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Keeping the Editor Happy

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Author: Michael Bard

It's been a long two months. A LONG two months. It seems that with the new TSAT we are getting more and more stories, and longer and longer stories, and stories that desperately need editing due to a number of the same things.

You can all stop cringing now, I'm not going to point fingers at anybody. I've decided that for the sake of sanity, and so I have more time for important things like hoof trimming, I'm going to list some of the common problems I'm seeing and what can be done about them.

NOTE: Positive action from you writers does not include free bales of hay, or bribes, though I'm always open to bribery. Chocolate works wonders too.

1. Sentence Structure: This is not correct grammar, or never starting a sentence with an 'and', it is about VARIETY. A lot of things I'm seeing have the sentences all the same length, and all in the same pattern.

George the unhappy centaur laboured up the hill. The hill was climbable, though it was steep and rocky. George at first trotted and then slowed to a walk as his lungs began to labour. The temperature was hot and the air was muggy and thick.

There is nothing grammatically wrong here, and there are no spelling errors. The problem is that all the sentences sound THE SAME. They always start with a noun, ALWAYS. They are all the same length more or less. After a few paragraphs of this I find the fiction becoming harder and harder to read as the text has no flavour. It's like old dry hay -- all boring and the same.

George the happy centaur laboured up the hill. It was a steep hill, rocky, but it was climbable, first at a trot, but then at a slower and slower walk. With his lungs straining, heaving each breath in and then out, his hot gasping almost scalding, George still knew that he would make it. He refused to fail. Neither the temperature, the humidity, the rock... nothing would stop him!

Admittedly I added a bit more here, but if you examine it you can notice that the sentences vary both in length and structure. The fact that I had to add additional description was an added bonus, though I have seen way too many cases or repetitious writing with lots of colourful and beautiful phrases.

1a. Variable Structure, Same Length. This is almost the same as above, but is a much more subtle problem. Usually there are lots of colourful descriptions, different sentence structures, verbs leaping out from various places, but every sentence is almost the same length. To me this also becomes hard to read very quickly. When proofreading, try reading the story out loud and see how it sounds -- that will often reveal any existing and repetitious patterns.

1b. EXCEPTION. Like all rules, this is not absolute. In moderation this structure can work and achieve various positive results. For example, if you are telling from the point of view of a child, a simple sentence structure can help create character. Short sentences often create suspense. Just DON'T OVER DO IT.

2. Narrator Changes. This is another annoying thing I see occasionally. Many stores are told from what is known as 'third person omniscient' point of view -- there is an all seeing narrator telling the story. The current convention within fiction when using this method is to either stick with the same narrator, or to give the reader lots of warning when changing the point of view character.

Unhappy George scraped his left forehoof on the ground and looked nervously around as he waited for Sally to answer her door. It had taken him weeks to get up the nerve to ask her out, and ever since that day he had been trotting on glass. The door opened and he was finally here! Somehow Sally forced the happy expression from her face and replaced it with an expression of calm disdain as her mother had taught her. Even though she'd been pleased, no blown away, that George had asked her, she wasn't going to show it.

The first part of this example was written from the point of view of George. Because of this, the reader could experience his feelings. Then, without warning, it switches to Sally's point of view. You stop reading this and wonder what you missed, then you figure out there was a change, switch your mental gears, and continue.

Switching a point of view is fine, just give some warning! The best way is to have a 'scene shift' is the notorious '***' to indicate something is changing. You can also use a new chapter. Cubist and I in our 'One Small Step' TBP story keep switching between two characters, but we ALWAYS alternate (except between chapters), and we always use a '***' (or equivalent) as a warning.

NOTE: These are the two big ones that take the most effort and editing to fix. If they permeate an entire story, especially a long story, I almost need to rewrite the whole thing, and this takes time. Lots and lots of time.

3. Natural Sounding Speech. This I usually don't worry about, having become completely exhausted through the rewriting to fix cases 1 and 2 above. Writing is a peculiar art form. You need to write formally, but not completely formally. Completely natural sounding speech would not be readable as it would be filled with repetition, ands, umms, ahs, and all kinds of other words that we all use all the time. Listen to yourself. Speech in fiction is a compromise. You dump the repetition, the umms and the ahs, but still try to get the feel of it across. I'm just going to toss out a little thing that I think will help written speech sound much more natural. Use contractions.

"I am here!" shouted George the unhappy centaur. "I am at the top of this mountain! They all told me that I could not do it. That it could not be done. But I did it! I am here!"

Contrast that with

"I'm here!" shouted George the happy centaur. "I'm at the top of this mountain! They all told me that I couldn't do it. That it couldn't be done. But I did it! I'm here!"

I think the second one reads much more natural to the ear than the first. The first is more formal, but the non-contractions sound odd. The second is informal and would probably get you a D on a formal paper, but it sounds more like natural speech.

Remember, you're writing fiction, not formal papers.

Special Bonus Note: Accents. The basic rule is to NOT do so. People don't hear their own accents and it is EXTREMELY EXTREMELY hard to do well. If you can, great. But don't feel a need to do so.

Good luck!

The centaur turns away and nibbles on some chocolate fudge, hoping, praying that somebody would listen.