Tag: Editing

How To Handle Difficult People

How To Handle Difficult People

I almost titled this as “how to handle difficult clients”, but I thought for a minute and realized the techniques aren’t so different. Also, the differences between “difficult clients” and “difficult editors” (you can replace it with publisher, beta reader, coworker…) are minimal.

In your career you will run into difficult people. I would even say that you will run into more of them as a creative professional because creative folk run on a different wavelength than most people. This is both a good thing and a bad thing for all of us because we creatives are passionate, excitable, often hardworking, and in touch with our emotions. It’s great. Until it isn’t.

The dark side of creativity means we are moody, protective, irritable, and often live in a world where practicality falls a bit by the wayside. We also typically want to go our own way which results in stress and headaches for everyone involved because “go our own way” sometimes means charging headlong over a cliff everyone else saw coming.

So how do we handle it when a fellow creative is being less-than-helpful with what we are doing? There are a lot of ways, but I’ve found this approach often results in fruit.

I always start with listening. Sometimes these folks have something valid to say and are having trouble spitting it out. They may not even understand the core of the problem, themselves. However, listening to someone – and genuinely listening – sometimes is enough to help them feel as if they are heard and their feelings matter.

Many creatives are living under a constant barrage of “why don’t you get a real job?” or “your writing sucks, don’t quit your day job (if you have one, burger flipper)” and so on. It’s a bad world out there for us because the arts are so under-appreciated these days. It’s a pretty terrible place to be. Not only that, but as I have said many times… there are sharks in our waters. People who prey on creatives’ hopes and dreams to turn a profit.

This all builds up into an explosive mixture for some folks. Letting them rant and rave (at least for a short time) is sometimes all it takes for them to calm down and realize that they are being a dummy. Or, at least, they will appreciate that someone took the time to hear what they are upset about.

This is tough. I’ve had clients with whom I had to be extremely patient because they just couldn’t grasp something. Or they were being bullheaded. It happens to all of us, and I have been that bullheaded client before, so I’m not pointing fingers.

We creatives all communicate a little differently. Some people are Hemmingway blunt. They say what they mean and to hell with the consequences. Others are far more flowery and require some digging to get into what they mean. They also tend to talk around a subject rather than address it. Both of these methods of communication have issues.

When interacting with other people in this world, we have to recognize the differences in style because what may come across as “mean” might just be the Hemmingway type. They don’t intend hurt or pain, but they would rather be honest with you than blow smoke. Or someone who seems “wishy washy” might well be rock solid and just be trying to be diplomatic. It can be hard to sort out the differences if you let your emotions get the better of you. Particularly if you’re talking to them online.

After listening to the person, I give serious consideration to what I’ve just heard. Is what they are saying accurate? Are they trying to be hurtful? Are they just not good at talking to people? This kind of discernment is important because it will allow you to see what is happening from a more complete perspective.

At this point, I try not to let my emotions get the better of me. If I’m upset by what they said or how they said it, I try and step away for awhile and calm down. That allows me to be more logical when I approach the conversation the second time and gives me the opportunity to focus myself and formulate my reply.

Once I understand what they are really saying and what their intent is, I can respond appropriately.

Finally, I treat as many situations as possible with professionalism. This is tough. Particularly when we are overcome with emotion. It’s easy to start creating these folks as friends and even family at times, but if this person is a client, or someone we are doing work with in any way, we need to make sure we approach these difficult situations with professionalism. That means we aren’t going to cuss them out or become sarcastic or rude.

In some ways, I find it important to rely on my professionalism when everything else is falling apart. For example, I had a client make a huge number of demands on my time. The client was rude, hurtful, selfish, and just generally a pain to deal with. They sucked up huge amounts of my time with requirements and attempted to overstep the amount they were paying me. Regularly.

I could have cussed them out when I left – after all, they had just sent me a particularly nasty message. I can tell you I was furious. Particularly since they made threats that I’d “never work in the business again” and that I was an idiot who couldn’t “see literary genius” and so on. The usual slew of insults when you tell a particularly crunchy creative “no”. Instead of cussing him out, I sent that client a very polite message and then sent every future message to my spam email folder.

When you behave that way it gives you the upper hand because anyone in the future examining the situation will see one person who is angry and unleashing a flow of invective and one who is behaving in an (at least) cordial manner and acting as a professional. Typically, judgment will lean toward the side of the professional.

To wrap this up, the three principals I have outlined here, listening, careful consideration, and  professionalism have saved my bacon more than once. This is just as true for an author as it is for an editor, publisher, cover artist, etc. The reason being is that we are all in this surprisingly small pool together, rubbing elbows. If you develop a reputation for lacking in the above traits it will spread. Regardless of what side of the industry you’re on, if you develop a reputation for being a dunderheaded, kneejerking, unprofessional individual it will haunt you. Trying to shake off that reputation is extremely difficult, too, because once people are wary of you it tends to stay that way for years.

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What Is An Editor’s Job?

What Is An Editor’s Job?

I have worked with many clients over the years who weren’t clear on this subject, and it led to frustration for everyone involved. As such I decided to write this out as a way to explain what it is we do for you.

Let’s start by discussing the three different types of editing. When you contract an editor you will talk with them about which type or types of editing you are asking them to perform. While the different types of editing are often interchanged and the definitions argued, I will give you the ones I use, and you can go from there. Also, be aware that I am approaching this from a fiction editor’s standpoint. I have not worked on nonfiction much, so I will only be giving a passing commentary on what it might mean for that type of work.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing means the editor is going to dig deep into your story to examine and work with all the elements thereof. They are going to work with you to iron out major plot holes (or, with a nonfiction work, examine your premis). If you look at your story as a dish at a restaurant, this is where you look at each element of the dish. Are the sides well-prepared? Is the meat cooked to the proper temperature? They then provide feedback on these elements and give you information on the overall construction of the piece.

At this stage, an editor might excise or have you add whole scenes or chapters to clarify points and improve pacing. It deals with the macro of the whole book rather than the nitty-gritty details. It also will examine long-term things like characters’ importance and use in the story.

Were I to boil this down into a single principal, this type of editing is dealing with the plot and story as a whole and viewing it in that light. It isn’t concerned with sentences or grammar, it is concerned with the piece in its totality.

Substantive Editing

Continuing the trend of comparing writing to food (I must be hungry), this is where the editor examines each part of the dish closely. Did you use just the right seasoning on the potatoes? Editors at this stage examine things like word choice and dialog. It nitpicks each scene to ensure it is written in the best possible way to get across your point.

During this phase editors also often do things like cull passive voice, adverbs, adjectives, and other unnecessary fluff to streamline your novel’s pacing and improve readability. If it sounds scary you’re right, it is in some ways. Having another person go through your book and pick it apart like this is intimidating, but well worth it if you have a quality editor.

This phase of editing is largely concerned with sentences as a whole. Do they flow well? Do they roll off the tongue? Do they feel right and benefit the book as a whole?

Copy Editing

The final and most focused phase of editing. This would be examining the dish’s plating technique and looking at the trimmings to ensure they are visually appealing. At this point, the editor is reviewing grammar and spelling for clarity. They will fix punctuation and syntax to ensure technical accuracy and consistency in things like dates and spelling of names, acronyms, or other words unique to the text.

During this part of the editing process, the editor is mostly focused on the punctuation marks and technical aspects of the language. They will not fix or touch your text in any other way, though they might make notes.

So what is an editor’s job, really?

Now that we know the three different types and styles of editing, we can dig into the meat of an editor’s job. I’ve waxed on about this particular subject before, and I’m going to do it again, so bear with me. I also warn you that we are now venturing into the territory of mixed opinion and fact.

I firmly believe that an editor’s primary job is to provide an author with the highest quality manuscript they can. While they must work within the bounds of the contract they created with the author, they should do everything in their power to augment the author’s ability and potential to the best of their ability. That’s fact, and good business practices.

Here’s where we hit opinion. I also believe an editor’s job is to teach authors and guide them through the publishing process if they know it. While not all authors want this advice, if an editor is able to give insight into the publishing industry as well as instruct authors on how to improve their writing on their own then they should do so.

Now, the reason I’m going into this territory is because many first-time or even not-so-first-time authors don’t know much about how the industry works. It’s a complex monstrosity that takes years and a great deal of research to fully understand. That’s just reality. Don’t be discouraged by that fact because you have guides to help you out.

To be honest, I view my job as almost teacher first and book triage second. While I can make a lot of money providing first-aid services to authors whose books need a lot of work, I sleep better at night if I teach them how to improve their books on their own so they don’t need to rely on me as much the next time around. It creates better relations with my client and provides them the best possible service, in my opinion.

What isn’t an editor’s job?

Now that you know what an editor’s job is, I am going to highlight a few things that are not included in the job description.

  • Writing your book for you.
    • This is the territory of a ghostwriter. We don’t want to write your book because we have enough work of our own to do. If you are looking for someone to write your book for you (or close enough) make sure you express this in the beginning and engage someone who provides ghostwriting services.
  • Rewriting your book in their voice.
    • Now, I’m going to preface this by saying voice is one of the most often misunderstood parts of writing. Your “voice” is not too many adjectives, passive voice, adverbs, or other writing sins. Your voice is the unique way you put words together that only you have.The only way an editor can damage this is by gutting and rewriting large swaths of your novel in their voice.The best way to handle this is to look at suggested sentences and rewrites and see if you can understand the direction the editor was going. If you like the way they wrote something, then stick with it. If you don’t then see if you can change it around to fit what works for you. This process doesn’t include snark, however. There is no need to be unfriendly to the editor if you decide to re-rewrite or adjust something they have suggested.The only time you might run into trouble with this is if the editor is working for a publisher because at that point they have final say on what makes it into the book.
  • Being a punching bag.
    • While this should go without saying, some authors become very snippy and require a great deal of coddling. This is not our job, and if you are that level of needy it will become a problem for us. Many editors do their best to be gentle to their clients and give them the benefit of the doubt, but we do not have to accept grief given by clients.
  • Being available at all hours for your convenience.
    • Again, this should go without saying, but some clients don’t recognize office hours or business weeks and expect their editor to answer emails or other contact forms instantly. The downfall of freelance is we work from home and often end up unable to pry ourselves away from our work. As such, many of us have specific office hours that we do not violate.These office hours and days off and so on are mandatory for mental and physical health. I can’t tell you how many editors and publishers I know who go to sleep dreaming of emails they haven’t sent or edits they didn’t finish. That said, unless there’s a pressing deadline, we need to disengage from our computers and be human beings every so often. Yes, many of us are crazy cat owners who spend our days watching Netflix, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need time off to recharge.

Integrity

Owing to a recent event I witnessed where a writer claimed to be an editor and author with Random House (and very much wasn’t), I thought it prudent to share my thoughts on the subject. The sad thing is that this incident isn’t isolated. I can’t count the number of people I’ve come across who tried to inflate their status with false claims or exaggerated ones. Many “award-winning authors” won their awards at a tiny venue with a single book club of ten people, many so-called editors are just scam artists who prey on writers, many “publishers” are second-rate hacks who know nothing about the industry or the process.

Being anything but honest will come back and eventually bite you in the butt. This means marketing yourself as yourself, being honest if you’re a novice, and not claiming to be more than you are. I’ve been in the industry five years and have no trouble admitting to people that I’m still new at all of this. I don’t know everything, and I want to learn more. As my friend and mentor, Randall “Jay” Andrews quoted to me today: “Education is not the filling a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (William Butler Yeats)

So many people use false credentials – both in writing and in business in general – because we have fostered this notion that just being ourselves isn’t good enough. I’d like to say that it is, in fact, good enough. It may not be good enough for every project all the time, but being yourself and being honest is what will make the difference between success and failure. When people pitch their books to Insomnia I am honest with them that it is a new company. Folks can take that risk or not, and they aren’t judged on it. The contracts are transparent, and we are open and clear about everything. There’s no reason not to be.

Through the years I have developed a name for myself editing and writing, and through no point of that process was I dishonest with my clients. I have even turned down clients who I didn’t feel I could help. I could have taken their money and tap danced on their manuscript for awhile, but what was the point? The money? Sure, I could’ve done it for the money, but if I become that money-centric that I sacrifice my integrity then I am doing something very wrong.

The take away lesson from this is that your integrity is valuable. Don’t pretend to be something or someone you aren’t because you want to be more than you are. Accept who you are, and if you don’t like how things stand then learn. Grow. Change it.

Much Ado About Typesetting

Since this is what I’ve been doing lately I figured I’d write another blog about it, but this one is going to be more technical. The first thing I want to tell you – something I learned the hard way – is that typesetting for print and for ebook are 100% different. No joke. If you aren’t going to be printing your book in hard copy then your typesetting is entirely different than it is for a physical book. How I learned this? By spending about four days bouncing off the walls because I couldn’t get my PDF to convert it into a format that didn’t look awful. Every time I tried to export it from InDesign into anything else the formatting was sloppy and horrible. There were random words in random places, page numbers on improper pages… it was nightmarish. So, to save you that frustration I now tell you the obvious: it doesn’t work like that.

Also in this blog post I’m going to discuss interior design, albeit briefly, because that is a part of the process. It, too, changes between formats which is one of the reasons you will notice that e-books tend to be more sparse on things like dropcaps and so on.

To me the easier of the two is e-book formatting, so I’m going to start there. After reading some tutorials online about going from a Word Document to an ebook I twitched. Going from Word straight to press? Perish the thought. The idea of doing that makes most typesetters green at the gills. However, for ebooks it proved to be the simplest way to accomplish the task.

The most important thing I learned about ebook creation is that, unlike traditional typesetting, there are very, very few page breaks. The reason for this is that on a device where the font can be changed and text made larger or smaller you can’t predict where the page breaks will be. As a result you should not insert them except at the end of chapters where you want to force the flow to switch pages no matter what font or size the reader is engaging at.

Secondly is don’t use dropcaps or other fancy formatting. It won’t carry over cleanly and will provide a massive headache. You can do simple things like adding in bullet points or maybe a horizontal rule, but it will be very difficult to have text boxes off to the side and so on without being far better at this than I am. As a result you want to limit yourself to as light formatting as possible. Stick to the usuals – bold, italic, underline, strikethrough. The reason for this is because when the Word document is exported through the conversion program it is changed into xhtml which is then read into .mobi, .epub, or whatever format you like.

If you have graphics you will want to keep them as simple as possible and avoid their use if you can because they may not align well. Epub is a rather limited file format, or so I am told, and it can’t really handle a lot of the things that we might want it to, so be careful what you attempt to do with it. I am sure that, with enough time and learning, those of you writing childrens’ books that are full color and illustrated could figure out how to make your pages look good in that format, but I couldn’t tell you right now how to do it. This is more for books that are a straight read and contain very few graphics.

formattingexample

When you are done with your formatting the pages should look like this (without the red). They should be LEFT ALIGNED and have minimal formatting. This page has a page break before the first line and after the ISBN because it needs to stand alone in the book. I killed the personal information about this book because it’s not ready to hit the market yet, and this page may not be in its final form.

Finally, transferring your Word Document to the various file formats can be done in several programs. Calibre, for one, is open source and does a good job creating the files for you.


Traditional typesetting, however, looks much different and, unlike ebook formatting, should decidedly not be done in Word. As I referenced in my last post, I have developed a strong preference for InDesign as a typesetting program. It is a little less overtly friendly than MS Publisher, but it proved its worth to me in letting me have a project done in far less time than I could have anticipated otherwise.

When you are traditionally typesetting you must control leading (the distance between lines), kerning (the distance between individual letters), page breaks, page numbers, and everything else you see when you open the page of a book. Spoiler alert – there’s a lot you don’t even realize is there until you start doing it.

One of the biggest things you are going to be looking for during your typesetting process is eliminating widows and orphans. That is, lines of text leftover on a page or column when the rest has migrated onto the next page. A widow is a single line of text at the bottom of a page where an orphan is the same thing at the top of a page. They’re sad, lonely things and really should be with their families.

In addition to that you must work on designing the page layout for each page. The author’s name, the book’s name, the page numbers, the use of graphics on the chapter pages… all of these things are part of your process and are a lot of work. I’m not going to give you a step-by-step process on how to do this because there are better tutorials out there than I can provide that will center around your preferred software.

Typesetting Programs

This is mostly for the self-pub crowd, so if you are planning on trad. publishing then this will maybe be interesting, but it won’t be as important to you as it is to folks who are doing this on their own.

Typesetting is one of the most overlooked bits to putting a book together. Everyone knows about cover art and editing and marketing and… but they forget typesetting.

 

Typesetting is different from interior design which are the doodads that make your book pretty, like artwork. Instead, it’s the long slog through the text making sure widows and orphans don’t exist, preventing words from hyphenating onto the next line, and making sure, overall, the book is prepared for print.

I’m writing this coming off the heels of typesetting my first book, so I shall share with you my tale of woe. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s 5:30am and I haven’t been to bed yet. I also started this project at around 11pm. I’m insane that way.

Anyway, the first thing I will tell you is DO NOT TYPESET IN WORD. A lot of self-published folks try and do this, and it’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Word doesn’t output clean enough documents and doesn’t have the tools to make typesetting easy or smooth. Sure, you can theoretically do it just like you can theoretically tapdance on a chocolate cake. But the results are… lamentable.

From there you will be looking at design programs. The first I will mention is Scribus. I dabbled with it, but couldn’t figure it out well – however, since it’s open source it’s a great idea for authors who want to do typesetting on the cheap. And I am sure there are tutorials out there, so if you want to take the time to learn it I am certain that it can work for you. I know many people who swear by it, so I have nothing bad to say regarding the program.

Second is Microsoft Publisher. I started my project in Publisher and by about 12:30am I was screaming for mercy. The auto-flow wasn’t auto-flowing, and I was about to scream and punch my monitors. Both of them. However, I restrained myself because they are kind of important to my job. It is more user-friendly on the surface that Scribus or the next program I’m going to mention, but it definitely lacks in the arena of ease of use once you get into the crunchy bits, and the auto-flow function is… well I have nothing to say about it that won’t come out in furious cussing.

Finally is the program I learned at about midnight after watching this tutorial. After that I have, other than finishing a few minor notes, finished typesetting the whole book. So, all in all, it was maybe four hours in InDesign to typeset a nearly 400 page book. It looks intimidating on the surface, but once you begin using it the powerful features become indispensable and you will find yourself able to accomplish a lot of work with very little effort and time. No joke. The downside is that InDesign is expensive since it’s put out by Adobe. I am lucky enough to have the CS3 package from back when I was in college, and it works just fine for everything I need.

While I could talk your ear off about the details of typesetting all I have the brain for right now is telling you that it is important, and that you can do it yourself pretty easily if you have the correct tools and tutorials.

You Mean It’s Work?

My least-favorite type of writer is this one, and I’m sorry to be the mean one to say it, but it’s true. There are many of them in the world, and I never stop being frustrated by them. It’s the people who, when they put their work up and you critique it say:

“This isn’t supposed to be work.”

Hold on there, Hemmingway. Take a step back and say that again. This isn’t supposed to be work? So, what? You just think something up, slap it down on the page, and it’s an instant masterpiece? Right. Because Michelangelo just decided to be a painter one day and the Sistine Chapel happened. He didn’t spend his entire life dedicated to his craft or anything, right?

Personally, I think this type of person is worse than that aunt or cousin who thinks you should quit writing and get a real job. At least they have the excuse of not being a writer. They don’t know how much we work our butts off to hone our craft and accomplish our goals.

For some reason writing has this stigma attached to it, like it’s different from the rest of the arts. No one thinks you can learn violin over night and become Lindsay Stirling in a week. And if they do they learn otherwise in the first few notes. The same thing with painting. You can figure out you’re not Rembrandt by sticking a paintbrush in some paint and slapping it onto canvas with the precision of a four-year-old eating spaghetti and know you aren’t a painter pretty quickly. Maybe it’s because words on a page look like words on a page, and if you don’t know what you’re looking at it isn’t as obvious (sometimes) as the fact that your painting looks more like the floor after a frat party than it does your Aunt Gladys.

We’ve all had those friends in our lives who write Godawful poetry and ask us to read it. We are expected to smile and nod because it’s an expression of their twisted, suffering SOUL. It breeds this feeling that you can’t tell someone their writing would be improved by judicious application of gasoline and matches. Believe me, sometimes you need to be told that. You also sometimes need to say it.

Writing is work. It’s long hours of grueling, frustrating, BORING work. If you are trying to make writing your profession you need to pull up your boots and wade in because it will require the same dedication that any job or collegiate-level education will demand. Your long hours in front of your computer pounding away keys are your freshman 101 classes. Then you hit your senior year when you realize you have to make something coherent out of that mess.

I have spent hundreds of hours on the manuscript I’m working on. I wrote it in a furious rush during NaNoWriMo 2013 and have been polishing and ironing out the kinks since then. It takes that long? Yeah. Yeah, it can. You know why? Because it’s work.

I don’t say this to the detriment of folks who write as a hobby. Hobbyists are doing it for fun. They may be exceptionally talented, and may even be good writers, but they are doing it for fun. Professionals are different. Professionals are expected to be… well… professional. We can’t just slap down awfulness and be satisfied with it because that isn’t who we are.

Those who don’t want to put in the time, blood, sweat, and tears to become strong writers aren’t going to cut it as professionals. They’ll be mediocre hacks for the rest of their lives whose time is better served doing something else.

Working With a Pro. Editor

I want to preface this by saying I’m not a bigwig editor who’s been doing this for thirty years and makes a million dollars a contract. I am a pretty small time editor who has more bills than money, and I’ve been in the industry for about five years now. Of course, I’ve been writing and reading far longer, but when it comes to the business of publishing books it’s been about five years.

However, during that time, I have spent most of my career as an editor of various sizes and flavors. In addition to doing work for Insomnia Publishing I do freelance editing (as you all know!), and during a recent discussion with a prospective client I heard him talking about how most editors he’d worked with were either not aggressive enough, not flexible enough, , or tried to rewrite the story in their own words. Those are all sort of the “deadly sins” of editing, to me. Hearing that got me to thinking. Mileage may vary, as I can only speak for myself and my philosophy, but I’ve known enough other editors to be able to bounce these thoughts off them, too.

The job of an editor is complicated. While we need to ensure the writing is as polished as we are able to make it we cannot insert our voice into the writing. That requires being a chameleon. We must be able to make any things we insert into the writing sound, to the best of our ability, like they belong there. Either that or, my preferred method, is write what we think should be added  then encourage the author to adapt it to their own use however they see fit. That way the author can make tweaks to ensure the work is their own.

We also need to remember to be “aggressive” enough to address everything we think is wrong. If you think a whole chapter belongs in another part of the book or doesn’t work at all? It’s your job to tell the author that! I have no hesitation in saying when something doesn’t work. You are being paid for your opinion, and if you aren’t honest and up-front about what you think then you’ve taken someone’s money and not provided the top-tier feedback they expect from you. It’s disingenuous.

HOWEVER —

You need to separate out your personal taste from whether or not something makes sense. Just because I have personal preferences when it comes to my “style guide” that doesn’t mean that my style guide is superior to someone else’s. If I encountered an author who was deadset against using my precious Oxford comma I wouldn’t attempt to force the issue; that would be disrespectful. But if an author wrote the whole book in passive voice and claimed it was superior to active voice then you have a duty to attempt to reason with them. That said, unless I’m working with someone as part of a publishing contract, I am not going to fight with my clients. That’s just rude.

An editor also needs to be a bit flexible. I have clients who have specific style guides for their writing that needs to be adhered to. It’s important to them to make sure said style is present. As such I need to be prepared to learn and watch for the things in their guide. It’s important particularly if I am working with a client whose work is being overseen by another publisher since they will have their own guidelines.

I’m sure I had some witty way of wrapping this up when I started it, but it’s wandered out of my head. I think I’ve said all I needed to say, though, about editing and what I feel some of the most important attributes of an editor are. These, of course, are not the only things we need to know. We need to be skilled at grammar, multiple styles, and understand the structure of stories as well as having a good head for word usage. It’s a complicated bunch of things we need to know. But when it comes to working with clients I think these are some of the more important PR points we have when handling manuscripts for other people.

Critique That Makes You Cry

I have read several posts and thoughts on various media over the last week dealing with critique. One discussion on Twitter asked about what “your method” was and if you left the receiver in tears. My immediate response was that if someone is crying because I critiqued them then it’s one of two things: I have done something terribly wrong or they weren’t ready to be critiqued.

On the giving end a professional editor for Disney and friend of mine, Jay Andrews, suggested using something called “The Sandwich Method” where you first try and say something positive about the piece, then talk about the things that need work, and finish with something uplifting. I recently saw someone criticize this method saying that it requires you to be dishonest, and they’d rather you just hit them with the facts. All of this got me to thinking that I should probably toss my hat into the ring to discuss critiques and what my philosophy is.

As a professional editor people pay pretty good money for my opinion on their writing. If they’re approaching me to work on something they’ve written they won’t get their money’s worth if I am not direct with them. As such I don’t shy away from saying what works and what doesn’t; my professional integrity hinges on this honesty. Regardless of who they are and how close to me they may be I will always tell them the truth about whether what they’re writing is good or not.

But the question really becomes how do I break the news to them if it’s something that needs to be worked on? I don’t use the Sandwich Method, though I recognize its tried and true structure (which, by the way, is taken straight out of Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People). Before digging into the piece I first ask the person I’m working with what kind of critique they want. Do they want to know if the plot works? Are they asking about characterization? Do they just want me to touch up grammar? Once I’ve ascertained the nature of the edit they want I start looking at the piece.

And that’s where my professional editing and friendly critiquing diverge.

If I am working on a piece professionally I will dig in with the red pen and begin my work. While I will leave comments that are more gentle than “WTF were you thinking?!” I won’t pull punches. I will tell the person what does or doesn’t work and advise on ways to repair it. That is, after all, what they are paying for. That doesn’t mean I’m rude, but I am more straightforward than not with my comments on the piece.

In a critique, where my opinion is more or less optional and not being paid for I am far gentler. My phrasing is usually along the lines of, “You might consider…” or “What I would do is…” and more often will comment about the positive parts as well as the ones that need repair.

Regardless of whether or not I am editing for pay, however, if I am making someone cry I have done something very wrong. My job isn’t to be hardnosed or give them hard words. As an editor my job is to help their work improve and help them improve as writers. If I alienate them or really hurt their feelings then they aren’t learning anything except that I am a jerk. I’d much rather build a rapport with the writer in question,  so they understand and listen to what I have to say.


Now, when receiving critiques there are a few things to think about before you start the waterworks, if they are tempting. The first is that critique isn’t about you, it’s about the writing. If someone hits you with a hard-and-fast critique that leaves you spinning take time to think about what the person is saying and evaluate it. Does it make sense? Is it true?

With critique (and even with  professional editing) you don’t have to use everything said, and you don’t have to agree. If you don’t agree with what the other person said then don’t use it. No harm done. No matter how hard the other person argues their point it’s still your book. The only time you will lose the option to ignore their advice is when you have hit publishing. If your publisher tells you to change something the options are typically to change it or lose your contract.

That said, when asking for critique one of the best pieces of advice I can provide is don’t argue. Even if the other person is flagrantly wrong about everything they said they still took the time to share their opinion with you. The only appropriate response is going to be “Thanks, I appreciate you taking the time” or to ask polite questions if you require clarification. Asking questions is perfectly acceptable while challenging the critiquer outright isn’t. That’s just going to end in an argument, and no one will walk away happy. It will also deter people from critiquing your work in the future because it can result in bad blood between you and your critique group.

My friend Randall rightly says that when you are receiving critique you need to develop what he terms as “lizard skin”. It means you don’t take things personally, don’t get worked up because someone didn’t like what you wrote, and you focus on whether or not the person’s comments have merit. If they don’t you move on, if they do you consider whether or not they will be useful or applicable to you. That’s it. You are not obligated to do more than that because unlike a publisher these people have no say in what you do with your book.

When To Back Away

I have recently had to back away from several side projects I’ve been heavily involved in. I learned a lot from them, but there comes a point in life when you just don’t have time to dedicate to everything. As writers we so often have our head in the clouds that looking at what’s in front of us is no easy task. So I’ve had to work on getting my act together and focusing. Lately that has meant narrowing down and slimming off the top.

With the launch of Insomnia Publishing my priorities had to shift away from what they were before. I’ve had to remind myself that I need to dedicate everything I have to that project and to the books being produced through the company. It’s been hard because I’ve had so many things I wanted to spend time doing. I have hobbies, my marriage, my pets, and life to fit around my writing time. And since picking up Insomnia my personal time for writing had vanished because I was so busy running around writing for everyone else that I forgot where it started to begin with.

Being a writer starts and ends with you. If you aren’t writing, you’re not a writer. And for the last few months I haven’t been a writer. I’ve been an editor, a farmer, a church deacon, a reenactor, a violin teacher, and many other things… but I haven’t been a writer. That realization slapped me in the face with NaNoWriMo coming up. Last year, for the first time, I “won” NaNoWriMo. I was extremely proud of that accomplishment, and I started planning things for my book as soon as I hit that 50k mark. It wasn’t finished by any stretch, but I had plans.

Then I became wrapped up in other things. Write this blog, write that article, edit these pieces, accept or reject these submissions, record this podcast, publicize that on Twitter. Bit by bit my writing time evaporated and life took over, reducing my ability to focus on what I wanted to focus on. That novel is still sitting on my hard drive and hasn’t been touched for months because I have been too busy pleasing everyone else and trying to write for other people. Recently I had a few hours to myself, and I brewed myself a mug of tea, booted up my word processor, and sat down to write.

I stared at the screen for about an hour. Nothing came out. I looked over my notes, put on some music, and tried to get myself in the mood. Still nothing happened.

I spent about four hours sitting in front of that word document and managed only to write a handful of words before deleting them, hitting “save” and closing it in frustration. I’d tapped myself out. I’ve neglected this blog which, for awhile, was quite popular, and I have managed to fall out of touch with the muse who has been such inspiration to my writing for so many years.

It was time for change.

After a long process of consideration I realized that I needed to cut things out. I needed to step back, and I needed to evaluate what needed to be done for me to be able to get to that place again. I have, over the last few days, come to understand the problem: I wasn’t a writer. I was all of those things I listed – many of which are important – but I wasn’t a writer. I’d lost whatever spark made me into a writer, and now I have to go about finding it again.

I know it’s like a bicycle. Once I begin to start doing it again, it will work, and I won’t have forgotten it. But sitting on that seat and strapping on the helmet to take your wobbly first few pedals down the driveway is intimidating to say the least.

I guess the moral of the story, for those of you whom have stuck with this long enough to finish reading it, is that you shouldn’t let this happen to you. While life may pull you in a hundred different directions you need to make sure you carve out time to write or you will lose it. Then, when you finally sit down to put work into your own projects… nothing comes. It’s a tragic feeling, and it feels very much like failure. That isn’t to say it is failure, but it’s an awful sensation that I’d just as soon spare you from feeling.

POV Characters (or: You Are Not George R. R. Martin!)

Point of View - IMG_7561
Point of View – IMG_7561 (Photo credit: Nicola since 1972)

There are several schools of thought regarding point of view characters. However, in order to discuss them I’m first going to define what I mean when I say “point of view character” since there are many definitions floating about aimlessly.

To me a point of view character is the character that is currently center stage. They are the one driving the plot, and they are the one whose story is primarily being told. There may be more than one, but think of them as the lead character. To use a few examples – Harry Dresden from “The Dresden Files” by Jim Butcher (my current obsession),  Menolly from “DragonSong” by Anne McCaffrey, Shadow from “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman… I’m sure you’re starting to get the picture by now as well as some insight into what I read in my spare time. Your POV character does not have to be in first person, but it is from their perspective that the book is written.

With that in mind I want to stress the importance of your POV character(s). This is the lens through which you will be sharing your story. Regardless of whether it’s written in first person or third person (if it’s written in second shame on you, sir, shame) the viewpoint character is the reader’s vehicle through your story. They ride with them whether over their shoulder or directly in their head, and your world is revealed to them along with the character.

Having multiple viewpoint characters is a common literary convention; many authors employ this tactic to give the reader multiple sides to a story, allow a reader to know what’s happening in other locations (or even other times), and generally give a broader view of the world. This can be a very good thing. It can also turn bad very, very quickly if you end up with too many.

With the popularity of “Game of Thrones” as a most recent example of such a work people are starting to write books with more POV characters than Stephen King has books. Alright, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I promise it isn’t much. As a Public Service Announcement I’m here to tell you that this is a profoundly bad idea.

The hard truth of the matter is very few writers are able to pull off more than maybe three viewpoint characters in a work without running into continuity errors, flow problems, and issues with just plain having too many stories going on at once. Most writers should maximize out their POV characters at two (or three if you must). You should also make sure that you are extremely clear about which character is speaking when. You cannot change POV mid paragraph. You shouldn’t change POV mid chapter, and if you change POV between chapters make sure your audience knows it up front. Otherwise you will end up with a great deal of confusion.

When using multiple POV characters you will also need to make absolutely certain that your organization of your novel is spot on. There is no set formula for how many chapters should be written from which point of view, but however you do it make sure that it fits. You should also make sure you have test readers look at things for you. If they are confused by the switches something is wrong, and you need to adjust for that. Don’t get defensive and cranky; just do it.