An American Editor

October 9, 2017

Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap IV

by Carolyn Haley

In Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap III, I described my approach to formatting client manuscripts (Stage 2 of a four-stage workflow). As in preflight (Stage 1), formatting gives me a preview of content while attending to technical preparation of the file, so when I finally settle down to edit (Stage 3), I can give content full attention.

Preflight is described in The Novel-Editing Roadmap I and II; formatting is described in The Novel-Editing Roadmap III.

Stage 3: Editing

Part of my rationale for not prereading a manuscript is to be able to see it as a regular reader would: start on page one and read to the end. I have a hint of what’s to come from preflight and formatting, just as a reader of the published book might have a hint from jacket copy and reviews. Beyond that, the novel is as unknown to me as it is to them.

My editing modus operandi is to read until I stumble. Depending on the manuscript, my stumbling may occur often or intermittently; and depending on the scope of work, I’ll emend, query, or ignore the stumble once I’ve identified its cause.

A stumble can be anything. Because different readers perceive the same book differently (i.e., reader subjectivity), it’s impossible for an editor to anticipate every conceivable stumbling point. Consequently, I frame my expectations according to genre conventions and commonly held standards of craft (writing technique and storytelling), and respond to what breaks my attention.

Where start-to-finish reading differs between me and the pleasure reader is that I stop and act at any stumble, whereas the reader reacts to stumbles by sliding past them or abandoning the book if there are too many of them. My job is to keep the reader attached to the story by removing stumbling points.

The first few chapters always go slowly, for that’s when characters are introduced, the plot and conflict(s) are established, and the writer’s skill or lack thereof becomes evident. It’s also when I construct the primary elements of the style sheet and decide upon its best layout. After that, things proceed more steadily and smoothly.

Simple corrections, such as spelling, punctuation, and minor deletions and transitions, can be popped in as I go. Stumbles that require more than a few seconds to address get highlighted in yellow. Some of them might be explained later in the story, so there is no point spending time on them prematurely. If a stumble is not explained by the end, I’ll have to do a bit of research, or give further thought to recasting or querying. I make these decisions in a dedicated pass after completing the main edit.

The need to highlight occurs so often that I created a macro to reduce multiple menu steps into a two-finger keyboard command that’s easy for me to remember. For yellow highlighting, I use the command CTRL+y, and to insert a comment balloon, I use CTRL+F11. My comments range from simple queries, such as selecting a word and suggesting an alternative with a question mark (e.g., in a description of a sword with an ornate handle, the query would be hilt?), to complex descriptions of a story problem and suggesting solutions. Other queries are just requests for clarification of ambiguous phrasings or actions.

I also use some of Word’s built-in keyboard shortcuts, such as ALT+F6 to jump between open Word documents (e.g., the manuscript and style sheet), and ALT+Tab to move between applications (e.g., between Word, email, reference websites, and a search engine). This saves a lot of mouse clicking.

One of the most time-saving macros I’ve found is one of the hundreds provided in Paul Beverley’s macro collection, Computer Tools for Editors. I overlooked it until Louise Harnby wrote about it in “How to never forget you’ve switched off Track Changes!” in her Proofreader’s Parlour blog. Once the macro has been installed, it places a symbol on Word’s toolbar, which upon clicking changes screen color to signal that Track Changes is OFF. This alert has saved me hours from having to backpedal and reedit after getting crossed up with Track Changes’ active/inactive status. The alert plus two single-key commands I recorded for showing and hiding tracking (F10 to show, F12 to hide), put an end to Track Changes fumbles.

Another big time-saver came from purchasing access to Merriam-Webster’s online unabridged dictionary. I used to check spellings in my paper copy of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., until I realized how rapidly seconds were adding up to minutes and hours. I recovered my cost for the online version in the first book I edited afterward. I’ve not yet made the paper-to-online switch with my primary style guide, Chicago Manual of Style, because in fiction adherence to style is more flexible than in nonfiction, and I use CMS much less often than the dictionary. Nevertheless, I gained efficiency through an online/hardcopy combination. I’ve always found the CMS index to be confusing, and therefore time consuming, so I was prone to not consulting the reference when I should. I’m also frugal, so I didn’t want to spend for a resource I wasn’t going to heavily employ. Now I use the online CMS site as an index (no charge) by searching for a topic. That usually brings up the relevant chapter number and section, leading straight to the information I want in the book.

Second pass

After completing the main edit, I review everything I highlighted and address whatever the highlights flagged. That may require rephrasing clumsy wording, or investigating a questionable fact, or composing a technical explanation about a hitch in scene logistics and suggesting solutions. At first I searched for each highlight by scrolling; then I tried opening the Find/Replace window and searching for Highlight. That required a tiresome number of menu steps, so I recorded a macro for keyboard commands that advance to the next highlighted text and remove its highlighting. The pair of close-together key sequences (CTRL+Shift+| for find highlight and ALT+\ for unhighlight) lets me use my nonmouse hand to rapidly jump to and clear highlighting. (This combo is also useful during preflight when reviewing the many highlights inserted by Never Spell Word.) When I want to mass-clear highlighting or catch any highlight I failed to remove manually, I run EditTools’ Remove All Highlighting macro. Although this tool can remove particular highlight colors on demand, I don’t differentiate colors during my process so have not employed that option.

Next I review my comments and queries, to make sure they are courteous and clear. This, too, I previously did by scrolling, but now I use EditTools’ Comment Editor. This tool puts all comments in one window and lets you jump to whichever one you want with a click.

Last, I attend to miscellaneous. Throughout the main edit I jot notes about items I don’t highlight or query in the manuscript because they might not fall within scope of work. Usually they involve the writer’s technique. For instance, if the manuscript was loaded with fuzzy phrasing, like he made his way through the crowd (vs. he wove or shoved through the crowd); or weak phrasing, like he was running (vs. he ran) or he started to run (vs. he ran); or the author has a pet word or phrase that’s been overused (one of my memoir clients hopped on his bike about two hundred times, when he could have gotten on, jumped on, or mounted the bike occasionally), I might run searches for the phrases in question and reconsider them for editing or querying.

Once every note is crossed off my list, I tidy up any lingering mechanical and consistency details.

Stage 4: Cleanup

I start cleanup by making another copy of the file, then work down a checklist.

Quotation marks come first, owing to the prevalence of dialogue in fiction and the myriad typos it can contain. Using a series of search strings I haven’t bundled into a macro yet, I ferret out missing punctuation inside quotes (Find: ^$”) and missing periods at paragraph ends (Find: ^$^p), then switch to wildcard searches for incorrect punctuation between the quoted matter and the speaker, such as, “I’ll go to the store.” she said (Find: .^0148 ([a-z]), with variations on caps and period/comma). I also make sure all quotation marks and apostrophes are “curly” typographer style rather than straight (Find: ^0034 for ” and ^0039 for ‘).

Finally, I run Paul Beverley’s MatchDoubleQuotes macro to catch any quotation mark pairs that are incomplete. I use another Paul Beverley macro to find duplicate phrases, since Word’s spellcheck will only find duplicate single words (e.g., the the). The Duplicate Phrase macro finds two-word repeats and three-word repeats, including a variant that highlights them, to catch such errors as she went to went to the store. However, it can’t find illogical sequences resulting from clumsy revisions, like he the will. For those, I must reread the document and hope my eye will catch them second time around.

It’s been suggested that I save the illogical phrases as I come across them to an F&R Master dataset in EditTools, which is a good idea that I plan to try. No such phrases have popped up since I received the suggestion, so I can’t yet testify to the utility of the idea. In the meantime, I’ve tried different settings in Word’s grammar checker, and investigated other grammar checkers on the market, but not found anything to help catch my worst and most frequent editing error (he the will and its ilk). I therefore never promise a client a perfect job.

Before my own proofreading pass, I run PerfectIt to find consistency errors in spelling, hyphenation, abbreviation, and capitalization, followed by Word’s spellchecker to catch the last typos and dropped spacing between words or sentences. When that’s done, I set up for proofreading: change the font (and eyeglasses), move to a different computer and chair, hide the tracked changes and comments from showing onscreen, and read the book from start to finish. Leftover bloopers and questions reveal themselves during this phase.

Last, I play it safe by manually checking for little mistakes I might have introduced during the edit, such as extra spaces between words or before punctuation — but I don’t rerun File Cleaner, having done so in preflight. At the end of the edit I’m afraid to do anything involving a global replace as I will not see the whole manuscript again and deeply fear an ugly surprise when the author reviews it.

Closure

Before delivering the edited manuscript, I take an extra spin through the comments to make sure they meet the three p’s: polite, professional, and precise. That’s the final editing step. For delivery, I prepare two files: the first with all edits showing, to demonstrate that I’ve done my job and let the author accept or reject whatever they please; the second with all edits accepted and only comments showing. Most clients work with the second document because they are satisfied with the edits and want a clean version of the manuscript to enter their own revisions into.

Finally, I organize and pretty-up the style sheet and prepare a cover letter to the author (or project coordinator for a publisher job). With new clients or iffy payers, I create a PDF of the all-changes-showing file and send it with the bill. With proven clients, I just send the final Word files and the author sends back a check.

The job usually ends here because most of my jobs involve copyediting or line editing and the client moves on from there. Sometimes I get the book back for revision checking and commentary, and I always keep the door open to author questions. Many of them keep in touch regarding their progress. Better yet, they come back with their next project.

By the time I receive the author’s next project, I’ve learned another tool or trick and refined my procedure — although not always for the better. Learning is as much about figuring out what doesn’t work as what does. The route to finding out what editing process works best for oneself is to acquire the proven software tool packages — EditTools, Editor’s ToolKit Plus, PerfectIt, and Paul Beverley’s macro collection, Computer Tools for Editors — and start experimenting. Also, take classes, read how-to books and blogs, and participate in forums where colleagues discuss their methodology. It’s a dynamic process that never really ends and can be adjusted as one’s skill set matures.

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 11, 2017

Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap III

by Carolyn Haley

In Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap I and Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap II, I introduced the four stages of my editing process — preflight, formatting, editing, and cleanup — then discussed the first stage: preflight. Preflight involves document setup for the job, then mechanical tidying-up of errors and inconsistencies using editing software tools, so I can focus on content while reading the manuscript. The next stage in my process, formatting, serves the same purpose but focuses on different aspects.

Stage 2: Formatting

Aside from story content, formatting is the biggest variable among the manuscripts I edit. Whereas publisher manuscripts usually come groomed and styled so I don’t have to do anything except copyedit, indie-author manuscripts can arrive in any condition, and I usually have to clean them up in some way beyond editing the words.

Some authors have studied submission requirements to agents or publishers, and send their manuscripts to me in “industry standard” format of one-inch margins all around, double spacing, and conventional font such as Times New Roman 12 (with a few still using the now old-fashioned monospace font, Courier). Other authors present their work with a gaudy cover page, autogenerated table of contents, headers and footers, and fancy typefaces, with the text in single space or something — anything! — else. Many older authors know how to type and spell but have no word processing skills, so they use manual tabs or spaces for paragraph indents and insert extra returns for chapter breaks; other authors, lacking knowledge of conventional publishing practices, use all caps and/or bolding and/or underlining for chapter titles and emphasis.

These flourishes must be removed from the manuscript before it’s published or, in many cases, before it’s submitted to an agent or acquiring editor. Consequently, I offer preproduction formatting as one of my editorial services. I spent years as a typesetter and enjoy that kind of work. As well, it’s more efficient for me to format a manuscript than to teach someone to do it or wait while my client has someone else do it, as would be the case if I insisted on specific formatting before accepting the job. I am frequently the last (or only) person to handle a file before my client submits it anywhere, so I like to deliver it ready for its fate. In situations where the author plans to pay someone for formatting, the author gets a better deal having it done as part of editing — and I get a better paycheck for the extra work.

Where I remain inflexible is with file format, meaning, which software created the document. A few maddening, time-wasting, unprofitable experiences with Pages and OpenOffice files moved me to only accept files created in Microsoft Word. PC or Mac doesn’t matter, release version doesn’t matter, but the file must be native to Word — this is nonnegotiable! This policy is not only to avoid problems for myself, but also for the production people after me, whose layout programs are designed to play nicely with Word. The day will come when I’ll have to change my policy, but until it becomes obvious that I must adapt to demand or lose work, I’m holding firm on this requirement.

Formatting as a supplement to preflight

Formatting the manuscript myself has an additional benefit. As mentioned in Thinking Fiction: The Novel-Editing Roadmap I, I have a blind spot to work around. Because of the way my memory functions, I can’t preread a manuscript without dulling my eye to editing it. Formatting provides a passive preview that gives me a sense of the book and lets me spot oddball elements not picked up during preflight, while keeping the story fresh to discover during editing.

I don’t use any editing software tools for formatting beyond Word’s built-in Styles features and menu. They serve for my approach, so I don’t feel compelled to change. I like to crawl through the whole document with nonprinting characters and coding showing, with Word’s Styles pane open and set to show what styles are used in the document. I may do this in Print Format view or Draft view; which view alters with circumstance and mood.

During the crawl, I look for and fix anything that wasn’t caught during preflight. There’s almost always something aberrant, and I can’t predict what it might be. The most common irregularities pertain to numbers. Examples include time indicated in different ways (e.g., 2:00 PM, 4 p.m., seven o’clock), variations in measurement (e.g., five-foot six, 5’6”, five-feet-six; or 20 miles vs. twenty miles), different styling of years (e.g., the sixties, the 60s, the 1960’s, the Sixties) or firearm terms (.45, 45-caliber, a 45; or 9mm, 9-millimeter, nine millimeter). In each case I need to choose which style to use and apply it consistently through the manuscript. Sometimes it’s a matter of correctness (e.g., changing the 60s to the ʼ60s); most times it’s a matter of whose preference to follow (mine, Chicago Manual of Style’s, or the author’s). Whatever I decide goes onto my style sheet, which contains a section specifying which types of numbers are spelled out and which are expressed in numerals, including examples of each. Attending to these types of consistency elements during formatting reduces the number of details I must notice and address during editing.

Styling

My dual aims in formatting are to make the manuscript easy for me to read and navigate, and to make it clean and consistent for future production. If the document arrives neatly put together, all I do is style the chapter heads with Heading 1, one of Word’s default styles. The Heading 1, 2, 3 (etc.) styles appear in Word’s navigation pane, enabling me to jump back and forth between chapters with a click instead of scrolling or searching.

I also make sure that chapter breaks are formed by a “hard” page break (either manually by CTRL+Enter or with “Page break before” selected when establishing the Heading 1 style), rather than any kind of section break or insertion of returns. This is to help whoever follows me in the chain. The production person, for instance, may need to do a global find/replace for some styling or layout purpose I’m not privy to. Consistency makes that task much easier, so I ensure that there’s only one return between the last paragraph of every chapter and the page break for the next, and no returns preceding the next chapter number/title.

For messier manuscripts, I’ll get in deeper, if scope of work allows. Many times I style the body text and chapter heads using Word’s defaults: Normal for text, and Heading 1 (2, 3, etc.) for chapter number/title/subtitle. This combination is a reasonably safe, generic setup for when I don’t know the book’s ultimate configuration. I modify the fonts, line spacing, and indents of these styles to suit the job, but might change them during editing for easier viewing onscreen. For example, the job may need to be delivered in Times New Roman, but I find that font hard to read, especially punctuation. My eye is more comfortable with a sans serif font, such as Calibri. By using Word’s Styles for text and headings, I can change fonts simply and swiftly, then enlarge them onscreen as needed.

With the basics done, I focus on italics, which are heavily used in fiction for emphasis and many forms of silent communication, as well as for media titles and ship names, noises, and foreign or alien words. To ensure that italics survive any font changes or cross-platform file moves during the manuscript’s progress from creation to publishing, they need to be set in a character style rather than a paragraph style. Although italics set with Word’s default tools (taskbar icon, menu commands, or keyboard combo [CTRL+i]) hold up well during most manuscript manipulations, they sometimes come undone for no apparent reason, and it’s a miserable waste of time to restore them.

I avoid this random possibility by one of two means. If the manuscript comes in clean, then I just create a character style for italics and globally find Word’s default italics and replace them with the character-style italics. Using a character style makes the italics always identifiable because even if the text doesn’t appear italic, the text that is supposed to be italic can be located by finding the text to which the character style is applied. If the manuscript is really messy and I must change something in Normal or any different style(s) the author used, I first globally find/replace the default italics to put them into color and then do whatever else I have to do (sometimes clearing all styles and restoring just the ones needed). Finally, I replace the colored italics with the character-style ones. For technical reasons I don’t understand, font color survives heavy text manipulation, whereas the default italics setting sometimes does not. By using one of these methods, I don’t lose the italicization even if I have a corrupted file to salvage or foul things up with my own mistakes.

Upon completion of formatting, I create a new copy of the manuscript and plunge in to discover its story.

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 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.

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 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.

August 8, 2016

Thinking Fiction: Fighting in Fiction

by Carolyn Haley

I edit a lot of genre novels, and many of them include funny fighting. Not the ha-ha kind of funny, but the eye-rolling, groaning kind of funny caused by absurd or impossible situations. I believe some authors create such scenes because they have lived secure, nonviolent lives, and gained their impressions of battle from media. Young writers, in particular, are prone to composing fight and chase scenes that come across like video games. But young or old, many authors’ combat scenes show either a lack of direct experience or a failure to do research. As a result, the ordinary heroes they strive so hard to make human and believable suddenly become idiots or superheroes when faced with violence.

Editors sometimes allow fighting bloopers to pass unchallenged because they, too, have led secure, nonviolent lives. Editing is a desk job, and the types of people drawn to it generally are neither fighters nor athletes, nor come from mean streets. An inaccurate fight scene may make just as much sense to the editor as the novelist. Which is fine in one context but a problem in another, because savvy readers will spot the bloopers and lose faith in the author.

The difference between a context that works and one that doesn’t is nicely defined in a reference book I recently discovered, Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall, a volume in this author’s Writer’s Craft technique series. She calls one context the “gritty fight scene” (realism and brevity required) and the other context the “entertaining fight scene” (realism and brevity optional). Understanding the difference is key to determining whether a scene involving violent action is plausible.

Writing Fight Scenes is the most helpful resource I’ve found for both writing and editing fight scenes. It covers not only the gritty-vs.-entertaining distinction, but also ancient and contemporary weapons (including magical ones); unarmed combat and self-defense; how to use settings in fights; individual and group combat; nautical and land battles; differences in technique and advantages between men and women; fighting with and like animals (including fantasy beasts); and psychological barriers to successful fighting. For each topic the author includes “Blunders to Avoid” and provides video and website links for more information and illustration.

The book also includes tips on story and fight pacing, and vocabulary to use for best effect in different scenarios. It comes in both ebook and paperback format. I recommend it to all authors and editors working in adventure fiction.

In the absence of such a handy reference work, and any personal experience in combat, editors can still spot implausibilities in client manuscripts. They just have to know the basics.

The Big Three

The problem areas I see most often in fight scenes pertain to weapons in general and firearms in particular; the next most often seen problem areas are implausible character actions and reactions.

Firearms

The basics of gunfighting involve weapon and ammo types, handling characteristics, and sounds. Authors who have experience with firearms usually get their facts right, and editors just have to spot-check a few to confirm, then verify exact spellings of makes and models throughout the manuscript. Authors with no firearms experience, however, tend to just say “a gun,” sometimes specifying handgun, rifle, shotgun, or machine gun, but often not knowing, say, that revolver and pistol aren’t synonyms. (A revolver is a type of pistol, but not all pistols are revolvers.)

The type of gun and its ammunition can profoundly affect the veracity of a story. A popular fight outcome is the shoulder wound, where a bullet passes cleanly through the narrow bit of flesh in that joint and the hero keeps on swinging. While this is possible, it’s extremely unlikely for anyone to be that lucky. Most bullets would damage or destroy the joint and drop the hero like a stone, or at least put him out of action. Any gunshot wound is likely to cause shock. More often than not, a gunshot wound means an ambulance ride.

Then again, adrenaline — the amazing chemical that allows humans to perform extreme physical feats — lets people live through their injuries to win the day, then collapse later. The same is true for certain drugs. So fictional fight scenes can get dramatic and remain within the realm of believability. But to get there, the author must lay the foundation prior to the fight scene and be accurate with the details of weapons and human physiology.

An often overlooked detail is the noise guns produce when fired. In general, small-caliber weapons make cracking or popping sounds, and large-caliber weapons make bangs and booms. All firearms are LOUD. People who practice at shooting ranges wear ear protection for good reason; and people within blocks or miles will likely hear the firing. Shootouts can’t occur without drawing attention unless the shooters are way out in the boondocks or employing silencers, so editors must watch for gun battles that occur in a vacuum. They must also be aware that certain powers of ammunition will cut through barriers of different material, and others will ricochet around in a closed environment, creating new dangers. Unimpeded bullets can travel long distances and hit unintended targets.

Every action involving a firearm has consequences on several levels. Characters can’t just whip out a weapon and fire it without the author accounting for where it came from. Save for very compact personal-protection weapons designed for concealed carry, or very high-tech weapons made of ultralightweight materials, firearms are bulky and heavy. Handguns without proper holsters make clothing bulge or sag, and can turn purses into shoulder-straining totes. Among inexperienced shooters, firing handguns can fatigue or strain wrists and bruise palms with recoil. Rifles and shotguns are renowned for their kick, and can’t be concealed without special clothing or carriers. Any weapon needs to be reloaded if the gunfight goes on for a while, so authors must remember to provide their characters with ammunition.

Authors also need to account for weapons during and after a fight scene. For instance, hot barrels on handguns that are slipped back inside clothing can cause new problems. Dropped long guns can change a fight outcome by getting tripped on underfoot. One thing a weapon cannot do is disappear from the scene, unless magic is involved. Too often I see weapons arrive and depart at author convenience to enhance drama. Equally often I see amateur shooters hit moving targets. This is acceptable if there’s any backstory that explains where the character got training and practice. Without that background, however, there’s almost no chance it would happen in real life.

Character actions

It’s common in manuscripts containing inaccurate fighting details to also have the hero and villain chatter during their battle(s). I call this “honor fighting” because it’s more about the characters’ psychological battle than actually taking the other guy out. When in reality combatants would have no breath for conversation, in honor fighting they bait and insult each other, explain their motives, reveal their secrets…meanwhile giving so much time for henchmen to ambush the other party while distracted, and so much opportunity for any form of power reversal, that the encounter becomes silly. This is where Hall’s “gritty” versus “entertaining” distinction especially pertains. Honor fighting has no place in a gritty story, which is why otherwise compelling tales may move readers to groans or laughter during climax battles.

A story centered on a character desperately trying to stop someone from wrecking their life turns unbelievable when they ignore a golden chance to stop them; worse when they ignore multiple chances. Logic says that if you fear someone and they’re trying to kill you, you do everything you can to stop them before they can get you. When characters fail to do this, they need darn good reasons. Editors need to ensure the author has supported such action or inaction in the story leading up to it.

A subset of honor fighting is incomplete disabling of henchmen. In so many stories that it’s become cliché, heroes fight their way through a screen of hardened bad guys on their way to the target villain, knocking them down and moving on. Then they are surprised when some or all of the bad guys bounce back to menace them again. I suppose the author is trying to demonstrate the hero’s humaneness by having him not kill people unnecessarily. And when urgency counts, there’s no time to truss everyone up, and usually no materials. So why doesn’t the hero at least give a second blow to ensure prolonged unconsciousness, or kick out a knee, or something to guarantee he won’t suffer a rear attack? In a story attempting to be realistic, this warrants a query.

Character reactions

Who among us has not sliced their finger with a kitchen knife or bonked their head against a door, or barked their shin on a coffee table, or slipped on the stairs? Each of those impacts gives hard pain at the time and lingering pain afterward, and generates bruises or blood. Sometimes simple domestic accidents cause injuries that require a trip to the emergency room.

From that knowledge, an editor can extrapolate the effects of getting slammed in the face with a two-by-four piece of lumber swung by a 250-pound man, or even a 99-pound weakling in a berserker rage. How credible is it that an ordinary person would rebound and chase the villain after that kind of hit? More likely, one would be spitting out teeth if one managed to stand up at all. A fictional character who doesn’t get similarly affected must have backstory provided to account for his ability to stay in action after a mighty blow. This pertains equally to being punched, kicked, stabbed, shot, thrown, and falling from a height.

Framing Fights Credibly

Violence is ugly and painful. If it’s part of a gritty story, it has to reflect reality. If it’s part of an entertaining story, realism can be bent or ignored. Authors unwilling to do their homework might be able to fool equally uneducated editors and readers, but the world is a harsh enough place that a substantial audience knows how violence works and can see through author fudging. Readers’ possible rejection of the story, and maybe even public panning of it, counterserves the purpose of having a book edited and published. Editors can do their part in preventing negative reaction to a novel by informing themselves of the basics and paying special attention to the technicalities and choreography of fight scenes.

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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