Why do you need an editor?

by Heidi M. Thomas

broken-pencilNabokov said, “My pencils outlast my erasers.”

Writing well means trial and error and learning to master the craft. And that’s an on-going journey. I keep learning new things every year. You’re never “there.” You’re never perfect. And sometimes I think the more I learn, the less I know.

I once read of a famous writer of the past who would simply scribble out his manuscripts on whatever paper surface he might have at hand, give the pile to his editor at the publishing house, and that person made everything come together for lasting, classic fiction works.

That doesn’t happen anymore. Or if it does, it’s rare. As you probably know, publishing houses are now big conglomerates, with the “bean counters” more in charge than the “pencil pushers.” And the editors at these houses are usually underpaid and overworked. I had a young college-age friend who interned at a New York publisher one summer in recent years. She and other interns were in charge of wading through the slush piles. The job was daunting. She (and the interns-mostly volunteer) sent out the rejection form letters. She said there was even a room filled with agented manuscripts, some that had been there as long as a year.

book-pile_readingIt’s a discouraging picture. And I’m not telling you this to discourage you, but rather to EN-courage you. What this means is that these interns/editors-or whoever might read your manuscript-are looking for any reason to reject it, just to get through that pile faster. You have to be able to overcome those reasons.

So if they aren’t totally engrossed by your first line, first paragraph, or first page, chances are they won’t read any further. If they see typos, spelling errors, bad grammar-chuck it. Strange-looking fonts or lavender-colored paper-it’s out (they read so many, please spare their failing eyesight!) Formatting errors (single instead of double-spaced), no headers, chapters that begin at the top of the page instead of 1/3 down. Seemingly minor things, but…

This is where hiring an independent editor can help. I don’t know about you, but after I’ve worked on a manuscript for weeks, months, even years, I become so close to the work that I cannot look at it objectively anymore. You probably know too, that your eye will see a misspelled word or a typo and your brain registers the word that it’s supposed to be.

From the Associated Press, a reminder to always check this word if editing “public” documents:

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. – Ottawa County will pay about $40,000 to correct an embarrassing typo on its Nov. 7 election ballot: The “L” was left out of “public.”

A total of 170,000 ballots will have to be reprinted. The mistake appeared in the text of a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban some types of affirmative action.

The word “public” was misspelled one of the six times it appears, county Clerk Daniel C. Krueger said Tuesday. Five or six people in his office had proofread the ballot, but it was an election clerk who found the mistake early last week.

“It’s just one of those words,” Krueger said. “Even after we told people it was in there, they still read over it.”

In the Seattle Times, a story about a new ramp at the ferry terminal¬†explained that it was operated by a “system of wenches.”

And a headline on Google news: “Don Imus says he’s battling stage two prostrate cancer.”

So another pair of eyes can be most helpful. if you want to learn and grow and hopefully be published, you really want someone who is going to tell you the things you need to work on, to make your work stronger, to stand out.

The independent editor will be your friend as a writer – in the way that we all have one friend who tells us things we don’t want to hear and calls us on it when we’re not making sense.

You know, the annoying friend. Your editor.

Published in: on March 20, 2009 at 12:49 am  Comments (9)  

Blog Talk Radio: On the Road to a Bestseller

Last week I was a featured guest on Christine Rose’s Blog Talk Radio program “On the Road to a Bestseller,” where we talked christine-roseabout the pros and cons of being agented or unagented. I presented the view from having no agent and being published. David Odle on having an agent on the way to being published, and Jane Kennedy Sutton, who had an agent who turned out not to be the right fit. You can listen to the program here.

Christine also discusses “queryfail,” a discussion thread among several agents on Twitter recently, with examples of what makes them reject many queries. Here’s a sampling from Publishers Lunch:

As a taste, we pulled a selection of our favorite lines and stitched them together into something that’s almost a query letter on its own:

Dear________

“Please be advised of my request that you consider reviewing a page- turning novel that I have recently completed.”
“I’M TYPING MY QUERY IN ALL CAPS SO YOU WILL BE SURE TO NOTICE IT.”
“Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be pulled up a waterfall or to be flushed down a toilet?”
“This is my first attempt at writing a fictional novel.”
“…this, the first book in a seven-book series…”
“I’ve been working on this novel for twenty five years.”
“This book is The Notebook meets The Lord of the Rings.”
“It’s a unique combination of memoir and novel.”
“My book is the first in an imagined autobiography of my tragedy.”
“This is groundbreaking work that will change the way we view everything!”
“My book is differentiated from Twilight because the vampires have wings, and are half-breed angels.”
“I’ve been rejected by three other publishers who said my work was interesting.”
“I’ve queried more than 50 agents and have gotten nowhere and now I’m querying you.”
“I don’t think you’re the right agent for me, but could you pass my query along to some of your colleagues?”
“I hope you don’t mind that I found your personal email address…” ‘
“I know you don’t represent children’s literature, but I hope you’ll make an exception in my case.”

For the moment the focus was on author’s query letters rather than agent’s submission though one editor dared to shift the focus
briefly: “The most common #queryfail I get from agents? Alas, I hate to say this, but “a debut collection of lyrical linked stories.”

Published in: on March 14, 2009 at 11:58 pm  Comments (8)  
Tags: , , , , ,

Shore Up Your Sagging Middle (in your plot)

bridgeWriting is a lot like building a bridge. Each Scene serves as scaffolding or supports for your entire story to rest on without sagging.

Maybe you’ve made a great start. You have a dynamite hook (some of my favorites: “The last camel collapsed at noon.” Ken Follet, “The man with ten minutes to live was laughing.” Frederick Forsyth). You’ve gotten off to a good strong start. Maybe you know how your book is going to end, and even have the final scene written.

Now, how do you get through the middle part without it sagging and possibly collapsing?

First of all, you don’t need to write chronologically. You can write scenes out of order. (See my article Overcoming Writer’s Block) Pick out some highlights and write those scenes, then see if you can figure out what you might be able to fill in between A and G.

Now, send your inner “nice guy” out for ice cream and figure out just how mean you can be to your character. Conflict is the key to keeping a story moving, to shoring it up. You’ve introduced your character and the problem she has to solve. You know what the goal is at the end.

Let’s say Cathy Character wants to be the first teenage girl to climb Mount Huge. What are her obstacles? Her parents are against the idea. It’s too expensive, too dangerous, she’s not in shape, who else is going, etc. Cathy has to overcome each objection, solve each problem.

Maybe her neighbor is a banker, so she approaches him for a loan. If he smiles and says,” Sure, Cathy, anything for you,” the problem is solved too quickly. The story can get boring and the reader’s interest will sag quickly.

But what if he says no? Now Cathy has to figure out another way to raise money. What should she do – a bake sale, a part-time job, rob the local drive-in? (You can see the various paths this story could take.) There are all kinds of ideas and none of them should be easy.

Every time your character figures out a way over, around or through a problem, throw up another obstacle, within reason, of course. You don’t want her to fail at everything.

But when she solves the money part of the problem, there should be another one waiting. Who, besides her parents, are going to oppose her? Does she have a rival? Or is there a friend who is supposedly helping her, but is actually sabotaging Cathy’s efforts?

Building a story is like constructing a bridge. You need conflict as the pillars that shore up the middle.

For each scene you write, ask yourself:

  • What is the purpose of this scene?
  • Does it move the story forward? (What if I take it out? Does the story flow well without it?)
  • Can the reader identify with the character’s problem and struggles?
  • Have you created suspense? (Will the reader want to keep reading to find out how your character solves this one? What’s at stake for him/her?)

Have fun being mean to your character and building your bridge!

Published in: on March 9, 2009 at 12:58 am  Comments (5)  
Tags: , ,

Kreativ Blogger Award

kreativ_blogger_awardSo, does this mean I’m an award-winning author now?

I’ve received this award from Gayle Gresham, who is a very creative blogger and has great historical information and stories on her blog. It’s an honor, Gayle, and thank you!

I hereby nominate Grandma is a Writer

Gwyn Ramsey

Cowgirls & Cupcakes

Crazy Ranchers Wife

Visit their wonderful sites and leave a comment.

Published in: on March 6, 2009 at 12:28 am  Comments (2)  
Tags:

A Spoof on Writer’s Block

photo courtesy freephoto.com

photo courtesy freephoto.com

My friend Mary Trimble has posted a great piece on writer’s block on her blog.

Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees.

Published in: on March 2, 2009 at 7:31 pm  Comments (1)  
%d bloggers like this: