There seem to be several general rules of editing and then everyone's personal rules that they hold themselves to. A few things I've learned/am learning:
- Telling rather than showing: This shows up quite often in books, especially with first person manuscripts. The biggest way for me to identify my own 'telling' is by going through sentences and getting rid of an overabundance of the word 'was'. "I was looking down into the dark, sad eyes of a young boy." The sentence is okay but gives me more the feeling of being told and not shown."I looked down into the dark, sad eyes of a young boy," has a much smoother flow with the removal of one word! It was an exciting and scary thing when I learned this and did a find and search of my 30,000 word manuscript. 'Was' appeared 400 times!
- Omitting Five Senses: When going through my first edit, I have to get rid of a lot of 'He said, she said,' and turn things into what's known as an action beat. The reason for doing so is simple. Too many descriptions can bog down a book and distract from what should be quick dialogue. In my instance, I tend to forget to include the five senses. My characters 'feel bad', 'feel angry', 'feel hungry', etc. but they don't make use of the senses that we as humans do. I know dinner is being cooked because I smell it, not because I walk down the stairs into the kitchen and see Mom holding a pot.
- Flashbacks/Back-story: Again, this has to do with telling instead of showing. I've read several books where the characters have flashbacks or the impromptu telling of their past that jolts me from what I'm reading into three pages of explanation. I can't be too harsh since I've made this mistake myself but I do recognize it interrupts flow and interest. The easiest way to get around both of these things is to reference things in conversation or a strange comment your character might make that alludes to something that happened to them in the past. Rachel hated listening to classical music since it reminded her of all those nights home alone, listening to the neighbor's Bach album that did little to cover the terrified screams. You could do this since you're not explaining everything but it's an overload of information. I would write the scene rather like this: Rachel shuddered as classical music filled the room, trying to force her thoughts away from the terrifying nights alone and the sounds of screaming. Since I'm still a newbie writer, it's obviously not perfect but much closer to what I'd enjoy reading. You want your readers to ask questions and be at least a bit in the dark about the characters past. Cliche, over explained characters come off as 2-D and contrived.
- Too Many Thoughts: I write first person 90% of the time. It's very easy in the telling aspect to constantly be going into the characters head and hearing their thoughts about what's happening. I have to resist! No one wants to hear all those thoughts that should be obvious from the MC's reaction anyway. I have one book where the girl thinks a lot of cynical things she doesn't actually say but even with that, I have to ditch a lot of the thoughts and show how she's thinking in her reaction.
- Cut The Boring: If it's boring for me to write, my readers don't want it. It can be hard getting rid of stuff you've spent hours, days, maybe even weeks working on but if you get rid of the slack, you'll get closer to the core of your book. Only Human had a lot of baggage - repetitive scenes, useless dialogue, over long explanations, etc. The comment I've gotten from everyone who's read it is how hard it was to put down. I'm in no way a professional writer or even a great editor but I learned to be harsh with my book. I'm getting ready another round of editing and I'm sure more dead weight will be cut away.
- Favorite Words: Everyone has their favorite words and they show up in their writing. Favorite words are great in moderation but they can get old really fast. If the word is unusual, you should only use it once or twice in the entire story. With Only Human, my Aunt pointed out my constant use of the word 'gingerly'. My characters would 'gingerly get off the chair,' 'gingerly take a sip', 'take a ginger step', and so on. It's a good word in moderation but overuse is just me getting lazy.
- The 'ly' rule: Words like suddenly, gingerly, happily, excitedly are so easy to throw into a sentence for me. I didn't know until two months ago that it was even wrong to use them too often. Using words ending in 'ly' is a lazy way to describe something. 'The man gingerly stepped forward, not wanting to hurt his leg anymore'. I would change that to: 'The man took care as he stood, favoring his uninjured leg.'
- Consistent Character Speak Patterns: All my characters have a different way of reacting, speaking, and understanding. In Only Human, Connor is likely to use proper words and the correct grammar while Zack is sloppy and uses more slang. If Zack said, "I would like to have a drink of water," it would sound out of character and stupid. If Connor were to say it, it would be much more accepted. Zack is more likely to say "Get me a drink before I hit you."
- Over-describing Characteristics, Features: I read a lot of teen books and most of them are filled with romance of some type. One of my personal pet peeves is the constant description of 'chocolate brown eyes', 'powerful physique', 'soft looking lips', etc. Give readers a few pointers as to what the world in their head should look like and move on. Say that a certain character has chocolate brown eyes and then don't say it again. You might mention the occasional, "His dark eyes turned to meet mine," but past that, don't repeatedly make your reader feel stupid by jamming down their throat what the characters appearance is. In first person, it's also a no-no to have a sentence like this: "I pushed back my mid length, golden brown curls, tucking them behind my elf like ears." Yes, it might give a better picture but I don't think of my hair color when I'm pushing it out of my face. If it were me, the sentence would more like this: "I pushed back the golden fuzz of curls around my face, tucking it securely behind my ears." If I'm tucking back my hair, it's either out of habit or because it's fuzzy and annoying me.
There are so many things to learn in order to craft a good novel and these are just a few things. I'm sure in a few months, I'll look back at my lack of knowledge and shudder again. For now though, I'm working with what I've got.
On a side note, I've been thinking recently about how awkward most romantic scenes in books are. I think a lot of times it's because the author is describing too much of what's happening and it makes you feel like you've crashed a party you weren't invited too. So many authors talk about the 'earthy scent' a man will carry, or the smell of his aftershave. Maybe it's because I don't live in romance land but I don't notice a lot of distinct smells from people. If I do notice the smell of a guy, it's not usually a pleasant smell. Of course, sweat and unwashed socks wouldn't sound too romantic now, would it?
The biggest instance of over telling and awkwardness seems to be in kiss scenes. I don't write kiss scenes for a variety of reasons but if you read books with any romance, they are almost guaranteed to occur. Some are fine, they happen and you hear more about the reaction of the character than anything else. Several are just plain embarrassing with way to much info as to what the kiss felt like. I'm sure that's something to contemplate if it's happening to you which is the effect the writer is going for but to me, it often just makes me feel grossed out and lose any sense of romanticism at all!