In the first phase of editing fiction—some call it “development editing”—I focus on the structural issues in the crafting of the novel, such as point-of-view; character development; plot and subplots; and balance among action, interior monologue, and dialogue. I hope my Editing Fiction post was helpful in getting you to think about the “forest”—the big picture. The next phase:
In this stage, I help you improve the word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence experience of the novel for the reader. There are many issues I look at, but in this post I will address what I consider to be the top 3.
Many classic novels from earlier times feature highly descriptive passages that focus on setting, history, and other types of details. The contemporary trend is for less detail. Modern readers tend to have limited patience and are typically more interested in plot advancement, especially in their genre literature (romance, mystery, thriller).
That said, some details can be important and interesting, and readers do enjoy being transported to a different time and place through this aspect of the novel. You must find the right balance by being selective about descriptive details so as to create a realistic-seeming world but also avoid making readers feel like they are wading through long passages of description that delays for too long their getting to the action.
Many writers include too much of what I call “stage direction”—leaden descriptions regarding characters’ movements as they walk from here to there or sip coffee or stare out the window. It slows the pace and causes reader disengagement.
You might be tempted to do this as a way of breaking up lines of dialogue: “She took a sip of wine,” or “She brushed a wisp of hair out of her eyes.”
While it is a good idea to break up dialogue, it’s not a good idea to do so by telling us about these kinds of mundane gestures. The reader will assume that if the characters are at a restaurant having a meal together, they are eating while they talk and occasionally brushing hair out of their eyes or scratching their nose or whatever.
These kinds of gestures and behaviors should not be described unless they hold some sort of significance. For instance, if the narrator notices that his lunch partner is constantly glancing around the room or watching the door, that would be worth mentioning because it might indicate nervousness.
If you are concerned about breaking up the dialogue, avoid mere stage direction and instead find more meaningful bits of narration that can serve that purpose and add to the richness of the novel.
(For more on this topic, see Descriptive Detail In Novel Writing.)
Writing is an art, of course, not a science. My job as your book editor is to be respectful of your personal style and give you plenty of creative leeway but still point out places where the writing goes thud and becomes a distraction. The key, as I keep saying, is reader engagement, and the main thing to understand is that bland writing won’t promote engagement. What is bland? Well, consider these two possible opening sentences for a murder mystery:
First, this one:
I was sitting at my kitchen table sipping coffee, thinking about the murder and trying to figure out what happened. I had a few clues, and I knew if I thought hard enough, I could make some sense of them.
Does this make you want to read more? In my opinion, meh. No, not really.
Now, this one:
A broken bottle. A blood-stained grocery list. Fuzzy memories of a brief conversation in a noisy parking lot two weeks ago. That was all I had to go on.
The first one is the epitome of bland. There is no imagery, no interesting vocabulary words, little to really grab the reader. The second one, even though it contains fewer words, is full of images as it hints at what is going on rather than spelling it out in a straightforward manner. This tactic excites a reader’s brain and is much more effective narration.
Quality of Dialogue
Most stories will (and should) involve characters interacting with each other. Some of the time, you will have your PoV character simply paraphrase the interaction (“I met with Darryl and we discussed the murder investigation. He told me he suspected the ex-boyfriend.”) But other times, you might choose to include actual dialogue to show the interaction directly.
“So, Darryl, who do you think killed her?”
“My money is on the ex-boyfriend.”
When might you choose to use dialogue? Usually, it will be an occasion to accomplish something meaningful for the story or show something about the personalities of the characters. Dialogue might provide subtle clues as to what is really going on.
For example, imagine the dialogue that might take place between the narrator and the prime suspect, the ex-boyfriend.
“You dated her for how many months?”
“Oh, only four months. She was cool, but we didn’t really click. I was content to move on.”
“Her friend said you were really pissed when she dumped you.”
“Well, yeah… not really…kind of…but after a few days I was fine about it. Relieved actually.”
In such a situation, it’s important to present the exact words, because they give the reader the opportunity to assess the suspect even as the narrator is doing the same. If he sounds nervous or unsure, that will come through in the dialogue so the reader can pick up on it.
What I often call out is dialogue that consists of too much boring small talk that slows the pace and serves no purpose. It’s best to skip the “Hello, how are you’s” and go right to the more meaningful part of a dialogue. This may seem obvious, but I’m surprised at how many writers leave that stuff in.
Dialogue must, of course, sound realistic. But many writers get a bit too hung up on trying to replicate a regional accent—dropping the final g’s from -ing words, for example. Generally, this gets a bit distractin’ and doesn’t really add much, as the tendency to drop g’s doesn’t say much about a person.
Other ways of replicating an accent can become cumbersome and hard to read. If the intent is to show an informal or more “working class” style of speech, it’s better to use vocabulary and sentence structure to communicate that idea.
For instance, instead of “I caint sim ta find tahm t’do no fishin’ these days,” try “Loves my fishing. Can’t seem to find no time for it. Ain’t fair.”
The impression comes through in the latter without the attempt to phonetically replicate the sounds of the accented words.
Some of the other writing issues I deal with are:
• Sentence variation and sentence rhythm
• Reliance on clichés
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CARLY CANTOR is a publishing industry veteran who has worked in-house at a New York publisher as an acquisitions editor and is a two-time published author.