Writers have the unique ability to know two diametrically opposed things deep in their souls and believe both, fervently. The first is that their manuscript is the best thing in the history of the written word, and their edits will come back covered in lipstick prints and gold stars with nothing but a short, glowing note. The second is that they are the worst writer in the world. Ever. And their editor is not even going to bother to edit their great big stinking mess but simply ask them to hand in their word processor on the way out the door.
The truth is usually somewhere in the middle. The chances are your editor thinks your book is fabulous—otherwise they wouldn’t have taken it on, and they wouldn’t be busting their butts working on it. At the same time, nobody gets it perfect every time. It’s impossible to catch all your mistakes, because you’re simply too close to the work to see them. On top of that, every writer has a blind spot, a writing no-no (or two or three) they can’t spot no matter how many times they read through the MS (manuscript). Even for the most seasoned writer, every book is a learning experience.
There are common mistakes that new writers make again and again. These are things to look out for in your own work before you submit them to your publisher or editor to help you avoid that moment when you open your newly-edited MS and can’t help wondering why it appears to be bleeding.
1. Improbable simultaneous actions. (Or the problem with starting your sentences with present participles.)
A present participle is, simplistically, a word ending in –ing. Often when you start sentences with these tricky words, you end up with implausible scenarios.
EXAMPLE: Walking through the front door, he dropped his keys into the bowl on the kitchen counter and riffled through his mail.
Unless your character has Mr. Fantastic’s rubber arms, he’s probably not doing all these things at once. First, he walks through the door then he drops his keys into the bowl and finally he checks his mail.
FIX: Nix the present participle and make sure there’s a proper sequence in the sentence: After walking through the front door, he dropped his keys into the bowl on the kitchen counter then riffled through his mail.
Or let the character do two things that can happen simultaneously: Walking through the front door, he mentally ran through his To Do list.
2. Dangling/misplaced modifiers
A modifier gives the reader more information about or clarifies a concept. A modifying phrase is dangling or misplaced when it isn’t clear what it’s modifying or it modifies the wrong thing.
EXAMPLE: Walking down the path, the flowers struck her with their beauty.
The modifying phrase ‘Walking down the path’ modifies the words directly after the comma: ‘the flowers.’ The upshot of this is that you now have flowers marching around in your MS.
FIX: Make sure the modifier comes directly before the word or phrase you’re modifying. Here, this would be: Walking down the path, she was struck by the flowers’ beauty. Not the world’s greatest sentence, but at least your flowers are staying put. Better still would be: Walking down the path, she marveled at the flowers’ beauty.
3. Head hopping
Head hopping is when you switch your point of view (POV) in the middle of a scene without the use of a scene break. Some authors, like Nora Roberts, use head hopping and get away with it, but it’s generally a good idea not to make problems for yourself if you don’t have to. And head hopping can cause problems. It can be very jarring for a reader to be flung into a new perspective without warning. It can also create confusion—it isn’t clear whose perspective the reader is supposed to be in. Lastly, it often introduces distance between the characters and the reader, because the scene isn’t shown from deep in the viewpoint character’s head.
Lucy stared deep into his eyes, mesmerized by the flecks of green in their amber depths. “Kiss me.”
Mark trailed a fingertip over her skin. It was so beautiful. “With pleasure.”
Because we’re in Lucy’s POV, the sentence It was so beautiful creates confusion. It seems to be Lucy’s thought, in which case the reader is left wondering what exactly is beautiful. In Mark’s POV, it makes sense—he’s commenting on her skin—but there’s no cue to let the reader know the POV has changed.
FIX: Stay in your viewpoint character’s POV until the end of the scene.
4. Wandering body parts
This semi-creepy writing issue happens when body parts appear to be operating independently of the person to whom they’re attached. Some editors don’t mind wandering body parts, and I, personally, don’t mind them if they’re used intentionally—for example, to create a feeling of distance between the character and his actions. Using them accidently, however, can cause problems. For one thing, it’s very easy for someone to misinterpret your intention and take a wandering body part literally. I am particularly prone to doing this with wandering eyes. This sentence: His eyes dropped to the floor, instantly makes me visualize his eyeballs popping out and splatting on the floor. This will yank the reader out of the story every time. They can also cause loose, clumsy sentences, because the body part is being treated as the subject of the sentence instead of the character. For example, His fingertips grazed the bare skin of her back, delighting in its soft, velvety texture. His fingertips aren’t delighting in anything.
EXAMPLE: His hands landed on her shoulders, determined to keep her in the room.
Now you not only have two disembodied hands perched on some poor woman’s shoulders, they’re determined too. Eep. Unless this is a horror novel, this is not an image you want popping into your readers’ heads while they should be focusing on the kickass, super tense scene you’ve just written.
FIX: Let your characters take control of their body parts.
His gaze dropped to the floor.
He grazed the bare skin of her back with his fingertips, delighting in its soft, velvety texture.
He grabbed her shoulders, determined to keep her in the room.
5. Overdone dialogue attribution
Dialogue attribution tells the reader who is talking. That’s it. The dialogue itself should be doing the heavy lifting, not the tag at the end. In fact, if you can get away with not using a dialogue tag at all, so much the better. If not, use said. Generally speaking, readers don’t actually read this kind of dialogue attribution. They scan it to figure out who is speaking, if necessary, then get on with the story. If you’re using an adverb or one of the many ill-advised synonyms for said, it sticks out. It jars the reader and pulls them out of the conversation. Aside from that, it comes across as lazy or insecure writing. If the surrounding text and dialogue is doing its job, nine times out of ten you don’t need dialogue attribution like this to help the reader work out the tone of the exchange.
“Come over here!” Bill demanded angrily.
“I will not,” Sheila pouted.
“Girl, you get over here now or else!” Bill roared.
“No,” Sheila reaffirmed stubbornly.
Bill changed tactics. “Please?” he wheedled.
“I said no,” she responded.
“Fine,” he returned. “Suit yourself.”
Please oh please don’t do this. I will put down a book if it’s filled with attribution like this.
FIX: Trust your narration and dialogue to convey the tone. Use actions tags (identifying the speaker through their actions) where possible, and he said/she said everywhere else.
While this is by no means a comprehensive list of common issues, if you perform a search and destroy for these five things, it will go a long way to saving your sanity during edits.
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