It has been quite awhile since we’ve written up a manuscript analysis into a blog post. We’ve still been working on manuscripts--two, sometimes three per month. However, we have found that either we were not given permission to create a blog post based on the work (we always ask), edits were so specific to the manuscript that they would not be helpful to other readers, or in a couple of cases, the story was at the point where there weren’t three different systemic issues to discuss. In those cases, we skipped a blog post rather than repeat ourselves. This month, we’re back to discuss a couple of issues we ran into in this month’s manuscript. Hopefully, our criticisms are things you can apply to your manuscript to help ease the editing process.
One of the most important things to ensure, when you’re editing a manuscript, is that the narrative flows smoothly, so sentences don’t trip the reader up enough to take them out of the story. When working on edits, be sure to read your story out loud. It helps to discover awkwardly worded sentences and incorrect word usage, as well as assisting in spotting missing punctuation. When discovered and corrected, the prose flows more smoothly. Reading aloud can also help you catch subject-verb disagreements (meaning one is plural and the other is singular). Seriously, many people don’t like doing it, but taking the time to read the story aloud is a miracle catch-all.
Another thing to carefully monitor is the way your sentences create a rhythm. If your sentences run like a series of facts, instead of a cohesive paragraph, that’s a sure sign that you haven’t varied up the types and rhythms of your sentences well enough. Short sentences work well to create suspense in action scenes, but when all of the sentences in the paragraph sound exactly the same, it breaks the flow of the prose, making it sound more robotic than genuine. Using a combination of sentences of different lengths helps to eliminate this feeling and makes it read as less choppy.
Another reason you might find your prose sounding robotic would be if there is not enough emotion explored. Conventional writing wisdom may tell you to show, not tell, but even this rule requires balance. The trick is to show and tell just enough to make sure that nobody gets bored, but nothing is over-explained. Yes, we’re expecting you to walk a tightrope, and that’s a pain, but it’s important to make sure adequate reactions are given when the bigger stuff happens, so your characters don’t read as emotionless.
Narrative is an important part of any story for it conveys how events are going to be told. One thing you don’t want is for your narrative to sound like a series of facts. You want to pull your readers in. You want them to make discoveries and be guided through your world. What can hinder that journey, aside from a lack of an engaging narrative, is repetition.
When you are giving readers details about your world, you want to give them stepping stones so they can connect one thought to the next and get a firmer grasp of what you created. Sometimes, there are too many, either reiterating points later on in the same chapter or rephrasing sentences to say a similar thing as a previous sentence. Certain instances will require you to tell things to your reader. A lot of time, however, you just have to trust the audience to make the connections you’re leaving for them. If they’re really into your story, trust me, they’ll find them.
Let’s use an example. Say a character has a dark past that readers are unaware of yet. Perhaps, they murdered someone. Perhaps they left behind an abusive family. The options for this exercise are endless. The point is, you don’t always come out and reveal this information. Rather, you leave behind breadcrumbs: the character tenses up or has a longing expression at the mention of a family, the character’s reactions aren’t what we label as normal, maybe they can’t make connections easily. Later on, you can obviously reveal more elaborate details of what happened to them, but by this stage in the story, you’ll have already shown your readers something isn’t right. They will have an inkling and rather than saying all of their motivations were because of their past, it will automatically piece together.
Repetition in a circumstance like this one above can come across as too forcefully making a point. It’ll harm the showing part of your narrative and likely bore the reader.
Inconsistency in a story can silently and stealthily kill an otherwise great idea. I say this because the reader may not realize the inconsistency at first, not until they're deep into the story and suddenly hit a wall of confusion that they can't overlook or justify. Of course, I’m not talking about small inconsistencies like forgetting the color of your character’s eyes or what day of the week it is, although those can form stumbling blocks for the reader. I’m referring to things involving plot and character development.
When creating a character, it is important to make sure your character is believable. Most people are complex, not one-dimensional robots that can predictably be relied upon to do the same thing over and over. Making a character predictable isn’t the goal, because it strips them of any depth you might be trying to create for them. With every action or word, you create a matrix of personality for your character. They can step out of that matrix whenever you choose, provided the circumstances permit a reasonable justification. For example, a character is set up to be emotionally detached, and then they meet a person and completely collapse, emotionally. If this occurred for no reason other than you needed the character to breakdown to further the plot, then it is--and will read as--inconsistent. If, however, the character breaks down because they thought this person was dead and that death had been the reason this character shut down emotionally, the change in behavior makes perfect sense.
Likewise, plots need to be consistent, and like your character development, a confusing, plot can completely unravel a story. Unlike with characters, with plot, little mistakes create large plot holes. Anybody old enough to remember Star Trek: The Next Generation, will recall the glaring and annoying plot holes caused every time empath Deanna Troy conveniently failed to sense the ill-intentions of duplicitous visitors. It became a joke because she was only a mind-reader when the plot called for her to do so, and that called her effectiveness and necessity on the ship into question--at least in my eyes.
Unfortunately, staying consistent both in character and in plot, is not something one can do alone (or at least, not usually). It’s why people rely on beta readers to help catch these little or large problems. As writers, we are sometimes too close to the material to see it clearly or to realize how an outsider will perceive your work. Outside input is always invaluable.