I’ve been editing a lot of manuscripts recently – a couple of novels and a whole bunch of short stories, mostly by unpublished writers. While making notes I realized I was repeating myself across different authors. I won’t go into the big issues of fiction: plot, character, style, etc. Here the focus is on little mistakes that may seem trivial, but are distracting.
Every scene should have something that the reader can ‘see’. If readers can’t visualize it, they can’t live it. Go easy on the detail, unless your name is Proust, but provide enough for the reader to locate the characters in space and feel the atmosphere.
Don’t call your main characters John, Jane, Jim, Jill and June. Doh! The reader will get confused. Give characters names that begin with different letters and are distinct in length. And unless a character appears in several scenes or is very important to the plot, don’t name him/her at all.
The best dialogue contains tension, things unsaid, and outright lies. If you’re in a cafe and you overhear people using mindless platitudes, chewing the breeze, what do you do? Tune out. What if you hear people arguing? Or accusing? Or telling a nasty story? Tune in.
Characters that all talk the same way
Try to differentiate the characters’ voices according to their background. Some might use profane language, others sound like intellectuals, others … you get my drift. If all the characters sound like you – the writer – that’s like going to hear an orchestra and discovering it only has violins.
Variants of said and asked
Don’t have a character muse or inquire or hint or aver. Use two verbs as dialogue tags: say and ask. Anything else is distracting and almost always unnecessary. And don’t use adverbs to describe how someone said something (e.g., “he said angrily”, “she asked desperately”). The words the characters use should tell us all we need to know about their tone of voice.
Speech marks and punctuation – technicalities
Get it right. Even among manuscripts by experienced writers, I saw speech marks that opened and never closed, periods that had grown a tail to become commas (run-on sentences – eugh!), and dashes dashing all over the place. Punctuation should be so perfect that it’s invisible to the reader. Like plumbing, we should only notice it when it goes wrong.
Obviously there are many more mistakes that fiction writers – including myself – make, but these are the ones I noticed this month. Next month it could be six others.