As many of you know, I am now working as an editor for a small publishing house. I am loving this job more than agenting, more than consulting, I really enjoy it. One thing I find, though, is that there are some pieces of advice I seem to give over and over. I thought that I’d make a page, and add to it later, if necessary, with suggestions I commonly make. I can point writers here and hopefully they will understand. So if you have questions, let me know and I’ll make things clear. I know the list will grow.
First of all, I want to talk about formatting your manuscript. And no, I don’t mean .02368 in margin detail. These things I see over and over again. And it’s not a problem that they exist, but you, the author, should know how to do these things in your future manuscripts, because they exist to make your life easier. (Most of my authors write in Word or a comp program, and I edit in Word, so this the method I’m using to explain.)
First line indent and double spaces– In a Word document, you can operate these two functions from the same place. Do NOT manually tab your indents or press “enter” twice after every line.
From the “Home” tab, in the section “Paragraph,” click the little box in the lower right-hand corner. The box above pops up. In the middle section, click on “Special,” then “First line.” This will automatically indent the first line of every paragraph. If it kicks off and you have a paragraph that does not indent, leave your cursor at the beginning and follow these steps again.
Under that, you can click “Double” for “Line spacing.” (You can also click the little icon in the “Paragraph” section.)
Page breaks– When you are done with a chapter, go ahead and type the “Chapter” heading for the next chapter. Then, with the cursor at the beginning of that chapter heading, go to the “Insert” tab and click “Page break.” Your next chapter will go to the next page and no matter what you do in the chapter before, this Chapter will stay where you put it on the page.
If you have your paragraph marks and format symbols visible, you can see the “page break,” but otherwise it’s invisible.
Wait, you say. What if I do want to see that hidden formatting to know something? Easy. There is a button on the “Home” tab, that looks like a little indent sign. Just click it to see your formatting, and click it again to disappear. Here’s where to find it:
Another thing you don’t want to do manually is enter your header/footer or page numbers. I add my header to the top right with my title/last name, and I put the page numbers on the bottom right.
Page numbers and header/footer– From the “Insert” tab, look for the “Headers and footers” section. If you click on “Page numbers” it gives you the option of where you want to put the number. In the same section, you can click to add your “Headers and footers.”
Home tab– Get to know the icons on your “home” tab. this is where you find the “bold,” “italics,” “underline,” and “strikethrough” buttons, as well as the font and font size. The text justifications are there in the “Paragraph” section. Do not “tab” to the center, place your cursor before the word and click the “center” button. You can also click the “line spacing” icon and change from single to double spaces, etc.
Edit/ spell check– This one is on the “Review” tab, in the “Proofing” section. Click on the icon that says, “Editor.” A box will pop up on the right. Just click each section and follow the prompts.
A few odd notes for your manuscript:
1|Spell out numbers unless it is a time and/or you are writing a.m. or p.m.
2| Inner dialogue, direct thoughts, dreams, visions, things the character reads, or the character speaking directly to the reader, all go in italics.
3| This one is very important and I see it done wrong on many occasions. The speaker of a piece of dialogue MUST be the subject of the dialogue OR action tag that follows it.
“Hey! How’s it going?” Suzie asked, placing her lunch tray on the table. (dialogue tag)
“Pretty good.” Jill pulled a sandwich from her lunchbox. (action tag)
“Did you pass that chem test?” Suzie broke her brownie in half, offering half to her friend.
“Nah. I didn’t even study,” Jill said, taking the brownie half, and tossed Suzie her cheetos.
Each line of dialogue above has either a dialogue tag (Denotes who’s speaking with “said” or “asked.”), or an action tag (also denotes the speaker but gives an action rather than assign the speaker only).
But it would be INCORRECT to say:
“Hey! How’s it going?” Suzie asked Jill, placing her lunch tray on the table.
“Pretty good.” Suzie watched Jill pull a sandwich from her lunchbox. (This is Jill’s turn to speak, she should be the subject of the tag. In this case, Suzie has the verb in “Suzie watched,” so Suzie is the subject. Make sense?)
“Did you pass that chem test?” Jill took half of Suzie’s brownie while she asked her friend. (Here, Suzie is asking the question, so she again needs to be the subject with the verb. Here it is “Jill took” and it even says Suzie “asked her friend,” but because Jill is the subject, it sounds like Jill said it. This confuses readers. Make sure to give each person their own line to respond.)
My writing advice, having done this a few times now, is to make something similar to an outline first. I call it a “sceneology.” I decide what “scenes” I want in the book and list them in order of how I want them to occur. It can be as simple as “She wrecks the car and meets Tim,” to a fully fleshed out concept with details. I write each “scene” descriptor on an index card and put them in a ring together. (You can get ringed note cards already made at the office supply store.) You can take out things, and add or reorder your cards as often as you want. And then, when I know I have a good story with rising action, and a climax, and no plot holes, I sit down and flip to the first card, then write that scene. When it’s done, I flip to the next card and write that scene, and so on. It’s so much easier to write and to get creative when you don’t have to think of the plot. You know it’s all ready, you just have to write out your scenes. This helps me so much. I encourage you to try it. Just tell yourself, today I am going to plot, and make some note cards. When it gets down to the writing and you have a whole ring of scenes to write, you just tell yourself, today I write one scene…
Here’s my advice on chapter hooks: Each chapter is a scene, pretty much. When you start the book, you want to start in action. Say a scene has four parts: 1-the beginning, 2-starts getting interesting, 3-climax, 4- resolution. When you start a book, you start at number 2. Most authors finish that scene with 3 and 4, and then end the chapter at that natural breaking point. BUT I say then, instead of quitting, you begin the next scene, and just when it gets interesting–BAM!–end the chapter. The reader, already invested in that scene, cannot stop reading, because they need to know what happens. See, people have a need to finish the chapter before they stop reading, but they have an equally strong need to finish the scene before they stop. So they say, I’ll stop at the end of this chapter,” but then they can’t. When that scene finally ends, they are well into the next chapter and they can’t stop. They say, “Okay at the NEXT chapter I’ll stop.” But as long as you keep on writing 2, 3, 4, 1, they can’t put the book down. You don’t even have to write chapter hooks because the reader can’t stop themselves from continuing.
My latest books all have the reviewers saying, “I couldn’t put it down…” And that is why. That’s the ultimate compliment to an author: “I read till 2am!” So resist that desire to end the scene and the chapter in the same place. :^D
When it comes to dialogue tags, use “said,” or “asked,” as much as possible. “Said” is considered a non-word that your brain doesn’t actually read. It is skimmed over and understood, and doesn’t halt the flow of conversation. However, using other dialogue tags causes the reader to have to slow down and “read” the words instead of “understanding” them. So, use “said” to keep the pace in your dialogue. To add variety, it is tempting use words like “assured” or “joked” or “informed.” It was used widely in an older style of writing that contemporary English says is redundant. That’s why some argue that the only tags to be used are “said,” “asked,” and maybe “replied,” or “stated.”
You want to let the conversation stand for itself, and trust the reader to know what they are doing. You wouldn’t say,
“Why did the chicken cross the road?” he joked.
Because we already know it’s a joke. We read it. The only time I would explain a piece of dialogue is if it contains info that the reader does NOT know. Like:
“I found my things in your room, did you take them?”
“No,” he lied.
In that case we may not know if he did or not and this lets the reader know he’s lying, or the other character thinks he’s lying. But if the character is reassuring someone, you don’t need the tag to say “He reassured her.”
In dialogue tags as well as action tags, the subject of the tag needs to be the speaker of the dialogue.
**Dialogue always ends in either a comma, question mark, or exclamation point–but not a period–if there’s a dialogue tag.
You don’t NEED a dialogue tag of “he said” or “she said” if you have an action tag. (You don’t always need either, but do remind us who is speaking every few lines of dialogue, or if there are more than two people conversing.) And this can be done with an action tag. For example:
“Hi.” Jill rested her head on the doorjamb with a sniffle.
“I heard you weren’t doing well, so I brought you some soup.” Barbara held out a thermos with one hand and a plate with the other. “I made these cookies, too. Your favorite.”
Jill brightened and took the proffered gifts. “Thanks for stopping by, Barb. I appreciate it.”
The action tags tell us what is going on without telling us they “said” anything. Notice, with an action tag, the dialogue does end in a period.
Some situations where it might work to use a descriptive word with dialogue is if it adds to the readers understanding of the scene.
If the bad guy says something nice, you could have them “say” it, or “sneer” it, or “gush” or “snap.” You aren’t describing what he said or did, but his attitude about it. It shows the reader that he is being complimentary, not disbelieving. Or that he’s making fun of the other speaker. It shows his motivation and delivery, and it makes the reader see the scene better.
Instead of “ask” I have seen writers use “question,” but the only time you use that is if you are questioning someone as in police questioning, or in a mystery. It denotes one person asking many questions of another party in a demanding tone. Not usually what you mean when Mom “questions” her daughter about her day at school.
When writing character actions, this comes up often. A head “shake” is from side to side, generally a “no” answer. A “nod” is up and down and denotes a “yes” answer. Some authors will say that a character “shakes” their head in a yes answer. Or that they “nod” their head from side to side. In my head, I see a person touching their left ear to left shoulder and then right ear to right shoulder and back again. It’s comical, but I know that isn’t the intention. So go with “shakes their head” for no, or “nods” for yes.
You may find in your writing that you include “begins to” when a character does something, and that only works if someone is supposed to begin an action that will be stopped in the middle. Otherwise, just make them DO the activity. He doesn’t begin to drive off. He drives off.
As far as POV (point of view) comes into play, each scene and/or chapter needs to be in ONE person’s perspective. If you are going to change perspectives within a chapter, you need what’s called a scene separator. I use this one:
Center it on the page and then you can change scene and/or POV. There is a style of writing where you can switch POVs within a scene or chapter, and it is called Third Person Omniscient Subjective, but in this type of book, which used to be wildly popular, you cannot know the direct thoughts of the characters. For example, you would NOT say the following:
He drained his cup. What is taking her so long? It had already been a bad day and Philip just wanted to pay his bill and go home.
Why is that guy staring at me? The waitress took all her dishes back to the kitchen and went to help him, she couldn’t imagine that he was done already.
The words in italics are direct thoughts from the characters’ minds. Now I did two things here, I switched POV and I gave them direct thoughts. If we were staying in Philip’s POV, we wouldn’t know anything the waitress thinks. In a normal third person POV, the second paragraph would say something from Philip’s perspective like: He watched the waitress taking a tub of dishes back to the kitchen. She threw him a glance on her way out the door, and was soon back with a curious expression.
However, even though I have gone to her POV, the whole thing could work in a Third Person Omniscient Subjective if I took out the direct thoughts. Then it would read something like this:
“He drained his cup, wondering what was taking the waitress so long. It had already been a bad day and Philip just wanted to pay his bill and go home.
Confused by his stare, the waitress took all her dishes back to the kitchen. She washed her hands and went to help the frowning customer, though she couldn’t imagine that he was done already.”
It’s a very subtle difference.
You may or may not have heard of “Chekov’s Gun” theory. It states that if there is a gun on the mantle in act one, it had better go off by act three. Meaning, do not add exciting or threatening things to the story, just for the shock value. If you put a gun in there, it had better be because someone is going to use it. Don’t introduce characters in the beginning that will have no bearing on the story from the first chapter on. They don’t have to appear again, but there must be a lasting reason why they were important enough to be there. Maybe they light a fire in the protagonist that is what carries them throughout the story, or begins their journey in some way.
I admit I am hardest on the first few pages. I often tell my authors, do not be dismayed by the amount of comments on the first few pages, the rest of the manuscript generally has fewer comments. Those first pages are the most important in your book. You don’t want to lose a reader at any time, but if you lose them at the beginning, they never even get started. But if you get a chance to look over these suggestions, and make fixes to your own manuscript before having it edited, all the better.
Ah, here’s one. Elipses (an elipsis is three periods in a row) have a space before and after them if they are in a sentence, and taking the place of a word, or a pause in the sentence.
For example: “They were gone for, ah … several hours.”
However, if the elipsis is at the end of a sentence, as though the character is leaving off words, there is no space.
For example: “We think they might be into some trouble…”
Dashes, do NOT have a space between words–in fact, just hit the dash twice and keep going.
That’s all I have for now, but I’ll add more as I come up with them.