Picked up some work the other day. A guy who’s written a techno-thriller happened to spot, on an online writing site, the resume I’d posted there eight years ago! First inquiry in all that time. A real lesson in patience. I’m editing the manuscript for him, and having some interesting conversations with him about the process. He’s asked about point of view, double-spacing after periods, how to handle a character’s thoughts as opposed to his spoken words, the use of obscenities, the value of an editor, etc. My responses:
Point of view
You can tell the story from multiple perspectives, but you have to do it well or it will be confusing/irritating to the reader. You can also use the third-person omniscient throughout, but then you lose the personal touch that a character-narrator provides. If one of the characters can tell the whole story, that might be best, but you will have to explain how that character is able to recount portions of the story in which he was not personally involved. This could be easily resolved in the case of a character like O–, who, as a reporter, could plausibly have compiled other portions through interviews, research, etc.
My dad was with the occupation troops in Japan. If not for the dropping of the A-bombs, he’d have been with the invasion troops and almost certainly would have been killed — and I wouldn’t be here. Nor would I have inherited the old manual typewriter he carried with him throughout the war as a correspondent for the Corps. One of the toughest habits I ever had to break was double-spacing after periods, which became obsolete with the advent of personal computers, which are, essentially, typesetting machines (with automatic kerning). Adding an extra space after a period on a PC throws the kerning off and makes a mess of things.
Thoughts vs. quotes
An inner monologue is not really a quote and does not require quotation marks. You could treat it as though it were, and I imagine lots of people do, but I prefer to distinguish between the two. The goofy thing about questions is that they end in question marks, for which commas can’t really substitute — as they do in declarative sentences that are quotes or internal thoughts. This has always disturbed me, but putting a comma after the question mark — which I’ve seen people do (How crazy is that?, he wondered) — is even more disconcerting.
Lots of best sellers are full of obscenities; lots aren’t. Do obscenities help or hurt a book’s sale? I have no idea. The question I ask myself is, Are they necessary? In real life, there are occasions when nothing but a four-letter word will do — and many more occasions when they’re simply gratuitous. The problem with a book, or a movie, is that it’s a concentrated slice of life — and all the pieces, including the obscenities, are, in effect, magnified. Also, overuse undermines their impact.
(I’m not a big fan of Steven Spielberg, but I have to admit that ET would be an undeniable film classic, except for one thing: the scene when Elliot’s older brother calls him “P– Breath.” Where did that come from? It’s the only thing like that in the whole movie. Did it add anything? I don’t see how. Did it subtract? I think so. What was the point?)
Who needs an editor?
Does an author even need an editor before submitting his manuscript to a publisher? If he wants to produce the best manuscript he can, as a matter of pride, then hiring an editor makes sense. But, if he just wants to get a book published and make some money, an editor’s services are probably unnecessary. (This assumes, of course, that the author is not completely incompetent, in which case no editor could help him anyway.)
Fortunately, my client has high standards and and has decided to continue with our arrangement. His writing is very clean. Mostly what I’m doing is substituting active for passive constructions, eliminating deadwood, inserting a better word when I can, and making sure that he shows rather than tells. But the American reader, nowadays, is not very demanding — and, judging from the books that get published, the editors at most of the fiction houses aren’t either. All they want is a big story, well-written or not.