Ask the Editor: Most Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Welcome to day two of Ask the Editor week, in which Kimberly Blythe, head editor at Omnific Publishing is answering questions from bloggers. By the way, Omnific is celebrating its 4 year anniversary with a loaded Kindle Fire giveaway! Visit The Book Avenue to enter.
Q: Liz: What are some common changes you see editors asking for? I know every book is different, but are there some themes/problems that always seem to pop up? / Mary: What common mistakes does she see most? / Rena: I was wondering what part of editing is the most commonly addressed? Basic grammar, plot issues, choppy writing?
A: Kim: There are a few common issues that seem to come up in rough drafts of novels, and they're ones that authors find it hard to see in their own stories.
1. Point of view issues: Multiple points of view in one book is becoming more and more common these days. It used to be a huge no-no, but now many readers, especially in the YA and romance markets, really enjoy hearing from multiple characters. As a reader, I enjoy this style a lot. As an editor...it's a little more problematic. If you're planning a book in multiple POVs, I would advise you to separate them all into individual chapters. Be sure that each voice is distinct and really worth its own role in the story. You should also ensure that a different character isn't just rehashing the same event from another point of view.
If you don't want to separate the different points of view into full chapters because you want to use short parts and go back and forth a lot, you will still need to separate them into sections. Choose some sort of symbol to break the sections. (I use *** for mine.) You need also to look at the different sections carefully to prevent "head hopping." It's really easy to give one character information or opinions he or she wouldn't have as you accidentally slip into another character's POV.
Rainbow Rowell's excellent YA novel Eleanor and Park is a great example of a story with two points of view that sometimes has the same scene from both characters, but never lets it get dull and repetitive.
2. Lack of evidence: This is related to the tried and true "show, don't tell" rule, where you need your reader to see and feel that something is true, rather than just telling them it is. As an author, you know and love (or hate) your characters inside and out. But your readers don't. All too often, information that is crucial to a character's journey (backstory, development, emotion, logic) is left out during the storytelling. All of that information and emotion is, essentially, worthless if it's stuck somewhere in the author's head and never makes it into the book. If your editor tells you it's not there, please trust your editor. This is one area an author cannot truly be objective about. I promise.
Related to that would be adding too much detail. I once read that you should write out the backstory for your characters in great detail, and then take 98% of it out of the book. Make sure that what you include is really needed for the reader to connect to the characters, that it has direct bearing on the main plot of your story, and that it doesn't slow the pace of the book.
3. Mistaking style and grammar: Many authors are (like me) former English majors. Maybe we took a creative writing class or two. We might have dabbled in poetry. We learned a lot of rules, but we also learn the power of exceptions to the rules. When we go to write, we often focus on crafting each sentence like it's a story in itself. That can result in some amazing wording, but it can also result in a lot of overblown, purple prose. You might feel, as a writer, that using periods can make your style too choppy so instead you intentionally employ comma splices. (Or you don't know what a comma splice is and just think that putting commas everywhere makes it all go more smoothly than periods.) That's not always bad, but it can often be hard for your readers. (And provides great sport for grammar police to use in being dismissive of you and your publisher.) When you're publishing poetry you can throw out most of the rules. But when you're publishing mass market fiction, you really need to stay within the boundaries of grammatical convention. You can get away with exceptions for a small section (or three), especially in a dream or stress sequence, but overall, your story should follow the rules and style that's accepted by most publications.
4. The dreaded sex talk: This is where we tend to edit with a heavy hand. Pay attention to the logistics. Can two people really get into (and maintain) that position? Did you have to really think of a synonym for that body part? Are you really sure that hymen-breaking works like that? Does that dirty talk or nickname sound enticing when you say it out loud? If possible, can you get a friend to read just that section and tell you if anything is...well...yucky? There's a great discussion of things to avoid found here: http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/blog/10-things-i-hate-about-sex-scenes
5. Copyright violations: People often have the idea that "fair use" means anyone can quote just a little snippet from a song, movie, speech, etc. and use it in their commercial work. You might be surprised to know that publishers have to pay a pretty penny for all of those little quotes at the beginning of novels, unless they come from books or songs old enough to be in the public domain. Using a quote from the Bible? Did you know that the version you use affects whether or not you have to pay a fee to use it? If you're already a bestselling author, your publisher can probably pay for your desire to quote those U2 lyrics. But if you're going with a smaller publisher (or going it alone), you would do better to get rid of quoted material before submission. If you want to leave it in to see what can or can't be used, point it out in a margin note and be ready to work around it or without it.
As for sexual positions, I'll just avoid the subject! I'm sure some are really funny though.
Still great answers! Thanks for taking the time Nicki and Kim!