I’m just done editing one of the other books we’ll be publishing this year – Emancipation, the second in the Bitter Defeat series which started with the self same titled volume of stories.
Apropros of that I wanted to talk a little about three things I myself am guilty of when I write but in editing lots of other writers I’ve noticed are pretty common everywhere. I know, I wish I were more special too.
Show Don’t Tell
So often we write superb scenes with lots of subtlety and then, for whatever reason, we go on to immediately explain what’s happened. Other times we know it’s important so tell the reader what’s happening instead of letting the characters live it. I really struggle with this but have found that if I carefully read back through what I’ve written then there are a couple of tools that help spot those sections.
The first is if there are sections where you’ve got less speech than normal. It’s often a dead giveaway that you’ve forgotten the story itself for the sake of explaining stuff to the reader.
The second is where the story begins to cover actions or ideas that should really be thoughts or speech for the character. When the lines blur between narration and what the characters experience or feel you’ve probably started to tell rather than show.
The third is where you read it back and discover you’re explaining why an action or event was important without any reference to the characters. These asides can be great but more often than not they are bits of world building that should be invisible or that you should have shown through the experience of your characters.
I find a lot of writers start their careers without ever stopping their sentences. Their sentences wind across the page, comma after semi colon; never quite knowing when to stop because they thought of another point that should be included in their original sentence. Phew. Stop it. Sentences exist to communicate meaning. They do so not just with the words but with how they’re structured. Some should be longer. Some should be short. Some should start with speech, others with definite articles. Some should follow on, others should introduce. Objects and subjects can be moved around but referents should always be clear. Whatever you do, don’t always use the same sentence structure again, and again and again. It kills pace, interest and fails to guide the reader.
In action, which is faster paced, sentences can benefit from shortening, from being sparse. It’s different again when you’re developing someone’s emotional response.
Vary. Your. Sentence length.
British english speakers tend to convey their culture of understatement and contingency just a little too much in their writing.
They almost felt, they nearly stood up, they were somewhat annoyed. No they weren’t. You’re the writer. You know exactly how they felt. They felt, they stood up, they were annoyed. Lose the understatement except where it REALLY matters to the story.
This isn’t you engaging in polite conversation, this is you baring the souls of characters you may well kill off. They don’t have time for equivocation in your descriptions of them. Sure, in their speech they might be cautious but that’s their voice not the text in between.
I fail to obey the above too much myself, but I love it when I find stories that obey these rules (and know when to break them).