Friday, April 19, 2013

My Editorial Notes Shorthand--a post by Gemma

This has been a fun week for us, with Jenny Bent over in the UK with me and Molly, all attending the London Book Fair. We have been meeting with foreign publishers, film agents, and some domestic editors and catching up with our co-agents. It’s been a whirlwind, especially so soon after the Bologna Book Fair, but nothing beats the atmosphere and excitement about the industry you take away from a good fair.

However, now I’m back, and about to head into the editorial cave with a client’s manuscript. I’ve been editing a lot recently to get books ready for the fairs, and I’ve been explaining my shorthand terms to my newer clients. I thought these might be helpful to share, as they show familiar things I see in lots of manuscripts, and would be things for all writers to keep an eye out for. 

Obviously there are the basics – show don’t tell, overuse of adverbs, repeated words, and sentence structures – but I have a few less obvious shorthands. 

Less Is More  - It is always better to give the reader one distinguishing and special detail about something and someone than to bombard them with so many images that they lose all of them. It’s like giving someone directions. You start by saying, ‘turn right at the traffic lights, then cross over, then take a left...’ and then you’ve lost them! (Although they continue to nod like they are listening!) Overload someone and everything is forgotten. For example: 

She had bright blue eyes that sparkled when I looked at her and shoulder length red hair that had to come out of a bottle. It was so vivid and the red tint around her hair line must have meant she probably dyed it recently. She twisted a strand around her fingers and I noticed a deep white scar on her knuckle. I made a mental note to ask her about it when I got the courage to hold her hand. Her purple nails clashed with her deep blue stripy hoodie, something she seemed to realize suddenly. She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jeans and tapped her Converse in a slow beat on the gold stars set into the tiled floor. 

To me, this is crowded, and the nicest line about the POV character actually reacting to a description (wanting to be brave enough to hold her hand) is buried in everything else and gets lost. Some writers have a beautiful style with lyrical descriptions, but it’s about finding a balance between keeping your reader engaged and maintaining that style.

Similes – I’m sure everyone knows what a simile is, but just in case, it’s a line that compares two similar things using ‘as,’ ‘like,’ and ‘than.’ So it’s as easy as ABC to look for similes in your manuscript using ‘find’ to highlight the above words. You would make this agent as proud as a peacock and as happy as a clam if you tried to minimize your use of similes like I try to reduce the amount of Diet Coke I drink in a day.  

It’s as clear as crystal to avoid the clich├ęd similes, but it’s easy to think if you have come up with an inventive simile that you can just use that – and the other twelve you love on that page.  Yes, some similes are fantastic – my client Mo O’Hara’s eight-year-old daughter came up with a great one the other day, ‘as light as air on a diet.’ Remember with similes, when used sparingly, they work really well. When over used they stand out and pull the reader from the story. 

Where’s the noise? – During action scenes, it’s easy to get caught up writing movement and dialogue and forget the noise. What I mean about this, is when explosions are going on and your main character is running away, you need to remember to show this to the reader. Have the main character shouting their dialogue in broken sentences. They would be panting if running, and always when you are stressed, you don’t bother with niceties in dialogue or even finish what you are saying.

Where’s the noise is about external noise – what do the explosions sound like, or the footsteps of the chasing pack? If they are animals, are they breathing heavily, growling, drooling, etc.? Is the earth shaking, is glass falling from windows? Look around the main character and see what else is affected by the action they have created. 

Where’s the noise is also about internal noise - did the explosion hurt the main character’s ears, so they hear a ringing, and only get disjointed half phrases from their friends/enemies? Does the main character’s throat hurt from all the shouting? Obviously if they are running, they would be out of breath. Would they even be able to talk? Use gestures to show they can’t hear each other. 

I always suggest that people read their work aloud, and I think with a noisy scene, you should try and do it with the TV blaring in the background. Can the reader hear the noise? 

Spin on – If like me, you remember VHS, this term will make sense! It’s where a scene is dragging and I just want to fast forward to the next plot point or exciting bit. Mostly this means everything can be cut and that there is a problem with pace. 

So that is a little window into some of my editing shorthand. If they’re helpful, I might share some more in the future. Please pop any questions in the comments.


  1. Loved this article, Gemma. I also know what VHS is. Does that makes us old? :)

    I suffer from the first example. I tend to describe a bit too much. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. What a wonderful article. I love your advice on descriptions. As usual, it comes down to trusting the reader is smart enough to follow the story without explaining it.

    Now how can I get Gemma to face the 7 Questions...