Category Archives: editing

2

Comma sense

Many of you may have seen this last week, when it was all over social media:

 
Rachel Ray

 

I think I’ll stay away from Rachel’s meat loaf.

Call it the tyranny of the comma if you like, but that tiny punctuation mark exists for a very good reason, as demonstrated here.  Even among fine writers, it has become neglected of late, and that is a shame, because it clearly carries great power. Lynne Truss’s EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES is an entire book dedicated to the science of punctuation, and to the demons it can unleash when improperly used.

I recently read a Middle Grade manuscript that was truly impressive—good writing, a terrific plot, suspenseful storytelling. The trouble was, it took me twice as long to read as it should have, because the author had no conception of how to use commas. That meant that I had to go back and read nearly every sentence twice in order to grasp  its correct meaning. As an agent, I cannot present a manuscript to an acquiring editor if it’s in that state. I did take the author on as a client, because the book was superb–but I had to insist that the manuscript be professionally proofread and line-edited first, with an eye specifically on punctuation.

If you know or suspect that you’ve got problems with punctuation, have the final version of your manuscript thoroughly proofread and corrected before you show it to any industry professional. Some of us may give up after only a page or two when a manuscript is riddled with this problem. We may even give up after reading just the query letter. I have to be a real schoolmarm about this issue, because commas are as important to a strong sentence as words are. They are the pins that keep it firmly anchored on the clothesline. You don’t want it slipping off and falling into the mud. 

0

The acceptability clause

There are many clauses in publishing contracts that can be confusing to a first time author and that need clarification.  Most of these can be negotiated by the agent (on the author’s behalf) and the publisher.

The one clause, though, that can be truly disturbing is the “acceptability clause” because it states  that the sole decision as to whether a manuscript is acceptable or not is the publisher’s.

Usually we are able to get an addition to the clause that says that if the publisher finds the manuscript unacceptable, it must provide the reasons in writing and give the author the opportunity to make the requested changes.

Most of the time (I estimate over 95%), the publisher and the author work out their differences and the book is published. There are occasions, however, when publishers arbitrarily decide, for whatever reason, that they no longer want to publish the book they have contracted for and they reject the delivered manuscript and demand that the author return the advance already received.  In that case, if the author refuses to return the money, the publisher will not release the author from his or her contract, thus preventing a future sale of that project.

Sadly when this happens, the only recourse an author has is to seek legal counsel, which is expensive and which does not  guarantee that the author will win.  Still, the publisher generally doesn’t want the bad PR a lawsuit would bring and so an author taking this route—in an extreme situation—might, in fact, either get his or her rights back or the publisher might decide to publish the book after all.

The bottom line here is that the acceptability clause is an important one and should be taken very seriously by everyone.  Authors are required to deliver their manuscripts on a certain date.  If an extension on the delivery date is necessary, authors should notify the publisher that they will be late, why they will be late and, on occasion, show progress on the work they are doing. Extensions are usually granted unless there is a timeliness factor due to the subject matter of the book.

Looking around for a comprehensive  piece on the acceptability clause, I found this from my agent colleague Richard Curtis’ blog.  It covers the subject very well and it’s worth reading, especially by first time authors.

Writing strong characters

Many years ago, I was working with my very talented client, A.J. Hartley, and he sent me pages for a new thriller with a female protagonist, the first female protagonist he’d ever attempted. I read the opening section and tried to be diplomatic in my feedback, but I basically told him that the lead character was not likeable or sympathetic enough and that she came across as very defensive. He took the criticism graciously, went back to the drawing board, and delivered a revision that nailed the character so well that when the book was later published, Publisher’s Weekly had this to say about her: “Hartley has created an enduring heroine in Deborah, who’s courageous, loyal and smart enough to learn from her mistakes.” He has since gone on to write many wonderful books with both male and female protagonists, but that first one paved the way. See first edition cover image below.

I recently came upon a piece on Tor.com’s blog about strong female characters that I wanted to share. The author, a writer named Ilana C. Myer, brings up an important point about writing characters in general, regardless of gender. What is most important is that they have empathy. Focus less on whether they are a man or a woman and more on the character’s feelings, their pasts, their sense of humor and a fully realized character will emerge.

What are your tips for writing strong characters? Any pitfalls you try to avoid? The stereotypes are easier to fall back on, but when you get past that and create really memorable, enduring protagonists, gender can be the least important factor of all.

4

Tips from writers, for writers

Stephen King’s  short story, “A Death,” was this week’s fiction in the New Yorker, so naturally I started thinking about how I still have to get around to reading 11/22/63 and ON WRITING. Then I started thinking about how a lot of writers seem to enjoy giving advice about writing. But is any of it any good? The answer is yes: Yes, writing tips from established writers can be very, very good.

Here’s some of the best advice I’ve come across:

99% of great writers will tell you that their first drafts are rambling, incoherent pieces of s!@*. The other 1% are lying. (Full disclosure: I haven’t finished crunching all the numbers yet, so I’m ballparking here.) Editing and rewriting are such vital components to crafting a story, but first you need to put your ideas down on paper. You can’t shape what’s not there. If you haven’t read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, do so. Now. It will revolutionize your writing process.

John McPhee’s “The Writing Life” column in the New Yorker is a goldmine of wisdom. His tips on how to develop the structure of a story are particularly helpful. Few writers place such importance on structure as McPhee. Few writers have also had as prolific a career.

You ever hear of this guy Ernest Hemingway? I hear he’s good. He was also a proponent of simple, direct prose. Cut out all ornamentation. If a word isn’t necessary, lose it. He also said that writers should never describe an emotion—they should present the situation/action in a way that evokes the emotion in readers. This is  difficult to perfect, but it’s something all writers should strive to do.

What are your favorite tips from writers? Let us know in the comments.

0

Look it up!

Remember that corny cliché about every book ever written being found within the pages of a dictionary?  I’ve always gotten such a kick out of that because I love dictionaries.  I love the tiny print,  the sometimes incomprehensible pronunciation guide for each word, the prefatory material that tells you how to use the book, the illustrations that accompany some of the entries (why is Sally Ride pictured but not Richelieu?), the fact that you go in to look something up for an editorial memo you’re crafting only to get distracted by a bunch of beguiling words (xylem, yurt) that you will be desperate to use in your next heated match of Words With Friends.Dictionary

As with other books, I love old print dictionaries—at last count I  had about a dozen at home, elegantly bound ones and dog-eared paperbacks; Spanish, Russian, French and German as well as English—but I also adore the convenience of my Dictionary.com app.  How excellent to have the ability to look up a word whenever and wherever you hear it, thereby appearing to be more   sesquipedalian than you really are (see what I did there?).

This ease of access, unfortunately, has made me more intolerant of authors who routinely use the wrong word in their work and other communications.  I mean, how hard is it to look it up if you’re not 100% sure whether you loath something  or loathe it?  (BTW, I always have to look those two up myself.)

The democratization of the dictionary in this age of supreme access is a great thing, in my opinion.  But, that means that there’s no excuse for lazy usage, at least not in your writing.  Just look it up, people!

0

The role of the editor

This afternoon, a group of us were sitting around our offices discussing how the editor’s role continues to change as our business evolves, and I thought I would share with you some of our thoughts.

Years ago, the primary role of the editor was to work with the author to make the book better in anticipation of its publication.  Well known examples from the past include: Maxwell Perkins, Bob Gottlieb, Ellis Amburn, Jack Shoemaker, Judith Jones and many, many more. These editors literally spent night and day with their authors until they had a polished, publishable manuscript.

Over the years, however, as publishing became more of a “bottom line” business, these editors started disappearing and those who were left had the primary responsibility of acquiring manuscripts.  The actual editing, if it was done at all, was farmed out to freelancers, a number of whom were solid, working editors who had been let go  by major publishers in waves of acquisition and downsizing.

Today, there seems to be a new breed of editor—the person who acts as both editor and publisher and oftentimes has a publishing imprint with his or her name on it.  These people are responsible for everything—the book acquisition, the editing, the marketing and publicity, etc.   In fact, the only thing they aren’t responsible for themselves is probably selling the books into the accounts.  They are, however, responsible for the bottom line of their imprint, much as a publisher is.  Examples of these editors include Sarah Crichton (Farrar, Straus &  Giroux), Margaret McElderry (Simon & Schuster) and Amy Einhorn (Flatiron/Macmillan).

We are all curious about what the next editor evolution will be.  I would love to know what you think about all this and what your experience with editors has been.

4

Crisp.

Last week I read a great suggestion from the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt: “Be crisp in your delivery.” Keeping this in mind, I’m getting to the point at the beginning of every email and controlling my tendency to over-explain the background.

The whole article, 9 Rules for Emailing from Google Exec Eric Schmidt, is very clear and useful, but Rule No. 2 is the one that’s really stuck with me. (And wouldn’t you know, it’s the one that quotes a writer!)

crisp2. When writing an email, every word matters, and useless prose doesn’t. Be crisp in your delivery. If you are describing a problem, define it clearly. Doing this well requires more time, not less. You have to write a draft then go through it and eliminate any words that aren’t necessary. Think about the late novelist Elmore Leonard’s response to a question about his success as a writer: “I leave out the parts that people skip.” Most emails are full of stuff that people can skip. 

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve consciously thought about frontloading my emails with the important point. Rather than a four-sentence lead-in, I’m being intentional about diving right in to the question I need answered or the solution I’m proposing.

And this tip is not just for emails! Similar to Leonard’s advice, Strunk & White famously suggested, “omit needless words.” Are you cluttering your prose with adverbs instead of strengthening your verbs? Are you bogging down your plot by overdescribing routines such as getting dressed or making dinner?

But the world needs Hemingways and Fitzgeraldsbooks aren’t simply information delivery systems. A memorable story has atmosphere and context, as well as plot; an effective essay illuminates extraordinary dimensions in something ordinary. 

How do you balance brevity and nuance in your own writing?

Have you found writing tips from any unexpected sources? 

 

3

Why writing and editing are not the same

Full disclosure: I do not claim to have mastered the editorial craft, but this blog post is in response to the many people I’ve spoken to who wish to break into the publishing industry in order to become writers. Many intern applicants have told me that they want to go into publishing because they want to be writers. They, like most, believe that writing and editing go hand in hand. If you are a good writer, you must be a good editor. And vice-a-versa. I don’t blame them. It’s a reasonable assumption, one I even made myself. But I quickly learned that this is not always the case.

Writing and editing require very different skill sets. Among other qualifications, great writers must have a voice, they must have a story to tell and be able to bring it to life. The dialogue must be realistic and the characters vivid, interesting, engaging.

What, then, is the editor’s job? What makes a great editor?

Editors must be able to assemble the writer’s story in a cohesive manner, must clearly see what the finish product should look like and know how to achieve that endgame, like a master watchmaker who sees how all the minuscule, intricate parts of a timepiece should fit together so that each one works in perfect concert with the other, so that the whole mechanism runs smoothly, flawlessly, beautifully. Move a chapter here, dissect some paragraphs there, control the rhythm and pacing of the book as a ship’s captain does the wind.

Yes, great writers can make great editors. And great editors can make great writers. But to confuse the two jobs is a common mistake that we should all try to avoid. Not only does it cheapen the arts of both writing and editing, but publishing houses and literary agencies aren’t looking to hire writers. In fact, it’s often frowned upon and seen as a distraction or conflict of interest.

9

“Kill your darlings.” No, really, kill them dead.

A big part of my job involves helping writers develop ideas and then editing their work.   Good agents, Jane taught me a long time ago, send out material in its most polished, ready-for-prime-time form.  Even though an editor brings his/her own vision and expertise to the process of making a book ready for publication, it’s our job to get that editor to buy the thing in the first place.  So, a brilliant but bloated novel of ideas about the robot apocalypse (just a hypothetical, although you never know with Jim’s list), will probably get a long edit memo from us suggesting a lot of slashing and some burning.

Now, after a couple of decades of responses ranging from sobs to name calling, I’ve learned that telling authors to kill their darlings is always a loaded proposition.  Some will argue with you like defense lawyers at the O.J. trial, trying to convince you to recant and let them keep every superfluous line of dialogue, every unnecessary adjective, and every irritating dream sequence (a particular bugaboo of mine).  Some will accept your comments politely and then send back a manuscript with infinitesimal changes.  Some will send you six-page letters refuting everything you’ve suggested and insinuating that you belong in a less think-heavy profession.

Seldom (although not never) do we get a reaction similar to that of the author of this piece in the Times.  For every author who loves cutting and throwing out, there are thousands of hoarders.

Be honest, are you able to cut with gusto (or at least without facing a clinical depression) or do you have the impulse to argue with or rail against anyone who suggests it?

 

2

Inspiration/Perspiration

I have ideas for novels all the time. ALL THE TIME. And especially when I’m cruising around the internet over my morning cup of coffee. Like this article about a 13-year-old falconress in Mongolia – I instantly thought, she would make for an amazing YA heroine. Or this article about a summer job pulling a rickshaw (comedic coming-of-age, right?), or this one about an asteroid hitting earth (A dystopia, but set in the past, not the future!).

But have I written any of these (obviously brilliant) books? Heck no! Because writing a book takes more than an exciting story idea – it takes a great idea, and a basic understanding of grammar, and a talent for putting words together. But most importantly, it takes plain old fashioned discipline. You have to come back to your manuscript day after day, week after week, until you’ve told the whole story, and then you have to keep working on the pages you wrote until you’ve made every sentence as good as it can be. And then you share your book with other people, and you turn their criticism into another revision. And all that (hopefully) happens before it even gets to your agent and editor for their feedback.

So for every book you see on the shelf, that’s hours and hours of patient, focused labor happening between the this would make an amazing book! moment and the first copy going home from a bookstore. That’s hours spent writing instead of sleeping, writing on vacations, writing in between doctor’s appointments or graduate classes, writing in airports or parking lots or coffee shops. Writing through writer’s block and hand cramps and carpal tunnel syndrome!

So if you like books – and of course you do, otherwise why would you be reading this blog? – then hug a writer today! Or buy them a cup of coffee, because they can probably use the caffeine.

Where do you find inspiration?