Category Archives: General

When Editors Go Bad

book cover fakeIf you’ve been reading my little blog for any length of time, you already know that editors aren’t prefect. [Yes, I just wrote “prefect.” Squirming yet?]

As evidence of this, I present to you some of the most common mistakes editors make. By “editors” I mean me. And by “mistakes” I mean errors in judgment prompted by sleep deprivation, excessive drinking, lack of confidence in the job, or plain ol’ incompetence. I’ve given each of the editorial screw-ups a title, but these are only my made-up titles and are not the terms officially sanctioned by the National Governing Board of Freelance Editors (NGBFE), which I don’t think exists, but if it did I would already be reaching for my wallet to pay a fine for my contextually inappropriate abbreviation of “old” in the previous sentence.

Never Say Never – It’s so easy to do and it seems so right, we don’t think twice. We just do it. And the thing is, it’s quite often the right thing to do. But…not always. I’m talking about trimming adverbs. You see, we’ve read all the books, too – the ones that say adverbs are badverbs. Or something like that. So we cut ‘em out of habit. Even when we shouldn’t. We make similar mistakes when applying other Rules of Good Writing, like getting rid of all semi-colons or universally suggesting all “tell” copy needs to “show.” Thankfully, this sort of mistake only happens when we’ve been editing for 24 hours straight. Which we aren’t supposed to do, according to the NGBFE.

Exterminate! Exterminate!Despite the fact that the title is a reference to Dr. Who’s Daleks, this editorial no-no has nothing to do with science fiction and instead is a subset of what I lovingly call The Goldilocks Compendium. (Actually, I’ve never called it that until just now. And because of that little lie, I can expect another fine from the NGBFE.) Exterminate! Exterminate! is all about being “too hard” on a manuscript. It’s about cutting. (Not the kind that people do when they’re emotionally unstable, though it must be acknowledged that all editors are emotionally unstable and probably would resort to this sort of cutting if not for coffee, wine, and chocolate.) This is the arena where I am most roguish. If I had a sweatshirt with my editorial mantra on it, it would say “Less is more.” I think it would be dark gray, with a half-zip collar and white lettering. I celebrate the economy of words, perhaps to a fault (except in blogposts, where I overwrite to my heart’s content). Maybe this is why Twitter is fun for me. Anyway, when I come across a big paragraph, my eyes get bigger still and out comes the X-acto knife of death. Cut, cut, snip, snip. And now it’s just a single sentence. There’s nothing wrong with cutting extra words (most people use too many), but I run the risk of cutting away the pretty colors in a manuscript if I’m not careful.

Intimidate! Intimidate! – Part two of The Goldilocks Compendium is a corollary to the above: going too soft on a manuscript. I’ll admit I can be intimidated by good authors. I’ll read an amazing manuscript and think, “damn, that’s good,” and question my editorial skills and my sanity and my salvation and wonder if I have the right to touch any words at all. Usually, on a second pass, I discover areas for improvement and make those edits and recommendations. But sometimes I’m not tough enough on what’s there. It works, so why change it? Well, here’s a good reason: to bump it from good to great, or great to excellent. This is why I’m (eventually, though never soon enough) paid the (not really) big bucks. And this where an editor’s art and uncertainty walk hand in hand like young lovers. (No, I don’t have a clue what that means.) Hopefully, more often than not, I make the right call. But I am always thankful, if a little sheepish, when an author says, “Hey, you missed something. I think we could actually cut this (or add this, or change this)” after I’d already let it slide.

My Word Is Better Than Your Word – I think this is self-explanatory. But I’ll explain it anyway. Sometimes an editor replaces a perfectly good word just for the hell of it. [Note to NGBFE: I"m kidding. Officially.] Okay, that’s not usually why. They replace the word because they like it better. I have my word preferences and you have yours. Most of the time, yours work just fine. But sometimes, I’ll read yours and think, “Really? ‘Crepuscular?’ Why?” And then I’ll change yours to mine because I’m the editor and I’m supposed to know what’s best for you. Normally, I’ll realize my selfish ways before I finish editing and you’ll never see my words because I’ll change them back to what you had. Unless there’s defensible benefit to changing your word, I don’t need to touch it.

Whose Voice Is It Anyway? – Some authors have clearly defined voices. When I read their manuscripts, I hear exactly what they sound like and can attenuate my editing to match that voice. However, when I work on a manuscript where the voice isn’t so distinct, I sometimes make this editorial blunder: I apply my writer’s voice (or one of them, anyway, considering I suffer from Multiple Author Voice Syndrome). That’s not the right thing to do. In these cases, it’s the editor’s responsibility (according to NGBFE statute 27.1, subsection R.) to help the author find and then maintain his or her voice throughout the manuscript. This is easier said than done, by the way.

Missing the Point Completely – Sometimes Editors Miss the Point Completely. An author may have constructed a perfectly reasonable plot or created a perfectly believable character, but the editor Just Doesn’t Get It. And in their attempt to fix The Thing They Just Don’t Get, the editor makes things worse. I don’t have a Really Good Excuse for why this happens. Let’s just go with, Editors Are Human and follow that up with Humans Are Imperfect and leave it at that. Here’s the good news, though – Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Then someone invented the Internet. Now editors and authors can Talk About Stuff and Clarify Things They Just Don’t Understand. [Another note to NGBFE: I've already calculated the fees for excessive capitalization. You'll be receiving payment in approximately six to twelve-hundred weeks, depending on when my accounting department can get to it.]

Other Stuff – We add typos. We miss continuity errors. We break a plot when trying to fix it somewhere else. We change the color of your protagonist’s hair. We get fingerprints on the printed manuscript. We remove all references to Al Gore. We add references to Al Gore. We write whole sections for you instead of simply noting in a comment what we think is missing. We can be lazy and careless.

But mostly we try really hard to do everything we can to make your book the best book you’ve ever written.

That’s all for today. I need to go screw up edit a manuscript now. Thanks for coming. Please deposit your 3-D glasses in the bin at the end of the hallway on your way out.

10 Reasons You Don’t Have an Agent

  1. Your writing is unremarkable. You may have worked hard to craft a good story, followed all the rules – trimming unnecessary prepositional phrases, chopping adverbs, replacing passive verbs with active verbs – but the result is indistinguishable from any of a hundred other novels the agent has reviewed in the past month. Solution: Find your writer’s voice and pray it’s a good one. A writer’s voice is that unique stamp that sets his or her words apart from others. There’s no simple (or universal) definition for “writer’s voice,” but typically it will be revealed in such things as an author’s word choice, writing rhythm, and that intangible thing called “tone” or “color.” Best way to find your voice? Write. A lot. If you have a unique voice hidden in there somewhere, it will eventually appear. And if not? You might be one of the lucky ones who gets an agent anyway and maybe even ends up selling a ton of books. But just in case, be prepared for rejection. Sorry. But that’s just how it goes.
  2. Your story is unoriginal. What’s that? There is no original story? In a broad sense, you’re right. But there are infinite variations to the basic plots that give structure to stories. How you handle the familiar is what will set you apart from the rest of the wannabes. Here’s a tip: Create characters with depth and dimension. Flawed, richly-textured characters provide you with all kinds of plot opportunities.
  3. Your story has no conflict. Guess what? If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story. If there are no obstacles to overcome, no one cares what happens to your protagonist, least of all your protagonist himself. Throw challenges at your characters from page one to the very last page. If your protagonist isn’t moving toward something, agents (and, therefore, readers in general) will grow impatient with the story and give up on it.
  4. You can’t spell “query.” Will this really prompt a Pass letter? Well, it depends on the agent. And whether or not she’s had her coffee. And how many bad queries she’s seen before yours appears in the queue. And whether or not your opening line is brilliant enough to make her forget your spelling error. Point is – if you want to increase your chances of being considered, don’t make this stupid mistake. And by “this stupid mistake” I mean, do a spell check on everything you submit to an agent. And by “spell check” I mean review what you’ve written multiple times by reading it aloud – don’t count on Microsoft Word to know you meant “guilt” when you accidentally typed “quilt.”
  5. You think you’re the next Stephen King. Persistence and confidence are good things, but when they cross the line into arrogance, you are at risk of becoming the punch line for a #queryfail joke. Seriously, if you’re really the best thing since Hemingway, your writing will do the shouting for you.
  6. Your novel isn’t finished. Yeah. I know. This seems like a no-brainer. But some of you are trying to apply the non-fiction rules (which allow writers to submit a proposal for an as-yet-unfinished work) to fiction. Don’t do that. Just finish your novel. By the way, your novel isn’t finished when you first type “The end.” It’s then that you must put on the editor’s hat, revising, re-shaping, and improving the story until it’s really the best work you can do. If you send a first draft you’re just asking for a Pass letter.
  7. You haven’t done your research. If you’re pitching a novel about a sex-crazed wizard who takes over the world one kinky tryst at a time to an agent who only reps Amish Christian fiction, you’re an idiot. Okay, that was harsh. But please, friends, take the time to review what the agents represent – and also, what they’re currently looking for (the latter is typically a smaller subset of the former). In most cases, everything you need to know about an agent’s interests and current needs can be found at their website. Don’t be the guy who shows up at the formal dinner party wearing a toga because you didn’t look at the invitation carefully enough.
  8. You’ve sent out too many poor queries. Don’t send a single query until you understand what a good one looks like. (There are a ton of websites out there with examples of good queries. Guess where you’ll find some of the best info on how to write a query? Yup. At literary agents’ websites.) I know you’re anxious, but there is no benefit to “getting there first” if what you’re submitting is less than great. You can actually blow your chance at a second (or third) chance by flooding agents with bad queries. I know that seems unfair, but keep in mind there are hundreds of other authors vying for the same limited “eye time” agents can give to queries. Learn from others’ query mistakes as much as possible before you have to learn from your own.
  9. You can’t handle rejection. If this is you, well, you probably should look for a new dream. Because if you pursue a dream of being published, you’re going to experience rejection. If not by an agent, then by a publisher. If not by a publisher, then by a reader. Someone, somewhere down the line will think your writing sucks. It’s okay. Really. Every writer experiences this. Every. One. Submit. Feel the sting of rejection. Wipe your tears. Glean what you can from the experience. Then get back to the task at hand.
  10. You’re simply not meant to have one. Yeah, this is a bit of a downer. But it’s just reality. You may never get an agent. You may never publish a book. Does that mean you should stop trying? Maybe someday. But probably not today. However, if your only goal is “to be published,” you might be going about this all wrong. Oh, it’s perfectly fine to hang that goal in front of you (just as it’s fine to self-publish if that’s your dream) – but don’t miss the writing journey along the way, okay? It’s a good journey.

Put Down Your Red Stapler and Go Home. It’s Friday.

Three things.

Uno – The “First and Last” contest is coming to a close tonight at midnight… but if you ask really nicely, I might let you finish your story over the weekend. Here’s a link to the contest info. And thanks to all who have already entered. So far, nearly 20 of you have taken on the challenge. I suspect a few more are waiting until the last minute to submit your brilliant work. Looking forward to reading each entry.

Two – I invited you to send suggestions for first and last lines that I might choose from to write a story… and some of you have done that. I might try to find a way to fit more than two of these in my story. This reminds me of a similar challenge I faced in an old blog of mine. I told readers I’d write a story using any word or phrase people sent in. Most sent a single word, and each got a short story. But this one sassy blogfriend sent me like a dozen (including, among others, “maggot-infested corpses” and “sargassum tea” and “Hello Kitty band-aids” and “a kite-flying windy day”) and challenged me to fit them in a single story. I did. And it was almost brilliant, if I do say so myself. (I’ll tell you more about that later.)

Here’s what I have to chose from so far.

First lines:

Joan hated dogs, especially hated them for breakfast.

If only he could see the future.

The end of the world was the best thing that had ever happened.

The striped cat glared at me.

The scent of roses had a chemical edge to it.

It had to be a trick, Nessie was just a myth, right?

Three attempts for three failures, and the last the worst of them all.

She wore bling like Christmas tree decorations, and I wondered if she could pay.

The song finishes too quickly.

Maybe this fertilizer will make our garden grow.

Last lines:

I was still hungry.

The jar was broken beyond repair.

The last thing he heard was, “dance for me monkey, dance.”

It burned on.

The feeling lasts forever.

Hot and sinfully smooth, just the way I like it.

If only the chairs were edible.

But it didn’t matter, not now.

The rain washed it all away.

He opened the envelope, no longer afraid.

Third Thing – While you’re waiting for the results of this contest (hopefully, by next Friday), I have a new challenge for you. Remember this post about what not to do with dialogue? Well, I want you to start thinking about what good dialogue looks like. Grab your favorite book and see if you can figure out what makes the dialogue shine. Listen to a conversation in a coffee shop and imagine it on the page. What would you keep? What would you delete? How many times do you need to mention who said what?

Next week, I’ll show you some of the good examples I’ve run across in recent reading.

Until then, write well. Read a lot. And send me cookies. (I prefer the cake-like cookies you typically only find in swanky bakeries. You know the soft’n’chewy kind. Chocolate chip. Peanut butter. Snickerdoodles.)

Thursday

Just a reminder about tomorrow’s contest deadline. Yup. That’s all I’m giving you today. Well, that and this link to an MSNBC article on why we get lost in a good book. Feel free to use the comments section to tell me what you think.

Tomorrow I’ll have a typical Friday grab-bag of random tidbits. Then next week, it’s back to regular blogposts packed with clever wisdom and snarky humor.

910 Words About Word Count

Okay, let’s do the math. (Approximate word counts noted.)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling – 257,000 words.

The Stand, Stephen King – 464,000 words.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy – 560,000 words.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway – 68,000  words.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury – 46,000 words.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker – 67,000 words.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte – 108,000 words.

Your Novel, Your Name – ???

If you’ve finished a novel, you know how much ink, sweat and tears goes into the process of putting all those words to paper. So just how many words do you have in that book, anyway? If you’re like a lot of unpublished authors, you may have more words than you ought. (Or in rare cases, too few.)

Now, before I go one step further, I need to tell you my philosophy on word count. I believe a novel ought to include exactly as many words as necessary to tell the tale well.

No more. No less.

However, if you’re seeking publishing through traditional methods, you will soon discover that there is a generally-accepted word count for the book you just finished. Yup. That women’s lit masterpiece you just did a word-count check on? If it doesn’t fall within the 80,000-100,000 range, you may soon be experiencing that familiar writer-pang called rejection. I say may be because there’s a slim chance your 150,000-word novel is the perfect length. But unless it’s excellent, and I mean The Time Traveler’s Wife excellent, edigents (see yesterday’s post for definition of that word) will likely pass simply because it doesn’t fit the acceptable range. The same is true for your 50K word novel (which most publishers would qualify as a novella).*

I hear you. I really do. And I’m not going to sit here and tell you based on word count alone that your novel isn’t worth publishing. The list above includes a few rather spectacular novels – and every one of them falls outside the “sweet spot” publishers have informally adopted (for a variety of reasons, including market acceptance, printing cost, and even a little thing called “postage”). But if you want to avoid the “easy pass” from edigents, your best bet is to submit a novel that falls somewhere in that sweet spot.

So, what do you do with that 150,000-word novel you love so dearly? Well, you have two choices: cut 50,000 words, or set it aside. Cutting that many words from a novel isn’t easy. But it can be done.

I am working with two contracted novelists right now. One is writing his first full-length novel (his first published book was a novella – he was allowed outside of the sweet spot because his story had a compelling premise and offered a fresh take on the genre – so right there is living proof that there are exceptions). His first delivered draft for this new novel was over 140,000 words. I’m working away on his second draft and it’s already down to about 104,000 words. In my line edit, I probably will cut another 5,000 words or so. And here’s the best news: the novel is much stronger at 100,000 words than it was at 140,000.

Another previously-published author recently turned in his after-my-editorial-notes second draft. His task was a bit more daunting. The first version came in at a whopping 200,000 words. This is not that unusual for the genre he’s writing (fantasy), but his contract asked for a 100,000-word book, so he had work to do. Could we have convinced the publisher to increase the size of the book? Maybe. (And we did get approval to land closer to 120,000 words.) But to do that would require an increase in the cover price for the book (paper ain’t cheap). And that means (potentially) fewer sales. It’s all a balancing act, to be sure, but guess what? The author trimmed 80,000 words! Yes, you read that right. I’m reading and doing the line edit on the novel now. And as I am, I’m discovering it is…wait for it…better than it was (and it was already quite good). It’s dense – as fantasy novels often are – but in a good way. Like a fine wine reduction. (What? You’re surprised I know about wine reductions? Hey, I cook sometimes. Actual meals that don’t utilize the microwave.)

So my point is – it is possible to cut words from your hefty tome without killing it. I have two vivid examples right here in front of me. And out west there are two happy authors who like the result of their (admittedly painful and difficult) trimming work.

As I said above, though, you don’t have to trim your word count if you don’t want to. Set that novel aside. Or self-publish it. But if you want to improve your chances of getting published? Write a novel in the 80,000-100,000 word range and submit that. Then someday when you’re uber-successful, you can send your extra-long novel in for consideration. Just be prepared… even then, your editor might suggest trimming a few thousand words.

It’s what we do best.

Have a nice day.

*The word count range for Young Adult novels tends to be lower, in the 50,000-80,000 word range. Fantasies can sometimes tip the scales at 120,000 words. And historical fiction (not historical romance so much) may even go higher, upwards of 140,000 words. These are all estimates and please keep in mind there are always exceptions to the rule. The problem is…everyone thinks their book is the exception. This is not the case, otherwise it would be the rule, not the exception. Got it?