...according to author and editor Rebecca Hamilton
Hi, this is Rebecca Hamilton! Sandra invited me to stop by and talk a little bit about the most common errors I see when reading submissions for Immortal Ink Publishing. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m actually not going to talk about typos or missing words, though most writers have them, because for us, this is not a big deal.
Everyone makes typos (yes, even me) and sometimes they manage to slip by the most skilled editors (though we do our best). However, typos are a bit easier to fix and is not an indicator of poor language, grammar, or punctuation skills. So let’s start with one of the most common errors.
Some people use them too much, some use them too little. And many people think they know how to use them, but they don’t. Some people even criticize others for using them too often or too little but can’t say why, often because they are wrong and are just guessing themselves based on where they feel commas should go. Of course, I’ve seen certain commas left off stylistically, and this is not a problem so long it does not change the meaning of the sentence and remains consistent.
Also, there’s a difference in comma usage among different manuals of style. Our house, however, prefers CMOS [Chicago Manual]. I could write an entire article on comma usage alone, but since that’s already been done, I’ll kindly point you here, to the Rules of Comma Usage. Brush up on your own comma usage skills, and before you criticize someone for theirs, be sure you know what you’re talking about! You should always know the exact reason why a comma does or does not go between words. My motto is, show me a comma I used, and I’ll tell you why I put it there! (However, sometimes I do forget to use them myself when I should, and other times I do leave them off stylistically.) The former is a sign more editing needs to be done, the latter is a matter of remaining consistent and not changing the meaning of the sentence.
Next on my list is head hopping. This is one of the most unfortunate mistakes to make, because it takes a LOT of rewriting to fix. If we love a story with lots of head hopping, we suggest a revise and resubmit. If it’s just the occasional point-of-view slip, we can still take it on and just offer editing suggestions for the few slip ups. Head-hopping, however—at least in our publishing house—is manuscript suicide. The best thing to do is to avoid head-hopping WHILE writing. Before writing a scene, ask yourself these questions:
a) Which character is most affected by this scene?
b) Whose insights are most needed in this scene to move the story forward?
c) Which character’s motivations are best left unknown at this time (for mystery/tension)?
Once you’ve answered those questions, you now know which point of view to write your scene in. Now all you have to do is write the scene from that person’s shoes. What would they, and only they, notice? Leave out the stuff they can’t know, like what other characters are thinking. Many times writers head hop because they want to show the motivations and emotions of other characters, but this can be achieved in other ways, such as waiting for a new scene to show their internal thoughts, or showing their emotions through their actions and their tone when they speak, or revealing things through dialogue. Remember, exposition is not your only mode of conveying motivation and emotion! And a little mystery about what’s going on in another character’s head is a good thing!
This one plays into a lot of factors. The use of filter words effects pacing, characterization, repetitive word use, and is telling instead of showing (cliché advice for a reason, sorry). Don’t worry, I’m going to explain what this means and how to avoid it.
Filter words are words that people use to filter experiences through their character. It usually (but doesn’t always) apply to the senses. The good news it, that makes most cases of filter words easy to fix. Create a word find list, search your document for those words, and revise as many sentences that contain those words as possible. Filter words include: see, saw, watch, hear, listen, taste, smell, scent, feel, felt, and touch. You can deepen the point of view by showing the senses instead of telling them.
Instead of: “She felt the rough bark of the tree” you would write: “The rough bark of the tree scraped her palms.” Or instead of: “The pillow felt soft beneath her legs” you would write: “Her legs sank into the soft pillow”. Instead of: “He watched the bird fly past the window” you would write “The bird flew past the window.”
If you are following the advice of #2, then it will be implied WHO is watching this—but because of this delivery, your reader can also step into the shoes of the character and experience the story for themselves. All of this means a deeper point of view, faster pacing (usually), showing instead of telling, and less word repetition.
Continuity & Flow
Remember when you were in grade school and they used to ask: “Which sentence tells the same idea?” Well, if you don’t remember, it went something like this:
“After dinner, Mary and John went for a walk.”
Q: Read the sentence above. Then select the sentence that tells the same idea.
a) After dinner, Mary and John went swimming.
b) Mary and John ate coconuts for dinner.
c) Mary and John went for a walk after dinner.
Well, I understand the purpose of that exercise is to help children with reading comprehension, but can I please put teachers who use this exercise in time out? Yes, those sentences tell the same idea but, as far as creative writing goes, it’s a terrible practice to get into!
Why, you ask? I’ll tell you why! Continuity of a sentence only goes in one direction. While both sentences may be grammatically correct, there’s only one way to convey an idea in the order it happened. On a small scale, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you want your story to read liquid smooth, you can’t risk disorienting your reader for the order of the scene for even half a sentence. Maybe I’m a mean, strict editor, but I insist all my authors fix these low-level continuity errors. Dinner came first, then Mary and John went for a walk. I don’t want to picture them going for a walk, then picture them at dinner, when it didn’t happen in that order.
So, just be careful with it. On a sentence by sentence level, it’s more effective to write things in the order they happen, because readers are reading it in the order you write and thus imagining events in the order you write them. (Naturally, this is a bit different from stories with jumping time lines, but that is done more on a scene by scene basis, not at a sentence level.)
This is a pretty simple one. A pleonasm is a low-level redundancy, or an instance of using more words than necessary to convey meaning. For example, “circle around” as I “she circled around the man”. Just write “she circled the man”. Other examples of pleonasms: actual fact (fact), black darkness (darkness), burning fire (fire). There are times where pleonasm will add to the voice of a character or style of the writer, but there are a great many that I am yet to see be effective outside of dialogue.
Consistent errors in dialogue punctuation is also enough for me to request a revise and resubmit, even if I LOVE the concept. Often those who don’t have a grasp on this haven’t put in enough hours to learning about writing, and (as their stories unfold) their lack of time spent on writing skills ends up in showing in more ways than just the punctuation. But poor dialogue punctuation, to me, is like hanging a neon sign on your manuscript that says, “I never workshopped this novel, or any novel. Ever.” That might not be the case, but that’s the impression I get.
So please, learn how to punctuate your dialogue. Here’s a great article to get you up to speed, courtesy of The Editor’s Blog. There’s really no excuse for getting this wrong! (Sorry, huge pet peeve of mine! It tells me you don’t care about your manuscript to do even the most basic of editing, and if you don’t care about your manuscript, why should anyone else?)
There are two kinds of info dumps. One is the kind that spends three chapters telling the reader the history of a character. The other is the kind delivered by a dialogue scene between characters telling each other what they already know. Neither is helpful. But alas, your character’s past is a huge part of who they are, and conveying some of that is what makes your character come to life. So what to do?
Here’s the advice I often give my clients: Write your character’s history down. Cross out the things that don’t carry much impact. Leave only the unique and special details that set your characters apart. Now imagine the history that remains as a vase. Smash that vase. Then take all the shards of your broken vase and drop a piece here and there throughout your manuscript. If doing a dialogue reveal, make sure at least one person in the scene NEEDS to be told these things. You should never have a character telling them what they already know. It reads forced and unnatural.
Pacing is a tough cookie to crack, especially as different readers have different preferences. Some want to go full-throttle down the autobahn. Others want to meander down the stream. However, there are some guidelines for pacing that are true no matter which audience you are writing for. You don’t have to turn your historical drama into a dystopian adventure novel, but you do need each page in the story to move the plot forward in some way. Also, you want your pacing to be consistent and slowly building in tension and pace. Pick the pace that is right for your story and audience, then slowly increase it as the story continues.
Another factor in pacing is chapter or scene length. Chapter length also affects pacing. You need to find the length that works with your writing style. This means fast enough to not put your reader to sleep, but not so fast that there’s no time for emotion or ambience to take hold and affect the reader. There’s nothing more disappointing than a story with a killer concept but that doesn’t engage the reader (and keep them engaged) until the last stretch of the story. Your reader is not going to wait until page 100 for things to get good.
Action is great. Most readers love it. But for it to work, the reader has to care about the character or at least about the situation. All too often I come across stories that either start with action for action’s sake and then fizzle off, or that are filled with “fight scenes” meant to make the story “action-packed” even though it really does nothing for the plot. At all. I suppose this in particular is subjective. After all, how many action movies without plot have you seen? Tons, perhaps. So which one was your favorite? Why? What made it memorable for you? Answering that may help you understand what kind of action you like—driven and purposeful, or the kind that puts the plot on hold for a gun show.
To each their own, but most readers I have spoken to find mindless action scenes to slow the pacing, due to the plot being put on hold. Which is ironic, since these types of action scenes are often added with the hope of having the opposite effect. This doesn’t mean you can’t write an action-packed story! Lots of readers LOVE action-packed adventures. But to do so effectively, make your action MATTER. Make it COUNT. Make it MOVE the story FORWARD. That’s what effective action does. Mindless action, on the other hand, makes my eyes glaze over and ultimately leads to me setting the book aside to read something by an author who knows the meaning of tension and suspense and a well-crafted plot.
You are a writer. Your weapon of choice should be your words. Language is your sword! When writing, always ask yourself how a character or narrator would say something. When I read your dialogue, it should not read like the same person saying different things—unless they are talking to themselves. Instead, each character should have their own way of speaking, and you should have your own voice. Don’t underestimate the power of words. Use all the senses and find a unique way to say the things you want to say. Look at your verb choices. Do they do something special on the page? Do they convey an emotion or mood? Do we understand the character better simply by the way they talk?
“She put on her favorite socks.”
“She slid on her squishy socks.”
“She yanked on her damn socks.”
“She tugged on those rotten gym socks.”
“Her toe poked out a hole in her flower-power tube socks.”
There’s so many ways to word things (put, slid, yank, tug) that convey emotion and so many ways to describe things (favorite, squishy, damn, rotten) that tell us about character. Even details (gym socks, flower-power tube socks) can give us a sense of character. So when writing, think about who your character is and how they feel and how they would share these things with the reader, not directly, but simply in the words they choose.
That concludes the top ten “mistakes” I see when reading submissions. I hope my thoughts will help you polish your manuscript up for the next round of submissions! Good luck and happy editing! Don’t forget to stop by my blog and learn more about Forever Girl series!