Thursday, November 28, 2013

How Not To Edit A Manuscript

I'm going to start by quoting some Mark Twain, regarding the author of The Last Mohican:

A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick.

Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.
Some people edit that way. Read a book, learn three tricks, and beat you over the head with them over and over and over again.

Their stage tricks include “never write a prologue,” “never say ‘thought to himself’ because there’s nobody else to think to,” and “no head hopping.”

The prologue as a way to make you swallow lame back story now for the vain hope of a reward later is an overworked device and a symptom of starting a manuscript way before when the story really gets started. Skip to the good stuff, son. If your book makes sense without the prologue, kill that bad boy, just as you would an epilogue or those lame chapters in the middle. But that doesn’t make all prologues verboten.

And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. True, there is nobody else to think to unless you’ve got telepaths, but not worth a verboten. Sometimes it’s cool to think to yourself. Just not all the time.

Head hopping. In the hands of an amateur, it’s horrible. I’m looking at the world through this character’s eyes, then I go over there and switch to that person’s thoughts, then I move over to the other place and look at the world through somebody’s else’s eyes, then... The poor reader’s getting whiplash.

Plus, there’s no story without character, since everything that happens must happen to somebody, so why make it impossible for the reader to identify with your somebodies?

One point of view per chapter is fine. More than one per chapter, but no more than one per scene, is fine. Just be sure that every transition tells the reader right away that you’ve shifted perspectives. But you always want the reader to care about your new POV character, and certainly to be aware there is one. Confusion is bad. Enjoyment is good.

And, of all the rules to possibly harp on, why those three? Or two, or seven, or whatever? Why those and not these?

Breaking rules out of ignorance is inexcusable. Breaking rules because you have a reason is fine. Breaking rules in such a way as to lose, confuse, or abuse a reader is not a good thing to do. Breaking rules because it makes your story better is probably mandatory. Pretending that rules must never be broken makes a so-called editor a hack and a butcher.

I tell you what’s verboten. Boring me. And this post is starting to do that, so buh-bye.

No, wait, something else is verboten. For me to edit something that you wrote so that it looks like I wrote it. That’s not my job. Editors are not meant to strip their manuscripts of all individuality. We’re just supposed to make the author’s voice come out clearly. Not my voice, not James Patterson’s voice. The author’s voice. And we’re supposed to make the reader’s life as easy as possible. Remember the reader? He’s our friend. You’ll edit, and write, much better if you walk a mile in his moccasins.

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