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Editing Fiction

by Carly Cantor

Fiction is an art, and editors must be respectful of that. Typically, the best fiction engages readers in such a way that they fully embrace the alternate universe created by the writer and immediately "get" this other world. There should be no distractions from this engagement, no conscious awareness of the writer due to small lapses in the seamlessness of the prose (awkward phrasings or even something as simple as word echoes, which are distracting) or moments when the writing just goes thud. A good editor will stay true to the author's personal style, and give a lot of creative leeway, but point out those places where the writing becomes a distraction from the alternate universe of the narrative.

In my years of editing, I've noticed a number of particularly common types of distractions in fiction writing. They are:

  • Telling instead of showing: e.g., "Jack felt happy." vs. "Jack smiled broadly."
  • Providing an overabundance of mundane details whose purpose is to set a scene and create realism but which can be boring for the reader to wade through
  • Having characters do or say things that are not in character or just don't make sense, simply for the purpose of advancing the plot
  • Overusing or underusing dialogue and/or creating dialogue that does not reflect the way real people talk
  • Failing to use a consistent "voice" throughout
  • Switching the narrator's point-of-view from "limited" to "omniscient" without realizing it or switching from one character's POV to another's within the same scene
  • Driving the plot through too many unlikely coincidences

The POV switcheroo is something I see fairly often, and it's not always so obvious. For example, what's wrong with this sentence?:

"His hair gleaming in the sunlight as he strolled down the ramp, Jamie thought about how great he looked in his new suit."

The problem is, if the narrator is inside Jamie's head and aware of his thoughts, then the narrator shouldn't also be outside of him and observing that Jamie's hair is gleaming in the sunlight . . . at least not all in the same sentence. We could revise the sentence to make it so that the narrator is inside Jamie's head all the way through:

"Feeling the warmth of the sun beating down on his head as he strolled down the ramp, Jamie thought about how great he looked in his new suit."

Or, we could revise it so that the narrator is outside of Jamie, observing him:

"His hair gleaming in the sunlight as he came down the ramp, Jamie cut a dashing figure in his new suit."

Anyone who has taken a writing workshop knows that good writing is all about showing rather than telling; nevertheless, so many writers find themselves giving in to the temptation to take shortcuts. Authors, perhaps thinking like journalists, sometimes seem to feel they want to straightforwardly provide their readers with all the information relevant to a scene they're trying to bring to life. Why beat around the bush? You, the writer, have decided that your character is feeling impatient, anxious, and grumpy, so why not just say, "Karla sat in her favorite booth at the Marvel Café feeling impatient, anxious, and grumpy."? Well, because it's so much more interesting and challenging to the reader's powers of observation to have Karla looking at her watch (or, more likely these days, her cellphone's time display), saying cranky things to the waitress and then apologizing, biting her nails, rolling her eyes, etc.

Various parts of the human brain are designed to globally take in all sorts of clues from the environment in order to assess and categorize various kinds of situations. The brain "likes" to do this; it's more fun, more challenging, than simply being told what the situation is. An engaging story simulates this experience for the intelligent reader. The best writers intuitively understand what the brain hungers for and serve up just what this demanding customer will gorge itself on.