Edit! Edit! Edit!
(My Top Three Editing Requests)
I am not the type of person to break out the red pen or whip out a degrading comment in the sake of upholding the holy edict of grammar. Anyone with a halfway decent education should have perspective enough to know language—hey!—it changes, and so do the rules. Besides this, a grammarian’s guidebook is lacking style, creativity, and the natural disposition with which we speak. In other words, it’s prescriptive.
None of this bothers me. I care less and less about the way in which the words appear before me. Even bad spelling does little to my enjoyment of a book. If that were all it needed to dispel a book from the annals of literature, or just to kick it off your bookshelf, check out the last chapter of The Great Gatsby, and you’ll see Fitzgerald write this: ‘He told me I et like a hog once and I beat him for it.’ The character is not speaking in dialect. Mistakes happen so if you know someone that goes wild at bad grammar or misspelt words, send them a copy of Finnegan’s Wake and save us all.
What bothers me then?
Self-published books that haven’t seen an eye of revision except for the fine-toothed comb of a grammar-Nazi. The letter of the book does little if the spirit ain’t got crap! So here are my top three editing choices.
All writers have problems with it, and quite possible fear hearing anyone mention it, but point of view (POV) is a serious problem. Whenever a scene opens, we—the reader—expect to follow a certain train of thought, a distinct way of thinking. This keeps cohesion and is broken when every other paragraph jumps into a different character’s psyche. Let’s look at an example.
Anton had no idea what to think. James just told him he was gay, but as far as Anton could think back, James had never seemed gay. Well, there were those times, when they were young, that James insisted on playing house and got too wrapped up in his role as wife. But, that was kid stuff. That wasn’t about liking a girl or another guy. It was games.
This didn’t make sense. He thought his friend would always have his back, and James was worried that Anton was distancing himself from him. He didn’t tell him that stuff because he was in love with Anton. He told it to, you know, be up front. Friends tell each other stuff. Honesty and that whole thing. Now, James was unsure if this was the best move or not.
Solution: Believe in the reader. We know what’s going on. In this situation, devote one section—a scene or two—to just Anton’s POV. Let us see what he’s thinking and feeling, have him react a bit to the news. Then after you’re finished filling out Anton’s feelings, put in a paragraph break or chapter break, and start a new scene from James’ POV in order to give us his perspective. When together, it just comes out jumbled.
Sidenote: Anytime there is a break between paragraphs, this is signaling a time shift or POV shift. You can do either or both. However, throwing in paragraph breaks and having neither is counter-productive and, overall, annoying to the reader. If it’s suspense you want, save these dramatic pauses for chapter endings. Your reader will thank you and, most likely, be impelled to dive into the next chapter without thinking. Win-win.
Furthermore, when picking a POV, it should be the most potent one. Don’t pick a side character, and when it is, he has to be important. Think Nick Carroway. On top of this, the POV is used not only to heighten the scene, but also to hide information in order to build suspense. When you are jumping freely from head to head, everything gets ruined and confusing. So…choose wisely.
I’ve already harped about my major dialogue annoyances before, but I can’t stress enough what good dialogue is. Again, I repeat myself by saying that, yes, all writers struggle with this. You are not alone, but that doesn’t mean you can skimp in this area. Dialogue is the meat and the action. As much fun as it is to see someone slice a zombie in half, if there is no real give-and-take between the characters, I’m throwing the book down. Look at Crime and Punishment. I don’t keep rereading it for the murder scene.
So what should you do?
In this case, it’s more like ‘what should you avoid?’ And here it is:
-Don’t present everyday conversation. Some authors think this makes their characters and their relationships look and feel real, which it does, but if we readers wanted real, we won’t pick up your book. We have it all around us. If you have a brother and sister bickering with each other, make it interesting; otherwise, I can just call up my brother, call him a jerk, tell him I hate him for getting better grades than me in middle school, and ultimately, have lived through each episode in your book. Give us characters who take things a step too far in either direction. Give us wow!
-Also, be careful with explanation. This rehashes the basic writing caveat: show, don’t tell. Many self-published writers I read dump all the explanation in long, descriptive paragraphs, leaving only a tiny morsel of bland, run-of-the-mill dialogue. It bores me to death. Instead, turn this boring explanatory paragraph into the exciting, riveting back-and-forth it should be. Why do you think at the beginning of Harry Potter, Harry doesn’t know everything about the magic world? It’s so that we can learn along with him, but not through dry paragraphs. Hagrid, Ron, or—most often—Hermione explain it to him, thus to us. It is much livelier and less dragging.
3) The Narrative
In the beginning, I had this problem too. I felt I had to spell everything out to the reader. I thought if I didn’t, they won’t figure out a thing, but, eventually, the ‘not-spelling-everything-out’ has become the fun part. Trying to figure out how I can make it harder, while still making it actively fun for the reader to know what is going on is riveting. For writers, this is what should keep them up at night.
Then what’s the problem? Writers that show everything but somehow expect this to build suspense or interest. In essence, the story is just out of order or needs some chopping. Look here.
Richie got up off the couch. His head was stinging and he had no idea why. He hadn’t had anything to drink, and even if he had, he rarely got headaches from alcohol. He stumbled to the kitchen for some aspirin when he heard a voice ring out in his head.
“Help me!” it said.
Richie shook his head and in that instant, fire started pouring out of his hands. He lifted them in front of his eyes. What was happening? Was this real?
The fire fell from his fingertips like a fountain, igniting the floor and cupboards. Even when he reached to turn the tap on, the curtains above the sink burst into flames. And then his headache exploded as the rest of his body lit up, and his eyes were covered in thick, black smoke.
The next morning, Richie woke up on the couch. He rubbed his head, staring at the TV. He must’ve fallen asleep again while watching Late Night. He rubbed his belly. It was definitely time to eat.
He rolled off the couch, catching himself on the coffee table and sauntered into the kitchen. Opening the door, he was shocked. His kitchen was a smoldering mess. Everything was charred beyond belief. And for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out how or why. Did a strange monster sneak into the house while he slept and destroyed his kitchen?
Solution: Cut it! If Richie doesn’t remember—NOR SHOULD WE! In this way, we go along for the ride. The author should be the only one who is totally omniscient. We lowly readers don’t have to know. In fact, most of the time, we prefer not to. In the end, it’s not the story that matters, but how you tell it.
So what does that leave for so many of these giant tomes created by self-published writers?
They wrote so much that these books of theirs are large. They have so much material to work with that if they take out a good scissors and start hacking and rewriting, soon their slow book will eat us alive. And that’s what I really want.