Thursday, August 18, 2016

Editor's Notes #22: The Importance of Having a Critique Partner

If we are honest with ourselves, we would always choose to believe our work is great. I mean, what's not to love? We're creative. We're innovative. We think of things no one else can possibly come up with, because we're smarter than all of them.

BUT . . . what if . . . what if, in fact, we're capable of error? Not us, of course, but all those other people: the ones who are not us. What if our their ideas are not as genius as they first appeared to be during those late-night writing sessions? Who is there to shout, "The emperor has no clothes!" when it needs to be said?

Your critique partner, that's who.

Everyone needs at least one. Sometimes more than one, but definitely not zero. Critique partners are often the only thing stopping a person from making a huge mistake, sometimes with a simple phrase like, "When reading your manuscript, I noticed something . . ."

What is a critique partner? A CP is someone with whom you trade manuscripts with the intention of reading and offering suggestions to each other for improvement. Ideally, that person should be an author. Even more important, he should be an author who writes at least as well as you do if not better. A critique partner needs to be able to look at your work from a number of angles and give sound advice and suggestions on how to improve.

This is not to say that your critique partner can't be a cheerleader, but the biggest, most important qualification when seeking one is honesty. Are they willing to be honest with you so your work will improve, even if it might make you temporarily unhappy? If they write in the same genre as you do, will they allow a competitive spirit to cloud their judgement? Face it: you don't need someone to tell you how he would have written it. You need that person to tell you how to improve what you've already written and called your own. They should be able to sprinkle praise in the middle of it all, but if the feedback is all at one end of the spectrum or the other, it won't be nearly as helpful.

Critique partners are a gentle way of thickening your skin for the not-nearly-as-kind reviewers out there. If no one has ever read your work prior to publishing, or if you've only ever had attaboys from friends and family, then that first negative review just may crush you.

Hey, it's even biblical: "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses" is right smack dab there in the middle of Proverbs (27:6, if you don't trust me and want to look it up). You need to be able to trust the person to love you enough to hurt you, which is an odd concept, but honesty from a friendly voice is always easier to handle when you know that person risks much by their honesty.

Critique partners can be many things, but I'd say "invaluable" is the best way to describe them.

Do you have a critique partner? More than one? Never heard of the concept? Do you go through them like they're disposable? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Editor's Notes #21: DO. THE. RESEARCH.

I could have subtitled this "A Short Rant on Why I'm Not Doing Your Work for You." Seriously.

My name is Lynda. My middle name is Ann, the same as my mom, my grandma, and most of my aunts on that same side of the family (no one was very creative back in the mid-1960s, I suppose). One of my good friends has long maintained that my middle name is Hershey Kiss-Cheesecake, but that's a story for another day.

What my middle name is NOT:

  • Google
  • Webster
  • Language Arts Grade 5, first edition
I should perhaps preface this by saying I really like the people I work with. Some of them I even love. When editing their manuscripts, I always, always want to do my best so their work is at its best. Editing sometimes—okay, always—involves looking things up, fact-checking, spell-checking, and a little research here and there to make sure I'm doing my own job properly. I spend a lot of time in my Chicago Manual of Style, in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Edition (or the online version of it), on a variety of editing help sites, and cuddling up with classics like Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. (Yes, it's a real book and it's terrific.) On my Amazon to-buy list is Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar.

As a copy editor, I correct spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like. If I am expected to do more, I get paid for doing more. There are times I'll suggest things or make note of a plot oddity—partly because I can't ignore something that may hurt the book, and partly because most readers think an editor is supposed to catch everything, regardless of what type of editor has gone over the book. I don't mind doing things like that, though if the book is practically being ghostwritten by me because the plot or sentence structure is so poorly done, we've now crossed the line into another type of editing and . . . yep, it costs more because it takes a LOT more time and effort.

However, I've run into the occasional author who doesn't know the basics and who doesn't seem to realize it's his or her job to learn them. I don't expect someone to know all the editing rule differences between the US and the UK, or why "riffling" is the correct word (not "rifling") when going through someone's belongings, but I do expect them to know that when people talk, their speech is put inside quotation marks. I expect them to know that an entire book is made up of more than one lonnnnnnggggg paragraph, and I expect them to know a little thing or two about punctuation in general. They may not be as well-versed in using the "track changes" and other editing features in Word that I am, but they should have a basic understanding of their word processing program so they're not completely baffled when I make a suggestion in the digital margin of the manuscript.

I'll give assistance and instruction to a certain point, and then I hit my limit and start to wonder why that person isn't just doing their own research. It takes literal seconds to Google something. That's how I've found out all kinds of things, and I'll bet you have, too.

At what point is it considered rude to say, "You need to figure these things out on your own; I'm not a writing coach"? I will be the first person to tell you what's wrong with your sentence structure, but I can't sit you down and reteach grade-school language arts. Well, technically I can, but frankly, I don't have the time.

When I suggest to someone that their scene is flat—that it needs some textures or smells to make it come alive in the reader's mind—I honestly don't know how to answer a question of "How do I do that?" without actually writing the additions for them. I can't tell someone what's in their head; they need to figure out how to express that on their own.

I love to help people. Sharing things I've learned is something I enjoy. When I get a manuscript, I'm typically pretty excited about it, because it's new, in many cases no one else has read it yet, and there are all kinds of possibilities waiting to tickle my brain. But when someone never lifts a finger (or ten of them) to do any research on their own, my first thought is usually along the lines of, I'm already dreading the idea of editing this book if they can't even figure out basics and won't try. How awful is that?

I love when I'm talking with one of "my" authors and they mention a book they've read recently on writing, the process of it, the polishing of it, or anything that suggests they're researching their topics and constantly in the pursuit of bettering themselves. Something clicks, every time, in my head, and it says, yep. That's exactly why they're so good at what they do. They don't assume they are "good enough," ever.

If you're an editor, have you dealt with this situation—and how did you handle it? I'm looking for a balance between kind but firm, knowing where to draw the line without being seen as a complete jerk. I don't enjoy feeling mean and petty inside but have a difficult time cutting the cord.

Because most of my blog visitors are authors, I'd love to know if you've ever experienced this with a critique partner. Did you ever get stuck with one you regretted, because the writing quality was so vastly different than your own?

Thanks for visiting, and thanks (always!) for commenting! I love finding out what people think.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Editor's Notes #20: What Makes You Stop Reading a Book? Part 2 of 2

So in Part 1 of this topic, I told you all how I never allowed myself to stop reading in the middle of a book . . . until I started reading some really horribly written stuff when I got a Kindle a few years ago.

Now that I've given myself the okay to JUST STOP, I've found my tolerance level has gotten lower with each passing year and each subsequent novel. The hours in any given day are much too precious to waste on a bad book. I read for money when I edit. I read my Bible each morning. I read and correct my daughter's writing assignments. I read for my day job when my boss gives us a book for the management team to discuss, chapter by chapter. IF there is any time left between editing jobs or assigned books, I read for the sheer pleasure of it. Needless to say, if there's no pleasure involved, I'm not going to bother reading for long.

Here are a few things that will make me put a book down and never look back (unless I'm physically throwing it over my shoulder in the trash):

  • No edits. This is a non-negotiable item for me. If there are grammar/spelling errors, poorly constructed sentences, misuse of words, or worse (though I can't imagine what "worse" would entail), that book practically shuts itself.
  • Characters that are caricatures or stereotyped. The bad guy who has no depth because he's always bad, and not even interestingly bad . . . just "B" movie bad. The protagonist who's good at everything: sports, school, parents love him, no zits . . . you get the idea. The mysterious stranger who's not even mysterious for a good reason. The wise elderly person. The clumsy beautiful girl with low self-esteem.
  • If I have no desire to read beyond the third chapter. I need to care about someone—anyone—or something that happens in those first few chapters, or I'm done. If I find myself skimming to see if it gets better, then why continue?
  • Unrealistic dialogue. If an author writes a seven-year-old child into a book, that child should act and speak as a seven-year-old child, unless it's a creepy book where the child is possessed by an ancient being who speaks like . . . um, an ancient being . . . and everyone knows this isn't the way that child would normally speak. 
  • Plot inconsistencies. If I am confused, I tend to think that's everyday life. However, if I'm confused while reading fiction, I'll flip back through what I've read to see if I somehow missed a major plot point. If I haven't missed anything and I'm still confused, then I'm going to assume the plot somehow went from A to C without a Point B in the middle. This happens when an author makes major structural changes from draft to draft but neglects to look at the work as a whole to see if it still makes sense. Every detail matters, and that's where a good beta reader will be indispensable prior to a book's release.
  • Believability. Even the craziest fiction has to have some degree of believability or the reader will be drawn out of the story time and again. I always think of Martyn V. Halm (whose Amsterdam Assassin novels are pretty terrific and incredibly well written, by the way) talking about verisimilitude and his insistence that things at least seem like they could be real in order to keep the reader immersed in the created world, no matter how out-of-the-box that world may be.
I'm sure I have many more peeves that cause me to be harshly judgmental* about a book someone may or may not have worked hard at writing, but these are the biggest ones that come to mind easily. *Let's face it: I'm only kind and tactful if I already like the person.

What makes YOU stop reading? Do you look for things I haven't listed here? What's your number one deal breaker that causes you to shout, "Enough!" I'd love to know so I can add it to my own list of things to gripe about. And if you've read the list above and recognize something you do in your own books, then my best advice is STOP IT. Stop it and get a beta reader to politely and tactfully tell you all these same things, only for money.

I've placed a good guideline below. If you get "BINGO" from any of your manuscripts, it's time to start rewrites so others won't stop reading.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Special Edition with the Writers After Dark Crew!

I need to preface this post by saying that just a few years ago, I would have bragged that all my friends were "real"—in the sense that I had spent face-to-face time with every single one of them at some point in my life, whether we currently lived anywhere near each other or not. I couldn't understand how anyone could become friends—true friends—over the internet.

And then I met SK Anthony . . . online, when she hired me to edit her first novel, Kinetic. Much like the insta-love in the awful romance novels we despise, our friendship was solidified within the first conversation. We pretty much went from strangers to BFFs within an hour, it seems, and it's a friendship that's only grown stronger over the few short years we've known each other. In fact, this week we celebrated three years of friendship, and true to form, we celebrated the one-year anniversary of our two-year anniversary (go with it . . . it makes sense to us) when we finally got to meet in person last summer.
SK and me, on our "date" where we laughed for 12 hours straight. #truestory
So I suppose it should have been no surprise to me that my friendship with Raymond Esposito turned out much the same. We met on Goodreads while harassing conversing with a bunch of whiny people on one of the discussion boards and decided we had way too much fun being logical with people who were . . . well, they were kind of uptight, for the most part. Our combined superpower there was that we never took ourselves too seriously, and it drove the uptight people crazy. We did meet some pretty fun people there, too, but our own friendship extended to outside of Goodreads and eventually to a working relationship when Raymond asked me to re-edit the first two books of his Creepers series. 

I ended up introducing him to SK, and a magical three-way friendship was cemented and just kept getting better and better. A few short years later, here we are: we've done a lot of book work together, we've chatted countless hours online, we've exchanged some of the strangest Christmas gifts ever, and we finally all met up in person this spring when Raymond had the crazy idea in January that he was going to throw himself a 50th birthday party and house us for five days. His thought was that either we'd emerge the best of friends, or we'd never want to speak to each other again.

It's hard to imagine how this works, but the entire five days had the feel of people who had known each other our entire lives, and who could live quite comfortably together indefinitely. Amazing. And because I happened to be in the right place at the right time, I got to be their first real, live, in-person guest on Writers After Dark. We could not pass up the opportunity to film while we were all in the same house, and I'm so glad we made the time to do it, though I will say that most of the footage does not make us look nearly as happy as we were. I think SK and Raymond figured twelve minutes of us just laughing over each other wasn't what most people would bother to watch, so here's what's left after the edits. 

Enjoy their interview, ignore that we were squished together and couldn't move, and pretend we all actually know what we're talking about in Episode 6 of Writers After Dark: Me Can Self-Edit.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Editor's Notes #19: What Makes You Stop Reading a Book? Part 1 of 2

I don't know that I was ever formally taught this, but for most of my life, I believed if I started a book, I had to finish it. No one ever sat me down and said, "Wash your hands before eating, make your bed when you get out of it, and finish every book you start," so I'm not sure where I came up with this. (For the record, I do wash my hands regularly, though the bed-making is hit or miss, depending on whether I'm the last one awake. But . . . back to the book stuff.)

Perhaps it was easier back in the day when there were fewer books available for me to read. After all, there was no such thing as a digital book—or even a personal computer, for that matter—when I was growing up, so any books I read, I either owned or borrowed from the library.

My mother recently reminded me of something I'd said when I was very young: I was afraid of someday running out of books to read. She used to take us to the library on a regular schedule, since it was also one of her favorite places to visit, and on one particular visit, I remarked at how sad I was while looking for books because I was reading them all at such a rapid rate, I was convinced that very soon there would be no more. Our town library was pretty small, and I plowed through the children's selection in short order, followed by the juvenile fiction a few years later. By the time I moved beyond that, I had no worries about a lack of reading material.

The good thing about "those days" was that I read and reread so many favorites. I can recall certain portions verbatim, or remember where I was when reading a particular book. Much like a certain perfume can take someone back to a place or time, I can't think of Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass without picturing my large, annotated hardcover (complete with super-hip 1970s artwork) . . . a gift from a favorite aunt for my 8th birthday, along with Hans Brinker in the same format. I still have both of them, and in fact picked up similar copies of Around the World in Eighty Days, Treasure Island, and Call of the Wild at an old bookstore about ten years ago, simply because it brought back all those memories in a rush.

In more recent years, the sheer quantity of books available online caused a sort of overload for me when I first got a Kindle. All of a sudden I could have just about every classic at my fingertips, and most of them were free. I began to browse the "Top 100 Free" category with regularity and consumed fresh material at a rapid pace, finding new authors I enjoyed. However, along with those good authors came some clunkers. A LOT of clunkers. Apparently, "Top 100" means "most downloaded" and not necessarily "top quality."

It was then that I discovered my time was more valuable than I'd realized. I'm the person who can't be bothered to waste seven minutes watching a news video because I'd rather read the transcript of it in less than sixty seconds, and yet here I was, committed to finishing an awful book that was poorly written, with the (vain) hope that it would somehow get better before the final page. That was bad enough, but when I found myself doing this for one book after another, after another, after . . . you get the idea . . . I knew I'd have to change my "finish or die" policy before it became "finish and want to die."

Since those early, heady days of "ALL the books at my fingertips!" and the resultant letdown as I read a plethora of bad ones, I've come up with a few general guidelines that help me to know when to keep chugging along and when to just chuck it and never look back. These guidelines have helped me with my editing as well, allowing me to give better advice to the authors I work with.

I'll share those with you in Part 2 next time.