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Keep Your First Draft to Yourself . . . Or When to Find an Editor

First drafts are for beta readers, not editors. Hence, I’m not joking when I say keep your first draft to yourself (or at least away from me).

Do whatever you have to do to get your family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, shop workers—anyone—to agree to read your draft and give you feedback. But do not look for an editor at this stage just because you think you’re done. I promise you, you’re (probably) not done yet. Unless you’re a naturally gifted and amazing writer, finding an editor at this point will most likely be a waste of your money and an editor’s time and talent. Even after you’ve gone through ten beta readers and made all the deletions, additions, and changes you agreed with, I’d say your work probably still isn’t done.

You aren’t ready for an editor until you’ve done everything you possibly can with your book. This means you’ve read it so often that you hate it now. You’re having nightmares about it. Your characters are living in your head. And you’ve agonized over words, punctuation, and paragraphs. You’ve even woken up in the middle of the night to change a word in chapter fourteen. I mean you’ve given this thing every bit of love and life you have to give. Only then—when you know in your heart of hearts that there is nothing more you alone can do to make it any better and you cannot even fathom looking at the horror again—are you ready for an editor.

Why? Well, it’s simple really. Like many things in life, the more blood, sweat, and tears you put into your book, the better it will be. And this includes working on the appearance. I mention this because I’ve encountered documents that looked put together by a kindergartner during her first computer lesson. Understand? Do you like dealing with ridiculous numbers of unnecessary line breaks, a zillion tab stops, random page breaks, weirded-out formatting, random bolded text, and things that look like the equivalent of words vomited all over a page? Neither do I.

Essentially, getting any editor to fix things that you as an author should take responsibility for—like neat formatting, ensuring that there are no major contradictions or obvious continuity errors in the story, and anything else that is in your power as the author to put right at this point—is a waste of the editor’s time and your money.

When you do your best for your book, then I too can do my best for your book. I can work on making the words flow and sparkle and jump into the reader’s consciousness, rather than fixing things that an author is more than capable of putting right if she gives her work the time and attention it deserves.

So, like I said, keep your first draft to yourself. By the time it’s your hundredth draft (yes, I’m using hyperbole here), and you’re certain there is no way on this Earth that you can possibly do any more with it, then, and only then, are you ready to find an editor.

A #Book #Editor Should be a Teammate Because That’s What a Good Editor Really Is!

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I’ve nicked the title of this from a blog post by Dave Chesson of Kindlepreneur, but I’m hoping he won’t mind. His post is titled Master Guide to Selecting the Best Book Editor and the good folks at Kindlepreneur were kind enough to include my name in their list of “highly recommended” editors.

I was absolutely delighted of course, so I had to check out the site. What I can say is I really, really wish I knew about Kindlepreneur before I self-published my volume of haiku. Dave hits the nail on the head when he says: “I realized that the number one problem that people were having wasn’t writing the book, but marketing it once they had it published. . . . and [it’s] not what writers wanted to spend their time doing.”

Well you can say that again brother! To all authors thinking about, or on the verge of, self-publishing—don’t venture into this wilderness alone—you and your book might get lost. Kindlepreneur is there to help and you should take advantage of Dave’s hard-earned knowledge. He offers resources, tools, and a free book about improving your Amazon ranking. So, if, like me, you dread tackling this aspect of self-publishing, and would love a guide to the wonderful and weird world of marketing your book, Kindlepreneur can help.

Now, back to the sweet little article that gives Yours Truly a nice plug. . . . It explains the different types of editing, suggests ways to compare two editors, and provides a handy-dandy list of vetted editors.

It must be acknowledged that not all editors or editing services offer free sample edits. More power to them if they don’t have to do this (and I do understand not wanting or feeling one ought to have to do this). But the way I see it is if a lawyer who makes exponentially more than I do can offer a free consultation, then who am I to refuse to do a free sample edit? A free sample edit is a chance for me to see an author’s work, and more importantly, it allows the author to gauge whether or not my editing style is for them. Testimonials are all well and good, but the last thing I want an author to do is pay me blind as it were, only to find out after the fact that they hate the way I edit. That wouldn’t be good for either of us.

So, if and when you’re ready to think about getting your book professionally edited, take a look at the article. Then get a free sample edit from me and one of my colleagues to see if we can help!

Stop the Elision of Ellipsis Points . . .

I’m fairly certain that no mark of punctuation has caused me as much editorial torture as ellipsis points, aka an ellipsis. The mark was once primarily used to indicate that something had been left out of quoted material. As its popularity increases, the little ellipsis dots have escaped the confines of quotation marks and italics and are having a new life in all sorts of writing today. This greater usage has inevitably lead to changes, and all these changes can cause some confusion.

The three dots—points or periods or full stops, and sometimes there are four—that appear in writing to indicate that there has been an omission are called an ellipsis. The definition sounds all well and good . . . until we examine the real life of this little mark in the world and realize it’s not just that simple. Not only are there rules to contend with and style parameters to negotiate, we have conflicting advice from official sources.

Fortunately, Webster’s Style Manual—in the Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary (New Revised Edition 1996)—has a lot to say about ellipsis points. The following are excerpts from the impressively thorough entry:

Ellipsis points is the name most often given to periods when they are used, usually in groups of three, to signal an omission from quoted material or to indicate a pause or trailing off of speech.

If an omission comprises an entire sentence within a passage, the last part of a sentence within a passage, or the first part of a sentence other than the first quoted sentence, the end punctuation preceding or following the omission is retained and is followed by three periods.

Each ellipsis point is set off from other ellipsis points, from adjacent punctuation (except for quotation marks, which are closed up to the ellipsis points), and from surrounding text by a space. If a terminal period is used with ellipsis points, it precedes them with no space before it and one space after it.

NOTE: Many writers and editors, especially those writing in more informal contexts . . . use instead an alternative system in which all omissions are indicated by three periods and terminal periods that may precede or follow an omission are dropped.

The alternative system, or new way, seems to have taken precedence these days, and it’s done away with the spaces between the dots. This is the case with AP style, and The Guardian and Observer Style Guide states:

ellipsis
Use a space before and after ellipses, and three dots (with no spaces between them), in copy and headlines: “She didn’t want to go there … ” There is no need for a full point.

At first, this new way is pretty tempting. It’s much easier to remember “three periods, spaces both sides” than it is to get one’s head around the ten long rules in Webster’s. This use of ellipsis points with elided spaces works most of the time.

In fiction, going with the “three periods, spaces both sides” is not often an issue. However, I’ve found that the loss of the spaces and the fourth point—or the idea of a fourth place to be filled if needed—can be problematic at times.

Problems arise in dialogue, for example, when the writer wants to show a pause in speech after a question.

Webster’s Way
“Mary’s going? . . . She said she hated Suzie.”

New Way
“Mary’s going … She said she hated Suzie.”

Using the old way—with the terminal punctuation and spaces—makes it crystal clear that a question is being asked. Using the new way does not. So why does it matter? A question indicates that the speaker is surprised to hear Mary is going, i.e., Mary has a reason to avoid Suzie. A statement implies Mary may be going with an agenda, i.e., Mary could be going to confront Suzie. And as any writer knows, these little nuances can make all the difference in a book.

Writing for the Sake of Writing

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As most people who write know, writing is often a compulsion. Whether or not a writer has something to say, a story to tell, or a poem to write, a writer often feels like transposing the stream of consciousness in her head onto paper or screen or wall or what have you. To my mind, this is the essence of being a writer. One must write simply because one must.

Unfortunately, in this day of experts and checklists and rules, it seems all too easy to forget this most fundamental drive that lies at the heart of a writer. If we haven’t outlined a story completely, developed our characters, mastered a rhyme scheme, or ticked all the boxes, it’s easy to become discouraged—to dismiss the essential tendency to write as not good enough, not ready, unworthy of being indulged.

However, as far as I’m concerned, this is an entirely wrong way to think about it. In fact, it is through writing that we develop our stories and characters. It is the very act of writing that gets the cognitive processes—that are necessary to create our best writing—going. That’s not to say we won’t write thousands and thousands of words that won’t be discarded before it’s over, but without those words we can’t get to our best ideas, our best words, our best writing.

Putting our thoughts down helps us to clarify them. And in the process, we spark new ideas, see new avenues to explore, and new denouements or resolutions that weren’t possible until we started writing. Like anything, the more you write, the better you become at writing. And most importantly, once you start writing, you often end up someplace completely unexpected—and better—than you ever imagined.

As most authors advise, the important thing is to write every day as if it’s a job. And I’ll just add, do that whether or not you feel you have something to say and whether or not you’re working on the same piece of writing you worked on yesterday.

There are no tricks, no shortcuts to writing your novella or your play or your masterpiece. The only thing to do is start … and keep writing even when it feels futile. Then, one day, you’ll look back over your writing and be pleasantly surprised at how far it’s come.

Showing, Not Telling

Writers are often advised to “show, not tell,” and I have to admit that this confused me for years. My internal response was: Writing is telling, what do you mean? I’m sure most people aren’t so slow on the uptake, but this post is for anyone else who’s ever been slightly perplexed by this advice.

I think the best way to discuss this is by looking at examples of telling versus showing.

 

Example One — Telling Emotional States
Hugo was furious.

Example Two — Showing Emotional States
Hugo slammed down his mug and kicked over the table.

In both cases we understand that Hugo was angry. However, the first sentence simply states the fact while the second sentence illustrates Hugo’s anger. The second sentence paints a more detailed picture for the reader by showing Hugo’s actions which are sufficient to convey his emotional state. The actions also add to the excitement.

 

Example One — Telling Physical States
Liz walked home after work as the sun was setting.

Example Two — Showing Physical States
Liz was blinded by the glare off the glass towers as she walked home from work.

Both sentences let the reader know that Liz walked home from work at sunset. In the second example the reader is shown something that the character would’ve seen or experienced at sunset, and hence the reader doesn’t need to be told that it’s sunset.

 

Example One — Telling Physical Details
Harsha had a pierced nose.

Example Two — Showing Physical Details
The gold trim on Harsha’s sari matched her nose ring.

Again, we know from both examples that Harsha had a pierced nose. The difference is that the second example communicates this without stating it directly while incorporating additional details.

I suppose showing sort of boils down to saying things with subtlety, or saying them without stating them directly. And rather than be intimidated by this advice, we can think of it as license to indulge our writerly sensibilities and get creative.

We Shalt Not Plagiarize

When I began editing, the last thing in the world I expected to encounter was plagiarism. I prefer to think the best of people until they give me reason not to, and maybe I’m stupid for holding on to my naïveté, but never mind that. I still believe it’s a much better way to exist than the alternative.

Before I go on, everyone who puts pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard or touchscreen, needs to understand that there are a plethora of online plagiarism checkers. These are just a few of them—Grammarly.comPlagiarisma.net, and PaperRater.com. And in reality, plagiarism checkers aren’t even really necessary anymore as any search engine can be used to identify pilfered content. Given these widely available tools, who in her right mind is going to risk plagiarizing today?

Sadly, it would seem that too many are still willing to take the risk. You can find an Unplag.com article about some 2015 scandals here and there’s a recent example from Korea here. Or better yet, just search “plagiarism scandals” yourself and see what pops up. You’ll probably be surprised (at least I hope you are because, like me, you would never dream of plagiarizing).

As I mentioned, I didn’t expect plagiarized material to darken my editor’s screen, but it has—twice. And if that alone wasn’t alarming enough, it came from two people who beyond a shadow of a doubt knew better. I was working via other services when these abominations intruded into my life, hence, the acceptable responses from me were extremely circumscribed. I wasn’t able to call the authors out as such. The best I could do was steer them in a more honest direction. However, I can tell you that one was publishing a book in advance of a PhD thesis (yes, a PhD thesis!), and the other was a … sit down now … a lawyer! Not only that, after my work for the lawyer was done—citing and/or eradicating the plagiarism—I was presented with something referred to as an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) that was in fact a non-disclosure-non-compete-I-own-all-your-previous-and-future-work-forevermore-with-no-financial-compensation-to-you-contract that I categorically refused to sign. I think I’m still reeling from that one.

So what am I saying? I’m saying that I, as the OCD Editor, will not deal with plagiarized material. I’m saying plagiarizing is not only bad, it’s unconscionable and a discredit to everyone’s work and art. I’m saying anyone who respects herself will not plagiarize. I’m saying anyone who respects the work of others will not plagiarize. I’m saying plagiarizing is nasty, dirty, and easy—until you’re found out and humiliated. I’m saying anyone who’s arrogant enough to plagiarize material in the Information Age deserves whatever is coming down the pike to wipe out her credibility.

Plagiarism is the lazy way to produce work and it simply is not worth it. Your work, your art, your dreams made manifest on the page—or wherever—deserve so, so, so much more than engagement in this nefarious practice. You owe it to yourself to produce as much original material and original work as you possibly can, and when you borrow an idea or a phrase or whatever, the right thing to do is credit the creator. You would expect the same from others, wouldn’t you?

Please, please, please respect yourself and others enough not to be tempted by the P word. After all, isn’t it better to revel in the glory of your own hard work than to live in fear of being discovered as a plagiarizing fraud?

I leave you with a quote from Nikos Kazantzakis that always works to remind me why doing things the proper, i.e., the “hard,” way, is worth it:

Which of the two eternal roads shall I choose? … I choose the ascending path. Why? For no intelligible reason, without any certainty; I know how ineffectual the mind and all the small certainties of man can be I choose the ascending path because my heart drives me toward it. Upward! Upward! Upward!” my heart shouts, and I follow it trustingly.

To Hell With the Semicolon

As an editor, I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to avoid using semicolons and colons when I’m editing fiction. Although I’d never given much thought to the reasons why, thanks to a recent tweet by Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly), I’ve stopped to reflect on  this preference of mine.

The tweet at issue shared a fascinating study of Punctuation in Novels by Adam J. Calhoun, editor of The Third Culture. Calhoun’s work was inspired by Nicholas Rougeux’s Between the Words poster project which is “an exploration of visual rhythms of punctuation in well-known literary works.”

With that said, Calhoun mapped the punctuation in a number of books (mostly novels) and presented a breakdown of the words per sentence and words per punctuation mark. Then, on a reader’s suggestion, he made “heat maps” from the extracted punctuation maps—with beautiful and telling results. The post is worth looking at for those images alone.

According to the heat maps, semicolons and colons (as indicated by blue) had their heyday in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The most recent work in the mix—Blood Meridian (1985) by award-winning author Cormac McCarthy—produced a mostly red (indicating periods, question marks, and exclamation marks) heat map with only splashes of blue. Calhoun notes, “Pay attention to the semicolons which seem to have disappeared from writing.” He doesn’t comment on the colon, but perhaps that’s because it seems not ever to have been a huge player in fiction.

Nonetheless, all that left me wondering: am I simply following some cultural undercurrent to undercut the popularity of the old semicolon (and by association, the colon) in fiction? Or has something else led to my somewhat recent distaste for these marks?

It would be great to believe that I’m simply tuned in to the cultural aether and just going with the flow on this one, but knowing myself, there’s more to it. I probably shouldn’t commit this to writing, but vis-à-vis these marks in fiction, I HATE THEM! It’s that simple. Of course, I do use them sometimes, particularly if an author prefers them.

That still leaves me with the question: why do I hate them in fiction? I can sum it up in one word—persnickety. These little buggers reek of school and writing assignments and punctuation lessons that many of us were more than happy to leave behind in the hallowed halls of learning once we were spat forth into the world.

However, wishing not to be reminded of school when I’m reading for pleasure isn’t the end of it. The fact of the the matter is that semicolons can always be replaced by periods—presuming they’ve been used correctly in the first place. Strictly speaking, a semicolon should separate two independent clauses, but too often I’ve seen them used as glorified commas. This takes us to the heart of the semicolon matter. In using semicolons, one runs the risk of not getting it right. Hence, and especially if there is doubt, I suggest that it’s usually better to stick with a comma or period.

When it comes to the colon, it can usually be replaced by an em dash if needs be, and other punctuation can also be used in its place. I don’t see this mark used erroneously as often as the semicolon, but I suspect that’s because it’s much more flexible (see here for the rules) and less open to abuse than the semicolon. Regardless, it still feels persnickety to me in fiction, and thereby unnecessary.

I think there’s also another really important angle to this, and it’s that some readers aren’t quite sure what to make of these marks, or what their proper functioning in a text should be. A misplaced semicolon or colon is unlikely to interfere with a reader’s understanding, but unfamiliar punctuation, or punctuation that a reader isn’t comfortable with, can be off-putting and thereby take away from the reader’s enjoyment.

As much as I take pleasure in resisting some current language or writing trends, in this day and age of text speak, initialisms, and acronyms, I say to hell with the semicolon (when possible)!

The Oxford Comma

Sometimes I manage to miss things, we all do. For that reason, I think there’s no harm in cheating for this post and rehashing old news, by which I mean giving a few words to the serial, or Oxford, comma. I always try to avoid reinventing the wheel, so I’ll also refer you below to Adam Davis at BuzzFeed for an amusing blog on the subject.

Very briefly, you may be wondering: what is this thing called the serial comma? As I mentioned in my first post, it’s the (now optional) comma before the final “and” in a list. According to Oxford Dictionaries, it became known as the Oxford comma because of its traditional use by Oxford University Press.

In the last few years, many writers have eschewed the use of this comma, and I understand why. If you’re presenting a simple list with only a few items, the last comma isn’t vital to the meaning of the sentence. So, for many writers, particularly journalists, this final comma can feel clunky and appear unsightly. Hence, being freed of the serial comma imperative was a liberating gift from the grammar gods … and perhaps not making that one extra keystroke is keeping the carpal tunnel syndrome at bay. All around, making this comma optional is an understandable step in the evolution of punctuation.

Before we throw the Adios-You-Unsightly-Leftover-Comma Party, hold your horses. The above is all well and good in most cases, but not in all cases. This is where Adam Davis comes in handy. See his The Oxford Comma Is Extremely Important And Everyone Should Be Using It for examples—with visual aids—of why it’s still (sometimes) needed.

I admit, for a while, I was caught up in the Lose-The-Old-Comma Craze. It felt edgy and daring. After all, the last “and” is good enough to show the reader that the comma is sort of implied, right? Alas, this blissful freedom was only short-lived.

As an editor, I usually stick to the old ways on this one. I believe a piece of writing ought to be punctuated consistently, and I have yet to edit a book that can do entirely without the serial comma. This is a compliment to the authors I’ve worked with, by the way. It means that their ideas, their storytelling, their subjects are not one-dimensional, and that their work demands the nuance and precision that the serial comma can bring.

OCD Editing

It seems fitting to outline my editing style for this first post. There’s also the pesky little matter of addressing the quote on this site’s home page, seeing as the page is littered with what could arguably be called “needless words.”

If I said I have a set of hard and fast editing rules, I’d be lying. Each book undergoes a similar process—read, analyze, reconstruct, edit. If I’m proofreading (an Overtired edit), I don’t read the book in its entirety before I begin, but I do read each chapter before I edit. I can’t say I have a favorite style guide per se. However, I shoot for consistency in relation to punctuation, numbers, and any other stylistic editing choices that have to be made.

In terms of grammar, punctuation, and syntax … some rules are meant to be broken. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that I disregard rules for the sake of it, but language is living and the use of punctuation marks in some cases can go in and out of fashion. The latitude I grant to rules is most evident in dialogue, which need not be grammatically or syntactically correct. On the other hand, I use the serial, or Oxford, comma (the one before the last “and” in a list) religiously unless instructed otherwise. I’ll save my reasoning about that for another post.

In relation to “needless words,” it’s true that good writing omits them. If something can be written in five words, don’t bother writing ten. This is a good general rule to follow. If you’re not sure why, think about those twenty pages in that book that added nothing. After you read them, did you ask yourself why you bothered? Or have you ever wondered why an author chose to go into great detail about something that never made another appearance, had no relation to anything else in the book, and served no purpose whatsoever? Your readers shouldn’t be asking these questions.

I don’t believe there’s a single correct way to tell your story or present your material. Prose can be concise or lengthy, and neither is always good or bad. Words that some may consider needless could in fact lend themselves to the enjoyment, humor, or artistry of the writing. Or more importantly, some “needless words” may provide the flair that allows the writing to resonate with more readers, and perhaps convey a message (if there is one) more clearly to some. Unconventional styles can be employed for effect, and if it works, I embrace it.

In short, my ethos is to do my best not to let rules interfere with an author’s style and tone, and to accept a word as needed before I deem it needless. I use my ear to hear the author’s voice, and I employ my editing to make that voice as sharp or fuzzy or forceful or calm as the author intended—because self-publishing is still relatively fresh ground, and I believe it proves most fertile when new voices are heard.

About

You won't find grammar and punctuation tips here, and I doubt I'll lecture about hanging participles, subjunctive verbs, or split infinitives, although I may launch into a tirade about certain words now and again. Many sites with nuts and bolts writing advice exist; I've provided links below to a few I've found most helpful.

My posts will be the result of casting my net far and wide with the aim of collating information and discussing topics that I imagine should be of particular interest to writers and authors. And of course, I may address topics that are widely discussed elsewhere, but I'll do it from my perspective in the hope of perhaps allowing something to resonate with readers in a new way.

If you're not interested in reading my guff, and just want to see my stuff, submit 500 words for a free sample edit and let's take it from there.

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