When a manuscript feels sick

The scene: Dr. Editor’s exam room, which consists of a comfy leather couch and matching chair, some leafy green things that Dr. Editor tries not to kill, and gentle backlighting that highlights the new fish tank where three piranha pace back and forth in search of fresh meat. A smoky song from Aretha Franklin plays softly in the background.

Dr. Editor: (opens the door and greets a tattered and frayed manuscript) Come on in and have a seat. You look horrible. What’s ailing you?

Troubled Manuscript: I don’t feel well. My pages have been turned so many times, I feel like a Japanese fan. And my words? Ach, don’t even go there. They’ve been changed around so much, that I don’t feel like me anymore. I do still have a story in here, don’t I, doc?

Dr. Editor: I can’t know this until I do an exam. (she pulls out her magic red pen and begins to inject the pointy end into the patient)

Troubled Manuscript: (recoiling in fear) No! No! Not the red pen!

Dr. Editor: Relax, it’ll only sting a little bit. I have to do this to make the proper diagnosis. Ah, yes, I see some problems already. Here is a case of the “wasies.”* and its evil twin sister, the “hadies.” See here, you have a ton of “was seen,” “was given,” “had said,” “had forgotten.” There is a place for “was” and “had,” but not in front of a verb – if you can avoid it. Reason being it that there is a tendency to overuse them, and they weaken the verb into anonymity. “was seen” now becomes “saw.” “Had forgotten” becomes “forgot.” And so on.

Troubled Manuscript: Oh, my little pages look all red now! What am I going to do?

Dr. Editor: A way to make life a bit easier would be to do a universal search and find in Word for “had” and “was,” and correct the ones that are sitting in front of a verb. (Dr. Editor looks deeper with her magic red pen) Okay, you’re going to need a colonoscopy.

Troubled Manuscript: WHAT??

Dr. Editor: It won’t hurt very much. But see here, you have a lot of colons and semi-colons. These are good for teaching or reference manuals, but they should be used at a minimum for nonfiction. You, my pulpy little friend, are fiction, and colons and semicolons have no place on your pages unless absolutely necessary. Fiction is about flow and pace. Colons and semi-colons are about brevity, and they interfere with the natural flow of fiction.

Colonused to emphasize a series of elements or a list of whatever preceded the colon. The first word after the colon is lower case unless it introduces a speech in dialog.

Example: I was sad and reached for my favorite comfort foods: chocolate, Twinkies, and a bag of potato chips.

Change to: In my sadness, I needed my best friends, my comfort foods, and knew the pantry was filled with chocolate, Twinkies, and potato chips.

Semicolon – stronger than a comma but weaker than a period. The most common use is between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction like “and” or “but.”

Example: I hate watching soppy love movies in public; my nose runs and my eyes swell up like I’ve been stung by a bee.

Change to: I hate watching soppy love movies in public because my nose runs and my eyes swell up like I’ve been stung by a bee.

Troubled Manuscript: Okay, so I need a colonscopy. Is there anything else?

Dr. Editor: ‘Fraid so. You suffer from what I call Transitional Paragraph-iotis.

Troubled Manuscript: Sounds serious.

Dr. Editor: It is. You lack proper transitions from one paragraph to the next. This can send an otherwise good story into septic shock. Each paragraph needs transitional sentence to leave one paragraph and set up the next paragraph.

Example: I watched the gopher leave his hidey hole to steal my peanut butter sandwich. He wore a triumphant little grin as he cleaned jelly off his twitchy little whiskers. I was enraged and hungry. From that moment on, I declared a fatwah on all gophers.

Beth’s disdain of rabbits came from a childhood memory when the neighbor’s white lop eared bunny stole all her Easter eggs… blah, blah, blah

You can see there is no transition between the first and second paragraph. You’re talking about gophers and peanut butter sandwiches, then you suddenly switch to Beth hating rabbits. It makes the reader wonder about the tie in between the two paragraphs. One thing you never want to do is take your reader out of your story. Make it easy for them and give a transition.

Example: I watched the gopher leave his hidey hole to steal my peanut butter sandwich. He wore a triumphant little grin as he cleaned the jelly off his twitchy little whiskers. I was enraged and hungry. From that moment on, I declared a fatwah on all gophers. But as much as I hated gophers, nothing could compare to my friend Beth, who believed that all rabbits should rounded up and sent to Mars.

Beth’s disdain of rabbits came from a childhood memory when the neighbor’s white lop eared bunny stole all her Easter eggs…blah, blah, blah

See how the transitional sentence now gives the second paragraph clarity? (At this point Troubled Manuscript breaks into tears) Look, I know it’s tough to hear all this, but out of all your ailments, this is the worst, and it will require you to go through every single sentence and paragraph in order to make sure you have properly set up each new paragraph.

Troubled Manuscript: (wiping eyes) I-I’m not ready for publication, am I? (Dr. Editor shakes her head) Are you sure there isn’t a vaccination you can give me?

Dr. Editor: Sorry, there aren’t any easy fixes in writing. Knowing what the mistakes are and how to avoid them is the best medicine. However, finding them and recognizing them is quite another. For this, I may send you over to my good friend, Indie Editor Spyglass, and have your eyes checked.

*Thanks, Mike.

2 Responses to When a manuscript feels sick

  1. overnighteditor says:

    This post was enjoyed a great deal by me: Your blog contains much useful advice for budding writers; indeed anyone who writes in the English language.

    I like photographs of teddy bears.

  2. Lynn Price says:

    This post was enjoyed a great deal by me

    Aaaahhhh!!! Infectious passivitis! Quick, break out the bug spray!

    Ahem…thank you…

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