Tag Archives: Says the Editor

Tip Me Over! #atozchallenge

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Here is one I see All. The. Time.

Authors who put out a book, maybe two, and are immediately disappointed in their sales. Maybe they’ve done promo for it; usually if they have, it’s been minimal, sending out review copies and getting upset when they fall in the Black Hole of Reviewers, never to be heard from again (it happens more than you’d expect, and to everyone. Even me and Jett over at The Rock of Pages).

Keep writing, I always tell these antsy authors. Put more novels out. Build your network of contacts, and build your network of readers. But definitely put more novels out. Good novels, too, not garbage that you’re putting out to hit a magic number.

Since I began networking with other authors around the time I started self-publishing (in 2008, for those of you keeping track), one thing has held true: the tipping point for a novelist is around 5 to 6 novels.

What’s the tipping point?

It’s when you have enough books for sale that, if you market one of them, will somehow stimulate sales for the other four or five.

For some reason, you need five or six novels — not short story collections; sorry, folks! — on the market and available for readers to buy before readers will read one of your books and gobble up your backlist.

Why is this the magic number? I have no idea.

But I’ve seen it time and again.

That means you’d better get busy. And some editors, like me, love prolific authors. You guys keep us busy, and we’re here to be kept busy.

Really, there’s nothing to fear. Don’t fear bad sales. Don’t fear screwing up.

Okay, fear putting out a bad book… and then take steps to put out the best book possible.

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To Series or not to Series #atozchallenge

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Even before the rise of self-publishing as a viable publishing platform, authors were increasingly turning to writing series. Deadlines were getting tighter, but the worlds were familiar. The characters were familiar. And the readers wanted more.

Other than the deadlines, the other factors make sense. For a writer, being in a familiar world means you don’t have to engage in new worldbuilding, which is time-consuming and, frankly, hard. Same with building new characters, although the good series introduce new, fully rounded characters who you love just as much as the original players. Or maybe you love to hate them; it’s all good.

But there’s, of course, a flip side, and that’s the ability of the reader to keep up with all the series they are reading. Personally, I gave up trying and get to certain series when I get to them. The only one I may actively keep up with is Stephanie Plum, and that’s because I can take it out of the library and read it in a day or two. That’s hardly the sort of criteria you are looking for, authors!

For a young writer, just beginning to establish him or herself, series can be attractive endeavors. Not only do you have the ability to continue to expand one singular world, rather than reinventing it with each new book, but you can also continue the growth of your main characters, and that’s one of the best luxuries of a series. There’s lots of room to play, and you can put your series out as a box set, or offer the first for free, as a loss-leader but as a hook to sell the rest of the fun that follows.

Of course, there’s a downside, and that’s that the series doesn’t ever find its audience. If that happens, you have wasted a lot of time and effort on your project. And sometimes, a lot is an understatement.

But there are things you can do. You can write the best book possible. You can hire really good editors who can not only fix your mistakes but teach you how to stop making them, and who can teach you a better command of words and the craft of writing. You can hire formatters so your books look fabulous on all the various reading devices out there (including phones). Cover artists, to help catch a reader’s eye. And, of course, a really good marketing team who can do more than line up blogs for you to visit.

Yes, it’s expensive. But if you’re doing this across a series, the costs… some of them can be spread out across the series, such as marketing. Some have hidden benefits, such as working with the same cover designer until you both know what the next three covers will look like before you’ve even plotted them.

Like everything in publishing, to series or not to series is a crapshoot. But readers seem to like them, and keeping your readers happy is always a great way to retain readers and expand your sales.

Besides, really good characters are the sort you want to be around, and writing a series is always a great way to spend time with people you love to be around.

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Revising Me #atozchallenge

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I have an editor friend (well, I have a BUNCH of editor friends, actually, but we’re talking about one editor friend in particular right here and now) who says there’s a difference between editing and revising.

Editing is what you pay for.

Revising is what you do yourself.

Either way, let’s face it: even my clients who send me their first draft have engaged in some form of revision. They have worked their prose as they’ve created that first draft, shaping and honing their past words as the present unfolds on the screen in front of them.

I say it fairly often: in the quest to make the best book possible, you have to recognize that writing is a craft. You have to hone your tools, push and pull and mold your clay, your canvas — your manuscript — into its final form. It doesn’t just happen by itself. You have to work it. And work it. And work some more.

So, yeah. Revising your work, whether you do it as you go or you go through multiple drafts, is essential. There’s no rule about how much revision work you’ll have to do, and not only does it vary from author to author, but it varies from manuscript to manuscript and project to project, too. Sometimes, even chapter to chapter, scene to scene, and yes, paragraph to paragraph.

But you have to do the work. Bring that baby up to its best possible form. And then, because revising is what you do and editing is what you pay for, you send your masterpiece to your editor, who sends you comments and sets you up for another round of revisions.

Whoever said writing wasn’t a lot of work was either amazingly blessed or lying.

Or they don’t care about quality.

Trust me. I’m a voracious reader. Quality matters.

And how.

*And hey, do you like my post title? It’s a play on a certain Metallica song. (I particularly like this version, so if you’re convinced you don’t like Metallica, or you’re not sure, this would be a SUPER link to click on. Seriously. As we say in Ultimate, chilly chilly chilly!)

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Open Sesame! #atozchallenge

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When I was in grad school, I had a classmate who’d repeat the old quote, “The first line of your book sells it. The last line sells the next one.”

There are also all sorts of memes and groups who focus entirely on first lines. They expect them to be powerful, to grip you by the throat and not let go. (Go on and Google this, but be sure to come back when you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of links.)

I am not so sure one sentence should have that much power. But I do agree that the first scene should.

Openings. Opening scenes. They matter.

For a young writer, finding the right opening of their manuscript can be the hardest part of the entire drafting process. Some of that gets back to giving yourself permission to puke on the page and get to know your story the hard, sloppy way. Some of it is because maybe you like the opening you wrote, and so you let your emotions cloud your wisdom. At that point, I tell my clients to cut it and save it in a separate file, either for use later in this book or maybe build a stand-alone short story from that scene. It can work for you as bonus marketing material.

But simply put, the general wisdom is correct: the opening has to grab a reader. That doesn’t mean every single book has to start with action. If that were the case, we’d be horribly bored with action-filled openings, even though there’s an infinite way to begin a project with action. I remember one client opened with a house fire that was epic. But it had less than zero to do with the rest of the story, other than it starred one of the main characters.

And there’s the next point: your opening may not have to start with action, but it has to set up the story you’re about to tell! Steve’s opening didn’t do that, as awesomely written as that house fire was. Readers were right there with those characters and… I spent the rest of the entire trilogy trying to figure out what it had to do with anything.

You don’t want your reader doing that, reading with half a mind, the other half focused on looking for connections. You want them wholly immersed.

Just as, when I say that a book doesn’t have to begin with action, you also don’t want to bore your reader with excessive description or — WAY worse — navel-gazing. You know what navel-gazing is, right? A character who gets lost in their thoughts, in philosophy, in justification for their deeds… they’re sitting around and gazing at their navels, admiring the way the doctor or midwife tied off that knot and set him or her free from Mom.

So where’s the middle ground?

Well, action is okay. It’s just not mandatory.

And brief description is okay.

So are fresh scenarios, which means no waking up first thing in the morning, or listening to the birds sing. As a rule of thumb, it’s probably not the best idea to open a book with a character in bed, unless it directly relates to the conflict about to unfold.

I once read a book for review that opened with what was supposed to be a hot and heavy sex scene. It also contained no small amount of internal warfare as the woman involved tried to justify allowing herself to have sex with this guy, who she obviously hated.

It was really hard to connect to her, to feel the hot and heavy part of the scene. For one, we didn’t have an emotional investment in the characters. And for another, her wonderings made us wonder if this was something we were supposed to enjoy.

Go figure, but the rest of the book referred to this sex scene with the same tangled, mixed-up feelings, and that colored the entire book. The woman would sound like a harpy when she would shriek at the man about how they’d had this sexual encounter and she regretted it every time there was conflict between them.

The takeaway in all this? Openings are hard. Really hard. Books often wind up not opening where you originally think they should, and it can be hard to kill really good writing (like I said… save for later!).

That’s where a good editor can help. This is one of many reasons why smart authors hire a good editor.

Think about your opening. Drop me a line if you have questions. We can have a short discussion before I’ll ask you to cough up cash for a coaching fee!

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Lazy Dazy: All About Language #atozchallenge

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Well, not ALL about language, or we’d be here through the next couple of A to Z Challenges, and this puppy only happens once a year.

Today, we’re going to focus on lazy language. On what happens when you slap words on a page and don’t think much of it.

Honestly? Not much. I’m one of the few who will call a person out for using lazy language, and certainly, my clients come to me for a line or content edit hoping I’ll do exactly that. So, you know, since you’re paying me, I’m more than glad to…

Seriously. This is actually one of my newest and biggest pet peeves. It’s a certain construction: to where, from where — it makes me scream.

It’s lazy.

Pure and simple. It’s lazy.

And you, as an author, can do so much better.

Like this: She walked to where he waited near the water fountain.

Seriously. I see this stuff all the time, not only from my clients (who often wind up having it challenged out of them) but from books I read for pleasure. Not a lot of pleasure when it’s the same as dragging fingernails down a chalkboard.

Try this instead: He was waiting near the water fountain. She joined him.
Or even: She joined him at the water fountain.

(Whoa! I got rid of another poor language choice: she walked— that’s one that you can usually let your reader infer for themselves. Believe it or not, they will.)

He looked near where the sailboats sat. Beside them was where the mugging had taken place.

How about: He gazed across the marina. Right there. Beside the sailboats. The mugging had taken place right there.

And look at that: snappier language. Better cadence. You know that spot’s important, and that those pesky sailboats were somehow important and we’ll be hearing from them again. Do you get all that from the first example?

That’s why I call this lazy. Sure, we talk that way. Even I do, and I have no issues admitting it.

But speech and writing are different creatures, and it’s worth going that extra mile to get rid of the lazy stuff and replace it with something smarter, more precise, snappier. Not to say that it always has to be snappier, but it should always be more precise. After all, you only have so many words to work with, even when you’re going to self-publish and that means the word count is 100% up to you.

It’s a question of bloat. Of making your language work for you, not against you (which bloated language does).

So before you send me your manuscript, take a few minutes. Do a search for to where, near where, from where. See if you can change them.*

If not, be prepared for an awful lot of comments.

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*Sometimes, you need the to where, near where, from where construction. SOMEtimes. Not all the time. Not on every page (Best-selling romance author, I’m looking at you). SOME is fine. Usually.

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#SaystheEditor I Only Love You For Your Contacts

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I kid you not.

I got this e-mail. I’ll paraphrase it, but this is the essence of it.

Hi, Susan.

I am looking for an editor for my fiction novel. Not only must she or he have an excellent command of the English language, he or she must have strong contacts with literary agents. Any editor I work with must guarantee that they’ll get an agent to read my book and quite possibly represent it.

Umm… Dude. (Yes, it was a guy)

First off, I’m the wrong editor for you. I’m friendly and easy-going. You aren’t. In fact, you’re a bit of a bully, to just walk into my life and assume I’m going to be willing to share contacts, people whose relationships I guard and hold close, both personally and professionally.

Second, if I don’t tell anyone who my clients are — and I don’t, unless they talk about me first — why would I share my contacts with you, a stranger?

Third, and most important: That’s not the job of a freelance editor.

You hire a freelance editor to help create the best book possible. That’s all. The rest, the heavy lifting, the marketing, the buzz, the social media… those things have nothing to do with editing. That’s why you pay me a flat fee: I work on your book with you, I do my best to bring out your best, and then I set you free. Oh, I’ll be here for moral support, and no one will cheer louder or harder at your successes, next to you, of course. And yes, I’ll be here to help you vet small presses or agents. But YOU have to do the work.

What frightens me most about this author is that this guy is setting himself up to be taken for a ride. Some less-than-scrupulous person’s going to sweet talk him and make promises that they can’t or won’t deliver on.

Frankly, that’s the sort of carnage I’m glad I won’t be around to see.

So a reminder: If you want me to work with you, be friendly, not a bully. And have clear and realistic expectations about what I can and will do for you. Helping you craft the best book possible? Yes.

Helping you dodge the query letter and go straight to an agent’s interest? Not even close.

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#SaysTheEditor The Mundane and the Not Worth Talking About

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EDITOR  2

Week eighteen has come and gone. Week seventeen since the retinal repair.

And really, there’s not much worth talking about. I’m healing. Dodging Frisbees. Starting to get out on my road bike, although it needs to go in for repair; it seems maybe there’s a problem with the front tire. Probably not a surprise, but until I figure it out, it’s not worth talking about. Yet. Maybe ever. I mean, everyone who owns and rides their bike(s) has problems with their front tire from time to time.

That’s the point of the post today. The mundane. The not worth talking about.

If it’s not worth talking about, why do so many young writers talk about it in their fictional narratives? He stood from the table and walked outside, then down the street to the barn, where his horse was waiting.

Yawn.

I call it play by play when I talk to my clients about it.

Try this instead:
When Stevie didn’t answer, Tom calmly left her house and headed to the barn.

Not only do we have more information here — Stevie didn’t answer, they were in her house — but we have emotion, too. Tom does it calmly.

What Tom doesn’t do is have the narrator spell out each step he takes.

Most writers know not to mention every eye blink, every swallow, every burp or sneeze, and every trip to the bathroom. Only point those things out when they are important: the first eye blink after the overnight, after-surgery bandage comes off, when you’re testing it out to see if the eye still blinks properly – and you’re fluttering it for a few seconds, putting off the ultimate test: how much vision you have.

Not that I’ve ever done that. Twice, in fact.

You see that I am so bored by play by play, I can’t even bear to write about it!

And that’s the problem. It’s boring. It’s mundane. It’s not worth talking about. It’s pedantic.

And I can go on and on about why you shouldn’t do it. I don’t think you need me to; the only thing worse than play by play is when the author beats the horse dead and bloody. That’s for another day, though.

For now, go back to your manuscript. Are there simple, everyday actions that won’t hurt the narrative if they are cut out? Do people stand, turn, look, walk, enter, or exit? Do they do those things often?

If the answer’s yes, start using that backspace and/or delete key. Re-craft your sentences as you need to. Take the time to invest in your word choice, and be sure to vary your word choice, your characters’ actions, and your sentence structures. (Oh, is THAT all?)

And, of course, if you get stuck on a better way to word something, drop me a line. I’m offering coaching for just this sort of issue, and I’m offering it pretty cheap, at $25 an hour. One-on-one work, when you need it, and edited manuscripts back to you within a business day or two. How can you beat it?

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#SaysTheEditor: Uber-bad and anti-this

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We’ve all seen the derogatory comments about self-published books. How poor the quality is. Bad grammar. Poorly copy edited. Needs an overall editor. Facts are wrong.

Over and over, I’ve watched the anti-self-pubbed crowd turn up their noses at self-published books, claiming these are the reasons no one should ever align themselves with that drek. Getting a real book deal means you’re automatically lifted above the unwashed masses. It’s proof of excellence.

Stick a sock in it and get your nose out of the air.

I’m reading a book published by a relatively new imprint of one of the oldest, most well-respected houses out there. I’ve met the head editor back in the days when I was doing the author circuit. She may even recall my own name.

And this book is a total embarrassment.

The person who drives a cab? CABBIE. Even my teens got that right when I asked them.

Uber? Is a prefix. As in uber-bad. As in you don’t have to be an uber-editor to get this one in your sleep.

The book is a sports romance, and I’ve been reading a lot of them lately. This one’s a hockey romance, in fact. A sport I used to play. A sport I continue to follow, albeit not as closely as I once did. So yeah, I can pick up on the facts that are wrong, and the facts that are being fudged so the author looks like she knows what she’s talking about.

The storyline is poorly done. I keep thinking, “Okay, now we’re in the part of the book where we’ll deal with X issue.” — it should be integrated, and it should be seamless. There shouldn’t be parts of the book devoted to issues.

The timeline is fuzzy. I’m not sure at any point how much time has passed, both since the beginning of the book and in relation to past events (see next paragraph). This is an easy fix! The author (and editor) should work from a timeline that clearly illustrates this.

The male lead has some serious issues. He goes to the cemetery to visit his dead daughter. Okay, fine. We’ve heard in spades how much he misses her and how badly he’s still hurting, some indeterminate number of years later. But on this day, he runs into his ex-wife. And he’s more focused on talking to her (and getting The Big Life Lesson, which hits us with some major neon signage) than he is on what he came here to do, which is pay respects to the girl. But in the middle of his conversation with his ex, he stops, sends a silent thought up to the daughter, and then goes back to the ex. Hello? And you claim to be torn up about losing her? So much so that you struggle to do your job?

Dude. You just lost ALL credibility with me. Do I really have to finish reading?

Yeah. Another bad book — I know this isn’t the first time I’ve come down hard on books from big-name publishers. It’s not that I’m anti-big publishing. I firmly think that every model has its pros and cons, and that publishing is big enough to need both models.

I’m anti-badly written, badly edited books. That’s the difference.

I see brilliant self-published books. I just read a brilliant historical romance from a major house. Man, that knocked my socks off. Book clubs everywhere should read this and talk about it. It brings up issues of what a happy ending truly is, of the value of getting to know a person before making judgements (although the character in question totally did come off as smarmy and gross, which is where the author’s brilliance really came through), of what it means to love. This book blew me away.

I’m anti-snobs. I’m anti- authors who look down their noses at other authors for choosing their own path. I’m more than anti- authors who won’t give a helping hand to their fellow writers. If we all push ourselves to do better and help each other reach for better craft, better editors, better publishing experiences of all kinds, imagine the literary works we’d be putting out. And I don’t mean literary in the sense of High Falutin’ Lit. I mean literary in the sense of basic words spelled right. Stories that are filled with believable facts and that push the cliches aside and give us characters and storylines we can buy and root for and never want to see end.

And one last footnote: In the middle of reading this latest piece of drek, I came across a job posting from the publisher. I thought about going for it, but it looks like I’d have to stop working for the authors who I currently work for, and I’m just not into that idea. I’d be glad to work something else out, however. It’s all about better books, right?

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#SaystheEditor Hanger On

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Okay, quick grammar check here.

Hanger — the thing you put a coat or clothes on before jamming them into your closet.

Hangar — where airplanes live.

Go check your manuscripts, folks. Hanger/hangar. One of the more common errors I see.

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#SaystheEditor Transitions

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Maybe it’s the time of year. End of the old, getting ready to bring in the new… It’s a time of transitions, of resolutions, of looking ahead and shedding the old.

Lots of that happening in my world, that’s for sure. It seems to have turned into one of those periods where major upheaval is, if not imminent, then already in progress.

I can tie a lot of that into writing, but let’s be more mechanical today. Transitions within paragraphs.

Here’s an example:
Mack searched the empty bleachers of the Hydra stadium in vain. The place wasn’t fancy. If anything, it was run down, the gleam gone from the silver bleachers until they faded into the boring, dull grey of the concrete steps and supports. Really, the whole place was blah. It was hard to believe that in a few days, there’d be three hundred people trying to fill that middle section, people cheering and yelling and talking and having fun. Just Tess wasn’t there, like she’d promised she would be. He’d counted on her, her smile, her hands clenched together under her chin, even for something as stupid as a practice. She’d said she’d be there, even if she was the only one in the whole place watching, cheering him on, rooting for him. He wanted to scream. All his wheedling, all his love, all his need for her — and hers for him — had been for nothing.

So. Mack’s looking at the stadium. He’s projecting into the future and then, wham! We get to what’s really bugging the poor guy. His girlfriend (and yes, he calls her Just Tess and you’ll have to read the book to find out why) isn’t there to watch him practice.

Without that transition, it’s hard to realize at first if Tess is supposed to be in the bleachers at that exact moment, or if Mack is projecting her absence along with the fans. You have to keep reading, and it’s jarring.

Sure, you could make a paragraph break, and the trend these days certainly is for shorter paragraphs, perhaps due to the prevalence of e-books and how they appear on a small screen. But what if you don’t want to? Because, after all, the focus of the paragraph is whether or not Mack’s search — which we’re told up front is going to be in vain — will pay off. You want it all in one paragraph.

That means you have to tie everything together.

Mack had come out before the rest of the team so he could look for her. She had promised to be up there, in the bleachers, making a run-down old stadium look bright and cheery simply with her presence. He’d been waiting all day to see her there, colorful against the silver bleachers that had dulled so much over the years that they now blended into the boring, dull grey concrete of the steps and supports. But all he saw was an uninterrupted field of dull greys and silvers. No Tess, despite her promises. He’d counted on her, her smile, her hands clenched together under her chin, even for something as stupid as a practice. Just Tess had said she’d be there, and Just Tess never made promises she didn’t keep. But she wasn’t there, the only one in the whole place who was watching, cheering him on, rooting for him, and that made him want to scream. All his wheedling, all his love, all his need for her — and hers for him — had been for nothing.

Keep an eye out for these things. You want the reader to flow from one thought to another, to move with you. Don’t wrench them out of the story and drop them back in somewhere else. Make it smooth. Remember: the best writing is the writing you don’t notice.

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#SaystheEditor: Double Standard?

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Lately, I’ve been seeing reviews for books that are highly critical of the editing. Usually, the critics have their grammar rules wrong and are clinging to their high school English lessons, which taught an entirely different use and set of rules than what applies to modern-day fiction. My favorites are the people who clearly are older than I am and who are citing rules that were outdated when I went to high school. These people are leaving negative reviews for authors based on their own lack of knowledge, and that’s not fair to the author or his/her support staff.

The inmates are running the asylum, folks.

But here’s where the double standard kicks in. In many of these reviews, once they are done criticizing the professional’s job, they go on and … break the rules themselves. Know how many reviews I’ve seen criticizing the editor that themselves have typos? How many times I’ve seen character names spelled wrong? (and yes, I’ve done this myself. Actually, I once did worse: I got the author’s name wrong. How embarrassing! But I learned… and haven’t done it since. Some things never leave you.)

That’s not my favorite, though. Nope. My favorite, my all-time, holy smoke, are you for REAL moment is when they make up words.

Double standard, boys and girls.

So… on the one hand, the book is edited poorly! The author needs someone better!

And on the other hand, I’m illiterate! I’m too trendy for you and I’m making up words that ought to catch on when really, there’s a perfectly fine way of saying this without looking like a tool!

It’s a double standard. It’s the inmates running the asylum. And it’s hurting careers all over the place.

Don’t comment on the editing. If you have an issue, send the author an e-mail. Let them work it out privately, let them contact their editor and fix the errors (any client who comes to me with an issue gets a free re-do, and if the errors were actually in the copy I worked on — because errors have a way of creeping in at every single stage in the game, and any author will tell you of their struggle to stop that — you’ll get a free next edit from me, too) quietly and upload a new copy.

Because when you whine about something so publicly, you’re hurting the author. You’re giving the impression the author has made bad choices, or can’t write, or has spent their money on the wrong people.

And then when you go and do it with your own lack of regard for the very things you’re complaining about, now you’re making yourself AND the author look bad.

Why would you want to be so hurtful to so many people?

Cut the double standard. Keep your mouth shut publicly. Contact the author.

And maybe hire an editor for your own reviews. I’d be glad to help you with that.

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#SaystheEditor Stereotypes From the Mouths of Babes

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Last weekend, I took the boy and three of his teammates to southern Virginia for an Ultimate Frisbee tournament. I came away with an awful lot to write about, both in my fiction and right here, as The Editor.

Today, let’s talk about teens. Teenage boys, in particular because even though I wandered over to see the girls and even though they came and watched most of our first game on Sunday, I didn’t get to observe the girls nearly enough. (They are, however, quite cool.)

Often in fiction, kids appear in one of two roles: the comic relief or the brooding, troubled kid.

Reality isn’t so easy, is it? I had four kids in my charge this weekend: three high school sophomores and a high school junior. Not one filled those roles in the typical sense, although they were each comic relief in their own ways. Each had moments of brooding. In their own ways.

We were standing in Subway on the way home and one of them — we’ll call him Tom — looked at me and said, “Mrs. G, know what I’ve noticed? You and [your kid] both like to have a lot of space around you.”

And I realized… he was right. Dead-on correct. The boy and I need that buffer space (although I was sort of curious about that when the boy leaned over from the backseat and started massaging Tom’s face and yes, it was really strange and utterly hysterical at the same time … like I said, lots of food for future fiction.). We’ve been through some pretty big traumas, me and my kids. And every now and then, someone with a high level of perception or empathy comes along and sees it. Tom, at age sixteen, was one of them.

So what’s this got to do with writing? Well, haven’t you figured it out yet? Kids and teens are too often cast into stereotypic roles in fiction. Would any of us — myself included — expect to hear something like that from a kid’s mouth?

Well, sure. There’s that third stereotype: the too-wise-for-his-years kid.

But Tom? Like I said. He got a face massage from my kid (and purred). He whined about being attacked by a thumbtack yet only complained twice about the finger he sprained and how swollen it was. He informed us that Krispy Kreme was the reason he was fat as a kid (think about that one). He spent two hours doing his homework with the quiet kid.

Definitely a character in his own right. And definitely not a stereotype.

So… let’s bring this to you, shall we? If you’re going to include kids in your books, spend time with them. Volunteer somewhere, even if it means getting your child abuse clearances and oh, no! Spending money on travel costs and crummy hotel rooms (that’s a story for another time) and food and yes, Krispy Kremes for the drive home.

Get to know these kids. Figure out who they are and what makes ’em tick. Know the stereotype about kids being absorbed in their phones? Not this crew. Four kids. They talked in my car. They played games. They engaged in a science experiment with Kool-Aid. They did homework. They slept. And yes, they watched videos… for about an hour. Of sixteen in the car.

Again, they’re not fitting the stereotypes.

As writers, it’s on us to get it right. Yeah, you may be the writer who uses those broad generalities to make a larger point about human nature. But… do you really need to?

What would happen if you break out of those molds and formulas and stereotypes and portray kids as the complex, perceptive, funny people they truly are? Wouldn’t fiction — YOUR fiction — be better for it?

I suspect it would. Go for it.

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#SaystheEditor More Bad Writing from the Beard Book

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Train wreck.

That’s the only explanation I can give this poor romance, and it’s certainly the only reason I can give for continuing to read. Heck, I sat in the car outside the library while my kid was inside. I read. She was looking for new books. She was the smart one.

I mentioned the stubble/beard problem in my last post. Won’t go there again.

But it’s been downhill, in terms of the writing, since then.

There’s a “Shit!” he swore moment.

Seriously? In today’s fiction marketplace, you, Big Five Publisher, are putting THAT amateur writing out? Seriously? Like the reader is too freaking stupid to know that shit or whatever the word actually was is what someone says when they swear?

As I say to my clients, “Why tell what you’ve already shown?”

Waste. of. words.

(Waste of reader brain cells, too.)

But then it got better. It did! How does it get better than something I have been making fun of since the 1990s?

He tasted her with his mouth.

Well, thanks for that clarification there, folks. Personally, I taste with my left elbow, so knowing that someone uses their mouth to taste… wow. Consider my mind blown.

Honestly, I’m not sure which is worse: that a real person (presumably) put her name on this drek, that some editor let it be published, or that the publisher is actually charging $7.99 for it. Maybe the absolute worst is that readers and libraries (where my copy came from) actually spent money on it.

My clients turn out better books on a daily basis. They come up with creative plots — and notice how I haven’t started on the plot of this one, which is cliched perfunctory leaning toward kitchen sinking — and characters who are real. And they work on the craft of writing. They rise above amateur hour. They push boundaries. They expect excellence from themselves.

And you, big publishing, are putting THIS out?

And people wonder what’s wrong with publishing.

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Says the Editor: Think About This

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Last weekend, don’t ask why, I sat on a band practice field at Penn State and tried to stay warm and dry. And my thoughts went like this:

Jan is dating Peter.
Peter is dating Jan.
Peter and Jan are dating.

Anyone else see the subtle difference, the way these statements shift the power between Peter and Jan, depending on how they are worded?

Just something to think about. Here, there, and especially during revisions.

Every word matters.

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#SaystheEditor Shades of the Middle

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I had a dust-up on Facebook with someone I like and respect the other day. She’d reposted one of those memes (fortunately one with proper grammar. I know. A rarity!) and left a comment about it that bothered me.

I replied that it was better to withhold judgement until all the facts in the case were known.

We had a lot of back-and-forth discussion, but she held firm to her position like a fly on flypaper. Or maybe like she was mired in quicksand. That might be a better analogy.

Here’s why: Her position targeted one group of people, and only one group. For her, it’s black and white. If you are THIS, don’t do THAT.

And essentially, I agree. But as I tried five ways from Friday to explain, I also see the problem as being much, much bigger than that.

Here’s where the situation circles around to be relevant to us as writers. And yes, my friend is a writer, which is why I’m surprised she’s so unable to see the shades of grey in a situation that she sees as black and white.

As writers, we know that every single book opens in the middle. Something has happened and as we work toward resolution, we have to learn the backstory, too. We learn the reasons characters act as they do. We learn those shades of grey, we learn why the situation isn’t what we first took it to be. Almost unfailingly, we learn that our initial assumptions were wrong.

Many reviewers who pick up a copy of my Trevor’s Song hate Trevor in the beginning. You’re supposed to. Trevor’s a self-centered whiny jerk. He’s also funny as hell and so brutally honest, he’s often painful to be around. But if you keep reading, you realize it’s a front.

But you have to keep reading. You have to explore beyond the obvious. You have to put your assumptions aside.

You’ll see this most clearly in a mystery, especially a mystery that opens with the discovery of the dead body. We only know half the story. We know someone’s dead. We don’t know the how or why. It’s the hero’s job (and our jobs as the writer) to learn it. What’s the backstory? Why did this person act the way they did? Did the man kill his boss because someone else got the promotion, or did the man kill his boss because the boss was dealing drugs at his desk and one of his customers had started stalking the killer, gotten dirt on him, and blackmailed him into killing the boss?

Makes you look differently at the killer, doesn’t it? He’s gone from being petty and angry over a promotion to being pretty sympathetic. The boss was a dick. The killer wound up the victim of someone else, trapped in a desperate situation.

Circumstances matter. Situations matter. There are shades of grey in this world for a reason, folks, and that reason is to enrich our lives. To keep us from being a carbon copy of everyone else around us. It takes all kinds to make the world. It takes all colors to make fiction so vibrant and alive.

Whether it’s real life or fiction, we need to remember that. Look beneath the surface. Remember that old cliche about pointing one finger and four pointing back at you.

Things aren’t what they seem. As writers, it’s our job to tease those things out. As writers, it’s our job to take the unlikeable and make them likeable. It’s our job to realize that while stereotypes exist for a reason, what makes our writing super rich is the ability to transcend stereotype. To not step into the quicksand and refuse to move out when someone asks you to consider a bigger picture.

Embrace the world, embrace our differences. Explore what sets every person apart from each other. And remember that the facts in every single case are different and taking a stand against everyone, like a blanket, is only going to cause more hurt and pain than what you’re trying to prevent by opening your mouth in the first place.

Until you know someone’s story, don’t judge.

Until you know your fictional character’s story, keep writing.

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#SaystheEditor Fiction and the Gun Culture

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I first noticed it a year or two ago: unless it was a fantasy set in a different world or a Regency romance, almost every book I worked on was guaranteed to have a gun in it. Mystery? But of course there were guns, and not merely the service weapons that cops carry and, hopefully, rarely remove from their holsters. No, I was seeing guns that were pulled out. Pointed at people, safety off and finger on the trigger. Guns that were discharged, often with muzzle flares and smoke coming off the tip afterward and even more often with no regard for that thing called aim. Or concern for collateral damage — you know, the people and things that will be killed, ruined, damaged by a bullet that didn’t hit its intended target.

There was rarely, if ever, anything approaching safety other than flipping the gun’s safety off.

Always flipping the safety off.

Now, I belong to a sportsmen’s club, almost exclusively so that my kid has a close and really darn good archery range. I have shot, on occasion, myself, although the 12 gauge shotgun in July — which definitely had a safety that couldn’t be flipped, at least by my fingers — proved that my elbow injury interferes with what is essentially a fun activity. There is something very satisfying about finding you measure up to a target, although those flying orange ones continue to give me nightmares. They don’t move nearly that fast when you are merely watching!

At my club, and at the clubs friends and family have taken me to as a guest, and at the club we’ve been to with the Scouts, and even on the archery ranges, safety is the Number One concern. Reverence for the gun, for what it can do, comes a close and related second.

There’s nothing approaching safety or reverence of the weapon in any of these books. Guns are … taken for granted. Everyday objects that are essential to keep the hero safe.

Now, maybe that familiarity is part of the culture. I’m not entirely certain. I know that my club is full of cops, who use the range to keep their skills sharp. So you’d think if there’s a setting in which guns would become second-nature, this would be it. But… nope. The number one rule is safety: always point the gun downrange. Never put your finger on the trigger until you are ready to shoot. And more. So much more. Safety comes first. Reverence for the firearms is a close and related second.

My neighbor is a cop. His wife was hit by a drunk driver on the highway a few years back, and the first thing that happened when the police arrived was she said to the responding officers, “My husband is on the job. This is his car. There’s a firearm in it.”

We don’t see this in fiction. We see people whipping guns out, firing at will. We almost never see characters open the action, eject the spent cartridge.

In almost every book, we see guns.

This bothers me.

It bothers me every time I flip on the news to hear of another shooting.

It bothers me every time I have to go to school or my temple. Cameras. Sign-in procedures. Show a driver’s license. Ring a doorbell. Wave to the cop on the campus.

Now, I’m not going to go so far as to say that as fiction writers, we have a responsibility to change this country’s gun culture (for the record, a lot of my international clients have guns in their manuscripts, as well). Every single person, regardless of who you are, has a responsibility to help change the gun culture.

The best way is through education. If you’re going to write a book that has guns in it, know what you’re talking about. Take a class at a sportsmens club; many offer classes to non-members. Talk to your instructor, make friends with someone who shoots. Since I joined the club, I’ve been surprised by how many friends and family have outed themselves to me as fans of recreational shooting. Every single one is willing to take me out, teach me a few things, give me practice. I’m grateful for their offers. These are ambassadors of firearms. The message is simple: educate yourself. Learn to do it right. Have fun with it.

Put yourself in your protagonist’s shoes. How does it feel to pull that trigger, knowing someone may die? How does it feel to be reliant only on a gun for protection? Most of these fictional characters don’t spend hours and hours on a range, perfecting their aim. Yet somehow, in the movies and in fiction, their aim is always true. The bad guy dies.

Ever stop to consider what you’d do if you missed? What you’d do if a gun was pressed to your own temple?

When I was in grad school, I had a friend. He wrote mysteries. Before he got to grad school, he drove a cab. He had guns pointed to his head. And let me tell you, his reaction, each and every time, was the sort of thing I have never seen in fiction. Ever. Because our heroes need to keep their cool. They can’t panic. They can’t give in to their body’s natural reaction.

How true to life is that?

So here’s my challenge. While I don’t believe it’s incumbent on us fiction writers to write firearms entirely out of our fiction, it’s incumbent on us to be completely solid in our fictional uses of them. That’s the first part of the challenge: write what you know. Old advice, right? Flip that around: learn about what you want to write about. Guns. Cooking. Fancy chairs if your hero is a wedding planner. Know your stuff.

But also, while guns are always going to be vital in certain books, see if you can come up with climaxes and penultimate scenes that don’t involve guns. Can we get away from the trope of the abused ex-wife who pulls a gun and shoots her abuser dead? Let’s think about what would happen in real life if that happened: the survivor would be taken to jail while the situation was sorted out. And the kids? Quite possibly (but not always) thrown into the system, at least temporarily.

To me, the kids are more important than being the one who is ultimately responsible for the ex’s downfall. Put the gun away. Find another conflict, another way to bring things to their highest point of tension and breaking point. Maybe it’ll lack the drama of a gun, but … well, think MacGyver. What sort of situation can you create that sets the situation on its peak, but doesn’t involve a gun?

I’ve been writing again — over 8k since last Friday, which isn’t bad when you consider how busy my life is — and there are going to be no guns in my manuscript. There could be, easily so. But I want my story to be realistic, and frankly, guns will be the antithesis to the world in which my story is set. They don’t fit here. People working problems out in different ways do.

So I challenge you: can you come up with a story that leaves the guns at home? Can you educate yourself so if you do use guns, the experts won’t laugh, shake their heads, and toss your book aside?

Small changes, yes. But if everyone makes a small change, won’t it add up to be one big change?

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#SaystheEditor Bogged Down

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…and there it was again. A post in a writer’s group on Facebook. “I got a bad review! Oh, no! What do I do!”

I don’t understand why it’s so hard for us to understand how to respond: you do nothing.

However, this turned out to be the exception. A few others in the group did a bit of digging into the reviews this book had generated. “You need an editor,” a bunch of people responded. “Every single review that’s been posted mentions the bad proofreading.”

So… I chimed in. “I’d be glad to proof your book for you. I actually do a fair number of proofing books that have been published but have gotten dinged for bad reviews.” The author asked for my rates. I gave them and told her that if they were too high for her, I’d work with her to reach something she could afford. Implicit in that was the idea that I ain’t working for Oreos. I extended the offer to anyone in the group in need of what I can do for them.

And then… the thread bogged down. The people who told her to do nothing, including editing her book. The people who loudly told her to unpublish the book and have it edited. A few told her to take advantage of the people offering their services (at that point, it was me and someone who offered to let a friend do it. No clue what the credentials were, which means there probably weren’t any).

My favorite was the author who said the reviews had been left by editors who were trying to drum up business.

Wow. Just… wow.

I doubt that author’s going to reach out to me, to be honest. Look at all that advice, and look at all those opinions. How does a person know who to trust?

By the time I gave up on it, people (again, of dubious qualification) were offering to proof this poor book for free. A debate was raging over the spelling of the title. But it’s a fantasy book, and in fantasy, you can take liberties with certain spellings.

But once again, it makes me wonder. It makes me wonder about so many things, I get bogged down, myself.

* What’s it take to raise above the noise and prove how very good I am at what I do and help more of these people?

* Is it worth hiring a staff of really good subcontractors to reach out to these authors and offer a Post-Publication Oh, No service? If so, what would be a fair charge?

* How the heck do I even find a staff of really good subcontractors? Most of the people I talk to have their own client lists, their own full calendars. The folk who are struggling often (but not always) reveal themselves in various ways to not be up to my standard with their knowledge base. Sorry, but if you’re sourcing on Facebook for help, you’re not West of Mars material.

And more.

I get both sides of the equation. I do. Good editing isn’t cheap. Finding a good editor isn’t easy, especially when you have been surrounded by the wrong people — the ones who bog you down in false flattery. That makes it hard to hear a good editor’s truth. It makes you feel like maybe you threw an awful lot of money away. That maybe you’re not as good as you thought you were.

I get it. I do.

But I also get the idea that if you want to make a serious go of a career as a writer, you can’t get bogged down in this false flattery. You can’t get bogged down by the bad reviews. You need to assemble the best team you can to help you be the best writer of the best book. Nothing else should be your goal. Ever.

So that when you are in that “Oh, no! Bad review!” panic, the advice to do nothing is the right advice. Because let’s face it: you can fix a poorly edited book. You can’t fix the online reviews that talk about how poorly edited your book is. (well, if you unpublish and then republish under a new title, you can, but even that has serious pitfalls.)

It’s your career. Get it right before you hit that PUBLISH button.

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#SaystheEditor: When Short Gets Long

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It was supposed to be a quickie road trip. In, out. Lots of time in the car and not nearly enough with the family. But when you’re with your favorite cousin (sorry gang, but ’tis true. Always has been), when air traffic goes down in DC, stranding a teen roughly the same age as your own and you want to be backup just in case the next three planes don’t fly (two didn’t), well, the short little visit got to be longer.

What’s this got to do with writing and editing? Well, I’m a day behind, that’s for sure! I’d planned to take last Friday off for the long trip down. And I’ll admit that I’d played with the idea of staying to yesterday. Just hadn’t expected to.

But more to the point. I run out of fingers and toes, those essential counting implements, when I try to think of the number of author friends and clients who have tried to write a short story or novella, only to realize there was more story there than they originally wanted to tell. Same thing for the friends and clients who outline before they write. The story takes hold and takes over.

And that’s my point today (although I really really want to rant about the misspelled book title. Seriously? People, you give literature a bad name!). To give in, to cede control every now and then. Let the story take you where it needs to go. Let it reveal itself, its twists and turns, its neat little character traits, to you. Let it be the proverbial onion that you peel away, layer by layer, ring by ring.

This is a first draft technique, to be honest. I’ve edited books where the author has let the plot get away from them and they haven’t been able to see it happening. (In these cases, I advocate scene cards) Their book turns into a hot mess and it’s next to impossible for me to straighten it out because at this phase, I don’t know what story you are trying to tell. Only you know which elements of the unwieldy plot are the ones you want to bring out. I can only make suggestions and hope they are the right ones.

Which means that yes, I advocate going nuts on your first draft. I say often enough that first drafts are for finding out where the story ends. Then, through revision and work with beta readers, figure out how to make the beginning and middle match your ending. (If you get into trouble along the way, or if you think you’ve got it but aren’t 100% certain, then you should bring in a content editor, either myself or a good friend of mine.)

Writing is a craft, remember.

But it’s in this early stage that short becomes long. This is the time to give control to the story. To extend your trip by a day because you truly don’t want to leave (is a move in my future?) or to turn a short story into a novel.

Then go back and winnow it down. Figure out what you put there because you, the author, need to know this information. Figure out what of that information helps you create a living, breathing character but is stuff the reader doesn’t need to know. Less experienced authors, you will be surprised by this! More experienced authors, you’re scoffing and saying yes, you get how it is. But stop scoffing a moment and go back to a time when you were struggling with this concept. And then take a good, hard look at your own manuscripts. Just to be on the safe side.

My extended trip gave me a lot to think about. It widened my horizons (and let me set foot in another National Park… another one I’ve got unfinished business with) and let me experience things I hadn’t expected to.

I’m a better person for it. And when I sit down to write and edit, it’ll make me a better writer and editor.

Happy writing. Happy revisions. And don’t forget to book your editing slots; fall’s filling up!

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#SaystheEditor Regroup, Revise, Refocus

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At the start of the summer, I decided that I was going to have a cardio summer at the Hoity Toity Health Club. It sounded like great fun: try to bike 300 miles and either walk or elliptical for 30. I had from the first day of summer vacation until the last to accomplish this.

And, me being me, the idea was really to see how many miles over 300 and 30 I could get.

But about halfway through the summer vacation, I realized something: while the challenge was a great way to motivate me to get myself back into the gym on a routine basis — the underlying reason for this silliness — I was neglecting something extremely important: strength training. And it was starting to show. Bones were beginning to dislocate, and I was having pain.

It was, of course, time to regroup, refocus, and yes, throw the challenge out the window.

I don’t like to say I failed so much as I came to realize I had to pursue a better path. I had to adjust to the circumstances and improve the situation.

So I did. No big deal. Fewer miles got walked and pedaled. Weights began to be lifted. I haven’t fully recovered my strength, but I’ve stopped the worst of the carnage.

Likewise, when we’re writing, sometimes, we have to throw the plan out the window and regroup. Yes, we may have to do it on the fly. Sometimes, we may get to the end of our first draft and look up and think, “Well, this ending doesn’t line up with the beginning.” We may have to work up a set of scene cards and take a good, hard look at the project from that viewpoint. Outlines may meet the recycle bin.

It’s not always as easy as waking up to realize that while you slept, you have a new dislocation that’s making it feel like someone sunk a knife into your butt and the pain’s radiating down your leg.

But sometimes, it is.

Doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that you can take that deep breath and do what’s best for your book. Yes, you may have spent hours or days or weeks on your outline, only to have to abandon it and fly by the seat of your pants. Maybe you realize that you began flying by the seat of your pants and deviated from the outline, and now you need to go back.

Doesn’t matter.

What matters is having the smarts and the guts and the dedication to regroup and realign. To delete pretty writing or scenes that make you laugh or cry.

Keep the focus on telling the best story you possibly can, and be ruthless in your pursuit of that goal. What isn’t important here is where you planned to end the journey. It’s what you learn about yourself, about your book, along the way.

I promise your book will be better for it. And just maybe, so will you.

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#SaystheEditor Always Working

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I’ve made friends with a couple of authors over the years. Some because they write Rock Fiction. Others because they are neat people. And still others because they are clients.

Sometimes, they fit into all three categories. I’m lucky like this.

One of them asked me to join NetGalley so I could read her upcoming release. The review will go up at The Rock of Pages once it’s written. (And oh! The Rock Fiction I’ve found there already! Whee!)

In maybe the second scene, I caught a mistake: one character goes from being barefoot to wearing something on their feet. In the same scene. And no, they didn’t slip into a pair of shoes.

So because I want good things for my friend, I dropped an e-mail to the publicist and the author. “Hey, guys. Can we fix this before the final version is released?”

I’m hoping the answer will be, “Someone else called it to our attention. Glad you did the same, and thanks.”

This is why you want a good editor working on YOUR books. I am always working, always looking out for my clients. My friends. All of the above.

Get on my calendar now. I’ve got openings, oddly enough. Take advantage before they’re gone.

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