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Sue Archer

Wordsmith | Editor

Describing Setting Through Your Character’s Eyes

Think about one of your favourite fictional stories. Why did you like it so much?

I’ll bet a key reason you liked it is that the story had a character you cared about. Someone who felt real to you. Someone who drew you into their adventures and kept you captivated right to the very end of the plot.

It’s not easy to create a character who is consistently three-dimensional throughout a story. That’s why there are so many articles out there on strengthening the main character’s point of view.

woman's eyes
Source: Wikimedia Commons

One item that is sometimes overlooked, though, is the relationship between character and setting. This is particularly important in stories that are intended to have a narrow narrative distance between the reader and the character.

When I edit scenes involving setting descriptions, a common piece of advice I give is to think about the scene from the character’s point of view. I have run across descriptions of living rooms and castle halls and even parking garages that are brilliant on their own, but they don’t work for the story, because the descriptions are coming from the writer’s point of view, rather than the character’s. The painstaking research that the author has done to make the scene feel more “real” has been lovingly added to the page, but the reader ends up feeling more distant from the story instead of closer to it.

Why? Because if the setting was being described by the character, they would be presenting it in a different way. And the reader has now been reminded that there is an author behind the story, one who is adding in details that the character would not perceive or missing ones that the character would care about.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself that will help you make your setting descriptions more character-focused:

  1. What would your character notice first? Is this the first thing that is mentioned in the description?
  2. Is there someone or something that your character needs to notice in more detail (such as the new love interest)? Is the appropriate emphasis given to this part of the scene?
  3. How would your character visually look at this particular setting? Would the character notice the wide view and then look at specific details? Or would the character hone in on a particular part of the setting? Would they see things in a certain directional order, such as from left to right, front to back (down a hallway), bottom to top (looking up a castle staircase), or from top to bottom (scanning someone from head to toe)? Is anything in the setting being described out of order?
  4. Would your character know or care about the details you’re including? Maybe they are a car enthusiast, and so they would know the exact model of that sports car in the parking garage. Or maybe they would only notice it’s red and has four wheels. Maybe they’re staring at it because they can’t afford such a fancy car, and they’re envious of the owner. Or maybe they wouldn’t even see it because they’re too busy looking at something else.
  5. What emotional state is your character in? Are they focused, happy, sad, angry, afraid? This could affect how they describe things, how well they are taking in the details, and which pieces of the setting they dwell on.
  6. How busy is your character right now? If your character is in the middle of a fight or running away from the villain, chances are they won’t have the time to describe much without inadvertently slowing down the action.
  7. Is your character visually oriented, or are they more likely to notice details through other senses? If your character is a musician, maybe they notice sound a lot, for example. Or maybe your character focuses a lot on other senses, such as smell (especially if they are a werewolf!).

By taking the time to think about how your character might react to their particular surroundings, you will both strengthen the description and reinforce the integrity of your character’s point of view. And your reader will feel rewarded when they read your character’s story.

I encourage you to try taking a setting and describing it from the perspective of multiple characters in the scene. You might be surprised by the differences that come out.

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Do you like writing about settings, or do you find it challenging? Do you have any tips for describing setting that you’d like to share? Please share your thoughts below!

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What Qualifications Do You Look For in an Editor?

I recently wrote an article for the Editors’ Weekly where I posed the following question:

Writers are often told to “write what they know.” But what about editors? Should we only take on projects that are squarely in our comfort zones?

I discussed this question with a number of my editing colleagues, who came back with varying opinions on the matter. I decided to post the article here because I felt it would be an interesting discussion point for those of you who work with editors.

ChecklistHow do you determine whether an editor is qualified to take on your project?

I believe it’s critical that the writer and the editor are a good fit for each other, but I also believe “a good fit” can mean different things to different people. Writers who are looking for knowledgeable advice relevant to their genre should definitely hire someone who has experience in that genre. But writers who are looking for an “outside eye” may specifically want an editor who is unfamiliar with the topic at hand.

Regardless of the specific types of experience they are looking for, I feel writers should confirm that a prospective editor has both editing training and good references. And writers should always ask for a sample edit, so they can see if the style of editing suits their needs.

Speaking from an editor’s perspective, I have posted the genres I typically edit on my site because I want prospective clients to know my background before they hire me. Does that mean I would never edit anything outside of those genres? No. I love a great many types of stories, and I have editing experience in other areas, such as business and technical topics. It just happens to be that my current focus is on the types of fiction that I enjoy reading the most. And I feel that having enthusiasm about projects (in addition to having the required expertise) makes me a much better editor.

 

What do you look for when hiring an editor? Would you consider hiring an editor who wasn’t familiar with your genre if you liked their editing style? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Monumental Mistake or Matter of Style?

All the recent discussions around Amazon’s updated policy on error flagging have made me think about what truly constitutes an “error.” Language is fluid, and its rules of usage continue to evolve over time. What our teachers told us to do in elementary school is not always the right way to approach things today.

So how do you know whether you’re on the right track when you’re writing? When you receive your edited manuscript and it’s full of markups, is it time for you to panic? I’m sure many of us have experienced that gut-wrenching feeling of failure when we encounter all those red marks. I know I have!

This is why I like to write detailed comments as I edit — so I can explain why I’ve made a change. When I perform a stylistic/copy edit, there are a number of reasons why I mark up a manuscript, and only one of these reasons is to identify an error. Here are six other common things that can happen, which are definitely not signs that you’ve made some kind of horrendous mistake:

  1. The writing isn’t following an agreed-upon style. I’ve talked in a previous post about the value of using a style sheet, so that you and your editor can agree on various preferences around punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. The style guide that your editor follows helps them to identify and flag inconsistencies. But you shouldn’t think of these edits as corrections – you haven’t done anything wrong. It’s okay to use a serial comma, and it’s okay not to use a serial comma. But it’s best to have consistency throughout the manuscript, so that your reader doesn’t notice any variations.
  2. Unusual terms or phrases are being used. Maybe you know what that saying means, but your reader might not have heard of it. You don’t want to make your reader have to look something up or (even worse) think that you’ve made some kind of mistake. Which you haven’t – you’ve just used some words that some of your readers may not be familiar with.
  3. Your meaning is unclear. When we’re in the middle of writing, we know exactly what we are trying to convey, and we think that other people will see it the same way. But there are lots of cases where something can be interpreted in different ways. When this happens, it’s better to change the wording to make the meaning absolutely clear. What you’ve written isn’t wrong – it just happens to be representing a particular view that may not be shared.
  4. The style doesn’t suit your genre or audience. You may love using semi-colons and writing long, elaborate sentences that evoke the Victorian era. But if you’re writing a romance for a general audience, then it’s probably not the way to go, even if it’s a perfectly valid writing style.
  5. The style doesn’t suit your characters. In dialogue in particular, characters speak in ways that may or may not be “correct” based on common writing standards. This is a case where an editor may change your writing to make it grammatically incorrect on purpose — isn’t that a fun thought?
  6. You’ve used too many words. This is a very common challenge among writers. What you’ve written is perfectly fine, but it could be said in a more succinct way that captures the true essence of what you are communicating.

And here’s one final reason for marking up a manuscript that I try with all my might to avoid:

Your editor just plain doesn’t like it.

If I can’t explain the reason why I want to make a change, then I don’t make it. Like all human beings, I have my own personal stylistic preferences that influence my taste in books. But it’s my job as editor to set those preferences aside and work with the style of my author. In fact, one of the things I love about my job is that I get to experience stories being told in different and exciting ways. What a sad place the world would be if all books sounded the same because they were edited to some kind of common standard.

So before you start to feel bad about that feedback from your editor, remember:

  1. Those markups are mostly suggestions, not corrections. It’s your book – and your choice about whether to make those changes.
  2. If you’re not sure why a change was made, don’t be afraid to ask. Editors are human, too.
  3. Your style is unique to you and should be celebrated!

How do you feel when you receive a marked-up manuscript? Have you ever disagreed with someone over an “error”? Please feel free to share your thoughts below, or ask any questions about my services. I’d love to hear from you!

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DBW Review: Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle

Today on my Doorway Between Worlds blog, I have posted a review of writing resource Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle. If you’re looking for help with description in your writing, you may want to come on by!

Doorway Between Worlds

Description and SettingI have a confession to make: I’m one of those readers who has been known to skip over passages full of description to get to the “good stuff.” I love the story of The Lord of the Rings, for example, but my attention wanes during those meandering sections sandwiched between poignant character moments and violent epic battles. With my avoidance of excessive elaboration (and my admittedly poor visual observation skills), I sometimes find it challenging to imbue my own writing with the right level of descriptive pizzazz.

And I know I’m not the only one. So I thought it was time to read through the book Description & Setting by author and creative writing teacher Ron Rozelle. His book is part of the Write Great Fiction series by Writer’s Digest, which features some helpful books on a variety of writing topics. I hadn’t read this one yet, and I…

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How Can I Afford Professional Editing?

Today I have a guest post on Andrew Knighton’s wonderful writing blog. I am sharing some tips on how to minimize the costs of professional editing. If you’re thinking about publishing a book but have been daunted by the thought of overwhelming editing expenses, I encourage you to take a look!

Editing
Picture by Joanna Penn via Flickr Creative Commons

Tips on How to Choose the Right Editing Service for You

Today I am being interviewed by the wonderful Celine Jeanjean at her blog Down the Rabbit Hole. Please come visit to find out more about the different types of editing, how to choose the right editor/editing service, and how to save on editing costs.

DBW Review: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

On my blog Doorway Between Worlds I regularly review writing resources that I believe would be helpful for my readers. I’m sharing this one here since it’s focused on the art of self-editing.

Doorway Between Worlds

I picked up Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by editors Renni Browne and Dave King because several of my editing colleagues recommended it as a solid resource for authors. There are many books on how to write and comparatively few on how to edit your own writing. Yet this is such a critical task for writers if they want to submit a solid manuscript for further editing or publishing. I was really looking forward to reading through this book, and I’m glad to say it was a winner.

Self-Editing for Fiction WritersSelf-Editing for Fiction Writers is focused on the details of stylistic editing. The authors assume that you have already dealt with the larger structural concerns of plot, character arc, and theme. The book covers a broad range of topics relating to the mechanics of editing: showing vs. telling, characterization and exposition, point of view, proportion, dialogue, interior monologue, sound and voice, repetition, and…

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Why You Should Try a Style Sheet

A style sheet is a critical tool that an editor uses to maintain consistency throughout a manuscript. Style sheets are not just for editors, though — writers also benefit from using them, both during the self-editing stage and when collaborating with a professional editor.

What exactly is a style sheet?

A style sheet is a place for capturing stylistic decisions on items such as spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. A style sheet is used by an editor to confirm that the appropriate style is being applied consistently throughout the entire work. The editor refers to it constantly, checking for accurate spelling and capitalization on all key terms and validating all stylistic decisions.

A style sheet is typically in the form of a simple text document. It consists of three main pieces:

  • An overview, which describes the work being edited and any style guides or dictionaries that will be used while editing.
  • Details on decisions relating to capitalization, punctuation, and other stylistic concerns (such as the use of abbreviations and italics).
  • A list of important words, including all proper names and unusual terms.

Why should I use a style sheet?

Supporting Quality and Consistency

By using a style sheet as part of your self-editing process, you can catch errors in the names of characters and places and smooth out any consistency issues that may jar your readers.

Style sheets are particularly valuable for authors who are writing a series. Once a style sheet is established for the first book, it can then be applied to future works.

Maintaining Control

With a traditionally published book, it’s the publisher who decides what style should be used in the manuscript, and the resulting rules are applied to the style sheet. Self-publishing authors, in contrast, have the freedom to decide how they want their writing to look. That’s not to say that their editors can’t provide stylistic advice — they definitely should — but the author has the final say.

When you provide your work to an editor without a style sheet and don’t make your preferences clear from the beginning, it will be harder for you to maintain stylistic control. Your editor has to guess at your stylistic preferences based on what he or she finds in the manuscript.

Preventing Issues

Your editor may have different ideas about style than you do. When you get your manuscript back, you don’t want to find out that some of your carefully capitalized words have been painstakingly lower-cased or that American spelling has been applied when most of your readers are in the UK. This will mean extra work for both you and your editor, which could result in higher fees. It pays to think up front about any preferences you may have, and call them out.

American quilt
A style sheet is like a quilt pattern — it pulls everything together into a coherent whole.

So how do I get started?

You may not have specific preferences about all the stylistic elements that an editor deals with. However, there are some common elements that you should probably think about (and write down on that style sheet). Please feel free to use my Style Sheet Template to capture your thoughts.

Overall Style Preference

Do you want your editor to use a specific style guide? The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, is a popular style guide for trade books.

Should American, British, Canadian, or another spelling style be applied?

Style Details

Are there words that need to be capitalized even though they are usually in lower case?

When should italics be used?

Do you have any preferences for the use of commas in certain situations (such as whether to use the serial comma)?

Do you have any preferences about the formatting of other punctuation marks, such as dashes or ellipses?

Word List

Have you noted all the following in an alphabetical word list?

  • People / character names
  • Place names
  • Words that have unusual treatment (such as capitalization or abbreviation)
  • Rare or difficult words
  • Invented words

With these questions answered, you have the makings of a good style sheet. Now it’s time to chat with your editor and make sure you are both on the same page.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you have used a style sheet, did you find it helpful?

If you haven’t, do you plan to use one? I encourage you to take a look at my Style Sheet Template to help get you started.

I’m happy to answer any of your questions about style sheets – just leave a comment below.

The Many Ps of Book Marketing

The following is a post about book marketing from my Doorway Between Worlds blog that I thought I should share here. I hope you find it useful!

Doorway Between Worlds

I love learning, and the Editing Goes Global conference was a great opportunity to pick up all sorts of useful knowledge. Last week, I shared some tips from editor Arlene Prunkl on how to write good comments. Today, I want to pass along some nuggets of wisdom I learned from Beth Kallman Werner in her session “The Many Ps of Book Marketing.”

Ms. Werner has worked as the Director of Sales and Marketing at Kirkus and is the founder of Author Connections. She has over twenty years of experience in editing and marketing, and it definitely showed in her presentation. I was scribbling notes like mad. I couldn’t possibly include all of her thoughts here, but I thought I’d share some of the highlights.

Her session focused on the four Ps of marketing (product, position, price, and promotion) and how they relate specifically to book marketing.

Product

Werner…

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