Publishing Update: The contract for my new novel, The Bleeding Crowd, has been signed. Look for more updates as its August release date gets closer.
As a freelance editor, I spend a good amount of time with other people’s not-quite finished masterpieces. Though I have edited for all manner of writers (from the first-time novelist to multiply-published) my three most recent jobs have been for either completely new novelists, or ones with only a little experience under their belts.
None have been especially bad (there are some novels I have gotten freelance which, I admit, have made me cringe) but I have seen some problems that seem to be a common theme. For all those aspiring novelists out there, here are a few things I’d suggest keeping an eye on.
1. “Very” abuse. I can understand it, the music at the club your characters have gone to isn’t just loud. Having gone to clubs, I know the particular level of loud club music is. “The music was very loud” is a “very” weak sentence though. Not only because of the “to be” verb (was) but because “very”, for the most part, just clutters up a sentence. There are such stronger words to use. “The music was deafening” or “my/his/her ears rang, the music shaking the walls” are both stronger (and more interesting).
2. Contractions. People speak with contractions. One of the easiest ways to make someone sounds stuffy/formal/like a non-native English speaker is to have them speak without contractions. Think about the people you talk to on a regular basis. Now think about which of these sounds more like what they would say: a) “I am going to go. He cannot now, so he will come when he is able.” of b) “I’m going to go. He can’t now, so he’ll come when he’s able.”
3. If people are saying things, use dialogue. As with all of these suggestions, there are exceptions, but dialogue is one of the easiest ways to make your writing quick and engaging. Of course it has to be good dialogue, but even bad dialogue tends to be more interesting than, “he was telling me/him/her about this, and this, and this.”
4. You don’t need to account for every minute. It’s possible to skip time/stop when the interesting part of the scene is done. If you start every scene by a character waking up and end with them going to sleep (and it isn’t a conscious stylistic choice) take a closer look at the scene. Do you really just need the two main characters to meet? You can have “they looked at each other in the coffee shop” as the first line of the scene. It doesn’t have to be “she woke up, took a shower, thought about having breakfast, but then decided to just get a bagel at the coffee shop on the corner.” If it isn’t important/interesting, you can skip to the fun parts.
5. “To Be” verbs. I touched on this a bit before, but “to be” verbs (am, is, was, were…) are weak. Don’t worry about taking out every “to be” verb in your writing, but if it doesn’t need to be there, don’t use it. For example, it doesn’t have to be “The ball was falling.” “The ball fell” is better.
6. Adverbs. I’m hardly one of those editors who is against adverbs of any kind. If you’ve read any of my writing, you know I’m not against adverbs. Just like “very” abuse, the main problems with abusing adverbs is that often they’re used when a stronger word could be. It’s especially bad when coupled with “very” abuse. “He said very quietly.” What’s wrong with “He whispered.”? If you can say something in fewer words, it’s generally stronger.
7. Telling, not showing. Yeah, this saying is overused quite a big, but it does has its uses. It’s just not interesting reading “He was angry.” How is “he” feeling? Or if he isn’t the narrator, how does the narrator see “he” is mad? Is his pulse rising? Is his face turning red? Is he clenching his fists?
8. Vary sentence structure. If every sentence starts with the same word (generally “I” in first person or “He/She/[Character’s Name]” in third person, try to change up some sentences. Not everything has to be filtered though a character (to use an above example, it doesn’t have to be “I/He/She/[Character Name] saw the ball fall” it can just be “The ball fell.”) It’s also possible to change up complex sentences (“She started to walk down the dark street, her foot steps echoing on the walls.” can become “Her foot steps echoed on the wall as she…”)
9. Switching tenses. Something to just watch for, I see it far too often. You can write in present or past tense (there are plenty of debates over which is better, and past is more common, but it’s your choice). Just keep consistent. Few things seem more awkward than when you start a sentence in past tense and finish it in present.
As with anything else in creative writing, take what I say with a grain of salt. There’s a time and place for almost everything. It’s when you do things without thinking, without a reason for them, that it makes someone seem like a novice. All of the above are little things, easily correctable (I’m sure I did more than one of them when I was just starting to write). Writing, like anything else, is a skill. If it isn’t perfect to start, just keep practicing.
Even if something is the best thing you’ve ever written, it only is because you haven’t had the chance to write something even better.