Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ask Your Editor: What kind of editing do you need?

So, you’ve written a book and you think you might want or need an editor, but you’re not sure what kind of editing you need. You’re new at this, and you’d like to understand what an editor does before you go looking for one. Let me try and help you sort this out.

The first—and deepest—level of editing is developmental and/or content editing. When I perform this type of editing, I look at the big-picture items. If it’s fiction (and please don’t describe your book as a “fiction novel”—a novel is fiction so “novel” is all you need to say), I look at your plot development. Are there holes? Is it hard to understand how your protagonist gets from Point A to Point B? Does the plot feel contrived—are things happening to your protagonist because it’s what you want to happen even if these things don’t make sense?

I also look at your character development. If you’ve shown me that your protagonist is an honest, trustworthy, very serious guy, but all of the sudden I’m not supposed to believe what he’s saying/thinking, that will raise a question mark for me. I’m not saying your honest, trustworthy guy can’t tell a lie, but he ought to have a pretty good reason for breaking out of his character—something I could get behind and understand and probably something that’s moving the plot ahead and deepening the conflict.

Those are brief descriptions of how I approach developmental editing for fiction.

For nonfiction, it’s more about your organization, your content, and your voice. More often than not, I know very little about the subject of the nonfiction books I edit, which is actually good for the writer. It makes it easier for me to judge if the book makes sense because I’m learning about the subject as I go. If there are holes in your logic, I’ll tell you that you need to elaborate more on this point or that point, or that you need to give an example (or a better example) to illustrate your point. Another problem could crop up if you explain “C” before you get to “B” and I need to understand “B” so that I can understand “C”; in that case I’ll point that out and likely fix it by moving big chunks of the book around. (“Big chunks” could be a few paragraphs, a few pages, or maybe a whole chapter.)

When it comes to voice with nonfiction, I ensure that if you started out sounding conversational (and that’s the voice you wanted), your voice remains conversational throughout the book. The opposite is true as well: if you want to sound professional and detached, I ensure that the words you’ve chosen and the way you’ve structured your sentences come across in that manner (and I fix them if they don’t).

This last point bleeds us into the next level of editing—line/copy editing. At this level, I look specifically at how you’ve written your book (or your paper, or your newsletter, etc.). I look at your word choice, your sentence structure, your grammar and mechanics. But I also look to make sure the voice remains consistent and things make sense. If I’ve worked with you on developmental editing first, then I ensure the changes that needed to be made were made and that they worked and that we didn’t create different problems when we made those changes.

Finally, for the last round of editing, I proofread the document. This is a quicker, more superficial round of editing. I look for typos and any other grammar or mechanics mistakes we might have missed in the copy-editing round. (If you’ve ever read a book, you know that even best-sellers get published with a typo or grammar mistake here or there.) Proofreading is the last line of defense when it comes to publishing a clean manuscript.

Again, these are quick descriptions of what you can expect for each level of editing from most editors who know what they’re doing. In order to decide where you need to begin with an editor, I recommend giving your book to someone who will read it with a critical eye and be honest with you about the problems they find. If they come back to you and tell you that the book made sense but your grammar stinks, you can likely start with copy/line editing. But if they come back to you and tell you they couldn’t follow your train of thought or they couldn’t connect with your characters or something else big like that, you’re probably better off starting with the first level and hiring someone to do a developmental edit. (Please keep in mind, if you put your book through developmental editing, copy editing shouldn’t happen until developmental is completed.)

As a writer myself, I know it’s hard to think about handing your writing over to someone else to cut and splice, chop and dice. But we editors don’t just spill blood—we also polish and shine. If you hire a professional, trustworthy editor, your book will be better for it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ask Your Editor: Compare with caution

If you’re a writer, you probably work hard on your style, don’t you? You labor over the words you choose, you search for the perfect phrase to describe the scene, and you’re constantly coming up with new (and better?) comparisons for the settings and the conflicts in your stories. You want the pages to sing. You want your readers to believe you’re an original storyteller.

That’s wonderful, and it’s all a worthy exercise.

But …

Don’t let your descriptions overtake your story. Don’t work so hard on your similes and metaphors that your readers stop and think, “Hmm, that’s a really funny / original / crazy comparison. It must have taken him / her a long time to think that up.” Because as soon as your reader stops to actually think about the comparison or description you’ve written, they’ve stopped reading the story and they’ve started paying attention to your writing. Do you see the difference?

A book that I’m editing right now is really interesting and filled with day-to-day conflicts of many varieties, unusual conflicts that many people haven’t experienced and may never experience. On top of that, the writers have a great sense of humor, so they are able to tell these stories in a way that often makes me laugh. However, they use a lot of similes. There are so many similes that trying to read the stories is like trying to swat flies away from a two-day-old picnic to see if there are any crumbs worthy of a snack.

I find myself getting so caught up in the comparisons—trying to picture them, trying to connect them to the story itself—that I get taken away from what’s actually going on in the story itself. Don’t work so hard that you lose the story. After a while, the work becomes obvious, which is again, not what you want.

It’s hard to kill your babies, which is probably one of the best services your editor can provide. We’re baby killers. You worked really hard on that comparison, that description, didn’t you? You were really proud of it, weren’t you? It HAS to stay in your book. It’s your baby. You’re not deleting—you’re not killing—your baby.

That’s OK. That’s what you hire me to do. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Dexter ... is a gift to the world?

Who worries you more on Dexter? Dexter himself or Deb? One of Dexter’s most telling lines from this episode: “It’s the one thing I’m good at: vetting, and stalking, and killing people. And now I can’t even do that anymore.”

Dexter had been sure Sussman was the guy they were after, even when Dr. Vogel said she didn’t think it was the right person. “Forensics don’t lie,” he told her. True, forensics don’t lie, but, as Dexter discovered, they don’t always tell the whole truth. He’d been ready to put Sussman on his table, but Sussman wasn’t really the bad guy, and when he realized that, Dexter’s faith in his own abilities took a hit.

Then there’s the sister. When Dexter thought Deb was going to spill the beans on herself about El Sapo and pulled her from the interrogation room where she’d been with Quinn, Deb told him that El Sapo wasn’t the first person she’d killed and he probably wouldn’t be the last because of the hell that is her life now. Dexter’s gift to her, she said.

So I ask again: Who worries you more?

 Dr. Vogel is telling Dexter he’s a gift to the world, that the world is a better place with him in it. He’s starting to trust her, and he’s starting to lean on her for comfort and strength. Is this wise? And is Dexter a gift? Is the world a better place with him in it?

If you watched the teaser for next week, you heard Dr. Vogel say, “When your sister found out about who you were and what you were doing, why didn’t you kill her--not that I’d ever advocate such a thing.” Is this foreshadowing? Can we take Dr. Vogel at her word?

I’m asking so many questions this week because I don’t know what to think right now, although there a couple things I feel pretty sure about: Deb has been Dexter’s center for a long time. She has helped keep him centered. But now she can’t stand to be around him and worse than that, she is spiraling rapidly out of control. Dexter’s constant isn’t constant. And Deb is losing herself. Maybe it’s even safe to say, Deb has lost herself, past tense. I don’t know if there’s a recovery in Deb’s future.

It’s bleak in Miami. What will the Dexter team bring us next week? What are you hoping for?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Ask your editor: A dictionary is invaluable

It occurred to me today as I was editing a client’s book that I could offer some very simple but very good advice for anyone who writes things for others to read.

If you write
  • Books
  • Newsletters
  • Papers
  • Articles
  • Letters
  • E-mails
then this post applies to you.

What's my advice? Use a dictionary. Preferably Merriam-Webster’s (if you are writing in US English). Webster’s is available for free online and it’s a very user-friendly dictionary.

You might be surprised to know how many times I look things up on Webster’s through the course of a day. I’m often surprised how many times I use it, and I think often how lost I’d be without it.

I access it for a variety of reasons. Sometimes I just have a brain cramp and need to double-check a spelling. Sometimes, I’m not sure if I need the open version or the hyphenated version of a word, such as double-check in the previous sentence. Double check is a noun. Double-check is a verb. I’ve looked it up before, but I double-checked it just now to be sure I used the right one.

Sometimes I access Webster’s when I’m not sure if I need a hyphen between a prefix and its root. Sometimes I check on capitalization. (A client recently used “promised land,” and I wanted to see if it should be capitalized or not. Curious about the answer? Look it up!)

Webster’s is really helpful and it provides sentence examples for most of its entries as well. Play around on it to see how useful and friendly it is. If you care about your writing and can’t hire an editor to check your work, Webster’s could be your new best friend. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Dexter: Season 8 Premiere -- A Beautiful Day

Dexter's final season opened at full speed, didn't it? Deb's in hell, where she belongs -- her words, not mine. And Dexter, according to Deb, is lost. She said she finally realized it wasn't she who needed Dexter all those years; it was he who needed her. Now that he doesn't have her, he's spinning like a top careening away from its center.

Any of you who shared my concerns for Deb going into this season are probably feeling the way I am. I knew she was gonna be in trouble, but I had no idea she was gonna be in such a low, low place. She can say what she wants about just doing her job, trying to find Briggs and the jewelry he stole, but that was Deb snorting cocaine and screwing that criminal ... and liking it. She told Dexter she was OK with Briggs. She cried over his dead body. And even though I understood why Dexter killed Briggs, I still hated that Deb had to witness her brother murder someone else. This is not a healthy relationship, friends. Deb put her detective face back on when she was talking to the local PD after she called in the murder, but I don't think she fooled that cop.

So where does Deb go from here? We know that the hitman sent for Briggs saw Deb leave, so the physical danger Dexter tried to protect her from is likely still there. But I think Deb is a bigger danger to herself than any hitman will ever be to her. She told Dexter she didn't care about the danger. I don't think she cares about anything. No ... check that. I don't think she wants to care about anything. And therein lies the conflict. She still does. As she said, she's in hell.

Dexter seems like Dexter. He's even happy LaGuerta's gone because that "solved a lot of problems" in his life. The only piece of Dexter that seems off is Daddy Dexter. He's losing it with Harrison. He blew up at the cute little kid, he left him alone in the car at night in a motel parking lot and almost lost him because of it, and he stained the poor kid's teddy bear with Briggs's blood. (Quite the symbol there, huh?) The innocents in Dexter's life tend to suffer, so it's not surprising that Harrison's turn has come. But it's sad to see and I hope the price he pays for loving Dexter isn't as high as the price his aunt paid ... or, worse yet, the price his mom paid.

One more character worth noting before I go is Dr. Vogel. How interesting is she? I'm excited about her addition to the show. She knows everything, and judging by the preview for next week, endorses Dexter's life choices. The thing is, Dexter doesn't trust her. So we'll be left to judge whether or not he should. I think when killing people is how you spend your free time, the fewer people you trust, the better off everyone is.

Hats off to the Dexter team for the opening of Season 8. I'm into it. Let's see where it takes us.