When Ms. Inner Editor Goes to Sleep, So Must You

InnerEditor1

When writing, it’s sometimes hard to keep your inner editor awake. After all, a girl needs to rest.I’ve always imagined my inner editor is a haughty little thing who loves to wear blood-red stiletto heels, a matching wide-brimmed hat, and long fingernails she uses to gouge out my heart when I work without her.

And that’s the rub…working without our inner editors.While they’re off getting some beauty sleep, we writers are left on our own, without proper supervision, and we end up committing some blunders that make our inner editors’ teeth itch.

Mentioning names instead of using a pronoun

It’s ok to use a pronoun. Really. You don’t need to use the character’s name at every turn. I’ve seen any number of manuscripts read something like this:

Joe couldn’t see through the fog because Joe forgot his Darth Vader See-All glasses that Joe found in a Cracker Jack box. Joe wished he hadn’t been in such a hurry in leaving because Joe also realized he’d forgotten his magic gloves and bag of marshmallows.

Ok, there’s a bit of overkill in here, but not much. Going between a pronoun and the character’s name is a balancing act. Once the reader knows who you’re talking about, don’t be afraid to use “he” or “she.” Using the character’s name is tedious and clumsy.

Affections: Sighing, rolling eyes, running hands through hair

Another thing that happens when your inner editor catches some zzz’s is overdoing affectations. I’m currently reading a book that, I swear, if the author writes “rolled her eyes” one more time, I may begin rolling mine as a counter-attack. If your character runs his hands through his hair or shrugs his shoulders at every turn, then he becomes one-dimensional. Even I am given to committing drive-by eye rolls only once a day. If your characters are doing this every five minutes, then I’d wonder if they have Tourette’s.

Affections are great, but only if your inner editor is wakey wakey because they give depth to your characters. The trick is to avoid the cliche ones. Running hands through the hair (lordy, I love that one for some reason), eye rolling, shrugging shoulders, sighing…those are easy to rely on too heavily because we all do them. But it can look overdone in literature, so think of something unique.

If you have a tough time with affectations, do a bit of reflection and observation. What are your affectations? For instance, I noticed that I pinch my chin when I’m frustrated, and I tend to rub a knuckle across my lips when I’m searching for just the right word to use.

Observe your friends and family. I have a friend who twirls a glob of her hair when she’s engrossed in telling a story. One time she got so engrossed that she created a huge knot next to ear. I nearly laughed up a lung watching her try to tuck the knot behind her ear in an effort to pretend it wasn’t there.

Actions:  Walking across the room, slamming doors

Action can also get away from the writer whose inner editor is sawing logs. Action, when treated properly, is great because it gets a character from here to there. However, I see lots of walking across the room, slamming doors, drinking coffee…whatever…which doesn’t further a scene, but merely enhances it…you hope. It works for the most part, unless you allow the action to overtake a scene:

Jilly poured the gin into Jane’s and her glass. “So, have you decided whether to take the train or the bus?”

“I’m leaning toward the train,” Jane said, taking the proffered glass and taking a small sip. 

“I love the train,” Jilly said, setting her drink down on the table and reaching for a cookie. “I love peering out at the countryside.” She took a bite out of the macaroon.

“I know what you mean,” Jane said, picking up the other cookie and dunking it in her gin.

This isn’t so bad here, but if you have an entire scene of dialog where both characters are either drinking, eating, wiping crumbs, taking another cookie, the scene takes on  a ka-thunk cadence because the action slows down the pace by overtaking the dialog. You wouldn’t think action would slow down the pace, but your dialog has a pace of its own, and adding too much action can slow down the dialog.

Again, this is a balancing act because you want to avoid Talking Heads – where all they do is talk, and there is zero action. Action tends to be overused because authors are trying to avoid dialog tags like, “he said.”If John is busy picking up a beer while speaking, then you don’t need to add a “he said.” You’ve already identified who’s speaking by adding action.

It’s a great writing tool, but be mindful about supplanting one for the other without intention. You and your inner editor will decide how well balanced your scene is. It’s harder to do when she’s not on your shoulder, screaming at you.

Punctuation:  exclamation points, em dashes, ellipses

This is a terrible abuse because it’s so easy to do. When inner editors awaken to see the carnage, it’s all they can do to keep from mainlining cheap tequila. We writers have our little foibles. My weakness is ellipses. I love them because I feel they have a bigger impact than using a simple comma. It’s more dramatic. But a manuscript with a million of these little suckers should land me in jail without possibility of parole. And I’m not the only one. I once read a manuscript that had over 300 of them. I know because I did a Track Changes search in order destroy every one of them. That author needed therapy.

I learned my aversion to exclamation points when I read a manuscript with some-400-odd exclamation points. I began to see them in my sleep, and when I drove to Starbucks. The result of all those exclamation points was that the ceased to have any importance. Rather than actually writing tension or fear, the author stuck in an exclamation point, thinking that would convey the same message. It didn’t.

“Hold on! I’ll be right back!” Jack yelled.

“I don’t know how long I can wait!” Ann yelled back.

“If you don’t, there will be a huge mess!”

“I don’t care! If that gas station forces you to buy something before they’ll hand over the bathroom key, they deserve to clean up the mess!” Jane screamed.

Ok, been there, so I can understand Jane and Jack’s dilemma. But what those exclamation points are doing is taking the place of character development.

Jack wished he’d pulled off the road an hour ago, when Jane told him she needed to go. Now she was wild-eyed and had a haunted look about her as they stood before a locked bathroom door. “Hold on! I’ll be right back.” 

“I don’t know how long I can wait,” Jane said through gritted teeth.

Jack let the probable scenario play out in his head if he couldn’t convince Jane and her bursting bladder to hang on for a few more minutes. “If you don’t, there will be a huge mess.”

“I don’t care!” Jane screamed, while crossing her legs. “If that gas station forces you to buy something before they’ll hand over the bathroom key, they deserve to clean up the mess.” 

If you need to convey an emotion, then write it. Don’t let punctuation do the job of writing. Only place exclamation points where you really need them. Too many of these suckers is like when I eat too much fudge and I get a big ol’ canker sore on my tongue. You don’t want a literary canker sore, right?

Adverbs

I’ve had many discussions about adverbs, some that got quite heated. Only writers could draw blood over the proper amount of adjective usage, right?

My boggle with these suckers is that they are so seductive, that I consider them the Antonio Banderas of writing. They’re sexy, handsome, and soooo easy on the eye and, before you know it, your writing is filled with adverbs that crowd, clutter, and irritate your readers. Not that Antonio ever could…

“This beer is so astoundingly horrible. It tastes amazingly like dirty sock water. How can you drink this achingly awful swill?”

A manuscript filled with adverbs is overkill and there are plenty of readers who get to the point where they shout, “Yes! I get it, the beer is horrible and the character hates it. No need to stick fifteen adverbs in there to say so.” As with my love for Twinkies *sob*, moderation is key here.

Verbiage 

This is the fingernail on the chalkboard to any reader of period pieces. If your story’s time frame is in 1860, “cool” better be describing the temperature and not the wheels on a horse buggy.

We’re all looking for realistic dialog, but it can be taken to extremes if you inject to many “Well’s” “Look’s” “Um’s” Sure, we all say these words in general speaking, but that doesn’t mean it translates well to paper. I read a scene the other day that took up two pages and had fifteen uses of “well,” “look,” or “um.” Overkill.

So if you find your inner editing yawning, go join her. Writing is a team effort, and you shouldn’t work unsupervised. Ever.

5 Responses to When Ms. Inner Editor Goes to Sleep, So Must You

  1. From a fellow ellipses addict (in recovery from semicoloncide), bravo for making the sins of overwriting so entertaining.

  2. MishaBurnett says:

    I tend to use action to slow the pace of conversation deliberately to indicate that one or more characters is uncomfortable with the topic. If someone is fiddling with something while talking it can indicate emotion without coming out and staying, “John was nervous.”

  3. ericjbaker says:

    Talking heads have bugged me in books for years (especially after a big action scene. Are you going to clean up that blood or take time out for a chat?). Unfortunately, I tried to compensate too hard in the other direction in my own writing and ended up with passages like the cookie scene above. That’s how an 80,000 word manuscript ends up with 115,000 words.

    Balance. Good thing we have editors to nudge us back on course.

  4. Julie Rowe says:

    I’m a looky loo – my characters are always looking at stuff. Thank God for revision!

  5. Val says:

    I! think! I! will! have! to! check! my! exclamation! marks!

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