Posts Tagged ‘editing’

woman writingA while ago I took a workshop in which the presenter recommended writing a sentence summing up the purpose of each paragraph in a chapter just to make sure all the paragraphs were necessary. At the time, that struck me as torture—and, to be honest, it still does. But the idea behind the exercise was legit. Nothing should be in your book that doesn’t serve a purpose.

No extraneous crap, in other words.

Drilling this down to the paragraph level may be taking things a bit far. But it’s still a good idea to consider the purpose of every detail you include in your story. Because every detail should be there for a reason. Now the reason isn’t always related to the plot. You can have details that relate to character, like your hero rattling change in his pocket to show that he’s nervous. Or you can have details relating to setting, like the insipid punch your heroine sips at Almack’s. And you can certainly have details relating to the story, like all the myriad of real and false clues that show up in most mysteries and thrillers. But everything you include should have some point behind it. If it doesn’t, you’re wasting your time—and your reader’s time.

I was reminded of this principle the other day while I was reading a thriller. The hero had just been reunited with the heroine, his one true love. He was bringing her back to his apartment in order to protect her from the bad guy. On the way in, he stopped to pick up his mail, then dropped it into one of the grocery bags he was carrying upstairs.

Let me tell you, I stayed fixated on that mail for the next five pages. Surely it would come back to be important in the plot. Maybe the mail included a letter with a crucial piece of information. Maybe the hero’s obsession with the heroine would distract him from finding a clue to the villain’s identity. Because surely the author wouldn’t just describe the hero picking up the mail for no particular reason.

Actually, that’s just what she did. The mail, and the fact that the hero stopped to pick it up, never came up again.

I have a good idea why the author chose to include the fact that the hero picked up his mail. She probably thought, “When I come home, I always pick up the mail, so he should do the same thing.” In other words, the author thought she was being realistic. But here’s the thing: real life includes all kinds of things that don’t show up in fiction. Part of the author’s job, in fact, is to pare away the details of life that don’t have any bearing on the story. And in this case, the author failed to do that—and failed pretty spectacularly.

If the mail had been the only detail the author included for no particular reason, it would only be a minor problem. But this particular author included lots of them, so many, in fact, that the plot started to bog down under their weight. And after a while, I just gave up.

Any story will wither if you throw in too much extraneous stuff. The reader may get so tired of trudging through the bog that she won’t stick around for the denouement. As an author, you have a central task. You decide what your readers need to know, and what they don’t. Then you tell them whatever it is they need. And then, dear Lord, you move on.

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Finding Mr. Right NowWell, I have a lovely new cover (at left), but the MS is still being edited. Editing with fiction means several things since there are several rounds of edit for most novels.

The first edits come from your editor at the publishing house, and those are usually the most grueling. The editor isn’t particularly concerned with grammar (although she may point out a few obvious errors). She’s more interested in the book itself. Does the plot make sense? Do the characters seem well developed? Are things like motivation clearly explained?

In other words, the editor serves as a kind of highly skilled professional reader. She’ll point out problems that a reader would probably have with the first draft of the MS. Occasionally, a writer may disagree, but in my experience you’re wise to pay attention. If the editor says, “I don’t understand why he’s doing this now,” chances are good that a reader would say the same thing. The suggested changes that come from the editor usually take the most time to deal with. Early on, I had a couple of books with problematic endings. Cleaning those endings up took days of work and long discussions with my critique partners and my hubs.

After the MS meets the editor’s standards, it goes to the copyeditor. This is actually a different level of edit, one that concentrates almost entirely on issues of grammar, punctuation, and adherence to the publisher’s style book. I used to be a freelance copyeditor myself, and I actually taught a class in copyediting for several years. All of which should mean my MS is spotless, but of course it isn’t. One thing all authors would be wise to discover: copyediting your own work is almost impossible. To put it simply, you’ll read what should be there rather than what actually is there. You’ll probably miss incorrect words, unconsciously untangle garbled sentences, and overlook missing punctuation. You’re not stupid. You’re just supplying what you think is already there. This doesn’t include the inevitable problem words that all of us have. For me, it’s the distinction between farther and further, which disappears from my brain as soon as I start writing.

Run-ins with copyeditors are more frequent than run-ins with editors, however. One of the things I told students in my copyediting classes bears repeating: “The book belongs to the author.” Occasionally, you come across a copyeditor who’s a frustrated writer. Edits from these people sometimes have an edge of malice: “If I were writing this, I’d do it so much better than you.” These are the copyeditors who want to do extensive re-writes or who make changes with barely concealed contempt. When writers talk about how much they hate editors, it’s usually this kind of editing they’re talking about. In all honesty, however, I’ve rarely encountered editors like this, and fortunately for all concerned, my copyeditor on Finding Mr. Right Now was an absolute pro.

So that’s where I am at the moment. I have a release date—June 2, 2015. And I have a lovely cover. Now I wait for the next go round in the editing cycle.

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woman writingHere’s a little-known truth of writing: you’re always in love with next year’s book. Next year’s book is the new guy at work, the strap-hanger on the bus who looks a lot like Ryan Gosling, the new barrista with the cute smile. Next year’s book makes your heart race a bit, and the more you work on it, the more in love you fall.

This is it, the One, the relationship to end all relationships. Nothing can stop us, baby—you and me now and forever.

And then, into this little bower of bliss, an editor drops the ultimate bring-down: last year’s book. You know, that past relationship, the guy you thought was so cool, the one who was going to be the One. That one.

It is, of course, fruitless to complain, to claim that you’ve moved on, that you don’t want to look backward toward that old relationship. You have to go back to him, at least for a little while, because there’s no way your editor will let you off the hook about this. The two of you will be a couple again for the length of time it takes to fix all the weak spots you didn’t see when you were in love.

At first it’s a painful process. You find yourself shaking your head in disbelief. Why didn’t I notice how weak he was in secondary characters? Why did I think his plot structure was so great when it’s clearly a mess? And oh, how could I have missed how shaky he was in the subjunctives? That alone should have been a tipoff.

But as you spend some quality time with last year’s book, it’s possible you may fall in love again, at least a little (although it will never be as good as what you have now with this year’s book—or so you tell yourself). You remember how he made your smile with that little bit of dialogue. You find yourself growing nostalgic over that elegant Big Black Moment. Ah, good times, good times.

Still, it has to end. Yes, the relationship was good while it lasted, but it’s over now. Time to move on. You bid last year’s book an affectionate good-bye, sending him on his way to find other lovers (you hope), who’ll appreciate him for all the sterling qualities that made you fall in love with him in the first place.

And now it’s back to your new love. Next year’s book is so fantastic, so beautiful, so clever. He’s everything you’re looking for in a book. Perfect, just perfect. And he will never be last year’s book. Until, of course, he is.

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booksOkay, it’s time to admit the truth. Once, long, long ago in the dim, dusky past, I was a copyeditor. Not only that, I actually taught copyediting. Now you’d think this would help me write, but in fact all it really does is help me punctuate. Any copyeditor can tell you that editing your own stuff is always tough. However, my editing experience did help me determine one thing: the Chicago Manual of Style is both the writer’s equivalent of Holy Writ and a bitch and a half .

There are a lot of style manuals out there. Some, like Strunk and White, have only limited usefulness (and if you don’t believe me, check out their entry on flammable, which, trust me, ceased to be accurate somewhere around 1960). Some, like the AP Style Guide, are useful in particular circumstances, in this case if you’re writing for a newspaper. But the Chicago is one of those books that’s in a class by itself—it covers everything. Want to know how to deal with transliterated Arabic? The Chicago will tell you. Want to know if you should capitalize centuries? The Chicago knows. Have a copyright question? There’s a chapter on it. This, of course, makes the Chicago invaluable as a reference. So what makes it a bitch and a half? Try finding the answer to any question that isn’t exactly straightforward and you’ll find out.

Suppose you’re trying to figure out how to punctuate the following sentence: Her brother Harry was the chief of police in the town. Should Harry be set off with commas or not? Actually, it depends. If the heroine has more than one brother, then no commas are necessary because the name defines which brother is being spoken of (it’s a restrictive phrase). But if Harry is her only brother, the name would be set off with commas because brother and Harry are identical, and hence Harry is a nonrestrictive phrase (an appositive). The Chicago covers this in two different sections, but only if you happen to know the terms appositive or restrictive phrase. If you don’t, good luck in finding the rule.

To truly use the Chicago, you have to know the terminology used in grammar. If you’re a former English major like me, you might be able to do this (although you also might not—I actually learned a lot of this stuff from the Chicago itself since I was a lit major). If you majored in something else, you may find yourself up the creek. And that leads to the Chicago’s ultimate Catch-22: if you already know the terminology, you probably don’t need to look up the rule. If you know what restrictive and nonrestrictive refer to, chances are you also know how to punctuate them. It’s only the people who don’t know the terminology (and thus don’t know where to look for help) who need to find the information.

Ultimately, this isn’t the most frustrating thing about the Chicago. The real problem is that it’s so inclusive that you always suspect that the answer to your question must be inside somewhere, but you may spend a lot of time trying to find exactly where. And with very technical things like capitalization, you may well find that no specific rule covers the exact situation you’re trying to find. (I should also admit in passing that their usage section is fairly useless, but that’s true for a lot of usage guides.)

Still, I’d advise every writer to have a copy of the Chicago  on hand. Yeah, you can go to Google and try to find answers, but you may find a lot of different answers to the same question. If you stick with the Chicago, at least you’ll always be consistent.  Of course, you’ll also be frustrated and sometimes a little brain dead, but as we copyeditors can tell you, that’s par for the course. And you’ll always know the answer is in there. Somewhere.

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Okay, I came late to the train wreck that is the Jacqueline Howett/ Books and Pals fight, but a comment on one of my discussion lists stuck with me. One author said she’d stopped editing self-pubbed authors because, like Howett, they were just too hard to work with. This was her polite way of saying they were writers who considered their words to be pearls and their editors to be swine.

I’ve worked with a few writers like that myself, including a couple of academics who were so arrogant they refused to allow any changes to any of their words, no matter how bad those words were. But editors and reviewers have at least some things in common. And I’ve gotta say, I love good editors because I’ve been through the worst myself.

For most of my twenty-five-year academic career, I specialized in textbooks. In my field of professional and technical writing, textbooks were considered a legitimate type of research and I enjoyed writing them. Now notice, I said I enjoyed writing them, not revising them. That’s because of the way textbook publishers handle the whole editing process.

Rather than hiring editors who acquire the books and then work with the author on revisions, as fiction publishers do, textbook acquisitions editors hand the actual editing off to contractors, other academics in the same field who are hired to read and comment on the manuscript. That would be fine and a good idea (since the acquisitions editor may have no expertise in the field) except for one thing: some of those contractors secretly believe they should have written this book themselves. In a worst case scenario, these contractors have, in fact, written a similar book, but they haven’t yet published it. In this case, they have every reason to want to see the book they’re reading consigned to the deepest, darkest part of limbo.

Imagine what that’s like, if you will. Rather than being charged with helping you make your book as good as it can be, these “editors” are gunning for you. They don’t really want your book published. They want your publisher to offer them a contract instead. Fortunately, publishers are well aware of this tendency. My editor never forced me to accept hostile revisions, but he did require me to explain my reaction to what all of these “editors” had to say. I developed several tactful versions of “this guy is a total moron who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Sort of what Jacqueline Howett wanted to do but didn’t.

In contrast, my editor at Samhain is trying to help me make my book better. I usually don’t argue with her recommendations, I just do what she says (or I try to). If the copyeditor tells me to change some punctuation, I’ll do it unless I know for a fact that it’s wrong (and I can find the passage in The Chicago Manual of Style that backs me up). Working with textbooks taught me a big lesson—your words aren’t actually engraved in gold upon celestial tablets. They can be changed, rearranged, and sometimes dropped altogether and the result may be better. And if you don’t want to change them, you’d better have a much more effective argument than “My writing is fine.”

I suspect that Jacqueline Howett wouldn’t accept this advice. She’s already sold lots of books as a result of this controversy. But the question is, will she sell any more? If she’s satisfied with being a self-pubbed author, she may not have any problems. But if her real ambition is to be published by a real publishing house, I’d say she can kiss that particular dream goodbye. If you want to write, you have to learn to accept criticism. Otherwise, you can just keep those golden words clasped to your generous bosom.

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