Content Editor, Anyone?

Storyboard - Guenette photo

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. – Arthur Plotnik

Since I self-published and began to read widely across genres in the self-publishing world, I cannot count the number of times I’ve said, “I wish I could have had a crack at this book before the author published it.” I realize that sounds egotistical but I cannot help myself.

You see, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with a gifted content editor in my own writing. After taking apart four novels and reconstructing them to be as sleek as I ever thought my writing could be. Comments such as – jarring, unnecessary, redundant, unclear, doesn’t make sense, loose construction etc. etc. – have pushed me to more hours of rewriting than I care to count. But thank goodness!

I suppose the number one piece of advice that should be written in huge letters on a poster over a writer’s desk, is this: DO NOT PISS OFF THE READER.

Here is just a short list of the things that get my reading goat:

Jarring point-of-view (POV) shifting among characters. Many call this head-hopping. Once I’m firmly in the head of the POV character, don’t dump me into the head of another character without clear cut signage. I’m not against multiple points of view – far from it. Just beware of confusing the reader because that very quickly leads to pissing the reader off.

Being placed in the head of a character that I have not been adequately introduced to. Come on – we’ve barely met. I don’t want to know his or her thoughts. Not yet, anyway. At least let us get acquainted first.

Stretching my suspension of reality far beyond the breaking point. Entering into any story, regardless of form (a novel, a movie, a TV show, a theatre production), requires pushing back the real world to a certain extent. But don’t ask me to give up common sense and believe things that simply could not happen – not in this world or any other. Once you have lost credibility with a reader, it will take quite a herculean effort to get it back.

Taking the easy way out. You’ve written yourself into a corner and there doesn’t seem to be any way that your good guy (or gal) is going to come out on top. We’ve all been there. So, go back and rewrite. Don’t take the easy way out by having the bad guy up and drop dead or any of the other equally hack ways of getting out of a jam.

Don’t make me think your main character is a shallow fool. We all have human foibles and letting the reader see your characters as fully formed, capable of good and bad, smart thoughts and the occasional off-base notion – all that is great. What gets to me are the characters that continually spout off judgements about others and the world that indicate said character is a one-dimensional idiot who dwells in a world of stereotypes and ill-thought out ideas. Now, if this is your objective – to have your reader think ill of your main character – I advise caution. Readers want to bond with main characters. No one wants to bond with a fool. I’ll take a serial killer over a fool any day.

An out of the blue, drop into the voice of an omniscient narrator. This is so jarring as to be a deal breaker. Let me explain. I am reading your book and understanding the story through the eyes of the various POV characters. I know what they know. Then suddenly, a character say something like, “I wish I knew then what I know now.” Think about the implications of this little throw away comment. All dramatic tension disappears. I now know this particular character will survive whatever is to come as the telling of this story is taking place after the fact. I am no longer moving along with the characters. A huge distance has been created between the reader and the story. The writer who decides to plunk this voice on the reader without warning does so at his or her own risk.

Yak, yak, yak, yak, yak. Don’t get me wrong, I love dialogue. The things people say to one another reveal worlds an author could never adequately describe. Beware of wasting this valuable tool on going nowhere, adding-nothing-to-the-story drivel. The same could be said of endless descriptions of what characters are doing or wearing. Broad brush strokes work so much more effectively. Remember the wise words of Dr. Seuss.

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”

So, there you have it – my rant on the need for thorough and effective content editing. If you have followed my blog for any length of time, you know I go on a rant like this about once a year. Maybe I should hang out a shingle.

Let me at your work before you publish. I can help you. Fee negotiable.

I’m only half joking.

Statues near Mt. Shasta, CA - Bruce Witzel photo