one of your goals for the New Year is seeing your name on a book cover, you have plenty of company. According to NaNoWriMo’s website, the final word count for November’s National Novel Writing Month was over three billion. How do you make your work stand out from the crowd? WOW! readers have an edge this month, as two experienced editors—Kelly Lynne from Book Editing Associates and Annette Rogers from Poisoned Pen Press—teach you how to carve out a finer manuscript by sharpening your editing skills.
A former zookeeper turned author and freelance editor, Kelly Lynne-Schaub has published over one hundred nonfiction articles, two short stories, and a novel (as Kelly McCrady). Focusing on developmental fiction editing as well as stylistic edits needed to bring a writer’s vision to the attention of agents and publishers is what Kelly does best; she has shepherded more than fifty novels and short stories to publication. Kelly is a member of Willamette Writers and the Editorial Freelancers Association.
Annette Rogers became addicted to reading during dark childhood winters in Juneau, Alaska, when she read the city library from one side to the other. Now she edits Poisoned Pen Press mysteries, corresponds with writers and agents, and evaluates new mystery submissions. Recent successes include Dennis Palumbo’s Night Terrors; Tammy Kaehler’s Braking Points; Reavis Z. Wortham’s Right Side of Wrong; Tina Whittle’s Blood, Ash, and Bone; Jeffrey Siger’s Target: Tinos;
Clea Simon’s Parrots Prove Deadly; Mitchell Scott Lewis’s Murder in the 11TH House; and Bernadette Pajer’s Capacity for Murder. Annette’s soft-coated wheaten terrier, Doctor Watson, is an energetic, if not always helpful, sidekick. Annette has published a bestselling history/travel book on Egypt that was translated into six languages, written for O, The Oprah Magazine, and reported for Time/Life on court hearings covering the Mormon Bomber case. She holds a master’s degree in history and English.
1.Annette, Kelly, thank you for joining us at WOW! Women on Writing. First, tell us a little about what you do: describe a “day at the office.”
Kelly: As a freelance editor, I work from home. I turn on the computer at 8:30 am and have until 3:00 pm to work mostly uninterrupted. I schedule three to four hours of the day for doing the edits and the rest of the time fielding e-mail and phone calls and other non-editing tasks.
During the editing time, what I am looking for varies from project to project; but most of my time is spent polishing phrasing, finding and/or fixing head hopping, analyzing character growth or missing reactions, spotting plot holes, and timeline goofs.
Annette: We like to say “Discover Mystery,” because Poisoned Pen Press is a small niche publisher devoted to a range of fiction styles, including cozy, historical, contemporary, suspense, and a few hard-hitting noir.
Barbara Peters is our editor in chief, and I’m the editor. My windowed desk displays the computer, printer, a Chinese lamp, a hunk of rose quartz, two wire baskets stacked with manuscripts, scattered notes, and an ergonomic chair. When I’m reading manuscripts at home, I stretch out on a sofa or lounge in a scalloped chair with feet on the coffee table or sit at the Coffee Bean to enjoy the sounds of community. I write long responses to writers and mark up manuscripts with a purple pen—we scan them to keep a copy for us and mail the original to the writer for revisions.
I put my main efforts into editing full manuscripts for publication. Barbara and I often read and give comments to the writer several times before the manuscripts are finished. I think the editing process is the most fun in writing. It’s interactive. We emphasize voice, character, setting, plot, dialogue, pace, and imagination.
For acquisitions, we now accept submissions from new writers—who don’t need agents—through our website system, Submittable.
2.Speaking of submissions, every writer wants to know how to hook an editor on the first page. What’s the secret?
Kelly: Write fresh words that express a gotta-read story with a compelling voice. Yeah, that’s easy for the editor to say. Remember that we see hundreds of manuscripts; the good ones are easy to spot. One trick writers can use to mimic this experience is to join a large, online critique group and start viewing large numbers of opening chapters. You will spot the mistakes other newbie writers are making and also spot the gems that make you sit up and say, “Hello!”
Annette: The first line, the first sentence, the first paragraph. Make me turn the page saying, “What happens next?” Grab my attention by starting in the middle of an action sequence or have a character blurt out a unique exclamation.
Tell me a story I haven’t read before. Be original. Remember that conflict drives a book.
This is not a time for reciting backstory or setting the scene or launching into detailed descriptions of many people or explaining a dream or a legend. Yawn. Jump right into it. Make me care about someone—even one small physical characteristic or a sentence he/she speaks can do it—and kill them quickly. Murder, death, blood—the implications and consequences and gravity and terrible finality of that act bring danger, fear, curiosity, and sorrow. Lead with those emotions.
“If you don’t follow the norms of a genre, it won’t be accepted.” ~ Kelly Lynne
3.Great advice. Annette, you specialize in mystery; Kelly, you love romance and fantasy. How does an author writing in a particular genre stay true to the genre, while offering something fresh?
Kelly: First, you must read your target genre. Read as much as your head can hold, and make sure you’re reading the newest releases. Georgette Heyer and Tolkien are not the current style, yet their books were influential to many writers just now putting their manuscripts out there—and they’re being rejected because the passive style stuffed with descriptions of landscape is not what the current publishers and readers want.
Understand the basic building blocks of your chosen genre. Unpublished writers turn their noses up at the idea of writing to a “formula”; yet that is a requirement to be that genre—romance needs to have emotional conflict holding the lovers apart through the full manuscript. Fantasy needs a magical or non-Earth element and often relies on the “Hero’s Journey,” outlined masterfully by Joseph Campbell—a fiction formula that goes back to the earliest tales told between humans. Outside of those threads, the possibilities are endless for story. But if you don’t follow the norms of a genre, it won’t be accepted.
Annette: First, know your genre, its expectations, rules, and rewards. Mystery readers like not only the puzzle, but often the psychological interactions of the people. These don’t have to be as deep as those portrayed by Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector, but the quirks have to be convincing and captivating.
Next, give clues, several suspects, and red herrings that confuse readers. Realities in disguise. Scatter those details amidst unrelated actions or contrive to implicate the wrong person. Good guys, like FBI or retiring cops or the woman baking cookies for church, make fine bad guys. The more twists the better.
Something significant has to be at stake—money, sex, revenge, panic, jealousy, fate, etc. Strong motives generate the appalling death. When an amateur investigator, like a reporter, an antique dealer, or a doctor investigates and challenges the killer, this non-professional also needs powerful motivation—not that his fraternity pal was killed or that her neighbor disappeared with the rent money or that a coworker got shot through the office window. Amateurs risk life and limb, plus irritate the cops, to hunt a killer. The reader must believe those commitments.
Then you can bend those genre expectations into a different form. Suspicions of outsiders in a small, southern town morph into recognition of vampires, werewolves, and fairies in the world of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse. A waitress is bombarded by the thoughts of normal people that she constantly hears in her head. Naturally, she risks death in hand-to-hand combat to save the extended life of her vampire boyfriend—because she loves the fact that she can’t hear him thinking. It’s peaceful around him—if you can ignore his drinking blood and all.
Or take Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter, a macabre and bloody avenger who kills bad guys. Readers cheer for “America’s Most Beloved Serial Killer” to succeed, to evade discovery, because he dispenses justice when no one else can. That bends the genre.
4.What are some of the most common mistakes you see in a manuscript?
Kelly: Overuse of certain words like “that” or “it” or “just.” Phrasing passively and distancing the reader from the POV character. The verb “to be” is not evil, exactly, but it is weak. Beginning sentences “It was” and following this with a “that” is a giant pet peeve of mine—also “There was/were.”
Example: It was then that she noticed the front hall carpet had a stain.
Better: A stain on the front hall carpet caught her attention.
Head hopping = lazy writing. Make a decision whom in a scene has the most at stake emotionally and couch the full scene from that character alone. Really. We don’t need every thought and emotion from everyone present all at once from inside their own heads. In real life, we gather this information using nonverbal cues such as body language, facial expression, and vocal tone. Writers can use this, too, to inform their chosen POV character.
Annette: Starting the first pages too slowly. Using tired or old-fashioned story clichés. Dropping the pace after twenty pages. Writing dialogue that can’t distinguish one character from another. Relying on plain, boring sentences with no style, metaphor, or verve. Failing to properly edit the manuscript for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.
“Good writers recognize and develop a personal voice, which doesn’t ‘just happen.’” ~ Annette Rogers
5.Can writing be edited too much? How can authors polish their work while preserving their voice?
Kelly: Forget everyone else who might read it and talk to yourself. Tell the story to your “ideal audience,” and your natural voice will become clear. Writers often try too hard to capture voice; where if they could hear themselves tell a funny family anecdote, they would hear the voice they want loud and clear.
Critique groups can be a wonderful tool to learn craft, yet they are also often responsible for the “watering down” of voice when a writer, unsure of his or her own voice, adapts suggestions made in someone else’s voice and incorporates them into the work. I had that happen to my own writing when I was starting out. Putting the work aside for a time (a week up to several months), then re-reading it aloud will help writers spot where someone else’s voice creeps in—it won’t sound natural.
Annette: Good writers recognize and develop a personal voice, which doesn’t “just happen.” It rarely emerges full-bodied in a first draft. It takes skill to create pages that will not be confused with another writer. Voice is individual, distinct. Therefore writers need to focus on voice, speech patterns, and vocabulary. Read pages out loud to see that they flow, that they don’t sound stiff or dull or clumsy. Listen. And hone your language.
Michael Connelly shows calm control and visual acuity in The Black Box. His voice is smooth and encompassing during a violent L.A. riot and early murder scene. One of our writers, Reavis Z. Wortham of The Rock Hole and Burrows, has the voice of a storyteller from Texas, mixing wisdom, humor, graphic tragedy, and down-home narrative.
If by “polish” you mean grinding down all the verbs, nouns, adjectives, and complete sentences to be even-handed, matched, and pared into nonentities that fit the requirements of a Cotillion ball, then that act does damage. Finishing a story is like following a fine cake recipe—be balanced, avoid adding ingredients, over-stirring, upping the temperature, glopping on too much frosting, or slicing it into crumbs. Be conversational, not formal. Take words out; don’t add them. Simplify. Speak your dialogue aloud. Maintain your point of view. Use metaphors.
6.What’s the one book every aspiring author should have on her bookshelf, and why?
Kelly: One book I find indispensable is the Flip Dictionary compiled by Barbara Ann Kipfer, PhD. Love this book. It’s like a thesaurus but better—more approachable and practical. On the cover, it has this phrase, “For when you know what you want to say but can’t think of the word.” This book helps score unique verbs; so when you’re tired of having your characters smile, frown, stomp, and repeat, you can find fresh modes of expression.
Annette: Obviously Shakespeare’s plays for character inspiration and brilliant use of language. I keep books I love and reread them happily for pleasure and comfort when I’m stuck.
For writing, I use Walter Mosley’s This Year You Write Your Novel, Stephen King’s On Writing, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, J. C. Cooper’s An illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible, and a moveable feast of others.
7.I attended a writer’s conference last year, where I was surprised to learn that there are four different types of editing: developmental, stylistic, copy editing, and proofreading. The speaker strongly encouraged authors to put their manuscripts through all four editing processes before submitting to agents or publishers. Do you agree that this is necessary?
Kelly: Yes. All steps are necessary. In my opinion, proofreading is the least important in fiction, yet it’s the one readers are the most proud of pointing out because spelling errors are the most pedestrian mistake in manuscripts. Readers will hate a book for errors that could have been corrected in earlier stages, but they won’t know why. This is what separates the professional writer and editor from average readers.
First, write the first draft. Accept that it will be crappy, but that it has a beginning, middle, and end. Celebrate this!
Developmental edits: go over it to find the emerging theme and incorporate tidbits of this throughout the story to reinforce the theme you’ve found. Look for holes in any character arcs or plotlines and plug them. Decide if you need forty-eleven secondary characters or if some jobs can be combined. Look for and remove timeline errors, info dumping, and head hopping.
Stylistic edits: scrub it as clean as you can of junk words, repetitive phrasing, missing reactions, bad or unneeded tags, buried power concepts, and words inside paragraphs that would do better at the end of a line.
Copy edits: adhere to Chicago Manual of Style for punctuation, verb tense, word usage, writing out numbers vs. using numerals, what to italicize, etc.
Proofreading: last, last, last step after all revisions are finished. Look for typos. The author really is the worst person for this step; the human brain has a funny way of filling in what you think should be there, not what your eyes see. Best to hire someone else to do this step—someone with a fresh eye who understands correct comma placement and spelling. And no, English teachers are not necessarily the answer.
Annette: Each stage works with a different part of the writer’s brain. Imagination, creativity, imagery, and structure all play in the first two. These artistic areas need the writer to cultivate both solitude and conversation. Copy editing is a craft, an executive skill that should perfect pages before you submit. Proofreading is a final backstop to see that no mistakes creep in.
If a ballerina slips and falls on her tutu a couple of times during performance, she disappoints the audience with her lack of professional precision. Successful writers display dedication and discipline in language and its presentation.
“Just because humans talk doesn’t mean we can write good books quickly, any more than learning to walk qualifies one to quickly star in Swan Lake.” ~ Annette Rogers
8.As a writer, I was stunted for years by the belief that my first draft had to be perfect. Once I gave myself permission to write terrible first drafts, I was able to get past page one. You are both published authors as well as editors: does your editing process begin after the first draft? Or is it difficult to silence your inner editor?
Kelly: My inner editor is a horrible busybody. She won’t let me write passive sentences even to get through a scene. She mocks me when I type “was.” Constant badgering about: “Where is this scene going? What does this show us about these characters? Did you forget what your plot is, woman?” She won’t shut up. As a result, I have not finished a manuscript by myself since 2008.
But this is about to change. I’m on the final scene of a short story (under 7,000-words) that I originally intended to finish by Memorial Day this past May . . . I know!
Another issue is laziness. I edit all frippin’ day and sometimes on weekends. I am constantly reading a computer screen. When I reach my page count for the day, I’m tired of staring at the screen. Energy left for writing, when the family wants my attention or I have TV in front of me—meh. I have learned that the only way to write first drafts is with a spiral notebook and pen. I have less ability to redact words, revise, rewrite, go over and over—instead I plunge ahead and can make progress.
Annette: Silencing the inner editor is tough. First and second drafts are by definition spotty at best and awful more often, and the inner critic yammers. Ignore that.
Just because humans talk doesn’t mean we can write good books quickly, any more than learning to walk qualifies one to quickly star in Swan Lake. It takes thousands of pages to produce a consistently excellent writer.
It’s best not to edit until you’re at least through for the day—then scan back if you must. Otherwise, push on through days or months till you’ve finished the book. Creative writing, the process I call living in “writer’s world,” puts me into a totally different state, where I’m not aware of time or food or anything but the words and scenes pouring out onto the page. I love that space. Editing is executive—making decisions, comparing, researching, analyzing. That’s all second stage effort. Put writer’s world first and learn to work there—hours at a time.
9.How important is it for a writer to put a manuscript away between revisions? How does a writer know when it’s time to stop revising and submit?
Kelly: Putting it aside for a minimum of a week is not too much to ask. The more emotional distance you have from the words, the easier they are to fix. If during a later revision you are suddenly inspired to add a new character and that character’s scenes are more exciting to you than the old ones you’ve gone over and over—it’s time to stop that book and start a different one. Your heart has moved on. Many authors answer that their favorite book is the one they are currently writing—and this is true. Many authors also grow to hate the book being published as it goes through formal editing because by then they’re so tired of looking at it! LOL.
Annette: Every writer I know still wants to tinker with their work, even after it’s published. Sometimes a deadline demands, “Okay, push SEND now.” Other times, you and your editor agree to run through one more revision. Some days, you feel it’s finally there, or it will never make it. Keep going.
When you think you’re finished, stick the manuscript in a drawer for at least a week, better a month, before you pick it up and read it again. You’ll see things you never saw: glaring holes you missed fixing, powerful relationships you can develop, even new scenes and characters that will light up a certain section. Skip this wait time, and you lose a crucial opportunity to improve your chance for publication.
“The more emotional distance you have from the words, the easier they are to fix.” ~ Kelly Lynne
10.Writers and editors lock horns sometimes; it’s not always easy to give or receive criticism or rejection. But we all have one thing in common and that is an indisputable love for the written word. What are you reading now?
Kelly: I just started two books by myself (one fiction and one nonfiction) and another I’m reading aloud to my daughter. Starlight by Carrie Lofty, An Ocean of Air by Gabrielle Walker, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.
Annette: I am an addicted, constant reader, including Tana French, C. J. Sansom, David Hewson, Daniel Silva, Eliot Pattison, Walter Mosley, Jo Nesbo, Barry Eisler, Alison Bruce, Michael Connelly, Steig Larsson, Alan Bradley, Qiu Xiaolong, T. Jefferson Parker, Martha Grimes, Martin Cruz Smith, Carolyn Wall, Ian Rankin, and Michael Gruber’s Tropic of Night.
Finally, do you have any last words of advice for writers dreaming of seeing their books in print?
Kelly: Learn all you can about the business end of publishing. Understand how the money moves—or doesn’t move—through the current system and how the publishing industry is changing. Decide what your goal is in becoming published—is it to see your name on a book cover or to earn millions and retire early with one trilogy? Research the best route to that goal by studying what others have done before you. Then realize that “bestseller” is a crapshoot, and there is no surefire formula to get there.
The best course is a steady one—putting story after story after book after book in your backlist. Royalties are cumulative, and so are readers.
Annette: Keep writing. All the time. Maintain your momentum, join a writer’s group, take a scriptwriting seminar, read constantly, and keep writing.
Elizabeth Maria Naranjo is a writer in Tempe, Arizona. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in Literary Mama, SLAB Literary Magazine, Hospital Drive, The Arizona Republic, and Phoenix New Times. Her website is www.elizabethmarianaranjo.com.
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