, I want challenging stories with real, vivid characters. I like original ideas, things that challenge my expectations.
Deep, authentic characters: I want to know that you know your characters well. I’m fascinated by unique internal struggles. I want it to feel real. I want a character I can empathize with. I’m a little burnt out on all the super-hero “Dirk Pitt” types of characters. I know there’s a readership out there for them, but I like people being put into uncomfortable positions. I like reluctant leaders and leaders without teams. I like characters who have to choose, and neither option is good. That’s one thing that I loved about the original Sony Spider-Man movie. Green Goblin’s got Mary Jane in one hand, and a cable car full of school kids in another. He says, “That’s the problem with being a hero. Sooner or later you have to choose.” And he drops them both. Of course, Spider-Man saves both Mary Jane and the kids, but can you imagine if he couldn’t? What that would do to him? Those are the stories that interest me.
Original description and use of figurative language: Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Carver and Hemingway as much as the next guy. And I know people like to call them “minimalists.” “They didn’t use detail and imagery,” I hear people say. Of course, that couldn’t be any further from the truth. They did, but rather than using several paragraphs of description (like Fitzgerald, say), they used one or two very precise images. These were all they needed. They trusted them, and it worked for them. That’s what I want–clean, precise images. I want specificity. I want “birches” not “trees.” I want “a thousand lights flickered like confused fireflies” not “the street was well lighted.” I want “a pug,” not “a puppy.” These tiny details go a long way to creating a tangible world.
A balance between interior monologue and external action: My preference is to err on the side of external action. I appreciate good interior monologue, if it’s used sparingly. I know other readers prefer a heavier dose. I’m not a fan of novels that have pages and pages of introspection with no action. I tend to get lost, and I feel like I’m floating in some ethereal brain rather than in a tangible world. I like to be grounded in action.
Strong nouns and verbs: Not sure how else to say, “avoid lazy descriptions.” This goes back to being specific with your language, especially with nouns and verbs. This is a key way to have active language that does not bore the reader.
POPS: I have a list I’ve created over time. It helps my old brain focus. It also gives me terms I can use with a client. So, I’m just going to list the items here and make a few comments. This way, you can copy the list and have it handy (if you find it useful). I can’t comment on everything but most are self-explanatory.
MISSING KEY DESCRIPTION—hiding the character.
EMOTION FAULTS—missing or overcooked emotions.
EMOTION TELLING—instead of showing.
MISSING STAGE—Inadequate stage setting.
MISSING ESTABLISHING “SHOT”—reader doesn’t know where he is.
MISSING SCENE BREAK—sudden shift in location
MISSING ACTION—action scene is missing setup, or information, or logical flow.
TIME FAULT—action that takes place in too short a time, too long a time, or in some manner that is improbable.
CHRONOLOGY—issues of timing.
FACT FAULT—a factual mistake.
LOGIC FAULT—action that defies logic
POV FAULT/SHIFT—head jumping
CONTINUITY—consistency in use of names, places, action, etc.
WORD CHOICE—in correct use of a word, or poor choice of word
AWKWARD—sentence needs rewriting, modifiers misplaced, convoluted construction
AUTHORIAL INTRUSION—Author interrupts the story to explain things to the reader.
NARRATOR INTRUSION—Little did he know, dear reader, what danger awaited him in the dimly lit manor. Parenthetical.
TELLING—Telling at the expense of show. Often shown as “he felt,” “she could see,” “he realized,” etc.
STATING THE OBVIOUS—Telling what the reader already knows or has assumed from previous text.
CONTRIVANCE— a person or item that pops up just in the nick of time.
PLEONASM—use of unnecessary words, ex, “She blinked her eyes.” What else would she blink.
TAUTOLOGY—saying the same thing twice with different words: free gift, they entered in succession one after the other.
CLARITY—a passage difficult for a reader to understand or misleads the reader.
PROLIX—overwriting, using unnecessary words.
TURGID WRITING—swollen prose, overwritten, bombastic
PURPLE PROSE—flowery, overly descriptive writing.
HEATHER: I absolutely agree with both of them on everything said, especially Aaron’s mention of specificity of language and Alton’s notes on unnecessary words and saying the same thing twice. These are such easy things to fix in a manuscript, way easier to address than say, finding an original voice. Personally, I’m also a stickler for work cluttered with adverbs and I have a particular distaste of passive voice.
If I had to add something not previously mentioned, I would say I always look to see if the writer is familiar with the conventions of the genre they are writing within – this is not to say that cannot break from some of those conventions. Genre is not prescriptive; but it should be a guideline. Knowing the conventions of your genre helps you know how to reach or exceed reader expectations for your type of story. Knowing them can also help you avoid the tired cliches of the genre – to know what has already been done or done to death. I say this because as an editor I am interested in what readers want (not what the writer wants) – and different genres dictate a different editorial eye. For example, outside of fantasy I would be unlikely to tolerate pages and pages of world building – outside of suspense and thrillers, I have less tolerance for multiple/shifting POVs, a cozy mystery reader doesn’t want overt violence, but a horror reader probably will. Etc. As an editor, in addition to the sentence/paragraph level edits that transcend genre, I like to make sure intended readership is getting what they expect or more.
MOLLY: Right off the bat, I’m not a fan of the first rough draft. As an editor, I’ve received quite a few manuscripts where it was almost as if the writer just brainstormed and scribbled into their computer, and handed it to me saying, “Here. You make sense of this.” My job is not to rewrite your work, unless we’ve contracted for that, in which case it’s a rewrite, not an editing job, and that’s going to cost you quite a bit more. If you want me to take you as a serious writer, put some effort into it, show me you have pride in your work. Give me something you need help with, but don’t expect me to do your job for you.
Two of my editorial pet peeves are facts and authenticity. They sound similar, but they’re separate. A writer who doesn’t do their homework, isn’t a serious writer. You need to put the work in, to get the rewards. Facts are facts. Some writers think, “This sounds good” so they’ll put something in without verification. It’s awkward when I have to tell a client, “Great writing, but this doesn’t go here.” I once had a client write their protagonist gazing at the Rocky Mountains. The only problem was, the location was south Texas. Authenticity is different from facts. You can’t change facts. Your character can be ignorant of some facts, but that doesn’t change that they’re there. Authenticity, for me, is, “How believable is this story?” That’s not saying, “How logical?” or “Could this really happen?” But rather, in the events of this particular storyline with these particular characters, would this particular event, action, dialogue, or emotion actually happen? A recovering alcoholic is going to continue to struggle. Someone who’s allergic to cats won’t suddenly start working at the humane society, at least not without side effects.
I also look for conflict. Some stories are too simple, too easy. Interpretation: Boring. Make the struggle real. Invest the reader. Don’t solve the problems right away. Don’t toss in a big issue and gloss over it. Your book isn’t a 22-minute sitcom, wrapped up neatly at the end of each page. It’s an ongoing soap opera with comings and goings, and problems that ebb and flow and bury and resurface. If you want me to turn the page, give me a reason to do so.