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Everybody's favorite book editor

Category: Advice for Writers

The secret life of a book manuscript

Author Thomas E. Ricks recently penned an interesting article in The Atlantic detailing the intricacies of the author–editor relationship as he wrote Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom.

Over our Caesar salads with sliced steak, I asked Scott why he had been so rough on me the previous winter. “Sometimes my job is to be an asshole,” he explained with equanimity. I wasn’t startled at this. At one point on an earlier book, when I told him how stressed I was feeling, he had replied, a bit airily, I thought, “Oh, every good book has at least one nervous breakdown in it.”

Whether you’re familiar with the writing process or not, this piece is a great read.

The next surprise, about three weeks into this process, was coming to realize, over the days of thinking about it, that Scott’s criticisms were spot-on. I saw that if I followed his suggestions and revamped the book, with a new structure that emphasized biography and told the stories of the two men chronologically, the book would be much better. I emailed a note to Scott. “You are right,” it said. This wasn’t so much an apology as the beginning of the next phase of work.

“Only a good writer would be able to say that,” he graciously responded.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

How long did it take to write the world’s most popular books?

How not to start your story

There are many overused story openings that you should avoid at all costs. Several literary agents, acquisition editors, and publishers have written about this, but here is a short list of the most annoying and disliked ways to start a story.

Do not open your story with:

  • a dream;
  • an alarm clock buzzing;
  • a character jumping out of bed, running late;
  • the first day of anything new (e.g., school, job);
  • a wake up of any kind; or
  • the protagonist in bed for any reason.

Get your characters out of bed already.

The question authors dread the most

“So, what’s your book about?”

I’ve heard authors do everything from groan to ramble when asked that dreaded question. As unpalatable as that question is, authors should be able to answer it well.

How do you explain something so near and dear to your heart? After all, the manuscript is 80,000+ words for a reason.

Start with one paragraph and whittle it down to one concise sentence. Mention the genre or subgenre. Prepare two versions of the sentence: one for readers and one for the publishing industry.

In the publishing industry version of the sentence, include the literary conflict and blockbuster concept.

Practice your response. Let your passion show through.

Below is Dick Van Dyke’s attempt to summarize Romeo & Juliet.

Please excuse the poor video quality.

Protecting your writing time

J. K. Rowling’s advice about protecting writing days is fanciful. Days? How often does the average writer get a full day just for writing?

Work, school, and family obligations keep most writers I know from ever enjoying so much as half a day to themselves. However, Rowling is correct in using the word “ruthless”; writers need to be unflinching when it comes to their writing time.

Set boundaries

In order to manage whatever writing time you get, you must set boundaries.

It’s important to let anyone who might overstep those boundaries know what you expect during your allotted writing time. Your family and friends need to know to leave you alone. It helps if you can be specific. Saying “I’m going to write for an hour” instead of “I’m going to finish this scene” might actually result in an uninterrupted hour of writing time.

Let go of the guilt

When you have a stretch of time during which to write is when people will most want to spend time with you. This is an unexplained phenomenon similar to what happens when you sit down to read.

Write first and spend time with them later. It’s nothing to feel guilty about.

Don’t sabotage yourself

Sometimes getting other people into the habit of respecting your writing time is easier than getting into the habit yourself.

Don’t answer the phone thinking you’ll be able to get off the call in a few minutes. If you went to a coffee shop to write but did more people watching than writing, don’t go there again. Turn off the TV.

Time management starts with saying “no”; drawing boundaries is more like saying “not right now.” It’s the crucial second step to having enough time to write.

What you need to know before hiring an editor

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of the author–editor relationship.  Today I’m going to tell you what you need to know before hiring an editor, including things you don’t want to hear and things editors don’t want you to know.

Avoid non-editors

Teachers are not editors. People who are “good at English” are not editors.  Writers are not editors. People who read a lot of books are not editors.

Knowing grammar rules is a teeny fraction of editing, and rules often get in the way of good writing. Your manuscript needs to be reviewed by someone who knows, among many other things, how to edit your unique voice. Hire a professional editor, please.

Make demands

It’s acceptable to ask an editor for a résumé, references, and a copyediting sample. It is not acceptable to ask to see an editing sample of someone else’s work. It is acceptable to ask an editor to sign a contract and nondisclosure agreement. Most of the time my clients and I skip all of the above and get straight to work, but there is nothing wrong with asking for any or all of these things.

Expect professionalism

I’ve heard tell of so-called editors being rude to authors who inquire about editing services. When an author decides not to hire them, these “editors” resort to name calling and other unprofessional behavior. Unbelievable. Professional editors will treat you with respect at all times. It might even be in your best interest to reject all editors at first to see if they behave professionally or not.

 

 

The importance of the author–editor relationship

This first appeared as a guest blog post on author Cynthia A. Rodriguez’s site. 

Self-publishing and small presses are redefining the publishing world, and I love it. Authors can now select publishing services à la carte, and new voices are reaching the reader with more purity and raw emotion than ever before. However, for writers who are serious about having a long-term, successful career as a novelist, one aspect of publishing that is not optional is developmental editing.

The question writers should be asking isn’t, “Do I need an editor?” Even editors need editors. (Thank you, Melody, for checking this post.) The real question a serious writer should ask is, “Who will be my editor?” Your editor will be your and your manuscript’s long-term friend and enemy—frenemy, if you will. Typically, your editor will love your manuscript and you will dislike your editor for making them change any of it. Today I’ll share with you a broad overview of the main differences between a good, great, and ideal editor.

good fiction editor reviews your manuscript’s premise, plot structure, pacing, characters, dialogue, and marketability. A good fiction editor identifies weak points and makes useful suggestions for story and character development while ensuring continuity. A good fiction editor is professional, always meets deadlines, keeps a style sheet, and treats you with respect.

great fiction editor does all of the things a good editor does while understanding your vision, loving your characters, and preserving your voice and writing style.

An ideal fiction editor does all of the things a great fiction editor does but also knows when to motivate and guide you and when to keep their mouth shut. They get to know your personality and writing process, and they offer only as much help as you actually need. An ideal fiction editor might suggest that there is a character that will eventually need to die but won’t name names. When all is said and done, the manuscript remains yours.

At a book signing once, the author was asking the people he was signing books for what they did for a living. Based on their reply, he wrote something witty before signing his name. When it was my turn, I told him I was a book editor. He said nothing and signed his name. Just his name. No witty comment. No further eye contact. I think it’s safe to say that he does not have an ideal author–editor relationship.

If you follow Cynthia’s blog, you’ll know that her and I do have the ideal author–editor relationship. It was easy in this case because Cynthia is a talented writer, Mystic Waters is spellbinding, and I am in love with the characters.

However, I do not think that I am everyone’s ideal editor nor is everyone my ideal client. I experience literary heartache over fictional characters, and I do not give my literary heart to just anyone. A novelist should be as careful about giving their manuscript to an editor, but they should certainly get a developmental editor. The sooner you cultivate an author–editor relationship, the better it will be for your writing.

The one time management tip you won’t follow but should

You’ve made a new year’s resolution to get that book done. So, let’s do it.

Every Monday for the next two months I’ll offer a time management tip that will change your behavior and the behavior of those around you, resulting in more time to write. Be warned: these are going to be succinct, useful, and harsh recommendations.

Time management tip #1: Say “no” a lot.

Once you start a new project, excuses will keep you from working on your new venture. By “excuses” I mean people you think you must please and events in which you think you must participate. Take this week to say “no” and realize how many time suckers are lurking in your life.

Why we say “yes”

We often say “yes” to events because we feel like we might miss out on something. Keep saying “yes” and you’ll miss out on writing a great book. We also say “yes” because we don’t want to disappoint anyone, no matter how many times they’ve disappointed us. Instead of letting other people down, you let yourself down. Over and over again. Stop it.

What happens when you say “no”

People might be miffed, but you’ll have written a killer scene, so what do you care? Those who care about you will admire your dedication. Those who get mad and stay mad were never planning to read your book anyway.

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