Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Big, Bad Editor's List Of Pet Peeves - Act III

In the ongoing saga of the Big, Bad Editor’s Pet Peeves, we come to a host of small problems which can kill a perfectly good manuscript. Scene breaks, brand name dropping, body parts, swearing, one word emotion, and it.


Let me issue a caveat. Some editors are fine with scene breaks. I’m not one of them. I feel that if you need a scene break, you need to clarify your character’s position better. A transitional scene from one to the next makes sense. My fellow editors will respectfully disagree with me and we’ll probably have emails flying on our Staff loop. (Don’t worry, its good for them to question their beliefs, keeps us all fresh).

So, what is a scene break? It is where you write one scene and then realize your character really should be somewhere else or thinking something else. Or you go to the other character’s POV and see what he’s doing at the same time. And, CUT! Off you go. Three asterisks and your reader has been beamed like a Star Trek character into the next scene. In most cases, your reader isn’t Captain Kirk (unless its fan-fiction) and you don’t own one of those transportation devices. Having your reader plopped into a different setting is like Kirk appearing out of nowhere to the superstitious savages. I will occasionally allow a scene break, but you better have 25 reasons to back up why you need it when I ask. I’m just saying.

A scene break pulls the reader up short. It is a stopping point. When you couple it with a POV shift, it can be the kiss of death to the reader - they may not finish the book. How many books have you read where you skipped to the ‘good part?’ Think about it and you may see a trend. The ‘good part’ is usually in one POV where you feel what that character is showing. Your purpose is to keep that reader so happy to finish the book that she'll buy your next book.


Brand-name dropping seems to be increasing in the manuscripts I’ve read lately. I kid you not, I got a manuscript in which the characters had to go buy a part for a car and the author listed 22 stores by name that might carry that part. If your heroine drives a 1969 Buick LeSabre change it to an ‘older, gas-guzzling sedan.’ Mentioning such things will get the red pen from me. These date your manuscript, they also come under ‘fair use’ laws. It means you can use certain terms, but it is dictated by the owner of the brand name. Since we don’t want to constantly be writing letters to the owners asking permission, we prefer you use generic euphemisms for the cars, toys, tourist traps, and sexy lingerie.


One of the funniest lines I ever read in a manuscript was a hero who allowed “his eyes to run around the room as he looked for a way out.” I had this vision of an alien species whose eyeballs popped out, dropped to the floor, sprouted legs and took off running around the room like a spider on speed. Make sure your hero/heroine’s body parts can actually do the tasks assigned (real aliens are the exception to this rule).


Different editors have different views on swearing in a story. If there is no shock value and cussing doesn’t impact the story in a profound way, it is unnecessary. I have nothing against swearing, but throwing cuss words around as if they're everyday jargon dilutes the power. When you overuse the words, it is a waste of resources. You want every word to count in a good story. If a character swears for lack of anything else to say, it simply fills the silence, not a good trait. Heroes and heroines need to come across as decisive, firm and in control of their speech.


Human beings are not one-dimensional. We laugh, we cry, we share the lives of others for a while (that’s a quote from Thomas Carlyle. Go look him up. I don’t agree with him on most things but he understood the value of a good book). When we ‘get emotional’ we are not one feeling, we are a big mass of feelings. That said, sometimes in our intent to show exactly what our heroine/hero is feeling, we think a short, clipped sentence will do the trick. Add a little emotion and everyone gets the point…twice. Sentences like this grate on many editors’ nerves.

“Surprised, she jerked back.”

How about:

“She jerked back.”

The verb tells us something startling happened. Ahhh, mystery. The reader will continue to read because they’ll want to know why she jerked back. The ‘surprised’ part of the first sentence gives away an unnecessary clue that subtly foreshadows what is to come. If a reader knows the ‘good part’ is coming, they may put the book down to do other tasks, relishing the anticipation of the ‘good part’ for later. But your job is to make them keep reading a book they can’t put down!


And then there’s the magic IT. It is not a subject. Sentences with 'it is' or 'it was' instead of a specific noun makes for passive writing.

“It was the the man's abrasive tone that got to her.”

How about:

Sam’s abrasive tone grated on her nerves. (although really, I would do anything Sam Elliott told me to do – I love his abrasive, Scotch-on-the-rocks voice).

Do a find/search of the instances of ‘it’ and its iterations (ha ha, “it and its iterations!”) and work on being more specific.

Questions? Ask in the Comments section.

Next Big Bad Editor’s Pet Peeves post: The authors editors love to hate. However, there will be a break for Thanksgiving Day because my mother will be mad at me if I’m playing on her computer during a family event (yes, I’m middle-aged., but if you met her, you’d be afraid of her, too. I’ll be on her turf and she knows where the iron skillets are).


Linda Banche said...

Hi Jamie,

I don't understand your comments on scene breaks. You have to switch from one character's POV to another eventually. If not with scene breaks, how to do it?


Nightingale said...

These posts are very interesting and helpful.

Renee Lynn said...

Hi Jamie!

I have to say that I am one of those editors that don't mind scene breaks. In fact, I think they can increase the pace, and really heighten the tension, if used effectively.

This is a good example of how writing--and editing--can be so subjective. :)

Thank you for another fabulous post!


Mary Ricksen said...

Duck and run.
From the pans anyways.
I do a scene break now and then, but I try to make them have a purpose.
Thanks for the great posts, advise from editors is always appreciated!

Jamie West, Editor said...

Linda, a purist editor would say write in only one POV throughout the book. However, in romance we like to see both sides of the story. The "scene break" would be when the new chapter starts. So each chapter has one POV. It can be either hero/heroine, and can even stay there for 3 chapters and then switch to the other in the 4th chapter. Readers expect a scene break when starting a new chapter. So they're willing to keep reading.

CJ Parker said...

Gads, now I have to add 'it' to my list of seek and destroy words.
My list now contains:
even, just, acutally, really, usually, generally, especially, there, that (Thank God I don't over use this one), put, went, got, felt, and now IT. And I so love 'just.' ;)

And I'm a bit confused with the scene break thing too. Sometimes you 'just' have to change POV characters.

Silver James said...

Jamie, I'm with you. Sam Elliott just rocks my socks off!

As for the rest, very informative. Thanks for the good advice.