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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Guest Blogger ~ Elizabeth Ludwig

Elizabeth Ludwig’s first novel, Where the Truth Lies, which she co-authored with Janelle Mowery, was released in spring of 2008 from Heartsong Presents: Mysteries, an imprint of Barbour Publishing. This was followed in 2009 by “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” part of a Christmas anthology collection called Christmas Homecoming, also from Barbour Publishing.

Books two and three of Elizabeth’s mystery series, Died in the Wool, and A Black Die Affair, respectively, are slated for release in 2010 from Barbour Publishing. Also in 2010, her first full-length historical novel Love Finds You in Calico, California will be released from Summerside Press.

In 2008, Elizabeth was named the IWA Writer of the Year for her work on Where the Truth Lies. Elizabeth is an accomplished speaker and dramatist, having performed before audiences of 1500 and more. She works fulltime, and currently lives with her husband and two children in Texas.

Critique Boutique by Elizabeth Ludwig
Being a freelance editor has afforded me ample opportunities to see the kind of mistakes new and aspiring authors make—some not so serious, some fatal.

What do I mean by fatal? These are the kind of mistakes that get your manuscript rejected. In an effort to help you steer clear of the rejection pile, I’m going to list a few of the more common errors, along with a few helpful hints on how you can avoid making them again and again.

The biggest mistake I see involves Point of View (POV for short). New authors, especially, make the mistake of thinking their writing should emulate what they see on TV—scenes hopping from one to the next, jumping from one character’s viewpoint to another, sometimes in the same paragraph, etc. In a nutshell, POV is what one character thinks, feels, sees, hears, and smells. A general rule of thumb is to stay inside one character’s POV for the duration of a scene, only changing into a different POV after you have inserted a section or chapter break. After each paragraph, ask yourself, is this something my POV character can physically know or think? If the answer is no, check for a POV slip. Editors want to know that you have a firm grasp and understanding of POV.

Plot and structure holes are the second most common error I see. Think of your favorite movie. What did you like about it? Most likely, it involved a main character who sets out to achieve one major event or goal. Many things happen along the way, but the goal remains the same. From start to finish, the viewer is left wondering whether or not the main character will accomplish their goal. Take, for example, one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. In it, two characters, a boy and a girl, are separated from each other by circumstances neither of them can control. From the point of their separation on, the viewer wonders if they will somehow find their way back to each other. Events strive to keep them apart, but always, they struggle to come back together until the film’s final resolution.

Plotting is a difficult concept to grasp, which is why having a timeline is so beneficial. Before you even begin writing, I suggest you sit down and write yourself a detailed timeline, always keeping in mind who your main character is and what they hope to accomplish. This way, your story never strays far from the original plot.

A third major problem is the use of passive voice as opposed to active voice. Passive voice involves past tense and the main character viewing or observing events as they happen. Active voice is more immediate and involves the main character actually doing or saying something. Editors watch for the use of active voice, which is why grasping this concept is so important. Key word indicators to passive voice are ‘was’ and ‘had’ in all of their forms. Look at the following example:

Passive: She was glad to see him.
Active: She squealed with delight at the sight of him.

Both examples say she is happy to see him, but one involves immediacy and action.

Lastly, be sure to check your manuscript for things like word/phrase repetition, use of adverbs (or ly words, as I like to say), and incorrect punctuation and grammar. Mechanics are important in your writing, and editors want to know that you’ve taken the time to learn basic techniques before they go deeper to check for a good story with a strong plot. If you’re not certain on the rules, invest in a good book—the Chicago Manual of Style for example, or consider having your work professionally edited. As someone who has reaped the benefits of having gone this route, I can tell you the things you will learn far outweigh the cost, and you’ll be able to take those tools with you and apply them to every future work.

And that’s it! Still have some specific editing questions you've always wanted to ask? Fire away, and I'll do my best to answer them all. As a special holiday bonus, anyone who leaves a comment or asks an editing question will be entered to win a copy of my Christmas anthology, Christmas Homecoming, from Barbour Publishing.


  1. Thank you! This was very informative; the mention of active vs. passive voice was something in particular that I found helpful.

  2. Great, Sarah! Glad I could help. Thank you for stopping by Novel Journey today.

  3. LOVED Christmas Homecoming, Lisa. The stories are really good, and I think yours was the best. Of course, I may be prejudiced, but hey - :D

  4. Thanks, Ane and Gina! I learned from the best in my wonderful critique partners.

  5. what a wonderful post from 'behind the scenes' in the publishing world. thanks for sharing.


  6. good reading on this blog, may God bless


  7. Thank you so much for the great information. I am always looking for tidbits and morsels of input for my writing. May God richly bless you.

  8. It is interesting that you use a timeline to manage the flow of the novel's action. Do you use brainstorming techniques with some type of idea mapping prior to the timeline creation to generate plot details or components prior to the actual writing of the novel?

    bstilwell12 at comcast dot net

  9. Okay, here is my question: In writing past tense, I will shift to present tense in describing places or permanent objects. My critique group says no, that I must be consistant.

    For example: Jane moved to New York. New York is a haven for stage plays.


    Jane feared swimming in the ocean.
    The ocean is full of fish and unpredictable riptides.

    It just seems wrong to describe these places in past tense.

    What do you think?

  10. To Tricia--What about combining such sentences to eliminate your dilemma?

    "Jane moved to New York, a haven for stage plays."

    "Jane feared swimming in the ocean full of fish and unpredictable riptides."

    Diana at prusik(at)fidmail(dot)com

    To Elizabeth--I'd love to win a copy of your anthology!

  11. "She was glad to see him" is in the active not the passive voice! For good advice on the passive, see How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing.

  12. Hey Barb,

    Absolutely. I always brainstorm a story before I write the actual timeline. For me, nothing works better than a good 'ol sheet of yellow paper and a pencil. I jot down the names of the characters and the main story idea, and then I start penciling in ideas for their goals, possible motivations, etc. until my entire page is filled. Often, I only use about a third of what I wrote, but at least I give myself plenty of material to choose from.

  13. Tricia,

    I'm afraid I'm going to have to agree with your crit group. Switching back and forth is not only confusing, it may set off warning flags about your ability to understand the difference. You definitely don't want that.

    Diana had some good suggestions for you, but here's one more. Instead of switching tenses, SHOW the connection between the place and the POV character. IE:

    Jan feared swimming in the ocean. It stirred too many memories of fish that bit and riptides that pushed water over her head.

    This way, you're details have meaning, and you're deepening characterization at the same time.

  14. Sorry, Jim, you're wrong. While the word 'was' is not always a sign of passive voice, it is a strong indication, especially when compared to example I gave, in which the action is much more active.

  15. Elizabeth, where is the past participle in your supposed passive example? For your example to be in the passive voice, the word glad would have to be a past participle. Actually, of course, it's an adjective. Also, the distinction between active and passive voice is nothing to do with how active the action is!

    In active sentences, the subject typically expresses the agent of an action, and the object expresses the goal or the thing changed by the action:

    Active: The boy -> broke -> the vase.
    ("The boy" is subject and agent; "the vase" is object and goal.)

    In passive sentences, the subject expresses the goal of an action; a form of be (not necessarily was) precedes a past participle of the verb; and the agent of the action may or may not be expressed in a by-phrase:

    Passive: The vase <- was broken <- by the boy.
    ("The vase" is subject and goal; "by the boy" is prepositional phrase and agent.)

    You can recognise the passive by looking for some form of be followed by a past participle, optionally followed by a by-phrase.

    Sometimes the form of be is implied and does not actually appear in the sentence; for example: "The advice given by the doctor was to drink more beer." This is in the passive voice, and contains an implied was: "The advice (that was) given by the doctor was to drink more beer."

    The passive is sometimes the right choice and can improve emphasis and cohesion.

  16. Jim, although I'm a novelist, I'm no grammar expert, nor really ever hope to be but I like your spirit and desire to help others. That's really cool of you (and everyone who commented) to take time out to explain a concept or your opinion. I'd agree that the passive is sometimes the right choice. I'm all for learning the so called writing rules but the very best of the best novels break them with what might seem like abandon, but very purposefully and effectively.

    In the end, what works, works. Period.

    Lisa is a wonderful writer and editor but perhaps writing in a different style than what you might prefer to do.

    Good post, Lis. Excellent comments all.

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