On Loving (and Editing) a Book to Death

Posted by on Nov 27, 2015 in Advice, Encouragement, From the Editors |

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Cait and I recently read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In the ensuing whirlwind of tidying at my house, I emptied out over ten year’s worth of binders. The binders were stuffed with handwritten pages of stories, journaling, and printed copies of stories and plays.

As I emptied out the binders, I kept coming across copies of the same two books. I wondered if I had accidentally started sorting the wrong pile. But, no. They were the same stories printed a dozen times, stuffed into binders spanning across the years. Two stories alone took up half of the binders. Even a slightly different draft earned the project a printed copy, as if something astoundingly new was coming out of the printer.

It was so obvious, with time between me and the stories, that the stories had become like the crib bumper I toddled around with as my childhood security blanket.

I found the remains of that bumper when I was cleaning stuff out, too. My mom had slowly cut away parts of the bumper until only a small square was left, so well-loved that the sheep on the fabric was nearly rubbed away and you could see the polyester filling inside.

I’d obviously loved those two book projects. But the stories had been loved–and edited–to death.

The harder I fought for them, the limper they got. I hadn’t moved on, let the story live and breathe in the form my abilities had been capable of conveying the first time. I’d smothered them with attention, cut them to bits, left jagged scars across the pages. There was nothing breathing there anymore.

As a writer-editor, I’ve become increasingly careful about preserving the writer’s voice, keeping the pages breathing even if the prose isn’t perfect. With more experience, I discover the power of a light hand–and the power of moving on.

Finishing a project and moving on is crucial to learning.

It’s the learning experience that counts. There are flaws within each story–but they’re not always flaws. Sometimes those flaws are like the flaws in emeralds, serving as essential character, the fissures of work behind the stone’s gorgeous green glow. Not every story is a glittery Gatsby diamond. It’s important to know what you’re working with.

If you pick and polish and indiscriminately nag your story, you could end up with a sorry caricature instead of an imperfect masterpiece. (That’s why it’s so important to NOT follow every piece of editing advice you read, and not follow every suggestion your CPs or editors gives you.)

With these things on my mind, I suggest this:

Do not edit with a mind to fix problems and eradicate mistakes.

Yes, there will be grammatical errors and smarter ways to phrase sentences. But fixing all of those “mistakes” could wipe out any hint of voice the book has. And that shouldn’t be the mindset behind the work anyway.

Think to yourself instead: Am I making the story stronger? Am I highlighting the good, using the unique features of my words to their best advantage? What is special here, vivid, brilliant, beautiful, amazing? Why did I love this idea so much?

Without new projects and new ideas, you won’t be able to grow as a writer. No matter how hard you try or how thickly you spackle on the paint, it just won’t work.

Embrace what makes the project lovely: don’t make it be something else. And then move on.

~Bear

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Editing While Feminist

Posted by on May 20, 2015 in From the Editors |

One of the toughest things about editing is cleaning up the manuscript while preserving the author’s voice, and in the developmental stage, advising on the story to improve it without falling into the trap of changing it to suit your personal story preferences.

There are many potential pitfalls to this process, and I know for me it has been a constant struggle to strike a balance between my clients’ work and my feminist convictions. I’ve never had to deal with explicit (and uncondemned) sexism in a manuscript, but what I have sometimes seen is unintentional sexism in the form of unexamined tropes and turns of phrase, and occasionally, what’s known as “enlightened sexism.”

None of the authors I’ve worked with intend to be sexist. But…when they recreate scenes in which men dominate the dialogue or come up with all the solutions (and have chosen their characters’ genders in such a way as to make this plausible), or relationships in which women are all mood swings and men are all jealousy or possessiveness. When a man gratuitously “once-overs” a woman he’s attracted to and explicitly admires tits and ass while the woman who’s attracted to him admires his smile and eyes. When a female character constantly questions herself, her actions, her looks, but none of the other, usually male, characters have the same struggle for self-worth.

Let’s just say that intent has little bearing on interpretation, especially for a reader who may never even meet, let alone get to know, the author of a book.

[Disclaimer #1: I believe in variety. For the purpose of this post, I’ll simply say there is no one “right” or “most feminist” way to be a woman, though I would say there are some benchmarks.] The issue I face, as a feminist editor, is that I am not seeing a lot of variety among female characters, particularly in certain genres and categories. What I see are regurgitated descriptions and ideas that convey the same old tired notions without even meaning to, and it’s lazy. It’s lazy writing. I know that’s hard to hear, but a writer may spend years on a manuscript, and if they’re not making clear decisions about every single word, they’re still leaving a lot on the table–not all of it pleasant.

[Disclaimer #2: more and more authors are giving their female characters due care and consideration and fleshing women who could easily be stereotypes into fully realized characters, and I am totally aware of and grateful for that, so please don’t tell me #notallauthors. Disclaimer #2.5: to my past and current clients, unless this is something we’ve talked about together, I’m not talking about you.]

My rule of thumb for writing is to question everything. Why is my character saying that? Why are they thinking/feeling/doing that? What is being conveyed here, really, truly, below the surface being conveyed? Asking these questions is often all it takes to diffuse the dialogue or description that is problematic, and get to a truer representation of what the character is going through at that moment. [Disclaimer #3: I struggle with this as an author as well, and can only do my best to tailor all my writing to the unique characters I strive to create.]

Back to editing while feminist. As a feminist, I want to challenge the kinds of unexamined assumptions about women (and others) that permeate our media, including the books we write. As an editor, my first duty is to the author’s story. There’s a lot that I don’t comment on, because if I did, I’d be crossing a line from serving the story to serving my story expectations–and in the past, there have been authors who still took issue with the comments I did think were worth leaving.

As always, the best I as a developmental editor can do is provoke deeper thought in the author about what they’re trying to accomplish with their story, and whether they’re succeeding, and how they can achieve those goals.

In our wonderfully thoughtful and aware internet writing community, I’m sure there are other editors who wrestle with this and authors who perhaps have faced comments like these. Let’s discuss and share strategies in the comments!

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On Day Jobs and Hobbies

Posted by on Sep 18, 2014 in Advice, Encouragement, From the Editors |

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Bear here, enjoying a moment of quiet. I sit at my desk without any looming edit deadlines and my daughter at the babysitter’s. Crickets are singing in the yellowing grass outside my window. Tomorrow there will be no babysitter, and I will have house work. But today…today is mine. Today I can pause and decide what would please me to do.

These moments are wonderful, because they allow me to rekindle my love of writing. After doing the day, sometimes there’s not much energy left for the creative process.

But I don’t want to take the regular days for granted. I think responsibilities can remind us of the beauty of the creative process and drive us forward as writers. The day job, the kid, the family obligations, scrubbing the toilet…what kind of escape would writing be if I didn’t have these things?

And let’s take it to the next level. What if writing books was my only interest? What if I didn’t have an interest in music? What if I didn’t have native plant gardening to make me feel excited about something bigger than myself? What if I didn’t sew for the orderly, mind quieting therapy of it?

There’s so much to enjoy in life. Every day. Don’t make writing carry the burden of being the only thing you look forward to.

It’s good to have obligations to structure your day and motivate your passion. And sometimes it’s good to step away from the computer and pursue another hobby.

We all have things we need to do, and things we want to do. For a lot of us, writing is something we simply need to do. Myself included. But I also want writing to be something I WANT to do, as much as possible.

I want to tell any overburdened, busy writers out there: if you catch one of these quiet days, don’t let the thought of your obligations stop you from enjoying it. Free yourself. Do what you like. Feel no guilt.

Me, I’m taking the day. I won’t read over this post obsessively to make sure I got it “right.” I’m not going to waffle between this or that chore. No–not today. Today, I’m going to go outside and enjoy the garden.

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-Bear

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Black Dog’s Top Ten Editing Comments

Posted by on Jul 16, 2014 in Advice, From the Editors |

I love those lists of “things to watch out for” or “what I’m seeing a lot lately” from writers, editors, agents, and readers. I think they can be really helpful starting points for self-editing or brainstorming. So, I’ve decided to do one of my own. Here are the ten most frequent comments I make when editing a manuscript.

Now a disclaimer or two. These are only my most common critiques. I try to leave praise proportional to criticism (though my job isn’t to focus on what you’ve already done well), but those tend to be more manuscript-specific and also, aren’t as helpful to you all.

Also, when it comes to this kind of line-level editing, I allow a bit of stylistic wiggle room. I will not say “no filtering ever!” because filtering can in some places increase tension or suspense, or simply be part of a poetic voice. Sometimes these comments are up for debate; sometimes they’re not.

The other thing to remember about this list is that all these elements must be kept in balance. Lots of observable details are great, unless you’re repeating the same things over and over or filtering them through heard, saw and felt. 

So here we go! My top ten editing comments. Hopefully this will help you get a jump on your self-editing! This list is not in any particular order or hierarchy.

1. Lack of observable details.

Observable details could also be called sensory details; they’re what your protagonist can observe with their five (or six, or seven) senses. When a scene feels rushed or a world feels poorly developed, it’s often because these details have not been fully fleshed out. They’re also commonly dropped from character interactions, which results in telling lines like “He stared at me. He was trying to guess my thoughts.” What, for example, can the protagonist see in his expression that makes them think he’s trying to guess their thoughts?

Details like these are great characterization opportunities for all your characters, especially if you’re in a limited POV. What your protagonist notices can be as important as what the other character is doing.

2. Repetitive or redundant

Gestures, descriptors, conversations, all these can get repetitive. This applies to big plot things, small paragraph or sentence things, but also word things like “whispered quietly.”

3. Mixed-up definitions

Are you trying to figure out if “Repetitive or redundant” is repetitive or redundant? They overlap, but by definition they are two different phenomena. One of the things I do a lot–and I really do mean all the time–is clarify whether the word you’ve chosen is, by definition, actually the word you want to use. Sometimes it’s a homophone mix-up (peek, peak, pique), sometimes it’s a similar sound (transpired/conspired), sometimes it’s just a word that really doesn’t mean what you think.

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Check your definitions. Even dialogue tags.

4. Poor logical flow

What this means is that in a given paragraph, sentence 1 should be followed by sentence 2, followed by sentence 3, then move on to sentences a, b, and c. This is as opposed to going: sentence 1, sentence b, sentence a, sentence 2, sentence 3, sentence c. We’re not writing essays here, but you still want to make sure all the ideas that go together…well, go together, in an order that makes sense.

5. Unclear transitions

By transitions, I mean everything from chapter to chapter, to action to action or emotion to emotion. Sometimes, transitions are a logical flow issue (“wait, why are they doing this thing when they just decided they had to go do the other thing?”), and sometimes it’s just a question of missing info. If the last we saw of He-Man was that some T-Rex is dangling him off a cliff and you say he gets let go three paragraphs later, then suddenly he’s scooping She-Ra up and running away? I’m going to wonder why there’s not a He-Pancake at the bottom of that cliff.

Err on the side of stage direction when drafting. It can always be trimmed down later.

6. No poetic flow 

This can be a little trickier to pin down and is pretty subjective, but it is important. What I mean is, how does this sentence sound to the ear? Is it awkward? If I tried to cold read it (read it aloud without reading ahead of time or preparing), would I stumble over a weird construction? Does the sentence have a rise and fall? Does the sound of the sentence match the mood or atmosphere of your content? To use a classic example, think Hemingway versus Fitzgerald. Old Man and the Sea versus Gatsby.

This is where reading aloud is crucial, and not just of your own work. If you’re really digging a book right now, read a page or two aloud and see what it sounds like.

7. Unbalanced tags

My comments on dialogue tags are primarily about balancing them. Are you using too many? Not enough? Constantly using saidisms instead of mixing in action tags before or after each spoken line? Does the tag you chose accurately reflect the dialogue? I usually recommend action tags because they’re more useful, and in a lot of cases, more realistic. People fidget. They pace. They move around and pick at themselves during a conversation. But tags, action and dialogue, must be in balance so that they don’t get repetitive and pull the reader out of the story.

8. Shifty POV

This one applies to novels written in a limited or close point of view, meaning that the reader only sees the main character’s thoughts and experiences. Everything else–the emotions and motivations of other characters, in particular–are observed by the reader through the main character. This is how virtually all YA novels are written these days, and a well-known example is Harry Potter.

So shifty POV, commonly known as head-hopping, is when the POV slips to include something that the main character cannot observe or know. This most commonly happens with what another character is thinking or feeling, or (as in our example above, with the boy staring) their motivation for an action or inaction.

This does not preclude main characters from guessing about the thoughts, feelings, or motivations of other characters, by any means! But authors need to use those observable details (of current or previous circumstances) to provide a foundation for those guesses.

9. Too much filtering

Like I said above, I allow a bit of wiggle room stylistically, especially with filtering. A little can be okay. Too much becomes repetitive and wordy. More often than not, it’s unnecessary. The example I use a lot is: “She heard a door slam.” Why not just say, “A door slammed”?

Some situations where I’d allow filtering: felt if the character is being touched (“He felt her fingernail scrape lightly across his collarbone”), or during some massive sensory experience (“She felt the fire’s heat on her face, heard the boom for a split second before it ruptured her eardrums. She saw the glow get brighter and brighter until it enveloped her.”) Again, this all depends on stylistic context.

10. Punctuation issues

Everyone has their own punctuation demon. Commas. Exclamation points. Em dashes. Commas are an especially common trickster, and often I see people placing them in such a way as to mess up the poetic flow of their sentences. A lot of people advise others to think of commas as breath marks, and that can be helpful. Not always, though. I like to recommend mixing it up. Move the comma around, read the sentence aloud over and over, making sure to take a real pause where the comma falls.

Example:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun. (Original, no comma.)

My mistress’, eyes are nothing like the sun. (Eh, could make sense as an address if it weren’t for the possessive apostrophe.)

My mistress’ eyes are, nothing like the sun. (Only works if your speaker is William Shatner. Not what you want. If you really want to indicate a pause, use an ellipses–but sparingly!)

My mistress’ eyes are nothing, like the sun. (This one makes sense grammatically, but is pretty nonsensical.)

My mistress’ eyes, are nothing like the sun. (Another Shatner sentence.)

– – – – –

What are some of the most common critiques you’ve given or received? 

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Editing Styles: Black Dog’s Take

Posted by on Mar 4, 2014 in From the Editors |

Every writer has a unique approach to their craft. As it turns out, so does every editor. In this series Bear and Black Dog share their approaches, which may provide some context for edits you’ve gotten in the past and the ideal edit you’re looking for.

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The Tools

Just like Ash, I use Microsoft Word (.doc or .docx files) for the majority of my editing. Track Changes and Inline Comments are this generation’s red pens. You can read Ash’s editing styles post here for a summary of those features if you’re unfamiliar, or just check out this screenshot:

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These are edits from Ash on one my manuscripts (and yes, punctuation is fair game).

Like Ash, I make heavy use of inline comments (the text bubble, above) to share reactions, to make developmental comments (on character, plot, pacing), and to explain whatever copy changes I make, such as rearranging sentences or cutting/adding words. More often than not, though, I do not make those copy changes in your doc. I’ll often provide a sample sentence to demonstrate what I mean. So if you had a sentence like: Once again picking up the letter, Olivia’s brow furrowed sadly, my comment on that sentence would look like this:

The way you have this phrased now, you’re saying that Olivia’s brow is the thing picking up the letter–which it obviously can’t, having no hands. Try something like, “Olivia’s brow furrowed as she turned and once again picked up the letter” or similar.

Approach

My editorial voice definitely falls toward the tough love end of the spectrum. I’m occasionally snarky, and I often take a direct-address approach, meaning I write directly to you; as in my example above, I’ll say “the way you have this phrased” instead of “the way this is phrased.” Because, let’s be real–this manuscript didn’t fall in your lap. You created it, you made decisions about its execution, and fundamentally it’s up to you to make it the best it can be, with editorial input as a guide.

I make moderate-to-heavy use of the comment feature throughout the manuscript. I do this especially with recurring style problems (dangling modifiers, punctuation issues, etc). As a writer, I sometimes forget to keep looking for these things when I’m neck-deep in my own revisions, so that’s why I leave reminders through the whole document.

I am often the editor who will ask for more content. I don’t mean added wordiness–I want more explanation. I want to see characters’ thought processes and emotional journeys unfold right there on the page. I want more stage direction, enough so that the action of the scene is clear. I want more sights and smells and sounds. I want more observable details in the description (more on that in another post).

Don’t mistake me–I recommend cuts and rewrites too. Often what I’ll recommend is rearranging. Sometimes a passage of description doesn’t need to be cut, it’s just dropped in the wrong place. During a battle? Wrong place for personal backstory. During meditation, on the other hand? Finding that relevant opening, that perfect place to drop a note, is like scoring a touchdown to me.

Loves

My heart is always eager to geek, and there are definitely some things that make me latch onto your story and your characters and wrap them up into pink squishy hugs.

Logic. I am all about analysis. If your character thinks through their actions and you let me see that, I will love you forever–even if the choices they’re making aren’t actually the best.

Layers of personality. Like the symbols on an alethiometer, people have all kinds of levels. Sneak me glimpses of what’s rumbling below what a character shows to the world and I am there. Think Lisbeth Salander.

Moments I can read into. I’m not a romance reader, but I am a shipper to end all shippers. What gets me pairing your characters off? Tiny, heart-wrenchingly subtle moments of tenderness. Any time characters take hands, lean into each other, glance quickly away–be still my heart. Give me Darcy squeezing Elizabeth’s hand. See also: all of Destiel.

Diversity. Originality is a hot commodity these days, if it exists at all, and a great way to put a new twist on an old story? Tell it from a different perspective. Focus on a different relationship. Give your characters different identities, different experiences.

This is far from a finite list. You hear it all the time and yes, it is subjective, but great, vivid writing will always win out.

Definitely Doesn’t Love

Everyone has pet peeves. Here are mine:

Stereotypes. Racial, gender identity, sexuality, dis/ability, you name it. Even ones you might think of as harmless, like “boys are _____” or “girls like _____”. I don’t like ’em, and if I think they’re irrelevant or insidious I will point them out. Same with what I perceive to be comments that misrepresent ideologies or concepts. I believe in being aware of and responsible for the messages we put into the world, even if we’re doing it unconsciously.

Male-heavy ensemble stories. This really goes for any time a single demographic dominates a character pool. A lot of speculative fiction feature ensemble casts, and often those skew toward all male, or all white, or all het, (or all three) or what have you. In certain settings this can be forgiven (like an all-male private boarding school, or something) but most of the time it deserves to be questioned and re-tooled for diversity.

Like Ash, I’m not a fan of obvious or convenient romance, and I dislike it when main characters (especially women) are not part of moving the plot forward, letting their supporting characters do it instead.

 

A lot of this is based on what I’ve been seeing lately, so some of it may shift in priority (not the pet peeves, though. Those will always be big ones to me). But with any luck, I’ll find some of you who share the same loves as me, and we can ride off together into the sunset, manuscript pages streaming behind us!

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Editing Styles: Bear’s Take

Posted by on Feb 28, 2014 in From the Editors, Resources |

Every writer has a unique approach to their craft. As it turns out, so does every editor. In this series Bear and Black Dog share their approaches, which may provide some context for edits you’ve gotten in the past and the ideal edit you’re looking for.

 

The Tools

I use Microsoft Word, with either .doc or .docx files. Microsoft Word has two functions that are indispensable editing tools: Track Changes and Inline Comments.

Track Changes is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than printing out a physical copy of a manuscript and marking it up by hand, I edit the digital file and Word records the changes. Any changes I make are shown by a black vertical line along the margin, parallel to the lines that were edited, and in the paragraph itself through red text/underline/a cross out of what was changed. All the changes are obvious, though they can look messy too.

In-line comments are text bubbles that show up in the margins next to whatever piece of text I highlight and make a comment on. This is actually where a lot of the work of editing happens. I can’t just make a change and expect the writer to read my mind. In-line comments are where I explain myself and share responses to the text, ideas, and advice.

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So that’s how an edited page looks. Sometimes there’s a lot more on the page; sometimes there’s nothing. This is actually a page from one of Cait’s manuscripts. As you can see, some manuscripts are so clean that editors are reduced to asinine comments about how “worldish” a word choice is!

Approach

I usually make the most comments at the beginning, when I’m explaining ideas or pointing something out for the first time. The further into the manuscript I am, the less likely it is that I will need to explain something, and it’s more likely that the writer has found their rhythm. In-line edits do tend to lighten up a little as well, but not as much.

I cut words. I am a word trimmer; a lean meat hunter. I look for simplicity, efficiency, and unity in writing. That doesn’t mean I reject flowery or poetical styles (actually I tend to write that way!). I mean that I try to make “awesome” the bulk of what can be found in a manuscript versus a bunch of “pretty good” and “acceptable.”  Unnecessary passages, weak plot points, using two words where one will do…those are always on my target list.

In other words: the fastest way to elevate your story is by cutting the crap. I will question story choices and suggest substantial cuts/rewrites if I think it will open the door for something great. Cutting passages is painful, but excellent for growing.

 

Loves

I have weaknesses. It’s true, here is the chink in my armor! *points to heart* That means I’m likely to drop big-red-heart comments next to these things in manuscripts.

Humor! I’m convinced it’s the hardest thing to write. If you can make a reader laugh, *snaps* to you.

Strong characters. Not as in a character who is strong, but a character who is so well portrayed and their image is so strong in the reader’s mind that they become their own type. Sherlock Holmes. Scarlett O’Hara. Ron Weasley. Marmee March. There’s no mistaking who these people are; Ron’s private eye business would last about .2 seconds, and Scarlett’s parenting philosophies would result in four a** kicking hooligans for daughters.

More great elements that always, always earn my respect: diversity of relationships, tightly woven plots, and immersive (believable!) worldbuilding.

That is to say, Great Writing.

 

Definitely Doesn’t Love

I have preferences and quirks like any person, so keep in mind that I’m more likely to be critical/tough about the following:

Unbelievable romances. They’re no fun! More on this in a future post.

Gratuitous violence. For example, I sometimes have trouble appreciating dystopian fic. I have a very unpopular opinion about Mockingjay. Maybe this is a side effect of editing MG? Violence just doesn’t suit my tastes on its intrinsic value alone, so I tend to challenge writers to make sure it’s performing some other service to the story beyond shock value.

OK, and I can’t resist mentioned one almost silly, minor thing. I’m really forgiving of tropes, but there is one that drives me nuts. It’s the “woman died in childbirth” trope. I see that chestnut tossed in a story all. the. time.  It’s used as a romantic, noble, and convenient way to kill a female character. Which is dumb, because death and labor are none of those things. And it points back to a female stereotyping that I’ll feel obligated to challenge if it crops up in a manuscript.

That sums up where I am right now in my editing life. These things change as I change, as life is wont to do to a person. And editors are people. Not just hats with teeth that live in colonies in dark abandoned paper factories. Though I hear that those exist, and they will sometimes attack unwary writers…

Up next in the series: Black Dog shares her style, and it’s more different Bear’s than you would think!

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