This week’s post is by Susan Van Kirk, who usually writes full-length novels, but decided to try her hand at novellas. Here she explains why.
Over the past three years, I’ve been writing a series called the Endurance mysteries. Three May Keep a Secret came out in 2014 from Five Star/Cengage Publishing. It led to a second Endurance novel, Marry in Haste, which will launch November 16, 2016. That book will be followed in the late spring of 2017 by Death Takes No Bribes. All three are full length novels.
This past January, I decided to try my hand at a novella. This would afford me three excellent advantages: (1) I could expand the character of my detective, TJ Sweeney, by writing a story around her instead of Grace Kimball, the protagonist of my Endurance series; and (2) I could give my readers a story to keep them in the small town of Endurance since my first and second novels are being published two years apart; and (3) I could mix up the tone a bit from cozy mystery novels to a slightly darker police procedural. My fictional town of Endurance would be in all of the books, but my main character, Grace, would only put in a brief appearance in the novella. I found that writing a novella is quite different from writing novels, but I really enjoyed the change.
Length is a prime consideration. My cozy mysteries run anywhere from 71,000 to 82,000 words. I discovered a novella should weigh in between 20,000 and 40,000 words. The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, my novella, ended at 25,000 words. It may be read in one or two sittings, the perfect length for a spring afternoon reading break.
The second consideration is plot structure. A novel has multiple subplots that need to connect to the main plot and possibly be tied up at the end. But The Locket is a straight shot. Detective TJ Sweeney is called to the scene of a burial. A construction crew digging a new foundation on the outskirts of Endurance finds a pile of buried bones and a skull. The bones are decades old and raise a lot of questions. They turn out to be human, and the condition of the skull indicates a possible murder. Male or female? When did this happen? What happened? How can Sweeney identify a person long before DNA results were registered in databases? Who did this? Why? Sweeney must answer a series of questions to try to solve this case. During her investigation, the reader learns about the detective’s past, her family history, and why this case becomes so personal.
The point of view is also different compared to writing a novel. In my Endurance mysteries, I followed the main character, Grace Kimball. Much like me, she is Caucasian, a retired teacher, and a disaster in the kitchen. It’s easy to write a character who is similar to me. But The Locket delves into TJ Sweeney’s life, and she is thirty-nine, biracial, single, and a police detective. While Grace is a widow and single mother who is just starting to date an equally senior man, the single Sweeney goes through men like a high-speed commuter train. Uh, not like me. This is a stretch.
A novel may have several conflicts, although one in particular usually stands out. In Three May Keep a Secret, Grace Kimball is battling a terrifying ordeal from her past and also investigating a murder in the present. She only recently retired, so she is dealing with a huge change in her life. In the novella, TJ Sweeney is coping with some very deep feelings tied directly to solving a decades-old murder. One complicated conflict.
A novella is obviously shorter than a novel, but it is also more straightforward and leaves less room for description and details. If you’re looking for a mystery that can be read in a few hours, a novella is perfect. The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney is a good example of how a novella can fit between two novels in a series, but can also stand on its own for new readers. It is now available from Amazon.com as a Kindle e-book.
About the Author
Susan Van Kirk was educated at Knox College and the University of Illinois. After college, she taught high school English for thirty-four years in the small town of Monmouth, Illinois (population 10,000).
She taught an additional ten years at Monmouth College. Her short story, “War and Remembrance,” was published by Teacher Magazine and became one of the chapters in her creative nonfiction memoir, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks).
Her first mystery novel about the town of Endurance, Three May Keep a Secret, was published in 2014 by Five Star Publishing/Cengage. Marry in Haste is her second Endurance mystery, coming out November, 2016, also from Five Star Publishing/Cengage.
I recently went to see a community theater production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. There are two endings to this theatrical production—Christie’s original ending for the novel and the ending she rewrote in 1943, when she adapted the play for stage (she and the producers agreed the book’s ending was too grim for theatergoers).
Our community theater alternates the endings; the night I attended, we got the grim ending (which I didn’t like). A quick Google search gave me the alternate ending, which I now envision as the end.
No matter. Watching Christie’s play, and the audience reaction, reminded me of how great a writer she was. Yes, there are some who criticize her wooden characters and say she wasn’t “literary” enough. Yet the Queen of Crime remains the top-selling mystery author and her books are only increasing in popularity, with sales growing 50 percent in the last 10 years, according to novelist Andrew Taylor in The Independent. Christie obviously did some things right.
Through the eyes of And Then There Were None, here are five elements that Christie got spot-on:
1) Gave us characters we cared about. There are two we especially care about in the play. As all the other characters are killed off, part of the suspense is in wondering whether these two will survive.
You can carry this lesson through to your protagonist. If you are writing a mystery or thriller, you need to put your protagonist through the wringer—either physically or emotionally (or both). You may feel you need to protect the protagonist, but in doing so you may be sucking the tension out of your novel. A reader identifies and empathizes with a character who faces difficult choices or a hard journey (either external or internal). You may need to step back and ask yourself whether your character has faced enough conflict.
2) Provided plenty of suspense. One after another, the characters are killed off in Christie’s play. Can the killer be caught before all are dead?
From the beginning, we know that the killer (unrevealed) has plans to kill off all 10 of the guests, who have been brought to an isolated island. The killer believes—rightly or wrongly—that all of them have caused the death of someone else and gotten away scot-free. As if that’s not bad enough, a raging storm outside keeps everyone from leaving, or anyone from coming in to rescue them. And then the guests realize that the killer has to be one of them. Christie not only introduces a mystery, but she continues to ratchet up the suspense through the ending.
In traditional British mysteries, by the way, there’s the initial murder, but then that’s followed by another (or a few more others). This may be formulaic, but it does keep the suspense high. You don’t always need multiple murders in a mystery, but if your action is lagging, look to the classics to see how tension is kept at a high.
3) Kept the whodunit front and center. During intermission, the theatergoers batted theories back and forth. Everyone had a favorite for the role of villain (a great thing about the play was that every character was both potential villain and potential victim).
Christie was brilliant at constructing puzzle plots—who was with Character X when he was killed? Who was out of the picture? Since there were several murders by intermission, this truly was a puzzle with many different pieces. The audience, from their conversation, enjoyed putting these pieces together.
If you are writing a traditional mystery (rather than a thriller, for example), your reader may be the type who wants a puzzle she can play along with. Make sure you sprinkle in enough clues, as well as the occasional red herring.
4) Played fair with the audience. The clues were all there—at one point, a little light clicked on for me, and I knew part of the solution, though not the who. When the villain was revealed, it was so simple and made so much sense. Of course that person was the killer!
5) Made sure to misdirect. While she played fair, Christie was the master of misdirection. There have even been academic papers written about her use of misdirection. Like a magician, she has the playgoer focused on one thing, while something else is happening right in front of our eyes. Christie also did this very successfully in her books, which may be the greatest reason for her continued popularity.
Misdirection may be the hardest element for a new writer. I often see beginning writers get everything else right—wonderful characters, enough clues, even a red herring or two, yet the mystery itself is transparent. That’s because, in planting the clues, the author has failed to employ misdirection. A reader who figures it out midway through the story might wade through to the end, but they will still come away dissatisfied. And they won’t buy your second book.
Look to Agatha Christie for misdirection. In Five Little Pigs (aka Murder in Retrospect), two characters are having a conversation that is overheard by a third character. But the third character misinterprets, drawing the wrong conclusion—as does the reader.
Mystery writer Margot Kinberg, who often gives workshops and classes on Agatha Christie (and other writing topics), says Agatha Christie remains popular today because her novels deal with “essential human characteristics, faults and virtues.”
Says Kinberg: It doesn’t take a bizarre plot or a serial killer to move the action in a story along. Christie’s stories (well, the best ones, anyway) don’t make use of a lot of gore, explicit sex, or some of the other things you so often see in a modern crime novel. But nor are they too ‘sweet and frothy.’ They simply tell human stories of greed, fear, and some of the other motives that real people have for murder. Everything in each story serves the plot. It’s not there for shock value.”
That sounds like another very good lesson we can take away from Agatha Christie’s works!
The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunit, by William G. Tapply, is a must-read for any new crime fiction writer. It covers the basics, beginning with finding your story and defining your sleuth, “the character readers care most about,” Tapply writes.
While mystery story lines are driven by the “whodunit” question, a mystery is also a quest story, Tapply writes, with the sleuth having “purity of purpose, courage, conviction, and single-minded commitment to ideals.” These sleuths need to have a sense of mission. Create a great sleuth and keep their future in doubt—and you’ll hook the reader, Tapply advises.
He doesn’t leave the bad guys out either. He writes about the number of suspects there should be and how long they should be under suspicion. The answer: the more suspects you have the better, and the longer you keep them under suspicion, the better your puzzle. Tapply also addresses victims. After all, part of the sleuth’s job, he writes, “becomes the painstaking piecing together of the victim’s backstory, which comes in bits and pieces of information, often seemingly contradictory, filtered through the memories and motives and lives of other characters.”
Other topics include point of view, setting, narrative hooks, building tension, conflict, dialogue, and revising. The book is rounded out by several chapters from other mystery writers, who discuss such topics as working with a collaborator (Hallie Ephron) to whether you should write a series or standalone (Bill Eidson).
This is a book you’ll want to buy, and return to often. There’s always a gem there upon rereading.
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by literary agent Noah Lukeman, is an eye-opener. Any author querying agents should read this first. As Lukeman writes, agents and editors don’t read manuscripts for their own enjoyment. They read solely with the goal of getting through the slush pile, and so are reading with an eye to dismiss manuscripts.
Some of the reasons, he writes, to dismiss a manuscript:
* The presentation or formatting of the manuscript is wrong
* The author has queried an agent or editor inappropriate to the author’s work
* The overuse or misuse of adjectives and adverbs
* The rhythm of the prose is poor (this includes poor sentence construction and grammatical mistakes)
* The overuse of analogies, similes, and metaphors
* Stylistic errors, such as redundancy or writing that is too noticeable
* Bad dialogue. “If, at a quick glance, our initial impression of a manuscript is that it suffers from one of the preliminary problems, we then look to dialogue: if it, too, is poor, we needn’t look any further,” Lukeman writes.
If a manuscript does make it beyond the first few pages and shows none of the above problems, agents and editors then look at “showing versus telling,” viewpoint and narration, characterization, subtlety, tone, focus, and pacing, Lukeman says.
Finally, Lukeman admits (as I’ve heard other agents say) that they often ignore synopses and plot outlines at first, starting instead with the manuscript. If the manuscript is good, agents will then go back to the synopsis.
How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery & The Roller Coaster of Suspense, by Carolyn Wheat, is one of those must-read books for new authors writing in the genre. Wheat, an accomplished mystery writer, divides the book into three parts.
After describing the differences between mystery and suspense, the first part delves into mysteries and their basic ingredients, such as the “cover-up” (why the killer must continue killing), fair play, hiding clues in plain sight, and when the absence of a clue is a clue itself. She explains the structure of a mystery and different types of endings.
Part 2 looks at suspense novels and how to engineer the “roller-coaster effect.” She looks at the hero’s journey and how this informs suspense writing. There’s an invaluable lesson in these chapters as she deconstructs Robert Crais’ Hostage, using the book’s plot to show how to structure a thriller. Yes, there may be spoilers if you haven’t read Hostage, but it’s a terrific lesson. That alone is worth the price of this book.
Part 3 looks at the writing process, both for those who outline and for pantsers (Wheat calls them blank-pagers). Wheat covers writing scenes, narrative, tension, and even parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs–and when to use them or not use them).
The best part of this book are the examples she uses from various novels, and the summations she includes in easy-to-digest lists and tables. If you’re writing in the genre, this is a worthwhile addition to your library.
Recently, I gave an online class on revising and self-editing. Before that, I asked a group of editors for their thoughts on the most common errors they came across when editing fiction. More than two dozen colleagues responded. These are the errors they say they find the most:
· Punctuation and misplaced modifiers
· On the other hand, over-adherence to the rules of grammar, particularly in dialogue, said Barb Adamski.
· Inconsistencies in names, geographical errors, and timeline issues
· Attempting to say something really simple—but in a convoluted “fancy” manner that results in the line making zero sense.
· Unnecessary segues, such as “and then” or “having said that.”
· Repetitiveness and redundancy
Telling versus showing
Telling, rather than showing was mentioned by numerous editors. What is meant by “telling”? Here, several editors discuss how they see this in novels they’ve edited.
· “Lengthy dialogue recaps of events from earlier in the book,” said Kate Cousino.
· A subset of telling versus showing is “having characters discuss things in dialogue that no rational person would,” said Karin Horwatt Cather. “For instance, two characters at a fireplace, one of whom says, ‘And you know, of course, that the pasteurization of milk contributed greatly to reduction of food-borne illness in children and is one of society’s greatest advances.’ The other says, ‘Why, yes, Myrtle, and this century has seen the invention of many labor-saving devices.’ ”
· “Laundry list” descriptions. Said one: “Most fiction writers I’ve worked with, except for a few who are highly skilled, think that they are a camera, a lens that looks at things, so they have to describe what they're looking at, e.g., ‘Her honey-gold hair was parted in the center, framing a high forehead above two exquisitely arched brows, over two azure-blue eyes, gracing a pair of rosy, slightly in-drawn cheeks...’ and so on for a dozen pages until we get to the shoes, sandals, or boots in question.”
· Overtelling (listing every single move or step or word exchanged).
· Overdescription, also, “can turn a good story into a slog,” said one editor. “Readers don’t need to know exactly what everything looks/sounds/smells/feels like. One or two well-chosen details are usually enough; readers have enough imagination to fill in the rest.”
· But, as writer and editor Carolyn Haley said: “As a writer, I find showing versus telling spectacularly difficult to do in many instances. So I represent a majority of our fiction client base, I suspect.”
· The expectation that “everybody” knows what they’re talking about
· Unduly assuming readers will understand a character’s point of view or motivation, when the writer has done too little to make that a fair assumption.
Characterization, POV, Dialogue
· Head-hopping: Changing the character’s point of view to another character’s point of view from one paragraph to the next.
· The Uncle Remus “dialect effect” (using dialect so much that it becomes a parody or is insensitive to a culture).
· Disappearing characters. “Aunt Lydia plays a large supporting role in the first three chapters and then disappears, never to return,” said one editor.
· “Ten variations of describing eye color for one character in two pages: cerulean, cornflower, azure, sapphire, turquoise,” said Dori Birch.
· Not enough world building and not enough character building. “Too much basing—subconscious or otherwise—their plot and world on stuff they’ve seen or read. Which is something that good world building will combat,” said one editor.
Lack of historical research. Authors don’t check timelines and when certain technologies were invented. “If the story takes place before the early 1990s, your characters cannot have cell phones and iPads,” one editor said.
· Heavy use of narrative at the beginning, dumping backstory.
· Lazy writing near the end of the story. “I call it ‘I’m sick of this story’ syndrome,” said Birch.
· Confusion of tenses, especially in flashbacks.
· Jerky, choppy rhythm
· Too much irrelevant detail.
It’s all about the word count
“Getting more obsessed with word count than the story. ‘It can’t be a story unless it’s more than 200,000 words!’ It then becomes the story that never ends...” said Birch.
One editor summed it up nicely: “Much of what has been discussed could be reduced if the writer would read it aloud. If it doesn’t seem correct when read aloud, fix it. If portions are deadly boring to read aloud, delete or edit those portions.”
Well-written dialogue is a wonderful way to move the story forward, give more depth to the character, and keep the plot from stagnating. But there are some pitfulls to writing dialogue. Here's a few things to watch for:
* That you are not just dumping information through dialogue. It’s OK to give some information through dialogue, but when a character is giving an entire monologue on any issue, you’ve gone too far.
* That you aren’t including dialogue just for the sake of having dialogue. Each line of dialogue should have a purpose, whether it’s revealing someone’s character or showing the sleuth and sidekick figuring out an important clue. Are there lines you can cut, and replace with action beats?
* Does your dialogue have conflict or tension? Good dialogue, according to James Scott Bell in “Revision & Self-Editing,” should surprise the reader. “View it like a game, where the players are trying to outfox each other. Are they using dialogue as a ‘weapon’?” he asks. Among that weaponry he lists anger, epithets, pouting, name-calling, and dodging as examples.
The two speakers don’t necessarily need to be antagonists, as in this example, from Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Walking the Perfect Square,” between his protagonist, recently retired cop Moe Prager, and Rico, a police detective:
“I had lunch with Sully,” I said. “He showed me a picture.”
“Yeah, and so what happened?”
“It was of Patrick Maloney.”
Rico’s expression soured. “That what you dragged me off a stakeout to tell me?”
“The picture didn’t look like the one on the poster.”
“Jesus Christ, Moe! Who looks like their picture? You take a look at your departmental ID lately? You probably look like Wolfman Jack.”
* That last line above is called “curving” the dialogue. Do you have ho-hum lines that you can ramp up a bit? How can you make them funnier, or edgier?
* Does your dialogue sound real – but not too real? It should be realistic, but not to the point where you use the normal hesitators that people use, such as “um,” “uh,” “y’know.” This will stop readers in their tracks.
* Have you thrown in some action beats? Here’s an example where an action beat is done well, from “A Cold and Lonely Place,” by Sara J. Henry:
She buried her face in her mug, and it was a moment before she spoke again. “Troy, I want these articles to show Tobin’s life, good, bad, whatever. I want them to show who he was and what he could have been.”
The character is struggling with what to say, and how to say it, and Henry shows us, rather than telling us. But beats should be used sparingly; use too many in dialogue and they only serve to slow it down too much and annoy the reader. Renni Browne and Dave King, in “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” suggest you read your dialogue aloud. If you find yourself pausing between two consecutive lines, then you might want to insert a beat at that point.
* Is each character distinct enough? If not, look at giving characters pet words or phrases they repeat from time, or look at cadence (some people use more words).
* Are you overusing ellipsis? Ellipsis should only be used only to indicate speech that trails off. And in real life, dialogue shouldn’t trail off every other sentence. Interrupted sentences are indicated not by ellipsis, but by dashes.
Finally, here’s a good example of dialogue done right, from Michele Drier’s "Edited for Death," in which two main characters puzzle out a clue together. This is the way to give the reader information. The dialogue is witty, there’s a little bit of tension between the two, there’s an action beat, and it certainly moves the story forward, providing a vital clue:
“You’re the one who told me not to put too much into him,” Clarice says. “To quote you, ‘It’s sad when a nobody dies,’ blah, blah, blah…”
“It’s not that he dies, it’s where they found his body,” I say.
“They found it in a bar, where else would a drunk be?”
“But that’s the point.” I’m patient, waiting for her to catch up. “Royce just said he slept in the lobby. Besides, if he was a well-known drunk—”
“They would have locked the bar!” Clarice says, her eyes growing round. “Royce sure wouldn’t have left the door to the bar open for a drunk, not to mention keeping Stewart out at night. So, where was he killed?”
The other day I had a conversation with an author who outlines to the nth degree. He’s written his first book and has a narrative arc that stretches through the next two — a very dramatic arc. I was in awe that he’s thought so far ahead, giving his characters deep psychological motives. I have trouble even scheduling my life out two weeks ahead!
Mystery writer Hallie Ephron is another one who carefully plots. But she says in her book on writing ("Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel") that even the best-laid plans go awry. She collaborates on the Peter Zak mysteries with Donald Davidoff; the first book, she writes, had been carefully outlined, with the villain carefully chosen. But, in writing a piece of dialogue in a critical scene, she realized that another “character had just confessed to the murder. The solution made perfect sense and had the great virtue of being totally unexpected.”
Ephron adds: “No one follows a plan to the letter. Major changes may be needed when a character you thought was going to be minor starts doing pirouettes, or when a plot point critical to your solution stretches credibility to the breaking point. But by getting down the basics early on and really thinking through your story and your characters, you give yourself a solid starting point.”
Then there are pantsers, or those who write by the seat of their pants. I hold these writers in awe, too, because I can’t imagine not starting without an outline. These are the writers who boot up their computers and are off, writing the story as it comes to them. They may later go back and revise it. But, for the most part, they work without an outline.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the prolific Stephen King counts himself among the non-outliners. He describes writing as excavating fossils.
In his book, “On Writing,” King says: “I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau. I want to put a group of characters … in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety … but to watch what happens and then write it down.”
Robert Campbell in “Writing Mysteries,” takes a middle approach, outlining as he goes along in his writing, making notes on characters, settings, or an element he might have introduced in an earlier chapter (a hidden gun, for instance) that he might use later. For him, it blends structure and serendipity.
“Obviously, this process of outlining might be done in the conventional way, thinking everything through and setting the scenes and characters down before the actual finished work is begun. But I find that by walking alongside my characters before they are fully formed I’m often pleasantly, even dramatically, surprised by conversations, actions and philosophies that I could not have imagined. When deep into a scene, writing on overdrive as it were, something magical very often takes place, some hidden well of imagination tapped, and I find myself a passenger floating on the raft of what is sometimes called inspiration along a river of words in full flood.”
So where do you fall: pantser, plotter, or in between?
One of the more common mistakes I see with writers is the use (or misuse) of dashes and ellipsis. When do you use ellipsis? And when do you use hyphens or the longer em dashes?
Here are the rules, as followed by The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and most publishers:
Use the longer em dash to indicate faltering or interrupted speech. Here are some examples from CMS:
“Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?” asked Mill.
“Well, I don’t know,” I began tentatively. “I thought I might—”
“Might what?” she demanded.
CMOS also says that if the break belongs to the surrounding sentence rather than to the quoted material, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks, as such:
“Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots, and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.”
The em dash, by the way, can be obtained in Word either when you write two dashes and immediately after write a letter, or by holding down the control and alt keys and the dash on the upper right hand corner of the keypad.
The smaller hyphen is used when just a word is incomplete, as when a character is stuttering: “I d-don’t kn-know what to th-think.”
Ellipses, however, are often used when the character is stammering, but the words are complete, as in: "I ... I don't know what to think."
You can use a combination in a sentence:
“Why ... why don’t you dr-drive a bit more ca-carefully?”
Just be careful you aren't driving a reader crazy! The above sentence, to my taste, has too much going on, and is hard to read. It may slow the story down. I would have pared some of these away, as they make it a bit more difficult for the reader.
There’s a school of thought that would eliminate ellipsis, which have become rather overdone in writing today. For one thing, most writers use them incorrectly, when they should be using em dashes or commas. For another, if a writer uses them too much (as in every other sentence of dialogue) they become an annoying visual roadblock for readers. And, finally, they indicate weak dialogue.
“Ummm…what do you think…should I do it?”
“Hmmm…well…I don’t know.”
“Yeah…I better think about it…at least a bit more.”
Maybe real people talk like that, with pauses. But this is amazingly boring dialogue (not to mention that some of those ellipses should really be commas). If you are writing snappy, fresh dialogue, you probably won’t need many ellipses.
So next time, before you type those three little dots, think about what you really need, and whether there’s a better way to write that piece of dialogue.
The following three-part series is reprinted from the Sisters in Crime blog:
We’ve all had the experience of reading a book, being completely immersed, and then, whoosh, we’re thrown out of the story. It can be as simple as a misspelled word or as grievous as a character whose name has suddenly changed.
This is where the editor steps in—or should have stepped in, I should say.
Editors often get a bad rap. Most writers don’t like their words to be changed, trimmed or otherwise played with. Editors are seen as nitpickers, at best; an intrusive presence, at worst. A good editor, though, leaves behind a better story, without having left a footprint behind.
If you are a first-time writer, this experience can be invaluable, as Toby Speed, a Long Island Sisters in Crime member, found. Speed spent 15 years crafting her first novel and another year shopping it around.
“After many revisions and a couple of overhauls, at 101,600 words it was perfect,” she said. “I’d had two groups of beta readers go through it carefully and I incorporated their helpful, detailed comments.”
But Speed’s mystery story was going nowhere until one editor wrote back, explaining the importance of pacing and suggesting a cut of 15,000 to 20,000 words—and, best yet, the editor had shown her how, by editing the first 70 pages. But, at first, this only annoyed Speed.
“She had even deleted my prologue, the best writing in the book!” Speed said. “I walked around grumbling for 24 hours, wondering how I could possibly cut that many words without harming the story."
"Then I read the editor’s version with the tracking turned off. It read really well—in fact, a whole lot better than the original. The story got started right away and moved right along. The first two chapters ended in the right place. I took a deep breath and over the next six weeks, following her example, I shaved nearly 16,000 words from the story and resubmitted it."
"No one else had seen my story as it was—or as it had the potential to become.”
Speed resubmitted her book, and a publishing company is considering it.
Her experience is not uncommon. As a writer, it’s hard to be objective of one’s own work. A fresh set of eyes—an experienced set of eyes—is always helpful.
When searching for an editor, you should be aware that there are three levels of editing--developmental editing, copyediting and proofreading. Some editors will work in all three areas; some editors specialize in only one of them.
Developmental editing (also called substantive editing).
In traditional publishing, this is the first round of editing, and it may reshape your manuscript quite a bit. Not all writers may feel they need this, but if you do, you should expect a developmental editor to look at:
Copy editing (or line editing), which includes:
If you’ve worked with a good copy editor, you are not likely to need this last step. Generally, proofreaders are employed by publishers to read the story in typeset form, to look for any remaining errors in spelling, punctuation, or typesetting.
Finding—and Hiring—a Freelance Editor
You’ve finished your novel and now you need an editor. Some writers turn to an English teacher they know or a friend who was always good at spotting errors. But these may not always be the best sources. A professional copy editor has training and years of experience behind her, and will give your novel a far more thorough look.
How do you find this editor, and how do you go about hiring her?
One of the best ways of finding a copy editor is to ask for references from other writers. There’s also a very large pool of talent at the Editorial Freelancers Association (www.the-efa.org). A posting there will generate dozens and dozens of applicants. Some regions may have their own groups, such as the Bay Area Editors’ Forum in San Francisco (http://www.editorsforum.org/).
Now that you have a pool of applicants, the best way to winnow them is to ask them to complete a sample edit (anywhere from six to 12 pages). This is probably the most important step you can take. This will give you an idea of their editing strengths and, just as importantly, their bedside manner. Most editing inherently feels like criticism, and you’ll be reading page after page of this, so make sure you understand (and can stand) an editor’s comments.
A sample edit of this length is also enough to give the editor an idea of how long it will take her to complete the project, and she can base a price estimate on this. You can find common copy-editing rates at http://www.the-efa.org/res/rates.php, although individual rates vary considerably. Just remember, as in most everything else, you get what you pay for sometimes!
Editors also vary on the way they like to be paid. Some editors ask for a deposit, then a second or even a third payment later on, and a final payment. Other editors will charge you weekly, or as they finish sections of the book. Make sure all this is spelled out in advance in a contract.
Here are other important questions for you to ask:
Maintaining a Good Relationship With Your Editor
The next step, after determining what type of editor you want and hiring someone, is to maintain that relationship–and make the most of it. If the two of you are a good fit, this is a relationship that may potentially continue for many years–throughout more books, short stories, magazine articles, websites or blog posts. The secret of maintaining a long-lasting relationship is like many other working relationships. Communicating clearly and with respect goes a long way.
Here are some other tips:
Agents' Pet Peeves
Are you unwittingly turning off an acquiring editor by committing one of her pet peeves?
Two acquiring editors spoke about what works – and what doesn’t – at a panel at the Left Coast Crime convention in Colorado Springs.
Denise “Deni” Dietz, a senior editor for Five Star publications, says any manuscript sent to her should follow the submission guidelines, and authors should be professional in their dealings with her. She isn’t looking for perfection in a manuscript, but she is looking for someone with a “good voice” and for solid “characterization, plot, and pacing.”
“You can edit a book, but you can’t edit a[n author's] voice,” Dietz said.
She also has several pet peeves, and she warns writers:
Terri Bischoff, acquiring editor for Midnight Ink, mostly accepts agented submissions or those by invitation. Like Dietz, she has pet peeves, too.
One of them is authors who don’t know the genre or subgenre in which they are writing. “Or they say, ‘I write like so and so,’ and I open the manuscript and it isn’t at all” like that writer, Bischoff said. Also, writers who submit and a week later are asking her about the submission don’t do themselves any favors, she said.
Because Dietz and Bischoff work for smaller publishing houses, they will often critique or give suggestions to authors who show promise, but whose manuscript may still need some work. Take time to really rework the manuscript before resubmitting it, they said.
Finally, don’t try to follow the trends, or the popular authors.
“If you are submitting to me and saying, ‘it’s like Dan Brown,’ “ said Dietz, “well, I tried getting through Dan Brown four times and finally gave up.”
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.