What to Expect From Your Editor

I hear you’re interested in hiring an editor. Smart move. So what are you waiting for? Grab your checkbook (do those still exist?), your manuscript, and your realistic expectations and get to it.

What’s that? You don’t know what to expect? Here. I’ll help.

Ten Things Your Editor Can Do

  1. Your editor can see what your novel could be someday, no matter what it looks like today.
  2. Your editor can show you all the little pet phrases and words you repeat to distraction.
  3. Your editor can solve plot problems that would make readers want to throw your book into a woodchipper.
  4. Your editor can point out all the ways your characters are acting out of character, and suggest ways to remedy that.
  5. Your editor can help identify, refine, and celebrate your unique writer’s voice, or explain why you don’t yet have one.
  6. Your editor can tell you when your novel is nowhere near ready to share with the world, then point you toward additional resources that could help you change that reality.
  7. Your editor can make you feel like a gifted writer while simultaneously providing ample evidence you’re a hack.
  8. Your editor can listen patiently to arguments about why you made certain narrative choices, then offer wisdom about why those choices suck.
  9. Your editor can remind you that writing is a long game, and that the hard work of re-writing is worth the pain even if the book never finds a publishing home.
  10. Your editor can comfort you when the hard drive is corrupted and you forgot to save to the cloud.

Ten Things Your Editor Can’t Do

  1. Your editor can’t make your book a bestseller. (Editors aren’t in charge of market conditions, sales trends, or readers’ whims.)
  2. Your editor can’t turn you into a brilliant writer. (That’s a function of hard work and genetics.)
  3. Your editor can’t fix everything. (We try, or at least try to identify all the problems, but we miss some things. And frankly, some things just aren’t fixable.)
  4. Your editor can’t write your book for you. (You’re looking for a ghostwriter.)
  5. Your editor can’t pretend your book is wonderful when it isn’t. Okay, we could, but prefer not to. (There is no benefit to the writer when the editor lies.)
  6. Your editor can’t edit faster. (I’m editing as fast as I can, current clients. Like pretty much every available minute. Except for the few it took to write this post, of course. I know. Sorry. I’ll get back to your book right now. Well, not right now, but in a few minutes.)
  7. Your editor can’t get everything right all the time. (Just most of the time.)
  8. Your editor can’t force you to accept all his/her changes. (But a good one never makes a change or suggestion without careful thought, so you might want to discuss those reasons before clicking “reject change.”)
  9. Your editor can’t explain why great books get rejected and awful ones get published. (I mean, we can try, but let’s face it – we live in a crazy, unpredictable world. I don’t need to elaborate on that, do I?)
  10. Your editor can’t move into your basement so you have access to his/her brilliance 24/7. (Not without a decent salary and benefits, anyway.)

You’re welcome.

The Weight of Your Words

I love my computer*. Let me say that up front, in case it thinks otherwise and decides to unflash its memory. But I have fond (if only for the purpose of this post) memories of a time when writing hurt more than it does today. Oh sure, we have carpal tunnel syndrome and baked sperm syndrome (well, some of us, anyway), but those are fancy aches. Yesterday, a writer’s pain was blue-collar. It was immediate and visceral.

Remember writer’s cramp? Now that was a pain you could feel. It started somewhere between thumb and forefinger, then exploded up the arm like lightning. And who can forget the grating, yet sublimely satisfying earache inspired by the ratchet-clickity-rip of paper from the typewriter platen? (Look it up, youngsters.)

Writing on a computer is easy. Comfortable. Maybe too easy. Too comfortable. Oh, I’m not about to go back to typewriter days (I don’t remember them that fondly and I’m much too old to make a convincing hipster), and my handwriting is even more illegible today than yesterday, thanks to the doctor-signature scrawl I was unable to deny inheriting from my parents. (Note: They’re not actually doctors. They just write like them. My mom’s handwriting isn’t so bad, really. But my dad’s? I was fully qualified to interpret hieroglyphics by the age of seven, thanks to his cleverly-disguised birthday card wishes.)

Back in the day when writing was more physical, we felt every word. We punched high-heeled keys like stubborn elevator buttons. We scraped leaky pens against reluctant paper like fingernails on a blackboard. (You’re welcome.) We didn’t have a delete button (Liquid Paper doesn’t count, Michael Nesmith’s mom). And a save function? Nope. We called that “starting over.” (Cue purchase of more paper, more typewriter ribbons, more pens. That means cutting bacon from the family budget, son. Sorry.)

In the computer age, words are cheap. They cost you nothing because you can write all of them down without a second thought. You can delete them, revise them, replace them, all with the slightest touch of fingers to a quiet, accommodating keyboard.

No, I’m not raising the flag of the writerly curmudgeon. (Though hey, if you prefer a typewriter or pen and paper, more power to you. Especially to your fingers.) I’m just stopping by to ask you to consider a new way of looking at how you write. I’m not talking about when you’re writing the first draft. Computer Convenience is the patron saint of the first draft. Go ahead and throw everything you want on the page. First drafts are free!**

I’m talking about when you’re tunneling down to the bedrock and revising your manuscript for public consumption.

The revision process is painful. After all, you’re throwing away perfectly good words and ideas. It’s supposed to hurt. Certainly far more than a comfy keyboard and endless undo might suggest.

So let it. Feel the ache in your head, your heart, your elbows, your wrists, your fingers. Feel the sharp edges of every word against the soles of your feet. Imagine you have to cough up real money from your meager bank account to pay for each word that finds a permanent home on the page.

And when it hurts too much? Celebrate the pain. You’re almost there.

Because if you feel the weight of your words – really feel it, chances are, your readers will too. And that’s a price worth paying.

 

*No. I don’t plan on marrying it when such a thing becomes legal (because really, that’s where our country is headed, am I right fear-fueled zealots?). We’re just going to live together. And when I’m tired of it, I’m going to trade it in on a new model. When it comes to computers, I’m proud to be a serial monogamist. Okay, fine. You caught me. I have more than one computer. A serial bigamist, then. 

**They’re not free for everyone. I labor over mine. Every. Stinking. Word. Yeah, I’m one of those people who can’t seem to abide by the advice I so freely give to others. 

Make Something Happen

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”Elmore Leonard

I love this quote. Not just because it indirectly gives purpose to the existence of content editors. (Mostly because of that.) But also because it’s impossibly clever and initially appears to be cleverly impossible.

I mean, how do you do that?

Some readers tend to skip long descriptive sections. So you should leave those out, right? Not necessarily. There’s nothing wrong with good descriptive writing. If your voice happens to be descriptive, some readers are going to go skipping. You can’t stop them.

Other readers become impatient with anything that reminds them even remotely of a history textbook. No problem. Just delete it all. Um, unless your novel kind of needs that historical content. Which it probably does. Expect more skippers.

But we’re supposed to leave out the part…

Look, you’re not going to please all the readers. Don’t even try.

There is, however, one part readers tend to skip that you can address, regardless of your writing voice.

The part where nothing happens.

The part where characters simply pass the time. The part where characters start to repeat themselves unnecessarily. The part where the world slows to a crawl, not so the characters can collect themselves in anticipation of The Next Big Thing, but because you don’t really know what to say.

The part where the story stops moving*.

This often happens in the middle, but it can happen anywhere.

Conventional editorial wisdom (mine included) suggests the way to fix this is to Make Something Happen.

But before you strike your protagonist with lightning, take note of these “Three Rules for Making Something Happen.” (They’re not really rules. I don’t like rules. But it’s easier to call them rules than “Really Good Suggestions Based on Years of Editing Experience.”)

1. The Something must be notable. It needs to be significant enough to capture the characters’ attention. (And thus, the readers’ attention.) Sudden death works. So do natural disasters and other surprises. But your Something can also be a small thing, as long as it has not-so-small implications. A character’s decision to use the blue mug instead of the green one might not seem notable, but it could be if there’s a measurable risk in using the blue one. Here’s a simple test for those smaller actions: if there is no cost to the character, it’s probably not notable.

2. The Something must be believable. This may seem obvious, but nevertheless it needs to be stated. Have you ever rolled your eyes at an author’s decision to “shake things up” with an event that came out of proverbial left field? That author ignored this rule. They knew the story had stalled, rightly wanted to fix it, then chose an action completely out of context from the rest of the story. The Something needs to make sense. Yes, it can be a Big Surprise. Big Surprises are a great way to shake up a story. But if that surprise has no basis in the story so far, readers won’t buy it. (I see this a lot in fantasy and science fiction. Hey, we’ll just add this new ability/technology, and it’s all better. Nope. Not unless you have previously built a foundation for this thing.) Don’t drop an anvil on your protagonist unless the story takes place in a structurally-unsound anvil factory.

3. The characters’ reactions to the Something must be reasonable. A character you’ve painted as stoic isn’t suddenly going to become a bubbling mess of tears just because you killed his dog. Oh, he might show a crack in his armor, but he’s not going to change right there after the Something. (Unless, of course, you’ve been carefully crafting his arc so he’s just one crisis away from implosion.) If the characters react out of character to the Something (or not at all), your Something becomes little more than an ink spill. And if you don’t know how your characters would act…well, you have a bigger problem than the “part readers tend to skip.” Fix your characters.

And…that’s it. Blog post done. I tried to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. If I failed, feel free to toss a grenade in there somewhere.

 

*”Moving” isn’t a synonym for “action-packed.” Some stories move like a bicycle messenger. Some move like a ballet dancer. Some move like a leaf lifted by a gentle breeze. And some don’t appear to be moving at all, yet somehow stir the reader in ways that feel like motion. I happen to love stories that move in unconventional ways. But they’re not for everyone. And certainly not for every writer. It takes unusual talent to do unconventional well.