Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Editorial Comment Has Been Withheld

by Bethany Maines

Earlier this week Laura Spinella (Legend In Her Own Mind and author of Beautiful Disaster) posted a link on Facebook to a great 2010 blog on How To Write a Novel. The blog ended with the sage advice that we should always “revise like crazy.” But as I was working on the first act of a friend’s novel (and by working I mean “merrily hacking out entire pages, paragraphs, and characters that didn’t advance the story”), it occurred to me that an equally important piece of advice might be to “get thee to an editor.”

I remember, with that fond feeling of nostalgic rage, my own editors who told me repeatedly that a character who only shows up in the first act probably doesn’t need four pages devoted entirely to him. Oh, the foaming fits I had! How that vein in my forehead throbbed! The drinking problem I developed! OK, maybe not that one, but you get the idea. The worst part was that they so frequently turned out to be right.  Being edited turned me into a better writer.

So in the hopes ferreting out some helpful chunks of information for us writers without the pain of character deletion, I chatted up two of my editor friends, Christy Karras & and Jim Thomsen. Christy is a travel writer, while Jim prefers noir and true crime (see his short story in West Coast Crime Wave), and both have been editing for well over a decade in one form or another. 

Do you differentiate between line editing & story editing?

Jim: Big time. One of the first things I ask a prospective client in the feeling-each-other-out stage is whether they want a straight line-edit or if they want help with their story. It's amazing how often they haven't thought through that question. 

Christy: Yes. I think there's a huge difference. A person can do both at the same time, but you're looking for very different things in line editing and story editing. Also, line editing typically comes at a later stage in the project.

How do you approach editing a novel?

Christy: With delight. 
Seriously, I see the editing process as a collaboration between editor and author, and I think it's important that both parties feel comfortable and that communication is open. I send the author a written agreement, so we're both clear about the work and the terms. It's exceedingly important to me that I preserve an author's voice. Although I'm very thorough, I try not to fix anything that ain't broke, as they say. Sometimes, something is correct for that book, even if it's not correct according to the Chicago Manual of Style.

Jim: One, I make myself clear on what the client wants. 

Two, I read the whole thing without making any edits so I become familiar with the client's writing voice and thus don't take too heavy a hand in my editing. For instance, if the writer likes to use lots of sentence fragments, and has a deliberate effect in mind when using them, then I see from my read-through that I shouldn't interfere with that. It's not my job to stomp on a writer's voice, and it's only through a distanced familiarity with that voice that I can make the distinction between errors and artistic license.

Three, I dive right in and do what I call a "Hard Chicago," with the Chicago Manual of Style handy.

Favorite type of work to edit?

Christy: I love editing mysteries, probably because I love reading them. They involve another level of story crafting that I find fascinating.

Jim: Romance, by far. I'm not interested in romances as a reader, but I am interested in romance authors as clients because they almost always have their stuff together. Most are affiliated with Romance Writers of America, and as such they have studied their market and know their craft. Their characters and plots and narrative arcs are almost always well-constructed, and I find myself admiring their discipline as I do my work. The work itself is easier than it is for other kinds of clients, and almost every single romance-author client has been a dream to work with — friendly and professional and appreciative.

What is the best thing a writer can do to prepare their novel for editing?

Jim: Two things:
1. Know the scope of the job going in.
2. If you're adamant that you don't want story editing, make sure your novel has been story-edited and that full revisions have been made. Otherwise, story issues will trip me up in my line-editing, and thus make the job take longer, thus costing the client more money.

Is there anything you wish people knew/understood about editing?
Christy: People think a lot of writing is arbitrary, in a way. They say things like "a comma goes where you would pause in reading a sentence." But that's not how it works. In general, there are reasons for why doing something a certain way is correct. You, as the author, are fortunately spared knowing all of those rules and reasons, but your editor darn well should know them. If your editor can't explain the reason for a change, run away!

Jim: What Christy said. We’re here to make your work better, not to impose our wills and egos upon you. That said, appreciate that what are professionals and will charge a professional’s fee for our services. But, as a counterbalance against what may seem like a high estimate, I offer absurdly flexible payment terms. One client paid me half the fee for a job, and gave me a beautiful refinished bedroom dresser for the rest. Another has paid me $50 a month for over a year. I get what I get … but that doesn’t mean that I’m trying to vacuum out your checking account. I want to work with you as often as possible, for as long as possible.


  1. Great stuff,Jim and Christy! Thanks for giving us a bit of an inside look at what you do!

  2. I liked this too. Nice to know how you do it.


  3. Great post, Bethany. I have a wonderful editor who doesn't pull any punches and my writing is better for it. The best piece of advice I was given was that if something doesn't move the story forward, it goes. Kind of like "kill your darlings." I keep that in mind when I wax rhapsodically about the color of my protagonist's skirt. Maggie