Monday, March 30, 2015

Revising Your Novel: What You (or your Editor) Should Look For

As a reviewer for Chick Lit Central and a reader/editor for a major New York literary agency, I read about 6-10 self-published or unpublished manuscripts a month (I just got another one as I sat typing this out). They all need work – even the ones written by current agency clients. That’s what I’m here for – to bring those manuscripts to a higher level. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than when my boss tells me k that a book I worked on sold, was released to great reviews, or was accepted by the publisher as part of a contract.

On the flip side, it’s frustrating to read a self-published novel (which may even have been written by an acquaintance) that thanks an editor on the acknowledgements page, but still has glaring errors in structure or story. Unlike many readers, I can forgive a few typos – to err is human, blah blah blah. And I know it’s not cheap to hire a freelance editor, and if you’re investing nearly a thousand dollars to make your manuscript shine, I really hope you’re getting your money’s worth. And if the plot points are confusing, the plot itself is routine, the characters are superficial or predictable, or there’s not a good balance between scene work and internal narrative, then the story doesn’t work. You wasted your money on an editor who might have a keen eye for typos, but can’t tell if a scene doesn’t forward story.

How can you tell whether the freelance editor you’re considering is the right person to take your book to the next level? There are no easy answers, because editing is very subjective. A story that doesn’t work for one agent or publisher might leap off the page for someone else. But in general, there are a few important factors to consider:

Does the editor have agent or publisher recommendations? Agents and editors read dozens of manuscripts a month, and they know what it takes to get a good story to the point where it’s sellable. If you’ve gotten a kind rejection from your dream agent, it wouldn’t hurt to write and ask if there’s a freelance editor that she or her clients have worked with. While it’s okay to get recommendations from other writers, sometimes they are not the best judges of an editor’s work. They might recommend an editor based on a personal relationship or chemistry, or how flattering the editor was about their book. Of course you want to work with a nice person who genuinely likes your story, but it’s not helpful if the editor isn’t knowledgeable enough to help you take it apart and put it back together.

Will the editor read the first several chapters for free and let you know exactly what the book needs? Many writers hire an editor at the point when they believe they are just a “polish and proofread” away. (There are many that advertise for beta readers at this point, too.) Truthfully, though, most manuscripts still need help with plot and plot points even when their writers think they are almost perfect. You want to hire the editor who is honest with you. An editor who returns your first several chapters with some comments about sentence structure or commas, without noting the way you’ve set up your story, is not going to be able to help you with the bigger issues.

Does the editor specialize in a few genres, or is she a “jill of all trades?” Not everyone can know all the tropes of all the types of stories out there. Hire someone who is well-versed in your genre, who can name several favorite authors in the genre and knows the players in it. Yes, some story rules are universal no matter what type of story you’re telling, but when it comes to writing, it’s the specifics that will trip you up.

Does your editor respond promptly to emails? Does he seem to have a realistic idea of how long the project will take? Does he offer a contract? All these questions point to the professionalism by which the editor approaches your work. You’re taking your novel seriously; you want an editor who takes his job seriously, too.

Finally, here’s a quick checklist for developmental editing that can be used by the writer to examine her own work. This is what an editor worth his salt will be looking at when evaluating the first few chapters:

What’s the story about? Does it encompass the most important event in the protagonist’s life? Is the plot dynamic? Does it feel contemporary? Is it a new twist on a tried-and-true conflict? Does it make me wonder “Why hasn’t anyone written this before?” Does the plot imply action or a lot of hand-wringing? Can I tell what the narrative question is?

What can I tell about the main character? Does personality shine through? Does she have a goal, or is there something specific she’s working toward? Is she someone readers will be able to identify with? Does she have a mix of likeable traits and flaws?

Does the first scene strongly set the stage for what’s to come? Do I know the main character, what’s at stake, genre and tone? Do I want to read more? Can I infer the setting, including time period?

What’s the narrative voice like? Does it match tone and genre? Is it natural? Does it disappear into the story and character, or does it stand out for the wrong reasons?

Does the dialogue work? Is it appropriate for the characters? Does it have subtext (not “on the nose”)? Does the writer leave out everyday expressions and observations that don’t forward plot or add character?

How do the scenes work? Are they a good balance of thoughts, dialogue, action and description? Does each scene forward plot and/or reveal character? Is it clear exactly what’s going on? Is there a nice mix of short and longer scenes? Does the pace fit the genre and story?

Looking at the first few chapters gives the editor a strong sense of how much and what type of editing the novel will need. Of course, these chapters almost always tend to be the best in the book, and it’s possible an editor will find the book needs a lot more help as the novel progresses.

But note there’s nothing in here about word choice, grammar, spelling, or sentence structure. A poorly plotted novel without any spelling mistakes is still just a poorly plotted novel. Find an editor who concentrates on the questions above, and knows how to get a novel to that point.
For information about my editorial services, please check out my blog post here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

He Said, She Said

I’m a writer who wears other hats – book reviewer, mom, real estate agent, editor. Due to that last one, I’m pretty well versed on the “rules” about what makes good writing. I can discuss point of view or show versus tell and why it’s important that new writers listen to what the experts have to say.

But there’s one rule that’s constantly giving me fits, and now that I’m deep into yet another rewrite of my women’s fiction novel THE SEESAW EFFECT, I’m wrestling with it on a daily basis. And that rule concerns the so-called invisibility of dialogue tags.

I don’t argue with the injunction against adjectives. Thanks to those Tom Swiftlys, we know how silly certain sentences can read: “I’ve lost my wife,” Tom said ruthlessly. “This bouquet doesn’t have enough flowers,” Tom said lackadaisically. “I like boys,” Tom said gaily.

Even without the puns, “I don’t know,” she said stupidly, reads as redundant and slows the action. Moreover, we’re taught to expunge the verb/adverb combo and replace them with stronger verbs. “He walked slowly” becomes “He shuffled.” “She softly touched the baby’s cheek” becomes “She stroked the baby’s cheek.” (The one exception is “sarcastically.”)

But this rule does not apply in dialogue tags. Not only are writers discouraged from using “He said pleadingly,” we’re also not supposed to use “He pleaded.” Everything is supposed to be either “said” or “asked.” This is gospel. Even Stephen King quotes it.

And I hate it. Yes, I know the dialogue is supposed to speak for itself; that we are supposed to pick up tone and meaning from the words that come out of the speaker’s mouth. But that doesn’t always happen. There are myriad ways to say the same sentences, and sometimes you need to spell out exactly how it’s said. Furthermore, there are scenes where multiple characters are speaking, and each one needs a tag to keep the conversation straight. We’re taught not to use the same word over and over again, but in these scenes, that’s exactly what happens.

But, those are the rules, and I’m going to follow them. So if you read THE SEESAW EFFECT, and you’re distracted by so many “saids” and wondering whether my protagonist’s son was whiny or brave when he got kicked out of school, I am sorry.

She said apologetically.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Rewrite or Trash? What Harper Lee’s Story Tells Us

Ever since the sequel to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was announced, Harper Lee has been all over the news. The latest is that the state of Alabama is getting involved to make sure she’s not being exploited. Feelings about that particular state aside, the quality of the book seems to be one of the driving issues behind the investigation. The story goes that, rather than a traditional sequel, the manuscript is actually an earlier version of MOCKINGBIRD. Lee originally wrote the story about an adult Scout, with flashbacks to her childhood and her lawyer father. The publisher who read it found the story told in the flashbacks more interesting (I’m guessing) that present-day adult Scout’s dilemmas, and encouraged her to rewrite it with that focus. And a classic was born. This story fascinates me because as a reader/editor, it’s not too unusual to find a manuscript with this exact problem: a back story that’s more interesting that what’s going on in the protagonist’s present day life. A novel should tell the story of the biggest thing that ever happened to the protagonist. If that happened in the back story, then just like Harper Lee did, the writer should rework the story so those incidents in the past become present day.

But how does a writer know when a book is worth rewriting or if it should be tossed out all together? After all, we all hear stories about how certain famous writers threw out the first three novels they wrote. They were horrible, these writers say. They should never see the light of day.

I honestly have trouble believing that they were really THAT bad. It’s more likely the writer just got completely fed up with the story and abandoned it. It’s hard to fathom that someone whose voice attracted the traditional publishing world would create something so bad it couldn’t be salvaged.

Or maybe that’s just because I think most books that aren’t working can be rewritten. Plots can be reworked; characters further developed. The only thing a writer is really stuck with is her voice. Unfortunately, a flat, stilted narrative voice coupled with obvious dialogue is a sign that writing is perhaps not the creative outlet this particular person should pursue.

So unless you’ve been told by a couple of people that your writing seems forced or artificial, don’t toss that novel in the trash and start another one. Rework it. Make sure it’s about the most important thing that ever happened in your protagonist’s life, and go from there.

We aren’t all Harper Lee, but we can learn from her example.

And controversy aside, I’m dying to read the new book. What if the publisher was wrong, and Scout’s adult life is even juicier than her childhood dilemmas?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Unfinished Business

The good news: I got a request from an agent who’d read the first fifty pages of SEESAW EFFECT and asked for the complete manuscript. Even so, based on the not-so-great feedback from the seven who rejected it, and some pointed notes from an editor friend, I’ve gone back to the drawing board with this project.

It’s not a great feeling. I was emotionally done with SEESAW; over a hundred pages into my mystery, the ENCLAVE, and really enjoying that process. Returning to a project I’d thought I’d finished feels like defeat. And I find myself in a mental argument about certain changes. How much should I have to spell out? Should certain character motivations be obvious or do I need my protagonist to explain them? If you know why someone’s being a jerk, does that make their jerkiness less obnoxious? And am I the only reader on earth who finds snarky characters funny?

It’s common wisdom that in between drafts one and two, a writer should put their manuscript in a drawer for six months, so when she pulls it out again, it will be fresh and new and the mistakes glaring and obvious. But that’s never worked for me. It’s been almost six months since I started querying this project – I sent letters right after the election – but when I opened it again, it was like I had just finished it yesterday. I remembered every plot point, every scene, every line of dialogue. It’s my baby. Forgetting what I’d written would be like forgetting the way my son’s head smelled when he was a newborn.

I don’t know if I can fix it. To me, like my son, it’s perfect.

And what’s even more frustrating is that I’m constantly critiquing other people’s novels, and the problems are easily identifiable and the solutions obvious. Between the reviews I do for Chick Lit Central and the reports I write for the agency I read for, I read about eight books a month. Why can I diagnose other books’ issues but not my own?

I know many writers who enjoy the rewriting process – they find it less daunting than starting a brand new story and facing a blank page. For me, the rewrite is the worst part … tearing apart scenes I loved because they didn’t forward the plot; reworking a character because no one else found him funny.

But the bottom line is, the only difference between writers who make it and writers who didn’t is that the former didn’t give up. And declining to rewrite a story that doesn’t work is a type of giving up. And yes, I’ve seen those stories about writers who queried 200 agents and got 199 rejections before they found the one who finally realized how wonderful their book was. But those anecdotes never mentioned if the writer did any rewrites during that query period. I’m going to assume rewrites were done.

So, back to the drawing board with SEESAW EFFECT. A little older, a little wiser, and a little humbler. Wish me luck.