“Holy hell, where do we put this?”

October 10, 2012

This is not MY closet…but it’s close.

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.

Vomitus Dialog-a-tosis

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.”
“I do.”

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.

Honoring Your Literary Blind Spot

July 12, 2012

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.

Publishy Questions – Inquiring Minds Wanna Know…

June 12, 2012

‘Cause I wanna know…

There are publishy questions that crop up all the time, so I thought I’d give my take on them.

What happens if you’ve done your rewrites and your editor doesn’t like them?

The quick answer is that the editor makes more suggestions and returns the manuscript back to the author for further revision. This will go on until both parties are satisfied that the manuscript is dry behind the ears, bathed, and dressed in its Sunday finest.

That’s the normal/common issue. There are times when the edits don’t go well, and the editor gets the feeling the book will never reach its potential. Then the editor has to make the tough decision to let the book go, or continue trying. That is rare, so no need to continue clutching your heart.

If you’re at the query stage (meaning there is no contract offer) and an editor suggests revisions, how many times will editors continue to consider that submission?

The quick answer for me, is two. There is the initial rejection (that includes crits as to why I’m rejecting it), and the second time if the author makes those revisions and it still doesn’t ring my chimes.

If I love the idea of the story, I’ll invite them to re-query if they decide to revise the manuscript. That invitation should not be interpreted as a precursor to a contract offer. I bold that because I’ve had times when I ended up rejecting a manuscript a second time in spite of the author’s revisions, and he invited me to make merry with garden slug.

If the author can’t get it right after the second attempt, I’m pretty sure it’ll never be right enough to catch my attention. Of course, all this depends on the editor.

How much do editors edit?

The short answer is, until there is no more blood in the editor’s brain and their will to live has been sucked dry. The longer answer (which is still pretty short) is that editors edit until they feel the work is ready for prime time. The longest part is the developmental edits, where we’re dealing with story structure, pacing, flow, exposition, character development, etc.

Of course, it also depends on the publisher and the editor. Our motto in the Batcave is “I want it right, not fast,” which means that I estimate how long the edits will take in order to not feel rushed. Most of the time I hit it pretty well. Other times, my hair is on fire, and the beagle is drinking heavily. Oh wait, she always drinks heavily…

The main lesson to take away from this question is that you, the author, feel like your story is as solid as it can be, and that you’re satisfied with the results. You do this by signing off on the project. If you don’t sign off, then it shouldn’t be going to production.

Are there times when editors love the book but feels it’s umarketable? If so, what are they?

Sadly, yes. There have been a number of manuscripts where I loved the writing, but the story wasn’t going to sell. Breaks my heart every time. Just because you’re a talented writer doesn’t mean you wrote a marketable book. It’s tempting to get carried away with a writer’s excellence and forget that it may not sell simply because the subject matter is either too obscure (like singing belly buttons) or too overdone (like cancer/addiction/vamp romance/dystopia). But if we did that, we’d be collecting nickels into a coffee can.

As to what genres fall into the unmarketable category, it’s hard to say. Sure, cancer/addiction/midlife crisis/mental disorders/vamp romance/anything werewolves/courtroom thrillers – the list goes on and on – are overwritten genres, but that doesn’t mean those books still aren’t being sold. It’s more about being unique. Does your cancer book say something that no other cancer book says? What about that vampire book? Does it follow the same cookie-cutter template, or do you have a kapow element that an editor can sell to a hungry audience?

The one thing I want to get across is that you write because you love the story that’s burning inside you. Just because it may not sell doesn’t mean the time was wasted. You learn all kinds of things when you write a book, and no writing experience is ever for naught.

Do I need an agent?

Yes. But make sure you get a good one; one that has a solid reputation for selling to good publishers and has sales in the genre you write.

What I mean by that is agents sometimes decide to branch out and start repping a genre they’ve never repped before. I’ve seen this a number of times where agents represent commercial fiction and decide to branch out in nonfiction because selling commercial fiction is pretty hard. If they haven’t sold any nonfiction yet, then how do you know they can sell your nonfiction? Best to find an established agent who has lots of good sales in nonfiction.

Good agents are godsends in contract negotiations because they have the experience to know how far to push an editor for certain points, and to know what those negotiable points are. Authors, on average, have no clue about this.

Agents are great sounding boards if difficulties arise. They are the peacekeepers, and in some extreme cases, the contact point between editor and author. They are editors’ and authors’ bestest buddies.

What genres are dead?

I have no idea. Does anyone? There are as many genres as people reading them. To be sure, there are more popular genres, like YA, that outsell, say Westerns. But that doesn’t mean people don’t read Westerns. I’m repeating myself here: WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE. If it’s Westerns, then write Westerns. Yee haw!

If you write to a popular genre, you’re not necessarily being true to your heart, which means you may write with less passion. Besides, the boundary lines are constantly changing as readers’ tastes change. Courtroom dramas were the hot thing years ago, then everyone went bonkers with DaVince Code knockoffs. Then came vampires, which led to vamp romance. Then YA Dystopia hit the marketplace. And with every new gazonga genre, comes the time when editors’ eyeballs are floating in their heads if they ever see another one of the “new hot thing.”

I remember talking to an editor friend of mine who, years ago, told me that romantic comedy was dead, dead, dead. Yet it’s making a very nice recovery, so I guess there really was a heartbeat in the genre after all. always remember that readers’ tastes change, so there is a danger of writing to genre rather than writing what moves you. By the time you get it researched and written, you may be looking at agents and editors who would rather eat a razor blade than see something in your genre.

Cover art; do I have any input?

You certainly should, however, I doubt that you will have final say. Author input is important because you’ve been living with you story far longer than the editor and art department have, and you have good ideas. Most of the time. Sometimes authors have no opinion or clue as to what their cover art should be, and their ideas are about as good as when the beagle threatens sobriety.

I will say that authors are always surprised when they see their cover art (or a mock up) for the first time because it’s the reality that their book is going from concept to “real.” I always recommend to our authors that they take their time before rendering an opinion in order to let it sink in.

Cover art is tough because it’s subjective. Just because someone loves/hates a cover doesn’t make them right. I never cease to be amused at the cover art conversations we have with our sales and publicity team. It’s like nailing Jello to the wall. I remember one particular sales meeting where we met with the regional sales teams, and one guy piped up about the cover art of a particular book of ours. I gave one long look to the prez of our distribution company, and she jumped in immediately and said, “This cover was dissected, talked about, tossed against the wall a few times, and redesigned more than a few times. Leave it be.”

That said, there are informed decisions and uniformed decisions. On the whole, trade publishers design covers that contain time-proven elements that will capture a buyer’s attention. So that intricate dragon artwork that you want on your book – even though it’s gorgeous – may not work for a book cover because when you close your eyes, all you see is a blob of color and no detail. When you close your eyes, you want the most important things burned into your retinas; the title, and a major graphic from the book…because readers will remember it.

I know there are bajillion-gajillion other questions, but I don’t want to hear any snoring while reading my posts. How ’bout it, any other questions you’re dying to know? Eh, before you ask; the beagle only drinks fine tequila…she had a bad episode with the cheap stuff and ended up in a Tijuana prison wearing pink high heels and a purple boa.

Here’s the thing about independent editors…

May 9, 2012

…it may not always work out the way you’d hoped. What do I mean? Let’s say you have a great story partially written, and your agent or your writer’s group suggest that hiring an indie editor would really kick it up a notch. So you spend some serious bucks and, voila! everyone is thrilled with the partial. Your agent sells your book, and you’re in Tra La Land.

So you go back to your indie editor and work with them on completing the rest of your manuscript, the agent and indie editor, and you are thrilled with the outcome. And then the editor comes back with your developmental edits, and leaves you muttering, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?? I thought my book was perfect.”

Here’s the thing about indie editors; their job is to spiff up the story you give them. Their concern isn’t making sure you have a marketable story with a large audience, your platform, your promotion plan, and selling lots of books. They can only work within the parameters for which they’ve been hired. The result can put you at odds with the editor who bought your book and who most assuredly has her eye  on the business end of publishing AND the artistic part.

This is the main reason I dislike buying partially written manuscripts. I do, of course, but I know the sample chapters in the book proposal have been massaged so that they sing. I’m never quite sure what the finished product will be, and I always cross my fingers and hope for the best.

This is also why I don’t get all gooey in the knees when someone mentions in their query letter that they worked with an indie editor. With that usually comes the belief that their work is a cut above and needs no editing – and that isn’t always the case. The manuscript may be very well executed and has a lovely voice, and excellent pacing, but it’s off the tracks from what the publisher’s editor wants, hence requested rewrites.

For example, an editor friend of mine bought a book she thought was going to focus on a horse trainer’s experience with working autistic kids and how working with the horses brought about big changes in the kids. Cool book, right? The partial she read was great, so she bought the book. What my friend ended up getting was the trainer’s biography – which isn’t what the agent had pitched to her. So the author was taken aback when my friend delivered her developmental edits that included massive rewrites…even though the author had worked with an indie editor.

“But my indie editor and agent loved the book as is,” replied the author.

My friend tried to make things clearer. “True, it’s a well-written story with great development and pacing, but that isn’t what was pitched to me.”

Of course, the indie editor had no way of knowing how the book was going to be pitched – all she knew was that she needed to help refine the book sitting in front of her. As for the agent, it’s something a lot of editors see – the agent is excited about selling the book. It’s not their job to think like an editor because they can’t. We’re all different. And the most important part is that the agent hasn’t seen the final product either because they sold the book based on a partial. What she thought she was selling and what my friend thought she was buying were different from the final product. Hello, rewrites.

So you can see how it’s easy for the left hand to not know what the right hand is doing. No one is at fault. The point of this post is not to place your entire end-all be-all on your indie editor. Just because you paid for her services doesn’t mean it’s bullet-proof. And yes, it may mean that your publisher’s editor may ask you to do rewrites in order to fit her vision of what she knows she can sell because she bought it based on a solid pitch. For instance, had the agent pitched my friend the horse trainer’s biography, my friend would have passed on the project.

Take a deep breath and understand that nothing is in cement until the book is actually printed up and out the door. Until then, all bets are off, and you may have to go back to the inkwell. It’s all a part of this madness we call publishing.

You just can’t have too many editors…

April 16, 2012

This project is huge…Google, for instance, invested $166 million. This website was approved from the highest of the high. Pity that $166 million didn’t get them a copy editor. They will forever be known to me as Goggle.

Click on image to enlarge.

“My manuscript has been professionally edited.”

March 27, 2012

It’s common to see this sentence somewhere in query letters, and I always wonder why authors think that’s an important inclusion. In truth, I would rather they leave this out because it’s not a selling point for me, and here’s why:

Editorial Blunder

When you state that you’ve enlisted the services of a third party editor, you are subconsciously raising my  expectations. That means that I’m double-secret-scrutinizing your manuscript, and any misplaced commas, poor syntax, misspelled words, lack of transitional sentences, pacing, flow, or plotting will have me clucking like a chicken loaded on too much grain alcohol.

Just last weekend I read a submission from an author who revealed that his work was beyond reproach because he had been “professionally edited.” Let me tell you, it was a hot mess, and I could only wonder at this “professional’s” qualifications. Needless to say, the author had two strikes against him…one, for revealing his editorial “help,” and two, for delivering an editorial mish mash of mush and not realizing it.


“Professionally edited.” Now, what does this mean? In truth, anyone can hang their shingle out and call themselves a “professional.” There are no state boards or licenses one must obtain to be labeled thusly, so this whole idea of “professional” is a bit of a misnomer.

There are many thankless souls who have spent years making their living as editor. They have edited many well-published books, possibly have done freelance work for solid publishers, and have excellent reputations. They are the precious darlings who I consider “professionals.”  When we had the Great Publishing Implosion of 2008-9, lots of talented editors lost their jobs, and they turned to doing freelance work.

But mixed in with this group, are those who have a barely-passing handle on grammar and/or know very little about content editing. If you, the author, don’t know the tools of your trade, then how can you know when your third party editor is as under-schooled as you are?

Because of this, it’s impossible for me to take this whole “professional” thing seriously. Out of literally thousands of submissions I’ve read, I signed one author who I feel got her money’s worth, We barely touched her manuscript when we signed her because it was so clean. And at that, I know the author really didn’t need to hire third party help because I’ve seen the writing brilliance on her blog.

And this brings me to my next point:  who gets the credit?

To Whom Should I Place My Faith?

When you tell me a “professional” has done the holy cross over your work, I have to consider whom to thank…you or your third party editor.

Case in point, an editor friend of mine wailed on about the editing nightmare she was having with one of her authors. The manuscript was pretty clean, but she wanted the author to make some rewrites to flesh out a couple sub-plots that would enhance the overall story. My friend made her suggestions and awaited the rewrites – which came back and were horrendous.

Missing was the fabulous signature voice that carried the book and convinced my friend it was a “gotta have it.” In its stead was clunky writing, missing transitions from each paragraph to the next/from one scene to the next. My friend was flummoxed. “It’s as if a whole different person did these rewrites.” A hot mess.

My friend was naturally suspicious about who actually finessed it to the point of being publishable because the author appeared ill-prepared to handle simple editorial rewrites.

So, you can see that this isn’t merely a matter of whom to thank for the clean manuscript, but it’s a red flag to editors because we’re wondering if  the author has the chops to handle the editing process. Having experienced this many years ago with an author who is no longer with us, I can attest that it’s enough to make me want to pull my hair out.

I appreciate authors who are honest with themselves. If you think you need to hire an indie editor, then do you believe your writing skills are evolved enough to be publishable? If it’s a matter of getting feedback, then join a writer’s group, or get a group of beta readers who will offer objective critique.

But if you feel that your grammar isn’t up to speed, then you really need to learn this aspect of your craft. It’s like a surgeon saying, “I’m really good at heart transplants, but I get all icky at having to crack someone’s chest, so I’ll hire someone else to do that.” You’re either a heart surgeon, or you aren’t. You’re either a writer and know the tools of your trade, or you don’t.

When To Use a Third-Party Editor

If you’re self-pubbing your book, then it’s mandatory to hire a good editor. There are so many horrible DIY books flooding the marketplace, and you want to make sure yours is glorified for its fabulosity, not its horrorosity. Make sure that the editor you hire has a solid background and has edited books published by solid commercial presses.

Another reason is, Why the hell not? If you have the disposable income and you don’t feel confident about your abilities, why not hire a third party editor? You can treat the experience as a private education, so you’ll be that much better with your next book. But always be aware that if this book is published, you’ll need to have the chops to handle rewrites. No running home to Mama.

It’s important to learn ALL aspects of your craft, not pick and choose the things that are fun. Otherwise, at some point, you will be found out – probably during editing phase and your editor is ready to jump off the Empire State Building. Be smart; save an editor from certain death or margarita-dependance, and enhance your brilliance.

And don’t include this in your query.

Punishing the Peccadillo

January 10, 2012

I can’t remember how old I was when I first heard the word “peccadillo,” but I do remember laughing like a simpleton because it always reminded me of armadillos. So when Mom said, “She certainly has an strange collection of peccadilloes,” I envisioned some lady with a box of armadillos, all wearing brightly colored hats and carrying fancy handbags. Considering where I grew up, this would have caused a few traffic accidents.

I find peccadillo to be a fun little word. It’s polite and only refers to a slight offense in the quaintest of terms, quite unlike its more barbarian brethren “breach” “crime” “malfeasance” “wrongdoing” “delinquency.” Now those are some badass words that mean business.

When it comes to writing, I try to avoid using the badass words because they’re so mean. They carry guns and knives, and threaten black-hearted, soulless editors right out of their batcaves. But there are many times when I read a manuscript and notice tendencies. A peccadillo. These tendencies aren’t enough to get Mr. Malfeasance or Ms. Crime on their high horses. But they are, nonetheless, irritating because they are permeated throughout the manuscript.

If I see an author has a peccadillo with not using good transitioning between paragraphs and/or scenes, then I know my redline comments are going to turn the manuscript bloody red. It’s a constant. Same thing if an author is fond of comma splices – Ex: The beagle is drunk again, get out the aspirin.

That peccadillo is going to drive me crazy because I either have to ferret out every single one and choose which comma splices work and which don’t, or I have to tell the author to rewrite the offending comma splices. Problem is, a few sprinkled here and there can add flavor to the pace.

I have worked with authors who adore semi-colons. They sprinkle five to ten of them per page. It screws with the pacing and becomes like that dull headache I get when I’ve had one too many of the beagle’s margaritas. I have to either tell the author to rewrite nearly all of the semi-colons, or I do it myself using the Track Changes feature.

My own peccadillo is my fondness for using “that.” Go figure. But there it is. That here, that there…drives me nuts to the point where I slap myself silly. Other adore em dashes or ellipses. We all have them, but the trick is to BE AWARE OF THEM. If you see that you have an overabundance of ellipses, punish your peccadillo by lighting a fire to your hair recognizing it and writing without it. It’s like trying not to itch a mosquito bite. You know you want to scratch that little bastard ’til it bleeds, but then it hurts, gets all gooey, and itches even worse.

See, peccadilloes won’t ruin your literary career, but they will make your editor want to mainline cheap gin because that little peccadillo populates itself throughout your entire manuscript. It’s an editing PITA.

So what are your peccadilloes? Be honest and look for them because you have one. Seek it out, give it a good spanking, and scrub it from your manuscript. Who knows? You just may save an editor from another long day of inebriation.

Or not…

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