My editor says I have a compelling story, it’s just badly served by my writing

I feel as if I’m in a writer’s maze as I process an editor’s advice for improving my prose

Well red: the number of highlighted errors makes my novel look like it’s had a meltdown. Photograph: Getty

Well red: the number of highlighted errors makes my novel look like it’s had a meltdown. Photograph: Getty

 

For the past six weeks or so I haven’t written a word. Not one. No sweet lines of inspiration have hovered delightfully above my head, beckoning. In short, the creative part of my brain shut down. Why? Because I’ve recently discovered my novel-writing skills are practically nonexistent. I’m rubbish at grammar and punctuation, my dialogue skills are defunct, and I tell too much without showing enough.

I just assumed after reading and writing a lot over the past 10 years that my novel-writing skills would undoubtedly improve. But having recently received feedback from a retired editor who worked for several big publishers, I discovered that although I do have a compelling story, it’s being badly served by the writing. If I can improve my grammar, punctuation and the other aspects mentioned above, I should, in the words of the editor, “lift the story to a higher level”.

So yesterday, after many weeks of perspiring at the mere thought of opening my laptop, I decided to write this article, in the hope that it will help other writers to avoid or correct the following mistakes, before making the all too important submission.

Incorrect tenses, lack of punctuation and poor sentence construction are weaknesses I have blindly incorporated into my writing, on repeat, for the past five years

The areas I need to improve are many, a sort of writer’s maze, where one mistake inevitably leads to another, then another, until the number of errors highlighted in red makes my novel look like it’s had a meltdown. Incorrect tenses, lack of punctuation and poor sentence construction are weaknesses I have blindly incorporated into my writing, on repeat, for the past five years.

But there are also flaws in my storytelling. And considering I’ve always written and edited this novel from my gut, my whole writing compass has been spinning wildly off course for quite some time. So how do I know what direction I should go in? And how do I redirect my writer’s instinct on to a fresh course of navigation? I suppose that the beginning, to paraphrase Julie Andrews, is a very good place to start.

Problem number one: too many loaded tags. Loaded tags. Am I the only writer in the world who has never heard of them? At the moment it seems like it. So let me explain, if for no one else but myself. A tag is the “he said” or “she said” in passages of dialogue. A loaded tag is one that includes narrative or descriptive material that doesn’t belong in the dialogue, such as “‘My grammar is dreadful,’ she wailed, while flicking her hair back from her artistic brow.”

Apparently, this type of writing used to be common; it is no longer so. And although I love vintage literature, I have also read lots of contemporary novels, which have obviously not sunk in. This makes me feel quite despairing. Loaded tags also remind me of skin tags, another charming part of ageing. I suppose they have the same effect in life as they do in writing, in that they are both unsightly and add on years.

I have a lot of ground to cover in an area called author intrusion: I throw my all-seeing, all-knowing author’s presence into my novel and speak directly to the reader with lines such as ‘She would never know what had happened to him’

Next problem? Too much telling and not enough showing, which is deadening my writing. But isn’t this a common issue among writers? I’m throwing the question out into the universe in the hope I will receive some answers. Because it doesn’t get much worse than that. So why has my writer’s instinct served me so badly? And, more importantly, will I actually be able to change it?

And while we’re on the subject of dialogue, I also use a large number of “furniture words” at the start of each sentence – Well, Oh, So, Then, And, Now, But, Suddenly. Indeed. I am “suddenly” fixated with the image of a very embarrassed me sitting at a large, polished oak table. A sort of mad hatter’s tea party for failed writers, where my furniture-word guests stare blankly at me from large white sheets of card, imploring rather than asking why I have been advised to kill them. “Because you are my darlings,” I say.

Anyway, like Alice, I still have a lot of ground to cover, in an area called author intrusion. Meaning that I throw my all-seeing, all-knowing author’s presence into my novel and speak directly to the reader with words of wisdom such as “She would never know what had happened to him.”

And have you ever heard of a comma splice? It sounds like an exotic cocktail for the writer seated at one end of the bar, who repeatedly splices their work with commas, so each inebriated sentence runs into the next, instead of standing alone, soberly, with a full stop.

Much as I hate the way I’ve messed up my imagination on the page, I have now become slightly attached to some of the words I’ve used to do it

Am I finished yet? No. I’ve come this far in my writerly failings, so you may as well stay for the encore. That being my frequent use of the pluperfect when the simple past is all that is required, such as writing “she had spoken” instead of “she spoke”. However, much as I hate the way I’ve messed up my imagination on the page, I have now become slightly attached to some of the words I’ve used to do it. Pluperfect to me sounds like a French flower, swaying somewhere in the Loire Valley in the height of summer – plus-que-parfait (more in the past than the perfect).

On the other hand, my frequent use of participles is doing nothing to inspire, instead reminding me of a writer’s version of chickenpox, all itchy malaise and inflamed. But what is a participle? It is the irritating “ing” part of the verb. Like I’m mak-ing, fail-ing, writ-ing. How could I have even made that up? Well, I did. And, what’s worse, it creates an indefinite participle with no ending, where I continue to make failing writing forever. Ad infinitum.

And even when I correct all these errors, what will be left? A stiltedness in the style of my storytelling? So where’s the alchemy and the magic I thought my inspiration was gifting me? The answer is that I really don’t know. All I know is that I can only hope it will resurface somewhere, between a deleted spliced comma and a more present pluperfect.

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