In this month's #IndustryInsights, new PHS columnist, Liam Livings, talks about lessons he's learned while working with copy editors.
I’ve worked with dozens of editors in four different publishers and each one has taught me at least one new thing. It maybe something about myself, the editor, or the writing itself, but each time, I’ve always learned something. Here’s my top twelve.
1) Track changes are your friend. They show you and the editor what’s been changed between each draft and means you can keep ‘track’ (can you see what I did there) of your story as it moves through the edits. If you’re not familiar with how they work, there’s plenty of videos online, but the comment box feature is one of my favourites as it allows you and the editors to have a conversation about parts of your story.
2) A good editor shouldn’t write for the author. If your manuscript comes back with great sections crossed out in red (see above on track changes) and rewritten in a different colour, then you have a problem. It’s the author’s story and the editor is there to support you to improve the story – to make it a better reading experience. The editor should point out that a section isn’t clear and ask the author to rewrite it.
3) A good copy editor shouldn’t SPAG-shame the author and show off his superior skills on these. Chances are your editor will know more about spelling punctuation and grammar rules than the author. After all, you don’t need to know how a car works to be able to drive it. And essentially, you don’t need to know about dangling modifiers, present participles, gerunds and the subjunctive ‘mood’ (it’s not a tense I’m told) to be able to write a compelling interesting story. However, an editor does need to know these things.
If your editor shames you in the track changes and points out you’ve got something wrong, then she’s not doing her job right. An editor should point out something’s not technically correct, and ask if you want to leave it that way, with the main objective being READER COMPREHENSION, and not perfect SPAG. One word sentences aren’t strictly speaking correct, but I read and write them all the time in fiction. Always.
4) As an author you should pick your battles. Once – and I can’t believe I was this person because normally I’m not this person, but on this occasion, I so was this person – I had a stand up row with an American editor working for an American publisher about the hyphenation and capitalisation of the Great British Bake Off. His suggestion didn’t sound any different when read out, but it just wasn’t how it’s written for the British TV show. And my goodness, was I insistent on having it my way.
Sadly, this somewhat weakened my position when I wanted to argue that a British character would say ‘it was camper than a row of tents’ rather than ‘campier than a row of tents’ which the American editor insisted on. If something is right for the character and fits for your author voice, pick that battle, and let the rest slide.
5) Readers don’t need a ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ for ever other line, especially if it’s only 2 characters talking. People walk and talk and chew gum and throw balls all at the same time in real life, and so should your characters. Add in some movement to keep the scene moving. It takes up the same number of words and brings the scene alive.
6) Readers need a little description, somewhere more than I write in my first drafts (which is basically none because long passages of description bore me) and less than a Hardy or Dickens novel. True story, I used to skim read these classic novels so much while at secondary school that I missed the rape scene in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and also most of the first third of Great Expectations (in the latter case, with not much loss in storyline). Without a brief description of the location in which the characters are talking, and what they’re doing / wearing / look like, some scenes can have a tendency to read like radio plays. Or ‘headless voices acting in a dark room’ as one editor pointed out to me.
Give the reader enough to ‘see’ what’s going on, but don’t have lists of adjectives for every item. Pick 2-3 key things per character at the most. If it’s a bedroom with single beds against opposite walls and a bedside cabinet between them, that’s enough. Readers don’t need the measurements of the room, the colour of the bedspread or what’s on the bedside cabinet (unless it’s relevant to the story). If I write, ‘waterfall’ or ‘farmyard’ or ‘thatched cottage’ everyone can immediately see that in their mind. Generally, especially in category romance novels, where the word count is restricted, we don’t need to know lots more detail, unless relevant. Instead let’s get to the internal dialogue and emotions of the characters.
7) Consider who tells your story carefully. First person point of view is great if you have a strong narrator to tell the story but otherwise it’s pretty restrictive as you need them in every scene (unless you have another character recounting the other scene to the narrator). Third person is much more flexible as it allows the author to move about in the story much more and tell the story from other characters’ perspective (if using close third person, including emotions and internal thoughts while still in ‘he/she’ perspective.)
8) Content editing is not line editing which isn’t proof reading. These three processes should take place after each other and preferably by different editors.
9) A start and ending of a story can often nicely echo one another for good symmetry.
10) Perception filters may matter and yet again they may not. The jury’s out on this one depending on which editor you talk to - not to mention readers. ‘She could feel the snow on her face,’ includes a ‘could feel’ which is a perception filter as we’re already in ‘her’ head, so it should be written (according to some received wisdom) ‘Snow fell on her face.’ I don’t think most readers care or notice this sort of stuff if the story is compelling enough.
11) Show don’t tell is one of the worst pieces of writing advice and should come with a health warning. Have you ever read a novel where the author has been schooled in the strict ‘show don’t tell’ brigade and has shown EVERYTHING... Every morning routine repeated six times with the same shower, make-up and mirror, drive to work... Every joining scene between main scenes with the characters driving between locations just to show them moving between settings... Every conversation of small talk buying drinks, greetings, goodbyes etc, all shown in line by line detail... And every emotion strictly shown through banging hands, clenched fists, fluttering stomachs.
It should be show and tell because every novel needs both. Both telling by summarising scenes, but also, shock horror, telling the emotions too. Modern category romances tell emotions all the time. Include dialogue, actions and internal monologue to show us the emotion, but sometimes an emotion is so complex that it would take paragraphs to try to convey it, when a simple word will tell the reader instead. How about this:
‘If you mean the half sisters, yes,’ With trepidation, Tess eyed the coffee cake her mother had unearthed.*
Or how about this…
With her mind too weary to focus, Willa blinked at Lily. ‘What?’
‘I’m going to run you a hot bath. You’re frozen and exhausted. You must be starving. There’s stew on the stove. Tess, you fix Willa a bowl.’
Willa had just enough energy left to be amused. Her baffled smile followed Lily out of the room. ‘She’s going to run me a bath. Can you beat that?’
- Nora Roberts, Montana Sky, 1996.
I’ve put the telling of emotions in bold and italics. Imagine showing those emotions instead, it would slow the scene down no end when really we want to zip along to the dialogue and the conflict. I’ll tell you who wrote those at the end of the article.
12) Head hopping is and also isn’t a thing. Some of my publishers won’t accept stories if they include it. Other published stories I’ve read from large publishers who publish dozens of category romances every month, include what an editor taught me is strictly speaking, head hopping. Until I started writing in the third person for the reasons above, I didn’t know what it was. Basically, including more than one character’s thoughts and emotions within one scene, is described as head hopping. However, in a romance it’s important to include emotions of main characters and often they’re both in scenes together, so short of having line breaks mid scene to swap whose head your in, it’s often simpler to just have both main characters’ emotions in the one scene.
Obviously there’s a limit and you wouldn’t want to include everyone’s emotions from the waitress, the pub landlady, the bus driver and the woman who winks at the heroine on page 3 and never returns. So is head hopping a thing or not? Who knows...depends which editor you ask!
Liam’s latest male/male category romance, Heat Wave Astoria, is out now. For more information about his writing, check out his website, and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and his blog.