Three Fiction Writing Concerns for the Author
Three Fiction Writing Concerns for the Author
by Kathryn Lively
One of the challenges an editor must face is polishing the work of an author without erasing too much of that author's style. If you follow a particular novelist, you might notice over time particular quirks to dialog and narrative that shape the author's unique voice, little things inspired to endear readers over time. It may be a method of relaying a specific dialect, a favorite phrase used in more than one book, or even a mechanic style one doesn't often see in certain genres.
Fantasy authors, for example, may feature characters that communicate by thought. To enhance this phenomenon to the reader, use of italics denotes what is being thought, rather than said. Some authors may take this device and imprint a unique style by adding asterisks or other characters to further emphasize the story. Other books may use different fonts to express and highlight different aspect of their tales as well.
An author should be unique in writing style, and should possess a voice that attracts readers and inspires them to want to seek out books that mimic yours, rather than leave them guessing for whom you take after. That said, there are a number of tics that readers (and editors) may find more annoying than amusing. In the spirit of previous articles on the subject of style, I hereby submit three more personal nitpicks of mine: devices and phrases I have seen in bestsellers and small press offerings. The following are not necessarily incorrect or improper, but may cause distraction if overused in a manuscript. Grab a pen and proceed with caution.
1) There was no other word for it.
I can't tell you how many times I have suggested in edits that authors strike this sentence from their works. It is common narrative, used mainly to emphasize shock or surprise as felt by a character.
When Brian pulled the gun on her, Darlene was flabbergasted. There was no other word for it.
You think so? What about shocked, galled, puzzled, speechless, amazed, surprised, or bewildered? A quick search in the Thesaurus may produce more suitable words to describe how Darlene is feeling, standing there at the end of a gun, wondering if her life is about to end. Quite personally, were I in Darlene's situation, one other word would come to mind...it's about four letters long!
Is this phrase used incorrectly? Not really. Taking the scene from Darlene's point of view, there could be no other words to say. Having a gun pointed at your face doesn't necessarily inspire anything verbose outside of screaming in fear or gasping for breath. Is the phrase necessary? Not really. As a matter of personal opinion, tacking on "there was no other word for it" seems rather superfluous in this situation. If there is no other word to describe what Darlene is feeling, why not leave the scene at flabbergasted? Why add on dressing to an already tense scene, when brevity better evokes a sense of doom?
When Brian pulled the gun on her, Darlene was flabbergasted. She grasped the doorknob for support and pressed a hand to her chest to keep her heart from bursting. "What are you doing?" she finally cried.
Continue with the action of the scene without unnecessary words getting in the way, and keep Darlene alert in front of that gun.
When I send manuscripts for evaluation, one thing I ask readers to look for is concise differentiation of point of view. Are scenes constructed in a manner that one point of view is presented clearly? Otherwise, does the narrative appear too jumbled with too many voices shouting to heard over the others?
In fiction, third person point of view is easily the more popular style - over first-person, where the story is told entirely by one character, either a lead (e.g. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum) or an observer of the leads (e.g. Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway, who tells the story of Gatsby and Daisy), and the rarely used second person (see Bright Lights, Big City for an oft-used example). Within the third person point of view are two distinctive styles: limited, which presents the story told from the perspective of a character based only on what he/she knows, and omniscient, where the character's perspective of things is broader. In the case of omniscient point of view, the narrative might not even be told from the perspective of an active character, but an outsider watching and sensing everything that happens.
In a book written in the third person limited point of view, the perspective does not have to be limited to one character. In romance especially, point of view may switch from the hero to the heroine at various intervals. In mainstream fiction, perspective may expand to a number of core characters. Other books, especially cozy mysteries, limited the perspective to that of the sleuth, while a more intense thriller may also get into the head of a criminal.
However you decide to tell your story, it is strongly recommended to keep the perspective limited to one point of view within a distinguishable scene. In other words, avoid the device known as "head-hopping," where point of view changes so swiftly within a passage that the reader might not know who is thinking what. While telling a story from different points of view is acceptable, it is suggested to make the shifts obvious so the reader can keep track. Head-hopping can be distracting to readers, and especially to editors who might decide the manuscript is too muddled to fix in a reasonable amount of time.
And now...we come to a device overused more than the comma...the ellipsis. Yes, there is actually a name for the "dot-dot-dot" that follows a trailed away thought, a break in conversation, or a tease into a sudden action. Used properly, the ellipsis indicates an omission of words; for example, if you have ever seen a movie ad where Roger Ebert proclaims American Pie is "The best film...of the year," there is a good chance the film's PR people are spinning critics words and exaggerating praise. For all we know, Ebert really said, "The best film to walk out of when you're sick. Lord of the Rings is the best film of the year."
In fiction, I often see ellipses unnecessarily used, whether to enhance a character's flighty thought or conflict, or merely to make the prose more dramatic. In truth, words are better at doing that, and I would strongly advise any author who wishes to overdress his fiction in dots, dashes, and other superfluous characters to think twice. Stay to an active voice and let your sentences flow.
Take this advice as you will. As writers, you are the most comfortable with your style, but as you submit to editors and publishers they may not find that same level of ease you enjoy. Be judicious with punctuation and other devices, and tighten that manuscript for a future sale.
Kathryn Lively offers book marketing tips
to authors, and writes for CINIVA, Virginia Beach website design
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