How to Edit Your Fiction

When I was a child my entrepreneur father moved us around a lot. Mostly we ended up in places where everyone spoke Spanish, from Mexico to Spain. As a result I learned how to read in Spanish before I learned how to read in English.  I learned how to conjugate verbs in Spanish while I was a schoolgirl in Spain but never really mastered the same material in English.

A fantastic article by Margaret Atwood on how to edit your fiction

includes the simplest explanation I have ever seen on how to know which verb tenses to use, and when you should use them.

Atwood says:


4. Verb tenses. This is tricky. But in general: if something is always true, use the present tense. If it was always true once, use the past, or “would” plus past tense to indicate continuous action in the past. (“Every day, he’d go to the laundromat.”) . If it’s something happening before the time we’re in, use the past perfect (“He’d gone.”) Only the author knows the time flow – an editor can query, but the author must decide.  If tenses are disjunct, there should be a very good reason. (Maybe the character is having a breakdown.) See also the use of the historical present. (“So, he goes, “What’re you doing?” and I go, “Butt out,” and he … etc.) Elmore Leonard is an expert at this kind of thing, and at informal dialogue in general.


A related tip is her tip on gerunds:


5. The gerund mistake. A common one. “Walking along the beach, a pair of boots was seen.” Means that the boots were doing the walking, not the observer. Correct: “Walking along the beach, he saw a pair of boots.”


Margaret Atwood's blog is a great resource for writers.

An article on a similar theme ("Top Ten Reasons The Editor Doesn't Love What Your Critique Group Loves") can be found on Edittorrent, along with a great series of blogs on line editing by Alicia Rasley.

Atwood also has a great blog entry on writer's block. My thinking on Writer's block is to spend that time editing what you've already written, applying some of the principles listed above. Happy writing!