The Red Pen: Stylistic Variation, Story Arc, and Other Manuscript Concerns

Hey there! I haven’t shared any editing anecdotes in a while. To date, my first assignment has been published, the second has been passed on to the managing editor, and I’m getting started on my third. I’d never commented on the second one, so thought I’d retroactively share the issues addressed.

To start is advice I gave the author on stylistic variation:

Where sentence structure is concerned, you describe a lot of consecutive or simultaneous character actions, and, to convey that, “as he” and “as she” are very frequent (as are –ing verbs following a comma—these are called present participial phrases). While not technically incorrect, it’s when repetitions of this structure become noticeable that they can be an issue, so just keep an eye out and consider ways to vary the syntax of your sentences to mix it up. Reading aloud is an awesome way to work through sentence/paragraph flow and catch where words/rhythms might repeat!


“As she turned on her heel, she smiled and took his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled and turned on her heel as she took his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled and turned on her heel, taking his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled while she turned on her heel, took his hand, and led him through the forest.”

Etc., etc.

Story arc also needed work. This happens to be a rather sexy romance, so:

A key element to pacing is varying the functions each chapter serves. Too much of the same “function” served by too many consecutive chapters risks flattening the story arc. In this case, the recurring function I see is sex, either with purpose or gratuitous. The sex is of course what readers will love about it, but from a story development standpoint (not a prude one :)), I’m concerned that the frequency of sex scenes is making the middle/third quarter of your story fall flat, with the underlying plot getting a bit lost. There can be too much of a good thing, and too much of anything can make reader attention wane no matter how exciting or saucy the action. And the function that sex serves in a romance novel is not only entertainment, but a vehicle for moving the central relationships forward, so it really ought to only appear when it does move the story forward, rather than be there for its own sake.

Don’t worry, if you ever read it, there’s still a-plenty left in it to warrant hosing yourself down afterward (hot damn!). Other issues addressed:

  • more than one dialogue tag used in a paragraph of the same character’s dialogue (not technically wrong, but judge when it’s superfluous)
  • dialogue tags used for almost every line of dialogue in a conversation – starts to sound overly “he said/she said” when it’s otherwise easy enough to tell who’s talking. Sometimes a corresponding character action suffices in place of tag; e.g.:
    • “Wait a minute,” she said as she held up her hand.
    • “Wait a minute.” She held up her hand.
  • redundancies in description / tendency to over-describe using lists of adjectives when one or two suffice
  • overly repeated (verbatim) words and phrases
  • use of “began to”/”started to” for actions that are followed through, not interrupted.
  • keeping each section within only one character’s POV (in keeping with 3rd person limited, multiple perspectives)
  • time continuity – matching the time-frame of an intermittent subplot to the main plot.
And regardless of how polished the new manuscript I’m editing is, I’m still encountering pretty common grammatical errors—I’ll pop back later this week to share these. Good luck with your own writing/editing!

About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

11 responses to “The Red Pen: Stylistic Variation, Story Arc, and Other Manuscript Concerns

  • Glen

    By the sound of the story arc – I think I’ll wait for it to come out on DVD 😀

  • Tahlia Newland

    Are these problems in a ms that a publisher has accepted for publishing? If so, why did the publisher pick it up? What does the book have that makes them want it despite these, what I consider to be fairly major, flaws?

    • thefallenmonkey

      I often ask myself the same thing, Tahlia…As a young publisher, submissions aren’t super-competitive yet, which I guess leaves some room for the “diamonds in the rough”—acquisitions is open to a good story knowing that the editing team will get it where it needs to be if it lacks polish. But it does frustrate me when I see how many aspiring authors (myself included) do backflips for months if not years revising to make our work as sound and effective as possible before we’d even submit our work in the first place. Hopefully requirements will tighten with more submissions; in the meantime, I just do my best to instruct the authors along the way so that they learn from this process and make their next manuscripts stronger for it. Otherwise, I need to start charging those fees you quoted in your last post before I burn out. 😉

  • Milo James Fowler

    “When repetitions of this structure become noticeable” — definitely something that irritates me in my reading; or when the same word is used twice in the same sentence when a synonym would have done nicely, I have to wonder about the writer’s laziness. Sound structural advice, CK, particularly the removal of tags when character action can suffice. I look forward to your grammar post, middle school English teacher that I am. =]

    • thefallenmonkey

      Agreed, Milo – such a peeve of mine, too. Sure, we’re all prone to repeating ourselves—we all have our little pet words and phrases, I guess—but it’s nothing that isn’t obvious after a read-through or two. And the Find-Replace function makes it that much easier to correct for!

      Well, fellow English-Paper-Grader (at least I used to be), the grammar post will focus on just the 3 main issues I’m correcting for now, and I do not think you’ll be at all surprised what they are. 🙂

  • Eva

    Hehe, sounds like an interesting and inspiring assignment indeed, my dear! Just like Tahlia I find it interesting that making quite major “mistakes” in the writing the writer still got the chance to publish. How good for him/her! And a good confirmation for me that, despite all the rules we keep slapping around each other’s faces, they not always apply.
    Thanks again for sharing!

    • thefallenmonkey

      Yeah, it’s one of those things where hopefully as the business matures, it will get more picky with mechanics. But I suppose it’s good they’re prioritizing their standards based on the story above all, as it does give new writers a fighting chance (honestly, such a rare opportunity for first-timers…like a hidden gem of publication, though it might not last long if gets more competitive). And the authors I’ve worked with so far have been so amazingly open to constructive criticism; they really digest it and tell me how they’re already applying it to their next manuscripts. If they weren’t taking it to heart like that, I’d certainly take more issue with having to spend so much time cleaning up mistakes on that level.

  • Nicki Elson

    It’s WAY too freaky that we posted about editing on the same weekend! (Yes, I count Friday and Monday as the weekend. :)) All good tips and you have a very nice way of explaining. You know, we’ve got quite a few in common on our lists…I wonder if perhaps it’s a good idea to send authors a list of common MS issues and ask them to clear it all up in their manuscripts BEFORE we even read them. Could help a lot with the editor fatigue. Hmm…

    • thefallenmonkey

      Nicki, that’s a BRILLIANT idea! Seriously, just lay it out cut-n-dry for them to tend to, and we can catch whatever strays remain. Eliminates one or two layers that distract our attention from the other story aspects we’re supposed to be focusing on. It’s such a challenge to concentrate on the actual development of the story and characters and catching inconsistencies when constantly stopping to add or a remove a comma, deal with dialogue tags, fix the tenses, and whatnot where more technical aspects are concerned. Loved your post on editing, by the way, and will share it here for others:

  • The Red Pen: Top 3 Errors in Grammar « The Fallen Monkey

    […] up on my previous post, below are three key, recurring grammatical corrections I’ve been making in my editing […]

Pick my fleas!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: