The Editor’s Corner – Red Herrings

Welcome to another edition of The Editor’s Corner. Let’s fish around and see what kind of devices we can reel in here: red herrings.

Okay—enough with the puns. I know you didn’t come here to laugh and/or roll your eyes at my punderful style.

What is a red herring?

A red herring, in literature, is a distraction technique that you will see mostly in thrillers, mysteries, and suspense. They catch the reader’s attention and lead them away from what’s actually going on in the novel.

Some red herrings are obvious and can be spotted by seasoned mystery readers. For example, in The Da Vinci Code, the Bishop Aringarosa is a red herring designed to lead the reader to believe that he is the criminal mastermind when he is innocent. A reader of mysteries with loads of experience might raise their eyebrow at that name. The direct translation of aringa rosa in Italian is “red herring.”

For many mystery readers, this was an eye-rolling moment. For beginners, it likely got them hooked on mysteries for a lifetime.

It’s important to have your red herrings be a little more subtle in order to have the reader stay engaged.

How?

There are a couple ways to accomplish this:

  1. Make your culprit seem like a red herring. You can do this by exposing the culprit at the beginning, but the culprit has a good distraction of his/her own that throws your protagonist off the main trail, and into a bunch of other red herrings, only to be brought back to the culprit in the end.
  2. Put in more than one red herring and make sure your culprit is obfuscated somewhat in the beginning, only to reveal he/she has been there all along.

This is not a copy editor’s pro-tip. This is from a developmental editor’s perspective. If your editor can spot your red herrings too quickly, they’ll mark up the manuscript and typically advise you to change it around.

And here you thought I was a copy editor all along.

See what I did there?

Ha ha!

But in all seriousness, if you are tackling a mystery or thriller, a few red herrings can delight your readers as they try to unravel the mystery in front of them.

We’ll go back to copy editing and then hop back to other devices in the next installments.

Until then, happy writing!


Horror fans who know Cthulhu devours red herrings as an appetizer and enjoy Lovecraftian horror with a twist can find their way to Silver Hollow

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The Editor’s Corner – Dialogue Attribution

Welcome to another edition of The Editor’s Corner! I am your host, editor and writer Anne Hogue-Boucher.

Last week, I wrote about adverb usage, and as a side note, feel free to use them often in your first draft. I do. I use them as placeholders when I’m trying to get out an idea and then in my second go-around, I’ll take them out and replace them with stronger writing. I just use them as reminders of the mood I wanted to set for the passage.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s move onto tip number two.

Today’s tip is about dialogue attribution, and for many of you, this will fly in the face of what your English teacher taught you.

I will tell you now that your publisher/editor and English teacher often work at cross-purposes. Your English teacher is trying to help you expand your vocabulary and improve your ability to be more flexible with it. Your editor and publisher are trying to help you not look like a neophyte writer.

So don’t be upset if you find this contradicts what you were taught. Just remember that this is for a different arena.

Ready?

Never use anything but “said” and “asked” in your dialogue attribution. Everything else is a surefire way to mark you as an inexperienced writer.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

“There’s a monkey in that tree,” John hollered.
“Shoot it!” Matt screamed.
“Why? It’s not doing anything,” John growled.
“It’s stealing my bananas!” Matt insisted.

Why is this wrong and why does it sound like a greenhorn wrote it? A couple of reasons. This is not really showing the reader what’s going on, and it becomes a tad redundant. We want to show the reader what’s happening to draw them into the scene rather than tell them what’s going on in it. Showing brings the reader in and gets them involved. Telling makes them passive, and not invested.

It’s also redundant. Everyone is hollering, screaming, growling, and insisting. Do you get it now, reader? Are you sure everyone is in an uproar? Here the reader might roll their eyes. They get it. Stop smashing it in their faces.

So let’s clean it up and see what happens:

“There’s a monkey in that tree,” John’s voice echoed off the rocks that created a barrier from the shore.
“Shoot it!” Matt waved his hands at John. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead.
“Why? It’s not doing anything.”
“It’s stealing my bananas!” Matt ran his hands into his hair and pulled, bending over as he fell to the ground.

If you have an exclamation point (use those sparingly, by the way), then ‘screamed’ and ‘hollered’ aren’t necessary. You also don’t always need to attribute your dialogue if it’s clear who’s doing the talking, so even ‘said’ and ‘asked’ become words you can use less.

Rather than reusing ‘said’ and ‘asked’ repeatedly, show the scene to your reader. Make your reader hear John’s voice echoing off the rocks. Make your reader hear Matt’s insistence and panic/outrage.

“Do you understand now?” I asked the reader of this blog, who may or may not be scowling at these words. “It’s not that your attribution is wrong, just that it’s less than professional. So give it another go, and see how much better you can make it.”

That’s it for this installment. Questions? Send me a message on Facebook.

Happy writing.

The Editor’s Corner – The “Deadly” Adverb

It’s been 10 months since I did my first edition of The Editor’s Corner (a bonus piece, in fact), and I think it’s high time I gave it another go with my first official tip. Considering all the writing I’ve been looking at these days, well, I think there are a few things that need to be addressed.

When I was a professional editor, I got to review people’s writing before it was published, and I wound up seeing some common errors that beginners make.

These mistakes can make it more difficult to get published.

I thought it might be fun (or at least informative) for aspiring writers out there to get some tips from not only someone who is published, but also helped (and helps) others get their manuscripts ready for publishing.

So, here’s the first tip, tongue-in-cheek named:

Use adverbs sparingly. That doesn’t mean you can’t have one or two, but most of the time, there’s a much stronger way to say and show what you mean to your reader.

Here’s an example:

Instead of: “I wouldn’t do that,” Brett said calmly.

Try: “I wouldn’t do that.” Brett leaned back in his chair, arms loose by his side.

That’s it, cut your adverbs down and try building a stronger way to say what you mean. When you can’t do that, then maybe throw in an adverb now and then. For the most part, though, publishers will zero in on your use of adverbs and it will scream to them, “new writer ahead, unprofessional, unskilled.” Klaxons will sound in their heads and they are far less likely to take a risk on publishing your work.

NaNoWriMo is coming up this November. That’s just a little less than three months away now at the time of this writing. Time to hone your skills and get ready.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to eliminate the use of adverbs all the way down to one per 1,000 words. After that, try one every 2,000 words. Do this until you have rid yourself of that pesky gadfly.


Anne Hogue-Boucher likes to rid herself of adverbs as often as possible. You can read the results in her current works, and even follow her around on Twitter and Facebook.