Some 18 months ago I started on the journey of learning a little about polishing a fiction manuscript. I had been writing fiction for 10 years and not getting that far with interest from agents or publishers and so decided to involve a Literary Consultancy. Now these organisations, for those who do not know, will look at your manuscript and comment on it. You agree a level of editing that they will offer. There is of course a cost to all of this and it is not cheap BUT having spent about 6 months sending material back and forth, getting comments and critiques and then rewriting and trying again, I felt that the end result was worth it.
I had learnt quite a bit in that time about the pace of the story, enhancing descriptions and characters and there is no doubt the book (The Last Seal) had improved. A year ago I decided to self publish three books that I had written. The books have gone down fairly well with a small readership. That said I was not foolish enough to believe I had learnt everything I could do about editing and indeed another step forward was reached when a published author – Helen Hollick – took me under her wing and gave me suggestions of how a book could be polished even further. The end result is that I am now using the same superb editor she uses – Jo Field. Helen and Jo put together a PDF called Discovering the Diamond ( at www.helenhollick.net/Resource/DiscoveringTheDiamond.pdf ) that I would suggest is required reading on the subject of editing fiction.
Here are a few bullet points on specific aspects of the art of writing that noobie wanabee writers like myself often get wrong and where, given time focusing on them, you can improve your material.
- Author’s Voice. You are an expert on flintlock pistols. You know all there is to know about it and you are writing about 17th century pirates. You can fall into the trap of reproducing a text book explanation of the loading procedure of a pistol. Now the reader, who perhaps has been getting to know your pirate, is suddenly dragged out of the illusion they are seeing the world through the pirate’s eyes and now is aware of the author behind the description. If instead of this you write a passage showing the pirate loading the pistol while in the middle of a battle with cannon balls whistling by overhead, then the reader will hopefully feel more embedded in the narrative, feel happier about the story, feel more convinced by the world because the detail is being painted BUT not feel that they are being lectured to by the author.
- Point of View. Helen and Jo refer to the concept of ’Head hopping ‘ where the reader sees the world through a variety of different pairs of eyes. One moment you are inside the head of the Pirate, the next his first mate, the terrified women on the ship they are chasing etc. Now assuming that your book is written from more than one perspective then at some point you will move from one character’s view to another’s, BUT if you do it too often you can confuse the reader. They just get used to how Scurvy Pete feels about the world when they are whisked away into the mind of Fragile Freda. As a rule it is best to follow a scene through in the mind of one character and then only change Point of View when you change scenes. Later in the book, when the reader is used to the characters they will accept a POV change more than earlier in the book.
- Show don’t Tell. This concept is about letting the reader FEEL, SMELL SEE, TASTE and HEAR the action and not just be told it is happening. So rather than just say that the Pirates made the frightened passengers walk the plank, why not describe the scene and show the terror on the faces as they fall into the shark infested waters.
- Continuity. This is one thing that I really had to learn and when Helen first read my book she picked up on one instance where my demon lord bursts through the front of the church and he is pursued by a Warlock who follows him outside. I then describe the peaceful scene outside before finally having the people react to the demon. Now, ask your self, IF a demon bursts through the front of a stone church with the accompanying noise and carnage is it likely that there would have been much peaceful going about of business. Another example of continuity error is if you have the pirate hero wounded in one scene and in the next (set only hours later) he is running unimpaired down the street.
- What about the comma? Now you will note that none of the above talks about commas, missing full stops and spelling errors. Do these matter? Well, yes of course and need to be picked up before printing a book. But almost anyone can check a book for those errors whilst the above errors and faults may not be spotted by the average reader. They just know the book is not that good but they cant say why. Most folk THINK editing is about someone checking for spelling errors. That needs to be done but really is a minor part of a larger job.
The Professional Editor and DIY.
You can do quite a lot of editing yourself. Naturally if you read up on the subject you will improve the book you have written a lot. BUT at some point you need to hand it over to an editor. Published authors may have these provided for them in their publishing house, although these days many publishers are expecting writers to hand them over a finished manuscript. Certainly if you self publish it is well worth the money to involve a professional editor IF you can afford it of course.
Someone looking at the work fresh for you can see many errors that the writer misses. It does not mean you are a poor writer. Editing is a skill in itself after all. There are many editors around but I can recommend Jo Field. Contact her via:
I conclude by saying that by no means do I believe that I am an expert although I believe I have picked up some of these ideas through the last few months and I hope you may be able to see the benefits of applying these concepts in my own book Tomorrow’s Guardian which is re-released in paperback very soon. See: http://www.richarddenning.co.uk/