Lest any of our authors be confused over my editing marks, I have a cheat sheet…
Lest any of our authors be confused over my editing marks, I have a cheat sheet…
After a rough morning of sleeping, mixing margaritas, and chasing each other around, the rescue beagles realize they need to put distance between their busy lives in order to gain some perspective. So they drop what they’re doing and insist we go outside.
Yah, I’m good with that because I normally need a break as well. Editing all day long makes for a stale Pricey. But a nice walk and a breath of fresh air puts new wind in my literary sails.
It’s the same thing when we write. We increase our BIC (Butt In Chair) index to the point where answering the call of nature is an irritant because we “in the zone.” What I see all too often is that writers type The End, and shove their babies out the door…and it isn’t ready. Before you do anything, you need to back away from your computer and get some fresh air.
Right now, you’re stale, so you can’t see the warts hiding inside your writing. If you send it out, I’ll see those warts and reject it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard back from writers saying how embarrassed they were to have sent me their first three chapters. In the time they sent it to me and received my rejection, they’ve had a chance to get some fresh air. When they read my reasons for rejection, they hurriedly go back and review those chapters.
“GAH!!! How could I have not seen those POV switches, or the fact that my main character was in her office, and the next scene has her in Mexico?” Oh, the horror of seeing your work with fresh eyes.
Do yourself a huge favor and get some literary fresh air. Put your writing away for a couple weeks and go outside. Go to lunch with friends, take that hike you’ve been wanting to take, go visit Mom and Dad, learn a new hobby. Do something besides writing. This is the only way you can see the dust bunnies and tumbleweeds hiding among your nouns and verbs.
If I’ve been working on a tough scene, I go ahead and bang it out – and then I put it away and walk away, even though I’m convinced that I’ve just written the best writing in the world. Upon returning with a breath of fresh air, I usually discover that my writing is pure Bantha fodder. The best writing comes from being fresh and clear. Putting you focus elsewhere allows your brain to expand – and suddenly you can see your writing with new eyes. No, those rough paragraph transitions didn’t sneak in while you were sleeping. You wrote them, and didn’t see it before.
If you don’t have pesky rescue beagles reminding you to keep your literary air fresh, then write yourself a note and tape it to your forehead. Nothing good happens in a stale room. Don’t send your work out too early. You’ve worked this hard, so doesn’t it make sense to honor that hard work by sucking in some fresh air?
Do you take long breaks after writing? What do you do to get your breath of fresh air?
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.
So you’ve signed the contract, the ink is dry, and now your book is in editing. Yay! Welllll…maybe. There are times when authors will have differences of opinion with their editor, and this can either go well or make you want to mainline Drano. Let’s face it, there are few authors who agree with every suggestion their editors bring up. Ten years in the biz has afforded me all kinds of experiences in the editor chair, so I thought I’d offer some perspective that may help you when your manuscript is under the bright lights.
Is It OK to Disagree?
YES. There have been many times where I felt something wasn’t working, and recommended it be edited out, and the author didn’t agree with the suggestion…and there’s nothing wrong with that. On more than one occasion, I’ve had authors write back to say they were very married to a section I wanted to cut. We talk about it and reach some resolution. Sometime it turns out that the scene is a key piece, but simply needs further development.
I’m good with this because I can’t appreciate the importance of a scene if it isn’t fully developed. But if you disagree with me, we can talk further to where I may see that cutting a scene would be the wrong thing to do. If you’re too nervous to say anything, then your book may suffer for it. You know your book and its intent better than anyone, so you are its best advocate during the editing phase.
How to disagree
But this isn’t to say that disagreement should take on all sorts of ugly. The editing process is a very personal, emotional experience, and authors don’t always appreciate their words being futzed with. I’ve had times when it would have been easier to invert my belly button than continue editing a manuscript.
You don’t need to shout and stamp your feet to be heard. Every editor has her process, so learn what it is and how to use it to ensure the lines of communication remain open and professional. I’m a big fan of using the Comments/Balloons in the Track Changes feature in Word. I highlight a section that I want to edit out, delete it (the Track Changes feature will show up with that section crossed out and underlined). Then I’ll highlight part of that section and add a Comment in the margin, where I say something like, “Suggest editing this section out. The scene is way too long and doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t enhance the chapter.”
If the author wants to comment on that, she can highlight part of that section and add her comment below mine – where I’ll see it when the edits come back to me. “I really love this scene because it’s pivotal to the plot.” We can further discuss our options.
What I love about adding comments in the margin is that it keeps things clean and clear. You’re not likely to cuss out your editor in a comment balloon. Instead, you’ll stick to the facts. What I don’t appreciate is a hysterical phone call or email about editing a scene.
How vociferously to disagree
Many years ago, I wanted to make some editorial changes to an author’s manuscript (who is no longer with us), and he fired back a very heated email, insisting that I didn’t like him. Another author refused to perform any edits because she didn’t own Word, and insisted that we edit via hard copy. Oh hell no. She’s no longer with us, either. Such toolbaggery isn’t helpful to your relationship with your editor, or the entire publishing process.
Some of my editor buds tell me horror stories of screaming matches and threats…nightmare makin’ stuff. And people wonder why we have margarita-mixing beagles…
We realize this is a nervous time for you. You’ve worked hard on your stories and don’t want them futzed with. But that shouldn’t equate to tearing out your editor’s blackened heart and nailing it to a dartboard. Whether you’re a brand new writer or one who has many books out, you need editing. Everyone does. I’m sure that Mrs. Cosmic Muffin edits the Cosmic Muffin all the time, and you just can’t go to any higher authority than that.
Keep it simple, keep it professional. Editing isn’t a personal attack on you, but merely editorial suggestions by an experienced editor who sells books for a living. It’s about trust. The more you trust your editor, the easier it is to keep it professional. If you find yourself blowing a hole in the ozone layer, ask yourself if you’re frightened to be edited and whether you trust your editor.
Trust Your Editor
A loaded bullet, to be sure. Most of the time you don’t even know your editor, so how do you know if she’s any good? Simple. You have faith in your publisher. You’ve read their books (or you darn well should have), so you have a solid idea of their quality. It’s vital that you trust your editor because theirs is the final word. The better you work together, the better the product.
I had an odd experience a few years back. I wanted to sign an author, and she wanted me to sign her, so we met for lunch. Her book was very good, but it definitely needed a strong editorial hand. When I discussed this with her, she became very protective because she was terrified that editing meant completely changing her work into something unrecognizable. I assured her that this would not only be a huge waste of our time, but there would be no point to sign her. Her agent reinforced my claims.
She was still nervous, and I decided not to sign her. If she’s this nervous now, before we even begin editing, what is she going to be like once we begin the process? It boiled down to the fact that she didn’t trust me. Then again, she wouldn’t trust anyone – and that’s a dangerous position to be in. If you have designs on being well-published, you’re going to need to place your trust in your editor. Talk to her, discuss the kind of edits she has in mind for your book. There is nothing worse than working with an author who doesn’t trust you.
Another author refused to discuss working on the ending of the book. The story was wonderful, but the ending needed tweaking. He refused. He believed his way was better than ours. We let him go. Trust. Have it, or go home.
If you find yourself in the throes of editing, and things aren’t going smoothly, then here is some additional advice.
Effective Communication/Effective Listening
Effective Communication and Listening are key during every step of production, but none more so than during editing. When I was but a wee bairn, my dad used to quote this saying around the dinner table: “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Took me years to figure out what he was saying, but once the light bulb turned on, it has never failed to crack me up because it’s so true.
Email can screw that up faster than just about any other medium. If there is a sticking point during editing, for the love of Helvetica, schedule a Skype meeting or phone call. I adore Skype because we can go page by page and discuss questions or points. And it’s free!
Conversely, listening is an art. We get so caught up in getting our point across that we forget to listen to the other guy – and they may have very good ideas. Say your piece, then actively listen to the other guy.
Choose Your Battles Wisely
There may come a time when you see your edits and consider throwing yourself under a Waste Management truck rather than face a very big task. It’s hard to look at a sea of red and not feel that your book has landed into an editorial mosh pit. “Do I really suck that much?” No…not at all! But you don’t see it that way. You think you’ve been ripped from stem to stern, so you dig your heels in and decide to fight every single edit as a way of proving that you don’t suck. The fight really ain’t worth it because if you sucked, you wouldn’t have gotten the publishing deal in the first place.
Editing isn’t about give and take, or winning and losing; it’s about making your book fabulous. There are some edits that can be negotiated and others where there is zero wiggle room. I had an author plead with me to leave a very long scene in because it was meaningful to him. Problem is, it wasn’t meaningful to anyone else, and I insisted that it had to go. I know it hurt, but the author later told me that he never even missed the scene after reading the final edit. Yay…score one for Pricey.
The takeaway from this is to recognize the really big battles, the scenes that are hugely important. Deleting the overwritten bio of a throwaway character isn’t worth blowing a ventricle over.
Whenever I edit a scene out, I justify it in the margin comment, so the author understands my reasoning. If you want to fight for a scene or character, or backstory, then you need to justify it to your editor. “Because I really love it,” won’t fly. Won’t even float. You need to provide a solid foundation as to why you’re fighting for something to stay in. If your editor tells you it slows down the pace and doesn’t move the chapter along, then you have to justify why that isn’t the case.
That doesn’t mean she’ll buy it. Her word is final, so if you have a compelling reason for keeping something in, you gotta make sense. If you can’t, then your editor will probably rule against you and toss it. If so, let it go.
The Point of No Return
The one thing you want to avoid at all costs is arguing to the point where there’s no returning to the happy happy joy joy relationship. I guarantee that if you verbally abuse your editor (been there, done that), then you’re dead to her. Sure, she’ll edit your book to the very best of her abilities, but she will groan every time she sees your email address pop into her inbox. She won’t lift a finger to go above and beyond her regular duties…and you DON’T want that.
If you and your editor are at an impasse, then you both need to back away and cool off. Allowing things to escalate isn’t good for anyone, most of all your book. Don’t be afraid to apologize if you’ve stepped over the line. An apology is the great equalizer, and if you let your emotions run away with you, then you need to grow up, accept responsibility, and make things right. If your editor is the toolbag, then you’re going to have to grit your teeth and make the best of things. It’s very rare that the editing process is ever that contentious, but it does happen. Keep your head and emotions in check.
I’m unusually lucky. I have the most wonderful authors in the world. They are bright and talented, ask terrific questions, and make me think. But through the years, I’ve had some challenges – as any editor does – and I’ve had to swallow my tongue a few times just to keep from biting it (and the author’s head) off.
Rest assured, there will be editing differences, but it’s the author who knows how to play well with others in the sandbox who has a great time.
I’ve spent the past ten years reading fabulous manuscripts, signing authors, editing, and sending those edits back to the authors. Aside from showing them their cover art for the first time, editing is the most sphyncter-puckering thing I do. Well, aside from telling the beagle when we’ve run out of tequila.
The biggest culprit in the sphyncter-pucker arena is Time. It’s been months and months when you turned in your manuscript, and Father Time draws you into a false sense of security that your writing is perfect, and will remain so. For-ev-er.
As a result, the most common reaction I see to receiving line edits: Uninhibited shock. Most common comment I see after delivering line edits to authors: “Holy (insert colorful metaphor)! I haven’t read my manuscript since I sent it to you (insert number of months) ago!” This is followed by more exclamations of chagrin at having EVER allowed their book to come to me in “that” condition.
Here’s the thing; the manuscript is great. I wouldn’t have signed you, otherwise. But that doesn’t mean it gets a free pass from an editorial spin and rinse cycle. So months later, when you see all the red in the line edits, accompanied by a pages-long editorial letter, you’re ready to drink a final margarita and toss yourself under the 28X bus headed for Pittsburgh.
It’s about this time when you may begin the doubting process: How could I have been so silly as to not see this? Or that? And ohmyholyliver, what was I thinking when I included that scene????
R-E-L-A-X. The idea of all those red marks on manuscripts aren’t there to call you out, but to make you shine. The story is wonderful. The purpose of editing is to make it double secret probation wonderful, and editors have the gift of being the unbiased observer. Editors didn’t live the story 24/7/365 days a year, as you did when you were writing it. They’re reading with fresh eyes, so it’s far easier to find the continuity issues, or clumsy scene, or the character that seems one dimension shy of full development.
Don’t bash yourself because you didn’t see it. Editing is not easy. You’re allowing a perfect stranger (ok, we can’t really attest to how perfect they are…just ask the beagle) to lay hands upon your writing and pass judgement on your writing, and comment on how she feels your story would be stronger. It’s natural to feel protective over something you’ve created, but it’s helpful to remember that we’re on the same side, with a common goal.
Editor Notes: Give yourself time to read the editor notes a few times because they’re jam packed with all kinds of nuggets about how to improve your writing. Not only do we talk about specifics in the manuscript – a chapter that doesn’t work, further development for a character – but we also include consistent habits that could use some attention…passive writing, POV switches, or not digging deep enough on an emotional level. It’s my hope that the author will apply those comments to improve their future writing.
Print it out: It’s easier to see the warts.
Read it in full: Don’t do any editing at this time. You need to re-familiarize yourself with your story and have better context in which to understand your editor’s comments.
Take a deep breath
Refer back to the editor notes.
THEN begin with your edits: Do this slowly. Reason being, you need to make sure that your “now” voice blends in with the “you” who wrote this story ages ago. It’s a strange thing, but I’ve seen a number of cases where the writer has evolved, and the rewrites stand out from the old work.
Ask questions: Any editor expects authors to have questions, be it a clarification or a question of rewrites. If your editor offers a Skype convo, then go for it. There is nothing like being able to go page by page with your editor so you understand exactly what they mean.
Be mindful that editing is not for those lacking strong intestinal fortitude. You’re dealing with a running commentary on your creativity from someone you don’t know, and it’s hard not let your ego get the better of you. My suggestion is to give Ms. Ego a few weeks vacation, and revel in the fact that you have someone whose goal it is to make your story sing like the angels.
Oh…and don’t forget that an extra bottle tequila never hurts.
Our first week in Pitts has been spent unpacking and putting things in their new homes. We went from a large home to a townhouse (since we don’t know how long we’ll be in Pitts). Oddly enough, I love the smaller space. Feels cocoon-y and warm. But the offshoot is that we are wandering around with glazed eyes muttering, “Holy hell, where do we put this?”
This means we have to do more weeding out. And it’s hurting. A lot. Stuff I’ve had and loved for a long time now have no place in my life. It’s stuff I haven’t worn or used in years, but kept “just in case.” Well, “just in case” never arrived…so it’ll have to find a new home somewhere else. I’m considering whether to be sad about letting these things go, but when I stop to think what’s in the pile, I can’t remember. So it must be the right thing to do.
I see a lot of manuscripts like this as well. Until you’re up against a cranky pants editor, it’s hard to know how full your closets and drawers are. You write like you have all the room in the world to fit in those delicious little things that put the jam in your jelly doughnut. And really, you should be thinking about downsizing from a large five-bedroom home to a three-bedroom townhouse.
The Chapter(s) From Heaven
I can tell an author adored a certain chapter because it’s written with style and eloquence and invariably stands out from the rest of the manuscript. But as the unbiased unpacker of your literary boxes, I end up muttering, “Holy hell, where do you put this?”
I know what it’s like to write chapters that sing like angels, and I dearly want to keep them in because, well, they sing like angels. And yet, my washwoman of an editor made me toss them. My darlings. Oh, how it hurt; but I knew she was right because they did nothing to advance the plot or the character development. They were like the jeans I’ve been hanging onto for-ev-er. I kept them because I really liked the colors. But I never wore them. With my wee closet bursting at the seams, I had to bid them adieu. And so must you do with your chapters that don’t have a proper drawer or hanger. Save those chaps…it’s possible they may work in another book.
I refer to dialog as a disease in this post because I see so many writers who don’t use dialog to their advantage. Dialog is delicious, and I’ve written about it numerous times. The main thing to remember is that most of our real-life dialog is vomitus blather. We get away with it (for the most part) because speaking to one another is wholly different than what you see on the page.
How many times have you written dialog and thought that it sounded much better in your head but doesn’t work at all on the page? That is the kind of attention you need when writing dialog. Roll it around in your head, then go ahead and type it out. Then. Read. It. Carefully and Objectively. Does the dialog bring you in or repel you? Or worse…bore you?
Boring dialog is the Meet ‘n Greet kind.
“Hi, how are you?”
“I’m fine, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“Yes, thanks. Sugar and cream, if you have it.”
Blah blah blah. This kind of stuff can make a reader reach for the rafters with a solid piece of rope. Since we know we can bore readers quickly, we should keep our dialog snappy and filled with stuff that has to be there. Just like your chapters, ask yourself whether your dialog needs to be there. What impact does it make? How does it advance the plot, keep the action going, and further develop your character.
Dialog is one of my favorite writing tools because you can reveal so much with so little effort. Instead of saying your character is shy (the dreaded show vs. tell), you can use your dialog to get that idea across.
The beagle grabbed her manuscript and glanced over at the rottweiler, who had barely said a word all afternoon.”Hey, how ’bout going for some drinks after this critique session is over? We can talk about plot formation.”
The rotty seemed to turn in on himself. “Um, thanks. I-I’d like to, but, well, I’m a guard dog and not u-used to being around so m-many writers. I never know w-what to say.”
Backstory is like my penchant for purses. I don’t know what kind of sickness I have, but I never met a purse I didn’t love. Before the move, I tossed out a bunch. Apres le move, I tossed a few more. Yeah, it hurt, but it was the right thing to do…especially since I’d just ordered a new purse online. I need therapy, I know this.
Backstory is something that can creep up on a writer without their realizing it, and before you know it, your manuscript is bursting at the seams with a jillion little tidbits that probably slow down the pacing because it doesn’t play into the plot or character development.
Just like dialog, backstory is delicious if treated thoughtfully. Backstory is the stuff that took place “off camera,” and your story is the result of what happened “off camera.” It is NOT the story. Thar be a huge difference. Your “off camera” (backstory) is the catalyst for your story, so be mindful not to confuse the two. I see many manuscripts that are so crowded with backstory that I get confused as to which story the author is telling.
Effective backstory defines the character more clearly – like why Betsy freaks out whenever she sees a red Maserati – or it helps better clarify the plot – why Chris Baughman has such an unusual passion for saving victims of human trafficking.
These kinds of backstory give the reader their “ah ha” moment, so they can fully understand all aspects of the story and enjoy it more. Don’t leave your readers wondering, “Holy hell, why is this here?”
I’m still in the weeding-out process because it takes time to thoughtfully consider whether to keep something or toss it. And that’s the key here; grant yourself plenty of time to consider what stays in and what goes out. After all, you don’t want to toss that purse and decide a month later that you really wanted it after all.
Every author has a literary blind spot. For instance, I have a penchant for overusing the word “very,” so when an editor points that out, I’m hardly surprised. Way back in the day, I was also fond of POV switches. Editor wiped my hard drive of those, too. My point is that having my literary blind spot pointed out to me made me a much stronger writer…and this brings me to today’s “I want to put my head in an egg beater.”
We’ve been in contract negotiations for awhile with a particular book. Totally love it. Totally want it – even though it needs a heavy hand with editing. The story is fantastic. Oh, the places this book could go…tra la. Knowing all this, I just wrote the agent to suggest the author would probably be happier with someone else. My sin? Editing: he needed them but didn’t want them.
Well, that’s not entirely true. He was willing to allow edits, but only on his terms. The problem is that he isn’t aware of his literary blind spot and I’m probably the first editor, or person for that matter, who pointed them out. As a result, he wants to pick and choose what edits he’ll allow and what will remain as is. Problem is, he’s not a writer, so he doesn’t understand the finer points of story organization and paragraph/scene transitions. And because he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t trust my critiques. He wants his story to remain as is because he feels it’s perfect.
Ask yourself; are you guilty of this? If so, please know that editors can’t work with one hand tied behind their back. If you’re serious about your writing, you need to honor the fact that you have a literary blind spot. It could be big or a minor. Either way, you’re not above requiring edits. Today’s email to the agent saddened me because nothing is more frustrating than watching a very promising book being hindered by an author who’s holding on too tight with their eyes closed.
Don’t let this happen to you. Believing your writing comes from the hands of the Great Cosmic Muffin could be the barrier between a not-ready-for-prime-time book and a publishing contract.