I’ve had the outline for that book on my desk for four years. Stared at it guiltily month after month as I worked on other projects. Over time I fleshed out bits of it, added to the plot, eliminated some ideas that seemed hackneyed with more experience, and modified the story arc so that the central crime of horrific snuff films and who was behind them took on added importance.
In the process, I reread Fatal Exchange, and decided to rewrite it. I cut a few thousand words, cleaned up a lot of the language to something more polished, and generally re-edited it so I felt it lived up to the its sequel.
If you Fatal Exchange already, I’d see about re-downloading it, because it’s worth a reread, should you be in the mood. I notified Amazon that I rewrote large chunks, so they should send out a notice to anyone with it on their kindle, but who knows when that will happen?
So that’s what I’ve been up to. I’m now working on researching a post-apocalyptic trilogy, tentatively titled The Day After Never, which will release beginning in April. I’m chomping at the bit to write it, which is always a good sign, and if I don’t botch it, the main character should be one of my most interesting yet.
In the meantime, here’s a cover reveal for Fatal Deception, which just went out for pre-sale on Amazon. You could do worse than ordering it. Just saying.
I am asked with some regularity how to go about selecting a good editor.
My approach to qualifying an editor is much like the one I use for everything: treat all claims skeptically, and demand proof.
There are a lot of authors who tried to make a go of writing and selling books, failed to do so, and have now hung out shingles as editors in an effort to make money from something writing-related. While some might be competent, most are no more so at editing than they were at writing. It’s important to understand that when a market matures as the ebook market has, there’s a rush to sell picks and shovels to the miners when it becomes obvious that the actual business of mining kind of sucks.
So here are some basic tests guidelines and questions to ask:
1) What background in editing does the editor have? Have they worked for a traditional publisher? If so, that’s a leg up, because it presumes the trad pub did some diligence and the person’s at least marginally competent.
2) Verify their claims. Get references and check them.
3) Understand that getting an MFA no more qualifies one to be an editor than teaching English as a second language to second graders. Actual experience, preferably years of it, trumps any degree. Remember that in all classes, there’s a bell curve distribution of competence and intelligence, and with your luck you’re dealing with the slowest in the class, not the shining star. As a general rule, editing is a craft that one improves at with time, and that requires considerable experience to do well, just as does any trade or specialized skill. Declaring oneself to be an editor is akin to declaring oneself to be a physician – there’s a bit more to it than that, and a smart customer checks for substance to the claims.
4) Who else have they edited, and how happy are those authors with the process? Read a few chapters of the last three books the editor worked on via the Look Inside function. Are they unreadable crap? Ask authors whose work you admire who they use. Never a bad place to start.
5) Do they edit in your genre? Every genre has conventions that you need to be aware of. It’s better to have someone who works in your field than someone who is trying to apply broad rules of grammar unilaterally.
6) There’s no free lunch, and you generally get what you pay for. You don’t look for the best deal on heart surgeons, attorneys, or parachute makers. You look for the most competent. Ask around, get an idea of what the norm is for costs, and expect to pay that. You have exactly zero reason to expect you’ll get a sweetheart deal from anyone competent – because competent folks generally have a full book of business and don’t have to discount much, if at all.
7) Narrow the field to your top 3 picks, and ask each to do a few pages of your work (same pages) to see how their approach works with your voice and expectations. As a note, many beginning authors fear an editor will stifle their voice. With someone competent that’s bullshit, just as having a singing instructor won’t stifle your singing voice – it will focus it, train it, and make it better. But a crap editor can ruin your work. So avoid bad ones.
8) You want the truth, not validation. People who will tell you the truth are rare, and valuable. Treasure them.
9) Understand what kind of editing you want. Many confuse proofreading with editing. It’s not the same thing. A proofreader will catch typos, punctuation errors, and occasional grammar issues. An editor will work on sentence clarity/structure, echoes, idea repetition, plot holes. A developmental editor will work on story flow, character arc, plot, pacing. Determine which you’re after and don’t expect one to do the other’s job. They are different skills.
10) A good editor makes you a better author. Finding one is a process. There are many poor to mediocre folks touting services, and there are good ones. As with most things, buyer beware. Skeptical examination of claims, requiring and checking references, and ensuring the editor is a good stylistic match are musts.
I recently reviewed Lawrence Block’s new iteration of his novel writing guide, and after finishing my WIP yesterday, was inspired enough by that book to share what passes for my approach for producing a page-turner novel.
After creating a rough outline that fleshes out my story with all the basic elements and characters (as detailed in my blog on outlining), and satisfying myself that the arcs work, I look at each chapter as a developmental editor might, and ask myself how I can make it the best in the book. While impossible to achieve, that’s a good starting point, and forces me to focus at the chapter level so there’s no filler or fluff.
When I’m evaluating a chapter, I try to ensure it contains either an action beat, a surprise, a revelation that’s key to the story, a reversal, or frames a question to which the reader is compelled to know the answer.
I often try to work in more than one of these elements. As an example, I might have the protag learn that her best friend was murdered, which posits the unspoken question, who’s the killer? I might have her make the discovery after she’s chased by a mysterious figure (action beat), demanding another few questions be answered: who’s after her, and why? And I might finally have her turn the tables on the pursuer, and have her shadow him to discover more, only to have him disappear into an unexpected location – a church, or a whorehouse, or the governor’s mansion – whatever. That would be an action beat, two burning overt questions and a subtle one (who’s the killer?), a reversal (hunted becomes hunter), ending on a surprise that frames yet more questions (why that location? What does it mean?), all in the same few pages.
For a real world example, let’s look at JET, which was written three years ago, so the technique wasn’t refined – I was basically flying by the seat of my pants, but in hindsight, I applied my process instinctively. In the prologue, we’re introduced to a bureaucrat in Belize who is walking across a plaza. He’s assassinated by a rooftop sniper, who then rushes to a waiting car. It’s obvious he’s a pro, and the only line of dialogue in the couple of pages, closes the chapter: “One down.” So what do we have there? An action beat (assassination) that raises several questions: who was the bureaucrat and what’s his significance to the story? Who is the shooter, and why did he kill the bureaucrat? Why Belize? And finally, who are the others who are targeted – as foreshadowed by that final line? That’s at least five questions in a few paragraphs, set up by a brutal execution that lets you know there’s going to be some unexpected twists ahead. The reader is compelled to keep reading if they want to learn more. Mission accomplished. The action gets their attention, but it’s the questions that drive them forward.
Now let’s take a more macro view of the story’s design. I have each act (I usually write three or four act structures) end with a major beat, where a big question is framed that’s answered in subsequent chapters. I tend to think of them as big, bigger, and biggee, on a three act structure, with the answer to the final one something the reader won’t see coming. I don’t always accomplish that lofty goal, but I shoot for it, and if possible, manage a couple of twists at the end. The more the merrier, as long as it doesn’t feel contrived. Readers are delighted by twists, but only if they’re honest, meaning if they go back and reread, it all hangs together logically and was arrived at fairly.
As I’ve written more I’ve become increasingly mindful of structure, and am convinced it’s well worth taking the time to require all chapters do as much heavy lifting as possible. If you think each through with this logic, you’ll find yourself cutting quite a few scenes that should really only be sentences , or modifying sections to increase their urgency.
Once I’ve concluded this process with the outline, I then review all the sections a final time and ask myself why anyone would have to continue after each, rather than going to bed at a sensible hour on a work night.
Note that I’m not offering suggestions on story arc, character development, description, or any of that. All are important, but this assumes you’ve already mastered sufficient craft to have those nailed. You could also use my approach when pantsing, asking yourself how to heighten the tension and raise the ante at every turn. For me, more time-consuming than outlining, but whatever works for you.
Also note that this is not a process to write a better novel, but rather how to structure a better novel so that when you write it, you do so with no meandering, the objective of each chapter clear in your mind, fleshed out with suitable hooks to keep the reader wanting to plow on with it rather than putting it aside.
I find the more I follow this process, the better my work. I’d rather know up front if I don’t have sufficient story and create a secondary or tertiary plot, than have to fluff up the page count with endless accounts of what the trees stirring in the morning breeze reminded the protag of, or spend paragraphs on the scent of jasmine on the summer wind, etc. That’s not to say you want to eliminate any lyricism to your prose, but rather you want it to be maximally engaging – a page turner. You can balance lyricism against that objective, and optimize the effectiveness of both.
I’m pretty sure this process can work for any commercial fiction, regardless of genre. Tension, suspense, urgency, reversals, all are staples in a writer’s toolkit.
Obviously, the better your craft, the less noticeable the bones of the technique are, but it’s one of the things I wish someone had explained to me when I started writing – it would have spared me a whole lot of fumbling around trying to grasp what really works. It sounds obvious, but if you write stories the reader can’t put down, your odds of making a living go up exponentially.
So there are the keys to the kingdom, free of charge. I can’t stress the difference this approach can make in crafting an un-putdownable read. Try it and see. It’s more work, but by demanding more out of every chapter, and putting each through these hoops with no exceptions, you’ll find you write a better book.
And that’s never a bad thing.