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.)

First Things…

Question: Do we really need another blog about writing?

Answer: Probably not.

Question: Then why are you here?

Answer: Because I like it here.

I know why you’re here. You’re curious about this little writerly blog and wondering if there is enough practical wisdom or entertainment value in it to merit regular reading. (Either that, or you’re related to me. Hi, Mom.) If you came here hoping to find a blog written by a famous, widely-read author who might, in the course of sharing his writerly journey with practiced humility and choreographed candor, accidentally let slip the carefully-guarded secret to publishing success, this isn’t it.

Nope. I’m not that guy. (Though, like you, I am writing a novel that I am reasonably certain will be both a literary and a commercial blockbuster. Check back in a couple years. Meanwhile, if you beat me to it, will you let me touch the hem of your garment? A little proximal magic couldn’t hurt.)

I am an editor. If you tend to read books that come off the Christian fiction shelves at your local bookstore, it’s possible you’ve read a book I edited. (Go ahead and read the Stephen Who? page for more info about me.)

Back so soon? Wait, you didn’t click the link, did you. Then you’re missing out on an awfully cute picture of a kitty snuggling with a puppy. C’mon, click it.

[Insert tick-tock sound here and/or visual of blog author tapping fingers on table while staring at the ceiling.]

Welcome back. Sorry about that little deception. I know how much you were looking forward to that picture.

Now where was I? Right. I’m an editor.

I have had the privilege of working with a number of “first-time” novelists. (If you’ve been writing for a few years, you know that “first-time” designation can be misleading. Many of these authors had written a number of novels before finally publishing one.) I’ve also enjoyed working with a few seasoned authors. Second only to my own writing (a process I lovingly compare to performing open-heart surgery on myself without the benefit of anesthesia), the thing I enjoy the most is investing in someone else’s story and helping the author slice his or her way through the jungle to reveal the beautiful mystery of a well-told tale.

If you met me at Starbucks, you might initially mistake me for part of the furniture. I blend well. But get me talking about books or music or movies and you’ll soon discover I know a little something about words. And although I know the rules well enough, I’m not a particularly “by the books” editor (don’t tell my publisher friends). I edit by instinct and am currently pursuing a master’s degree in making this up as I go from the Indiana Jones school of editing. It’s an entertaining adventure. I am passionate about what I do and sometimes can get a little snarky, but everything I say and do is born of a love for the written word.

I’m planning all sorts of potentially life-altering posts for this blog. In addition to the requisite wisdom and foolishness that will bear my imprimatur, I’ll share some of my favorite words that other people have written – and tell you why I like them. I’ll challenge you with writing exercises. I’ll host the occasional contest and give out really swell prizes (and by “swell” I mean odd and yet strangely compelling). And, if the wind is blowing just right when Marilynne Robinson or J.K. Rowling or Stephen King saunter by on their way to another success, I will pass along that carefully-guarded secret. (As long as you promise to keep it to yourself.)

Here’s one more reason why you might want to come back: I’m the only Stephen Parolini who is writing about writing. I’m one of a kind. I know. Makes your head spin, doesn’t it.

Either you’ll like it here or you won’t. If you do, tell your friends. If you don’t, then only tell friends who think you’re a master of reverse psychology.

Oh, and fair warning: I push at the edges sometimes both in my editing and in my blog-writing. I don’t do this for the sake of edge-pushing. I just want to be true to who I am as an editor and writer…and I’m a real work in progress. A messy work in search of truth that matters. So, if you’ve arrived here from a rather conservative blog or link and you’re easily offended by occasional words or thoughts that don’t fit neatly in the Christian marketplace, you might want to slip away quietly. I won’t judge you for leaving. I’d appreciate it if you don’t judge me for my rough edges.

Next post? Something scintillating. Or a picture of a kitty snuggling with a puppy. I haven’t decided yet.

Have a great day. Write well.