Fiction Editor Aimee Salter Interviewed by SM Johnston
Professional manuscript editor Aimee Salter has stopped by to answer some questions that will help aspiring young adult writers tighten their manuscripts up and make them stand out from the slush pile.
What signs can writers look for that indicates they’re “telling” instead of “showing” in their manuscript?
In the bigger picture, this is a really difficult question to answer. “Telling” is one of those things you learn to identify with time and experience. But there is one form of telling that I can clearly define:
You’re telling when the point-of-view character explains to the reader what another character is thinking, feeling, or intending.
In real life we interpret other people’s actions through their tone and body language. As readers we do the same with characters. If the POV character tells the reader something that contradicts their natural understanding of what is shown, then they’re confused. If the POV character is just re-iterating what the reader already understood, it’s redundant. Either way, it shouldn’t be there.
Feelings need to be shown to the reader through dialogue, body-language, and tone in voice and the writing. If you’re using the names of feelings, or words like “as if” or the various forms of “seem”, then you might be telling.
(Hint: A good tool to help show character motivation/emotion is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi).
What are some clichés that writers should avoid?
That’s an interesting question. If you want to talk about actual writing clichés, the list is endless.
I couldn’t tell you the number of manuscripts I’ve seen dealt a fatal blow by leaning too heavily on the bad boy premise. The author wants to see all hell break loose, when really they’re just doing it by the book. When it comes to describing characters, they put in everything but the kitchen sink. Most of those details the reader sees day in and day out. The author should figure out what’s unique about their premise or character and yell that from the rooftops. It’s as easy a falling off a log: Only tell the reader something they haven’t heard before – especially when you’re just getting the ball rolling.
See what I mean? It’s way too easy to let cliché’s become part of your narration. The good news is, most of us know what those clichés look like and as soon as we know we need to look for them, we can. Worst case scenario, an editor can ferret them out.
The clichés that are truly worrying are the characters or plot-points we’ve all seen a million times.
I read a book recently by a clearly talented author that spent so much time focused on the “Good girl/Bad boy” narration, the characters were never actually developed into their stereotypes before they were rescued from them. The Good Girl appeared on the page wanting to be bad. And the Bad Boy appeared on the page wanting to be good enough for the Good Girl. It didn’t matter that the writing was good – the foundational elements of the story weren’t new. There was nothing there to hold my interest because I’d seen it all before.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to create your own version of something that’s gone before. But if you’re going to do that, it’s vital that you have something unique in your story, and that you bring that unique element to the reader’s (or agent’s/editor’s) attention immediately. Otherwise you’ll get feedback about ‘cardboard plots’ or ‘stock-characters’.
What tips do you have for aspiring authors to make their writing more active?
I have a bunch, actually. There’s a self-editing series on my website that gives several lists of commonly overused words and phrases, along with suggested replacements.
But the single most common passivity I see is the “were/was” and “ing” construction:
“We were going to the pool.” Should actually be “We went to the pool.”
“He was holding my hand.” Should be, “He held my hand.”
In present tense: “Tony is walking next to me.” Should be “Tony walks next to me.”
In a single sentence you’re only dropping a word or two but, over the course of an 80,000 word manuscript, you might be stunned how many times that construction is used. The problem is, not only does it create an extra word or two every time, it also slows the pace of the read and distances the reader from the action.
On my website, “was” is one of the first “seek and destroy” missions of the self-editing tips because it’s the most commonly used and is (often, but not always) unnecessary.