The Value of an Editor

One of my key alpha readers is author Shari Risoff who is also an internet buddy. Because of our friendship, and the writers’ need for ongoing encouragement, she gets the privilege and/or horror of seeing my tentative drafts. In one of my first scenes she picked up on something, highlighting a single word to draw it to my attention:

The meeting place had been chosen carefully: an abandoned rat-infested industrial area. There were a warren of access lanes but only one main road in and out, both ends now blocked by police.

I couldn’t see the problem; to me it was correct as far as I knew, but she noted that were is plural while warren is singular.

Definition of warren:

  1. network of interconnecting rabbit burrows.
  2. a densely populated or labyrinthine building or district.

Given that the first definition of warren refers to multiples itself, I still wasn’t entirely sure. So I asked friend, award winning poet, master wordsmith and quintessential nice-guy, Thom Sullivan. He not only confirmed the error Shari had spotted but also tinkered skilfully.

The meeting place had been carefully chosen: an abandoned rat-infested industrial area. It was a warren of access lanes with only one main road in and out – and both ends now blocked by police.

As he explained most graciously,

With “chosen carefully” the reader “sees” the action (the choosing) then has to impute back the quality of it being done with care. By reversing it, the adverb tells them in advance to “see” whatever action comes next as being done with care – so the reader sees the whole image immediately.

It was interesting for me, (a complete non-poet) to see how a poet is so exacting and  precise in word choice and placement. It definitely enhances the writing, but is something that would be near-impossible on a novel length piece of text.

The best I can hope for is to be mindful of these things in the future. I am most grateful to both Shari and Thom for their help.

When the Editor takes the Day Off

I have been reading Red Mars. That is to say, at just over half-way through I’m putting the novel into an airlock and releasing it into space.

Red Mars is a HARD science fiction novel so I knew going in that it was going to be a challenge as to whether or not I could enjoy it. Reading it was an experiment for me.

It did win a Nebula award, and has 45% 5-star amazon reviews. However, as pointed out by more than one reviewer, to say it is a tad wordy is to say a light year is a small distance. There were elements of the story that I did enjoy, but to find the small minerals of goodness there was just too much soil to chew through. I’d rather save myself days of reading and find some plot spoilers online.

It is a great example of what happens when the editor seemingly takes the day off. Take this paragraph:

“Now she could wander in the dim ruby light of sunset, her old jazz collection piped from the habitat stereo into her helmet headphones, as she rooted in supply boxes and picked out any tool she wanted. She would carry them back to a small room she had commandeered in one of the storage warehouses, whistling along with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, adding to a collection that included, among other items, an Allen wrench set, some pliers, a power drill, several clamps, some hacksaws, an impact-wrench set, a brace of cold-tolerant bungie cords, assorted files and rasps and planes, a crescent-wrench set, a crimper, five hammers, some hemostats, three hydraulic jacks, a bellows, several sets of screwdrivers, drills and bits, a portable compressed gas cylinder, a box of plastic explosives and shape charges, a tape measure, a giant Swiss Army knife, tin snips, tongs, tweezers, three vises, a wire stripper, X-acto knives, a pick, a bunch of mallets, a nut driver set, hose clamps, a set of end mills, a set of jeweler’s screwdrivers, a magnifying glass, all kinds of tape, a plumber’s bob and ream, a sewing kit, scissors, sieves, a lathe, levels of all sizes, long-nosed pliers, vise-grip pliers, a tap-and-die set, three shovels, a compressor, a generator, a welding-and-cut set, a wheelbarrow–and so on.”

How this got past the editor(s) I will never understand. (Perhaps they too, just skipped the paragraph like every other reader?)

Technique: Submitting to an Editor

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 12 and 13. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Amateur Mistakes

  • Fail to read and follow the submission guidelines.
  • Submit to an editor/agent that handles a different genre (including sub-genres)
  • Say ‘my family loves it’. They are not objective; their opinion does not count when it comes to your writing.
  • Use fancy paper, perfume the page, use fancy or coloured fonts.
  • Flip pages to try and determine where an editor ‘read to’.
  • Start your cover letter with a rhetorical question.
  • Send an author photo or do your own cover art.
  • Call an editor/agent if you don’t have a previous relationship with them asking about your manuscript. They get so many they probably don’t have a clue offhand. After a few months send a polite email.
  • Complain if your manuscript is rejected.

Stand out as little as possible in everything but your story.Let the text speak for itself.

  • Write epic tomes for your first book. (A new fantasy author should be writing about 100k-120k words).

Professional Behaviour

  • Be very careful of simultaneous submissions; if they don’t explicitly say you can, assume you can’t. Note this is sending the entire manuscript; sending sample chapters is OK.
  • Always be polite.
  • Keep a record of what you’ve already submitted to whom, when and any feedback they provide.
  • Send a thank you note when you get rejected.
  • Research: know which editors work with which genres/books. Pay attention to what is happening in the industry (e.g. Publishers Lunch). Know who has just moved jobs or might be on the look out for new talent. Find out what interests them. Listen to their panels, blogs etc.

You must know the rules before you’re allowed to break them.

  • Remember that editors are overworked and underpaid, and they do it out of love. Be nice!

Final Advice

An author’s voice for a character is really important. A good voice evokes the character and the setting. An editor can help fix the plot, they can’t teach voice. Focus on creating that voice and write characters.