Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Editor - a Writer's Best Friend

By Chester Campbell

I just received the edited manuscript for my fifth novel, The Surest Poison. Some writers might think that’s an appropriate title for a bunch of pages with red marks scattered about. I view it as an opportunity to make the story more exciting and more compelling for readers.

I’ll admit I was a bit intimidated back in 2002 when I got the edit of my first published book from the editor. It looked like the Wreck of the Hesperus, figuratively speaking. Some whole pages crossed out. Three pages of notes referencing various points. It took two more revisions before I got the all clear.

But I learned a lot in the process, and the edit marks showed up less and less in the next three books.

I’ll have to confess I’m not the best of editors, except when it comes to grammar and punctuation. I honed my craft in that phase as a copy editor on a newspaper. That part of the process involves mostly superficial stuff. It’s the more subtle aspects of character motivation and relationships that sometimes pass me by. I don’t read with a critical eye. As long as the plot is plausible and the story is entertaining, I’m not disturbed by characters who get a bit quirky at times. If they get overboard ridiculous, that’s different.

Some readers are as critical as editors, however. They are turned off by characters whose actions don’t fit the picture of them that has been drawn in earlier scenes. So I’m headed back to the drawing board (or laptop) to make a few actions appear more in line with the dictates of logic.

One thing my editor appreciates is words and phrases that paint vivid pictures. I try to use them wherever possible, though I occasionally find I’ve gotten a bit too flamboyant and wind up applying the old delete key. It’s easy to fall in love with a beautiful phrase, but chances are it will end up sounding a little too cute. When that happens, it’s ax time.

Another of the editor’s jobs is to look at the big picture and decide if the story flows properly from beginning to end. Sometimes switching a couple of scenes can heighten the tension. Occasionally, a chapter might be switched to another location.

With my first book, I was a bit intimidated by the editorial process. I had to admit the editor was right on nearly everything he suggested, but I wasn’t sure what to do when I strongly disagreed. I talked to the publisher and was told, “It’s your book. Do what you have to.”

On those few points, I had my way, but overall the book was infinitely better for the editing it received. My friend Chris Roerden’s books, Don’t Murder Your Mystery and the updated Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, give lots of good advice on self-editing, which has helped improve my writing in many respects. But it takes the unbiased eyes of an outside editor to get the story ready for the printer.

Thank God or good editors.


Beth Terrell said...

I second Chester's recommendation of Chris Roerden's DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY. A writer who has that book and Don Maass's WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL has a gold mine of solid writing instruction.

Of course, there are other good ones too, but these two are top notch.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Good article, Chester. I also have Chris Roerden's book and reread it frequently. I also have a quote from the book on my blogsite.