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I don’t need an editor…

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Why do I need an editor? I can read– in fact I’m really good at that. I can get all those great advice books that tell me how to self-edit, and then I’m there, right?

No. The answer is no. You need those advice books to help you revise so you can then get into the hands of a really good editor, because you don’t want to take raw novels or manuscripts to an editor and waste her time and your money. If an editor has to go through your manuscript ten times to get all the slag out, his or her mind will be tired, and will start missing things that need work, like what happened to the flavor and the leavening.

I’m not talking about a line edit. You should take care of that before your work gets into an editor’s hands. Grammar, spelling, punctuation; if in doubt look it up. I know I said it before but don’t waste her attention and your bank account having her fix those details.

Yes, get rid of the passive voice, all those elegant slowing down transitory verb forms. Do a search and destroy for too many ‘that’ and ‘as’ and ‘-ing’ and other favorite words of yours. ‘Simply’, ‘only’, ‘and’… the word ‘just’ keeps jumping into my prose, I’ve noticed. Seek your favorite terms and favorite phrases and delete or rephrase all but the few that you must have. Get rid of the various clever alternate forms of ‘said’ and let ‘said’ sit wherever it’s needed, because that is our modern trope and you need to embrace it. No beginning any sentence outside of quotation marks with ‘And’. Plus no exclamation points!

Get the point of view cleaned up as much as you can. No more jumping about from head to head in one scene. Pare it down, make it clear and clean for the reader. Discipline. You’ll still miss some point of view problems, but take out all you can find. The fresher you can keep your editor’s mind, the less distracted by the unpredictable and weird, the better the work he or she can do.

Take the manuscript to your writers’ group. Priceless free advice…. You don’t have to take every comment to heart– you can exercise discretion. Keep a tally of the most painful comments and if two or three readers make the same remark that bugs the heck out of you, I’m sorry, you need to review and fix the issue.

After this, look at the editor question.

Good editing costs, a lot, unless you’re incredibly lucky with a writer’s group full of professionals, or have a crazy good agent. I haven’t had an edit like the one my agent Toni Lopopolo gave Night Must Wait ever before, or since, and then the publisher undid part of it. (These things happen, and you need to be accepting. The publisher really does have final word, unless you’re willing to break your contract.)

A real edit may redraft the book. It’s an act of genius. The editor needs to love your genre and your concept, in order to reconfigure the work and recast the shape of it. Yes, it will hurt. We all start writing in the wrong places and sometimes we don’t even understand who’s the real main character. Don’t just go for the best editor you can find; he or she must feel sympathy for the genre and kind of writing you do. Otherwise you won’t see your manuscript back for months on end, and it will not return with the insights you need. It will have lost its loft, and its flavor.

On Watch the Shadows, my agent did a strong edit, not as wild and complete as the Night Must Wait edit, but she gave me search and destroy words and phrases. Had me mark every ‘and’ for example, and take out as many as possible.

Next, the manuscript went under the knife again, through three readers, then the publisher’s editor. All had changes and suggestions.  I still found a batch of errors I needed to fix in my reading of the Advance Reader’s Copy and then one of my review readers found three more. I’m not offering a prize for finding errors in the published book because I know that something always escapes the sieve.

Did you watch the movie “Super 8“? It is a perfect example of everything people who teach at writing conferences will tell you a story should be. You should see it. if you missed out. It’s perfect, but it has no heart. Perfect structure, foreshadowing, pacing, suspense, spare scenes, snappy conflict-filled dialogue, taking us where we don’t want to go… BUT…   I would happily go back and watch that movie over again even though I have this problem with it. There’s a lot it has to teach and it’s good fun, yet it brings no tears. My throat doesn’t tighten.

The moral of that is, even the best editor can make a polished product that lacks heart. The heart has to be yours. Touches of raw emotion– some of those must stay, and that’s up to you, the writer. That’s why we still need the writer, to shove the beating heart full of blood into the story and make us worry that heart will burst.

About the editing, as far as I’m concerned, the big trick is you need someone who sees the story from outside– can pluck it out of your forest of words, and see where it works and how, and see how to actually break all its parts and reset them. It’s not the line edit, it’s the release of a true story that a good editor accomplishes.

Done right, it’s a miracle.

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working with an editor

I’ve had the rewarding experience of working with two editors, Aviva Layton and Toni Lopopolo. My first experience  was with Aviva Layton some years ago and that was the customary situation where I hired her to read and critique, (not line edit) two different manuscripts. One of them she read twice. She gave me more than I paid for. I was looking for an overview from a sophisticated reader who could tell me where my plot flagged, where my characters mystified, where I talked too much when I should have let my characters show. I killed a couple of characters under her advice, and man, was it satisfying. An editor will see things you never did, ask questions even the best writers group doesn’t, and ruthlessly guide you to a cleaner clearer story arc. After all, that is the point — to tell a good story.

You might find it odd that I mention Toni, who is also my agent, but you know what? I got lucky. I ended up with an agent who does it all — she has over this past year helped me rewrite my novel about Nigeria from beginning to end something like ten or eleven times… I think we’ve both lost count. Did I pay her? No; when Toni signed me it was in accordance with all the rules you see on Writers Beware and other such sites. She did it on the speculation that I’d make something saleable and worth this tremendous investment of her time and energy and patience.

I tried very hard to be good because I knew the work was flawed. The novel Toni fell in love with was my tale of four women in Nigeria who are caught up in the Nigerian Civil War. I wrote it starting in 1976, when I was in college at Wellesley. Fellow students got accustomed to seeing me hunched over my old electric typewriter in the commonroom picking at the keys. Never learned to touch type, and even though I write a lot, I use four fingers on my right hand and four on my right. It’s a wonder my pinkies haven’t atrophied, but maybe they keep exercised by waving about in the air cheering the others on.

I digress. The problem with this particluar novel was that it had morphed over the decades. It was in purely awful shape. It had swelled at times to something over 600 pages, shrunk down to 200 and swelled again. I’d never even shown this manuscript to Aviva — I knew it wasn’t ready. It was pure chance or my father’s ghost that made me take a couple of excerpts to the writers workshop where Toni heard a section and fell for it. So when Toni told me it was a mess, what could I do but nod? The miracle was that she didn’t give up. We waded through issues of point of view, adverbs and masses of beautiful description that stopped the story in its tracks, too many people– and started the process by killing of some characters. Sound familiar? Is that my trope that I tend to pack too many people in?

Now I have a contract with an independant publisher, and I’m setting up the nitty gritty of publicity. We are, fingers crossed, looking at this September. My father, who took us all to Nigeria in the first place, would be pleased.

What I wanted to say in this post is that if you are a writer, use your resources. Run the novel or the story through your writers groups (and yes, I put that in the plural form.) Make yourself go to writers’ conferences and force yourself to your quaking feet to read aloud. Don’t just read the first chapter over and over again. Most chapters should have their own arc, and with the briefest of descriptions of the set-up, you should be good to go. Remember that if your book makes it to a bookshelf in a bookstore, you may be picked up by a potential reader who follows my evil habit of opening to the middle to see what the fat looks like.

If you are told by two or more people to change something, you need to think it over real hard. If you hear it from three, just do it. Do it in your own way, but do it.

When it comes to editors, I’d say wait until you’ve done the groups and the conferences. Take your shining clean typo-free copy and pay an expert to tell you what isn’t working. The neater your copy the less your editor will be distracted by the detritus. When you finally corner that agent who signs you, she or he may not be as old fashioned as mine, so don’t be surprised, but make sure that your manuscript is as ready as you can make it. I think I’d even recommend springing for another editorial run-through. Your writing is an investment, not only of the time in your life you’ve spent making love to a keyboard, but of your funds, in the sensible use of professionals.

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