Category: editing

Tighter Writing and What I Didn’t Learn in College

I wish I could say that I learned how to edit and write tighter fiction in college, but it didn’t happen that way. I’m not complaining. I went to a great college and had some excellent professors who taught me many valuable things about writing. But I learned more about real editing from good editors in publishing houses than I ever learned from unpublished English professors. I’ve also learned a lot from reading authors like Anne Tyler.

The most important thing I learned is this is all highly subjective, so when you read this post keep that in mind. The debate between what is considered good writing and bad writing has been going on since the history of the novel and I don’t see that ending any time soon. So when I talk about tighter writing, I’m not necessarily talking about good writing or bad writing, because that would be dumb. Whenever I see someone willing to define good writing I step back and hold up a wooden cross. I’m only talking about a few tricks I’ve learned from some excellent editors. And these tricks are usually more technical and they are geared more toward keeping a story moving and keeping readers involved.

Here’s an example of fiction that could be made tighter, and more relevant. I’m sure some would say it’s fine the way it is, and most readers probably wouldn’t even notice. But readers might be distracted and not even know it when they read things like this. And while I’m editing that’s something I always keep in mind because I don’t want to take that risk. In fact, I often ask for specific editors with the publishers I work with because I trust their judgement and I know they understand what good editing is. I didn’t say good writing. I said good editing. And a good editor who knows what she’s doing is hard to find.

This would be an example of how I might change something during edits:

Betty Jane, Kevin’s nineteen year old sister and only sibling, was stretched out on the floor with her book centered over her face.

At a glance, there’s nothing wrong with this. But I would change it to this:

Kevin’s nineteen year old only sibling, Betty Jane, was on the floor with a book over her face.

If Betty Jane is Kevin’s sibling, we know she’s his sister. That’s a given…unless his mom and dad got creative with names. There’s no need for the word sister. And if she’s on the floor with a book on her face, I would assume she’s stretched out and the book is centered. It doesn’t take much to picture it. If she were face down, her face would be buried in the book, not over her face.

He threw his backpack on the kitchen table with obvious vexation and more carefully set his pork roast on top of it. “I thought you were going to a movie or something with whatshisname, the guy who owns the gas station.” After pulling off his jacket, he went into the family room.

Here’s what I’d change:
He threw his backpack on the kitchen table, set is pork roast on top of it, and sent her a glare. “I thought you were going to a movie with that dude, the owner of the gas station.” He yanked off his jacket and joined her the family room.

First, who uses words like vexation nowadays, especially when writing about young people? So I don’t find that word relevant at all. Second, if he threw the backpack he’s obviously pissed off and there’s no need to use big words that take the reader out of the scene. As for the dialogue, I think dude works better than “whatshisname.” That sounds like something an older person who is out of touch would say. 

 Grudgingly, as if it were an imposition, Betty Jane sat up. “No. His name is Michael.” She  squinted at Kevin. “What the hell are you wearing?”

One last time, this is how I would change it during edits:

Betty Jane sat up and frowned. “No. His name is Michael.” She leaned forward; her eyebrows arched. “What the fuck are you wearing, dude?”

I’m not a big fan of adverbs, especially “ingly” adverbs, so I try to stay away from them at all cost. And if two teenagers are alone in a house, I think they would use the word “fuck” instead of “hell.” At least the ones I know would. But that’s debatable, I know. Also, I switched “squinted” to “frowned” because I would hate readers to think she’s having issues with her eyes unless it’s relevant to the story.

None of the examples above are actually incorrect, and I’m not saying that the way I changed them makes them better or worse. I’m only saying that there are ways to edit and ways to condense. If you are an older author, taking the age of the characters into consideration is important, too. You don’t want teenagers (or new adults) sounding like middle aged women, so it’s important to listen to the way real teenagers speak. They usually think the same way.  

And remember, there is no right way or wrong way. Sometimes it just comes down to a matter of style. But I do think looking into word economy and tighter fiction is at least something to consider. The only need to impress your readers with big flowery words like “vexation” is when you’re writing about a character who actually speaks with big flowery words like “vexation.”  I know these things are small, but it could be the difference between keeping readers interested and losing them along the way.   



How Can a Box and a Basket Screw Up the Entire Book?

I wish there were a way to scream “thank you” to my editor at, Dalia. Because that’s what I’m doing right now.

Last night, while going over the final draft of THE COMPUTER TUTOR, I discovered a mistake. It was just one word, and it could have been ignored, but I figured that if it bothered me it’s going to bother other readers. And, this is what editing is all about.

The word was “basket.” It needed to be changed to “box.” If you look at the book cover above, you’ll see there is a “box” of puppies, not a “basket” of puppies. “Basket” was in the book, not “box.” Both words would have worked within the context of the story. But it bothered me that the cover didn’t go with the story. And I like the word “box” more than “basket,” even though I originally wrote it as “basket.” I think a guy would use a box faster than a basket.

So I e-mailed Dalia late last night and waited to hear if it could be fixed. I’ve seen this happen before with all publishers, even NY publishers, where the book cover doesn’t always coincide with the story. It’s not the biggest thing in the world, I wouldn’t classify it as coverfail, but those little details can really freak me out.

Thankfully, Dalia was able to change “basket” to “box” and all is well. The reason I didn’t catch it sooner is because when you’re in the editing process you’re busy working on tightening sentences, revising paragraphs, and a multitude of things most people wouldn’t even consider while they are reading a book. Most readers only care about the story and whether or not it appeals to them. But there is a lot of work that goes into the writing aspects.

I’m going to write another post about this soon. There is a very loud, critical book reviewer out there who just “edited” an anthology of short erotic stories and all I’m hearing about are how “emotional” the stories are in the pre-promotions. But when I read the few published excerpts released, I’m seeing some bad writing that should have been fixed before this book went to print. We’re talking about passive voice all over the place…and amateur mistakes that should be taken care of during edits. That is, if the editor in question is professional and experienced enough to know better. Clearly, this is not the case. And this time the authors can’t be blamed. It’s an anthology and it all falls on the editor. I know this because I’ve worked with some of the best editors in lgbt fiction…Neil Plakcy and Lawrence Schimmel to name two…and I’ve watched and learned while they edited me.

Editing a book or anthology isn’t just about picking “emotional” stories you love. That’s what readers and reviewers do, not editors. Going for “emotion” is only part of the editorial deal. Real editing is about making the story tighter, going line by line to make sure the author didn’t make any mistakes, and creating a finished work that is as close to perfect as it can get, from dialogue tags to semi-colons. In other words, let the readers and reviewers worry about the storyline. It’s the editor’s job to fix the writing problems so that everything is neat and clean.

As I just proved, two words like “basket and box” can change the look and feel of an entire book. And unless an editor knows what h/she is doing, and what his/her job is, indeed, as an editor, it can be a painful experience for readers and they aren’t even sure why.

Thankfully, I’ve been charmed enough in my life to have worked with the best, like Dalia.

Publishers, Editing E-books, and Those Annoying Little Mistakes that Happen

I’ve seen a lot of blog posts around lately with complaints about mistakes in e-books…all e-books. Of course most of these mistakes are small and they don’t change the content within the book. I’m reading a bio about Julia Child right now that was pubbed a while ago and I’ve counted at least five errors…very little errors that don’t bother me in the least. I read two novels before this book that were published by well known authors about ten years ago. These novels have recently been made into digital books and I’ve found small errors in them, too.

I’ve had errors in my own books. One in particular was in AMERICAN STAR, where a name is spelled differently in parts of the book. (I still get flop sweat over this one.) When this book was submitted, the name was correctly spelled as, “Terrence,” and I quadruple checked to make sure it was correct before I submitted. What happened between the time the manuscript was submitted and the time it went into digital format is beyond me. But I was told it was a problem with conversion. And I’ve heard other authors say the same thing has happened to them.

Before I submit a manuscript to any publisher, I do at least four rounds of edits. And then the manuscript goes to another editor, and then on to a copy editor. After that, I usually go back and forth with the copy editor for at least a week working out different sections of the book. And, I rarely ever argue with the copy editor about any suggestions or changes because I’ve learned that the collaboration always makes a better book in the end. With my love you divine short story e-books, I have two editors, one is a managing editor and the other a copy editor. Believe it or not, it takes sometimes over a month to get the edits right just for a short story.

The point of this post is that little mistakes happen. Like I said, I’ve seen them with older books and newer books, in print and digital. And publishers do edit. And edit, and edit, and edit…e-publishers and print publishers. It’s not something they take lightly. Has the increased need to produce books faster created more little mistakes in books? I don’t know the answer to that. I’m never in a rush to get anything out, and neither are any of my publishers. I write fast; I edit slowly. Right now I’m working on a new book in the Virgin Billionaire series and I have two ravenous romance books with the publisher, going through strenuous rounds of edits.

Publishers and authors try hard to get it right. But once in a while something slips by.

Speaking of Edits…

I swear this all happened last night because the previous post I wrote discussed the relationship between editors and authors.

I’m talking about a new stand alone short story that’s coming out soon titled, BILLABONG BANG, with a Jan. 14 release date. It’s sort of a coming of age story and the character has two fears: one is sexual and the other is a phobia of water. But I also just had a short story released in a SEX AND TOYS anthology this week with (I usually post a cover photo, but this one, although I totally love it, might be too steamy for a pg rated blog), and that story also has a character who is dealing with a sexual phobia and a fear of heights. The differences are vast, especially when it comes to the sexual phobia’s themselves. But I didn’t want the new stand alone to even remotely resemble the short story in the anthology, so I’ve been going back and forth with my editor at all week making sure it doesn’t.

And last night she sent me a preliminary pdf file of the book and I almost said, “great, let’s go with this.” But I stopped and thought for a moment. There was still something bothering me about this book and I had to get it right. First, I thought there was too much back story in the beginning. Second, the main character is of African descent and I thought I’d gone into too much of a description about this. Personally, I believe the only way to get rid of racism altogether is to start thinking and seeing with colorblind eyes. And while it’s important to put something in that describes the character’s race sometimes, there’s no need to be too obvious about it. At least that’s how I view it. Someone else might disagree.

Ultimately, this fix was simple. I just cut the first 1,000 words from the story, made two line changes, and sent the revise back to my editor…with a few huge apologies, and many thanks. Could the story have gone to publication as it was? Certainly. But would the readers have been bored to death with the first few pages? Absolutely.

And my wonderful editor, Dalia, didn’t say a word. She made the changes, sent me the pdf early this morning, and it looks ready to move now. This, to me, is the perfect example of a positive working relationship between author and editor. It’s back and forth, give and take. And even though most books and stories don’t have as many complications as BILLABONG BANG did, it always nice to know that if there are they can be worked out well.

New Book Cover…

I received an e-mail today from an editor about an anthology I’m in that’s being released in the spring. I’m not posting links because it hasn’t been released yet…even though people can pre-order thanks to Amazon…but I wanted to mention the book because the experience with this editor is always interesting. He taught me how to take myself less seriously.

Sometimes you submit something and it gets accepted, edited and published by magic. You don’t hear anything until the book has been released, and you get the final copies and the check. You can see that things have been changed, but nothing too drastic. Then there are times when you sell something and it doesn’t get edited at all. It just gets published the way it is and you’re glad you took the time to make sure everything was perfect. Other times, and magazines do this often, they edit without contacting you and you want to scream. They use words and substitute phrases you wouldn’t use if you were on your last breath. But magazine fiction is a little different in the sense that they can get away things book editors can’t. And they pay well, which makes it easier to forgive.

And then there are those times when you submit something, the editor likes it and you begin a long, endless trail of e-mails about editing and revising. If you click with the editor, it’s fine. But if you don’t, it could be a problem. In fifteen years, I only reneged once on a book because I didn’t like what the editor did. And this involved changing the context of the story almost completely. (I didn’t hold it against him, and he didn’t hold it against me; I’ve been in other books he’s edited after that one.) But most of the time, I don’t mind the endless e-mails and the constant changes. I’ve learned to listen to these editors with an open mind and most of the time they have been correct about the suggested edits and revises. And if I disagree (and sometimes I do), I’ve found they are willing to negotiate on most things. But it’s all about give and take.

And the editor of the book I’m talking about today is one of the serious ones. He doesn’t just ask for small revises: he’ll knock the first two pages off and switch the character around completely. But he never does it in an offensive way, and I’ve learned to appreciate his style and approach. And if I don’t like a revise or a suggestion he makes, I’ve learned to wait twenty-four hours before I reply. And I’m always glad I did.