Tuesday, May 29, 2012


“Get out a piece of paper and in the upper right/left/center of the page, write your name, date and the word….”

I could get my students to hang on my every syllable with those words. Among the possible responses were:

“…quiz.” (groans)
“…essay question.” (head clutching)
 “…word problem.” (cries for mercy)

Yes, I was a math teacher. I also taught life science, drama, English, world history and journalism. I used the same little script no matter what subject I taught. I used to trip up the script a little; at least three times a semester I’d say,

“…pizza party.” (cheers and applause)

My students would have to plan the pizza party themselves; how to order, where the money would come from; and so forth. One year the enterprising drama students made pizzas in the home ec (oops, “family science”) classroom and sold slices, banked the money and earned enough to buy decent wireless mics for our next production. They didn’t see that as an elaborate word problem, but it was and I seized the moment to show them how they were thinking algebraically. That brought one of my favorite student comments, “Ms Locke, do you have to get algebra into EVERYTHING?”

Well, yes… for instance, this is how math ties in to writing:

If I have two apples and you have three apples, how many apples do we have?

If I have ten apples and you take five apples, how many apples do we have?

 If I have 2.5 apples and you have 2.5 apples, how many apples do we have?

 You have an unknown number of apples. Solve for x.    2x+2=12

Four ways of saying that we have five apples. As a writer, which do you use? As an editor, which one do I think you wanted to use?

He had five apples. (OK, what’s he going to do with them?)

There were only five apples left. (Oooo, why only five apples, weren’t there supposed to be more?)

They each had two-and-a-half apples. (That’s odd, why do they each have half an apple?)

2x+2 =12
2x+2-2 = 12-2
(Why is our heroine doing simple algebra? Ah, I see, “x” represents the apples!)

One of the neat things about math is that (generally), the numbers don’t go off and do whatever they want to do.

Your characters shouldn’t go off and do whatever they want to do either. We, as writers and editors, try to keep the character’s actions consistent within the parameters we’ve created for them. And if you have a character that goes Walter Mitty, you have a darn good reason.

For instance, many of the sample chapters I read for “the Als” (see last week’s blog) would go something like the following.

“You know Sally, there were 23 apples in this dish and now there are just eighteen left, I can’t imagine where the other five apples went. I mean, there are just three of us here, so if two people ate two apples each – I only had one mind you…”

Sally shrugged. “Geez Tom, Dick made an apple pie. It’s sitting on the table.”

I would want to run screaming for my blue pencil to edit that to something like:

Tom looked perplexed. “Weren’t there more apples in this bowl?”

Sally glanced at the bowl and said, “Dick used five of them to make a pie.”

Al taught me that if Tom is a blithering ninny then maybe we want the first version.

Tom can evolve from a blithering ninny to… whatever the author wants him to evolve to; we just don’t want him a ninny in one paragraph and a ultra-confident super spy in the next. Unless of course, Tom is an ultra-confident super spy working undercover; and then I might discover that “apples” is a code word for “diamonds” and “pie” for “heist”.

The cool thing about math is that formulas have been developed to simplify basic tasks: finding the area of a room or the distance between point A and point C if the distance between point A and point B are known.

And there are formulas for writing. The point, just like in math, is to give us more tools to work with. For instance, tangent can be calculated using a knotted string*, a string and a ruler, using SOHCAHTOA**, punching the numbers into a graphing calculator and hitting the [tan] key, or using an online graphing calculator. You chose the one that works for you, given the materials you have available.

No matter what kind of writer you are -- writing from a neatly-organized outline on your laptop… to stream-of-consciousness, scrawling your words in the sand with a stick -- checking writing against a formula is a great tool.

The first two variables in writing formulas are--

There’s a protagonist and an antagonist. He author decides who the good guy and who the bad guy is. Perhaps we merely have the lesser of evils (or goodness). Maybe there’s one person all alone on an alien planet – the planet becomes the protagonist or the antagonist.

As mentioned before, these characters have a clear and compelling voice or there is no story.

Your story is either about everything being OK and going awry; or everything is awry and goes OK. You decide where you put your characters; they can go from burning fires of hell to unicorns and rainbows or anywhere in between.

The rest of the variables in the formula address pacing, flow, and arc of action.

If you’ve read novels written prior to say -- 1900 -- did the pacing, flow or arc of action seem odd to you? Did you expect the action to take one turn when it took another?

How stories flow is something that has evolved between writer and reader and has been deeply influenced by the pacing of movies and television. The reader now expects certain things to happen at certain points in the story. For instance, the reader expects action to build for say… 60 pages… and then they want some resolution to the tension. Maybe the author decides to stretch that out, or compress it or ignore it.

If you play with the formula, then you’re doing it for a reason. You want to jerk your reader’s head around; you do it by not doing what they expect.

Next week: more on the formula.

* A sextant, which assists in measuring the “unknown” leg of a triangle, giving you your position on the planet. For instance -- http://www.mat.uc.pt/~helios/Mestre/Novemb00/H61iflan.htm

**SOHCAHTOA = a way to remember the definition of the basic trigonometry for the sides of a right triangle - the side Opposite the angle, the side Adjacent to the angle, and the long side, the Hypotenuse.

S(ine) = O(pposite)/H(ypotenuse)



Sunday, May 20, 2012

The "Als"

The “Als” were Albert and Alice; Bert and Lacey to their friends. Professionally they Al Koplinsky, a literary agent specializing in two-fisted detective, police and western novels; and Alice Riesling, literary agent specializing in romance novels and “women’s” fiction. Together they were Zenith Literary Agents.
I was a typesetter at a small community paper and they put a classified ad in looking for an assistant. I typeset in 9 point Century Schoolbook: “Zenith Literary Agents seek assistant. Send resume to Al Koplinsky, 1920 Floral Heights Road…”
I recognized the references to Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis; it was and still is one of my favorite novels. I reviewed my slim resume and sent it off, with a short cover letter asking if he liked Sinclair Lewis.
Al called me at work a few days later; without preamble he asked what my favorite quote from Babbitt might be.
The question caught me by surprise, “Er, the one where he is defined by the things he owns, there’s a commentary about it in Mark Schor’s afterward in my copy of the book.”
“And what did you think about George Babbitt, young lady?”
“I wanted to like him, or maybe understand him, but he didn't make it easy.”
I heard the sound of a match being struck on the other end of the line. “And what part of the book did you dislike?”
“Where Sinclair Lewis does the obvious comparisons; the dinner parties where people are trying to social climb; one other place where his son is eating ice cream.”
“Very good. Let’s have you come out and meet us.” He gave me driving instructions. I could hear a woman's voice in the background.
“My wife says it's wonderful that you read,” he said and hung up.
They lived in a one of a thousand similar cul-de-sacs in suburbia. I wondered if I'd be able to find it again. Al's office was built over the garage was got up like a 1940’s detective movie—frosted glass door, old oak desk, battered filing cabinets.
“Got all this stuff cheap – they’re tearing it out of the old office buildings in Seattle,” he said. “Sad, but I can have an office like Sam Spade.”
“Or Philip Marlowe,” I said, sitting down in a creaky leather swivel chair. Al gave me an appraising look and lit a cigar.
“How old are you, young lady?”
He scanned my resume. “You want to be a journalist. Why aren’t you reading Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, and Hunter S. Thompson?”
“I am, but I like Raymond Chandler’s style.”
Al gave me a typing test, a proofreading test, an editing test. I didn’t know there was a difference between proofreading and editing. Alice tapped on the door and came in. She introduced herself as a “not-quite-retired” teacher.
She “graded” my tests and said, “She’ll do.”
It was a kick working for the “Als”: most of the writers they represented didn’t know that Alice reviewed and answered the query letters and did the first edits on submissions they accepted: two-fisted men’s fiction or flowery romance novels. Al did all the marketing; calling publishers, advertising, arranging for book signings and book tours.
I quickly learned that men wrote romance novels and women wrote westerns. The Als also represented writing teams who could churn out two or three books a year. One team had a science fiction, detective noir, and a chop-socky marital arts manuscript all in production at once.
They put me to work reading through their slush pile. By then end of my first week on the job I could tell I great query letter from a horrid one in two sentences; I could soon do the same with sample chapters. I was disappointed to find that much of what was submitted to the “Als” was dreadful; usually over-written and clich├ęd. However, bad spelling and punctuation did not mar a great story.
One incredible manuscript was almost unreadable because of spelling errors; the author sent a laboriously handwritten cover letter. He was dyslexic, as father had been; despite that, his father had been a career Army man; a decorated hero in Work War II, the son had gone to Vietnam, served “up to his balls in swamp water” for two years and had come back alive. His story was a fictionalized account of their lives.
Al drove to San Francisco to meet the author. “He’s almost too good to be true,” he said. “But he’s written a great story and I’d take it on even if the author was a poof living in the Castro.”
He called his wife a few evenings later; she took the call in the house and I waited for days for him to come back and enlighten me about what was up. It wasn’t until I was editing the manuscript – my first editing assignment – that I learned that the author was a woman, a friend of the family she’d fictionalized in her novel. They sent my first edit out; she loved it – and then she stopped returning calls.
Al sighed. “Dollars to doughnuts she’s submitted the edited manuscript to a publisher on her own,” he said.
He was right. Al had been shopping the story around; shortly afterward one of the publishers called Al and said, “It was a great first draft, told her to get an agent, polish the manuscript and resubmit.”
As far as I know, the story was never published. Every so often I look for it under one of the three or four titles it could have had. I’ve Googled the author’s name. Nothing.
It was a great story; and my first introduction to the “Al-3”. I still use the three as my primary criteria to meet when reviewing sample chapters, manuscripts and scripts (or working on my own writing). Ideally, the author captures all four in the first two paragraphs of chapter one. Number one on the list is a deal-breaker – if the protagonist doesn’t have a clear and compelling voice, there is no story. Conversely, everything about a submission can be horrible, but if the protagonist has a compelling voice, I’ll keep reading.

Does the protagonist have a clear and compelling voice?

Does the manuscript start “in the action”?

Can I tell right away if the reader is on the outside looking in or the inside looking out?

Sunday, May 13, 2012


I can only think of only one famous and/or rich editor: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was famous and rich long before she went to work for Viking Press and later, Doubleday. Of course, there is a list: http://www.ranker.com/list/list-of-famous-book-editors/reference (Number fifteen is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.)

I'm sure she had assistants. I wish I did, but alas, I am my own minion. I would love to have someone to sort through the slush pile for me the way I did when I worked at the bottom of the minion heap as an editor's second assistant. I read submission letters, sample chapters and manuscripts, prescreening them for the editor's assistant, who would review my recommendations and decide what to present to the editor.
The editor would take on a story from a first-time-author with no agent if the story was compelling, even if the writing was horrendous. He'd speak to the author and see if they understood and could handle substantive editing

For the record:

PROOFREADING is correcting basic errors: typos, spelling, grammar, punctuation, verb tense and subject-verb disagreement, errors in word use, checking copyright issues -- and in the digital age, checking hyperlinks.

COPYEDITING is checking style and consistency, which includes the above, plus: formatting (typestyle, consistent construction for lists, headings, citations, footnotes/endnotes, Bibliography); fact-checking; cross-checking citations, figures, tables with references/source materials; suggesting improvements in syntax for clarity and logical flow. In addition, for fiction: arc of action, dialogue, word choice, POV, sentence structure, clarity.

SUBSTANTIVE EDITING is polishing a manuscript, all of the above, plus: make relatively minor changes; recommend what to delete, rearrange, reword; query author about gaps, contradictions, inconsistencies; polish prose -- suggest clearer phrasing, smoother, better flow of ideas; review copy by multiple authors for consistency.

DEVELOPMENTAL EDITING is working with the author from the idea or early draft stage; this could include ghostwriting or co-authoring a manuscript. Often the proofreading and copy editing is done by another editor.

The publishing house I worked for handled both fiction and non-fiction and I quickly learned that EDITING NON-FICTION is a different than EDITING FICTION. Editors who work with legal, medical and academic papers have a different task -- make the writing clear without changing the meaning of the text.

We might abhor using adverbs in fiction: my English teacher would circle “slowly”, and I would rewrite: “He walked slowly” would become “He dawdled... lingered... dragged his feet... moved slow as a snail on a cold sidewalk...” However, when a doctor writes “slowly” in a professional paper, presumably that's exactly what she means. My edit would be to quantify “slowly” (“5cc/hour?”)

When I started in the business, at least a half-dozen people reviewed a manuscript on the way to publication: an agent, an assistant editor or two, an editor; the typesetter, the proofreader at the type house, and of course, the author, who would review galley proofs.

The agent's job was to smooth the path so the author could write. We had lunch meetings, the editor, the author, the agent, and (eventually) me. I got to know the author. 

But now, an editor or two at the publishing house, perhaps an agent, and the author are responsible for pushing the manuscript to publication. Sometimes it's just the author trying to release an eBook and discovering that it's neither cheap nor easy.

I've never met the authors I work with; we do all our work online. A few years ago one of the authors I worked with was startled to find out that I was a woman; we'd worked on three manuscripts together, all tough-as-nails detective stories. He said, "Your editing voice is very masculine." My response was, "Your protagonist is a man's man, I'm editing as if I were him reading about himself."

Why work as an editor? I edit because I live to write. I've always written and I've always edited, even correcting the grammar and punctuation in my mother's letters to her friends and sisters. I used a red pencil, proudly purchased at the stationery store for just that purpose. I must have been a real pain, but mom would send the letters off with my copy edits in place. Wish I still had those letters; I wonder how well I did editing mom's prose.

Monday, May 7, 2012

So You Want to Be an Editor?

I love writing, I love being an editor. Being a writer makes me respect the work I review as an editor, no matter how rough or polished, rude or sophisticated, cliched or original the manuscript is. (I was thinking of editing that final "is" out... hmmm...) The writer got down and wrote -- and that is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

I have not one, but four manuscripts of my own in various stages of being done, I participate in NaNoWriMo and the Three-Day Novel Contest every year and I write 750 words a day to keep my chops up. The more I write, the more I respect writers.

Ah, the life of an editor. We were the ones who were probably paying attention in English class. We love punctuation  -- Eats, Shoots and Leaves  -- many of us can still diagram a sentence and define a gerund. We use the words subject, predicate, protagonist and antagonist in everyday conversation. We can tell an adjective from an adverb. We know that we no longer double-space before the beginning of a sentence.

Few people understand what we do; fewer still understand that there are different kinds of editing. I am told that most folks think of proofreading when they thing of editing -- but there is much more to editing than that. Editing non-fiction/technical/academic work is dramatically different from editing fiction. Got your Strunk and White? MLA, APA and AP style are different than the Chicago Manual of Style, which is my reference for editing fiction.  (More about this to follow in the next post.)

An editor has to know her genres and those have extended far beyond western, detective, spy, science fiction. But now, for every one of those familiar old genres there is a sub-genre of horror, paranormal or fantasy (or all three). I could write multiple paragraphs about the genres and sub-genres and  the huge Young Adult (YA) market. But the point is editors usually pick the genres they like to edit. They are familiar enough with the genre to know when an author is mimicking another author's style or plagiarizing it outright.

Folks following this blog will notice a huge gap between the first postings and this latest series; there was another book-in-progress posted -- it is deleted now because the book is in draft and by golly, I have an arc of action and a beginning, middle and an end.

And those (arc of action, beginning/middle/end) are just the start of what an editor looks for in a manuscript.

Stay tuned!