Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Good Edit Would've Fixed That

Once again, I'm judging for Writer's Digest's annual Self-Published Book Awards, and once again, the need for a good edit is crying out to me from the pages of most of the entries.

Mind you, I'm not talking about the occasional typo or missing space between words. Most of you would think those things are nits, just as likely to have been introduced in the typesetting phase as to have been overlooked in a prior editing pass, and I'd agree with you. No, I'm talking about a pervasive inattention to detail, improper usage or faulty constructions running throughout a given book's pages. Has your work fallen victim to any of the following problems?

Repetitive Usage - Do you have certain pet expressions or turns of phrase? It's fine to use them, but use them sparingly. In one of the books I've read this year, the phrase "that's the point" (and its many variants, such as "that's the whole point," "but the entire point of...", etc.) appears so frequently as to be distracting. Variations of the expression are spoken by every character in the book and turn up all too often: in one case, three times on a single page. On another page the phrase appears in two consecutive sentences, spoken by two different characters. Perhaps in that latter case, the author made a purposeful choice to be repetitive. If so, the desired effect isn't apparent.

Convoluted Sentence Structure - If I have to re-read many of your sentences or passages repeatedly to comprehend their meaning, your work fails the clarity test. This seems to be a particular bugaboo of fantasy and science fiction books. Perhaps in trying to achieve a certain tone of scientific realism or mythology, the authors simply go overboard with stilted language. Using big words, lots of technical, philosophical or religious jargon, or many made-up words doesn't automatically inject realism into your work. It's far more likely to introduce confusion. Also, as a rule of thumb, if you find a sentence you've written has more than two sub-clauses or phrases offset by commas, you probably need to think about breaking it up into multiple, smaller sentences.

Losing the Thread of Tense - If your character is recalling or retelling something that happened in the past, the recollection or retelling should generally be given in past tense---and stay in past tense. Consider this (totally fabricated) example:

I will always remember that summer. We went out on the boat nearly every day, and wished we'd never have to go back home. That year, my goal was to catch the biggest bass so I go to town one afternoon, I buy new bait and stronger fishing line. I get out on the water the next morning, earlier than anyone else. I cast my line and wait.

The first two sentences are in past tense, which is fine. The third sentence begins in past tense (goal was to catch the biggest bass) but then switches to present tense (I go to town, I buy new bait) and tense remains in the present for the rest of the passage.

Switching tense correctly is particularly important when the narrative is intended to go back and forth between past and present tense, such as when a detective is investigating a cold case and has to interview a bunch of people about their memories of the events in question. When tense changes, is the interviewee still talking about his past experience, or sharing some new realization with the detective in the present day? Tense is what's supposed to clue the reader in on this sort of thing, so if you're switching tense incorrectly or unintentionally, you're confusing the reader.

Using Internal Monologue for Omniscient Exposition - An internal monologue is nothing more than a character talking to him- or herself. We've all talked to ourselves at some point, we all know what it's like and how we "sound" in our heads when we're doing it.

We talk to ourselves to cogitate on things, refresh our memory of events, go over mental to-do lists and the like, but real-life internal monologues are not like journal entries. They do not provide a factual accounting of events, because the person experiencing the internal monologue already lived those events and knows what happened. They also cannot provide a factual accounting of events that were not witnessed personally by the individual having the internal monologue. Look at the following two examples---again, examples I've constructed just for this blog entry:

Mike couldn't stop obsessing over the events of that night. Three a.m., and his mind was still spinning.

Garrett refused to stop drinking, and I knew I shouldn't let him have his keys back, but I was afraid he'd shoot me if I didn't hand them over. He was doing about eighty when he hit that curve, still swigging from a bottle of Jack. He never knew what hit him. The funeral's tomorrow. I know what everyone there will be thinking, and they'll be right. It was all my fault.

Guilty or not, Mike knew he'd be expected to make a showing at the memorial service.

Compare this example to:

Mike couldn't stop obsessing over the events of that night. Three a.m., and his mind was still spinning.

What was I thinking?! I never should've given Garrett his keys, whether he was waving a gun in my face or not. Now he's dead and it's all my fault. How can I face everyone at the funeral tomorrow?

Guilty or not, Mike knew he'd be expected to make a showing at the memorial service.

In the first example, the author is using an internal monologue to present expository (factual or background) information from an omniscient point of view: the point of view of someone who knows, and can see, all that's happening or has happened to anyone involved in the story or setting, and also knows what any character is thinking or has thought at any given time.

The first monologue relates factual information Mike has no reason to be re-stating in his own head. It also reports on events which occurred outside Mike's presence; Mike might've learned how fast Garrett was going from a police report or news story, but how could he know Garrett was still swigging from a bottle when he hit the curve? And how could he know Garrett "never knew what hit him"?

The second monologue is more realistic. In it, Mike doesn't report on events, he reconsiders his role in them. He expresses his feelings about the events, and fearfully anticipates what's coming next.

This blog post is getting pretty long, so I'll wrap it up for today and report on some other common problems in a future post or posts. Bottom line: if my allotment of books from the contest gives an accurate indication, about 19 out of 20 self-published books need a professional edit---and aren't getting one. It's a real shame when a self-publishing author gets the tough stuff right (believable dialogue, pacing, plot, characterization) but releases a book that's still hopelessly marred by problems like those above---problems that could've been easily remedied by a good edit.


Cliff said...

I couldn't agree more! I've just finished my second draft of my second book "Views from Sandhausen". I'm delaying publishing until I can afford a good line edit!

Marisa Birns said...

Cogent post! After all the hard work of writing, it is a shame for an author to miss the mark - one that easily could have been seen by an editor.

MeiLin Miranda said...

I'm in complete agreement. I hired a professional editor (NOT from a POD package deal--an independent) and it's the smartest thing I ever did. My readers paid for her (Annetta Ribken, she's fabulous), and my well-edited book will be out in a couple of months.

Joleene Naylor said...

Excellent post and wonderful advice!!

J. Lea Lopez said...

Great post, April! I'm a big fan of internal monologue, so I'll have to go through and make sure I've been using it properly!

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks for reading, and for the feedback. I'll post some more on the topic after plowing through more books.

Martina Boone said...

Fantastic post! I hope you don't mind if we include this in our weekly round-up of best articles for writers.

Martina Boone said...

Fantastic post! I hope you don't mind if we include this in our weekly round-up of best articles for writers.

April L. Hamilton said...

Adventures -
Mind? I'm flattered! Go ahead, just please notify me ( when it's posted so I can tweet a link.

Thanks! =')

ML said...

Thanks for this, April. I'm an author and book editor myself, but nobody's ever perfect, and it's good to be reminded of one's shortcomings.

Lillie Ammann said...

So true, April!

I appreciate your blog and think it is One Lovely Blog. I have passed this award on to you to publicly recognize you. Although the criteria passed on to me to officially accept the award state that each recipient should pass the award on to others, I am recognizing your blog with no expectations that you will acknowledge or pass it on. I just want you to know that I always enjoy your blog and find it informative and helpful.

You can read the post with the link and description of your blog when the post goes live Monday, July 26th, at

BillGreene said...

"Mologue"? :-)

April L. Hamilton said...

Bill Greene -
A good *copyedit* would've fixed that, LOL. Fixed.

But it's worth noting that you're the first person to notice or mention this, and even mainstream books typically go to print with 7% or more copyediting errors. Still, the point of this post was about that other kind of editing - more substantive.