Category Archives: Self-editing Tips

On the Subject of Subjectivity

Deep breath…

The Da Vinci Code is the best novel ever written. You know it’s based on a true story, right?

The Left Behind books are more well-written than anything by Fitzgerald or Hemingway or any of those boring Russian authors.

The Road. It changed the way I view dialogue said the man. And punctuation. His life was a series of fragmented sentences. And so was the book. The Road is not just Cormac’s tarmac. It is brilliance said the man. The boy turned his head and coughed.

Don’t you dare question the infinite incredibleness of The Lord of the Rings trilogy or a horde of orcs will pour out of your closet in the middle of the night and chop you up and feed you to the Balrog!

Atonement? [tap…tap…tap-tap…tap…] The best book ever written [tap-tap…tap…tap…tap-tap-tap] that features a typewriter as a main character! [tap…tap…zzzzing!]

I’d marry the Twilight books if I could. But only after months and months of chaste, yet extremely passionate longing. If you don’t agree, I’ll bite you in the neck.

Sigh. The Notebook. A Walk to Remember. I don’t care which one you choose, you absolutely have to fall in love with anything Nicholas Sparks writes. Of course, then something tragic will happen to you. But that will just make you love his books more. The most recent one? I don’t know what it was called, but it made me cry. They all make me cry. They should come with a box of tissues. Sigh. I just love Nicholas Sparks.

* * *

Hi, it’s me. Your noveldoctor. You breathing okay? I suspect a few of you might be experiencing some kind of emotional and/or physical distress. Go ahead and take a moment to calm down.

Okay. Wait a second. Some of you in the back row are still hyperventilating. Breathe in through your nose…now exhale through your mouth…


I really don’t need to say much more here. You know exactly what I’m going to say next, right?


Ha! Bet you didn’t see that coming. [I considered writing “Squirrel,” because doing so would immediately divide the audience into two camps, thereby underscoring the point I will have beat to death by the end of the next paragraph. Camp one would have been all, “Ah, how cute. That’s from ‘Up’! I loved that movie!” Camp two would have smugly grumbled, “What a lame attempt at humor. That whole ‘squirrel’ thing is so yesterday. Get some fresh material, Parolini.”]

Here’s the paragraph where I make the point you already see coming. When it comes to reading, subjectivity rules. What you love, someone else might hate. What you see as brilliant, someone else might see as pretentious or just plain stupid. Readers like what they like…because they like it. (Go ahead and get that tattooed down your spine. I won’t charge you a royalty. But please send me a picture.) Argue all you want about the literary merits of Brown or Meyer or Jenkins & LaHaye, millions of folks read and enjoyed their books. Does that mean you have to love them, too? Nope. Read your Nabokov. Your Tolstoy. Your Austen. Your  Marilynne Robinson. You’ve always read what you enjoy. Why stop now?

Okay, we’re about to make the leap from talking about “reader subjectively” to exploring “acquisition editor/agent subjectivity.” Lock the germ-infested metal bar tight against your legs, remain seated, and by all means, keep your hands and other body parts inside the vehicle at all times.


* plink *

We’re there. What’s that? You didn’t feel any dramatic stomach-drop excitement? Well, of course not, silly. That’s because there’s very little distance between your reading subjectivity and the subjectivity found in the agenting and editorial realms. Yes, editors and agents have a practiced understanding of “good writing” versus “bad writing” and they quickly pass on all “nowhere near good” manuscripts based on this somewhat objective (though not purely so) criteria.

But that’s not all they do.

They also rule out manuscripts that simply don’t grab them. In fact, they do this a lot. This is where the editor’s or agent’s selection process starts to look surprisingly like the reader’s selection process. You’re going to argue that agents and editors choose books that have a chance of selling. That their personal preference may play some role, but that it’s not the main factor. You would be right, at least in part. But… why does one manuscript look salable to an edigent (just coining a word here so I don’t have to keep writing “editor” and “agent” every time) and the next one doesn’t? Sub. Jec. Tivity. Whether the edigents are asking the question “would this sell?” or “do I like this?” they’re doing so through a filter uniquely their own. This is why it’s so important to seek out agents who represent books similar to the one you’re writing. I’m aware this is common sense. But sometimes I think writers skip this step and select agents based solely on how cute they look in their blog photo.

The book you’re submitting to agents? It might be a perfectly publishable book. (Or one with enough promise to be publishable at some point in the future.) And yet you get rejected. Once. Twice. It happens to nearly every writer. Even the ones mentioned above. Just keep working on the craft of writing. Do all you can to eliminate anything that would relegate your book to the “easy dismissal” category. Then do your research. Send it to more agents.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

We all know the hard truth: many novels, even some that are brilliantly written, won’t find a home on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. Yours may be among the missing. But the only way to be certain yours won’t make it to the shelf is to give up trying.

Don’t give up.

Listen. Learn. And hope that one day your study and persistence will pay off and that the gods of subjectivity will smile upon you and drop your manuscript in the lap of an edigent who just happens to love urban fantasies featuring a protagonist who is half unicorn, half stockbroker.

Now get back to work.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering. I just made up those comments at the top of the post. I do happen to like some of the books mentioned, but not all of them. Guess which ones I like and I might send you a prize.

Stuff I Made Up Last Minute

One: In Which I Make a Single Point About Dialogue But Don’t Actually Tell You What the Point Is Because It’s So Obvious Even a Non-Writer Could Figure It Out

“So it’s Friday and that means I can talk about whatever I want,” said Stephen.

“You can talk about whatever you want any day,” interrupted Stephen’s alter-ego, Pedro.

“I know that,” interjected Stephen, “but Friday is my day to be especially random.”

“Pedro?” queried Pedro. “You named me Pedro? What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing’s wrong with me,” countered Stephen. “Pedro is a fine name. What concerns me is this horribly stilted dialogue.”

“Tell me about it,” grumbled Pedro. “Not only am I saddled with a name that calls to mind an outdated Napoleon Dynamite reference, you’ve got me ‘interrupting’ and ‘querying’ and ‘grumbling’ and that’s just not right.”

“Yeah, well, look at me. I’ve ‘interjected’ and ‘countered’ and who knows what’s next,” puzzled Stephen. “Oh great, now I’ve ‘puzzled.'”

“Look, you’re in charge of this stupid conversation,” argued Pedro, “so why don’t you just fix it?”

“I will, eventually,” answered Stephen, “but I like to pound my point into the ground and then keep pounding it until the sound of the mallet against metal and mud gives everyone around me a headache.”

“Mission accomplished,” ached Pedro.

“So I don’t need to actually explain the point?” tribbled Stephen. “Oh c’mon, me. Tribbled? That’s not even a word.”

“Ha!” Exclaimed Pedro loudly. “You really sound stupid…hey…wait a minute. You just burdened me with an adverb!”

“That’s for laughing at me,” gargled Stephen.

“You just gargled!” burped Pedro. “I can’t believe you just gargled that sentence!”

“Yeah, well you just burped your words. Don’t poke fun at me or I’ll have you fart the next ones,” threatened Stephen.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” farted Pedro.

“Told you. Clearly, I rule,” gloated Stephen.

“Fine, you rule,” acquiesced Pedro. “Oh, c’mon, now. You’re making me look like a real loser.”

“I win!” celebrated Stephen.

“I’m afraid there are no winners in this conversation,” Pedro concluded brilliantly.

He was right.

Two: Upcoming Things

  • The second contest starts next Friday. Here’s how it’s going to work. I’m going to give you three “First” sentences to choose from and three “Last” sentences. Your mission? Write a short story or scene that begins with any one of the First sentences and ends with any one of the Last sentences. What possible real-world writing skill am I trying to teach with this? I’ll tell you next Friday.
  • I’m working diligently on a new semi-regular feature. It’s called “Doofus and Talent” and if you’ve spent more than five minutes in a dentist’s waiting room, you’ll know exactly what children’s magazine feature I’m ripping off.
  • Also coming soon, the first in a series called “Things I Learned About Writing From…” or something like that, except there will be some other words where the ellipsis is now. And next week, I’m going to give you, yes give you, seven characters Guaranteed to Spice Up Your Novel. Just plug and play.

Okay. This has been Friday.

See you on Monday.

A Little Editing

Remember that writing contest I had a few weeks ago? Well, as part of that fun, I asked if I could use some of your entries as editing examples right here in front of everybody. With Jana’s permission, I’m going to show you a couple of ways I might approach the editing of her creative entry.

First, I’ll show you the original work.

The fire cast mirthless shadows over the face of a stranger. He was encircled by four armed men. A fifth man curiously appraised the unusual items that had been confiscated. One object was like a ring of red light reflecting the flames. Fascinated, the man reached out to nudge the object, half expecting it to be hot. He smiled as he held it in his hand, caressing its smooth cool surface, captivated by each intricate detail. He stepped closer to the fire when he noticed unfamiliar markings on the circular centerpiece. As he scrutinized it, he noticed movement within. He tapped it sharply to determine if it was alive. Then he held it up to his ear, quickly dropping it, startled. When it fell, it began emitting a green light. Trying to regain his dignity, he carefully retrieved the object. He ran his finger over a small bump on its side. The stranger jumped to his feet shouting unintelligibly, but was quickly stopped by four sharp spears held inches from his throat. Unfazed, the man continued his study, pushing on the strange protrusion. A flash of light suddenly enveloped him, blinding the observers. When it subsided, he had vanished.

Intriguing, don’t you think? Okay, here’s a quick line edit, keeping the contest’s word count limitations in mind.

The fire cast mirthless shadows over the face of a stranger. Four armed men encircled him while a fifth appraised the confiscated items. He reached for a ring of red that reflected the firelight, expecting it to be hot, then held it in his hand and smiled, caressing the smooth, cool surface. He stepped closer to the fire to study the ring’s intricate markings. Had they moved? Was it alive? He tapped the ring sharply, held it to his ear, then dropped it, startled by a foreign sound. When it fell, the ring began emitting a green light. The man looked over at the others who stood as still as statues, then retrieved the object. He ran his finger over a small bump on its side. At this, the stranger jumped to his feet and began shouting, but he was quickly silenced by four sharp spears held inches from his throat. Unfazed, the fifth man continued his study, pushing the strange protrusion. A flash of light suddenly enveloped him, blinding the observers. When it subsided, he had vanished.

Can you identify the changes in this version? I replaced some of the passive voice with a slightly more active voice here and there and attempted to clarify the action a bit. By defining the object as a ring, I made it something the reader could easily picture. That doesn’t mean Jana has to use a ring if she prefers some other device, but whatever the object, it needs to be described in such a way that the reader sees it immediately and can participate in the action along with the fifth man. And about that fifth man – as it is written, this is his POV, his story (or about to become his story).

Just for fun, I decided to play even more with the content. Now this is slightly more involved than a standard line edit, but I wanted to push a few of the ideas a bit farther, just to see what this could become. This isn’t necessarily a better version, just a different version. When I work with authors on the early stages of a book, I often offer suggestions like these to show the author alternative ways to color a scene. (Usually these suggestions are noted in margin comments, though, not in the midst of the narrative itself.)

The fire cast mirthless shadows over the face of the stranger. Four armed men encircled him. A fifth appraised the confiscated treasure, each item a curious enigma. His eyes were drawn to a ring of red reflecting the flames. He reached for the ring, expecting it to be hot, then smiled as he held it in his hand. He caressed the smooth, cool surface, captivated by the intricate detail.

He stepped closer to the fire to study the unfamiliar markings. They seemed to be moving. Was it alive? He tapped the ring sharply, but it did not scream. He held it to his ear, listened, then threw it down, frightened by the foreign language of click and whir.

When the ring came to rest on the stony ground, it began emitting a green light. The fifth man stood tall, turned to look at the others, grunted a false confidence, then bent down to retrieve the object. He ran his finger over a small bump on its side. The stranger jumped to his feet and began shouting unfamiliar words, but was quickly silenced by four sharp spears thrust within inches of his throat. Unfazed, the fifth man pushed the protrusion. Suddenly a flash of light enveloped him, blinding the other men.

When it subsided, he was gone.

As you can see, I added a few lines here and there. Maybe it works, maybe not. But these are the sorts of editorial changes and suggestions that lead to a spirited dialogue with the author. Sometimes the scenes look completely different at the end of the process than either the original or my first editing attempt. Sometimes they look very much like the author’s draft. And, of course, sometimes the scenes are cut entirely.

picture-3Now, the way this looks in practice is different than the above. In addition to the “comments” feature, I always use the “track changes” feature in Microsoft Word so the author can see everything I touched and I can see every change he or she makes throughout the back-and-forth process. Just for fun, I took a screen capture of my second edit with track changes turned on. This is the “red pen of death and life” at its finest – scary to look at, but upon closer inspection, it’s not so bad, really. The story is the same. And hopefully, the author’s voice is intact or better defined.

Okay, I’ve already missed my posting deadline, so I’m going to wrap this up for now. Thanks to Jana for allowing me to play with the fun scene she entered in the contest. If you want to play the part of the author, feel free to ask why I made a particular editing change or suggestion in either of the above examples. I’ll share my rationale and then you can nod and agree or tell me why I’m wrong. (Because I sometimes am, you know?)

Have a great Wednesday. See you here again tomorrow? Bring a friend. We’ll make s’mores.

What Do You Mean by “Editing”?

what-boxThis is the first in a series of “what do you mean by…” posts. I want to tailor this series according to your interests. So…queue up your questions and then send ’em along so I can make this as helpful as possible.

I thought it would be appropriate to start with “editing,” since that’s kind of an important topic on this blog. So what do I mean by editing?

Let’s start with a little quiz.

When you tell a friend that you’re “editing” your novel, which of the following best describes what you’re doing:

  • I’m going through the novel and making sure there are no misspellings or missing words.
  • I’m reviewing the entire manuscript and considering whether or not I should give up my dream of being a published writer.
  • I’m looking at plot and characters and overall writing quality and attempting to improve all of these things.
  • I’m re-arranging commas and adding lots of semi-colons.
  • I’m copying-and-pasting sections of The Time Traveler’s Wife into my novel so I can have a better chance of getting a seven-figure advance. (Which I’ll need in order to pay legal bills for that little “plagiarism” thing).

Depending on who you talk to, or what stage of the writing process you’re in, the word can mean all kinds of different things. Here’s a quick rundown of the basics. Keep in mind, this is based on my experience with editing. There is no universal standard to define these roles, so you may hear a different definition from someone else. If you’ve decided to work with an editor, be sure to ask what he or she means by “editing” so you know what you’re getting … especially if you’re paying for it.

Developmental (or macro or substantive) editing is the first sort you’d run into if you’ve just signed a contract to publish your novel. The editor assigned to your book (whether an in-house editor or a freelancer assigned by the acquiring editor) will read your book cover to cover and suggest all kinds of changes and improvements – from structure to plot points to character development to writing style. Remember the lighthearted editorial note post I wrote a couple weeks ago? Editorial notes are the practical result of substantive editing. A dev editor is tasked with making your novel better in as many ways as possible, but is primarily focused on the “big picture.” Dotting i’s is secondary to getting the story, the characters and the tone or voice just right.

A line edit (or micro edit) comes after the writer and dev editor have ironed out all of the bigger issues and the writer has re-submitted an acceptable manuscript. Sometimes the line editor and the dev editor are one and the same (I typically work with authors on both rounds of edits), and sometimes it’s another editor altogether. Some publishers choose the former approach to streamline the process, maintain the integrity of the relationship between editor and writer, and…to save money. The advantage of the latter is the opportunity for another set of eyes to (potentially) catch things the dev editor and author missed. Line editors get into the nitty-gritty of the writing – fixing grammar and cleaning up the writing wherever necessary. Line editors are responsible for making sure the dev editor’s requests were met and that the book is in great shape for publishing.

Copyediting comes next. Copyeditors are responsible for making sure the writing is clear and correct (according to the style determined both by a publisher’s in-house style sheet and any specific style notes for the individual book). Copyeditors also check facts and work with the typographers to assure consistency in presentation. Good copyeditors also serve as a sort of “first reader” for the edited work and sometimes save the day for publishers by identifying potentially risky legal issues or – in cases where the previous editors all wore the same blinders – catching big-picture problems with the story’s continuity – or even (gasp) quality.

Proofreaders go through a typeset manuscript and identify any remaining errors (or new ones introduced by any of the changes made throughout the process). They are the very last line of defense before a book goes to press. While I’m pretty good at noticing typos in menus, this is a job that would quickly send me to the padded room. It takes a special kind of person to be a proofreader. And by special I mean someone with X-ray vision who grunts in frustration upon discovering an em dash where a hyphen should be. I salute you, proofreaders.

Think of the roles this way: the writer is the woodcarver. The dev editor helps shape the wood into a more beautiful thing. Line editors smooth the edges with files and rough sandpaper. Copyeditors use the fine-grain sandpaper. And proofreaders point out the imperfections everyone else missed.

Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy, but the oven timer just went off and I think I need to eat some food today so I’m just going to call this post “done.”

If you find a typo in the above and it makes you physically sick…you might just make a good proofreader.

Tomorrow I will divulge the long-hidden secrets to publishing success. Am I being serious or will this just be a silly post? Does it really matter?


What Your Editor Is Thinking

Ever wonder what your friendly editor is really thinking when she emails or calls to talk about your manuscript? Here’s a handy-dandy guide to help you understand the deeper meaning behind her words.*


When your editor says: “I really like the basic plot. Nicely done!”

Your editor is thinking: “Okay, there are 90,000 words here, so that’s a start. And the story has characters and they do stuff. That’s a good thing, too. But whoa baby there’s a ton of work to do. I’m going to have some long nights with this puppy.”


When your editor says: “I’m not sure the subplot about the missing orangutan is working as written.”

Your editor is thinking: “The subplot about the missing orangutan is unsalvageable.”


When your editor says: “I think I see what you’re trying to do with this…”

Your editor is thinking: “I have no freakin’ idea what you’re trying to do with this but surely in the next draft it will make some measure of sense… surely then…?”


When your editor says: “This paragraph on page 94 is amazing!”

Your editor is thinking: “I wish there were more paragraphs like the one on page 94!”


When your editor says: “The middle section drags somewhat…”

Your editor is thinking: “The middle section needs a complete re-write…”


When your editor says: “The word count is a little high.”

Your editor is thinking: “We’ll have to cut 50,000 words.”


When your editor says: “Don’t be too put off by all my editorial notes.”

Your editor is thinking: “Please don’t hate me, please don’t hate me, please don’t hate me…”


When your editor says: “If you cut phrases like this one you’ll have a much stronger narrative.”

Your editor is thinking: “I just know you labored over these phrases. But the thing is – they’re overwrought, distracting and pretentious. If only you would read them aloud you’d see just how unwieldy they are. I hope you don’t fight to keep these. Choose a different battle. Okay?”


When your editor says: “The dialogue is clunky.”

Your editor is thinking: “The dialogue sounds like it’s coming from soulless cardboard robots.”


When your editor says: “Thanks for all the hard work you’ve put into this.”

Your editor is thinking: “Thanks for all the hard work you’ve put into this. Really, I mean it. Writing and re-writing is no picnic and I’ve been throwing you curve balls and stirring the pot and invoking dozens of other clichés and yet you’re still standing. I will now drink a glass of wine in your honor. You should have one too. No, a glass of wine, not an entire bottle. You can put the bottle down now… really, put the bottle… okay, fine. Yes, you are a damn good writer. Better than Faulkner. And Fizzy Gerald, better than him, too. What’s that? Yes, I love you too. Go to bed now.”

*This entire post is a mild attempt at humor. Seriously, I mean it. In truth, all editors are painfully transparent and almost never hide what they’re really thinking.

The Contest. Just click here and enter. Okay? Because if you don’t, the terrorists win.