Okay, so maybe this isn’t your editor’s mind, but an editor’s mind. I’ve been working with a lot of new authors recently. Authors who’ve never worked with an editor before. Now, I’m passionate about quality writing. I’m so passionate, that sometimes I worry that I come across as too strict when I edit. So I’d like to take you behind the scenes with a little fictional exchange between me and a totally made-up manuscript.
Scene: Patricia’s Editing Cave
The music rises. Cue the Law & Order theme song.
Voiceover: The names and faces have been changed, but the situations are real. We now present, “Tales from the Editor.”
Patricia sits down and opens a client file. Her eyes roam over the screen. “Not bad,” she says. “First paragraph indent, proper font, paragraphing. Okay. Let’s see what this baby’s got.”
Five minutes pass. Patricia chews on her lip. Her brows knit together. She opens up a web browser and types, “define: cumberbatched.”
“Huh.” She adds a comment to the document. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Benedict Cumberbatch’s name used as a verb before, but this works quite well. Though the Chicago Manual of Style would probably want you to capitalize it.”
Another few minutes pass. She reads a ten sentence paragraph. Frowns. Reads it again. Another comment. “Every sentence in this paragraph follows the same structure. [Action] when [other action]. I challenge you to vary this structure.”
She thinks, “My own editor challenged me to a variety of tasks when she and I started working together. I like using that phrase. I think it seems nicer than simply telling a client that they need to fix things. Almost like a game. Or How I Met Your Mother.” The voice of Barney Stinson rolls through her head. “Challenge Accepted.” A chuckle escapes.
Five pages later. “If I see one more [Action] when [action] sentence, I’m going to scream. Okay. Time to take a break. Clearly I’ve been at this too long.”
The next day, she picks it back up again. “Ha! Okay. The idea of a cat stealing the heroine’s favorite pair of chaps is damn funny. I should comment on that.” A few more pages pass. “Those damn double dashes again. Why can’t Scrivener deal with the em-dash properly out of the box? Why can’t authors?” She shakes her head. “Because very few people ever teach the em-dash. That’s why.”
Patricia opens a new comment window. “Whenever you’re breaking speech, for example, when your character gets interrupted, you always use what’s called an em-dash. You can insert an em-dash by using Word’s autocorrect features or by going to the Insert menu, choosing Symbol, More Symbols, and picking em-dash. Scrivener doesn’t do this natively, but I can walk you through how to configure it so it does it for you every time.”
An hour passes. “If only I could edit as quickly as I could read. Too bad it takes like six times as long to edit a paragraph as read it. I could get so much done in a day!”
Her eyes start to burn. She’s getting really worried about this one character. The author is putting him through hell. Comment time. “Your hero has been beaten, stabbed, shot, and now you’re killing his sister? Whoa. You’re slapping a dark thriller label on this, right?”
More pages. The hero gets a break. He even gets to sleep. But the author spends five paragraphs telling the reader about how he brushes his teeth, flosses, examines his reflection for gray hair, feeds the cat, folds down the blankets, fluffs the pillows, and turns out the light. “Time for another comment,” she says. “This is one of those circumstances where you don’t need to tell us everything. Most people are familiar with the acts of going to bed. It’s enough to say that he fed the cat, took care of his needs, and went to bed. We don’t need to know about his brushing in flossing in grand detail.”
Page after page Patricia reads. She fixes repeated words like three instances of the word soft in two sentences. She changes passive verbs, phrases like “I felt, I knew, I saw, and I heard.” She laughs. She makes appreciative little comments when something good happens in the book, and she shakes her head whenever the author doesn’t use a contraction in casual speech.
And then Patricia’s done. She prepares a summary for the author of their top three or four types of mistakes and of the things that she liked. She hopes that the author understands that she only wants to make the story better, not tear the author down. She worries that the author will take things personally, and Patricia is never personal when she edits. She’s objective, rational, and has to take herself out of the story. She can’t afford to be personal because personal doesn’t fix stories.
Next week on Inside your editor’s mind, the word Literally and why it needs to largely disappear from fiction.