If your grammar and punctuation skills are remedial, then you don’t need a strong editor. You need to learn those skills. Editors with any reputable publisher will usually pass on those who haven’t mastered the tools of the trade.
When writing, it’s sometimes hard to keep your inner editor awake. After all, a girl needs to rest.I’ve always imagined my inner editor is a haughty little thing who loves to wear blood-red stiletto heels, a matching wide-brimmed hat, and long fingernails she uses to gouge out my heart when I work without her.
And that’s the rub…working without our inner editors.While they’re off getting some beauty sleep, we writers are left on our own, without proper supervision, and we end up committing some blunders that make our inner editors’ teeth itch.
Mentioning names instead of using a pronoun
It’s ok to use a pronoun. Really. You don’t need to use the character’s name at every turn. I’ve seen any number of manuscripts read something like this:
Joe couldn’t see through the fog because Joe forgot his Darth Vader See-All glasses that Joe found in a Cracker Jack box. Joe wished he hadn’t been in such a hurry in leaving because Joe also realized he’d forgotten his magic gloves and bag of marshmallows.
Ok, there’s a bit of overkill in here, but not much. Going between a pronoun and the character’s name is a balancing act. Once the reader knows who you’re talking about, don’t be afraid to use “he” or “she.” Using the character’s name is tedious and clumsy.
Affections: Sighing, rolling eyes, running hands through hair
Another thing that happens when your inner editor catches some zzz’s is overdoing affectations. I’m currently reading a book that, I swear, if the author writes “rolled her eyes” one more time, I may begin rolling mine as a counter-attack. If your character runs his hands through his hair or shrugs his shoulders at every turn, then he becomes one-dimensional. Even I am given to committing drive-by eye rolls only once a day. If your characters are doing this every five minutes, then I’d wonder if they have Tourette’s.
Affections are great, but only if your inner editor is wakey wakey because they give depth to your characters. The trick is to avoid the cliche ones. Running hands through the hair (lordy, I love that one for some reason), eye rolling, shrugging shoulders, sighing…those are easy to rely on too heavily because we all do them. But it can look overdone in literature, so think of something unique.
If you have a tough time with affectations, do a bit of reflection and observation. What are your affectations? For instance, I noticed that I pinch my chin when I’m frustrated, and I tend to rub a knuckle across my lips when I’m searching for just the right word to use.
Observe your friends and family. I have a friend who twirls a glob of her hair when she’s engrossed in telling a story. One time she got so engrossed that she created a huge knot next to ear. I nearly laughed up a lung watching her try to tuck the knot behind her ear in an effort to pretend it wasn’t there.
Actions: Walking across the room, slamming doors
Action can also get away from the writer whose inner editor is sawing logs. Action, when treated properly, is great because it gets a character from here to there. However, I see lots of walking across the room, slamming doors, drinking coffee…whatever…which doesn’t further a scene, but merely enhances it…you hope. It works for the most part, unless you allow the action to overtake a scene:
Jilly poured the gin into Jane’s and her glass. “So, have you decided whether to take the train or the bus?”
“I’m leaning toward the train,” Jane said, taking the proffered glass and taking a small sip.
“I love the train,” Jilly said, setting her drink down on the table and reaching for a cookie. “I love peering out at the countryside.” She took a bite out of the macaroon.
“I know what you mean,” Jane said, picking up the other cookie and dunking it in her gin.
This isn’t so bad here, but if you have an entire scene of dialog where both characters are either drinking, eating, wiping crumbs, taking another cookie, the scene takes on a ka-thunk cadence because the action slows down the pace by overtaking the dialog. You wouldn’t think action would slow down the pace, but your dialog has a pace of its own, and adding too much action can slow down the dialog.
Again, this is a balancing act because you want to avoid Talking Heads – where all they do is talk, and there is zero action. Action tends to be overused because authors are trying to avoid dialog tags like, “he said.”If John is busy picking up a beer while speaking, then you don’t need to add a “he said.” You’ve already identified who’s speaking by adding action.
It’s a great writing tool, but be mindful about supplanting one for the other without intention. You and your inner editor will decide how well balanced your scene is. It’s harder to do when she’s not on your shoulder, screaming at you.
Punctuation: exclamation points, em dashes, ellipses
This is a terrible abuse because it’s so easy to do. When inner editors awaken to see the carnage, it’s all they can do to keep from mainlining cheap tequila. We writers have our little foibles. My weakness is ellipses. I love them because I feel they have a bigger impact than using a simple comma. It’s more dramatic. But a manuscript with a million of these little suckers should land me in jail without possibility of parole. And I’m not the only one. I once read a manuscript that had over 300 of them. I know because I did a Track Changes search in order destroy every one of them. That author needed therapy.
I learned my aversion to exclamation points when I read a manuscript with some-400-odd exclamation points. I began to see them in my sleep, and when I drove to Starbucks. The result of all those exclamation points was that the ceased to have any importance. Rather than actually writing tension or fear, the author stuck in an exclamation point, thinking that would convey the same message. It didn’t.
“Hold on! I’ll be right back!” Jack yelled.
“I don’t know how long I can wait!” Ann yelled back.
“If you don’t, there will be a huge mess!”
“I don’t care! If that gas station forces you to buy something before they’ll hand over the bathroom key, they deserve to clean up the mess!” Jane screamed.
Ok, been there, so I can understand Jane and Jack’s dilemma. But what those exclamation points are doing is taking the place of character development.
Jack wished he’d pulled off the road an hour ago, when Jane told him she needed to go. Now she was wild-eyed and had a haunted look about her as they stood before a locked bathroom door. “Hold on! I’ll be right back.”
“I don’t know how long I can wait,” Jane said through gritted teeth.
Jack let the probable scenario play out in his head if he couldn’t convince Jane and her bursting bladder to hang on for a few more minutes. “If you don’t, there will be a huge mess.”
“I don’t care!” Jane screamed, while crossing her legs. “If that gas station forces you to buy something before they’ll hand over the bathroom key, they deserve to clean up the mess.”
If you need to convey an emotion, then write it. Don’t let punctuation do the job of writing. Only place exclamation points where you really need them. Too many of these suckers is like when I eat too much fudge and I get a big ol’ canker sore on my tongue. You don’t want a literary canker sore, right?
I’ve had many discussions about adverbs, some that got quite heated. Only writers could draw blood over the proper amount of adjective usage, right?
My boggle with these suckers is that they are so seductive, that I consider them the Antonio Banderas of writing. They’re sexy, handsome, and soooo easy on the eye and, before you know it, your writing is filled with adverbs that crowd, clutter, and irritate your readers. Not that Antonio ever could…
“This beer is so astoundingly horrible. It tastes amazingly like dirty sock water. How can you drink this achingly awful swill?”
A manuscript filled with adverbs is overkill and there are plenty of readers who get to the point where they shout, “Yes! I get it, the beer is horrible and the character hates it. No need to stick fifteen adverbs in there to say so.” As with my love for Twinkies *sob*, moderation is key here.
This is the fingernail on the chalkboard to any reader of period pieces. If your story’s time frame is in 1860, “cool” better be describing the temperature and not the wheels on a horse buggy.
We’re all looking for realistic dialog, but it can be taken to extremes if you inject to many “Well’s” “Look’s” “Um’s” Sure, we all say these words in general speaking, but that doesn’t mean it translates well to paper. I read a scene the other day that took up two pages and had fifteen uses of “well,” “look,” or “um.” Overkill.
So if you find your inner editing yawning, go join her. Writing is a team effort, and you shouldn’t work unsupervised. Ever.
My posts have been spotty of late, so thank you to those who checked in on our blog to see whether I’d been taken hostage by the beagle. Changing zip codes and time zones is an exciting time, and the two weeks I’ll have been away from the Batcave have put new wind in my sails. We all get a bit musty around the gills from time to time, and nothing cleans ‘em out more than travel, playing the tourist in Boston, moving Baby Daughter out of her apt., cramming her worldly sh*t into a too-small rental, driving 10 hrs to Pittsburgh, unloading said sh*t into hubby’s hotel room, where we’ll keep most of it when our townhouse is ready in early Oct.
For all these moving parts to work, we had to do the math…and it had to add up…lest I leave half our stuff on some Massachusetts toll road or suffer a flat tire outside Hartford. Gah. Instead, I was anal beyond the capacity of my DNA, and all went off without a hitch.
And this is something I haven’t been seeing of late in manuscripts. Stuff isn’t adding up. It started a few weeks ago when the story I was reading revolved around the main characters, who realized they love each other. Both characters (yes, I call them characters, even though it’s nonfiction) were very likeable on their own, but they had nothing in common with each other. I kept looking for some commonality that would convince me this relationship made sense. I never did, so I rejected it.
There are a few contributing factors to a story not adding up.
Oil and Vinegar Characters/Plot
Characters who have nothing in common make for entertaining storytelling because you’re doing the literary equivalent of putting a square peg into a round hole (knock off the giggling, you romance writers). The proving grounds are when you can successfully pull off an anti-nuke protester and nuke scientist relationship.
It takes believability, and you’re the one who has to put those moving pieces together so your readers will believe this is a lasting relationship vs. a case of nasty pants. If you leave out one single part of the equation, your math won’t add up, and your readers will react much as I did with the manuscript.
You need to have a golden thread of commonality that weaves through both your oil and vinegar characters, and this takes delving into their past, who they were before they assumed their current jobs (or protests). You need to understand both of them; what makes them tick, how they would typically react, and how easily they are willing to change their minds. I know it’s easy to say that they simply love each other, but a reader is going to ask why/how.
Your oil and vinegar characters have a set of solid principals that go to the very core of who they are, and it takes something pretty big in order for them to compromise. Without it, your story won’t add up. If the lawyer protesting tearing down a building never compromises her views, she can never believably make happy with the building developer…no matter how rakishly handsome he is.
Be mindful not to weenie out on compromise. It has to be logical, or your readers will tie you to the stake and light a match. One of our upcoming books does this very well. LEARNING TO PLAY WITH A LION’S TESTICLES by Melissa Haynes pits herself, a city woman, against the ranger of an African game preserve, who hates all city folks, and most of all, city women. They couldn’t be more mismatched. And while no romance took place, there is a grudging acceptance that this particular city woman is worthy of admiration because of all the daring (and sometimes foolhardy) things she’s willing to do.
Melissa spreads this growing compromise out for the entire book, so readers will find themselves cheering for her as she picks a very unwise fight with a crabby elephant, or tests fate by getting way too close to the lions. She has a pair of brass ones, and this is something I think the ranger finally comes to realize and appreciate. He’s never met anyone like her before.
Take My Word For It
One thing that will have readers buying pins for your voodoo doll is copping out and saying “take my word for it, this makes sense.” Nope. Readers will NOT take your word for it. You’re the captain of your literary ship, so you have to navigate it from the ports of San Pedro to the London shores, and you have to include every single step to that complicated oil and vinegar plot.
The story I’d rejected basically said this. There was no proof of life, other than the author shoved these two characters together and expected me to buy it. It’s helpful if you constantly ask yourself, “Does this make sense? Is this logical?” The problem is, you’re often too close to the story to know, and that’s when your beta readers can be of help.
But it’s also a test of how well you know your characters. It’s easy to create two characters who are polar opposites, but it takes great care to bring them together. An outline is helpful when deciding on the golden strands that will create the sets of compromises that will allow the oil and vinegar characters or plot to come together.
I had a story that I really liked, but the author had one character making decisions that made no sense. When I talked to her about it, she went into a series of events (backstory) that suddenly made all those decisions logical. I recommended that she work on weaving in the backstory because it’s vital to how the story unfolds. Always remember that we can’t climb inside your heads, so if it’s not on the paper, then it’s not in our heads.
As for my own equation adding up, Pittsburgh is lovely.
I know, I know, you’re looking at me in horror. “Undervalue my BOOK? Are you barking mad?”
Of course, we all believe our books are fabulous things that are worthy of high praise, oodles of money, and undying love from fans all over the world. Not talking about that, though. I’m talking about something deeper, which involves underestimating your book’s potential. This comes from not looking at your book through a marketing prism.
Case in point; I met an author at a writer’s conference who’d written a personal journey about her addiction and how it had impacted her family. The thing that made it noteworthy is that the book included her daughter’s perspective as well. Interesting concept, sez I, it’s a big book.
Blink blink. Big book?
Absolutely. Any editor who signs you is looking down the road as to the book’s impact on the marketplace. This book is unique because, while there are a jillion addiction books, the commonality drops off when you include addiction from the viewpoint of those who had to suffer through it with you. As such, this book would be great for Alateens and Alanon members. You and your daughter could be doing talks about your experience and offer advice, taken from your book, to help others who are still living the nightmare.
The author blinked again. She admitted that she’d never looked at her book in that way. She was simply writing about her and her family’s experiences.
She undervalued her book. And lots of writers do.
Story vs. Potential
Memoirs get their roots from something happening in someone’s life that’s extraordinary, and he/she decides to write about it. Authors suffer from tunnel vision, in that their entire focus is on the story; not the potential.
I’ll let you in on a poorly-kept secret: Potential is why publishers want a book.
Editors don’t just look at the story itself, they look at how far the book can go, how widely they can market it, and how many audiences will find the book interesting. The bigger the target, the more exciting the potential.
Authors who appreciate this have already taken preliminary steps toward approaching that potential target before the book even sells to an editor. For instance, the author with the addiction book already has an established relationship with AA, so she can easily contact the various groups to discuss her book. She and her daughter can develop a few talks that discuss their hard experiences and the factors that got Mom clean and brought their family back together.
She could also be talking to schools in order to reach out to kids whose parents have an addiction problem, or those kids themselves have more than a passing fancy to the drink. They could talk about the damage that path created from a firsthand perspective. And all of these talks lead right back to her book. If she starts giving talks now, then she has an established platform in which to wow an editor, who will do the happy dance.
The other option is to do nothing, which won’t make a potential editor dance quite as wildly because the author has zero platform, and there isn’t much time in which to establish one.
And you novelists aren’t immune to undervaluing your books. It’s true that you don’t need a platform for a novel because, well, your world is fake. However, you’d be hardly kicked out to the curb for having a platform.
I’ve referred to my experiences with the Two Surfer Dudes from time to time because he is such a great example of taking nothing and turning it into something. Long story short, this surfer writer penned a fantasy/SF book whose main characters were surfer dudes – sort of a Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but with some really oddball characters in a funky SF/fantasy setting. In short, a really tough sell.
Predictably, no editor would touch his book. By the time he sat down in my promotion seminar, he was pretty down in the mouth because he’d gone vanity press and realized he’d get zero promotion help or distribution. He ended up making lemonade by capitalizing on his own experiences as a well-known local surfer to launch his book to his potential readership – other surfers.
Because he knew nothing about how books are sold, he’d undervalued his book’s potential by not considering how his personal life could elevate his book’s footprint.
So for your novelists; take a peek at your own lives. Is there something you can pull out from your life that creates a bridge between your story and your target audience? Are you the the cop who writes detective novels? Are you the Reiki Master who writes about a surgeon who incorporates alternative medicine in her practice? Are you a nurse who writes medical romance novels?
If you look inward, it’s possible that you have qualities that will elevate your book from “eh” to “wow!” After all, if a surfer dude can sell a fantasy/SF about two surfer dudes, anything is possible when you take steps to do some serious analysis.
Analysis takes vision. It means that you’re looking beyond just your story, and envisioning key elements that will attract an audience. Your story is more than just your imagination. It’s a culmination of your experiences, your perspective on how you view the world, and what’s burning in your soul. It’s that literary itch that needs scratching. It’s passion.
If you’re not emotionally attached to your story, then how do plan to advocate its reason-to-be? Even a fun little romantic comedy has deep roots that drive your passion, right? It shouldn’t be a stretch to expand your vision in order to appreciate the value of your book and decide how far you can take it.
I’ve met more than a few authors whose faces were painted with panic when I suggested huge plans for their book. They simply hadn’t taken the time to look at their story’s potential and didn’t understand the vision it takes to go where no book has gone before. Ah, thank you, Capt. Picard.
So take another look at your book and analyze whether you’re undervaluing your little friend. If you are, then maybe you could think about changing course, and go get ‘em!
I was honored to give the Sunday Keynote speech at the Florida Writer’s Conference – a fantastic group of dedicated writers and all-around wonderful folks. Every time I leave a conference, I try to take the overall temperature of the conference goers. Are they excited by all they learned? Are they confused at the contradictions they may have heard? And worst of all, are they defeated at the odds of a mainstream contract?
For that reason, I felt it important to remind them that they (and you) are diamonds. So here’s what I told them Sunday morning:
Scientists say that diamonds are simple carbon molecules, created under high pressure.
Likewise, the publishing industry is made up of ordinary people growing and learning who they want to be under the most extraordinary of circumstances. And for all of us, sooner or later, there comes that moment of high pressure. So how do we become diamonds?
Elements for creating a diamond
Time: No one knows how long it takes to create a diamond. Weeks? Months? Years? Millions of years? There’s no way to carbon date a diamond. Likewise, there’s no way to carbon date a writer. Writers sometimes lose sight of the process and focus on the end product – publication. What happens is that desire short-circuits the most important gift of all – time to learn the art of writing and effective storytelling.
Environment: Diamonds are formed 75-120 miles below the earth’s surface. That environment is optimum for their creation. What is your environment? Have you parked your posterior on Writer’s Island? Creative Writing at your local junior college? Writer’s conferences? Online networking? Writer’s groups? Ask yourself whether your environment is conducive to making you the best writer you can be.
Personal Environment – Are you the Hobbyist who has a sweet story that you’d like to make available to friends and family? Or are you a Serious Writer who has many books burning a hole in your soul and will consume you if you don’t get them down on cyber paper? It’s an important consideration because it will define which publishing option is most appropriate for you.
Personality Environment - Are you shy, or have you channeled your inner hambone? Your personality will create the foundations for how to best optimize your promotion plan.
Temperature: Diamonds come from pre-existing rocks that melt in the Earth’s upper mantle. Similarly, you authors take your literary temperature by gathering all the ingredients you’ve learned to write your book, analyze that fickle mistress, the marketplace, and define your readership.
Fluctuations: Lordy be! Fluctuations are Life’s middle name. But for diamonds, the fluctuations in temperature force the carbon atoms to go deep into the Earth’s crust, where it melts and becomes new rock once the temperature reduces. For you writers, fluctuations are happening almost daily in the growing publishing options. We have DIY ebooks and print publishing, vanity, mainstream. It almost gives me a Wizard of Oz moment…”Lions and tigers and bears, ohmy!”
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with fluctuations. We need them in order to test the boundaries, to grow, to evolve. If everything stayed the same temperature, then how would we become better?
Timing: If conditions are right, like pressure and chemistry, then the carbon atoms in the melting crustal rock bond to build diamond crystals.
In publishing, it’s invariably all about timing, right? Have you written something that is suddenly hot in the social mainstream? Is your story the perfect counterpunch to a worldwide event? Tra la!
Conversely, are you writing in an impacted genre, like teen angst YA, or are you the ignition point to a new twist, like Stephanie Meyers was to vampire romance?
First and foremost, you must stay true to your heart. Write what you love, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Your timing may be off and your diamond crystals may have a tough time forming, but as a lovely diamond-in-the-rough, you’ve been mindful about Temperature, which invites you to be aware of how to insure your story has unique qualities that is impervious to Timing. In other words, you’re very smart diamond crystals.
Guarantees: Now here’s the rub. After facing all those processes of Time, Environment, Temperature, Fluctuations, and Timing, there is no guarantee those carbon atoms will turn into diamonds. If it’s too hot or there’s a drop in pressure, then the diamond crystals may melt partially or totally dissolve. What a buzzkill, right? But that’s the nature of Nature.
And you literary diamond crystals are no different. There are many elements that influence whether you will turn into a diamond or remain partially melted rock. In spite of the fickle marketplace, the economy, the subject matter, impacted genre, talent, and the myriad of publishing options, these very elements are an invitation to you to stretch those carbon molecules in a way you never considered. Rather than lament it, celebrate it. Honor it…and yourself.
Discovery: So let’s say those lovely carbon molecules do everything right; it still takes thousands of years for those diamonds to rise to the surface where they can be discovered. We can be grateful not to be in their shoes, right? However, you lovely writers still have the same considerations. You can’t rush your journey to the surface.
The laws of nature create the conditions for simple carbon molecules to form into a treasure. So does publishing. Doing it right takes time. Overnight success is a myth. It takes hard work, determination, time, education, and stashing several books under the bed before you get a publishing deal that’s appropriate for you. Just because you can doesn’t mean you will. Embrace that reality, and honor it.
Quality: Diamonds are classified by varying degrees of clarity, color, carat size, and the very cool thing is that there’s room for all kinds of diamonds. Everyone wants and loves diamonds. They’re rare, but conversely, there are a lot of them. So you need to ask yourself what color/carat/clarity are you?
Given the advances with technology, and changes in the economy, publishing is in a state of change. But we’re in this together. Through the process of immense pressure, we each combine our elements into making something wonderful together – whether you choose DIY or mainstream
And just because these options exist doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, or that one will be successful at the expense of another. Or that one will be successful at all. It simply means that through the process of pressure, you’ll create your own diamond that will allow your color, clarity, and carat to shine through.
Oboy. Talk about a love/hate relationship. Some want advice but never get it. Others get it and don’t want it. And others want it and get it…and hate it, and invite you to get carnal with your favorite barnyard animal for your trouble. What to do?
I come from the school that I don’t ask for advice unless I really want it and am prepared for good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between. The trick is knowing WHAT advice to listen to.
On the left end of the Give Me Advice Bell Curve you have “Love it, don’t change a thing.” The other end is, “Hate it, what made you think you could write?” The middle of the Bell Curve is “Listen to me because I’m like your mother- I know everything.”
The Middle Advice is where I see the most damage because it occupies a larger portion of the bell curve and offers the widest range of opinions. And they usually conflict.
One will say, “Develop the main character,” while another will say, “Too much on the main character, tone her down.” One feels that your pacing is slow, another loves the pacing. Yeech. What to do? Who’s right?
And that’s the danger of taking any advice too seriously..unless it’s your editor – and she is GOD. I’m reminded of being in my early thirties – back in the Early Jurassic Era – and someone at a party told me I had a really loud laugh. She was right – I do have a loud laugh.When something really hits me square on the funny bone, I’m the type who tosses her head back and just belts it out – a from-the-bottom-of-my-feet kinda laugh.
I never thought about it until this woman’s comment. The way she said it made me think I was as annoying as the Cyalis commercials. I mean really…what’s with the two bathtubs, and how does that evoke promises of doing the horizontal mambo? Eh, I digress…back to my annoying laugh.
It shook me up to think that I’d spent my whole life annoying the crap out of people. So right then, I made a point to subdue my laugh. Instead of peeling the wallpaper off the walls, I’d politely titter…very unlike me. Hubby finally noticed and asked me if he’d lost his humor mojo. No no, Sweetcheeks, you’re as funny as ever. I’m trying on my new laugh because my real one is so annoying.
He was shocked. Wha’? Who told you that? I told him the story, and he shook his head, and explained the facts of life to me. It was my laugh that made me, me. It’s part of my DNA, and not at all annoying – just the opposite. My laugh made him feel good because he thought it infectious…and not infectious as, “ew, I just caught this infectious laugh and now I have a rash on my bellybutton.”
He made me think about it in a different way. Upon reflection, I decided that I liked my laugh because it’s honest and truly joyful. I love to laugh, the deeper the better.
The woman at the party was sitting right in the middle of my “Grow A Pair, Pricey Bell Curve,” and her advice shook my confidence in me. Sweetcheeks, of course, was pinging my “You’re Utterly Fabulous” end of the Bell Curve…and that’s why I love him so much.
So the first lesson is to understand that no one is right. It comes down to what is right for you…what resonates with you.
The end run of all this is that before we set our Literary Bell Curves, we need to have the confidence to decipher what’s a load of aardvark dootie and what’s legit. What crits are we confident accepting, and what do we feel is off the mark? And I’m not suggesting that we only accept the good stuff. The negative crits have their place as well.
My point is to know yourself well enough to appreciate all the stuff that’s sitting in the “Listen to me because I’m like your mother- I know everything.” I’ve seen authors write themselves into a straight jacket because of all the conflicting advice, and that’s the biggest tragedy of all.
Advice is great provided you’re wearing good shoes, have a stiff drink in your hand, and a good sense of who you are. Don’t let the wrong people take your laugh away.
I’m talking about conflict in your stories. I could go on and on about it, but I’m lazy. Why reinvent the wheel when Nicola “Shoes” Morgan already did it? Go. Read her post on Conflict. She speaketh da truth.
Ok, I’ll admit there are a lot of things that give me the heebeejeebies…no Twinkies in the house, insufficient quantities of limeade for the beagle’s margaritas, loss of cabin pressure when I’m flying…you know, the normal things. But there are certain things that can set my hair on fire when I’m wearing my editor bonnet:
I’m the first to screech from the bowels of my batcave that above all else, I demand honesty. Lie to me and you’re beagle banhammer. HOWEVER, one needs to exhibit some restraint, as can be seen with this query letter I received:
I know this needs a solid edit, so I’m looking for a great agent or publisher to make this really shine.
Le ouch. Every cell in my body is experiencing a collective wince. It’s assumed that no manuscript comes directly from the hand of the Great Cosmic Muffin and editing will be required, but to admit that one’s work is still in the rough demands psychiatric intervention. Query letters are meant to SELL, to ENTICE, to MAKE US SLOBBER ALL OVER OURSELVES.
I must excuse myself for a quick hit of Pepto.
And speaking of editing…
I’ve been professionally edited by Great and Holy Freelance Editor, who was once an editor with Dell/Random House/Simon and Schuster/any other big house of your choosing who tore my work apart and rebuilt it from the ground up so that it’s polished. She says my dialog is my strong suit.
Erm. I see this A LOT in query letters, and writers need to stop and consider what this means to the poor slob (me) who’s reading the query:
- You’re insinuating that any critiques I may have make me a slobbering idiot who shouldn’t be let out of the house without a keeper. While the latter may be true, you’re putting me in a tough spot when critiquing your work because I’m wondering if you’ll come unglued and invite me to make merry with the barnyard animal of my choice. Been there more times than I care to remember. Just because someone else rebuilt your story doesn’t mean that it’s the story that will rock my house. And for the record…her dialog was horrendous.
- I’m wondering what kind of input the freelance editor had. I’ve seen cases where the freelancer practically rewrote the thing to make it submission ready. How do I know this? Because the author was a complete disaster during the editing phase. The quality of rewrites was like day and night.
- Tastes vary. A work that has an editor name imprinted on it means zilch to me because it’s a paying gig. Yes, the good editors are choosy about the works they accept, but it’s still a paycheck, and their job is to make a gourmet meal out of mush. There is just so far they can go with a work. Just because you paid $1600 to a freelancer doesn’t mean your work is publishable. I’ve seen plenty of these types of works that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot cattle prod.
Point of View in Query Letter
I read a query letter yesterday where the story unfolded from one character’s point of view (a woman). However, the first three chapters were told in another character’s POV (her husband). It was unsettling because I couldn’t figure out the disparity between the author’s chapters and the query letter. This truly felt like the husband’s story, so I was left scratching my melon.
Of course books open with POVs other than the main character – I totally get that. But do be mindful about your first chapters and how they relate to your pitch. It should be an easy transition.
Remember, we know zilcho about you or your story, so we have to draw conclusions based on what you give us. If we feel confused, what do you think our ultimate reaction will be?
Gah. I know many people who give seminars and write books based solely on dialog. Why? Because dialog is the lifeblood of a story. Readers can’t subsist on narrative alone – even really good narrative. At some point, we starve for dialog because it’s a natural break. It’s the action. It’s what puts us in touch with the character, where we get a taste for their personality.
Because dialog is so vital, it’s gotta be good. It’s gotta be realistic. Read my lips…IT’S GOTTA BE REALISTIC.
How many of us speak without using contractions? Unless you’re Data from Star Trek, you don’t say, “I do not think I will have meatloaf tonight for dinner.” Yet time and time again, I see stilted dialog like this and it makes me want to scream.
We don’t talk like this in real life, so why on earth would you create dialog that makes your characters sound like Mennonites or robots?
Furthermore, most of what we say is dull, dull, dull. Stop and pay attention to the things you say. It’s filled with, “Hi, how ya doin’?” “Fine, thanks.” “Have a seat.” “So how’s life treating you?”
Blah. Who cares? You can take care of that nonsense in one swoop by writing, They greeted each other and got down to business.
Unless it’s your intent to bore your readers to a slow, miserable death, use only the dialog that will actually engage the reader. It’s not small talk – it’s the interesting stuff. If you don’t know the difference, then you need to read more books and analyze effective dialog from your favorite authors. Or take a writing class.
So that’s it. Heebeejeebie time over. Go. Write. Be brilliant.
The author looked at me with venom in her eyes. Sizing her up, I was fairly certain she could take me. Easily. “I have NEVER had anyone talk about my writing and my sentence structure the way you have! I don’t know anything about POV shifts, run-on sentences, or adverbs. Nor do I know what show vs. tell means. Furthermore, I don’t care! I am an artist and ‘rules’ hinder the literary process. So piss off.”
While my jaw hung slack in my lap, she gathered her things. “Um, yes rules can hinder the literary process, ” I said, gathering up my chin. “However, there are some ‘rules’ that exist for a reason, and that’s to make the story easier for the reader to follow – effective communication. With all the POV shifts, it was hard for me to keep up. The severe case of adverbatosis created a ka-thunk cadence that cluttered the writing. And your run-on sentences made the message unclear…”
Her icy glare slid down her long nose and settled on me with a bad case of frostbite. “I think there is nothing wrong with my writing.”
“Yabut, I don’t believe it’s marketable as written.” How lame did I feel by this time?
“I’ll be happy to accept your apology when I get a five book deal,” she sniffed before storming out of the room.
That was a a one-on-one that took place five years ago at at a writer’s con, and I have yet to see her name in lights.
Here’s the long and short of it: You’re a writer, so doesn’t it seem logical that learning how to use the tools of your trade is, like, IMPORTANT? It’s like a surgeon who isn’t concerned about learning how to use a scalpel. “Hey, no problemo, let’s just dig his tonsils out with a spoon.” Gah.
It flies in the face of logic that any writer would be unconcerned about learning any kind of writing rules, yet I see signs of this ignorance every day. Yes, you heard me – IGNORANCE, which means the condition of being uneducated, unaware, or uninformed.
Thankfully, this isn’t a fatal disease. One can go from being ignorant to being informed and aware in no time. The only way this is fatal is E-G-O, which has little place in this business. In fact, every literary tackle box is spring-loaded to launch an author’s ego right out of the zip code. It’s called a rejection letter.
But on the flip side, I’ve seen authors whose hands felt tied behind their backs because they were so concerned about “writing right” that it hogtied them into a literary coma. In this, I enthusiastically prescribe to my shoe-loving across-the-ponder Nicola Morgan, who screams from on high to just sit down, shut up, and write. Brava, Morgan – go buy yourself some wicked lavender colored boots.
It’s a case of balance. Write with abandon, but eventually waggle your eye on whether you’re meeting basic writing needs. Of course it’s all a matter of personal taste. For instance, I’m not a fan of excessive adverbs because I think they create a ka-thunk cadence, they’re lazy, and lean toward telling rather than showing. Someone else may feel quite differently. Balance tends to cast a wider net. But in order to strike that balance, you gotta know da rules.
As for the haughty author? I had the last laugh since the event organizers sent me a check for the one-on-ones, which came out of the fee she paid. So in essence I got paid $60 to hear her blather about her extreme coolness.
I don’t know what it is about summer, but it seems to bring out the same-ness in writers, and everyone’s stories seem to blend into white noise. The beagle thinks it’s the heat and recommends that everyone stop for a margarita break. I’m good with that. But if you’re going to be walking around like the goolies from Night of the Living Dead, then don’t query. Save it for a time when your brain is firmly entrenched in your cranial cavity.
What is this same-ness I’m jabbering about? Standing out. This isn’t the time when you want to blend in by wearing the same bathing suit as everyone else. You want to stand out in that fuchsia and lime green suit that screams, “Lookie at me! I’m HOT, HOT, HOT!”
Instead, I’m seeing bland one-piece bathing suits that are as exciting as the beagle in Birkenstocks. These are the weakest efforts – stories written in heavily impacted categories – bipolar, death, divorce, alcoholism, cancer, blah, blah, blah – books that are fighting each other on the bookshelves already. So why on earth would I want your book? What makes you unique compared to what’s already in the marketplace?
Yes, my heart bleeds to hear that you lost your precious son at the tender age of four due to cancer. When I look at my strapping boys, I can’t imagine that kind of pain and the sheer guts and will required to care about even getting out of bed in the morning. But as sad as it is, there are already a ton of these kinds of books on the bookstore shelves, and the question becomes – how do I sell yours?
For crying out loud, toss me a bone!
What drove you to write the book?
Oftentimes, memoirs spring up because writers feel they have something to say. They experienced something they feel is fantastic/sad/inspirational/educational and decide to write about it. What happens is they look no further than their own experience and never check their competition to see if this is an issue that’s already been written about to ad nauseum. That’s why we have crowded categories such as divorce, cancer, etc. Many of them were unique at the time, but with the flood of samey books, the message is no longer unique. So ask yourself two questions:
Why did I write this book?
What am I saying that’s different from what’s already out there?
I’m not a fan of unnecessarily adding to the crowd unless that book has something new to say.
And speaking of something new, you have to tell me the unique qualities of YOUR book. This means you need to well read in the category in which you write. Know your competition because someone is going to ask you about it at some point in your career. I’ve had a few writers who, when they went back and actually checked out their competition, realized they didn’t have a unique product after all. Le ouch.
Why would someone want to read your book over the other books that cover the same topic? This is a question I ask all the time, and I’m amazed at how this stumps authors. Writers need to be analytical and objective about their writing if they are going to convince an editor to ask for pages.
Something that still stands out in my mind is when Kate McLaughlin queried me about her fabulous book Mommy, I’m Still In Here. It was if she knew I was going to roll my eyes at the beagle and say, “Bipolar? Yikes, been done and done and done,” so she tossed me all the best nuclear arsenal – she convinced me why her book was different from all the other bipolar books out there. And she was dead right because I researched it like a frog on crack.
Because she convinced me, I snapped it up. Because she knew her competition and her book’s uniqueness, it remains a solid seller.
So change your bathing suit style, kiddies. Get something that expresses your unique qualities and marketability. And don’t forget to tell me what they are. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to take the beagle’s advice and have a margarita break.