In just a year, Eileen Gormley and Caroline McCall, writing together as Evie Hunter, have achieved a remarkable feat: not only have they written three full-length novels, but when Penguin Ireland unleashed these novels onto the world, each of them—The Pleasures of Winter, The Pleasures of Spring and The Pleasures of Autumn—set the erotica charts alight. Keeping to such a tight and demanding production schedule might seem impossible to the rest of us mere mortals, but somehow Eileen and Caroline manage it, and manage it with flair.
But there’s very little room for error: getting a traditionally published book on the shelves once every six months means there’s no time for writing 30,000 words in the wrong direction, or having to scrap an entire plotline or even excise a character. The first draft must be as close to the final one as possible, and a firm grip (or in Evie Hunter’s case, a pair of handcuffs) must be kept on the core of the story at all times.
So we figured: who better than to tell us about self-editing for writers than Eileen Gormley, one half of this dynamic, erotica-writing duo?
In this two-part series, Eileen walks us through the best way to stress-test your novel, starting with a long, hard look at its structure…
Last week, Eileen walked us through stress-testing your novel’s structure, but now that that’s done, what’s the next step? Today, it’s time to hunker down and start looking at your novel line by line…
PART 2: LINE-BY-LINE
This is the single quickest way to check if a writer has any grasp of the English language. Most publishers have a computer program which examines your handling of punctuation in dialogue and auto-rejects any submissions which fail.
“I did it,” she said.
Note that because there is a speech tag, the comma cones before the quote marks are closed, and “she” has a small s.
“I did it.” She stood up.
This time, “She stood up” is a separate sentence, so there is a period after it, and a capital S on She.
Standing, she said, “I did it.”
She stood up. “I did it.”
Question marks, exclamation marks, periods and commas all go inside the quote marks.
Every line of dialogue, and the actions associated with it, gets a separate paragraph. You should never have a paragraph with two people speaking.
Apostrophes are used to indicate contractions and possession, with possession being the one that causes problems.
It’s – it is. It’s late.
Its – belonging to it. The cat licked its paw.
The girl’s cat – the cat belonging to a single girl.
The girls’ cat – the cat belonging to several girls.
There is no apostrophe if there is no contraction or possession. The girls ran.
Be certain that when you use a pronoun, it is clear which noun it is replacing. If you have a scene with a man and a woman, it’s fine to use “he” and “she” throughout. If there is more than one man, you need to use their names, not “he”. And if there is more than one woman, use names throughout.
Pronouns agree with the words they replace.
A sentence consists of a subject and a verb. Possibly an object and a subordinate clause as well. But once you have picked the subject of your sentence, the rest of the sentence is about the subject. If you find yourself including a second subject, you need a second sentence.
A paragraph is concerned with a single thought or action. If your heroine is getting dressed, it’s fine to include all the details in one paragraph. If she is also thinking about killing her boyfriend, that gets a separate paragraph.
Question marks and exclamation marks.
Question marks go after questions. One per question.
Exclamation marks are used exclusively in speech, one at a time, and no more than a handful per novel. Putting a forest of exclamation marks after every line your heroine speaks does not make her more witty!!!!! It’s just annoying.
This is where the debate will start. Commas are used to separate items on a list, and to clarify the position of subordinate clauses in a sentence. They are not used for emphasis or because you have run out of breath.
If you have so many adjectives in a sentence that you need commas between them, consider deleting the extra adjectives
Use said and asked. If the situation calls for it, you can use yelled or whispered.
Do not use questioned, riposted, retorted, queried, uttered or other synonyms. It’s annoying, distracting and the mark of an amateur.
If your character hisses anything, make sure there is an S in it. You can’t hiss, “Never!”
Dogs bark. If your character must bark, make sure it’s something short. Same with growling.
Adjectives and adverbs
They exist in English for a reason. They are not the work of the devil. But use them where they will do most good, don’t sprinkle them throughout your narrative.
Don’t use adverbs to replace good dialogue.
English is carried on the verbs. If you find the strongest verb, you don’t need a string of adverbs as well.
Limit adjectives to one per noun. Since adjectives go before the noun, your reader has to memorise all the adjectives on the way to the noun. “The tall, strong, blue-eyed, agile schoolgirl” requires a mental jump as the reader adds the adjectives to the noun.
Do not use “started to” or “began to” unless the action was not completed.
Keep action direct. “She heard the sound of a car outside” is not as strong as “A car pulled up outside”.
Examine any sentence that includes felt, heard or seemed to see if you can cut them.
You can almost always cut: suddenly, just, absolutely, very, completely, totally, a bit, about, a little, actually, somewhat, that, quite, really, truly.
If you ever find yourself using the word “somehow”, it usually means you have a big hole in your plot.
The bald-headed man. We assume it’s his head which is bald.
Her heart beat in her chest. Where else would it beat?
He shrugged his shoulders. What else could he shrug?
He clenched his hand into a fist. What else could he clench?
She thought to herself. Unless she’s a telepath, who else could she think to?
The easiest way to avoid repetition is to read your story out loud. You’ll hear if you are overusing a word or phrase and can fix it.
Point of View
In practical terms, there are three points of view, first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient.
First person is the I form.
I woke up in bed and discovered that I was sharing it with the entire line-up of One Direction.
It is useful for diary type stories, or stories which revolve around the adventures of one character.
Under no circumstances can you switch POV when you are using First person. You can’t have the previous line followed by
<Harry Styles POV>
I woke up in a strange bed and found I was sharing it with an under-age high school nerd.
Third person omniscient is the story told through an all-knowing narrator.
Once upon a time, there were three bears who lived together, in spite of the fact that none of them were gay.
It is useful for children’s stories, biographies, battle scenes, stories with a large cast of characters or the book of a film.
The advantage is that you can tell the reader everything that is happening in the story.
The disadvantage is that it can be hard for the reader to get absorbed in a TPO story and it is harder to mislead the reader.
Third Person Limited This is third person but told from inside the head of one or more characters. He felt the bullet hit his arm. Pain swamped him, driving him to his knees. Why had he thought he could do this?
The advantage is that it is very intimate. The reader sees, feels, hears and suffers as the hero does. The reader gets involved with the character very quickly. It also gives the option of switching POV to another character and letting the reader into her head too.
The disadvantage is that you are more limited in what you can tell the reader. If your POV character doesn’t know something, the reader can’t either.
Other Points of view There are other points of view like second person, “you ran away, frightened.” or first person plural, “We ran away”. You can see why they are not usually seen in commercial novels.
The author can’t decide which character should have the POV, and keeps jumping from one character to another. It is normal for one character to keep POV during an entire scene. This rule can be bent, particularly during love scenes. Typically, you drop down a line to indicate that a new character now has POV.
Do not switch POV every couple of paragraphs.
As a general rule, POV belongs with the person who has the most at stake in a scene.
Point of view shifts This is where the POV character knows what other characters are thinking, feeling or seeing.
He admired the heroine as she came down the stairs. Her eyes were moist with anxiety and her shoes pinched her feet.
In this case, the hero can’t know that the heroine is anxious, or that her shoes hurt. He’s not a mind reader. All he can see is her eyes are moist and that she is limping.
Remember, third person limited is from inside the POV character’s head.
A more subtle version is when the hero mysteriously knows the other character’s feelings.
Infodump This is where the author has a lot of things she wants to tell the reader, although the reader usually has zero interest. Indodumps are bad, and using POV properly is a good way to avoid them.
Your POV character, whether first or third person, should only think things which she would naturally think.
She would not walk into her kitchen and notice that it has cream-coloured walls, a microwave which runs by electricity, a fridge which contains CFC gases and taps which bring water from the recycling centre. She will notice the blood on the floor and the broken window.
Your POV character must not spend her time explaining the set-up to the reader. You don’t think, “I’m off to meet my best friend, who I met in kindergarten when he pulled my hair and I stole his Peppa Pig lunchbox…” You think, “I hope Pete remembers to bring that tenner he owes me.” So your POV character should not to this either.
(c) Eileen Gormley