Writer's Tips

from Two Brothers Press

Here are links to other writing tips:

Narrative Voice in Storytelling: a discussion of point of view and verb tense and how these elements affect the story

Dialog: The elements and art of dialog

Novel Openings: Creating compelling openings for novels

Description: The red meat of storytelling.

Flashbacks: Hey, who's in here with me? This is my flashback

Fastest Gun in the West: Writers often assume readers will fill in the details
Editors, Beware of Disturbed Writers
The Pitfalls of Being an Independent Freelance Editor—Dealing with overly emotional, defensive writers...

Be sure to see Part Two, below (Writers, Beware of Editors with an Attitude)

psychoticHmmm...this isn't really a writer's tip. In a way, writers could take heed of what is said here. The title is rather harsh, talking about "disturbed" writers. Maybe more properly, I'm talking about writers who can't take criticism—constructive or otherwise. And, so, for good reason, I don't understand why such a writer would submit his/her work to be edited in the first place.

In traditional publishing, of course, the writer who signs that publishing contract has no choice in the matter. His/her work will be edited. Still, editors at traditional publishing houses talk about "difficult" writers and the fights that break out among writers and editors about the sanctity of the writer's art. This is just one of many skirmishes that can take place. But let's move this discussion into the realm of the freelance editor, unprotected by the wall of a publishing house's policies and procedures.

In freelance editing, the relationship between the writer and the editor is in its most intimate form. The writer has to trust the editor to be competent, even brilliant, fairminded, kind, stern, knowledgeable—and many other attributes—before entrusting the manuscript to the editor. In turn, the editor has to trust that the writer earnestly wants to know what's good and bad about the manuscript, that the criticism (done in a constructive way) will simply be accepted by the writer as the editor's professional opinion.

To be fair, the writer is entrusting a work that he/she has toiled over for no telling how long, agonized about, revised, given to beta readers (Aunt Bertha, among them), and feels that the work just needs to be polished. In that case, what is the writer asking for in an edit? Well, first, the editor has to determine who the audience is, where the work will be published (what the style guides call for in that venue), and if the writer is aware of the styles in a particular industry. Let's say the manuscript is an article, headed for a professional journal. In that case, the "polishing" will at least entail the proper punctuation the journal adheres to, the bibliographic requirements, how references are handled in the text, and even the level of discourse and style of writing. Some really well-educated writers just don't believe that the best grade level for most kinds of articles is somewhere around high school level. Look up the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test for an indication of how writing can be geared up or down.

But let's jump into something less academic. Let's say the writer has a suspense/thriller, which he thinks just needs to be polished. And let's also say that, while the writer's grammar and syntax are competent, the manuscript lapses into the passive voice, is wordy, the characters are flat, and the dialog is wooden. The editor can "polish" the manuscript all she wants (which is what the author wants), but it is doubtful that agents will snap it up, even if it is technically competent, without a typo in sight. But a good editor, freelance or otherwise, is going to try to convince the writer that substantial editing is needed, when it is needed.

That's where the trouble begins with a defensive, disturbed writer. Some writers don't want a single word to be changed. I once edited a manuscript of 100,000 words, and part of the reason it was so long was its wordiness. I spent thirty minutes trying to convince the writer that he should use "despite," rather than "in spite of." I pointed out the nuances of the phrase vs. the meaning and utility of "despite." I also pointed out that "in spite of" might also require the restrictive phrase "the fact that." Or something like that. I wanted him to trade in six words for one. No sale.

In fact, part of the problem with defensive writers is that they want to argue over every edit. Before the editing even begins, the editor should tell the writer that this is the writer's work and the edits (how ever correct they may be) can be rejected by the writer. The editor should also say that there's no need to argue over an edit. If the writer doesn't like it, he/she should reject it and simply move on. Further, editors would be wise to watch for such red flags before accepting an assignment. That's why I perform a sample edit of the work in question. I share it with the writer, and if the writer tends to argue with me about the editing in the sample, I make as quick and clean of a getaway as I can, before any contract is signed.

I once had a writer send me a manuscript about a true crime, and the criminal in question was not well known, say, like the Boston Strangler or Jack the Ripper, yet the writer said in the introduction that this was one of the greatest criminals of all time. As soon as I pointed out the obvious hyperbole, the writer argued with me. I slipped out the back, Jack.

I also insist for good reason that if I am to edit a manuscript, I want the entire thing when I do the sample edit. Since I do a sample edit, I don't want a writer to send me just ten pages of a two-hundred-page manuscript. Often, writers only send me ten pages to "test" my editing, and several times I've shrugged off my requirement and edited those pages, never to hear from the writer again. That's time wasted. I insist on the whole manuscript, first to see if the writer has even finished it. Maybe all he/she has written is the first chapter. Second, I want the entire manuscript to be able to look at the opening and closing, and selected points in between. I tell the writer this up front. If I am to do a sensible evaluation of the manuscript, I will be looking deeper into the manuscript before giving my editorial opinion.

Again, if the writer balks at this requirement, I make a hasty, but polite, retreat and don't take on the assignment.

Because I am a freelance editor, dealing directly with writers, I often spend several emails or phone calls back and forth going over the sample edit, asking the writer's goals for the book. Will it be sent to an agent, directly to a publisher, or even self-published? I try to develop a rapport with the writer, put him or her at ease, and get the writer to talk about more than just the manuscript—and it is this that prompted this article.

I sample-edited a manuscript (without getting the entire thing). I spent some good email time with the author answering his questions, discussing his goals for the work, talked about the edits I had done and why. He wrote to tell me how much he appreciated the tone of my editing and our discussions—and then we began the negotiation process. I thought we were on the same page about what I do, my requirements, his goals. He even asked me if I would consider editing part of the work, having him pay for that, and then move on to the next few chapters. During these discussions, I also urged him to read some of the tips for writers on this web site. I wanted him to get an idea of the kind of editing I would be doing. So, after taking his situation into account, I only suggested that we break the editing into 20,000-word increments. He would pay, I would edit, then we'd go to the next segment.

All had been amiable up to this point—but, when it came down to the actual editing "contract" of this 100,000 word manuscript, he turned on me in the very next email, accusing me of being unprofessional, constantly demanding his complete manuscript, having some nefarious motives in doing so, and closing with: "Don't even respond to this email. I won't open it."

So, in short, I was fired before actually doing any editing, other than the first ten pages and spending considerable time developing a rapport with this author. Once I got over being stunned at this sudden turn in his attitude and demeanor, I sighed with relief! Just think what kind of trouble I would have had, once I had actually done a few hundred dollars worth of work.

Writers, Beware of Editors with an Attitude...

editingsnobNow, this is a tip for writers. And it's only fair that, having warned editors about disturbed writers, something similar can be said of some editors. I've been on both sides of the fence, first as a writer being edited by a not-so-nuanced editor and second as an editor dealing with a disturbed writer.

My first book was a best-seller back when there were about 300 LGBT bookstores, independent of the chains. And I did a book tour to some of those stores with good results. But once the chain bookstores moved in next to many of these independent LGBT stores and stomped them out of business by also carrying "gay literature" and heavily discounting it, the small, independent press that mainly did business with the LGBT bookstores went out of business, as well. So, very quickly, my best-selling book was no longer available—out of print.

In the back of my mind, I knew I had to get the book back into print, but by then I was heavy at work on the sequel. This was before the Internet, really, and besides, I had moved into the official "middle of nowhere" to help out my parents, who were getting somewhat elderly and very much ill. So I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to cultivate an agent or publisher to reprint my work.

But, when I had a chance, I would prepare a package for targeted publishers. Back then, more publishers accepted unagented manuscripts. It meant that a writer could deal directly with an acquiring editor—and that was a good idea, considering that unsolicited manuscripts went straight to the slush pile (think of a composting heap that could later be harvested for its fertilizer). As I say, however, I was living in the middle of nowhere, there was no Internet, and one sent in submission packages via snail mail, waited for a response, and repeated the process, depending on the responsiveness of the agent or publisher. I'd been published in two anthologies, by then, one an award-winning collection by Penguin (back then a fairly large company with subsidiaries). So, I obtained the name of the editor at that company that had acquired the anthologies. I talked about how I was in both of the anthologies and I had a novel that had gone out of print, and would it be possible for the editor to take a look. I thought that since the company had had relative success with the two anthologies and my work was in both, along with the fact that my novel had been a best seller in the LGBT stores, that a reprint would be a good bet.

I have to say right now that I'm talking about an acquisitions editor and not a copy editor or developmental editor; but I will get to them in a moment.

Perception is everything.  Perhaps I should have known that the culteral center of the world, and an editor smack dab in the middle of it would look askance at a gay-themed novel about a farm boy and a preacher's son in southwestern New Mexico (is that even in the United States?). And sure enough, I got a two-part response. One was that the middle of cultural nowhere (possibly even some place in Mexico, in her mind) was an "odd place for a gay-themed story," (her exact words) and the other was that perhaps my forte was writing essays and not novels. The second suggestion was actually quite fair enough. It was only years later that my novel was published in a second and then a third and forth edition.

So the first lesson for a writer in being wary of editors is that, if you are going to skirt around an agency and go directly to a publisher—make sure that the acquisitions editor is amenable to your kind of work. Make sure that the setting and theme fit with the publisher's needs and are somewhat like the other books they produce. This problem is all the more sticky these days, since the vast majority of books are published by only six conglomerates. Sometimes it's a good idea to start local or regional and work your way up to the larger houses.

But, back to the editor who actually edits your work. If it's through a traditional publishing company, you're going to face the "we're the publisher and you're just the writer" attitude. You won't even be able to make suggestions on the cover of your work, and you will have only a little more control over the eventual title—surprised? If you're not prepared to face the "polically incorrect" editing police, you might feel that the editor is being picky, mean, or downright hateful about insisting that you use "his or her" in place of "his." Or whatever possible way there might be to neuter the pronouns. I think this problem is more relevant to non-fiction, since we usually know the gender of the character in the story, and there's little need to be general and non-sexist with pronouns.

None of this is to say that editors at traditional publishing houses are automatically mean-spirited, cultural elitists, or disinterested in the writer behind the work. Otherwise, this system would have broken down long ago.

But let's say that you have decided that, before you send your work to an agent or publisher, you want to hire an editor to give your work a better edge in the market. The first warning is to beware of editing factories. Behind the scenes, these factories have hundreds, if not thousands, of editors getting paid almost minimum wage to churn out editing projects. Yours will be just one of many, and you're going to get harried, rushed editors with a deadline. Did you know that these factories won't even let the editors and writers actually communicate with one another? There are strict policies against this. Purportedly, this is to protect the editor from irrate writers! But it also keeps the editors from bleeding off writers from the factory and working directly with the writer. Do the editors working for these factories have an attitude against writers? Not necessarily...probably not, but the restrictions put upon them and the ways in which they can interact with the writer might make it seem so.

You will learn how to spot these editing factories fairly easily. You will be submitting "jobs" and will be allowed to look at editor resumes and prior work before deciding on an editor. But that's where the interaction ends with the editor. Your concerns will be trundled through the factory, and you will never learn the email or contact address of the editor.

Now, let's say you've found a true freelance editor site. You're in direct contact with a real editor, or the company has maybe a dozen editors. Nevertheless, you will have good and valuable contact with the editor of your choice. Again, perception is everything. Most editors know that to make it with agents and publishers, the stylebook of choice is Chicago Manual of Style. So the editors will massage your text and punctuation into this style. So much of the editing may seem picky or even mean; but it's not. It's just a matter of bringing some elements of your writing into line with what is accepted. If you don't argue with the editor over these items, you can spend better time arguing with the editor about your style, the plot, characterization, description, and other things. A good editor will listen to your reasoning, even if she doesn't necessarily agree with them. Her attitude should be that this is your work, and all she can do is present her reasoning. She should not insist that only her way is the best way.

If you get an editor who eventually seems to treat you as if you, the writer, don't understand because you're not as expert as he/she is, you might want to withdraw from the project. Pay for the editing and know that you're probably getting good suggestions. But if you strongly disagree with elements of style, don't take those suggestions.

It's really quite that simple. You're the boss.