by, Alex Yuschik
Alright! I’ve got a quick bit of news to share before I dive into this subtips post: Kate and I have officially joined editing forces as K & A Editorial! This means that I’ll be helping Kate take on more freelance projects, polish queries and pitches, and in general help make more awesome editing magic happen. So, if you’ve been thinking about hiring an editor or you’ve been waiting for a spot to open, we’re taking on new clients and we’d love to hear from you.
Check us out! I’m thrilled to get to work with such an awesome editor as Kate, and I’m excited to help bring manuscripts closer to publication.
One of the things that’s gotten me lately as I read subs and also edit my own manuscript is how much people (self included) bend over backwards trying to explain things to readers. We want so badly for someone else out there to get it that sometimes we end up going crazy, confusing everyone, and shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to clarity, and then need to be gently told either by editors, friends, CPs, or betas to cool it and that, oh yeah, something in act one, scene four is not quite right.
My advice on being clear is to be as honest as you can. Get in your protag’s head (well duh, but especially so when presenting details). What would your character notice? What would seem strange for them to notice (aka, what should I not describe)? What’s normal for them? What’s abnormal (and therefore more likely to be picked up on)? How often do they think about events in their past? Do they prefer to live in the present?
Make it easy for your reader to be in this person’s head. It doesn’t always have to be a comfortable ride (it probably won’t be) but your audience should have some basic idea of where the story’s going.
Like a lot of things in writing, it’s easier to notice something not working than working well. No one picks up Harry Potter and says wow A+ look at how much I can understand this isn’t it great, but if you read a book and you can’t make heads or tails of it, clarity becomes a big deal very quickly. So here are some common issues I see regarding clarity in slush and some suggestions on how to fix them.
1. Too much too soon
This is like starting in media res except on steroids: your character gets out of his car and punches someone in the face then gets his leg mauled by a wallaby while he goes for a knife. Why is any of this happening? Since when were we in a place with wallabies? When did wallabies become physically violent and/or carnivorous, or have they always been this way? There are so many questions that we just don’t know the questions to.
I love beginning a story in the middle of the action– you have conflict, characters meeting each other, stuff getting introduced, it’s awesome! There’s tons of opportunities to keep the action going and avoid being boring, but sometimes bringing in too much at once can leave the reader with whiplash.
Possible fixes: Layer in some emotion and scraps of background so that we know where we’re at. Maybe, for our example, start after your character’s punched the guy: “Chad hadn’t driven out a fifty miles past Sydney’s bulwarks and into an Outback overrun by ravenous marsupials for nothing. Another day, another target, and this poor, clueless sucker hadn’t even seen Chad’s right straight coming.”
Your character clearly knows why he’s out there– use language he would to ground us in the scene and give us context clues. Is Chad a bounty hunter? Some guy out for vengeance? Either way, we can definitely tell that he’s done this before, and that this is probably some scifi/post-apocalyptic Australia. Need more help with introducing feelings into your action without telling too much? Check out Mary Kole’s excellent post on Telling vs. Interiority.
2. It’s all in your head
It’s really tough opening on a funeral. I’m sure that you’ve heard this before (and if not, have I got a post for you), that huge emotional upheavals are really tough to handle at the start of a manuscript. We need something to get us attached to a character, and usually that’s most easily accomplished through action and showing us what kind of person they are.
Sometimes I read a submission where there’s so much thinking going on that it’s like the reverse problem of situation #1. Like #1, I don’t even know where we are or what’s happening, but this time all I know is that the protag is not happy about something. There’s no action, just a lot of one character waxing poetic on the universe. Sometimes, you do want to take us offguard with a cool emotional foray, but as with all things, there needs to be a balance. If your character spends more time thinking things out than doing them, then you might consider rewriting a few scenes to be more active.
Possible fixes: Keep in mind that useful tool of imagining your book as a movie. If your character spends all their time going off into lengthy inner monologues, then what would an actor playing them do? Stand around? Yawn. Introduce beats of action or dialogue in between deep thoughts. Maybe have a character come to an epiphany at the height of the action around them. Keep our interest! Especially if you’re writing for publication, be aware that your writing is going to have to constantly compete for your reader’s attention– not just during the first few pages. Make your story crackle both with internal and external action.
3. Purple Prose
Purple prose is over-describing and poorly describing something to the point of oh my god exhaustion. I include it as an issue with clarity because sometimes when a person (like the love interest) or an item (like the magic whatever that will save the day) is going to be really important, it’s tempting to let readers know the nine million details that you imagine when you think of this object in your head.
Example: “His face was carved smooth like a riverstone and his eyes were little blue fish dancing in the sunlight of his smile. When he moved, it was like water sluiced off of him, swimming from place to place with the unearthly grace of being underwater constantly. His hair fluffed up and down, suspended mid-motion as though by liquid grace, and even his eyelashes were like tiny forests of kelp dusting the ocean floor of his cheek.”
No one, unless your protagonist is a mermaid, thinks about human beings that way for that many sentences. Describing someone’s face being as smooth as a river rock? Okay, I’ll buy it. I will probably also buy the cute fish imagery with his eyes, or maybe one or two more water-related metaphors. But if this becomes a huge description where literally every single detail of this boy’s body is related to water somehow, I am going to be super frustrated because I can predict what’s next: more water metaphors.
Possible fixes: Choose your strongest two or three images when you feel like you have a paragraph that’s leering towards purple prose. Talk to your CPs, friends, and family about what descriptions they find most compelling. Fight with yourself about this! Give yourself a set number of images (say two or three) to focus on and choose only your best (per paragraph, or whatever works best for you). Look at how bloated that example paragraph is with description. It’s really obvious that I’m trying to get you to associate water with this guy, and as a writer, that’s like I’m letting you see the paint strokes in a still life or the strings holding the marionettes.
As with all aspects of your writing, only take your best stuff. Often when I come across purple prose it’s disappointing because there are sometimes a few gems of images in there, and it’s just the less awesome stuff that needs to get trimmed back. Purple prose feels a lot like micromanaging– you’re telling your reader absolutely everything and not letting them imagine or add in details for themselves. As Stephen King says in On Writing, “All arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”
Give your readers the essential details. If something needs to be red, then let them know. But a reader owns the story when they feel free to make things up in their own mind, when your writing is specific enough for them to get a sense of the images, but open-ended so that they can go on creating things even when the book is finished.
4. The naive narrator
This is probably one of my pet peeves, mostly because I see it a lot when I’m reading YA submissions. I’m sure you’ve probably encountered it before– a protagonist willfully won’t notice something that seems painfully obvious to the reader for most of the book, and then the big conclusion happens at the end.
Example: book-smart girl aces all her classes but thinks she’s no good because she can’t play sports well, despite her parents and teachers applauding her test scores and essays.
The goal is always to leave your reader a trail of breadcrumbs so that they can follow it to their own conclusions about a character, but often the breadcrumb trail turns into loaves and slices every few inches. Your reader is smart. Trust that they’re going to be able to follow your character’s progress.
Possible fixes: If you’re not sure if people will understand the character development, then grab a beta or a critique partner and ask them their opinion. Take the emphasis off the traits that you want your readers to discover with your character. Like in our example, maybe we want to retool it so that our girl is her JV volleyball team’s ace server, but when she’s moved up to Varsity as a sophomore, she feels out of her league with the state championship seniors and juniors. Her teammates help her train and she helps them with academics, and realizes her own talents more.
Keep the emphasis most on the stuff that your character is focused on. See how much the new version focused more on the protag’s sports ability and less on her academic stuff? The conflict is that this girl is worried about not being good enough for her team, not that she’s worried about her school work–even though academics play a large role in the story, it’s a subtler one. See if there’s a way for you to restate your story’s conflict in terms of what your protagonist finds daunting right now, not with what you as the writer know they’ll eventually use to overcome their difficulties.
In the end, clarity all comes back to giving your reader an honest view of the character you’re presenting. Action happens, but we also process it as it’s happening. We get wrapped up in our thoughts sometimes, but we’re very rarely doing nothing but sitting around and thinking. And sure, we find cool and creative ways to describe things, but we don’t draw them out unless it’s to be silly on purpose– the most inventive stuff we make is sometimes just quick flashes of association. Finally, it’s hard for anyone to see their own strengths and weaknesses clearly.
This is only a smattering of things that can influence how clear or not a manuscript is– hint: it’s an idea of what I’ve seen mostly recently in submissions 😉 — and I’m sure there are more out there. Got tips and tricks for making writing clearer, or have anything to add to the suggestions above? Let me know! I’d love to hear it.