On Black Friday, we went “up the hill,” as the locals say, to a town called Arnold. Along the way to our destination I saw a sign for a used bookstore, and on our way back we stopped. Highland Books is s delightful, old-fashioned used bookstore – not antiquarian, just used – stuffed with books (in a highly organized way);genre fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction. At the counter there was a stack of copies of a new book that was published independently by the writer, who knows the bookstore owner. The book is a mystery set in the gold country. I’m not going to give the name or the author’s name because this post is a screed about finish editing and I am going to savage the book. It seems neither right nor necessary to give the name because this isn’t a review.
There might have been some problems with the book other than the grammar and punctuation mistakes. The main character is what science fiction readers call a “Mary Sue;” the wish-fulfillment character who is beautiful brilliant, witty, compassionate, clever, beloved by all, desired by many. Her only faults are that she cares too deeply; she’s too passionate, etc. A “Mary Sue” has no flaws and no backstory to explain how she acquired perfection. The book had stretches of implausible dialogue and a plot that, by page 28, didn’t really hold water. None of these problems have ever stopped writers from getting into print. Pick up any Dan Brown book as an example.
Let’s talk, instead, about apostrophe abuse (they are used for possessives, or contractions, not plurals); no understanding of when to use a comma; inconsistent capitalization (dude, it’s 2012 in America—you don’t have to capitalize the O in “okay;” really,) and homonym switching. This last one was actually funny. “After I made the payoff to the union, the picketers dropped out of site,” a character says. Really? You mean they fell off your location (site?) Or do you mean they vanished from view (sight?) One of those would have been an amusing mistake. Any one of these would have been amusing, or at the very least, I might have rolled my eyes… but all of them? An error every other page is not funny.
“I suppose I can hold out at my dads cabin,” is not correct, even if you have two dads, and neither is, “The cop’s all know him,” unless there is one cop who owns a gaggle of somethings called an “all.” It is correct to say, “We’ll ask your mother when she gets here,” and not “We’ll ask your Mother when she gets here.”
Some of these mistakes happen because you don’t know basic grammar. That’s that apostrophe thing, and also your complete refusal to ever use a comma. Many of these mistakes, though, probably happened because you were so caught up in your story. That is understandable. This is why writers find somebody to read their book before they send it out.
If you sent your manuscript out to agents and publishing houses before you published it yourself, I promise you, this is what killed it. Not the implausible main character or stilted, expository dialogue. Within three pages, whoever was looking over your manuscript stopped reading, deducing, possibly incorrectly, that you couldn’t write.
But editors cost money! Yes, they can, but you can get this kind of help for free or for very cheap. Here are some ways:
- Join a writers’ group (note the use of plural possessive). Writers’ groups are not designed to be grammar-checkers or finish-editors, but there is almost always someone in the group who delights in that sort of thing. Play to that strength.
- Take a writing class at the local community college. You may be a brilliant story-teller who never paid much attention to grammar in school. Teachers will help you with that. You may understand grammar just fine and never gave the book a final read-through. The teacher will help you with that, too.
- No groups? No community college? Talk to your local librarian or a seventh-grade English teacher. If you can’t afford to pay them, offer to barter something. They may be flattered and intrigued by your offer. (If they help you, it would be nice to include them in the acknowledgments.)
- Cultivate a “first reader.” It may be a friend, a spouse, one of your children; someone who has a good eye, is a thoughtful reader and can be honest with you.
I just couldn’t progress past page 41. Bam! Into the bottom of the tote bag went the book. Out came The Inexplicables, by Cherie Priest. Suddenly, all the words seemed shiny and new… and right!