I’ve been reading a LOT of manuscripts lately, both submissions and from my clients. I’ve noticed a common weakness in writing that is easily remedied. If you want to describe something, just describe it. You don’t have to have your character’s “gaze fall upon” whatever you want to describe. They don’t need to “all of a sudden notice” it. It doesn’t have to “catch their attention.” Believe it or not, I’ve read those exact words in about five different manuscripts this week. Five! The EXACT same words!
Same goes for pondering and thinking. She pondered this. He pondered that. He couldn’t help but think… She thought to herself that… STOP! Most of the time you can just say what it is, without it being your character’s thought. Go ahead, take a look at your manuscript. I’ll wait here…
See? That didn’t take too long. I’m right, aren’t I?! Most of the time you CAN just say whatever you need to say without your character “wondering,” “supposing,” “reflecting” or “musing.”
Now, last pet peeve: When you want your character to move through a scene, or a room, or a task, you do NOT need to tell us every single thing that they do. Unless it makes a difference to the story, of course. I mean, it’s just not important to let us know that, for instance, Meghan got up from her chair, crossed the room, noticed that she needed to vacuum the carpet, and went into the kitchen to make herself some coffee. You could just say, “Meghan went to the kitchen and made herself some coffee.” We would surmise that in order to do that she’d have to get out of the chair and cross the room. And if the un-vacuumed floor isn’t relevant to anything, please don’t include it.
How many of you writers out there are guilty of these faux pas?
I was having coffee with an editor the other day and we were discussing how we’re both drawn to edgy fiction. We both like to see characters struggle, be in difficult situations, overcome adversity (or at least try to). We like to read about things that are real, even if they’re fantastical. Real emotion. Real language. Real challenges. I’m not always drawn to the dark side of things but I also don’t shy away from it. I like keeping it interesting, you know?
One of the things she mentioned, and I hadn’t realized I felt the same way, is how stories don’t need to end all tied up nice and tidy. As a matter of fact, I’m noticing that I prefer some things left unresolved, some questions, some “hey, wait!” at the end of a manuscript. I kind of like some loose ends. I do also like happily ever after, sometimes. But maybe not, too.
How about you? Do you like everything all tidy at the end of the books you read? How about the things you write?
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to post again, dear blog followers and droppers by! I’ve been deep, deep into editing mode. One of the things I do as an agent is to read my clients’ manuscripts with an eye toward polishing them to a high sheen before submitting them to editors. I fix obvious problems and make a LOT of suggestions in the margins. And then I write an editorial letter and send it all back to the author.
A suggestion that I invariably end up making (well, 9 times out of 10) is that the author should either read the manuscript out loud or even better, have someone else read it out loud to them. I want them to get down to hearing just the words that are down on the paper. When you hear something read out loud, without inflection, you can hear if the words are doing their job. And when you listen to your own words, read by somebody else, you are more apt to hear where something isn’t working.
I invite all writers to do the same. Have someone read your work to you. Take a pad and write down when something isn’t working, when it sounds “off,” or inauthentic. Pretend they’re not your words. Ask yourself, as you listen, if your characters sound like themselves. They should sound the way you imagined them, even when someone else is reading them to you. Notice, as you listen, whether you’re bored or excited or worried or afraid or cracking up as you hear the words you’ve written.
How do you check whether your writing is working?