Five Tips From the Editor’s Red Pen by Nerine Dorman

Our guest post this week comes from Nerine Dorman, and it is a timely one for any writer, but especially for everyone doing NaNoWriMo. Books are born in the writing, but they grow up in the editing. Here are five great tips from Nerine on how to spot and fix problematic issues in your serial or book.

Five Tips From the Editor’s Red Pen by Nerine Dorman

I’ve been reading through the slush pile for a number of years now and, while authors will still find new ways to horrify editors, I’ve distilled five of the most common reasons why an editor would think twice about recommending a manuscript for contract. These are five points any author can address, which will go a long way to making a manuscript sellable.

  1. Iffy words. Here are a few of the common offenders on my list – actually, suddenly, finally, something, that, just, like, there was, there were. If you find yourself writing a sentence such as “Finally, there was a loud bang that rattled the windows” I’m sure you’ll agree with me that sentence sucks. See how much stronger “A loud bang rattled the windows” is. Generally you can get away with these words in your dialogue, because people don’t always speak correctly, but avoid in your narrative.
  2. Repetition/pet words. We all have our pet words and because we are often too close to our manuscript, it’s not always easy to catch these. Here’s a nifty trick. Go to www.wordle.net and copy/paste your offending text into the field in order to create a word cloud. Your pet words will jump out at you, giving you a good indication as to which of the little bastards you need to consider cutting when you handle your revisions. I seem to have a predilection for “like” and “just”. Go find out what yours are.
  3. Filter words. Every time you see a construction that is “He heard” or “She saw” or “He thought” you’re sitting with filter words. Consider “She saw a goose flap across the sky” versus “A goose flapped across the sky”. The second sentence is stronger, and more efficient. If you’re writing short fiction where a final word count is vital, this is useful if you’re intending to prune word count.
  4. Show, don’t tell. This is an old one but I’ve lost count of the times I beg and plead with authors to show us the world in which their story takes place. Don’t just say “Bob walked across the courtyard to fetch the ball.” Perhaps look at it this way, “Bob’s shoes crunched into the gravel, an icy wind somehow sending its fingers through his thick coat. The ball had rolled to a stop next to a rusty wheelbarrow almost choked in ivy, a favourite hiding spot for spiders.” No prizes for guessing which sentence does more to evoke a setting. When writing, consider your five senses, but also think about your character’s emotions and thoughts when employing those five senses. How does what he sees/tastes/touches or feels affect his state of mind? Conversely, also know when to cut back on the description and employ narrative summary, especially if you need to condense time where there’s little action.
  5. Tension. Another reason why I will either out-and-out reject a story, or ask for revisions, is lack of tension. Short stories really have to cut to the chase very quickly, due to word count, but the same can be said for a novel. In an age where novels have to compete with social media and cellphones for readers’ attention, authors need to look long and hard at their pacing. You don’t necessarily need to end every chapter on a cliff-hanger, but make sure you introduce your conflict early enough in the story so readers don’t get halfway through your tale wondering when the action will start. I’m a big fan of the essence of the Snowflake Method, which divides a story into three disasters and a conclusion. Understand what motivates your characters and throw them curveballs early in the story. Make readers wonder how the hell they’re going to get out of each predicament. Be honest with yourself if you discover your first chapter doesn’t really progress the novel. Don’t be precious with your words. Find the most dynamic, attention-grabbing spot to start your tale. That opening paragraph is a make-or-break situation. Hell, here’s some homework for you. Go read the opening lines of your five favourite novels. Now go back to your manuscript and see how you can start your story with a bang, not a whimper.

 Nerine Dorman is employed as a newspaper sub-editor and writer by day. By night she writes and edits fiction. She is a full-time snark. Follow her on Twitter @nerinedorman. Thanks, Nerine!

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