Monday, September 9, 2013

Avoiding 5 Writing "Mistakes"

I recently finished editing New Bohemia: Just One Night and am waiting to get it back from the first beta reader. Waiting for those comments is always nerve wracking. Instead of obsessing, I thought I'd share some editing tips I've learned from my "mistakes" along the way. The list below contains some of the things I check my work for before I end the first stage of editing.

1. Don't have disembodied body parts.

I owe my education on this one to Celina Summers, Head Muse at Musa Publishing. It was something that I'd never considered before she pointed it out. Now I can't ignore when it happens. I tend to make this "mistake" when I'm trying to vary sentence structure and not constantly start the sentences with a pronoun or proper noun.

What do I mean by disembodied body parts? When there's no person attribution and the writer uses only the unattributed body part to function as the sentence's subject. 

So, the sentence, "Fingernails scraped across the chalkboard" falls into this category. Really, the nails did it by themselves? They weren't attached to fingers and those fingers weren't attached to a hand? Unless, you're reading a zombie novel and the parts really can act without being attached to someone, it's probably better to write "Her fingernails scraped across the chalkboard." 

2. Watch out for unintentional distancing in the narrative.

My first editor at Musa, Jennifer Ayers, pointed this out to me. It was one of those face-meet-palm moments because it's brilliantly simple once you know what you're looking for.

One of the main benefits of a third person point of view (POV) is it creates a connection between the reader and the character. When we create distance between the reader and the character we run the risk of losing the reader's interest and having her put the book down. Unintentional distancing is a type of POV violation or redundancy.

You create distance with a sentence like: "Bob felt the coarse texture of the rough spun wool under his fingers."

Why? Because we're already in Bob's POV. So telling me that "Bob felt" takes me a step back. A "better" sentence might be "The coarse texture of the rough spun wool abraded his fingers." Why do I think that's better? The precatory language "Bob felt" is gone. Also, the second sentence is more interesting because it tells me more about Bob and the feel of the material.

3. Avoid talking heads.

There are days I wonder if I should have been a screenwriter. My first draft of a scene is generally mostly dialog. I don't fill in the character movements or blocking fleshed out. While "talking heads" scenes are fine in a first draft, there needs to be more detail before the first beta reader gets a look. Long stretches of dialog needs to be interrupted by action, even if that action is as simple as standing up,.

4. When you limit weak verbs, characters rarely just "stand up" or "walk."

Speaking of standing up, motion gives you a chance to show character. Whether a character eases down into a seat, perches on the edge or extends his left leg out straight ad stiff when he sits tells a lot about who he is or his emotional state.  There's a difference between a character who "danced" across the street, and another who "lumbered" across it. The words "dance" and "lumber" evoke different mental images. Did you see a female moving for "danced" and a male for "lumbered"? I did.

Verb choices matter.

5. Remember the setting.

I just finished reading 20 storied for Flash Fiction Online's slush pile. At a guess one quarter of those stories suffered from the White Room Syndrome. It is almost never appropriate to ignore the setting. It is almost never appropriate to set a scene in a white painted room with white furniture. Yawn. I've seen a character waking up in a fully white room work once in a story. Once. And that character woke up in a hospital cell in a futuristic Center for Disease Control Center.

Also, keep in mind that POV matters when describing setting. An interior designer will notice more and different details than a 5 year old when looking at the same room. But both will notice and mentally, at least, comment on the space.

I hope this was helpful, or at least interesting. Now I'll go back to waiting. Sigh.

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