Getting It Right: Part Deux

red-inked manuscript

(C) 2008 Nic McPhee, used under Creative Commons

I started work with my new editor on Gypsy’s Kiss last week. I will give her a shoutout when we’re finished, but so far I like it.

To the six of you who read the original “Gypsy’s Kiss,” it had the questionable premise of high-priced call girl Gypsy (from “Roofies”) wanting Nick to be her final client before she leaves the sex trade. I subbed that one to an anthology before really having time to work on that story. As a result, I wasn’t happy with it.


Expand it to a novella (or, if you want to be picky, novelette, but that’s a silly term), make it about the end of Nick Kepler as a PI and about his history with Gypsy, and we have a workable story. The trick Gypsy wants to turn initially is no more than Nick showing up with a bottle of wine and a dollar (because you don’t work for free) to watch old movies on a Friday night. Someone decides to make Gypsy’s exit difficult, and Nick is suddenly bartering services. (He reminds Gypsy that a bullet she took pays for much more than finding out who trashed her apartment.)

I reworked it and reworked it, at one point even killing Nick off in an interim draft. The story I sent to my new editor has a happier ending.

I can’t tell you how much it means to have a longer work edited. My editor is building a client list, so the rates were right. Since I was already aware of her work and her editing style (We are currently tag-teaming a mutual friend’s novel.), I saw this as an investment in what’s my final independent long-form release as Jim Winter. (Unless Holland Bay tanks.) She confirmed a lot of my story decisions and had me already thinking of ways to shore up the weaker sections of the story.

It pleases me to no end that Nick Kepler’s story will endĀ edited as well as (if not better than) it was in the beginning. As I said before, Road Rules survived without a formal edit, as did Bad Religion, but as Holland Bay will soon go back to an agent, I want to end Jim Winter’s time as an indie writer with a better story.

And begin Dick’s run as an indie. My new friend has already agreed to do my first science fiction novella.

It’s been an awesome time to be two different writers.

Revisions, Revisions…

I’ve had the edits for Holland Bay back for almost two weeks now. So, I just accept track changes and pack it off to the wonder agent. Right? No? So it’s going straight to Amazon as soon as I can get a cover? No? Then what?

Cut. Add. Change up. Rewrite. Words that make many writers, especially newer ones, cringe with fear.

I’ve been on this merry-go-round three times, with Bad Religion dependent on a lot of interim beta reads. This, despite being done for barter, is the most professional edit I’ve had on a manuscript. Such edits are not for the faint of heart. There is, however, a method to the madness that is prepping a manuscript.

For starters, the first thing an editor does is line editing. They will flag grammatical errors, continuity problems, and suggest dialog changes. It’s not just proofreading (though that is part of the process). This is where the editor tries to make the language clearer, finds inconsistencies, and learns the structure of the story.

Then the editor will make notes at the end to give an overview of the manuscript and suggest changes to structure, even scenes to add or cut. The notes often come at the end of the edited manuscript. Read those first. Why?

Everything else will make sense. Remember, this is often the first time someone other than you has seen the manuscript. By now, you should have at least one round of revisions under your belt. (You did do at least one before packing this off. Right? Right?) So there should be some coherence to the story. Even if you still are sending out something completely unreadable, it should still have something of its final shape by now.

Now, here’s where a couple of professional editors and I are in agreement: Forget your manuscript even exists. You don’t want to know about it. The only thing you should do is answer questions about word choices. For instance, there is a neighborhood in Holland Bay called “Serievo,” which sounds like “Sarajevo,” the capital of Bosnia. I needed to explain that I did that on purpose. But beyond explaining word choices and naming conventions, the book should not exist to the writer.

“But what should I do while I’m waiting?”

Why aren’t you working on the next project? After I sent off Holland Bay for editing, “Dick” wrote the science fiction novel, which I am now studiously ignoring.

Once you have them back, you are going to rebel. “But why should I drop that character? What do you mean that subplot is unbelievable? Why can’t one of my characters retire to Montana to raise dental floss?” (Seriously, why would he want to? Monsanto’s GMO floss has completely wrecked the market for organic dental floss. Go breed unicorns instead. There’s a big market for unicorn meat.) Yes, rebel. Respectfully push back. If you’re working with a publisher, I must strongly emphasize the respectful part. They’re paying you. But it’s just as important if you’re paying the editor. Professional editors have only so many slots. If yours is good, you want to get another slot. And if you’re trading…? Hey, it’s a favor, stupid. Don’t spit in the face of someone doing you a favor.

All the same, push back. Find alternative edits. Find out why something did not work. This is where new ideas are bred. An example: My guy, Brian Thornton (my fellow blogmate over at Sleuthsayers), did not like the character of Murdoch, a beleaguered patrol officer who finds himself working with disgraced cop Jessica Branson. Murdoch has to deal with a ladder-climbing wife who wants to break out in the city’s media. Brian initially suggested simply cutting the character. Ouch. I couldn’t see where that would work. So I asked why? The marital woes of the Murdochs take up a lot of space, and they’re over Murdoch’s career. Murdoch is a cop. He goes where the city sends him. It’s not really enough for the FM rock station’s “Traffic Wench” (the nickname makes sense in context) to get worked up over her husband managing to keep a steady paycheck.

On the other hand, if she’s bored and finds an influential lawyer who takes a shine to her…

Oh, now that amps things up. Some characters got killed off, one main character gets shot. It’s all about ratcheting up tension.

So now I’ve come up with some ideas to rework this puppy. What now? Well, I sent Brian a Word document, so he was able to do Track Changes. Once I’ve read the notes and kicked around alternative structural changes, I go through the track changes and either accept or reject changes. I would say I took about 95-98% of Brian’s changes. At the same time, I made notes on each chapter. Replace certain scenes, adjust existing ones to accommodate other changes, and add or delete scenes. Then I went back and shifted scenes around, added them, deleted them. The climax was completely rewritten.

Once that’s done, we’re ready to upload, submit, or hand back to the publisher. Right? No. The notes included (as yours most likely will) suggestions for dialog and description. You’ll want to make another pass or two to check that out. Now we’re done. Right?

Nope. One more pass. You’ve sent a manuscript off that probably has continuity errors built in (and your editor’s notes will point those out.) You’ve made changes to scenes, added or removed characters, and even deleted whole chapters. You want to make sure the story still makes sense, that you’re not referring to events that no longer happen or an inserted character or place doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. One final pass with a little proofreading to clean up finishes the process.

Okay, now what?

Indie authors format for ebook and print, which means you have to get your own cover. Trad authors just format it and write the dreaded query letter.

Yes, revisions are a lot of work. You might get lucky and get away with little revision. I submit that succeeding without any sweat equity is the worst thing that can ever happen to a writer. If you don’t learn how to do the work, that success is going to be short-lived.

The Seven Stages Of Editing Grief

red-inked manuscript

(C) 2008 Nic McPhee, used under Creative Commons

I got back the edits on Holland Bay last week. As promised, they were brutal. I read the notes first. You should always read the notes first so you know where the editor thinks you should go. It also puts the line edits in perspective and helps spark ideas of alternative changes.

But a lot of writers are afraid of edits. I get it. If there are a lot of Track Changes comments or red ink in the manuscript, along with major structural changes in the suggestions, a writer’s first instinct is to curl up in the fetal position and cry. It’s a lot of work. Just going through proofreading can be daunting. And I sent out a 90,000 word police procedural. Can you imagine if I wrote long honkin’ tales like George R.R. Martin?

“Chapter 12 not bloody enough. Could you please kill of a dozen more characters to elevate the tension a little?”

And the last two novels in The Song of Ice and Fire promise to be about 1500 pages a piece.

I’ve been there. Corrections and suggestions come as a blow to the ego. At the same time, you need an editor, especially if you are an independent author. No writer can edit themselves. And yet, we rebel, especially on that first novel. What happens is what I like to term as the Seven Stages of Editing Grief.

Stage 1: Shock & Denial: No! No! No! You got it wrong! You just don’t understand what I’m trying to do!

Stage 2: PainĀ & Guilt: I’m a bad writer! I should scrap this and take up scrap-booking.

Stage 3: Anger: You’re just jealous! You butchered my baby!

Stage 4: Depression: I am never going to be able to fix all this.

Stage 5: The Upward Turn: Hmm… Maybe I don’t need that character after all.

Stage 6: Working Through: OK, let’s rewrite that weak scene and figure out how to drop that chapter.

Stage 7: Acceptance: Ah! Ready to publish.

Done With The Red Ink. Now What?

red-inked manuscript

(C) 2008 Nic McPhee, used under Creative Commons

I finished my own pass through Holland Bay last week. One thing I learned is that I really should have printed it out last time. There are things like missed words and sentences that were cut and pasted together that needed tweaking. And of course, I had all that repeated information I needed to weed out.

I’m not sure why we don’t see these things when we reread electronically. It’s the same text, and every word processing app worth mentioning displays it as black text on a white background. Yet there is something about having to flip pages and marking them up with a red pen that lets us catch more errors. When it comes time for me to edit other people’s work, I’ll probably print out their work. I’ll have to put the notes in electronically, but I don’t see that as an issue.

So, I’m done, and all I have to do is put in the revisions. Right?

Wrong. I’m trading edits with someone. Deep edits. The kind you pay a professional about a lot of money to have done. To simply go on my own is asking for trouble, and I’ve got too much into Holland Bay not to do the work. Holland Bay is going to be the first novel I take down the traditional route since I shopped Road Rules about eight years ago. Some might ask why I would do that when independent publishing is all the rage.

Simple. Independent publishing requires a lot more work than I have time to do. I not only have to write the book, I have to have it edited, formatted for both print and ebook (and two formats on top of that), and sell the thing. It’s hard because I live in a town where the crime fiction community is nil. Hence “My Dick is writing a novel.” I can do science fiction much easier here than I can crime.

Plus crime is so fragmented these days, and no one wants to cross genres, or should I say subgenres. Noir fans aren’t interested in police procedurals, and police fans want nothing to do with PI fiction. PI buffs can’t stand cozies, and the cozy fans don’t like the Elmore Leonard/Carl Hiassen capers.

But crime is a writer’s genre. While we get very insular about what we read, it’s not unusual to go to Bouchercon and see Lee Child and SJ Rozan sharing a drink. When your chosen field operates like that, you almost need a traditional publisher to take on the task of marketing and spreading the word. Once you’re out there and known, then indie pub becomes doable. For me, it’s more like the guy in the Greek myth rolling the stone up the hill only to have it roll back down from just shy of the top.

I suppose part of this is my fault. I chose to set Nick Kepler, my original series, in Cleveland, a city four hours away and one where I haven’t lived since 1990. By the time I had a feel for Cincinnati, I’d already written the first three Kepler novels. Starting over again wasn’t feasible. I suppose I could do it now. Cincinnati would love it if someone would set a series here. In crime, that hasn’t happened since Jonathan Valin’s last novel in 1995.

I digress. Holland Bay, set in a fictional Lake Erie city based on elements of both Cincinnati and Cleveland, is a bit of a sprawling story. My touchstones were The Wire and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. The city derives its name from the old mystery-based soap opera, The Edge of Night. Edge, up until its final two seasons, featured a shot of the Cincinnati skyline in its opening credits. So how to market that? Well, a bigger publisher or one with decent marketing can play with that. Right now, I need to make the book worth their time. And yours. Because sooner or later, this epic is going to get out into the wild, and I want it to do well.

I hope to have this thing packed off to an agent (Not saying who just yet. Not until the paperwork is signed.) by mid-summer. By then, I’ll be back into the SF novel and even blogging as “Dick,” who himself will have a funny name for me. (Not “Dick.” That joke’s worn a bit thin.)

And of course, there’s one or two more Keplers I’d like to finish. You didn’t think I forgot about him, did you?

Self Editing Blues

red-inked manuscript

(C) 2008 Nic McPhee, used under Creative Commons

Since I finished the SF novel (Since Dick completed his debut novel), I’ve switched to writing first thing in the morning. Some days, I only write 500 words. Some days, I can get in 1000 or better. Quite a few days, I’ll wake up my wife to get her shower, sit back down, and realize, “Idowannastopwriting!”

Those are good days. In the evening (like in a few minutes after I post this), I do hooks for new and existing stories. For shorts, that doesn’t take long at all if I know the story. If I don’t, I write sketches and come back to them later.

And then we get to Holland Bay.

I am pleased with this book overall, but this time I printed out the novel (while waiting on an edit I’m trading with someone else). And…

Yeah, I should have printed this out the first time. One thing I’ve noticed that I did not notice during the previous read-thru, which was electronic, is that I tend to repeat information. Somewhere in the process of drafting, I forget whether I mention some piece of information pertinent to the situation. Such as a suspension bridge being built in the city that looms over the titular neighborhood in Holland Bay. I describe it in some detail early on, then think, “ZOMG! Did I mention it’s going out to the island where one of the city’s boroughs lies?” Yes. I did. Several times.

So we cut again. And cut. And cut. One blogger calls editing “pruning.” I know of editors who cut for the sake of cutting, which really annoys me. If you’re default position is to cut, what happens if the writer left something out? If a cut makes the story better, then out a passage should come. If a cut is just to get to that mythical 10% quota, you are wasting the writer’s (and the reader’s) time and, most likely, money.

Editing is usually the last thing I do in the evening at the moment. I’m about 3/4 of the way through the manuscript. Early on, I excised whole paragraphs and made “WTF” notes on a lot of scenes. Now we’re getting toward the end where, at least in this version of Holland Bay, I knew the story better. Now the errors are more leaving things out, sometimes whole scenes, but more often a word or two of dialog. “He crossed the to the stadium.” The what? The railroad tracks? Hoover Dam? The universe? Things like that.

I am two weeks from the end the semester at school, which means I will have more time to revise. During this time, all new writing is short fiction, maybe a novella or two, and articles where I find the opportunities. I’d state a goal to finish revising here, but I’ve done that before in this and other spaces. I envy local author Sara Celi (whose book The Undesirable will be featured here next Friday.) She’s probably busier than I am, and just announced hitting the 50,000-word mark in one month on a new book. (Helps when the book grabs you by the lapels and screams “Write me, damn you!” For me, that only happened with Road Rules.)

I’ll be finished with the red ink this weekend. And then it’s off to reread “Gypsy’s Kiss” for a serious reworking. (Not happy with that one. Call that writer’s remorse) and outlining a prequel novella for Dick. What’s that? Well, I never told you the title of the SF novel (let alone Dick’s real name), so I’ll give you this tantalizing tidbit: The novella’s title, premise, and, while we’re at it, marketing gimmick is Only the First One’s Free.

Speaking of free, how would you like a free book? I’ll give twenty people a copy of Road Rules or The Compleat Winter if they promise to review it honestly. I’m not bribing you to write a good review. I’m bribing you just to talk about it. Fair enough? Ebook copies only. We’ll look at a contest for print editions, especially when I make an announcement about Road Rules later this spring. Hit me up at if you want a copy.

Warming Up The Red Pen

red-inked manuscript

(C) 2008 Nic McPhee, used under Creative Commons

One of the benefits of going to college this late in life is that I’m learning more about editing. Much of it is line editing: Can you make this clearer, stronger? Some of it has been developmental, trimming and shifting the structure of a work. Because my degree is a business degree, there is an emphasis on writing in about half my classes.

This is good. My associates was a technical degree, taught by career IT consultants with few social skills and an open contempt for anything beyond writing computer code. One prof who taught a hybrid class (part online, part classroom) pitched a fit when he had to show up on campus.

The science fiction novel has demonstrated a need to learn this skill. It’s clearly a mess. I know who my characters are and what generally needs to happen, but it is going to need a massive developmental edit. But there is another reason I need to shore up my editing skills.

Last week, on Jennette Powell’s blog, I talked about the advantages of barter for the independent author. One of the most common things writers trade in exchange for ebook formatting, covers, or a beta read is editing. It’s one thing to look at an someone’s story and say, “Yeah, it’s good” or “No, it didn’t work for me.”

Editing is also a possible revenue stream, and something I’d like to do. However, it’s not so much not knowing how to edit but what to look for. I’ve spent the last 14 years writing crime fiction. So what do I look for if someone hands me romance? Science fiction? How much is the author willing to change from his or her original concept? These are developmental questions.

A frequent complaint I hear about copy editors, from both editors and writers alike, is an inability to understand that not everything is styled like a newspaper report or a research paper, especially dialog. There has to be a sense of context. There has to be a clear understanding that the “rules” of writing are generally not rules but guidelines. Don’t believe me? Read Huckleberry Finn, written by a newspaper reporter, namely Mark Twain. Then go read The Innocents Abroad. Two completely different books, one written in dialect, the other written conversationally. Do you really think Twain’s editor shouted The Chicago Manual of Style back at him? (Assuming it existed then. It’s not the first style manual.) Of course not! Jim and Huck sounded like two rubes from a Mississippi River town. And Huck was narrating. Queen’s English would have ruined the entire story.

There are some peccadilloes I need to address before I ever take money to hammer on someone’s manuscript.

  • Adverbs: Every writer and editor I have ever heard decry adverbs, without exception, has been a serial abuser of adverbs. (Are you reading this, Stephen King? I’m halfway through your canon and am not seeing your decree adhered to in one single book.) Every time I’ve followed the slash-all-adverbs advice, it’s resulted in some of the most stilted and unreadable prose ever to spring from my fingertips. So I need to make peace with the adverb and make sure it knows its place.
  • The thesaurus: This creature failed to go extinct with the rest of the non-avian, non-crocodilian dinosaurs some 70 million years ago. Since then, it has been the source of more flowery, overwrought prose than any other source. I suppose I’ll have to make peace with the thesaurus as well, since writers, including myself, have pet words we tend to overuse. For me, though, it’s usually “just” and “well,” which means that I can simply fix it by deleting the offending word.
  • “All right” vs. “alright”: OK, this is just stupid. If “already” is a word, then “alright” is a word. And I refuse to correct it when I see it. Don’t like it? Then circle the change and write the word “stet.”, which is the writer’s way of asserting his or her will on their work. (Besides, you’re paying me or trading with me. It’s not like I’m your publisher.)
  • Punctuation and quotes: It has always bugged the hell out of me that the punctuation mark goes inside quotations at the end of a sentence when they are not part of the quote. For instance, “Did Dr. Evil get his ‘laser?'” The “proper” way is to put the question mark inside the quotes around “laser,” (like that comma I just wrote), but it makes no logical sense. It should be “Did Dr. Evil get his ‘laser’?” You’re not quoting the question mark. (Or making air quotes, if you remember this bit.) However, it’s a battle I know I would lose. So fear not. I’ll bow to common usage on this one.But not happily.
  • Singular “their”: Given that there’s a royal “we,” and we no longer use “thee” and “thou” but the plural “you,” it makes no sense not to use “they/their/them” as singular third-person gender non-specific. “It” does not work to refer to humans. “They” does. Once again, though, it’s a battle I can’t fight as an editor. So I won’t. That’s not what people will pay/trade with me for. (Also, they would probably like me to not end sentences in prepositions.)

The best rule of thumb would be WWMMD? “What would Mr. Murphy do?” Mr. Murphy was my favorite teacher in high school, an English teacher who encouraged my writing.

And he probably would have said, “Shut up, Winter, and quit using singular they.”

Mr. Murphy was a wise man.

One thing we can do to sharpen our skills as both writers and editors is to bone up on the language. For that, I’ve found a blog by local author and Wilmington College professor Brian F. Snowden. Brian has some definite opinions about the language, some of them that clash with mine, others that make me want to shout “Preach on, brother!” Check it out here, as well as his novel, A Delicate Imbalance.