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Margaret Atwood’s Top Ten Editing Tips

And on the topic of tens, Margaret Atwood, with gimlet eye doubtless trained on traffic generation, gives us another:

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TEN EDITING TIPS: FOR NOVELS, NON-“EXPERIMENTAL”

1.The beginning. This is the key signature of the book. Sets the tone, introduces the leitmotifs. Are the people in it main characters? If not, how much do the readers need to know about them?

2. Charles Dickens said, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.” He put “wait” at the end because it was crucial. (In any series of three, the third is the most important.) In terms I’ve picked up by playing with the boys: Drop the hankie early, but make ‘em wait for the opening of the kimono. Are you telling too much too soon?  (Suspense: a good thing, if not done too obviously. Who is this guy? What happens next? Don’t signal too much, too far ahead.)

3. Verbs shall agree with subjects  (singular, plural). That is, unless it’s dialogue or third-person inside-the-character point of view, and the author wishes to indicate that the character has a weak grasp of this principle.

4. Verb tenses. This is tricky. But in general: if something is always true, use the present tense. If it was always true once, use the past, or “would” plus past tense to indicate continuous action in the past. (“Every day, he’d go to the laundromat.”) . If it’s something happening before the time we’re in, use the past perfect (“He’d gone.”) Only the author knows the time flow – an editor can query, but the author must decide.  If tenses are disjunct, there should be a very good reason. (Maybe the character is having a breakdown.) See also the use of the historical present. (“So, he goes, “What’re you doing?” and I go, “Butt out,” and he … etc.) Elmore Leonard is an expert at this kind of thing, and at informal dialogue in general.

5. The gerund mistake. A common one. “Walking along the beach, a pair of boots was seen.” Means that the boots were doing the walking, not the observer. Correct: “Walking along the beach, he saw a pair of boots.”

For the rest…

 
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