I’ve written a lot in the past two years; I’ve read a lot too. I’m trying to get better, and every time I delete the words “s/he thought” out of my manuscript and just write it like the plain old monologue it’s supposed to be it’s a big deal. I used to make my characters “think” everything. Their minds were probably smoking.
When Joshua Edward Smith (you can find his amazing books here) took a chance on me and read my NaNoWriMo project from 2015, he did me an enormous favor. He told me to get rid of the “prettys” and the “justs” and the “reallys” and all the “thats.” (I did and deleted half my manuscript, haha.) He told me I was head-hopping. He told me the reason for my “major conflict” was unbelievable (I write contemporary romance, so there’s always a “big fight”). He pointed out things I should have known as a life-long reader and holder of a Bachelor’s in English degree. But writing is a different thing, and writing a full-length novel in a month did not help. I didn’t know how to write then, so maybe the time frame didn’t matter. Anyway, his feedback was priceless and though I’ve beta-read for him twice now, I still may never pay him back. He reminded me how to write, and I will be forever grateful.
Jewel E. Leonard (you can find her wonderful books here) edited On the Corner of 1700 Hamilton. It’s funny because with all the writing I had done up to that point, I still hadn’t found my voice. I can reread that book now, and I can tell you the minute I fell into the rhythm of my own writing. Paired with actually finding my own voice and her fabulous editing, 1700 turned out okay. I say okay because, well, I’ve come a long way since then, and I wrote it the best I could with what skill I had at the time.
Fast-forward 200,000 words and several self-editing books later, and I think I’m a pretty good writer. I wish I had more time to write because at times I feel like I’m floundering, but I’ve come a long way in the past two years.
But I still make mistakes, and I’ll probably never be able to get avoid hiring an editor. I’m being responsible, though, and doing my best to become the best writer I can be, so their job is a lot easier.
Mistakes I still make, and mistakes I’ve seen others make, as I’ve paid forward Joshua’s kindness and beta read for other writers, are:
Using the Word “Had”
Had. Had had. It’s a third person past writer’s nightmare. When do you use the damn thing, and when do you don’t? I’ve tried to look up the rules, and the rules are about as clear as a mud puddle.
This is probably the clearest explanation I’ve ever found on the subject. When I write, and when I edit for others, I use my woman’s intuition and hope for the best.
Get, Got, Had, Has, Put. These are the laziest verbs I’ve ever seen and can be easily substituted for a real action. I’m guilty of using these. Especially if I’m on a roll and cranking out words.
She got off her horse. Really. She didn’t jump, slide, or fall?
He put the paper away. He slid the paper into the file folder.
She put her coat on. She threw her coat over her shoulders and rushed out the door.
If I edit for you and I see these, I’ll tell you these are lazy and to do better. You always can.
Being Too Wordy
New writers keep an eye on their word count like a falcon on a mouse in a field. It hurts to take out words, but it will hurt your read more to read the useless ones you’ve kept in your novel.
When I edited Summer Secrets, (six novellas totaling 150,000+ words) I mean, really edited them, I took out, on average 1,000 words a novella. That’s 6,000 words in total. My editor very well may find more. My favorite editing book I’ve read so far on the topic is Rayne Hall’s The Word-Loss Diet. (You can find it here.)
People defend head-hopping because authors still do it. I guess I shouldn’t say still. Ernest Hemingway was famous for letting you know every single thought of every single character, including animals. So, yeah. But he’s not being newly published today; you’re hoping you will be, and the general consensus is you don’t head-hop. It’s tough advice to dish out because I’m reading a book right now where the author head-hops between the two main characters, and it doesn’t matter who’s POV the scene starts with. It’s a contemporary romance, and I’ve been told that it’s more common in that genre, and maybe even more acceptable. But I would caution you doing it because it can quickly become out of control, and take it from a head-hopper–it’s hell to fix.
Person/student/mom/dad/author/parents = who, not that
This is probably my biggest pet peeve of all. People are who. Students are who. Parents are who. Humans are who. Authors who use “that” to refer to people drive me nuts. When you use “that” to refer to a person, you are turning them into an object. Please don’t do that. Companies . . . that. Maybe. I do not use companies that hire people who are rude to their customers.
I have a list of naughty words that I find and delete after I complete my mauscript. Words I use on a regular basis that I don’t need like just, pretty, really, that. Those are just for starters.
When I’ve edited for people I’ll get snagged by a word, and out of curiosity I’ll search for it to see how many times it pops up. When Joshua told me to look up some of these words, I was appalled to realize I used “just” over 500 times. Pretty and really about the same as well.
You can go crazy with actions too. How many times does your character nod or lean? Shake their head? Furrow their eyebrows. Frown. Sigh. Shrug. Does your herione’s heart skip a beat so many times she needs heart medication? If you can get a good editor or beta reader or critique partner who (do you see what I did there?) can read your work for you, you can make up your own list, but for now, here’s mine:
Starts, started, start
Turns, turned, turning
Looked, peered, glanced, stared, studied, gazed
Sighing, sigh, sighed
Breathed, breathing, breaths
Smiled, smiling (use other ways to describe their happiness)
Wondered, thought, understood, realized
Nodding, nodded, nods
Shook (the ‘no’ gesture)
Obviously, I could go on and on, because many books have been written on this subject, and I encourage you to read them. I love Ashley Forge’s Self Editing for a Penny. She taught me a lot, and I recommend her book over and over again.
There’s no way you’ll ever avoid not ever needing an editor, but you can teach yourself to write a cleaner manuscript. Being self-aware of common mistakes, and understanding why these are mistakes, can take time, but one day you’ll be able to crank out a fairly decent rough draft. Read, read, read, and write, write, write.
It all starts there.
Thanks for reading!