An American Editor

May 22, 2017

Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap II

by Carolyn Haley

In Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap I, introduced my four-stage work routine — preflight, formatting, editing, and cleanup — then began a discussion of the first stage in my editing process: preflight.

Preflight’s purpose is to prepare the manuscript for reading, minimizing the number of elements my eye needs to attend to during editing. For the mechanical tasks involved, I use the following software tools:

Editoriums FileCleaner

I use FileCleaner,  which is included in Editor’s Toolkit Plus 2014, for general cleanup of extra spaces and returns, curly versus straight quotation marks and apostrophes, and the like. Once I’ve selected which elements I want the tool to address, it takes seconds to do so and I can enter the file confident that I don’t have to watch for those things.

EditToolsDelete Unused Styles

I use the Delete Unused Styles macro to remove style clutter that comes with the file. In publisher manuscripts, somebody has already addressed styling, but indie-author manuscripts are usually messy and need some housekeeping. When the incoming manuscript is really messy, I address it during the next stage, formatting.

EditTools’ Change Style Language

I use the Change Style Language macro to ensure that Word’s styles in the incoming file are set for American English, so the correct dictionary is utilized by Word’s spelling checker. (This is particularly handy with one of my regular nonfiction jobs. The files I receive for that job are provided by multiple authors and often have different language settings. Most of my fiction work comes already set in American English, but there are just enough random exceptions to make this speedy preflight step worthwhile.)

EditTools’ Never Spell Word

I use Never Spell Word (NSW) to catch typos I’m prone to overlooking, such as form/from, let’s/lets, its/it’s, hang onto/hang on to, vice/vise, woman/women, lead/led, your/you’re, quiet/quite, and many others. I add words to the list every time I recognize a repeat mistake or one I haven’t made yet but easily could.

NSW highlights every occurrence of the designated words, which forces me to look at them and choose. I can either jump from highlight to highlight on a dedicated pass through the document, or pause during the edit to accept or fix each one as it appears. I’ve tried both approaches but discovered that I have a tendency to ignore the highlighted words when absorbed in story flow. Now I dedicate a pass to examining these highlights, usually scrolling rather than jumping so the context flows by. In this way I also pick up the gist of plot and characters, gaining a passive preread that helps me spot storycraft issues to pay extra attention to during editing, such as pacing, tense changes, or multiple viewpoints, while remaining ignorant of the details so I can discover them as a reader.

EditTools’ F&R Master

F&R Master lets me find and replace up to 10 terms and characters in one background run, instead of stopping to examine each and make a decision. With F&R Master I’m looking for irregularities I can safely change globally, and my list includes both words and punctuation.

For example, American indie authors intermittently use British spellings; I, however, always adhere to American spelling according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., unless directed otherwise before the job starts. Certain British spellings crop up so often among diverse indie novels that I’ve created an F&R Master dataset for them and run it on all manuscripts. This dataset comprises words ending in -wards (e.g., towards, backwards), which I replace with their s-free American spellings (toward, backward), and the color grey, which I change to gray. The changes get called out on my style sheet.

Other British spellings appear so randomly that I’ve not yet assembled a list for them to enter into a macro. They tend to be either very obvious in the text and I deal with them when I encounter them, or they get caught later by PerfectIt or Word’s spelling checker.

At present I’m building a list of terms that might be British, and/or American archaic, and/or American alternate spellings that keep popping up in fantasy novels — e.g., leapt, dreamt, burnt — along with words I have to look up repeatedly to confirm which is contemporary American spelling, such as knelt vs. kneeled, shined vs. shone, lit vs. lighted, façade vs. facade, décor vs. decor, and their ilk. Most likely I will put these under their own tab(s) in NSW after I’ve finished gathering and organizing them so they will be flagged in the document.

The punctuation changes I do globally using F&R Master are inserting the terminal comma before too, anyway, though, either, and as well (at least one of these occurs in every manuscript), and adjusting ellipses and dash styles (which vary among manuscripts and often within a manuscript). When the author does not have a preference, or I know the manuscript will be submitted to traditional print publishers, I use ellipses with spaces before, after, and between the points, and em dashes without spaces on either end. In cases where I know the author will be self-publishing an e-book, or the author specifies a preference, I use Word’s glyph for ellipses, and en or em dashes with spaces. I’ve set up and saved the F&R Master options not only to switch from one dash or ellipses style to the other in different combinations, but also to find occurrences in dialogue where the space after an ellipses point or dash needs to be dropped before a closing quotation mark, as occurs when a character’s speech trails off or gets interrupted.

Some find/replace combinations, such as possessives for words ending in s, remain best done manually, because there are enough exceptions to make it risky to fix them globally. I always do a quick search for s’ and ‘s to make sure Travis’ dog is Travis’s dog, the 1960’s are the 1960s, and so forth; also that the author hasn’t pluralized dogs by adding an apostrophe (dog’s). During both preflight and cleanup I also search for inverted apostrophes — open single quotes — in constructions like truncated dates (the ‘60s) and dialect (I hit ‘im ‘ere).

Paul Beverley’s ProperNounAlyse

I originally used ProperNounAlyse (PNA) to lay the foundation for a style sheet, but getting the results I wanted ended up requiring so much manual labor that I’ve reduced PNA’s role in my process to a single worth-its-weight-in-gold step.

PNA builds a list of everything it recognizes as a proper noun (e.g., Chicago, Henrietta), including name pairs (e.g., John Smith). The idea of it thrilled me, because my style sheet includes every person and place name in a manuscript, and saving time in gathering those would reduce style sheet labor by half.

Unfortunately, the macro takes “proper noun” too literally, forming a list of names and any capitalized word at the beginning of a sentence. That means if you want, for example, Achilles, Adams, and Adirondacks, you have to dig through entries like About, Absolutely, Actually, and And to find them. You also get first and last names individually along with the full name (e.g., John, Smith, John Smith). Any proper noun of more than two words is likewise captured in components but doesn’t produce the needed set, such as New York City (New, York, City, New York, and York City), which reduces the macro’s utility. The list it creates also includes extraneous words, colors, and characters (see discussion and image below).

If I were macro-savvy, I could probably customize the tool to eliminate the extras, or even write my own script. But I have the same trouble understanding macros as I have understanding algebra, which is why I buy editing software tool packages designed by pros, or use free macros that other people have figured out. In the case of PNA, I don’t know how to constrain it from giving so much I don’t need; but if I let it do its thing, then manually delete the extras and organize the rest, I end up with a comprehensive list of character and place names, plus some terms that may be unique to the manuscript (e.g., Wankel [engine], Luger [pistol]), miscellaneous terms that usually need to be changed and thus included on the style sheet (e.g., OK to okay, Alright to All right), and some that might be capitalized in one context but lowercase in another (e.g., Captain, Mother, Earth).

This is great — but it takes longer to build the list and then take it apart again to place each item in the right category on my style sheet than to build my style sheet the old way, item by item as I come across each in the manuscript. For the sake of time, I reverted to the old way, and now use PNA solely to find misspelled versions of a proper noun. I still generate the list, but instead of manipulating it for the style sheet, I just delete the highlighting so I can read what’s underneath, and scan for near duplicates. Then I fix any obvious errors before editing, and query the author where needed.

The macro proved its power when I had a novel featuring a character named Philippa, whose name appeared in the story spelled different ways. I found them all hard to read, because of the multiple i’s and l’s together. The PNA-generated list helped me isolate the three wrong spellings, but this is what I had to sort through to find them (double-click on image to enlarge it):

Sample results produced by ProperNounAlyse

Since one of the most embarrassing blunders a fiction editor can make is to misspell an author’s or character’s name, I’m glad to have a tool that helps avoid making such a blunder. Even the long and convoluted means of preventing the blunder, as described above for style sheet building, is worth the effort to ensure I never make that mistake.

It’s been suggested that I approach proper noun correctness from the opposite direction, trading ProperNounAlyse for Never Spell Word. In NSW I can enter the correct form of Philippa and have it highlighted in the manuscript, leaving any alternate versions obvious because they would be unhighlighted and thus easy to identify and correct. Or, enter every variant I can think of and have them all flagged for review. This is a good idea that doesn’t work for me, for reasons that may not seem sensible to others.

But, unlike others, I happen to be a super-duper high-speed typist who’s been word processing since before Word 1.0 was a gleam in Microsoft’s eye. It’s faster and easier for me to type multiple find/replaces for the wrong spellings I see on a list (especially since PNA tells me how many of each there are) than to open EditTools and NSW, set up a dataset I’ll probably never use again, figure out what color to highlight what, and then look through the manuscript for whatever I decided to flag, assuming I can remember what I decided by the time I’m done. In the case of Philippa, I can opt to just find “phil,” which will snag them all — worth considering, since PNA won’t catch one that starts with a lowercase p.

The point is, I have to type the same words whether I enter them in a dataset or a find/replace window, with the same risk of mistyping. My eyes and hands work better with conventional find/replace, so that’s the route I take.

It’s also been suggested that I perform the preflight tasks in a different, more strategic order, to maximize their efficacy. I need to contemplate that idea more, having never considered it. I established my routine from a checklist I compiled years ago from scribbled notes that amounted to “remember to do these things before starting.” As my routine stands, no step depends on any other; they are just things I want done before beginning the edit. I’ve been experimenting with different ways to cover them and am sure I’ll eventually find the ideal one. Right now, my steps accomplish what I desire: getting the manuscript workably clean so I can read without that nagging sensation of things lurking in the shadows behind me.

Taking care of as many consistency elements as possible before editing leaves any aberrations obvious enough to spot during the read. I like to keep some challenge to my eye so it doesn’t get jaded, just as I like to keep my fingers limber so I remain a super typist. I’ve arranged my preflight tasks so that postediting cleanup problems can be identified and decided upon per occurrence; I never do a background function if I’m done going through the manuscript. A background function invites nightmares like what happened to me once in a secretarial job. A careless moment with global find/replace led to “best” becoming “bestiality” in an environmental science report!

In those days, I was lowest person on the totem pole but on salary, in an environment where mistakes were forgiven unless they cost the company huge amounts of money. Now I’m a self-employed professional editor for whom any error has a price. Astute readers will note that some of my tool choices serve the peculiarities of my mind as well as accomplish specific editorial purposes. I must accommodate both in order to deliver an excellent job that clients are happy to pay for — every time.

This rationale applies during Stage 2: Formatting, which is discussed in Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap III.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

May 15, 2017

Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap I

by Carolyn Haley

I was thunderstruck when I read An American Editor’s The Business of Editing: The AAE Copyediting Roadmap I and saw the project scale he works on: 1,500 to 20,000 manuscript pages in a single project. Yikes! Translating that into word count comes to 375,000 to 5 million words. Per book.

In contrast, the novels I work on run 50,000 to 200,000 words. Only once has a manuscript come close to the low end of AAE’s projects; the common range is 70,000 to 120,000 words.

Yet for projects great or small, we different types of editors use the same skills and tools to edit our clients’ manuscripts. I need only a fraction of the electronic tools available, not having to deal with references and figures and tables and all, but as time goes by I increasingly use electronic tools. Learning from other editors’ tips, tricks, and processes helps me become more efficient and meet my business goal of doing the best-quality job in the least amount of time with the least expenditure of labor.

Tools also help compensate for a flaw in my reading skills. I’ve learned that once I’ve read something, I stop seeing individual words and punctuation if I read the material again soon after the first time. This means that reading a manuscript completely through before editing it can be counterproductive, so it’s better for me to skip that step and use tools to prevent and later catch errors and omissions. Although I find and address most everything needed during the editing pass, that single read-through isn’t good enough for a professional edit.

My mental blind spot goes away if I wait a few weeks or months between readings. However, my clientele aren’t willing to wait that long. Therefore, I concentrate my attention on where it’s needed most — editing — and use different software tools before and after editing to catch mechanical details my eyes might miss. I’ve settled on a four-stage work routine comprising preflight, formatting, editing, and cleanup. I adjust the routine according to each job’s parameters, using the full process for indie-author clients and reducing or adapting it for publisher clients, who usually provide specific instructions for a job and do some of the steps before submitting the manuscript.

The Four Stages

I work primarily with indie novelists, most of whom are first-time authors still finding their way. For these authors I offer substantive editing, often called line editing or developmental editing by other editors. Sometimes I offer a variant I call a teaching or mentoring edit. Such jobs require the detail precision of copyediting as well as heavy commentary and queries pertaining to content. To handle the dual role effectively, I need to encounter the story as a reader would, not knowing who’s who and what happens next. So I first use tools to make the manuscript clean and consistent, then I read until I stumble, edit accordingly, and continue, using tools to sweep up behind me when done.

This process serves for copyediting finished manuscripts, too. When I copyedit for publishers, there’s usually one or more people in line after me to review the book. For indie authors, however, I’m often the last eyes on novel before it goes out into the world. I counsel all clients to hire a proofreader before they release their work, but in many cases they choose not to, whether it’s because they’ve exhausted their budget on editing or just believe that editing plus their own tinkering and reviewing are adequate. I can’t control what they do after I’ve delivered the manuscript, so during the edit I cover as much ground as possible within the parameters of the job, relying on software tools to cover my back.

Stage 1: Preflight

“Preflight” is a term I picked up during my catalogue production days. Coworkers in my department and personnel at the print house used “preflight” to cover tasks specific to the phase between finishing a layout in InDesign and preparing the file for the printer. There’s also a Preflight function on a pulldown menu in InDesign. The combination embedded the term in my mind.

Now as an editor I use “preflight” for the work I perform on a Microsoft Word manuscript. Preflight in this context means preparing the file for the author’s production, which might be submission to an editor, an agent, or a contest, or releasing it through self-publishing.

My preflight involves two substages: document setup for the job, such as creating folders, working files, style sheets, and notes to myself to guide the edit; then mechanical tidying up of errors and inconsistencies. For the mechanical tasks I use a combination of editing software tools to tackle the nitpickery that would otherwise slow down the edit and distract me from the content elements no computer can address.

When a manuscript arrives, the first thing I do is make a new copy of the file and rename it to indicate it’s an edited version. The author’s original is never touched again, and always available in the event of a document or computer crash. Because Word is unpredictably quirky, and heavy use of track changes sometimes provokes problems, I keep making new, numbered copies of the file over the course of the job.

In case there’s a problem with a file I have open during a work session, I also allow Word’s automatic backup feature to run. The autobackup file is instantly available and contains the most recent edits, should I need to recover anything. At the end of the day’s work session, I copy all files used that day to a secure site provided by my ISP. That way, if my computer dies or house burns down, I can access a current version of the job from any computer anywhere with Internet access. At intervals I back up my whole system onto a removable hard drive that is stored a fire safe. I live in a rural area and have no secure or convenient location outside the house to keep spare copies.

Next I set up the style sheet for the job. If the author has provided a list of character and place names, and/or special vocabulary, I plug those in under the relevant headings. If not, then I fill the style sheet during the edit.

With my work setup in place, I move on to electronic grooming of the file. Before I learned about software editing tools, I compiled a list of things to search for and fix one at a time. As I found ways to automate some of these tasks, I began consolidating them into batches, and experimenting with alternative approaches. Some tools I find easier to learn and apply than others, which influences my choices. Once I find a tool that solves a particular problem, I add it to my kit and use it until a better way presents itself.

The smart plan would be to allot time for a compare-and-contrast of all features of all the editing tool packages available, but I have not yet invested that time. (If anyone does, I’ll eagerly buy your book!) For now I adopt tools according to need and opportunity. Electronic editing tools are similar to Word in a general sense, in that you’re given multiple ways to perform certain functions: You can use a pulldown menu, a keyboard command, assign hotkeys, or run built-in or customized macros. There is no right way; rather, there are alternative ways to accomplish the same task, to be used according to personal preference and appropriateness to the project.

Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap II will elaborate on the individual tools used in my preflight process.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

March 1, 2017

Copyediting and Line Editing Series Fiction

by Carolyn Haley

Series fiction is a boon for everyone in the publishing chain. Authors have a ready market for their work; independent editors can get repeat work from a single client; publishers have a steady flow of sellable material; readers get their fiction appetites regularly fed.

That combination is why I favor series fiction in my editing business. For independent copyeditors and line editors who may be looking to add series fiction to their roster of services, here are the main factors to consider.

Style sheets

The most important part of editing a series is building a comprehensive style sheet. While this is also true for standalone novels, it’s crucial for series to ensure continuity and consistency between volumes. Months or years may pass between editing each volume, especially if the author is writing and sending them for editing one at a time. Also, different editors might work on different volumes. In both situations, a style sheet constitutes the series’ connective tissue.

Editors working directly with indie authors are free to design style sheets according to their own parameters meshed with the author’s needs. An excellent quartet of essays on what to include on style sheets, and why these items need to be included, was presented here by the previous Thinking Fiction contributor, Amy Schneider. See Part I: General Style, Part II: Characters, Part III: Locations, and Part IV: Timeline.

When editors subcontract to publishers, they must follow the house’s lead on style sheets. The instructions could be as simple as to include character names in alphabetical order and follow Chicago Manual of Style, or as complex as to fill in a fancy-formatted template just so, for characters, places, timeline, and special terms.

Any time editors are hired to work on a series volume later in sequence than volume 1, it’s important to confirm with the indie author or the publisher’s production coordinator whether the editor is expected to make a new style sheet for each new volume or consolidate new material into the style sheet established for the previous volume(s) so that one sheet travels with the series.

Single vs. batch manuscripts

Publisher-provided series usually come to the editor one book at a time with long intervals in between. Series from indie authors, however, may come as either single books or a multivolume batch. While one-at-a-time is most common, batches may come when an author wrote an epic and decided to break it into volumes, or planned from the start to write a trilogy but wanted to complete the whole work before editing.

It’s easier and more efficient to edit a series as a unit than as single books spread out over time, but doing them all in one shot takes a big bite out of the calendar — a downside for editors who like or need to keep a diverse cycle going, but a plus for editors who like tackling large projects. Psychologically, immersion in one world and one author’s style can become grinding without a break. On the other hand, immersion may make the editor aware of slight nuances that change a character or story from what was previously described.

Even if such immersion is desired, editors need to be careful about putting an entire series into one contract. It makes sense to do so on the surface, because in essence the job is one really big novel instead of X number of individual novels, and the style sheet is created once instead of multiple times. But over the extended period of a series job, the risk runs higher than with standalone novels that difficulties might arise, such as:

  • the editor or author might have a change of circumstance and be unable to fulfill their end of the agreement;
  • the editor might recognize too late that they underestimated the scope of work, or the author might dramatically change the scope as the series develops, forcing the contract to be renegotiated and the editor to possibly lose the balance of the project if it gets appreciably more expensive or complex;
  • one party might become dissatisfied with the other’s personality, or the material, partway through and want to bail out.

Editors who haven’t prepared for such possibilities in the contract can get trapped in a bad deal for a long time, making it wise to have a lawyer review the contract before anyone signs. If nothing else, in an all-in-one contract, the editor should make certain there’s an escape clause after each volume.

I prefer to contract for volume 1 separately, then negotiate a rate or service change for the balance of the series after its qualities are understood. That opens the door to losing the subsequent volumes because the author and I can’t agree on what needs to be adjusted, but I’m more comfortable with that risk than those associated with an all-in-one contract. Usually by the time we’re done with volume 1, we’ve established a rapport that allows successful negotiation. When in doubt, I’ll treat each volume as a standalone novel and make a deal for them individually.

Series basics

Each volume in a fiction series must be a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and a character(s) struggling to resolve one or more conflicts. At the same time, each volume must advance an overarching story or theme that evolves during the series and is resolved at series end. In effect, a series author is writing two books simultaneously, for as many volumes as the series runs.

Some beginning authors believe that ending a volume on a cliffhanger will inspire readers to rush to the next volume to find out what happens. More often than not, this backfires, and frustrated readers feel cheated and may not continue with the series. The trick is to leave just enough of the overarching story unresolved in each book to draw readers onward. But the episode covered in a volume must conclude satisfactorily before the next one begins, even if the next episode opens immediately afterward in the timeline. In this regard, series novels follow the same pattern as series TV shows.

A major challenge in writing any fiction is determining how much backstory to include. The goal is to provide enough information to keep readers oriented, and the action and characters in context, without overloading the narrative with an “info dump.” In series fiction, however, the backstory not only has to be provided in the right measure to begin with, but then must be reiterated in subsequent volumes to a different degree. Ideally, readers start with volume 1 when it comes out and eagerly await the next one, and don’t need refreshers as they continue through the series. In reality, readers might discover a series at volume 4, so they must be given enough backstory to understand the basics of what’s going on, without the author having to set up the scenario all over again.

Broadly, volume 1 should establish the premise and key characters for the series, and subsequent volumes should unfold new developments and show character growth. All volumes should refer back to the first with a light touch wherever understanding the new story depends on knowledge of what came before. Some series authors open each volume with a preface covering the previous volumes, but that can get cumbersome after the second or third book and is not commonly done. Other authors may write a prequel to an existing series and provide full backstory for an established audience hungry for more detail.

Tough spots

A tricky situation is when an editor gets volume 2 from an indie author who has already self-published volume 1, and no style sheet comes with the volume 2 manuscript. This might happen if the author didn’t use a professional editor the first time, or if the author wants to switch editors and the original editor didn’t create a style sheet for the job. For the new editor to make the new volume consistent with the first, they need a copy of volume 1 as part of the job and to build extra time into the quote because every style point will need to be backtracked to create the style sheet for the book in hand and any that follow.

It helps the editor to read all volumes of the story that came before, to best understand what’s happening in the new volume — but somebody has to pay for the time it takes to do so. That somebody should be the client, not the editor, so the editor has to factor extra reading time into their quote. It’s less critical to read previous volumes when working for publishers who are on the ball with style sheets, and whose pay rate is low and schedule is tight, because the existing style sheet should have most of the information the editor needs to do the job without becoming upside-down financially. With novels by inexperienced indie authors, though, the backstory can aid an editor in doing their job well so the author will come back for more.

Sometimes what starts out as a standalone novel expands into a series. An editor might work with an indie author on the single title then be contacted later for an unexpected volume 2. Having done a detailed style sheet for the original project will pay the editor back when responding to the second opportunity. If their schedule can’t accommodate the new book, then they’ve at least made life easier for the editor who takes their place. That won’t fill the first editor’s wallet but will reflect positively on their reputation, and maybe bring back the author for volume 3 or lead to future referrals.

Author fatigue

It’s not safe to assume that editing a series will get easier with each volume. Sometimes authors get fatigued from thinking up new stories inside a fixed scenario, or bored by the whole thing, and the quality of their work may deteriorate instead of improve as they push on. Marketplace pressure also can influence an author, in that readers just want more of the same thing while the author itches to stretch in a new direction, or is obliged to turn out the next volume in less time than they need to write it well.

Most copyeditors and line editors aren’t involved in an author’s content angst, but if they’ve been working with the same indie author since volume 1, then they’ve probably established a personal relationship and care about the author’s growth and the series’ success. To help that relationship happen and help authors avoid fatigue before it starts, editors can suggest at the beginning of the series that the author plan a finite number of volumes and outline the primary plot of each one within the plot of the whole. That simple guideline can both direct the author’s energies and allow the editor to raise relevant questions during the series’ progress to help the author stay on task while being creative.

Editing series fiction can be both challenging and rewarding, especially for editors who themselves are series readers. From that habit they know how a series can thrive or pall, or vacillate in its quality, and be motivated to help authors start strong and continually improve. The bonding potential with authors adds a richness to the experience. When the business and technical sides are carefully arranged, then the creative side can bloom to mutual satisfaction and result in a series that delights the reading public and earns income for everyone in the publishing chain.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

January 11, 2017

Thinking Fiction: What Novels Do Fiction Editors Read?

by Carolyn Haley

In follow-up to my survey about what editors in general read for recreation (What Do Editors Read?, I invited fiction editors to share their Top 10 favorite novels, along with something about their background and experience.

Thirty-two editors responded, comprising freelancers plus one cluster of staff and contract editors for a single romance publisher. No one working for a Big 5 traditional publisher participated, giving unbalanced results. However, I wasn’t attempting a rigidly scientific survey of the total editorial population. As with my first survey, I just wanted to satisfy my curiosity about what other editors read, and to share their recommendations for our collective enjoyment. The complete list, owing to length, is posted separately from this essay on the file downloads page at wordsnSync as “What Fiction Editors Read: List of Titles”.

Note that not every responding editor answered every question in the survey; or sometimes they combined answers, or gave more or fewer titles when I asked for ten, and so forth. Thus in this essay I cannot always give “X out of 32” results for a given topic. Since I was looking for patterns rather than conducting a true statistical analysis, I took the liberty of rounding numbers up or down or otherwise generalizing in cases where deviations occurred.

Common denominators

It comes as no surprise to learn that fiction editors read a lot of fiction. What is surprising is how many novels they find time to read. While one editor reports only reading fiction for work, the rest read anywhere from two to sixty (!) novels per month for recreation. Most of them also read short fiction, poetry, blogs, magazines, news media, and nonfiction of all types.

Such heavy reading is somewhat understandable, in that almost half the responders work part time. For them, as with the two retirees, more opportunity for leisure reading is theoretically available. But we can’t draw a blanket conclusion from that, because in several cases the responders edit part time and do something else for the balance of full-time employment—and of course they have the obligations and complexities of a personal life (details of which were not addressed in the survey).

The survey asked broad questions about occupation, education, writing background, and reading habits, to see what other commonalities might exist. The primary criterion for participation was that at least two-thirds of their professional editing work be fiction. In this everyone qualified. There were no other 100% matches, though several predominant features emerged. For instance, all but one responder is female. Three-quarters of the responders are older than forty, and of these, most are in their fifties and sixties. The full age span is twenty-eight to seventy-eight.

Twenty-five responders come from the United States, five from Canada, and one each from the United Kingdom and Australia. Approximately two-thirds of the group have college degrees, of which twelve are in English or a closely related subject. Seven of the thirty-two have a certificate of some sort in editing.

In years of experience, approximately half the responders have been editing professionally for ten years or less and the other half for longer. Six have more than twenty years of experience, and one has more than forty. Most have worked in fiction the bulk of their careers, focusing on novels but also accepting novellas, short stories, and flash fiction (super-short stories), along with assorted nonfiction.

A majority of the responders work with indie authors as their main clients, with a few also working with publishers and packagers. All but one report that they offer multiple types of editing and associated services (the exception being a dedicated developmental editor). Twenty-six of the editors are writers themselves, and almost two-thirds of them have published. Only one-third, however, has published in fiction.

Reading tastes

As readers, the responding fiction editors like darn near everything, with literary, crime, and historical novels dominating. But many of the responding editors enjoy romance and young adult novels, as well as science fiction, fantasy, and eclectic other. The editors read in all formats, with almost two-thirds liking a mix of print, ebook, and audiobook compared to those who prefer print only. One editor has moved entirely away from print, preferring to get her stories via ebooks and audiobooks.

Series

Many of the editors favor series or complete bodies of work by a given author. These responses skewed the results, because among the total consolidated list of 263 novels, not all are unique titles but rather representative titles of a series, or just the series name, or “all works” by an individual. Ninety-four—just over one-third—of all editor responses mentioned part or all of a series. Frequently, responders listed single titles that are part of a series, but they didn’t list the entire series (the rest I uncovered during a title/author spelling check online). I suspect that in many of those cases the responder read all volumes in the series and simply didn’t say so.

Specifics of series titles are shown on the complete list. Below are the series names that came up, and the number of times beyond one that they were mentioned, followed by the shorter list of favorite bodies of work by a given author.

Favored series:

  • A Wrinkle in Time series (2), Madeleine L’Engle
  • Adam Dagliesh series, P. D. James
  • All Souls trilogy, Deborah Harkness
  • Amelia Peabody series, Elizabeth Peters
  • Anita Blank, Vampire Hunter series, Laurell K. Hamilton
  • Atticus Kodiak series, Greg Rucka
  • Austenland series, Shannon Hale
  • Cairo series, Naguib Mahfouz
  • Checquy Files series, Daniel O’Malley
  • Chicago Star series, Susan Elizabeth Phillips
  • Chronicles of Ixia, Maria V. Snyder
  • CIA Spies series, Linda Howard
  • Colorado Trust series, Stacey Joy Netzel
  • Cowboy-Fiancé series, Donna Michaels
  • Culture series, Iain M. Banks
  • Dempsey series, Jennifer Crusie
  • Detective Inspector Chen, Liz Williams
  • Discworld series (2), Terry Pratchett
  • Dragonriders of Pern series, Anne McCaffrey
  • Dresden Files series (2), Jim Butcher
  • Drumberley series, D. E. Stevenson
  • Ender series, Orson Scott Card
  • Fever series, Karen Marie Moning
  • Gallaghers of Ardmore series, Nora Roberts
  • Hainish Cycle series, Ursula K Le Guin
  • Haitian Revolutionary series, Madison Smartt Bell
  • Harry Potter series (4), J. K. Rowling
  • Hazelwood High series, Sharon M. Draper
  • Heartbreaker Bay series, Jill Shalvis
  • Heralds of Valdemar series (2), Mercedes Lackey
  • Hidden Wolves series, Kaje Harper
  • Immortals After Dark series, Kresley Cole
  • In Death series, J. D. Robb (Nora Roberts)
  • Irin Chronicles series, Elizabeth Hunter
  • Italy Intrigue series, Stacey Joy Netzel
  • I-Team series, Pamela Clare
  • Jack Reacher series, Lee Child
  • Juliette Chronicles, Tahereh Mafi
  • Kirsten Lavransdatter trilogy, Sigrid Undset
  • Law of Moses series, Amy Harmon
  • Leaphorn and Chee Navajo police series, Tony Hillerman
  • Life Lessons series, Kaje Harper
  • Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Lives of the Mayfair Witches series, Anne Rice
  • Lizzy & Diesel series, Janet Evanovich
  • Logan Family Saga series, Mildred D. Taylor
  • Lord Peter Wimsey series, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Lords of Misrule series, Andy Graham
  • Manawaka series, Margaret Laurence
  • Marrying Stone series, Pamela Morsi
  • Maze Runner series, James Dashner
  • Midnight in Austenland, Shannon Hale
  • Midwife Mystery series, Sam Thomas
  • Millennium series, Steig Larsson
  • Outlander series (3), Diana Gabaldon
  • Plainsong series, Kent Haruf
  • Regeneration series, Pat Barker
  • Riftwar series, Raymond Feist
  • Riyria Revelations series, Michael J. Sullivan
  • Shannara series, Terry Brooks
  • Silo series, Hugh Howey
  • Sinner’s Grove series, A. B. Michaels
  • Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin
  • Species Imperative trilogy, Julie Czerneda
  • Starbridge series, Susan Howatch
  • Starcatchers series, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
  • Stephanie Plum series, Janet Evanovich
  • Sword of Truth series, Terry Goodkind
  • The Black Dagger Brotherhood series (2), J. R. Ward
  • The Black Stallion series, Walter Farley
  • The Bourne trilogy , Robert Ludlum
  • The Bronze Horseman series, Paullina Simons
  • The Cat Who series, Lillian Jackson Braun
  • The Chalion series, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis
  • The Deed of Paksennarion series, Elizabeth Moon
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide series (2), Douglas Adams
  • The Hunger Games series (2), Suzanne Collins
  • The Lace Reader series, Brunonia Barry
  • The Lord of the Rings series (2), J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Pillars of the Earth series, Ken Follett
  • The Raven Cycle series, Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Sandman series, Neil Gaiman
  • Thessaly series, Jo Walton
  • Tillerman Cycle series (2), Cynthia Voigt
  • Vampire Chronicles series, Anne Rice
  • Vorkosigan saga, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Wolf Hall series, Hilary Mantel

Favored author bodies of work:

  • Clive Cussler
  • Harlan Coben
  • John Grisham
  • Lawrence Block
  • Lee Child
  • Nora Roberts
  • Sandra Brown (mysteries only)

Works such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia were sometimes listed as standalone titles and other times as series. I’ve included them under the series listing because most people who read them read all volumes.

Duplicate titles

In the main, responders mentioned individual titles. The list below shows novels mentioned by two or more responders (with the number in parentheses indicating how many more than two).

  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee (3)
  • Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  • Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (6)
  • Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Living, Annie Dillard
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Duplicate authors

Individual authors were mentioned by multiple responders in conjunction with different titles. There were instances where a responder listed different titles by the same author on their own list, and also a few cases where one responder mentioned a specific title and a second responder mentioned “all works” by the same author or a series. The list below, however, only includes authors mentioned by different responders, specifying different titles.

  • Barbara Kingsolver
  • Charles Dickens
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • C. S. Lewis
  • Daphne Du Maurier
  • Haruki Murakami
  • Jane Austen
  • Jodi Picoult
  • John Steinbeck
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Linda Howard
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Toni Morrison
  • Ursula Le Guin
  • Virginia Woolf

Oddballs and exceptions

Not every responder understood the directions in the questionnaire, or else rushed through it and missed a request. For instance, I asked exclusively for novels, but two responders included memoirs and one included a nonfiction title. Although I’ve included these titles on the complete list, I do not include them in the full count.

Likewise, the request for “your favorite novelist” was commonly ignored, or people just couldn’t answer because they had so many (with one responder saying, “You’re kidding, right?”). Among those who did answer, or listed multiple authors, there was erratic correlation between favorite authors and those on the individual’s Top 10 list. Favorite authors mentioned are shown below (with the number in parentheses indicating how many times more than once their names came up).

  • Anne McCaffrey
  • Anne Rice
  • Bess Streeter Aldrich
  • Beverly Nault
  • Charles Dickens
  • Connie Willis
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • D. E. Stevenson
  • Dean Koontz
  • Diana Gabaldon (2)
  • Dick Francis
  • Donna Tartt
  • Dorothy Sayers
  • Douglas Adams
  • Drayton Mayrant
  • Eliot Baker
  • Elizabeth Cadell
  • Elizabeth Moon
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • George R. R. Martin
  • Georgette Heyer
  • Helen MacInnes
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • J. K. Rowling
  • James Patterson
  • Jane Austen (2)
  • Janet Evanovich
  • J. D. Ward
  • Jodi Picoult
  • Jonathan Franzen
  • Joseph C. Lincoln
  • Judy Ann Davis
  • Karen Marie Moning
  • Laurel Hamilton
  • Linda Howard
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Maeve Binchy
  • Markus Zusak
  • Mary Balogh
  • Nevada Barr (2)
  • Nora Roberts (2)
  • P. D. James
  • Patricia Cornwall
  • Peter Carey
  • Peter Mayle
  • Rita Bay
  • Ruth Rendell
  • Sam Thomas
  • Sigrid Undset
  • Terry Brooks
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Tony Hillerman

Survey overlaps

While processing the fiction editors’ questionnaires, I looked for overlaps with my first survey, even though it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison. The first survey involved thirteen nonfiction-dominant editors, while this one involved thirty-two fiction-dominant editors. Nevertheless, their tastes crossed thirteen times for specific titles and seventeen times for authors (meaning, different books by the same author mentioned twice or more). Most of these titles and authors can be considered “literary” and/or “classic.”

Title overlaps:

  • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • The Lord of the Rings series, J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Persuasion, Jane Austen
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  • Discworld series, Terry Pratchett
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

Author overlaps:

  • Jane Austen
  • Charles Dickens
  • Charlotte Brontë
  • Connie Willis
  • David Mitchell
  • Dick Francis
  • Edith Wharton
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Ian McEwan
  • John Fowles
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Michael J. Sullivan
  • Sarah Waters
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Umberto Eco
  • Virginia Woolf

Conclusions

Putting it all together, I observed three superstars—Jane Austen, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis—whose names came up multiple times no matter what criterion I used to view and sort the reading lists of the fiction and nonfiction editors I surveyed, separately or combined. Another standout was Terry Pratchett, whose enormous Discworld series appealed to editors of both types.

While I was not surprised to see these and many other familiar names on so many people’s lists, I was surprised to see who didn’t appear. Agatha Christie, for example. She is considered one of — if not the — top-selling novelists of all time, yet none of the fiction responders in my survey mentioned her. She did, however, appear once on the nonfiction editors’ list (also on my own list, which was appended to that essay but not counted in the results).

Among the fiction editors, there seems to be a gap between classic and contemporary works that leaves many vintage mega-sellers behind, such as Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, Jackie Collins and Barbara Cartland, Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon, Georges Simenon and Erle Stanley Gardner, and many others, all of whom were hugely popular in their day. Also notably absent is household name Stephen King (who did, unexpectedly, appear on one nonfiction editor’s literary-biased list). But J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame had a strong presence, even though that series was marketed for young adults, whereas Danielle Steele, still writing prolifically with an enormous fan base, wasn’t mentioned even by the editors who gobble up romance and women’s fiction.

What I found to be significant among all the editors surveyed was how widely their tastes range. See for yourself the complete fiction editors list here: “What Fiction Editors Read: List of Titles”.

Postscript: Apparently I’m not the only one doing this type of survey. For a literary take, see “The Most Important Books of the Last Twenty Years”. A handful of titles and authors on this list overlap both my surveys.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

December 7, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part III)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: Because of length, this essay was divided into halves. The first half was published previously as “Plot or Characterization? (Part II).” For the first part of this series, see “Plot or Characterization? (Part I).”)

Though Anne of Green Gables lacks a cohesive plot, it more than makes up for that defect through characterization. In addition, every flouting of modern rules of story structure follows from there and finds its justification. It’s also a book written in anger, often a good spur to the imagination.

Lucy Maud Montgomery doubtless knew about the dire fate of orphans. Prince Edward Island didn’t have an orphanage until 1907, so Anne comes from Nova Scotia in a book set in the late 1800s. Some institutions there were worse than others, and Anne probably came from a more respectable place, one that fitted girls for domestic work. In the Halifax Poor House, orphaned children were housed with adults who had mental disorders until after 1900, and the doors had no locks or even doorknobs. If the children weren’t sexually abused before they left, they’d likely experience that fate once people who wanted cheap labor adopted them. Anne names everything around her but animals — animals were considered of more use than lower-class children, so it’s probably a veiled expression of outrage. Still, it was the Nova Scotia Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that stepped in to help abused and neglected children after 1880. Before the 19th century, orphan asylums didn’t exist at all, and the efforts of women’s groups and churches to help were only fitful after that. (The horrifying details are spelled out in an appendix to Oxford’s Annotated Anne of Green Gables.)

In Anne’s fairy tale, the general view of orphans at the time is only hinted at when in the first chapter busybody Rachel Lynde talks of the dangers of letting children from who knows where get too close. Anne doesn’t suffer the prejudice and contempt that was the lot of most orphans in real life. Who wants too much reality in a children’s book?

Despite, or perhaps because of, her grim childhood up until we first see her, Anne is vibrant, full of fantasies and imaginings. In Chapter 28, she tots up her disasters and gives a moral to each of them.

“Well,” explained Anne, “I’ve learned a new and valuable lesson today. Ever since I came to Green Gables I’ve been making mistakes, and each mistake has helped to cure me of some great shortcoming. The affair of the amethyst brooch cured me of meddling with things that didn’t belong to me. The Haunted Wood mistake cured me of letting my imagination run away with me. The liniment cake mistake cured me of carelessness in cooking. Dyeing my hair cured me of vanity. I never think about my hair and nose now — at least, very seldom. And today’s mistake is going to cure me of being too romantic.

I have come to the conclusion that it is no use trying to be romantic in Avonlea. It was probably easy enough in towered Camelot hundreds of years ago, but romance is not appreciated now. I feel quite sure that you will soon see a great improvement in me in this respect, Marilla.”

“I’m sure I hope so,” said Marilla skeptically.

But Matthew, who had been sitting mutely in his corner, laid a hand on Anne’s shoulder when Marilla had gone out.

“Don’t give up all your romance, Anne,” he whispered shyly, “a little of it is a good thing — not too much, of course — but keep a little of it, Anne, keep a little of it.”

I don’t buy Montgomery’s excuses for her repetition of the scrape plots. But I never minded the repetition when I repeatedly reread the book when I was young. Anne is no doormat — in fact, she’s characterized by anger and feuds — but she’s the creature of a woman torn between feminism and womanly duty. Anne is unconsciously rebellious and unconventional, and she sheds her glory on almost everyone around her, rather as Pippa seems to do in Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes, now known more for a verbal gaffe than for its literary merits. As Anne passes along, she opens minds and hearts. So she talks too much and with odd words? Don’t we all in the editing business? Actually, Maud didn’t yammer on — unlike Anne, she was too afraid. But Anne wasn’t afraid. We can put up with her monologues in part because they’re completely in character, and they’re charming and illuminating.

Despite the emotional depth of Anne’s story as she looks for love and a home, Montgomery isn’t sparing on the humor and satire that go along with life in a small town — like busybodies, bad teachers, and boring preachers.

The novel is in certain respects a bildungsroman, a book about growth, which is by nature a stumbling process. Thus the Bildung takes a while, at least for Anne. It’s more obvious with Marilla, the spinster who adopted her, and who, incidentally, takes charge of the point of view more often than Anne does, according to Genevieve Wiggins (L.M. Montgomery [Twayne’s World Authors Series, 1992], 39). In fact, the top of the four major storylines that Waterston (Magic Island, 13–14) lists is the growing familial love felt by the repressed Marilla for Anne and by Anne for Marilla, who was an airbrushed and retouched version of Maud’s loveless grandmother. (See Gammel, Looking for Anne, 122 for the technique.) Margaret Atwood pegs Marilla as the real focus of the novel (“Reflection Piece — Revisiting Anne,” originally published in 1992, but easily found in L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture [1999]). Here’s Atwood’s concluding paragraph (226):

It may be the ludicrous escapades of Anne that render the book so attractive to children. But it is the struggles of Marilla that give it romance for adults. Anne may be the orphan in all of us, but then, so is Marilla. Anne is the fairy-tale wish-fulfillment version, what Montgomery longs for. Marilla is more likely what she feared she might become — joyless, bereft, trapped, hopeless, unloved. Each of them saves the other. It is the neatness of their psychological fit — as well as the invention, humour, and fidelity of the writing — that makes Anne such a satisfying and enduring fable.

Like Burnett, Montgomery was screwed over because she wasn’t a boy, but she also seemed to know that she’d be happier if she didn’t vent her depression and misery in too edgy a way, even after Victorian ideas about the importance of portraying “the beautiful child” had passed.

Everything around Anne plays into Maud’s fantasy of a happier life. Even the descriptive passages, though not what you’d expect in “literary” novels, point up the heroine’s character. As Epperly (30) says, “This rhapsody of light, colour, and sound is the poetic wish-fulfillment of the beauty-starved, love-starved orphan.” And when half the second chapter of Anne is taken up with description, as the old, shy bachelor drives Anne back from the railway station to certain doom, the beauty is fraught with ugly suspense. The reader knows that Anne’s dreams are about to be dashed. So every glorious tree and petal loom over us — darkness visible. Except that the light takes over.

Before Anne leaves Green Gables to get a teaching certificate, she has come to see that her fantasies about herself as a romantic heroine don’t come close to the joy she has right now (Chapter 33).

“Well, I don’t want to be anyone but myself, even if I go uncomforted by diamonds all my life,” declared Anne. “I’m quite content to be Anne of Green Gables, with my string of pearl beads. I know Matthew gave me as much love with them as ever went with Madame the Pink Lady’s jewels.”

Even at the end of Anne of Green Gables, when darkness is all around, and when Anne gives up her ambitions and her fantasies — for a time, at least, out of duty and love — it’s all good. Life wasn’t so delightful when Maud had to give up everything to take care of her grandmother — and her grandfather had essentially cut her out of his will despite her years helping out the two of them. But she could dream.

The quiet and introspective Maud was enthralled with her open and talkative Anne (see Gammel 129), as are Anne fans all around the word. Yes, the book breaks rules aplenty. Aristotle, with his insistence of the primacy of plot, would have scoffed at the way Anne’s character drives the story. But the reader is drawn along by her compelling personality and the comic disasters it gets her into. Cohesive plot? Who cares when confronted with such a girl?

Anne is someone you’d like to have a drink with — I’m talking nonalcoholic raspberry cordial, not the homemade currant wine that got her banned from her bosom friend’s company for a time (Chapter 16). Anne is more interesting than Little Lord Fauntleroy, the young hero who made Frances Hodgson Burnett’s fortune and ruined the life of one of her sons. Young Fauntleroy is cute and flawless, and he immediately wins over the embittered and unhappy people in his sphere, whereas Anne, who is far more flawed, takes more time in transforming the people around her. And L.M. Montgomery revels in her character’s flaws. According to Wiggins (26), “In a society bound by convention, Anne is a disrupting influence. She is the rebel, the nonconformist, the independent spirit who appeals to the child reader who chafes at adult strictures or to the adult who sometimes feels restricted by society’s expectations.”

The novel, with its episodic nature, is often compared to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I’ve always been more a plot person than a character person, so Anne is only my third-favorite children’s book. Yet I consider Anne Shirley more of a close friend than I do the heroines of my top two, and whenever I’m forced to travel, all three of the plucky girls go along with me.

The book Anne of Green Gables is in effect a miniseries. The famous TV miniseries, which I’ve never seen, apparently has a cohesive plot. But the problem with that plot is that the focus seems to be on a happy romantic ending between Anne and her nemesis, Gilbert Blythe. Unfortunately, that’s not what the first book in the first trilogy is about.

In this first book about Anne, we watch the character as she careens and careers through life, trying, like Maud, to reconstruct a lost family. Maud couldn’t, but Anne did.

And there’s no place like home.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

December 5, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part II)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: Because of length, this essay has been divided. The second half is scheduled for Wednesday [see “Plot or Characterization? (Part III)”]. For the first essay in this series see, “Plot or Characterization? (Part I).”)

Write what you know? I tried to write a romantic fantasy loosely tethered to a miserable job I once held. Consider this story: The heroine, an uptight but understatedly gorgeous newspaper copy editor, has a run-in with a billionaire because he dislikes one of her (completely accurate) headlines. He gets her fired without meaning to, and atones by hiring her in public relations. And he falls for her utterly because she keeps correcting his grammar. Of course! Everyone loves that!

I worked that plot up when newspapers still had copy editors. Now it’s too far divorced from the real world to sell.

But many authors manage to take darker elements from their past and turn them around to make them happier and more elevating.

A great case in point is the story of Anne Shirley, the heroine of Anne of Green Gables and several sequels. Like many romantic heroines, she’s an orphan, cast adrift and unprotected. That yields instant drama, which grows even more dramatic for Anne when she goes to a house on Prince Edward Island hoping to find a real home at last after years of drudgery and starved emotions. She burbles happily all the way from the railroad station to the house in Avonlea, and then discovers that the aging brother and sister who live there wanted a boy to help around their little farm. Anne’s adoption was a mistake.

Still, despite a defect of temper, she’s plucky and witty and loving, and she manages to fight through the disadvantages of her life and through other people’s prejudices against orphans and girls with gumption and imagination.

Scholars know a lot about the story behind the Anne books because the author, Lucy Maud Montgomery (aka Maud), wrote hundreds of pages in her journals. (The standard biography is Mary Henley Rubio’s Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (2008). We know, or can know, about the largely depressing life Maud led, from living with and catering to rigid and repressive grandparents after her mother died and her father hared off west. Or, perhaps more accurately, we know about her impressions; who knows the truth? And we “know” that the girl was ecstatic when her beloved father summoned her from Prince Edward Island to what’s now Saskatchewan. But instead of finding a true home, she discovered her true mission: to provide free child care for her stepmother. Soon back with her grandparents, she was later lifted out of a severe depression by writing Anne of Green Gables. She married a man as prone to depression as she was, and the older of her two sons was a mooch, an adulterer, and a thief. Because of the sad state of medicine in the first half of the 20th century, Maud and her husband were treated for depression with barbiturates, to which they became addicted, and they were poisoned to boot with bromides (outlawed for humans in the United States since 1975). Did Maud commit suicide? (See Rubio 550ff. and especially 575ff., for the larger picture; for a shorter discussion, see Mary Beth Calvert’s “Perspectives on the Circumstances of L.M. Montgomery’s Death: Was It Suicide or Accident?”)

In any case, there was no happy ending here. But just as misery can make great comedians, it can also make compelling authors, ones who don’t wallow in their despondency but who transform it; as Irene Gammel says in Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L.M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic (2008), 40,

Maud believed that literature should engage with the real world by transforming negative realities. Never should a reader’s pleasure be spoiled by the fact that some of the cheeriest episodes in Anne were sparked by the darker side of life. Indeed, Maud’s losses and disappointments fueled her imagination into high gear, transforming bleakness into hope.

Anne isn’t Maud’s alter ego. She’s her altered ego.

And if you want to see a boatload of copy editors gasp and swoon, to say nothing about Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, just mention Anne. And yet the novel breaks many of the sacred rules of current fiction.

  • The book is episodic, in many ways a series of short stories — not surprising, because Montgomery started out as a short-story author and even cannibalized some of her earlier stories in writing the book. But there’s no complex or unified plot, and Anne doesn’t change very much for the first two-thirds of the book.
  • In How Not to Write a Novel (2008), 36, Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark say, “NEVER use two scenes to establish the same thing.” Anne is rife with repetition. For much of the book, you’ll see paired chapters, with Anne first in a scrape because of her rabid daydreaming and then triumphant (see Elizabeth Waterston, Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery (2009), 16. And Elizabeth Rollins Epperly, in The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance (1992; an updated version is available; its new preface covers the explosion in scholarship about Montgomery between 1992 and 2014, among other things), 21ff, notes five confession/apology scenes, full of self-drama until the last one.
  • The narrator is omniscient, which is not surprising in older children’s books, particularly those with a fairy-tale bent. But the point of view wanders even within scenes. And even, in a sense, in the first sentence.
  • The first sentence is 148 words with three semicolons, and the voice shifts several times; the main POV could be said to be the brook’s (see Epperly 20):

Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.

  • Anne’s speeches are similarly long and winding; take this 239-word example from the novel’s fourth chapter:

“Oh, I don’t mean just the tree; of course it’s lovely — yes, it’s radiantly lovely — it blooms as if it meant it — but I meant everything, the garden and the orchard and the brook and the woods, the whole big dear world. Don’t you feel as if you just loved the world on a morning like this? And I can hear the brook laughing all the way up here. Have you ever noticed what cheerful things brooks are? They’re always laughing. Even in winter-time I’ve heard them under the ice. I’m so glad there’s a brook near Green Gables. Perhaps you think it doesn’t make any difference to me when you’re not going to keep me, but it does. I shall always like to remember that there is a brook at Green Gables even if I never see it again. If there wasn’t a brook I’d be haunted by the uncomfortable feeling that there ought to be one. I’m not in the depths of despair this morning. I never can be in the morning. Isn’t it a splendid thing that there are mornings? But I feel very sad. I’ve just been imagining that it was really me you wanted after all and that I was to stay here for ever and ever. It was a great comfort while it lasted. But the worst of imagining things is that the time comes when you have to stop and that hurts.”

  • Lengthy descriptive passages feature heavily in the novel. Nature is especially big league, and Epperly counts eleven sunsets. Compulsive adult readers might enjoy the botanical and geographical help offered in Oxford’s The Annotated Anne of Green Gables (1997), though I don’t remember worrying about any of it when I read the book over and over as a girl.
  • Montgomery litters her work with numerous allusions to songs, books, poems, and plays from the 19th century and before, most of which her modern audience wouldn’t have read. (See The Annotated Anne at appropriate places in the text and in the appendixes starting on p. 452.) Two in particular seem somewhat inappropriate for a book aimed at young girls. Yes, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is still often read in high school, perhaps as a cautionary tale against adultery, but Anne comes to grief over the poem at age 13, and she regrets that she didn’t get the dramatic part of Guinevere — instead, she almost dies when playing the dead Elaine. The allusion to Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes is brief, but it’s clear that Montgomery had read the poetic drama about an innocent walking past adulterers, murderers, suicides, prostitutes, malevolent students, an assassination plotter, and even a Monsignor who is tempted to kidnap Pippa, his brother’s long-lost heir, and force her into prostitution.

So why does the book succeed? My answer lies in the second half of this essay.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

November 2, 2016

Thinking Fiction: What Do Editors Read? (Part II)

by Carolyn Haley

In Thinking Fiction: What Do Editors Read? (Part I), I described an informal survey I made among editorial colleagues to learn what novels they felt to be Really Good. Thirteen responded. What follows is the balance of the responders’ lists of Really Good novels, along with profile information for context.

Editors’ personal favorites (the final ten)

Editor #4: female, 76, Washington

  • Professional experience: 30 years; retired from staff position, currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction (business communications), doing copy and line editing for business consultancies and professional services firms.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (American studies), post-grad (incomplete, in film). Studied some literature and writing in high school and college.
  • Recreational reading: 2–3 books per month, approximately half novels, always in print. Prefers general fiction and mystery. Favorite fiction author: varies constantly, with Jo Nesbo current favorite.
  • Top 7:

A Little Princess, Francis Hodgson Burnett
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Anne of Green Gables (lead title of the 6-volume series w/prequels and sequels), Lucy Maud Montgomery
Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles

Editor #5: female, 79, California

  • Professional experience: 50 years; retired from nonfiction (educational materials, esp. biology and health) doing developmental editing for textbook publishers.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (biology), master’s (human ecology), doctorate (education). Studied some literature and writing in college.
  • Recreational reading: 5 books per month, approximately half novels. Prefers general fiction. Favorite fiction author: Margaret Atwood.
  • Top 10:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Candide, Voltaire
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow
Native Son, Richard Wright
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
Walden Two, B. F. Skinner

Editor #6: male, 69, Connecticut

  • Professional experience: 20+ years; currently full-time self-employed in mainly memoir and family history, some business/technical, doing developmental, line and copy editing, and production services for individual authors and companies.
  • Highest level of schooling: college without degree (math/computer science, English minor). Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 2 books per month, mainly nonfiction, a few non-business-related novels per year, always in print. Prefers an eclectic mix. Favorite fiction author: no opinion.
  • Top 10:

1984, George Orwell
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Chermpf, book 1 The Cats of Nova, William S. Russell III
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton
The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan

Editor #7: female, 36, central Europe

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently full-time staff in nonfiction and science (medical and physics), doing developmental, line, and copy editing for NGOs.
  • Highest level of schooling: undergrad (German and linguistics), grad (applied linguistics). Studied German literature in school.
  • Recreational reading: 5–10 books per month, mostly novels, always in print. Prefers literary fiction. Favorite fiction author: Anne Tyler.
  • Top 10:

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
Gut gegen Nordwind (trans. Love Virtually), Daniel Glattauer
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell, Susanna Clarke
Larry’s Party, Carol Shields
Of Love and Other Demons, Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
The Eyre Affair (lead title of the Thursday Next series, 7+ volumes ongoing), Jasper Fforde
The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters

Editor #8: female, 52, Jamaica

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently full-time self-employed in nonfiction, moving into fiction, doing copy editing and indexing for individual authors, publishers, packagers, and businesses.
  • Highest level of schooling: graduate (library and information science). Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 4 books per month, mainly novels, in print and ebook. No category preference or favorite author.
  • Top 10:

1984, George Orwell
A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul
Green Days by the River, Michael Anthony
Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror (lead title of the 4-volume [plus prequel] Meg series), Steve Alten
Native Son, Richard Wright
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Silas Marner, George Eliot
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Weaveworld, Clive Barker

Editor #9: female, 69, Hawaii

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently part-time self-employed in environmental sciences (ESL), science fiction and fantasy, doing developmental editing for individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: associate’s (STEM), bachelor’s and incomplete master’s (anthropology). Studied some literature and writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 30 books per month, mainly novels, in ebook. Prefers science fiction and fantasy, 19th-century novels, and mystery. Favorite fiction author: no opinion.
  • Top 10:

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
Genji Monogatari (trans. The Tale of Genji), Murasaki Shikibu
Heartsease, Charlotte Yonge
Persuasion, Jane Austen
Peter Grant series (lead title Midnight Riot, 6+ volumes ongoing), Ben Aaronovitch
The Curse of Chalion (lead title of the 3-volume Chalion series), Lois McMaster Bujold
The Goblin Emperor, Sara Monette (writing as Katherine Addison)
The Martian, Andy Weir
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (lead title in series of same name, 16+ volumes ongoing), Alexander McCall Smith
Villette, Charlotte Brontë

Editor #10: male, 56, Massachusetts

  • Professional experience: 23 years; currently full-time staff managing editor for a nonprofit periodical.
  • Highest level of schooling: no college degree. Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 4–5 books per month, mainly novels, in ebook. Prefers speculative fiction. Favorite fiction author: Ursula Le Guin.
  • Top 10:

A Door Into Ocean (lead title of the 4-volume Elysium Cycle series), Joan Slonczewski
Ancillary Justice (lead title of the 3-volume Imperial Radch series), Ann Leckie
Doctor Thorne (book 3 of the 6-volume Chronicles of Barsetshire), Anthony Trollope
Little, Big: Or, The Fairies’ Parliament, John Crowley
Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar
O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
The Sparrow (lead title of the 2-volume Sparrow series), Mary Doria Russell
To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Editor #11: male, 73, Ohio

  • Professional experience: 9 years; currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction and fiction, doing line and copy editing for self-publishing clients.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s and incomplete master’s (music). Studied some literature and writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 5 books per month, approximately half novels, in print and ebook. Prefers literary fiction. Favorite fiction author: multiple.
  • Top 10:

11/22/63, Stephen King
American Pastoral (lead title of the 3-volume American Trilogy series), Philip Roth
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Rabbit quadrilogy (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), John Updike
The Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) , Kim Stanley Robinson
Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell

Editor #12: male, 41, Texas

  • Professional experience: 4 years; currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction (academic, ESL), doing mixed editing for individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: Ph.D. (ethnomusicology). Studied some literature and writing in college.
  • Recreational reading: 10 books per month, mainly nonfiction with a few novels, always in print. Prefers literary fiction and fantasy. Favorite fiction author: Dostoevsky.
  • Top 10:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland along with Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll
Aubrey–Maturin series (21 volumes starting with Master and Commander), Patrick O’Brian
Chaos Walking trilogy (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men), Patrick Ness
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Descent into Hell, Charles Williams
Middlemarch, George Eliot
The Chronicles of Narnia (7 volumes starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), C. S. Lewis
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Lord of the Rings together with The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Neverending Story, Michael Ende

Editor #13 (aka An American Editor): male, 68, New York

  • Professional experience: 32 years; currently semi-retired self-employed in nonfiction (medical), doing line and copy editing for publishers and packagers.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (political science), JD (law). Did not study literature or writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 4–6 books per month, a few novels, in print and ebook. Prefers science fiction and fantasy. Favorite fiction author: David Weber.
  • Top 10:

Age of Myth (lead title of what is planned to be a 5-volume series called The Legends of the First Empire), Michael J. Sullivan
Honor Harrington series (15 volumes ongoing, plus spin-offs, starting with On Basilisk Station) and Safehold series (9 volumes ongoing, starting with Off Armageddon Reef), David Weber
Inspector Lynley series (19 volumes ongoing, starting with A Great Deliverance), Elizabeth George
Inspector Maigret series (75 volumes starting with The Strange Case of Peter the Lett), George Simenon
It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis
Jason Bourne trilogy (The Bourne Identity, The Bource Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum), Robert Ludlum
Saga of Recluce series (lead title The Magic of Recluce, 17 volumes ongoing) and The Imager Portfolio series (10 volumes ongoing, starting with Imager), L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Sentence of Marriage, Shayne Parkinson
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carré
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

As an addendum for those who are curious, here are my own choices and data. I have not counted them in the survey results.

Editor #14: female, 60, Vermont

  • Professional experience: 35 years; currently full-time self-employed primarily fiction, doing line and copy editing for publishers and individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: college without degree (art and animal science), certificate in copyediting. Studied literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 5–10 books per month, almost all novels, in print only. Prefers mystery, hybrid romance, and historical fiction. Favorite fiction author: Dick Francis.
  • Top 10:

Aubrey–Maturin series (21 volumes starting with Master and Commander), Patrick O’Brian
Complete oeuvre, Dick Francis
Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger
Landfalls, Naomi J. Williams
Mike Bowditch series (6 volumes ongoing starting with The Poacher’s Son), Paul Doiron
Mrs. Mike (lead title of the 3-volume Mrs. Mike series), Benedict and Nancy Freedman
Nemesis (12th of the 13-volume Miss Marple series), Agatha Christie
The Eleventh Man, Ivan Doig
The Flicka trilogy (My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, Green Grass of Wyoming), Mary O’Hara
Under the Tonto Rim, Zane Grey

I’m sure you’ll agree that the total collection shows intriguing diversity, creating that book buffet I was hoping for. Among the offerings, you will find many selections that make you nod in agreement, blink in astonishment, and jot down a list of new material you’d like to sample. That’s the goal of the next survey, too, which will focus on dedicated fiction editors’ reading preferences.

Stay tuned!

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

October 24, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part I)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: For subsequent essays in this series, see “Plot or Characterization? (Part II)” and “Plot or Characterization? (Part III).”)

Anyone can write romance and make big bucks off it. You just have to know the formula.

Sorry. I was dreaming. Romance fiction used to be the most reliable way to make money in fiction. In 2011, unknowns could breeze into Amazon and other such places, and their indie stuff would sometimes rake in amazing sums. One untutored author I know picked up a million bucks in her first year of indie fiction. Harlequin wouldn’t have her, and what’s now Harlequin Enterprises had long been accused of paying most of its authors on the down side.

Unfortunately, the marketplace even for indie romance is glutted now because everyone sees romance as a quick and dirty way to make a few bucks without breaking much of a sweat.

I’ve been reading short-form romance fiction for more than four decades. So could I write it for the indie market? Of course not — it takes a careful understanding of the audience for this sort of work and an odd sort of wit.

It’s also essential to put out roughly (the word roughly used advisedly) a book every two months; otherwise, readers find someone else to glom on to. I’ve been able to edit contemporary romance, but writing romance and winning readers can be tough. And the rules for success are many and often confusing.

The manuals and the trends in the short romances that I like to read fly in the face of Aristotle’s position that plot comes first and characterization second. Here’s what the ancient philosopher says about tragic drama in his Poetics:

The plot then is the first principle and as it were the soul of tragedy: character [ēthos] comes second. It is much the same also in painting; if a man smeared a canvas with the loveliest colors at random, it would not give as much pleasure as an outline in black and white. And it is mainly because a play is a representation of action that it also for that reason represents people.

To Aristotle’s way of thinking, giving characterization pride of place offers up something like modern art. It can be pretty, but not everyone gets it.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Your Romance Published doesn’t agree. In Chapter 7, we learn that “Characterization is probably the most important element of your story.”

Former Harlequin author Leigh Michaels might seem to find middle ground here in On Writing Romance. Though she says that character is all-important in romance — see Chapter 3, “Essential Elements” — she has to start out with the framework, which means plot. I have to add that The Complete Idiot’s Guide mentioned above also walks you through plot before moving on to character. But we’re all romantics. And those manuals were written before the indie revolution.

And if your romances go on for only 55,000 words, you can’t flesh out even the protagonists, let alone add vivid minor characters. Or at least the standard conventions since about the year 2000 won’t let you do that now. The hero is almost always an “alpha male,” quite often a billionaire (even if he’s a backwater fire chief), with a fear of commitment and often bent on ill-considered revenge. The heroine doesn’t have to be a virgin anymore, thank heavens, but she has to have greater moral fiber and less money than the hero to be able to delta her alpha.

Still, writers who focus on characterization give it the old college try. It took Harlequin/Mills & Boon some time to allow the man’s thoughts into the equation, and in the beginning it was a good thing, but now it can be all thought and little action, even in the sex scenes. We get pages and pages of mooning and lust and insecurity, but the plot doesn’t move forward. In fact, the conflict and the revelation scenes are sometimes lost in what I’d call not head-hopping but head-hugging drama.

And at least in indie romance, this tack seems to fail. I’ve followed a few authors of contemporary indie romance on the Amazon boards, and the only one who has been making it consistently into the top 100 of paid Kindle authors of any stripe doesn’t seem to be distinguished by good characterization or good writing. Tight and careful plotting doesn’t even matter all that much in her books. But a lot happens, and there’s a lot of conflict.

One more thing is important in the indie market. The author I just mentioned is careful to put out a new ebook roughly every two months. You have more leeway in publishing houses, but for readers of Kindle books and the like, fans will wander off to other writers if the adrenaline fix isn’t in quickly. And they can get thousands of cheap or free fixes through sites like BookBub and BookGorilla. I amassed more than a thousand of them before I bailed. No, I haven’t read them, but you never know when you’ll get desperate.

Customer reviews on Amazon, iBooks, and the like can be useful. The first batch isn’t — fans on an author’s “street team” (in this case, people committed to promote a favorite writer on social media), or the invited group of Facebook beta readers, will be urged to rush off and give five stars.

Soon after, you’ll get the grumblers. “I paid for this?” In the one-star reviews, you’ll see a lot of people recoiling at the filthy language and explicit sex scenes. Yes, you have to wonder why the poor saps didn’t do a little more research. “Sweet” and “inspirational” romance is out there and easily found, though it doesn’t sell the way sex does. Go figure.

But the other complaints head another way. Some dissatisfied customers speak of cardboard characters — what did they expect from barely edited romance fiction? — yet readers seem to growl more often that the protagonists are thinking or feeling all the time and that it all gets boring. The thrill is gone when you’re slogging through the initial disgust and the endless sexual tension on the way to the “HEA” — the happily-ever-after — when there’s nothing to watch. And you should see the howls from readers when they thought a book was going to give them the story that they really wanted but left them hanging at the last minute. You got the first book for free, perhaps, or maybe for 99 cents, but you have to buy two or three more to find out that Aristotle was probably on to a good thing.

After this cliff-hanger, we’ll learn better things about the value of characterization next time. Maybe.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

October 12, 2016

Thinking Fiction: What Do Editors Read? (Part I)

by Carolyn Haley

In thinking about subjectivity in fiction writing and editing, as I so often do, I became curious about my editorial colleagues’ reading preferences. What do they consider good novels?

Their opinions would be diverse, I knew, which led me to wondering just how diverse. If ten different editors walked into a bookstore and each bought ten books, how many would choose the same title(s)?

No better way to find out than to ask, so I turned to Copyediting-L, a long-standing e-mail list group of both self-employed and staff editors; current, retired, and aspiring. Seeking to satisfy my curiosity and maybe write an essay if enough people responded, I posted an informal invitation for anyone to send me a list of ten published novels that “you think are Really Good,” which the editors had read “any time from birth to today.”

Thirteen editors responded, with twelve providing a full list and the thirteenth providing a partial list, for a total of 127 titles. Only eight titles were duplicated, or 6.3%, making a total list of 119 unique titles. None of the eight duplications was selected by more than two editors.

These numbers satisfy my curiosity in general. A broader sampling and more formal questionnaire will show whether or not the baker’s dozen of responders represents the editorial community of many thousands. I will conduct a larger survey in the future and see what arises. For now, the starter sampling is interesting in what it does and does not present.

General results

To frame the list in some sort of context, I asked the responding editors for basic data about themselves, their work, and their recreational reading habits.

The thirteen responders comprised eight women and five men. Beyond that I have data for only twelve, because one did not submit details. The dozen are located around the world, with the majority in the United States. Their ages range from thirty-six to seventy-nine, and their years of professional experience range from four to fifty. Two of the responders edit full time, nine edit part time (a definition that includes “semi-retired”), and one is retired. Of those still editing commercially, ten are self-employed and one holds a staff position. Only four work on fiction at all, and none exclusively. This last point surprised me, as I would have expected fiction-dedicated editors to be the primary responders to my survey.

What did not surprise me is that the majority of responders prefer to read recreationally on paper. Whether this reflects their eyesight or personalities and lifestyles, I did not seek enough information to explain. I’m sure it’s not a matter of age, because the two responders who read exclusively ebooks are fifty-six and sixty-nine, while the two youngest (thirty-six and forty-one) are dedicated to print. Of the ten print devotees, six prefer print books only, while four mix print books with ebooks.

Another element that did not surprise me in the editors’ recreational reading choices was a bias toward literary novels. Most of the selected titles came from literary and general fiction, including the bulk of duplications. As mentioned above, there were eight overlaps in title (same novel mentioned by two different responders) but also eight overlaps in author (separate titles by same author mentioned by two different responders).

Title duplications

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  4. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  5. Pride and Prejudice, also by Austen
  6. The Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis
  7. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Author duplications

  1. Jane Austen
  2. Charles Dickens
  3. Umberto Eco
  4. George Eliot
  5. George Orwell
  6. J. R. R. Tolkien
  7. Anne Tyler
  8. Edith Wharton

Second to literary and general fiction came speculative fiction — “spec fiction” being the collective term for fantasy, science fiction, alternative history, and the like. This was unexpected (I would have guessed mystery), as was the number of series mentioned. Genre romance was conspicuous by its absence (no surprise), but other genres made an appearance, such as historical fiction, suspense, and mystery. It might seem at first that horror was also represented, because titles by well-known horror writers Clive Barker and Stephen King showed up, but both authors write other material, and in this case the responders selected from those authors’ spec-fiction novels.

Most titles were traditionally published. But three self-published novels made the list: Sentence of Marriage by Shayne Parkinson, via CreateSpace; Chermpf by William S. Russell III, via a private press; and The Martian by Andy Weir. The Martian exemplifies many writers’ dream scenario. The author, in his twenties, initially wrote the story as a serial on his website. Reader demand led to a book available via Kindle. When that became a best seller, the author was approached by a literary agent (compared to the usual situation of authors soliciting agent attention). A big-name publisher then acquired the novel, which made the New York Times best-seller list and went on to become a popular movie that received awards and its actors earned Academy Award nominations. It’s amazing to see that story on the same list as one of the oldest stories in the world, The Tale of Genji (ca. 1021, Japan).

The subjectivity factor

As always when I run a survey, there’s a rogue element I didn’t anticipate. This time it was interpretation of the request: “send me a list of 10 published novels you think are Really Good.” I should have emphasized you, because one editor glided past it and focused on the cap emphasis of Really Good, saying, “I’m not sure how far I can get with such a list. I’m not really a fan of Really Good novels. I lean more toward schlock. For example I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a college freshman, and it left me cold. Never picked it up again, either. Maybe I’d think differently today. OTOH, I’ve read Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair probably three times. That’s not a Really Good novel; it’s well-crafted escape literature.”

That comment bowled me over. Why can’t “well-crafted escape literature” and “schlock” be Really Good for someone? Josephine Tey, as it happens, wrote what the British Crime Writers’ Association deemed to be “the greatest mystery novel of all time” (Daughter of Time) in its 1990 Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. The same association placed The Franchise Affair at number eleven on the list. That kind of ranking suggests a novel that mystery lovers might find Really Good. (This is confirmed on our list of thirteen responders, two of whom selected titles that are on the BCWA’s top one hundred: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.)

The commenting editor goes on to say, “I’m not sure if Dickens can be counted as Really Good. Pretty sure Gone With the Wind doesn’t count. Nor any of my childhood favorites — Burnett’s A Little Princess and Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, for example.”

The obvious subjectivity revealed here is why I asked the survey respondents what they, not their school teachers or other literary authorities, think is Really Good, and why I put Anne of Green Gables, Gone with the Wind, and The Franchise Affair on the results list instead of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. I believe that literature comprises the body of written work produced by the general population, and that it contains something for everyone, and ranges as broadly in quality as it does in diversity. I sought, through this survey, to learn about editors’ different tastes in creative literature, specifically novels, and to assemble a book buffet for all of us to sample from.

A different responder similarly found a distinction between popular fiction and literature, mentioned in an exchange we had about Stephen King. This editor’s title list was predominantly literary fiction, so when commercial giant King’s 11/22/63 appeared on his list, I was startled enough to initiate discussion. King is reviled by some literati as a hack who produces schlock. But this responder felt that 11/22/63 “stands apart” and “may come to be recognized as his best book. The story is absolutely extraordinary…and the writing is really top-notch.”

That sounds Really Good to me!

You can see for yourself what the responding editors enjoyed reading in the break-out that follows. Although the list of editor’s favorites begins in this essay, owing to length, the list will conclude in the next Thinking Fiction column. Each editor’s list is accompanied by a brief profile.

Editors’ personal favorites (the first three)

Editor #1: female, 51, non-U.S.

  • Professional experience: 9 years; currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction (library and information studies) doing copy editing, proofreading, some developmental editing, plus teaching and consulting, for individuals (esp. students) and publishers.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (English literature and history), master’s (library and information studies), doctorate in process (information science).
  • Recreational reading: 6–8 nonfiction and 1–3 novels per month, also poetry and essays, always in print. Prefers general fiction with special interest in fantasy and historical fiction. Favorite author: Terry Pratchett.
  • Top 10:

Foundation trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation), Isaac Asimov
Interesting Times (17th of the 40+ volume Discworld series), Terry Pratchett
People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
The Chronicles of Narnia (7 volumes starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), C. S. Lewis
The Emperor’s Winding Sheet, Jill Paton Walsh
The Evolution Man: Or, How I Ate My Father, Roy Lewis
The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
The Night Watch (29th of the 40+ volume Discworld series), Terry Pratchett
The Third Policeman, Brian O’Nolan (writing as Flann O’Brien)

Editor #2: female, no other data provided.

  • Top 10:

Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-gazer, Sena Jeter Naslund
Atonement, Ian McKewan
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
The World According to Garp, John Irving

Editor #3: female, 60, California

  • Professional experience: 12 years; currently part-time self-employed in memoir and occasional fiction, doing line and developmental editing for individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (biology). Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 2 books per month, mixed nonfiction and novels, always in print. Prefers romantic adventure, classics, and mystery. Favorite fiction author: Edith Wharton.
  • Top 10:

A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen
City of Thieves, David Benioff
Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach
Mrs. Mike (lead title of the 3-volume Mrs. Mike series), Benedict and Nancy Freedman
Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton
The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde
The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy

You can catch the trend of the list from just these first samples. Most of the titles have been around for years — decades, generations! — and can be considered classics; indeed, some have been standards for study in advanced English/literature classes in schools. They prove that good stories stand the test of time, and suggest that editors take their fiction seriously.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

September 21, 2016

Thinking Fiction: Factors That Make a Novel Publishable

by Carolyn Haley

A common belief among authors and editors is that any well-written novel will find a publisher. Although that is broadly true, there are other factors at play, such as luck, perseverance, subjectivity, and economics. These factors, in varying combinations, explain why novels get published at different quality levels of writing and storytelling — or not at all.

A saying I heard decades ago puts the equation simply: an author must get the right book onto the right person’s desk on the right day. Published novelists who have submitted a book to multiple parties can affirm the veracity of that statement. Some writers nail the combination on their first attempt; others labor for years before success; some never achieve success. Still, whether they get published depends on somebody’s accepting their book, based on personal or corporate criteria.

Multiple choices

The right-book/right-desk/right-day combination applies only to traditional publishing. Until recent times, that was an author’s sole path to publication (unless the author wanted to spend thousands of dollars with a vanity press, which carried a stigma most writers didn’t want to bear, even if they could afford it). Authors had to satisfy the gatekeepers of the publishing industry — agents and acquisition editors — who always had to consider a novel’s commercial potential, as well as the author’s potential for long-term output. Some of the larger publishing houses could afford to take risks on unknown or radically different authors, and indeed that’s how many now-household-name, award-winning writers got their break. For the most part, though, a novel’s publishability depended on whether the house thought it could sell the book to enough readers to justify the cost of production and distribution, and generate enough profit to pay the writer and refill the publisher’s coffers.

The same conditions apply today, but novelists now have publishing options that lie between the opposite poles of traditional and vanity publishing: self-publishing. Self-publishing is considered by some to be vanity publishing under a different name, but with the electronic era have come new outlets for distribution, new tools giving authors desktop production and control, and myriad author-service vendors to help at different skill levels. The combination has created a third arena, one that places publishability determination into authors’ hands. The vanity stigma is fading fast as well-known authors reject suffocating corporate contracts and release new novels or reissue their backlists through self-publishing alternatives. A small but growing cadre of new authors is building their names and making great incomes from bypassing the old system. As a result, what makes a novel publishable has changed with the times.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is reader desire for a good story. Many authors have great story ideas, but their narrative technique is weak or sloppy. That’s where hands-on editors (copyeditors, line editors, developmental editors) enter the publishing process. But it’s rare for those editors to have decision-making authority regarding what novels get accepted for publication.

Whose standards apply?

Today a novel’s publishability depends on context. In self-publishing, authors have sole decision-making authority, influenced perhaps by their support circle and understanding of the market for their work. For them it’s a matter of getting the right book into the right channel, and they can release it at whatever writing quality level suits them and their audience.

In traditional publishing, a house’s acquiring editor makes the initial decision on behalf of the company, although managing or executive editors, and/or key people in accounting or marketing departments, might overrule their choice. Writing quality may be important to a house, but sometimes the best-written works have the narrowest audience appeal, so novels of perhaps lower writing quality but higher demand continue to be acquired in order to subsidize the less-popular books and any high-risk extraordinary works the house wants to take a chance on.

Publishability might also depend on a multibook-author’s track record, in both sales and reliability in producing new books on time, without hassle. Each publishing house has a hoodoo–voodoo equation on how best to invest their marketing dollars. Do they want to build an author’s readership over time, or make a fortune on a single novel’s potential to expand into other media? Are they interested in prize-winning literary candidates, or cultivating a mass audience in popular genres? Any or all of these factors influence which manuscripts are selected for publication.

The largest and most influential publishing houses have candidates fed to them by literary agents. The “Big Five” publishers (Hachette Group, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and HarperCollins) are corporate giants whose multiple imprints still offer the prestige, support, and income possibilities sought by many authors. The agents who direct material to the Big Five have no decision-making clout beyond which authors they choose to represent, which manuscripts they choose to submit, and the timing of the submissions. An agent’s job is to apply marketplace savvy to the flood of submissions they receive, and select the most appropriate novels to pitch to the editors in their network. Agents live on commission, so they look for novels they can sell. At the same time, they understand the subjectivity and unpredictability of public and editorial taste, and may choose to gamble on novels they love. In that frame of reference, they decide what’s publishable, though they are subject to the same fickleness of fate that authors must endure: getting the right book onto the right person’s desk on the right day.

Outside the Big Five, authors can fend for themselves with independent and genre-specific publishers. The smaller or more focused the house, the easier it is for authors to have their work accepted. Ebook-only houses seem to be the path of least resistance for many.

Where’s the editor?

Noticeably absent from the above scenarios are the hands-on editors — copyeditors, line editors, developmental editors — the people who actually get involved in the revision and fine-tuning of an author’s writing, as compared to acquisition or managing editors who make business decisions about a work. Hands-on editors are involved in publishability decisions only in small companies, where most everyone wears more than one hat. Still, there’s always someone who has executive authority and deems a novel worth the economic risk of publishing it, regardless of a hands-on editor’s passion (or lack of passion) for the project. It might be that the rejected book is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, but if the deciding party doesn’t think so, then it goes back to the author to try somewhere else.

The larger the publishing company, the farther away from decision making a hands-on editor sits. Self-employed editors are farthest from that decision, especially if they work with self-publishing authors, who alone decide what to do with their edited books. For hands-on editors, it’s a built-in job frustration to diligently contribute to a novel’s publishability while the outcome is beyond their control. So to be happy in their work, they need to know and manage their personal tolerance for quality deviations, and understand their role in the publishing process. Staff hands-on editors must be in tune with their employer’s overarching policy and criteria so they can either edit what’s handed to them or pass it on with instructions to freelance editors. The self-employed hands-on editor, often the editor a book is being passed to, must establish her own parameters so she can decide what projects to accept and how to handle them. Hands-on editors must always bear in mind that once a manuscript leaves their desks, someone else decides whether the book merits publishing.

More variables

Different publisher types have different factors to balance when deciding what to novels to publish. A senior acquisitions editor at, say, Random House, who serves best-selling authors in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook, with subsidiary rights involving translation and film options and ancillary products, will have one set of criteria to juggle. A managing editor at a genre press that employs eight people who work out of their homes, producing mainly ebooks with print-on-demand options, will have different, often less stringent, criteria for deciding what to accept and reject. An indie author self-publishing through CreateSpace can do whatever she wants, limited by how much time, effort, and money she wants to spend—just like the publishing companies.

Competition among authors to get accepted by a top-tier house is fierce, and those with the best-crafted, most-compelling story ideas with broadest appeal have the best chance of being accepted at that level. “Best crafted” and “most compelling,” however, do not always equate with “well written.” Separating literary excellence and commercial viability can be difficult for authors and hands-on editors, but it helps both to grasp the fluid balance between these elements and adjust their expectations accordingly. A high-aspiring author paired with a relaxed-standards editor may not be a good match; likewise, an editor with classic literary standards may not work well with authors shooting for easy commercial success.

It serves both parties to share an understanding of the author’s goals for the novel vis-à-vis what the author has actually written, as well as the author’s potential and willingness to push to higher standards if need be. A realistic perspective on whether a novel is “good enough” to be published helps the work become the right book on the right person’s desk on the right day — or, in the case of self-publishers, the right book in the right channel. Professional hands-on editors are able to guide authors along the path to finding that perspective and help them achieve the writing and storytelling quality desired by their audience.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

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