Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Do Your Characters Sigh Too Much?

It's Wordy Wednesday, and that means...
...time for some reflections from the editor's desk!

Today we welcome a guest, Rayne Hall, author of more than forty books and editor of the Ten Tales series.

In thirty years as an editor, I've found the same words blight and bloat the style of many authors. One of them is "sigh".

In real life, people who constantly sigh soon get on our nerves. Few folks enjoy the company of sighers. The same applies to fiction: readers don't like characters that sigh a lot.

Yet, sighs creep into fiction and multiply like vermin.  If you're not on your guard, your novel soon reads like this:

He sighed.... She sighed deeply.... He heaved a deep sigh... A sigh escaped from her lips.... With a sigh, she did this... Sighing, she rose.... He looked at her and sighed...

Moreover, a character that sighs at the slightest trigger comes across as a wuss.

One sigh is enough for the reader's subconscious to file that character as a wimp.  Two sighs make the character a wimpy wimp. By the time your heroine has heaved her third sigh, the reader has lost respect for her.

It's raining - sigh.
Aunt Agatha is coming - sigh.
Little Laura misbehaves - sigh.
The kitten scratches - sigh.
Work needs doing - sigh.
Another Monday - sigh.
Life goes on - sigh.

Use your word processor's Find & Replace tool to count how many times you've used "sigh", and then cut most of them.

By cutting the sighs, you'll make your writing tighter and your characters spunkier.

I recommend keeping just one or two sighs in the whole book: one for a wimpy minor character, and one in the second half of the book where your protagonist has real reason to sigh.

Rayne Hall is an author and editor. After writing and editing, her great love is teaching, and she teaches online classes for writers. To find out more, visit:

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Passive Voice

It's Wordy Wednesday, and that means...
...time for some reflections from the editor's desk!

English is a funny language. We want our stories to compel our reader’s attention, from the first sentence, all the way through to the end of the book. Just do a Wikipedia search of passive voice. It will make your head spin. However, the rules of passive voice affects us all, especially in fiction. We want our prose to carry power and punch. Passive voice generally creates sentences that lack those ideals.

Here is an example of a sentence in passive voice.

The man was bumped by the elephant.

In passive voice, the recipient of the action becomes the subject, making the subject the man. But he is not active. He’s just the receiver of the elephant’s action.
Contrast that with the sentence below in active voice.

The elephant bumped the man.

In an active sentence, the subject commits the action. So the elephant, the subject, is doing the action.  He bumps the man. The man is the object of the sentence.

Grammar lesson over. I know this is a confusing subject.

I found a great example on Grammar Girl, using a Marvin Gaye song title.

“I Heard It through the Grapevine.” 

"I" is the subject, the one who is doing the action. "I" is hearing "it," the object of the sentence.

If you wanted to make the title of the Marvin Gaye song passive, you would say, “It was heard by me through the grapevine.” -- not such a catchy title anymore.

You can see how the active voice carries so much more punch, and makes a more compelling read.

How do we fix this in our own work? Sometimes, just flipping a sentence can help. Like this example:

Her books were piled in the center of the table as she peered at him from over the top.
She peered at him over the top of her books piled on the center of the table.

It’s a simple fix, and it changes the cadence and the strength of the sentence.

When you do your next spelling and grammar check and a passive sentence pops up, these tools can help you make your sentences and your manuscript stronger.

However, you might find sentences where the method of flipping won’t work:

Daniel grinned to himself as the velvet curtains were pulled shut.

This sentence doesn’t lend itself to a complete flip with "were pulled shut quickly." But one good fix is:

Daniel grinned to himself as the velvet curtains twitched shut.

Monica Britt is an editor at Champagne Books. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Scene - What’s it all about, Alfie?

It's Wordy Wednesday, and that means...
...time for some reflections from the editor's desk!

Okay, who remembers that 1966 song by Dionne Warwick? And am I dating myself when I say I do?  The introductory lyrics to that song say:

“What's it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What's it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?”

So, let me ask you, can you answer these questions when you look at each and every scene in your story?

What’s it all about? As an author, I dread being asked this question by my critique group or partners. Yet it’s one of the most important question to ask ourselves. What is this scene all about? Is it just plunked there to fill space or does it move the story forward? Is it just Sally chatting with her girlfriends over wine at a local bar, or does it show Sally’s disgust for muscle men as one walks past and the others ogle him? (Of course, that probably means she also is about to meet the muscle man of her dreams, right?)

Is there an entrance, a focus, and an exit/cliff hanger?  Using the scenario in the paragraph above, Sally sits on the stool her friends saved for her (entrance) and the conversation they have tells us more about who Sally is (the focus). This focus can have two purposes. One, it shows us more about the character. As the friends chat, maybe we find out where Sally works and whether she’s a wine snob or prefers to drink beer out of a bottle. We certainly find out she’s not into muscle-bound men. Focus can also set up a future event (foreshadow).  For instance, I bet Sally will end up tripping over her own feet on her way out of the restaurant. Muscle man will save her from hitting the cement and she looks up into the deepest blue eyes she’s ever seen. At which point, he’ll make some sort of comment about how handy muscle men can be and leave her standing there. (And there’s your exit/cliff hanger for the scene.)

As an editor, I’m looking for that. I’m looking for whether or not there is a the dialogue, the internalizations, the setting.  All of it. I want your reader to feel like they can’t turn the pages fast enough. In order to do that, even with the ebb and flow of a story, there must always be forward momentum.

And remember, when it comes to a scene, enter late and leave early. You don’t need to show her walking in to the bar. Just have her plop into that chair. And when muscle guy walks off, don’t let her think about it. Leave her with her mouth hanging open.  I guarantee you the reader will turn the page. So will your editor.

If you look at your scene and can easily tell why it’s there, then it’s done what it should. If you can’t, then take a closer look at it. Does it move the story forward? Does it have a purpose? If not, it might be time to grab those digital scissors and start cutting.

Laurie Temple is an editor at Champagne Books and writes under the pseudonym Laurie Ryan.
Twitter: @lryanauthor

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

When It's Done

It's Wordy Wednesday, and that means...
time for some reflections from the editor's desk!

Today we'll talk about the editing process and how it differs from revision.

Every writer knows about editing. It's that thing that happens after you're finished toiling over your prose, getting it all to hold together. Sometimes, it's ninety percent of the work. If you're unpublished, then you might go over your manuscript time and time and time again, perfecting it before submission.

But that's not editing.

After getting published, an author is disabused of many fallacies about the book production process, and this is one of them. All that time you spent obsessing over your work? Well, it has a different name: revision.

As a writer, you don't do any editing. Now, granted, you can pretend to edit, but you're going to miss all sorts of things. I am an editor and an author, and while I catch many things I can anticipate my editor might, I'm still missing a key ingredient - the thing that differentiates editing from revision - namely, the objectivity only a third party professional can add.

Editing is done by the editor, the author responds to his or her editor's suggestions, and the editing process becomes a partnership between the two. That's the goal. Sometimes it takes a few bumps to discover this ideal, though.

If you've had one or more books published, you might be able relate to this common first experience. It's been six months since you signed the contract. You waited and waited, built your platform; you've probably moved onto a new manuscript. Then, you get your manuscript back, full of red font - in line changes, comments, questions, suggestions for revision. It's hard to look at that and switch out of "writer mode". After all, you will be doing some rewriting, per your editor's requests. But then you start swimming in all those comments, and never mind responding to them - your eye catches an unmarked paragraph and suddenly you're sweating.

"What was I thinking?" Geesh! Let's do this editor a favor and revise the whole thing!

You get through it all, adding in monologues, touching up dialogue tags, tweaking some descriptive paragraphs that somehow your editor missed. That scene you never felt belonged? Well, you finally took it out, and now everything flows wonderfully. You're proud of your work, and feel like this book is up to your standard, and you expect your editor will be impressed.

What authors might not realize, though, is that this "fix-it syndrome" is every editor's worst nightmare. When we go over your manuscript, line by line, we weigh everything that needs editorial consideration, then send you the manuscript so you can respond accordingly. That paragraph we left unmarked? It was because it didn't need changing. But, since you have changed it, this means we have to edit yet new material, which is simply not fair. When you submit your manuscript, we assess it based on what's there, not based on what could be there. Granted, things will niggle, and it is totally fine to change them - after a friendly email to your editor for some consultation, of course!

To modify Da Vinci's famous saying, "A story is never finished - it is abandoned." You, the author, must decide when it's time to let your story go, but that time comes before you submit it to your publisher. Revise, revise, revise, then accept that what you're sending out is finished. When it comes time to edit, trust your editor, respond to his or her changes, doing your best as a writer to take your manuscript to that new edge.

As an author, I can sympathize - it's hard restraining that urge to fix all the things you want to, after your manuscript has been sitting for months in the production queue. You've moved on to other projects, discovered new techniques, and might feel like you're looking at an older version of yourself. But that's okay! Readers love to see growth and development in writers. Put that energy into your new project - it will show. Trust that, at the time you submitted your previous manuscript, you made it the best you could.

Happy writing
Happy revising,
and happy editing!

Graeme Brown
Junior editor
Twitter: @GraemeBrownWpg