I recently found myself stranded for four days with only one great story and one poorly edited novel at my disposal. Unfortunately both were found within the same covers. The fact that its issues were easily fixable, yet still evident in a book already published, is such a crying shame I want us all to learn from this case study.
It was exactly my kind of story, the back cover copy suggested. Great title, lush cover. A hardback, with a price of $25.99, put out by a major traditional publisher, by an acquiring editor whose name is known and trusted in the industry.
I opened it with great anticipation.
Problems emerged on page one.
Unfortunate word pairings
At the end of the first paragraph, the author used a phrase such as “ran like a hare” immediately followed by an introduction to “Tad O’Hara.” Like most of the following issues, this is a remnant of the writer’s subconscious mind at work. Such an easy fix to separate these two words! Instead, the conscious mind of the reader will forever see this character as looking “a tad like a hare”—an unwanted result, I am sure.
Overuse of unusual word
The offender: “atop.” Yes, every now and then a word like this seems the only one to get the job done. Because it isn’t used in daily speech it draws attention to itself, though, so use only once or twice per manuscript. While reading I would inspire my husband's laughter by calling out “atop” every time I saw it (every few pages, sometimes in consecutive sentences), like verbal popcorn. Hmm. Do you want people turning your drama into such a game?
Telling and showing
The author would often tell something, then show in scene how it was true—then reiterate, just in case his dull readers didn’t get it. If you’ve shown the summer weather to be variable, for instance, by having a cool rain one day and sweltering heat the next, you don’t need to tell us that temperatures in that part of the world are variable. Repeatedly. A reader wants to feel smart, not insulted.
Closely related is the tendency to re-tell something in a subsequent sentence, just in case the first way may not have impressed the reader, as in:
He scribbled his answer on a sheet of paper. The paper lay unresponsive as he scrawled the words she sought.This is how our minds work as we write: we put something down, then refocus it. That's process. But by the time a reader has purchased our book, we should have said exactly what we meant: once, with confidence.
The reader will simply accept many things. That his wife died of cancer is one of them—we know how that typically goes, and that he was greatly tested by it. If at some point you feel moved to go back and describe her final weeks and the death scene, it better add a twist beyond what the reader has already imagined, and in a way that sheds new light on the current story—or she’ll start skimming and look for where the story restarts.
Explaining a symbol
The beauty of a symbol is that it can accumulate a world of heart-warming meaning by book’s end. Anything your character does habitually can become a symbol, even something as innocuous as habitually picking up a wife’s coat from where she tossed it on the floor and hanging it on a peg. At the end, when this character is dead and gone and the man’s grieving son has fought with him and inadvertently knocked the coat to the floor—and the widower picks it up, quietly, and replaces it on its peg—we’ll know what that means. Resist the temptation to explain such actions.
Make sure your book is edited well. Even traditional publishers have pressures that can keep them from doing the best possible job editing your book. That's why you always get to see it last. You must be its steward and advocate.
As for this novel, that deserved so much better, I do not plan to review it—or, for that matter, even mention to anyone that I read it. See the problem here? (Or need I state it overtly and reword it, atop all else?)
Learn your lessons ahead of time, folks, and apply them pre-publication—not on your reader’s dime.
Has sloppy editing ever pulled you from a deeply desired fictive dream? What kind of issues were they—and were you able to keep reading?
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service, and the author of The Art of Falling, a novel by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.