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.

Revealing the Hidden Secrets to Publishing Success

Tired of having to jump through all those silly hoops agents and editors keep placing between you and your dream of becoming a published author? After literally minutes of research, I have uncovered 10 secrets that practically guarantee success. Sure, I could keep them to myself, but I’m feeling generous today so I thought I’d share them with you.

Study these secrets. Use them wisely. Become hugely successful.

Then buy multiple copies of my soon-to-be-released fiction bestseller, The Last Days of the Literary Agent*. It makes a great Festivus gift.

  1. Legally change your name to Stephen King. Then write under a pseudonym like Harold Johnson. Once you get your book into the marketplace (self-publish if necessary), leak to the press that Harold Johnson is really Stephen King. Watch your Amazon rank soar.
  2. Earn your pilot’s license. Get a job flying for a major airline. Have a friend release a flock of geese over the Hudson…
  3. Create a compelling new genre and write the first book in that genre so people will refer to you as “the father (or mother) of [clever genre title here].” Here’s my genre suggestion: querypunk.
  4. Threaten to release a deadly virus in unspecified major metropolitan areas if you don’t get a seven-figure deal for your memoir-in-progress, When Anti-Depressants Fail.
  5. Go to writers’ conferences and…skip the sessions. They’re only helpful if you want to take the long, labor-intensive route to success. Instead, track agents to nearby bars and ply them with drinks until they agree to represent you. This could take quite a few drinks, so plan your budget accordingly. And make sure you have an iPhone 3GS. (The earlier generation iPhones won’t be much help.) You’ll need the video function in case of Karaoke.
  6. Self-publish your first novel as cheaply as possible, then ask your millionaire uncle to buy 100,000 copies so you can include this little detail in the “previous sales” section of your proposal for the next one.
  7. Flying monkeys. Any book about flying monkeys is a guaranteed bestseller.
  8. Pen a quasi-sequel to a seminal novel like To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye. Then…um…never mind.
  9. Find Osama bin Laden. Write about it. (Michael Bay wants to direct the movie adaptation.)
  10. Spend all your reading time between the covers of great novels, all your studying time scouring intelligent publishing-related books and blogs, and all your vacationing time at writers’ conferences soaking up the wisdom of agents and editors and published writers. Then use what you learn to write a book that is smart, entertaining and defined by a compelling voice that is yours and yours alone.

Had you going there, didn’t I? Just kidding on that last one.

*I’m not really writing that novel. Because I love and respect literary agents. I really do. But it is a compelling title, don’t you think? Maybe you should write it.

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?

Peace.

7 Random Distractions to Keep You From Noticing There’s No Real Content In This Post

seven-box1All indications are that it’s Friday. And apparently, it’s a holiday weekend, too, though I didn’t realize this until my fictional next door neighbor started setting off fireworks in his driveway. I think it’s some sort of holiday to celebrate man’s dominion over dogs. I didn’t verify this in the “current holiday we just made up” section at the Hallmark store, but previous experience and the ain’t-that-cute tweets of complete strangers on Twitter give me reason to believe July 4th is known as “Make Your Dog Cower Under Your Desk” Day. I could be wrong about that.

I don’t have a dog.

So, in honor of this fine holiday, I’m going to fill this space with words so you have something to read after you’ve enjoyed six pieces of corn on the cob, five slices of watermelon and four hot dogs (hot dogs, eh? I see what you’re going for here, but don’t you think the sudden loud noises and subsequent cowering are enough to make your point?).

Anyway, the things below are typical Friday fare. In other words, they’re random and potentially meaningless. Enjoy.

  1. A friend just sent me a copy of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. Yes, this is the Nabokov of Lolita fame. My friend says it’s a surprisingly modern read. This, despite having been published in the year of my birth. Go ahead, look it up. Shed a tear for me if you want, I’m a thirtysomething on the inside and that’s what matters. But back to the book – don’t you love that title? I’ll let you know what I think.
  2. I’m falling in love…with the TV series Mad Men. Yes, I am slow to the party, but thanks to Comcast’s On Demand feature, I’m making my way through the first season four episodes at a time. I can see why it’s an award-winning show. Much thanks to a different anonymous friend (not the unnamed one above) for the recommendation. You were right.
  3. One of the projects I’m wrestling with in my “free time” is a movie screenplay. Well, I’m actually not that far along yet, I’m still arranging the scenes into a detailed treatment. I’ve been working on this for two years now and it has changed dramatically during that time. What began as a dark, edgy story about a mysterious character who brings redemption to a corrupt town has morphed into a lighter, quirky story about a mysterious character who brings meaning to the lives of a few people in a small town. (Reason for most of the changes? Anticipating a low budget to work with.) I’ll keep you posted.
  4. Want a fix of beautifully poetic narrative writing? Go to Amber’s website and read her posts. The My Love Songs thread is particularly amazing. I told her she has to write a book someday. You can tell her that, too.
  5. Thus far, my limited experience with Twitter has granted me a brief conversation with Augusten Burroughs, a re-tweeting by uber-nerd and former Star Trek: TNG whipping boy Wil Wheaton, and a kind three-word response from the American God himself, Neil Gaiman. Oh, and a rather significant number of my tweets are going to appear in the book The World According to Twitter, by NYT columnist and techno-geek David Pogue. Twitter is fun. Especially when used to stalk famous people. You should follow me. Sometimes I actually tweet something witty.
  6. Dark Chocolate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups = Happiness.
  7. For some strange reason every time I hear the Indiana Jones theme I feel compelled to salute. In a related story, every time I hear the soundtrack to Legends of the Fall I want to marry Julia Ormond.

There. That’s seven things. If you’re still reading the dog has had way too much time to plot his revenge.

Step carefully.

Finding Stories

Where do you get ideas for your stories? If you’re like lots of writers, you probably draw from your own life experience. Someone once said that every writer’s first novel is autobiographical. I happen to think that every novel a writer writes is at least somewhat autobiographical. (What this says about Dean Koontz, I’m not quite sure.) But what if you have a boring life? Where do you find your ideas for non-boring novels?

Start by coming up with a compelling protagonist. The really good ones write their own stories.

But where are they? you ask.

Well, they’re all around you. You know that quiet man down the street who compulsively washes his car every afternoon at three fifteen? He’s a murderer who was never caught but now regrets his actions and wants to make amends. And your quirky Uncle Ken? He’s a millionaire inventor who keeps his money in pickle jars stashed in secret locations around the city. And what about your best friend Jenny? She’s actually a former child actor who’s just about to be re-discovered for the role of a lifetime.

Another good way to spark a story idea is to listen creatively to the conversations around you.

Go to your friendly neighborhood coffee shop or grocery store or bus station. Observe. Listen, but not too closely (it’s more fun to fill in the blanks with made-up stuff). Before you know it you’ve got an idea for a novel about a Starbucks barista who falls in love with every man who walks in the door and orders a soy latte with light whipped cream. Or a novel about three angry moms who plot to take over a poorly-run daycare center, by force if necessary. Or a novel about a teenager who is taking his feeble, nearly-blind grandfather cross-country to meet his first love after more than 50 years apart.

Of course, compelling characters and interesting conversations are just the beginning place for fully-realized novels. But you’ll be surprised how a story can grow from something so simple.

What if your compelling character or interesting conversation seems to go nowhere? Start over. Or, try combining some of your discoveries and see what happens. Maybe that nearly-blind man being escorted cross-country is the former child actor and his grandson only discovers this as they trek together. Maybe the three angry moms learn about the man who hides the money-filled pickle jars and try to find them all so they can afford to buy the poorly-run daycare center from a suspected murderer.

I think you get the point.

And as you can probably tell, I’m sorta tired tonight. I think I’ll turn this post over to you now.

So…where do you get your best story ideas?