Murder at Cliché Manor

It was a dark and stormy night, and the victim lay sprawled across the library floor like a worn-out phrase. DI Findlater cut an impressive figure: tall, dark and handsome, his aristocratic features silhouetted in the flickering of the gas lamp above his head.  

So, what have we got then, Sergeant?’ he shouted, trying to make himself heard over the whistling wind and rattling windowpanes.

Sergeant Webster pulled a dog-eared notebook out of his shabby coat pocket and grumbled loudly. He was like a bear with a sore head ever since his wife had left him due to his workaholic nature and heavy drinking. And he was not happy to be back in the crumbling old mansion. 

‘It’s the same all over again, Guv,’ he replied. ‘Just like last week’s case: Totally Unimaginative. Only this time, the deceased’s name is Overused. Completely Overused.’  

How do you like the opening section of my new opus? Great, innit? It’s clear, with gothic ambiance and lots of information about the main characters from the offset. So why is everyone sniggering? What do you mean, it’s full of clichés? Of course it is. That’s the whole point.

Or, as Sherlock Holmes might say in one of his more flippant moments, ‘I rest my case.’

As you can see from the above, clichés work on two levels – in the choice of language and in the creative choices such as character, setting and plot.

The problem with linguistic clichés is that they are victims of their own success. They are pithy and precise, leaving no room for ambiguity: perfect shorthand to get meaning across quickly and clearly, which is why they are so useful in everyday speech. The downside is that they are completely unoriginal. And therein, as Hamlet would say, lies the rub. Clarity is vital for communication, but most readers (and writers) are looking for a little more.

Clichés and stereotypes such as the maverick cop, the tall, dark, handsome stranger, the mysterious gothic mansion  and the flashy Manhattan penthouse, turn up regularly in fiction and film and, as with their linguistic cousins, it is usually a case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’.

The worst effect of the cliché is that it deadens originality and spoils a writer’s unique voice. Everything you write should be uniquely yours – readers will clamour time and time again for your maverick cop as long as she or he doesn’t sound and look the same as fifty others. So, use clichés and genre tropes sparingly, if at all. Don’t allow your prose become boring and unimaginative. Give your characters an original voice and keep your readers hooked.

And so it is Christmas….

Where did December go? First there was the monthly round-up of competitions and, then…well, not a lot, really.

Apologies for the radio silence, but Book Nanny was editing. Not that I’m complaining; I love my job, and working with talented writers is a great big Christmas present in itself.

Hildegarde's WinterdoerfchenLet’s face it, there is so much to like about Christmas, but, from a literary point of view, keep a watchful eye out for the over-frequent use of the word ‘like’ in your writing. There is no denying that it is a very useful little word and very easy to, eh… like. It pops up frequently  to describe how things feel, look or seem, and authors will often choose ‘like’ over the perhaps more formal sounding ‘as though,’ particularly in novels with a more contemporary or conversational style. ‘She felt like her whole life was over now that Judy had got that job.’ Or, ‘It looked like Jonathan wouldn’t be going anywhere fast.’

And don’t forget its integral role in similes. ‘His coat flapped about his lanky frame like a tattered flag on a flagpole.’ ‘The jewels on her midnight blue dress twinkled like bright stars in a night sky.’  ‘He cowered in the corner like a whipped dog’.

Repeated three or four times in quick succession – familiarity will quickly breed contempt. If the only thing that stands out in your prose is the repetition of the word ‘like’, even the most original and beautiful comparisons can begin to sound a little hackneyed. As my Nanna used to say `A little goes a long way’. But then she also used to say ‘A little of what you fancy does you good.’ And I would tend to agree with her!

Happy Christmas!

Remind me again why I need an editor…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author in possession of a good manuscript must be in want of an editor. Or is it? For authors taken on by traditional publishing houses, editors are not optional. And while some authors view editors as a blessing, others are less convinced of their virtues. But not many will claim to be able to completely forgo some form of editorial help on the long road to successful publication.

Picture3BThe fact is that editing is an integral part of the publishing process, regardless of what format your creativity takes.

Take Mozart, for example. Legend has it that he produced completed masterpieces straight out of the ether. Fully formed. No amendments. No changes. No second thoughts. Like the goddess, Athene, emerging from the forehead of Zeus. Let’s face it, there probably isn’t an author in the world who wouldn’t wish the creative process was that straightforward! However, the fact is that Mozart was no more immune to the vagaries of eighteenth century music publishers than other lesser mortals, and, where possible, he used family or trusted friends to proofread manuscript engravings to avoid the pitfalls of poor quality or unauthorised copies. And there is even evidence to suggest that either Mozart  himself or his publisher edited some of the manuscripts from performance copies before publication. Why? Well, presumably to give the music-buying public a better Mozart experience!

Editors are not the bad guys 

dictionary1So where is all this leading? Well, my point is that editors aren’t necessarily the bad guys.  A good editor, whether in-house or freelance, can be a huge asset for a writer. Writing is a very personal process. Publication, as the name suggests, is a public activity. And if you’ve put hours of your time, blood, sweat and tears into your latest novel or short story, it seems rather strange that you would send it out into the wide world alone and unprepared.

A good substantive or copy editor can help a writer with the transition from private to public. They can use their experience and professional skills to support you and identify any problems that may cause you embarrassment or cause difficulties for your readers. Most importantly, they they can encourage you, fight your corner for you and challenge you to make your work the best it can be. And that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.

Beware Mrs Malaprop! (Or how to illiterate mistakes and become the very pineapple of eligible writing.)

“… but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying.”

Mrs Malaprop, The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1775

Malaprop; malapropism [from the French mal à propos meaning ‘inopportunely’ or ‘at the wrong moment’.]:

Jester 002Sheridan wasn’t the first playwright to exploit the misuse of a word for one which sounds similar for comic effect (Shakespeare used it before him), but it is Sheridan’s creation that has famously given her name to the phenomenon. A useful weapon in the arsenal of the comedy writer perhaps, but be careful not to let one slip in unnoticed, as the effect may not be what you were expecting or hoping for. Couldn’t happen, I hear you say! Don’t be so sure. How about this gem which popped up in a letter from a professional correspondent assuring the recipient that they were happy to make an offer as a jester of goodwill?? I still chuckle every time I think of it.

And that’s what you need to keep in mind. If you are sending out a pitch letter or sample manuscript to an agent or, you want them to remember you as an amazingly talented writer, not as someone who can’t tell their ‘jesters’ from their ‘gestures’. Equally, if you are self-publishing, you do not want a reputation amongst your readers for comedy, unless, of course, you are intentionally writing comedy!

My advice?

Obviously, a good copy editor will sort out all such clownish behaviour on the part of your manuscript pretty quickly, but, basically, I’m with Mrs M. on this one: be a master or mistress of orthography so that everyone can comprehend the true meaning of what you are saying – it may save much embarrassment at a later stage.

Why being an Editor is a bit like being a Nanny…

‘In a moment of mental abstraction for which I can never forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the basinette and placed the baby in the handbag.’

(Miss Prism, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde)

Keeping it in the family 

Poor old Jack Worthing. No wonder he was really Earnest. Who wouldn’t be rather serious, having been mistaken at a tender age for a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality and ending up lost and found in the cloak room of Victoria Station? Luckily for most babies, literary or otherwise, not all nannies are as confused as Miss Prism! Take my grandmother, for instance. She too was a Nanny by profession, doggedly working her way up from lowly nursemaid to Supreme Ruler of the Universe. An exaggeration, perhaps? Depends on whose universe you’re talking about. By the time Nanna retired, she had nannied, amongst others, at least three generations of one family and each post-retirement visit was executed with all the pomp and ceremony of a returning monarch.

A passion for editing

So, what’s the point of my Nanna tale? Well, I believe there are a lot of similarities between being an editor and being a nanny.  Both involve caring for someone else’s precious offspring, helping them prepare to meet their public and be a credit to their proud parent(s). And like my grandmother, I love my job. I love nursing and nurturing my little wordy charges from terrible toddlerdom and unruly adolescence into blossoming maturity. I don’t mind if they’re prosaic or poetic, fictional or firmly grounded in reality, highfalutin or purely functional. I love dotting their i’s, minding their p’s and q’s, wiping their runny grammar and making sure they eat enough literary greens to promote healthy growth and development. All washed down with a generously heaped spoonful of care and attention.

But what exactly does an editor do? And how is it that some authors dedicate gushing acknowledgements to their editors, while others run away screaming at the very mention of the name? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out. So, why not join Book Nanny for an exploratory voyage through all such editorial conundrums? We’ll ask the questions and (hopefully) find some useful answers which will help to make the world of editors and editing a less scary place for all budding (and perhaps even a few seasoned) authors out there.