Tag Archives: editing

A World Without What?

I subscribe to Shelf Awareness, an online book review site (best way I know to describe it) that sends out emails twice a week informing you of select new books. I always look at this email, and I’ve discovered several new and interesting books this way. Generally, I’ll jump from the email to my local library’s site to see if they have a copy of a book that looks interesting. If they do, I’ll request it.

This week, they reviewed a book called A World Without Whom by Emmy J. Favilla, who is the Buzzfeed Copy Chief (my strikethrough is an attempt to mirror the book, which has a graphic of the editor’s strikeout mark there). Not only does Shelf Awareness review the book, they also interview Emmy about why she wrote the book.

At first reading, I was somewhat supportive of what she says. After all, we don’t want to get stuck in the past. Language is an evolving, living thing, even more so in this age of Internet slang such as LOL and so forth. And let’s not forget the way we used to have to text.


Yes, there’s a but. Of course there is.

I posted a link to that interview to my publishing company’s, er, company chat on Messenger, thinking it would get a few comments.

Instead, I practically stirred up a hornets’ nest, and it wasn’t favorable to Emmy’s opinions.

Which is good.

To be fair, I only gave the interview—and book review—a cursory read at first. As an editor, I’m always looking to see if I can learn anything from other editors. But this one, on the surface, didn’t seem to have much to offer. After a bit deeper read of the interview, I reserved a copy at the library—I doubt the book is worth buying no matter what, especially on my budget—just to see what it was all about. And I still intend to at least skim it. To quote my wife, you need to know your enemy.

Basically, Ms. Favilla says that, as editors in this modern age, we should feel free to pretty much ignore what we were taught—or, in her words, “…feel a sense of relief and freedom from the sort of rules that have been ingrained in us since grammar school”—and just go with what your heart tells you.

More telling is this quote: “It’s really more important to ruminate on stuff like ‘Is this an exclusive way to talk about all genders?’ than ‘Does this comma go here?’”

In other words, politically correct editing.

Again, to be fair, she does say: “But there are certain ways in which I’m still a bit of a stickler: I don’t think we should totally ignore conventions about grammar, punctuation, spelling and other things that make it easier for readers to understand a piece of writing.”

So what exactly are you saying, Ms. Favilla? Because what I’m reading sounds contradictory at the very least. Or, as one of the comments on our chats stated: Anyone can claim to be the new standard. Anyone with brains will look around and see truth.

What he said ^.

Look, keeping up with the times is all well and good. For instance, when it first surfaced, the word email was hyphenated: e-mail. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was also capitalized: E-mail. Now, the more commonly accepted spelling is email, though there are still those who hyphenate it. Which is fine and dandy. Just pay attention to the publication’s style guide.

But folks, as onerous as they can be at times, the standards are there for a reason. In a language that pronounces words like rough and though in markedly different ways, those standards are essential. If you can’t be understood, you’re not communicating. You’re practicing mental masturbation.

If you don’t put the comma in the right place, I might not be able to understand what you’re saying about genders in the first place.


Taking Part

book-editor-ebcb397f3d23b39df4f06bf10e3044On the whole, I’m finding that I enjoy being an editor. As little as a year ago, I wouldn’t have taken on the job because I didn’t feel qualified. Still not sure if I am, but I’m getting compliments on my editing, so I guess I’m doing something right.

The problem with editing at a growing company, though, is that I have to wear several hats. I guess it’s happening more and more at the big New York publishers too, as they downsize to try and up their bottom line, but in days gone by, when your manuscript was accepted, several editors looked at it. We don’t have the personnel for that—though it would be nice if someday we did—so I find myself, along with the other editors in the company, being line editor, general editor, copy editor, and acquisitions editor.

Line editing is probably the easiest part. That’s where I look for things like typos, misspelled words, and things of that nature. It’s the most tedious, probably, and the one it’s probably easiest to mess up on because we simply can’t see all the mistakes by ourselves (but that’s what we have beta readers for). Copy editing, of course, takes research sometimes, because it means I have to catch mistakes—such as having a safety on a revolver (not very many revolvers have safeties, so pay attention, folks).

It’s the copy editing I worry most about. I can tell a good story within a few pages, and I’m pretty good at spotting typos and the like. But copy editing? What if I don’t know they’ve made a mistake? It’s not me the reader blames—they don’t think of the editor, or at least I never did. If there’s a mistake, I always assumed the writer didn’t do their due diligence. And a lot of times that’s where the mistake originates.

But what about larger mistakes? Sometimes, because of the meticulousness involved in line editing, you can forget to keep the larger picture in mind. That’s when I’m afraid I might miss some gaping plot hole that will make the book fall flat on its face without me realizing it. So it’s something I’ve been thinking about rather heavily the past few weeks.

And I realized something: reading is not passive.

Here’s where my fear of missing something like that comes from: movies.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been talking over a movie with someone only to have them point out some gaffe that undermines the whole thing, and I didn’t see it. Not at all. Hollywood is famous for not getting things right, so I should be spotting these things. But I don’t. Not as often as I should. So it’s made me wonder if I’m missing things when I edit. After all, it takes longer to get through a book, especially when you’re editing, than it does to get through a movie.

But then I was a beta reader for JB Hogan’s Living Behind Time, his Jack Kerouac-type novel of a man discovering himself. I’m not trying to make an example of JB and editwars2shame him online (okay, maybe I am; he’d do the same for me lol), but this is such a graphic example of what I want to illustrate. JB wrote this novel years ago, and did a few updates to it in the interim. Then, when Oghma agreed to publish it, he brought it out, blew the dust and cobwebs off (to hear him tell it there was plenty of both), and touched it up some.

There are a lot of years—about thirty at this writing—between his original writing of the book and it being published. So mistakes are bound to creep in, and I found one that ended up being a humdinger: he had a man in his mid-forties stationed at an Air Force base in Biloxi in 1964—fifty years ago. That was the largest timeline mistake, though there were a couple of others. The upshot of it was it simply couldn’t be, unless the man really was time traveling. And that wasn’t the plot of the book believe me.

Turns out I was the only beta reader who spotted this, which means it was a good thing I read the thing. It took a bit of changing, but according to JB, it was a fairly easy fix.

The point to this is that it boosted my confidence in myself as an editor, even though I wasn’t actually editing his book, only beta reading it. But when I read a book, whether it be for review purposes or as a beta reader, I bring the same tools to the work bench as I do when editing. Beta reading or reading for a review is just as important to the author as a good edit. In fact, it’s another step in the editing process, as far as I’m concerned, and I hope beta readers who go through books I’ve edited do the same thing I do: go over them as if they were editing. In this print on demand world, this allows a writer and publisher to fix mistakes in each consecutive printing so that it’s continually evolving, at least on that end of things. Obviously, that’s not the place to make major changes to the story, but it does allow you to fix mistakes.

And that got me thinking about movies versus books, and I realized that, for me anyway, watching a movie is a passive thing. I just go along for the ride. Sure, I make minor criticisms, but on the whole, I let the thing take me where it wants me to go. I’ve got a drink of some kind at my elbow, a comfortable chair, and I’m ready to go. It’s a good way to unwind. Unfortunately, it’s also a problem in that too many people are turning themselves over to mostly mindless entertainment. It’s why we’re getting the quality of movies we’re getting.

TV seems to be breaking the mold, at least on the the cable channels. With shows like Justified, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, and a few of the newer ones people are geeking over, cable TV is bringing some quality entertainment to our living rooms, and Hollywood is feeling it when it comes to the blockbusters they try pushing on us every year.

they-said-i-spend-too-much-time-watching-tv-i-said-they-spent-toBut when I’m reading—and especially when I’m editing (the lines of which are becoming more and more blurred these days)—it’s not passive for me. I have to actually do something, think about what I’m taking in, rather than going along for the car chases and explosions. Books don’t have to justify their budgets, so they don’t have to have all the nifty special effects to pull you in. Movies are a visual medium, so they need that kind of thing to keep you going. Lots of people just sitting around talking doesn’t really get it unless they’re wailing on one another.

And let’s face it: books make for far better entertainment. And maybe that’s partly our fault. Yes, I realize they’re two different mediums, but movies could still be better if we the consumers demanded it the way we do with books. Some bad apples will still get through in both arenas, but if we’d apply the critical thinking skills to movies as we do our books, we’d eventually get better movies.

Meanwhile, I feel better about my editing skills. I doubt I’ll ever reach a point where I think my word should be law as some editors seem to do, but at least I can feel confident in giving writers advice that I think is solid, and I hope they will too.


Living With Your Inner Editor

That title sounds kinda Zen, doesn’t it?

I don’t really mean it that way, though. This isn’t gonna be some Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of (insert name of favorite/most reviled self-help/New Age/religious book here). I’m not gonna ask for contributions to save pygmy orphans in Australia or anything. Remember: this blog is about observations and lessons learned in the writing life. In this case, I’m not sure how many “lessons” I’ll be able to impart or even guarantee that anything you read here will work for you. As always, consult your doctor before beginning this or any other program of its type.

As writers, we all live with our inner editor, that part of us that screams, “Use this word, not that!” at us. Or, “No, you idiot, it sounds better this way.” And the worst, “This story is stupid. Stop wasting your time on it.”

Mine likes that first criticism best. I go along, writing my little heart out, and he jumps up out of his chair and pontificates on the way I choose words. He goes on at great length, at times, most times, on the virtues of one word over another. The result of this is that, when I go back and edit, I can see sentences where I changed my mind on words or, his second favorite, phrases, partway through and didn’t get all the changes made on first draft. Well, you know, that’s okay. That’s what edits are for, right?

You can imagine my relief when, during a critique of her YA novel (which I believe is titled something like The Doc is in, Take 2, but that might be a working title), I caught instances of my daughter doing the same thing. I had to laugh. It was easy to recognize what had happened, and I could even see, or at least guess, what the original sentence was before she edited herself midstream. And, of course, I was laughing with her, not at her.

Speaking of my daughter, the way her inner editor manifests most visibly is in that last statement I made above: “This story is stupid. Stop wasting your time on it.” I’m not trying to embarrass her or force her to do anything she doesn’t want to, but I know she has one story in particular, called All the Same, that she says will never see the light of day. Now, while I’ll agree it’s probably not up to par with her YA novel, it’s still good.

Maybe she looks at it the way I look at some of my early novels, too. I have two and a half fantasy novels about a bounty hunter that I view as learning experiences. They gave me the confidence to know I can not just start a novel, but finish it as well. But, at roughly 60,000 words each, they’re short, especially for fantasies, and while the stories are okay, I doubt very seriously I’ll ever try to publish them. They’d need extensive rewriting, and I’m not sure if I’d be up to it now.

My inner editor also argues with some things, and I can’t say I always disagree with him.

When it comes to critiques, learning to deal with them (I’ve written about it elsewhere) isn’t always easy. You have to learn to take the criticism in the spirit it’s offered and not take offense. It’s not easy, and not everyone can do it. You put your heart and soul into this story, after all, and here’s all these people nitpicking it to shreds, or so it seems. One of the ways I’ve learned to deal with it is by using the democratic method: if more than one person thinks it’s a problem, then I’d probably better do something about it. Then there are those whose opinion I trust almost implicitly, and I’ll make their recommended changes pretty much without question.

But as picky as my inner editor can be about individual words, there are some even he thinks should remain, or at least doesn’t quite understand the need to eliminate them from our writing vocabulary.

One of these is the word now. The argument, these days, against using this word is that you’re writing in past tense and there’s no place for it in past tense. Outside dialogue, of course. Most rules are off when it comes to dialogue.

Let me give you an example (it’s off the top of my head, so bear with me here): He’d never had to consider it that way, but now he did.

Obviously, that sentence is written in past tense. It’s the tense most novels use, even though there’s a fad going on right now where a lot of them are in present tense. But that’s a whole ’nother subject for a whole ’nother day. Doesn’t matter what our character is considering. Like I said, I made it up off the top of my head, rather than searching through mine or someone else’s work for an example.

But here’s the thing: in my mind, that sentence is relative. No, I’m not getting into the Theory of Relativity here. What I’m saying is, if I’m supposed to be writing so deep into my character’s POV that I eliminate phrases like “He thought” and “He saw,” then why is the word now off-limits? Because, if I’m in his POV, he’s thinking that he now has to consider this new possibility, where he hasn’t before. To me, it’s a line of delineation, a way of differentiating between the story’s present and its past.

Despite being a writer, I’m not all that hip to the parts of a sentence or any of the other things you learn in high school English (assuming you manage to stay awake, that is). I’ve learned a lot of my writing through osmosis, as it were. I know when something sounds right, and I know when to make it sound wrong to get your attention. I don’t mean that arrogantly, and I ain’t sayin’ I do it right all the time. Me know me messes up. Or, as W said in one of the debates he had with Al Bore—er, Gore (I always get that wrong, for some reason), “I’ve been known to mangle a syl-able or two.” I’m not sure how to write that so you get the way he deliberately mispronounced the word syllable. The point is, I can’t even remember the proper name for how we write, but I think it’s past perfect tense. I just call it past tense.

But, okay, we’re writing in past tense. For the character, though, it’s the present. That’s why I tend to think of this writing as being in the past present tense. Yes, technically, it’s past tense. But it’s the present for the characters and, in a way, for the reader. So, in my mind, that means it’s perfectly legitimate to make a statement like I did: He’d never had to consider it that way, but now he did.

Another one is suddenly. I’m not sure what the theory is here. The only real explanation I’ve ever heard is things don’t happen suddenly.


Excuse my American.

Anyone who’s had some idiot jump out of a closet at them knows damn well things can happen quite suddenly. And sometimes with embarrassing results. I think part of the argument here is that, by saying something happened suddenly, I’m being lazy. In other words, I should be more specific: it happened abruptly. Or unexpectedly. Something like that. But please oh please don’t try to tell me things don’t happen suddenly, ’cause they damn well do. I’ve had ’em happen to me.

Then there are those who go gerund hunting. Or, should I say, those who are going gerund hunting. They’re gerund exorcists. You’re supposed to get rid of every –ing word you possibly can. Well, more and more I understand keeping them to a minimum, but there is also what I think of as the poetic turning of a phrase. Not to mention my writing voice. In this case, I’ll use an example from my own writing:

Ed was waiting for me in the parking lot at County, leaned up against a black Dodge Charger with blacked-out windows.

Now, I will entertain arguments from you that I used the word black redundantly. I remember this sentence because it came up in a recent reading group meeting and because I’m still trying to decide the most effective way to reword those two occurrences of the word black. But those words aren’t the subject here, so let’s not worry about them right now.

This is the opening sentence for a chapter. It’s designed to be what I think is called in media res, which means I’m dropping you in the middle of the action, rather than leading up to it with some long, boring intro or loving description of the setting. It’s bam! and Ed’s waiting for Lyle.

In the original sentence, the word leaned was leaning. I changed it with great reluctance, and still might change it back. Why? Cuz it sounds frickin’ awkward the way it is, that’s why. I really, really dislike that he’s leaned up against the Charger. Makes it sound like he’s a leaf rake. In my mind, if something is leaned, that’s an action that was performed on it, hence the leaf rake analogy: He leaned the leaf rake against the wall. To me, that means he leaned it there, then walked off and left it till he needs it again. It’s an action performed against an inanimate object.

Ed ain’t inanimate. He’s a police detective, and he’s by-God leaning up against that damned car. He put himself there. No one left him there and walked off until they needed him again.

Man, we can’t kill all our gerunds. What’ll happened to the ecosystem if we do?

I have a theory about these examples (and others that are like them): somebody, somewhere, went to a writing conference. Some editor/agent no one’s ever heard of, outside of the conference organizers, perhaps, gets up and makes his little speech. And, along the way, he mentions that he doesn’t like to see gerunds. Or the word suddenly. Or states that there can’t be a now in past tense.

Suddenly, the attendees are thinking that this is now the industry standard. Next thing you know, they’re coming back to their writing group, telling everyone else that, suddenly, things like this are now off-limits. Don’t use ’em. They’ll put you on the black list, label you a communist, and you’ll never work in this city again.

Okay. So I’m exaggerating things a bit. And I realize they’re trying to help make me a better writer, that I can take everything they say and throw it out the window. I don’t do that, believe you me. I carefully consider everything I hear in my group. There are published writers there, after all. They’ve cut and pruned and refined and somebody somewhere liked their scribbling enough to put a contract in their face.

I should be so lucky.

It’s what we all want. But we have to listen, at times, to that inner editor. He’s the guy who knows our voice best. Yeah, there are times when you gotta tell him to get in, sit down, shut up and hang on, ’cause you’re driving this puppy.

But sometimes his BS meter goes off and you should listen. If you want that formal voice, get rid of now and suddenly and kill all your gerunds, leaving their bloody carcasses lying all over the place. But if you’re reaching for something less formal, more everyday—as I am—you gotta go with what feels right, baby.

Even if that means that, suddenly, you’re doing something right now.

You gotta live with your inner editor like you live with that noisy neighbor: sometimes you just gotta groove to the music he’s playing too loud, even if you don’t like Slayer or Metallica. Just live. Exist in the moment.

Kumbaya, my lord.



Summing Up

“Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” – Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride (it’s probably not word-perfect. Been awhile since I watched the movie).

I finally buckled down and wrote my synopsis today. I wouldn’t call it a pleasant experience, exactly, and I probably could have planned it out a little better. I have yWriter on my computer, so maybe what I should have done was go in and plot the novel out in it and use its synopsis utility. May still go back and do that. For those of you unaware of it, yWriter is a free software program you can download here that you can use to plot a novel. It has a scene utility, will lay out your story in storyboard form and you can even write your novel in it if you wish. If I remember correctly, it uses RTF as a text editor. I’m using it primarily for my space opera because I have six viewpoints I’m writing from, and they’re scattered across space and time (literally). yWriter helps me keep everything organized and the storyboard function is great for keeping the timeline straight. The synopsis function let’s you enter chapter summary information and will put it all in a synopsis of your choice when you finish putting everything in. Considering how many agents and publishers want a synopsis, this is excellent.

Anyway, at first I was trying to keep it as short as possible, but that wasn’t working out too well. I decided it’s easier to take out than put in, so I just skimmed through my ms and wrote the synopsis, keeping it as brief as I could. It’s not easy to reduce 100,000 words down to less than eight pages. I didn’t. Mine came out at just over 3,000 words and nine pages. I want to trim that up some, and I sent it to my daughter to get her opinion on it. She hasn’t had it long, though, so I doubt she’s had time to get to it yet. The hard one is going to be cutting it down to two pages. The article “Synopsis Workshop” (by Chuck Sambuchino and the Editors of Writer’s Digest) I have on writing a synopsis in my Writer’s Digest Guide called Get An Agent says the formula used to be one page of synopsis for every 35 of ms up to eight pages. But these days agents want it “now-now-now. Many agents today request synopses of no more than two pages.” They go on to say that some even want it to be only one page, but that two pages is usually okay.

So I still have some work to do on mine, but at least I finally knuckled down and did it. Editing is easier than writing it, and I doubt very seriously that I’ll ever come to enjoy this side of the writing business. I’m slowly coming to like editing my ms better, because I’m starting to enjoy the idea of tightening up my story and making it better. I feel a little sense of pride when I take an okay or good sentence and make it better, especially with this ms. I thought I had it in pretty good shape, but, as I believe I noted in my previous post, when I started looking at it again to see how the first 50 pages were, I realized it needed more work. And I’ve been able to tighten it up considerably. I think that, in just the first 60+ pages, I’ve deleted somewhere close to 1,000 words. By the time I’m through it may fall slightly short of 100,000 words, but that’s okay.

Now I just have to learn how to edit a synopsis. And write them better in the first place. Here goes nothing.