Category Archives: Says the Editor

More about Effect and Cause

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilWhile we were talking last week about Effect and Cause, I forgot to mention something I’d actually written down so I’d remember!

So here’s the sentence. I changed it from the original, of course. I’m not here to make fun of my clients! However, they do inspire me. Daily.

A flush crept over her cheeks after she leaned back and met his gaze.

See how that’s problematic? We get the result before we’re told what’s happening. And while his gaze can be a delicious thing to end a sentence on, I think in this case that the important detail here isn’t him, but her.

So I’d rewrite it as:
A flush crept over her cheeks, but she leaned back and met his gaze anyway.

Aha. Now there’s some meat in there. She’s embarrassed by something, but not so much that she’s ready to run and hide from him. If anything, she’s owning it. She’s a brave one, our unnamed heroine.

And here’s what I wrote to the author. Yes, this part is verbatim because it’s my words and I liked them so much I wanted to share them with all of you. (Yes, as in why confine my brilliance to just one person?)

Here, you can have the effect happen as part of the whole moment. Doing it this way is super; it makes each moment bigger, fuller. It’s a broader brush stroke instead of making the reader’s brain stop and take in each individual movement.

Or, like I said above, it’s putting some meat on the same set of actions, giving us something that helps bring these people (well, at least her) alive. And that’s what you want: Characters to feel alive. You want the reader to be able to learn more than a simple set of actions; you want to give us some characterization as well.

Holler, as always, if you need help.

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Cause and Effect, or Effect and Cause?

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I’ve been seeing this crop up lately, so let’s talk about how your narrative sequences things: cause and effect, or effect and cause?

Need an example? Here’s one: He turned when he felt…

Now, that seems like it’d work, right? It heightens the drama… He turned! Why did he turn? Well, keep reading and we’ll tell you it’s because he felt (whatever it was that he felt).

But do you see what’s happening here? You have effect and cause, not cause and effect.

Or, in other terms: The character reacts to something before the reader knows what s/he/they are reacting TO. It’s not only a reaction. It can be any motion out there. She walked up the front steps after closing the car door.

As an author working on your first draft, it’s one thing to do this. The first draft, after all, is for figuring out where the story’s going, what’s happening on the page, how the characters are moving (and why)… it’s for learning. This is why I always encourage authors to not be afraid to puke on the page. Get it out, get it down, go back and craft it later.

It’s that later that often becomes a problem. Because it’s one more thing you have to look for, be alert for, know if you have a tendency to do this or not. (Most of us do.)

Go on. Take a look at your work-in-progress. Do you have cause and effect, or do you have effect and cause? And can you think of a time when effect and cause is the better option? I actually can! Don’t rest on your laurels, though. Check your WIP. I bet you’ve got some.

Remember, if you’d like to work with Editor Susan over here, I’m now booked up until November. I’m only taking rush jobs from existing clients; I’m holding up too many careers as it is! And don’t set a bloody presale date until AFTER you’ve gotten your manuscript through the editing stage, just in case your editor is backed up and/or you wind up with unanticipated rewrites.

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Counting

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilCounting? Like the Count on Sesame Street?

YES.

Here’s the deal, because you know there is one, and you know it’s sticking in my craw and making me cranky.

Increasingly often, I’m running into writer’s groups full of authors who get busy counting the number of times they use a word in a manuscript. And then… they obsess over that number, like they are afraid they are over the magic threshold and if they can’t get under it, their book is going to suck.

“I have used THAT sixty-five times in 60,000 words! Is that too many?”

I alternately want to slap and/or shake these people and wrap my arm around them and say, “Honey. Relax.”

Because you know what? There is no magic number.

Like so much else in the craft of writing, the counting of specific words doesn’t matter (and is potentially a waste of time, even if you run that cute little feature in Word that tells you how many times you’ve used a word and really, how much time does it take and what’s the big whoop, Sooz? The big whoop is the mental space you’re diverting from the actual job at hand). What matters is nuance. How it sounds. How it works on the page. What it brings to the story, how it operates, how it enriches.

See how those are all positive things? Not a negative among them.

That’s because the instant the negative shows up, you’ve overused it. That can be the second time you’ve used it, or it can be the thirty-fifth, or it can be the seventy-second. Or it can be the two hundred and ninth.

It’s about how you use a word. Period. There’s no magic to that; it’s craft. It’s hard work. It’s reading your prose out loud to yourself, or using a text-to-voice program or whatever you need to do in order to let your ear hear what your eye may not see. It’s listening. It’s taking the time to write, rewrite, resculpt, reimagine how to say something if need be.

Stop counting. Start listening.

As always, feel free to drop me a line if you’re struggling. I’m booked up for a few months right now, so you’ll have to wait. But who cares? I’m worth the wait.

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It’s a Pizza Party!

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilToday’s rant is brought to you by the letter P. P is for Pizza, after all. Right?

Well, to judge by how often characters go out for pizza, yes. P is indeed for Pizza.

Now, maybe this isn’t so strange. According to sources, Americans eat six thousand pieces of pizza in their lifetimes. And CiCi’s pizza learned that “A third of consumers eat pizza at least once a week and one in 10 grab up to three slices as many as three times a week. A die-hard 16 percent eat 15 slices each month.”

Our lives are, indeed, one giant pizza party!

If this one food is so darn prevalent in our lives, why do I grow weary of seeing book after book, manuscript after manuscript (So clients, yes, this is you too!) eating very little other than pizza?

It’s our default food. I get it.

But I also worry about the cholesterol levels of your characters. And if they ever eat anything else.

How about it? Think we can have characters who eat subs, or calzones, or wings, or salads instead, when they want to pick something up that’s fast? How about sushi? Chinese? Mexican? What’s wrong with grabbing tacos on the run? Pittsburgh’s filling up with great taco shops, and we are generally behind the trends when it comes to food.

Pizza’s great. Don’t get me wrong.

But just like you vary your word choices, your sentence structure, your character names, and more, you might want to vary what they are eating, too. Because right now? I kinda never want to look at another pizza again.

Remember, if you need my keen cuisine sense operating from an editorial standpoint, I’m booked solid until October 2021. But after that? I’m possibly here if you need me. Inquire gently.

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Branding Or Authorial Signature?

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilI may not leave the house much, but I do chat with colleagues and other editors. Today’s lesson comes from one of those discussions.

She had joking posted something like “All my characters ride bicycles. Is that my branding?”

And… a lot of authors said yes. That was her branding.

Which of course meant I had to chime in. “That’s an authorial signature, not branding.”

In the course of a private discussion, we wondered how many authors really know the difference between authorial signature and branding. Because the two are very very different.

In the most basic terms, branding is what you do so the reader thinks about you. You say to me “Lorelei James” and I think “Hot, steamy cowboys.” You say to me “CJ Lyons” and I think “Medical thrillers set in an alternate Pittsburgh.”

That’s branding. It’s associating the writer with the broad, overall picture of what they do. I have a client whose brand is clean, wholesome romance. One whose brand is dark paranormal. Branding is how to help a reader find a writer’s books.

Then… what’s an authorial signature?

That’s WAY more fun, especially because it generally takes a few books for the signature to come out. Most often, it does so without the author even realizing it. Like I said above, it’s “all my characters ride bicycles.” Or maybe “I write love triangles. All my heroes turn out to be cinnamon rolls. All my characters wear red underwear. I only write stories set in small towns, never cities.”

See the difference? Branding is about you. Authorial signature is about your characters. It’s the habits that sneak onto the page, consistent across your books. Maybe not all of them, but enough that those of us who know to look can see and find them.

Now. Go forth and work on your branding. Readers need to be able to find you.

Don’t worry about your signatures. They are what they are, and for people like me, they’re a lot of fun. Stay authentic to yourself and don’t try to change them.

Remember, I’m here if you need me. I’m also glad to feature your books via the Featured New Book Spotlight. And while we’re here, check out the new newsletters! Fun changes are on the horizon. Come be part of them!

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Just Wait…

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My telling you to just wait is NOT me telling you to skip writing for a day. Perish THAT thought; I subscribe to literary agent Barbara Poelle’s* mantra to “Read 2k a day; write 2k a day” — except if you don’t actually hit 2k words written or read, I’m okay with that. The idea is that you do what you can, but do it daily.

So what are we supposed to be waiting for?

It’s something that’s burned many an author. (And yes, now I am playing with you, mostly so I can say “Just wait” again and make the SEO gods happy) But it’s also something that’ll only bite you once, I’ve found.

It’s setting your release date too early, and the subsequent presale date.

What’s too early? Before your book has gone through editing, I’d say. Before it’s gone through beta reads. You know… before it’s landed in the hands of the people who may have you do a time-consuming change or six (hundred). Or who’ll encourage you to rewrite from the ground up. Yes, I know clients that’s happened to, even if it wasn’t me issuing that particular instruction.

Invariably, the same thing happens, over and over. The author — that’s the you in this scenario — winds up rushing, pushing, ignoring things that otherwise wouldn’t be overlooked. The book suffers. Readers aren’t happy with you. They make other buying choices going forward.

I know! I do know that you want to get that presale up, that you find it motivating, that you need it to give you the kick in the pants, the confidence to keep moving. You can’t take it back, so you’re committed. I get it. I DO.

But I also get that the goal here shouldn’t be to merely get a book on the shelf. Nope. The goal here should be to get the BEST book you can produce on the shelf. The best. Not the fastest.

That means pushing yourself as a writer, not in terms of getting the book done, but in terms of craft. Can you write better? Improve this? That? The other?

And don’t forget about self-care. Yes, reading/writing 2k a day is a good goal, but let’s face it: some days, you need to take a day off. Unplug. Wander in the woods. Be present for your family. Throw a ball for the dog. Cut some catnip and laugh at how your cats behave. Doing any of those things — or whatever you need — isn’t hurting your writing goals in the least, I promise. It’s refueling you. Sometimes, you need that break. Take it.

Just wait.

Don’t schedule that release date yet. Don’t set up the presale yet.

Just wait.

Focus on making the best book possible.

As always, I’m here if you need help with that. And while I’m a little bit backed up as I type this, that situation changes by the day. However, don’t delay if you want to open a dialogue. My queue can fill up pretty darn fast.

*I always credit literary agent Barbara Poelle with that because she’s the first person I heard say it — at least that I remember — at a Pennwriters conference many years ago. And yes, mentioning Pennwriters here IS an endorsement, so come join us.

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Up to you!

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilUp to you? What is up, and why do I leave it to you?

It’s a not-uncommon phrase I use in my comments when editing, and I wanted to talk a bit about it, as it can probably come off as passive-aggressive without an explanation.

Here we go. Ready? Buckled in? Braced? Hands inside the roller coaster?

Nah, it’s not that bad.

I make changes in your manuscript. That’s what you’ve hired me to do. They’re fixes, really, for grammar or readability (and, as an aside, if you ever want to know why, ASK ME! The best editing happens when we can trust each other, but also when I can help you grow as a writer.), and most of them aren’t negotiable.

So when something is, I like to let you know. Up to you.

But I won’t just point it out. Please. Zero context can be an awful thing. Instead, I’ll explain. You can just word it this way because [insert phrase] is implied by [this action]. The reason it’s up to you is that maybe it fits your authorial voice. Maybe it helps the rhythm of the sentence. Maybe you simply are more comfortable with the bit of extra words. Whatever the reason, it’s yours and you get to choose. In these instances, I’m truly letting you make your choice. It is, after all, your book, your baby, your creation. I’m here to make it better, not to override you. Well, unless your grammar sucks, your commas aren’t quite the work of art they need to be, or something doesn’t read right.

Up to you.

Don’t cringe when you see that. It’s a good thing. It means you are ready to stop and really think about the words on the page. It means you’re upping your craft.

Reaching that stage is, also, up to you.

As always, remember that if you need my editorial skills, I’m here. Reach on out.

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On Breakfast

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilSeriously? An editor is here to talk about breakfast? What on earth FOR? This is a blog run by an editor, at least for the time being. (More on that later… when I have details)

Well, yes. We’re here to talk about breakfast.

Maybe it’s because I edit a lot of fantasy, which I love and so bring it, but bring your other genres as well. And one hallmark of fantasy is the journey trope: characters on a journey. Sometimes there’s an object they have to find, sometimes it’s one they have to deliver, sometimes it’s a journey of a different type. It doesn’t really matter; what matters is that you have people moving about, and they lack the creature comforts of home.

That last part is vital. They lack the creature comforts of home. That means they don’t have a kitchen — or the full kitchen they’re accustomed to — nearby.

Sometimes, they carry their own food. At which point, they don’t want the extra weight that food brings with it. (As an aside, ever notice how no one’s ever worried that carrying food will attract animals like bears? And yet, here on our planet, if you camp in grizzly territory, the experts tell you to make sure nothing goes into your tent, not even a water bottle.)

And sometimes, our characters don’t carry food and have to hunt and forage for it.

It doesn’t matter how the food gets to our characters. What matters is how commonly breakfast, the first meal of the day, the one some company decided was the most important meal of the day* winds up, in fiction, as being described as being “meager.”

Okay, sure. Let’s stop and consider. Your characters are on the move. They may not want/be able to light a fire first thing in the morning, or to stir the ashes from the fire the night before back to life. Carting food around adds weight, can possibly attract predators although that never really seems to happen in fiction, is hard to keep fresh if it’s something perishable… Not having a hearty breakfast of pancakes and eggs and sausage is the norm, and a bowl of Wheaties is even harder in most of these societies because first, breakfast cereal seems to universally be oatmeal, not Frosted Flakes and second, well, milk needs to be kept cold (and, for the majority of us, pasteurized, although have you tried raw milk? Wow, is that good stuff).

But does eating something like jerky and scavenged berries need to be meager? Do your characters ever eat leftovers from the night before? Why, or why not? Why don’t characters ever check traps, catch a fish, or the like first thing in the morning?

Oh, I know. I get it. I’m the same way, especially when travelling: Get me up, feed me, get me moving. The day is young, it’s promising, it’s full of potential. Who wants to waste the day catching fish or skinning an early-to-rise rabbit? Besides, our heroes have adventuring to do! Let’s not slow things down with the mechanics of an early morning hunt — a philosophy I happen to agree with.

Still. Breakfasts don’t always have to be meager, do they?

Just something to think about.

And remember, I’m here for your editorial needs. And I’m also glad to help spread the word about your book, your friend’s book, your acquaintance’s book via the Featured New Book Spotlight.

A hearty breakfast is always recommended.

*That link takes you to one of many citing the same history. However, I’m not discounting the science that people who eat big breakfasts consume fewer calories overall throughout the day, especially as the science isn’t yet conclusive about this.

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Worth the Wait

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilSome things in life are worth the wait. I’d argue that most things are, although over the past few weeks, I’ve learned that it doesn’t necessarily include hospicing your cat. But that’s another story for another time.

No, today’s “it’s worth the wait” should hit closer to home for you, if you’re a writer. Or if you’ve got writer friends who run into this problem:

Really good editors are booked in advance weeks, months, or sometimes beyond one year.

Yes, some authors will wait a year or more in order for their favorite/preferred editor to have space for them!

Luckily for you, I don’t make my clients wait that long. Oh, sure, sometimes you’ll have to wait a few weeks — right now, the wait is about a month and a half, given what’s in my queue at this moment as I write this — and sure, sometimes, I’ll be able to say to you, “Hey, I can start on this next”. But it’s even rarer that I can say, “Yep, I have an opening right now. Come on in.” The last time I had time off was… well, I had two weeks, at two different times, in 2020. 2021 has seen me steadily working six or seven days a week.

Good editors are worth the wait.

And I know. I get it. The drafting process took longer than you’d anticipated. Revisions were a struggle. Your developmental or first editor was running late. You had to make massive changes that threw you off.

For whatever reason, you’re now behind your original, intended schedule. You need someone NOW.

But I’m telling you… the good editors? We’ve all got manuscripts lined up. The reason for this is obvious, isn’t it? We’re good. We’re worth the wait. Authors of all sorts are smart enough to realize this.

Which is all to say, authors, if you’re perpetually running late, if you perpetually need someone NOW, you are missing out on working with the best of us. Try reaching out earlier and asking if we can shuffle our queues for you — I often can and will. I’m here to help, after all. That willingness, though, is tempered: My loyalties lie with my recurring clients, not with you, even if you’re willing to pay a rush fee. Rush fees are fine and good. Steady work and relationships with my clients are better. Plus, the longer I work with you and get to know your voice, the better I am at what I do.

I’m worth the wait.

Don’t get frustrated when you’re someone new who’s not allowed to skip the entire queue. Once again, if you missed the memo: Good editors are worth the wait.

If you need me, as always, the contact form is up top, or use this link to get to it. I really do want to help.

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The Things Characters do to Themselves

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilLike every other editor — every other human being, probably — I have opinions. Fortunately, I have a blog and a way to express those opinions, especially when they’re food for thought about the craft of writing, and might therefore help someone work toward mastering the craft.

Today’s rant is all about a phrase that’s ubiquitous. Ready?

They thought to themself.

I mean, hello? Unless you’re telepathic, you can’t think to anyone BUT yourself.

There are a lot of phrases that, as an editor, I’ll immediately change or delete. That’s because it’s not that awful a phrase. I mean, I don’t see it and cringe, like I do other phrases (they nodded their head, for instance. Or the famous shrugging of the shoulders). But I do smile.

Because, seriously. Who else would the character be directing their thoughts toward? Like… I can’t even.

Now, this is different from the also ubiquitous They smiled to themself.

Know why? Because even though your mouth is on the outside of your body (and I knew that without taking an anatomy class!), and therefore on display to the public, sometimes, those smiles are for your (or your character’s) sensibilities only. Not every single one, unless your character’s got a hell of an internal social life, but… yeah. It happens. Characters smile to themselves. People smile to themselves.

I think that one’s pretty normal.

But if there are too many, the words get highlighted and my index finger meets the delete button and yes, yes I do smile evilly.

That doesn’t negate the fact that They thought to themself is redundant and a waste of two words. While there’s more room to use words carelessly in a novel, why do it at all? Save those words for when you need them!

As a reminder, I’m here to work as your editor if you need me. Or if your friend needs me. But please, don’t send that person you don’t like. That’s really not very nice.

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Trend Alert! Everyone drives a Jeep

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilI see this one come and go. It’s a popular one.

Yep, the headline says it all. Everyone drives a Jeep.

Oh, I get it. They’re iconic. They have that look. They have that feel, that lifestyle. People leave rubber duckies on them for each other! It’s a community! Let’s meet in Moab, Utah for JeepFest!

(They also don’t have great repair records, and at the least the ones I looked at aren’t great for tall people. Headroom, folks. It’s something to consider, both for yourself and your family AND your characters.)

Believe it or not, this isn’t always the good thing you want it to be. While a Jeep conveys a certain something about a character, make sure that you’re not using it as a way to define your character instead of doing the hard work yourself. The sort of car one drives should be a complement to your character, not their definition. Let it be one tool in your arsenal of showing the reader who your characters are.

Also, make sure your character fits the social shortcut you’re creating — either by leaning into the stereotype or by consciously bucking it. This isn’t much of a problem with Jeep-driving characters, but I’ve seen it be a problem with other vehicles. A billionaire CEO shouldn’t be driving the constantly breaking down, twenty-year-old bucket of bolts they are too sentimental to get rid of. Park it in the garage, drain the gas, preserve that baby. You have the means, Billionaire CEO type. Use them. Be as smart as we know you are.

But that goes for all of us: Be as smart as we know you are. Don’t let a car define your character, but DO be aware of what a car says about your character.

And yes, everyone loves Jeeps.

Remember, I’m open to new editing clients. Or if you just want to have a conversation about cars and how they help define character, I’m open to that, too!

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The Kindness in Women Characters

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilWhat is it about us women? We talk about sisterhood and kindness and helping lift each other up, but…

Okay, so here’s the story. I’m in the middle of trying to read through the TBR Mountains that have been in my bedroom for the past ten years or so. And I’ll tell you, a lot of these books haven’t held up well over the years. Society has changed a lot. I’ve wound up DNFing six books in a row.

One of them was a chick lit style book, about two women who absolutely loathe the other women around them. There’s no kindness in them, I don’t think. I don’t know because I gave up around page 30.

But it’s that lack of kindness in women characters that got me. I’ve noticed it before, both in books that I’ve read and books I’ve been hired to work on. And I call it out then, too.

Kindness in women characters… but that’s maybe not the best way to describe it. Oh, in this particular book’s case, it is, as the women characters bitched and moaned about hating where they lived and the women around them and the lack of fashion and it wasn’t London and on and on and on. Sheesh. Give it a break. Who wants to spend 300 pages with people who are so freaking unhappy?

But in the other books, the ones I’ve read and the ones I’ve worked on, all too often, the only character showing kindness in women characters is the main character. The other women, the support cast, are… well, not nice. They’re not always people you want to be around.

Another really good example of this is Netflix’s Virgin River — but the second season. Those women were so awful to each other that I’d look at my daughter and say, “This is getting really awful to watch” and at first she asked me why. When I pointed out that the women weren’t nice to each other, she thought about it and said, “Yeah, you’re right.”

We’re not sure if we’re going to come back for Season Three, because of it. Because every time these women appeared on the screen, we’d cringe.

How is that fun?

I ask my clients to think about their characters carefully. Are you cutting down other women in order to make the main character look better? Can there be kindness in women who aren’t the main character? What does it serve to make the women surrounding the main character — and sometimes, these women are the main character’s tribe — bitchy or nasty to each other, or to the main character? Is this the sort of portrayal of women that you want people to associate with you?

Just some food for thought as you look at your own main character. Are you showing kindness in women characters? Do you think maybe your manuscript would be better if you did?

If you’re stuck or need help, reach out. The joy of doing what I do is that I’m here to help.

Kindness in women… Right? I’m trying to practice what I preach. Join me?

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Lessons Learned!

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilHere’s a good one for you. At least, it’s a story that ends with me grinning in pride at my clients. It’s a story of lessons learned.

There’s a tendency among writers to basically disembody a character’s parts from the whole. He reached with his hand. Or Her eyes ran across the faces of the people in front of her.

It’s a problem on many fronts. And it’s one I always ask my clients to be aware of. The body works as a whole, after all. And eyes don’t run or slip or do many things other than see. (Note the many other here, as I know a couple of those legit other things personally.)

While working on a manuscript a few weeks ago, my client left me a note. I know this disembodies his hand, but I didn’t know any other way to word it. Help?

I… jumped for joy. I did! THIS is what makes the editor-client relationship so amazing. When I can say, “Lessons learned.” When I know my clients listen to my words of (hopeful) wisdom and realize they’re there to help improve your craft. Because really? That’s the best part for me.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s gratifying when clients come back with manuscript after manuscript. Bring it. I love long-term clients maybe a little more than I love one-book wonders. I love the chance to get to know an author’s writing (and, often, the writer themselves, but that’s up to the writer), and the chance to go deeper in my work with it.

Lessons learned with this one.

Don’t disembody your characters. But most of all?

Ask for help when you need it. This is what I’m here for, after all. To be your helper, your ally, the one you can show your uncertainty to. I’m here to help you work through it, grow, improve, excel.

Lessons learned?

Hope so!

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Says the Editor: Editor Speak Versus Review Speech

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilSo I wrote a brutal, scathing review of a book I attempted to read a few weeks ago.

Doesn’t matter what book.

And yes, I am one of those awful, horrible authors/industry professionals who leaves scathing reviews. That’s another topic for another time.

Today, though, I want to talk about the way it struck me that if this book review were actually an edit, how different my approach to it would be. Oh, I’d still have hated the draft handed to me, assuming this published book was the final draft — and assuming that earlier versions were even more problematic.

But there’s a difference when you’re working with an author and when you’re reading and reviewing a book once it’s been published. A big, huge difference, in fact.

The reason is that when I’m editing, it’s a time to identify all these problems, and to work with the author to fix them. Hey, this wording has a really sexual connotation to it. Did you realize you’d done that? Hey, let’s take a look at the main character a little bit. She’s got a ton of self-loathing, and look how it’s operating. Are you seeing how she undermines herself here? How about there?

And one of my favorites, which I do use fairly often: Believe it or not, the story is stronger when you start on page 36. Look at all the backstory in the first 35 pages! What’s the conflict in that opening? How does this hook the reader when they get all this information about a character they haven’t made an emotional connection to? Keep your eyes open because as I see spots for all this backstory to come out, I’ll point them out. It’s good that you know so much about your characters; you should always know more than shows up on the page…

It’s so much more pleasant to catch these issues in the editorial stage.

Stop for a second and think about it. The editorial stage is where you get to pause and make things better. To catch these errors that really don’t belong in a published book.

But in a review? Well, that’s where people like me get frustrated. Because we can see the potential for the book, if only the author had been able to work with someone else who saw that same potential. Who had the experience and time to put into catching and fixing these problems.

So bear in mind that if you are thinking of working with me as your editor and you come across one of my reviews, I’m not like that in the editorial process. Ugh. Absolutely not. Because the challenge in the editing stage is to find the problems and help you fix them.

When the book’s published and out of our hands?

It’s too late then. And all we can do is rant in frustration at the lost potential for this poor book. And that lost potential, my friends, is a travesty.

Give yourself the gift of time, if you are able. Find the best editors you can, people who can bring out the best in your work of fiction. No one wants to read a bad book. No one should have to.

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Says the Editor: Details and Character Development

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilSo last week, I brought up the idea of using the wrong details in the wrong places. I probably owe you a better example, but when you’re yanking something out of context–let alone writing it from scratch!–it’s hard to do.

So much of editing and revising depends on context. On narrative voice, on the narrative character… There are so, so many things to consider.

Let me add one more to the pile, and I consider this one to be one of the few golden rules of fiction: The author should always know more about their characters than what appears on the page.

Why?

Because the deeper the well of your knowledge, the more authentic your characters appear on the page. You don’t need to tell us Justin is afraid of spiders. There may never be a spider in your entire manuscript. (Really. Spiders? Don’t appear all that often in fiction. Charlotte was a total unicorn, I’m tellin’ ya.) Justin’s fear may never be discussed, brought up, hinted at. But you, author, you know this simple detail: Justin’s got this fear.

And that, right there, makes him more complex. He’s not invincible. He’s not perfect. He screams worse than I did the day I saw a Daddy Long Legs on my front porch and climbed up my sister. (True story!)

Knowing this means that when you write about Justin, you yourself don’t think he’s invincible. You know he’s got a chink in the armor.

That knowledge means Justin can surprise you. He can show you another one.

Or maybe it means that the characters around him know, even though it’s, again, not voiced on the page. But they know their hero here? Will go running into the sunset, abandoning them to their fate if a spider appears. And that’ll change the way they interact with him–not necessarily in a negative way. Maybe in a better way. Maybe, instead of thinking he’s the be-all, end-all hero to solve the story’s problems, the supporting cast has more agency. They help protect Justin while he protects them.

This gives your characters depth, which in turn allows them to feel more real on the page. I can always tell when an author hasn’t done this work, when they don’t know much, or enough, about their characters.

Make the commitment. Do the off-the-page work. Heck, buy yourself a pretty pen*, fill it with pretty ink, grab some paper, and brainstorm. Create your character’s personal details. Maybe be like me and use different pens and different colors so your ideas don’t run into each other, and each one instead stands out, visible and ready to be referenced.

Whatever your choose. Do the work. It’ll pay off in the end, I promise.

And, as always, remember: If you need my editorial help, I’m here! When my comments are more directly pointed at your own words, you’ll get it. I promise.

*I, myself, now own a TWSBI Eco and can vouch for what a nice pen it is!

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Says The Editor: It’s all in the Details

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilSo. What’s with the focus on details? And why is there so much to say about them?

Well, the fact that there’s a lot to say means that they’re important. Details can make or break your story — the pacing, the worldbuilding, even where the reader puts their energy. You want to make sure you get your details right.

Get them right? Susan, what are you talking about? How can details be wrong?

Let’s start with the issue of focusing your reader on the right stuff. I see this a lot: authors who are trying to do the right thing by setting their scene. So we get lots of details about the scene: the furniture, the surroundings, the clothing the characters are wearing… and that’s all good. It’s important. You want the reader to not just have a feel for the fictional world they are immersed in, but you want them to be able to picture it in their minds. Their own private movie.

The problem enters when you spend a lot of time describing things that don’t matter, things that we only see once in a book and things that aren’t important at all. For example, the amateur sleuth goes to the house of someone who may be able to provide details about the case. The reader gets to see the contact: Ms. Myrna was old, stooped over, wearing a light blue cardigan with a button missing and black orthodpedic shoes. Her skirt was navy and didn’t match either the cardigan or the shoes, and when she smiled, she revealed three missing teeth and deep lines around her eyes, as if she smiled often and enjoyed doing so.

(Can someone help Ms. Myrna? She could use a caretaker.)

But then, here’s where we go off the rails. She invited Genie in, graciously, shuffling three steps out of the way and letting Genie have a glimpse of her home. There was no entry, so they were immediately in the living room, with its worn brown carpet, which was threadbare in spots in front of the old peach-colored three-person sofa. A glass and brass coffee table sat in front of the worn spots, a pair of bright yellow slippers underneath and three magazines — Genie looked at the titles, surprised to see one was the bass pro fisher’s association monthly magazine, one was the Smithsonian magazine, and one was a catalog of geeky gifts. The catalog had a water mark on it, or maybe it was a coffee stain; Genie couldn’t be sure.

The walls were a basic white, the ceilings smooth, the windows framed by curtains in pastel colors that compromised between the peach sofa and the brown carpet. A few paintings hung on the walls along with four photographs. The paintings were all landscapes, sunsets or maybe sunrises, and all done by an amateur hand, and the photographs were of people, but Genie couldn’t figure out a polite way to get close enough to look to see if any of them featured the woman she was looking for. They looked to be full of people who might have been related to Ms. Myrna, although even that was hard to tell because from what she could see, no one had a completely white head of hair. Nor were they wearing fashionable clothes. Or clothes that had been fashionable in the past twenty or even thirty years. Maybe, Genie thought, she ought to Google what fashions had looked like fifty years ago, well before her time. Those pictures were possibly, probably, that old, and that made Genie wonder what had happened to the people in them. Were they still alive? Did they talk to Ms. Myrna? Take care of her? Write her letters? Send her email? Help her figure out the Internet? Did they live nearby or had they dispersed? Why? Why not include this old lady, who so far seemed lovely, in their lives? Why were there no recent pictures on the walls?

Expecting an invitation to sit on the couch–which, as she got closer, she realized was full of stains and even a hole–she resolved not to sit, and to keep it short.

She turned to Ms. Myrna. “I wanted to ask you if you know Grace Gold.”

“Never heard of her. I don’t know anyone named Grace. Now, why don’t you produce your medical bag from wherever you’ve hid it and take my pressure? I ain’t got all day.”

Genie paused. “I’m… I’m not here for that. I’m here to ask if you know Grace Gold.”

“I just told you I don’t know no Graces. Now if you ain’t here to take my pressure, and you ain’t here for any reason other than to ask me about this mystery Grace I ain’t never met, maybe you should go back out through the door and come back when you are ready to take my pressure for real.”

Genie apologized to the old lady but stopped herself from asking if Ms. Myrna was okay. She wasn’t Genie’s responsibility. Then again, maybe that was what her family said, too, as they abandoned her to her old decor and her old pictures and her old lady-ness.

Did you catch it? All that detail about the photographs.

Now, maybe this doesn’t seem so outlandish to you, but what if I tell you that Genie has twenty-four hours to track down Grace Gold? That before this scene, our hearts were in our throats and we were joining Genie in hoping beyond hope that Ms. Myrna would have the answers.

And all that came crashing to a halt as we learned about people in photographs. People who don’t matter, who won’t return to the story at all, even as a fleeting thought in Genie’s day.

Sometimes, it’s good to slow the pace. To get the reader to calm. But it’s usually better to do it in ways that the story can build on.

Often, I’ll find myself commenting to an author, “This is a lot of detail about a teapot. Can you show me something else instead? Something that’ll be a key to the story?” And, as you revise, that’s what you want to think about. Does this advance the story? How does this detail function? What’s its purpose? How does it affect the pace? The reader’s mindset? The character’s arc? The plot? The mood?

A lot to think about.

I’ll be back with more next week.

Remember, if you’d like to have some of my fun comments on your own manuscript, reach out! I’d love to chat about your editing needs.

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#SaysTheEditor: Two Observations. New Trends?

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencil

It’s not that I’ve lost the blogging bug, it’s that my clients keep me so busy, I haven’t had time. So, as a result, I’ve got a list of stuff I want to talk about. A very long list. That spans multiple pieces of paper. And is threatening to overwhelm me and get thrown out.

Instead of letting that happen, it’s time to talk to you more often. I do kind of miss it. (So be sure to leave me comments and check back for replies!)

Today is just a quick little observation I’ve been making of late. Two things actually. Are two things enough to make a trend? I think so.

First: Characters listening to jazz. In their cars, at home. Doesn’t matter, but a couple authors have done this across multiple books now, and so jazz seems to be one of the hot musical trends of the moment (I say as Stone Sour pounds on in the background over here). Also, don’t ask me what the other hot musical trends might be. Stone Sour’s not exactly trendy or trending. Or even active at the moment.

Why not check out some jazz? I will the next time I sit down to chill and work on my own writing.

The second observation is an abundance of Physician Assistant (PA) careers held by characters, main and secondary. PAs are showing up in fiction, and I am here for it! I have a lot of respect for PAs; I have a PA friend and saw the PA at my old doctor’s office more than I saw the doctor himself. I’d have followed her when she left the practice, but insurance. You know the game.

So there you go. Two observations that may or may not be trends. Noticed any? Tell me about them!

And, of course, tell me what music you’re jamming to. I’m always game to explore something new.

As a note, if you need an edit, get in the queue now for May! June’s looking a bit tight and like the $200 rush fee will be applied again, as it currently is for any emerging April needs. Drop me a note ASAP, and never ever be afraid of money. We can work it out.

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The Med Bay! #SaysTheEditor

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilIt’s been awhile since I’ve made the time to have things to say!

But it’s the weekend as I’m writing this, and it’s something I thought of as I am working — yes, working on a weekend, but hey, it’s ninety degrees outside and what else is there to do and don’t say clean my house — and thought I’d share right now.

For those of you who write scenes set in a med bay, usually within a fantasy setting, take a second and think. Do ALL of the illnesses your characters come down with require them to be in a bed? Have you ever had an illness or injury that could be dealt with while sitting… in a chair? On a table?

So often, we see hospital wards — and I’m still talking fantasy, primarily — that only have beds. A person gets sick, they’re taken to the med bay, they’re tucked into a bed. You assume the diagnosis is done there, as is anything invasive, and then any and all recovery needs to happen in bed, as well. But… does it need to?

Oh, I’m not pointing a finger at writers who will shrug and say, “That’s how it’s always done. It’s a fixture of fantasy.” To be honest, for all the fantasy I’ve read and edited over my lifetime — and it’s a lot, as it’s a genre I love — I’ve never thought about it until now, mostly because the sick character who triggered this thought doesn’t really need to be tucked into a bed.

As I think about the tradition of med bays and beds, it makes sense that we don’t think about chairs or tables to sit on and that we do think of beds. Most illnesses confine a person to bed, especially before the age of modern medicine. How often do you deal with a migraine by going to bed? And then think about how you feel when your body’s busy fighting off a virus. Pretty lousy and exhausted, and you only want to be in bed. And for things like stitches in your leg, I found out last year that hanging out in bed instead of on the couch… well, it would have kept those stitches from pulling.

Beds in the med bay make perfect sense. I don’t fault a single writer who creates a med bay with only beds in it, especially when that med bay is somewhere with limited space, like on a spaceship.

But then I think about being confined to a hospital room after I had my kids, and how I wanted to sit pretty much anywhere other than the bed. I wanted a chair! Thankfully, I was in a hospital that let me have both a private room and a chair (and that only expressed surprise when I ordered takeout for all my meals; I ate well, especially after the birth of my oldest). I could sit in my chair! And I did! I have the cutest picture of me, my son, and his day-old sister seated in that ugly, wide chair in my hospital room. No, you can’t see it. It’s not digitized, for one, and for another, the kids haven’t given me their permission to post it.

Just something to think about as you work on your worldbuilding. Does your med bay need only beds, or is there room and purpose for a chair or two?

Yes, I’ve got room for new clients! If you’d like to work with me, drop me a line, tell me about your project, and let’s see if we’re a good fit for each other.

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Says The Editor: Something Sounded

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilEver been reading along, happy as anything, and suddenly A knock sounded at the door?

Ugh. I can’t tell you how badly I hate that phrase.

First, it’s not even a word, sounded. Not really. Sure, if you go over to Webster’s and search for it, you’ll be taken over to the word sound, which includes it as a form under its verb forms. But notice something? There are no examples of it in use. This is because while they recognize that people use it, all the examples are problematic. There’s no good way to showcase this word, sounded. Maybe She sounded scared — but that’s an entirely different use of the word, isn’t it?

Here are some to look at. The first one is the perfect example of today’s rant. The others are legit uses of the word.

And here’s why I hate it so badly. The knock sounded at the door is passive as anything. Like… super-duper passive.

Because knocks don’t just happen. In the example I linked to, alarms won’t just magically be sounded. You’re not just sitting there and bam, a knock appears out of the blue or an alarm magically goes off. Oh, maybe that’s how it sounds since you’re on the other side of the door and all you hear is the knock. But something, someONE makes that knock happen. SomeONE sets that alarm. It’s an active, planned action, not a passive one. In order for your character to hear that sound, a series of events had to take place. That’s all action. It may happen off the page, but it still happens.

And how many of you have been taught to use the active voice, not passive, when writing?

Yeah. Do that here.

No more knocks, explosions, voices sounded. Take the time. Write in active voice.

Your mastery of craft will thank you.

Remember, I’m always taking new clients. First-time authors, please have gone though a critique group or partner before a round of beta reads. Learn as much as you can about your craft; this lets your editing budget stretch further and benefit you more deeply.

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Dialogue Tags Other Than Said

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As a line editor, over the years, I’ve developed a real love for two dialogue tags: asked and said. They are sneakily powerful, serving a variety of functions. And they aren’t narcissistic words, either, like some dialogue tags can be. You know: dialogue tags other than said.

I hadn’t really thought about dialogue tags other than said or asked much. I’d been too focused on the job said and asked do. But one day recently, I had a client – we’ll call her Stevie – and she used a crazy amount of dialogue tags other than said. I’m talking… well, about 99.5% of the tags were other than said.

And I realized something. Something important.

She was using words like commanded, appealed, soothed, admonished, challenged, criticized, questioned, countered, chided, contested. And many, many more (I actually wrote almost all of them down!)

And okay, a lot of them start with the letter C. A lot of them start with S, as well: scoffed, smirked, scolded, shot back, stated, sympathized, and more.

That’s not what I noticed. Nope.

 

 

What I noticed about dialogue tags other than said

I noticed that many of these words are aggressive words. They are words of verbal warfare, of one-upmanship, of hostility and anger.

And beyond that, I noticed two other things:
1. They were making me very very angry and I had to take frequent breaks and actually leave my office for a few minutes, until my blood stopped pounding in my ears and the black cloud over my head broke itself up.
2. No matter how calm the characters were supposed to be, those aggressive words made them seem as if they, too, were arguing and had a contentious relationship. And you know what? When you’re trying to write two people coming together and maybe having feelings for each other, that doesn’t work so well.

 

 

Are dialogue tags other than said bad?

In short, no. But use them sparingly. A lot of them tell what the dialogue shows. Questioned, for example. Stop and think. Can the reader tell that the character is questioning the other? Does the content of a character’s speech show us that they are sharing a secret? Then there’s no need to use confided.

But sometimes, you need that extra oomph. Sometimes, using he countered in a spot helps the reader understand the dynamic between the two characters. Maybe that helps the reader understand that a negotiation is happening. That’s a valuable spot in which to use a dialogue tag other than said.

So my takeaway for you today is to take a good hard look at your dialogue tags. Look at the tags used in the book you’re reading—because of course you’re reading, right?

Take a step back. Change that tag to another word. See how it affects the reader, the characters, the tension in the scene, the dynamics between the characters who are speaking.

And never, ever, be afraid to use said. Or asked. They are good little words.

 

This is one of my favorite subjects!

Check out this older post, about a time when I encountered tags other than said in a published book.

Or this one, which came about because one of you had a question about that post.

And then you gotta wonder about the difference between asked and said, right?

Another reader question about asked and said, and here’s a bit more in-depth answer to that question.

 

Don’t believe me?

This is the spot where I’m supposed to link to a bunch of other posts that reinforce this idea. But most of them… I don’t like. They are either too elementary (What is a dialogue tag?) or kinda insulting to those of us who believe that you can use both types of tags – said/asked and the fancy stuff – just with caution and an eye toward good craft. You, my reader, are savvy enough to toe this line. You really are.

So here’s one good one about the subject. It’s from Litreactor, which is a new-to-me site, so expect me to poke around there some more and see what they’re all about.

 

One caveat:

Look out for sites like this. It’s Reedsy, and yes, I’ve got a profile there and you can see it and hire me through it (but why when I’m right here and you’re right here?). But this… isn’t good advice for a young writer. The implication is that you only want to use dialogue tags other than said, and we know that’s not how this works. SAID. ASKED. These are magic words. Use ’em.

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