A Book, Some Editorial Advice and a Picture of a Kitty & a Puppy

It’s Friday, which means absolutely nothing to a freelancer since all days end up looking the same. But for the sake of the rest of the working world, I’m going to play along. Hooray for the weekend! (For the record, I almost never use exclamation marks. This is not because F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote of them, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes,” but because I rarely feel all that exclamatory. So, if you see one on this blog, it’s either a sign of the apocalypse or a snide comment on the sentence that precedes it. Listen for the sound of hoofbeats. If you hear them and you’re not at a rodeo, it might just be the former.)

In order to set a trend early in this blog’s life, I’m declaring Fridays as “write a post about anything” days. This is my way of lowering expectations and providing for the likelihood that I’ll be underwhelmed by my own writing at least once a week. Which is not to say you are required to be underwhelmed as well. Feel free to be as whelmed as you like.

Friday Item Numero Uno – A Book

shameShame, by Greg Garrett. Buy it. Read it. I edited it. Okay, so this could be considered shameless self-promotion (irony noted), except for the fact that it really is a great book and I’d recommend Greg’s writing even if the closest I ever got to editing it was scrawling “best” in my autographed copy between the words “To my…” and “friend, Steve.”

Fair warning if you’re looking for a whiz-bang-shoot-em-up thriller with paranormal tendencies – that ain’t this book. Shame is the story of John Tilden, a good man wrestling with relationships and regret and the lure of oft-remembered longings that threaten to redefine the life he has come to know. Reading Greg’s prose is like canoeing on a twisting, gently flowing river – it draws you in, carries you, sometimes surprises you, but always takes you to a satisfying ending.

Friday, the Second Thing – Some Editorial Advice

Ready? This one’s profound. You sure you’re ready? Because when I say “profound,” I mean it. Okay, here goes: Don’t take every bit of editorial advice as the gospel truth. Even what I just wrote.

I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath.

There’s a lot of great advice here on the Interwebs and also in those dust-gathering paper things with pages people in one possible future will refer to as “Pre-Kindle Reading Devices.” Learn as much as you can. Soak it all in. But don’t presume that what works for one (or even a thousand) will work for you, too. For example, many writer-advisors say, “Kill adverbs now!” (Unless they speak irony, in which case they might say, “Quickly, kill all adverbs!”) Hey, it’s generally pretty good advice, but maybe your book actually is better because it has three adverbs in it. Here’s another: conventional wisdom says don’t open your novel talking about the weather. Yeah, “It was a dark and stormy night” probably won’t give that agent you’re stalking a literary orgasm. But “When I was seven years old, a tornado swept through my small town and took everything with it but me” just might.

Here’s my best advice on the whole advice thing: Study all you can, then stuff all the study materials under your desk and simply write. The hints and tips and advice that most resonated with you will begin to naturally shape your writing. And even if your writing still sucks…er…isn’t brilliant, the best time to fix it is after you’ve written your first draft, right? At that point, you can go back to learnin’ and apply what you discover to your work in progress.

But then again, don’t take what I say as the gospel truth. (See “Some Editorial Advice” above.)

Finally, Friday Item 3 – A Picture of a Kitty & a Puppy

Because some of you were disappointed that my Tuesday post included words about writing and not a picture of a kitty and a puppy, here you go. Happy “Awe, cute!”ing.

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Have a swell weekend.

7 Things that Keep Editors in Business

A long time ago, in a life far, far away, I worked as an assistant manager of a Pizza Hut. The owner of this particular store (a former Pizza Hut corporate big-wig) had hired a man we’ll call “Gary” (since that was his name) to globally manage the stores. Since each store already had its own manager and more than a few assistant managers, I wondered what Gary’s responsibilities entailed. I found out one Friday in the middle of the lunch rush hour. He entered the restaurant as any other customer, waited to be seated, then proceeded to order enough food for a family of six.

Since this was my first experience with Gary, I was puzzled by the fear that marked the faces of my lead cook, the hostess, and every other employee under the red roof. (Even some of the regular customers seemed to cower in his presence.)

I soon learned that Gary’s primary responsibility was delivering surprise inspections. On this particular Friday afternoon, he was troubled by the dents in the Parmesan shaker (ten point deduction); the microscopic tear in the red and white checked table cloth (goodbye five more points); and worst of all, one of the pizzas he ordered was overcooked (there goes the hope of a passing score).

Inspection fail.

At first I was a little peeved at the nit-pickiness of Gary’s complaints. I mean, dents in the Parmesan shaker? And the pizza wasn’t that overcooked. After my fifth surprise inspection, I began to wonder if he kept finding things wrong with the store solely to justify his job. But then one day we scored a 97, much to the delight of the store manager (a man I feared not because he was my boss but because he was a semi-pro kickboxer and carried himself in the store like he was stalking an opponent in the ring).

It was then that I finally understood what Gary was doing: he was teaching us the difference between good and great, illustrating (in his own snarly, self-important fashion) how vigilance and attention to detail can introduce excellence where “good enough” once held sway.

Here’s the clever transition from a post about pizza to a post about editing. (You were way ahead of me, weren’t you?) Yup. I’m Gary. All editors are Gary, though thankfully, most of us don’t look like we’re trying out for the part of Blake in the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross.

So to that end, here’s a list of seven things that keep editors in business. Fix all of these in your novel and we’ll all be out of a job.

Or maybe we’ll find something else that needs attention.

  1. Pet Words and Phrases – These are the words that just keep coming back like the killer that won’t die in a cheesy horror film. You may think “Becky spat the words at him” is perfect for the scene you’re writing, but what you don’t recall is that Becky spat words three pages earlier. So did Louella. And Fred. And in the next chapter, Timmy is going to spit words. With so much spitting going on, your novel is drowning in saliva. Kill the repeat offenders when possible. Please.
  2. Head-hopping – I’m aware there’s an ongoing debate (I prefer to call it a conversation) about the whole POV issue, but my complaint here is very specific. Let’s assume you’re not trying to write from a pure omniscient POV (it might well be the hardest to pull off with excellence). Okay, so you’ve got your four or five main characters and each one is reasonably well defined. Good for you. So why, in the middle of Jason’s scene, does the unnamed baker across the cupcake counter have to interrupt his POV to point out just how indecisive Jason is being? Head-hopping within a scene is confusing. And I think it’s just lazy writing.
  3. [To be added later] – I have a writer friend who can churn out 10,000 words in a day. In order to maintain that pace, she often slips in placeholders such as [descriptive word] when the right words don’t come quick enough or when further research is required. But long before she turns her novel in to her editor, she goes through the manuscript and fills in those blanks. This way, her editor won’t have to wonder what she meant by [large potted plant with spiky leaves]. Now, if you’re collaborating with your editor early in the process, this isn’t such a horrible thing. You can work together to solve the puzzles. But if you’re saying “this is it – this is the final draft” and it’s full of holes…well…fix it first, dear Liza.
  4. The Brady Bunch Syndrome – This may just be my pet peeve, but I’m constantly amazed by how many novels (including many published novels, mind you) end so abruptly. Characters you’ve come to know and love suddenly resolve all their issues and everything is dandy. End of story. It almost feels as if the writer just got tired of writing and said, “well, I’d better end this now.” Give your ending due consideration. If you’re pushing the edge of your word count, don’t automatically cut from the ending. Just write your novel, then go back and trim (most likely from the middle). Allow the ending to breathe. A good story doesn’t stop at the last page. Well-written characters live on.
  5. Perfect Characters – This is a corollary concern to the previous item. Have you ever known anyone without a flaw? I don’t mean have you ever known someone whom you perceived as flawless, I mean have you ever known a perfect person? Me neither. Allow your characters to show their weaknesses – even the ones you want the reader to despise. Give the reader a peek behind the curtain to see at the very least, a hint of their humanity.
  6. Name Dropping – When writing dialogue, it’s not necessary to attribute every spoken sentence to a character by name. Nor is it necessary to write out their full name every time they appear. If we’ve already met Skip Johnson, it’s okay to say “Skip stepped up to the counter to order a Nehi Grape soda.” If you’ve chosen your character names well (if they’re not too similar, for example), the reader won’t be likely to mistake Skip for someone else. Also, think about how people address each other in real life and apply that to your dialogue sequences. Yes, it’s true that written and spoken dialogue have a different pace and flow about them, but if you’ve got too many names flying around the page, it can be unnecessarily distracting for the reader.
  7. Thesaurusitis – Do I need to say more? A thesaurus is a great tool, but when used as a crutch, it can obfuscate the congenital pulchritude of the scribed utterance. Sometimes the first word that comes to mind is perfect. Use it. Unless, you’ve used in a dozen times before. Then see item #1. (Obvious tip: To improve your natural un-thesaurusized vocabulary, read. A lot. Above your grade level.)