Editing: Joy or Challenge


Editing can be a joy or a challenge. I’ve worked with several unpublished writers with whom my relationship has been nurturing and excellent. They have been willing learners and I’ve seen great improvement in their writing as we worked together.

And then there have been the challenges. Some writers think their writing is so good that no editor is needed, but others know that they should get an editor…they just don’t understand the role of the editor. As I explain immediately, I am part cheerleader and part trail guide. I will cheer them as they write, but I will also guide them on the path to improve their writing.

I’m a writer. I understand writers’ egos. We bleed over our writing. Every word is precious. I get it. And I think that’s what makes me a good editor. I know the pain of word-birth.

Two weeks ago a “writer” contacted me out of the blue. He said he’d been working on his manuscript for many months and wanted to work with a writing mentor. He’d seen my profile on an editing website and thought I had the skills he needed. I offered to read and assess his manuscript, which he assured me his friends had read and loved.

I should have known to walk away at that moment. Still, I cautioned him that an editor reads differently than friends read, and said that he shouldn’t expect simple applause from me. If applause was due, I’d certainly give it, but I was also going to read to find ways to improve the book, if it needed improvement. That’s the purpose of the assessment read. He assured me that he understood.

Well, he wrote decent sentences, but the story and plot needed a great deal of work, and his characters were cookie-cutter, trite and stereotypical. I broke this to him with great diplomacy, but he fought me every inch of the way, arguing about why he had written as he had–and anyway, he’d fashioned his character on Tom Cruise’s interpretation of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, so such characters do exist.

Gently, I tried to explain that I think he had a good idea, but that he needed to delve more deeply into the characters, to develop their motivations and plausibility. It’s nice to have a character from the hero’s past who will show up and clear away bodies, and another who will show up and patch up his wounds, both with no questions asked, but other than being super-useful to the writer, how do these characters figure into the story? (I was much more diplomatic than that in my assessment and the 40 subsequent emails we had.)

Ultimately, he decided he couldn’t work with me. His friends had loved what he’d written, and they didn’t have to ask so many questions about who people were and why they did what they did. And, furthermore, who was I to question his grammar? He’d run the thorny sentences through a grammar checker online and had been assured his grammar was fine.

Heck, I’m just an editor. What do I know?

i_hate_heart_editors_mugs-r1d5b445e31e64db98e01cca4e085618a_x7j1l_8byvr_512After numerous, increasingly argumentative, emails, I was more than willing to call quits on our nascent relationship. He was simply going to be ore trouble than he was worth. I wasn’t ready to debate every point (and had given him my willing permission to accept or decline every assessment comment I’d made). We parted company, with him declaring that he had actually made many of the changes I had suggested, and was thinking about many of the story points I’d highlighted. I said if he needed my help in the future, I was here.

After two weeks, I requested payment for the assessment (which I usually ask for up front, before delivering said assessment). He refused. Said he thought my feedback was crap, and anyway, HE was assessing ME, and decided he didn’t want to work with me. So, he wouldn’t pay.

Excuse me? I’m not sure what planet he lives on, but I hope publishing is different there, because he’s never going to get published here on Earth. Unless he self-publishes, which is his only possibility.

Chalk this one up to “lessons learned.” Stick to my rules, and obey when the little voice in my head shouts, “Run!”

Lowering the Bar in Editing?


It’s the way of the publishing world, I hear. Not only for smaller publishers, but also for venerated ones.

Never mind the rules: if the author is consistent, then follow the author’s lead.

I want to scream.

I have worked so hard through the years to attain a high level of editing knowledge and expertise, in a variety of styles (Chicago, Oxford, MLA, APA, AP, etc.), and now so many of the rules of style are being ignored.

I don’t know why, but we editors are being told to “follow the author’s lead,” even if not strictly correct. I’m currently editing a book written using UK spelling, but U.S. punctuation. What the heck? Why the combination?

I’m not sure if this is a matter of convenience (most publishers don’t have a large in-house editorial staff any more), or lack of knowledge. All I know for certain is that the editors I worked with early in my freelance editing career were task masters who demanded that I know the rules of style inside and out. Today, those editors are being told by their publishers that such adherence isn’t necessary.


This wouldn’t affect me so strongly, I suspect, if I weren’t so aware of how pathetic writing skills have become, particularly in journalism. Only today I came across the line, “A person may have ran through the school slashing or puncturing students with a knife or other sharp object, according to early reports cited by The Associated Press.” 

“May have ran”? Where is this reporter’s editor? And this isn’t an isolated incident. Daily, I read news items with rampant spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors. These aren’t just symptomatic of online journalism, either. I believe that people simply don’t know the rules, and don’t care.


I’ve heard the argument that language is a living entity, and must change with the times. Baloney. Why are the rules now no longer sufficient or important? What has changed in the past few decades, besides less-knowledgeable editors and/or teachers/professors?

What gripes me is the change in long-standing rules: it is apparently okay to start a sentence with “And” now (CMOS says so; see my sentence in the paragraph above), and end any sentence a preposition with. As far as parallel construction and noun/verb agreement, well, and then who care?

My poor friend Meg Gardiner listens to my rants on a daily basis when we IM. She’s long suffering, and regularly advises me to breathe deeply or take a long walk when my blood pressure goes up. I love writing! I admire good writing. There are guidelines for powerful writing that should be followed. (As shown here, the rules from Elmore Leonard):


I’m not just being a fuddy-duddy about this. Yes, I love the rules of the language, and think English is perhaps the perfect language, with its incredible pedigree derived from other languages. But it’s more than that.

As an editor, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what is right. It was hard enough to decide whether I was wearing my US or UK English hat, but now I have to decide whether I’m wearing my by-the-rules hat or off-the-cuff hat. It’s my job to make the reader’s experience as enjoyable as possible, by making the writing as clear as possible. This is becoming increasingly more difficult.

As Freddie Mercury so famously sang: I think I’m going slightly mad!


Books That Disappear

A friend sent me this story. I haven’t yet digested the need for such innovation, however.

“Book printed in ink that vanishes after two months

“We’ve seen a few innovations that have offered a twist on traditional reading habits, from offering short works by new authors based on the duration of train delays to a temporary edible book made of pasta and a smokeable book with pages made from rolling papers, printed with the lyrics of rapper Snoop Dogg. Taking elements of both of these ideas, Buenos Aires-based bookshop and publisher Eterna Cadencia has released El Libro que No Puede Esperar – which translates as ‘The Book that Cannot Wait’ – an anthology of new fiction from Latin American authors printed in ink that disappears after two months of opening the book.

“Silk-screened using a special pink ink, the book comes sealed in air-tight packaging that, once opened, allows the printed material to react with the atmosphere. The result is that after two months, the text vanishes. The more the text is exposed to light the faster it disappears, so unread pages may retain the text as long as the reader doesn’t skip ahead in the book. The ink is made from a “secret” formula that is highly reactive with sunlight and air.

“With much discussion currently centering on portable electronic readers and e-books, deemed to be bringing about the death of the physical novel, the creators aimed to add a bit of magic to the anthology, as well as encourage buyers to actually read it once they’ve received it instead of leaving it in their ‘to do’ pile. As the authors inside are all previously unpublished, the concept, developed with help from ad agency Draftfcb, acts as a way to ensure that readers engage with as much of the material as possible while they have the chance. The sense of urgency was important for the publishers to encourage readers to give new authors a chance and force them to digest the content quickly.

“The book has proven popular with Argentinian customers, with the first printed batch selling out on the first day it was put on sale. There is no word from the publishers on what they propose readers should do with the book once the text has vanished — however, leatherbound and with thick pages, it could easily be re-used as a high quality journal, for example.

“El Libro que No Puede Esperar adds an element of urgency to reading — motivating readers, promoting authors and benefiting physical book publishers by creating a buzz around a new release. Is this a business model that is as shortlived as its product, or could this be developed into something more sustainable?”

Ok, so a book that vanishes. I guess that’s okay for an author who isn’t interested in writing the Great American (or French or German or Swahili, etc.) Novel. But even then, to say you’ve written a book that vanishes is almost as bad as saying (as I have twice in the past) that you’ve written a user’s guide to software (which is almost immediately obsolete upon publication).

I know that articles in People magazine are written in lengths that are conducive to the “average bathroom visit,” but books that can be read during the time of an average train delay? What. Is. The. Point? And, weren’t those once called “short stories”? And edible books printed on pasta? Okay, novelty, but why not just print the dictionary on pieces of pasta and let people construct their own pasta prose before consuming? (Hey, I like that idea!) And books written on rolling papers…folks, they get the munchies, not the must-reads!

Still and all, folks will say, at least it’s getting people to read. To which I answer, baloney. (Ah, and there’s another idea!)

Chinese Everything: The Yongle Encyclopedia

In my editing of a volume about lexicography this week, I came across a reference to a Chinese encyclopedia written in 1408. This was a handwritten encyclopedia of all Chinese knowledge at the time.

Called the Yongle Dadian (Great Canon of the Yongle Era), it comprised no fewer than 370 million Chinese characters and 22,937 manuscript rolls, bound in 11,095 volumes. Remember, handwritten.

The Canon covered history, philosophy, Buddhism, Taoism, drama, arts and farming, and many other topics, including unusual natural events. The content, which was partially transcribed character by character as exact copies of original texts produced during the previous decades, is structured according to a rhyming system for the characters and is also accessible through a complex system of indexes which, together with the preface, comprise 60 chapters in and of themselves. The idea was to make a complete canon of existing texts within a wide range of subject matter at a critical historical moment, when China was recovering from several devastating conflicts and needed this knowledge.

Some two thousand scholars worked on the volumes during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, incorporating eight thousand texts from ancient times up to the Ming Dynasty.

Because of the vastness of the work, it couldn’t be block-printed, and it is believed that only one copy of the volume was made at the time. A third copy was ordered transcribed after a fire burned the Forbidden City. Today, only 400 volumes survive. The original has disappeared, either burned, or destroyed, or perhaps buried in the tomb of the emperor Jiajing, who had ordered the second copy made.

Today, the most complete of the surviving Ming volumes are housed in the National Library of China in Beijing. Private collections house other pieces of the work.

I can’t help but imagine the treasure lost to mankind with the disappearance of the original manuscripts, as works of art, a collection of knowledge, and a trove of Chinese thought and history. Along with the volumes lost from the library at Alexandria, perhaps one day these volumes will be unearthed and finally brought to light again. One can dream.


I’m currently reading a book by Dr. Frank C. Gardiner, of UC Santa Barbara, titled The Pilgrimage of Desire: A Study of the Theme and Genre in Medieval Literature. Dr. Gardiner was the father of my great friend, author Meg Gardiner. Reading Dr. Gardiner’s book, it’s easy to see where his daughter got her writing chops. And the book is intriguing with its insights into Medieval literature and original sources. Great reading. To this day I regret the fact that I never took one of Dr. Gardiner’s classes when I was an undergraduate at UCSB. He scared me, he was so brilliant. Plus, he’d seen me in mime costume. It was a no-win situation.

I’m reading the book in preparation for an article I am working on for Via Lucis, the photography group and publisher for whom I am editor. Our first major volume, Light and Stone: France Romanesque, is currently being revised for publication in 2011. One of the chapters I want to add to the book (with photographs by Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey) is about pilgrimage and its importance in the lives of those who lived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The magnificent Romanesque churches of France, of which there are more than 5,000, are testament to the faith of mere mortals. Built not by slave laborers, as the pyramids were, these were edifices built to glorify God and to show humankind’s reverence for His beneficence and care. Many of these churches housed relics of saints, and, thus, were the focus of pilgrimage by the masses. Others exist quietly, off the beaten track, but are no less important in the lives of the people of the region, yesterday and today. Even as they sit silent and empty today, they echo with the “hallelujahs of the past,” waiting for the day when believers will once again enter through their doors and raise their eyes to heaven. They await new pilgrimages and a new flock.

If you are at all interested in seeing images from these wonderful churches, visit www.vialucis.wordpress.com and www.vialucis.us.

Bouchercon 2010

I’m heading to San Francisco later this week for Bouchercon by the Bay, the World Mystery Convention, where, every year, readers, writers, publishers, editors, agents, booksellers, and other lovers of crime fiction gather for a long weekend of both education and entertainment.

I love writer conventions. The cast of characters who attend these events are enough to keep a writer scribbling in her notebook for hours without pause, and the cast includes writers as well as aficionados of the genre. All are welcome, and the majority of people are outgoing, well informed, well read, and just so happy to be there.

Days are filled with selections of panels, featuring top writers such as Lee Child and Laurie R. King, to new authors, such as Rachel Brady and CJ West. The panels are typically entertaining, generally informative, and rarely a waste of time. The one-on-one with authors are always delightful.

I go this year not as an author, but wearing my EDITOR cap, and laying down lots of business cards. There are hoards of want-to-be writers roaming the halls, and I can help them prepare their manuscripts before they make their assaults on agents and publishers.

A huge plus to this year’s convention is the presence of Meg Gardiner, friend and award-winning thriller writer. I would gladly skip all the panels and activities for time with her, especially if it includes a cocktail with Laurie R. King!

The piece de resistance, however, is that on Sunday my daughter runs the half-marathon in San Francisco, on Saturday we get to see our son at Santa Clara University, and my husband is joining us for all the activities. A mini-vacation with a focus on writing. It just doesn’t get any better than that!

Express Yourself, and Sell

In this new age of publishing, whether an author is published by a publishing house or goes the route of print-on-demand self-publishing, the author will be responsible for a great deal of the marketing of each new book. Authors must blog, tweet, chat on FaceBook, and travel to conferences and street corners to sell their books.

But here’s a neat new twist that just occurred in London. Crime thriller writer Meg Gardiner was dashing to catch the Tube when she happened to glance at a poster on the tunnel wall and discovered that the poster was advertising her latest book. She hadn’t even known that the poster was in the works! Of course, dignified and collected as ever, she skidded to a stop and had her husband preserve the moment. Be proud! That’s your book!

Now that is a great way to market a book. Think of the millions of people who ride mass transit every day in the world’s metropolitan centers. Ride and stare out windows vacantly, hoping for something to distract their minds from the routine and mundane.

Ta-da! How about a book ad! We’ve grown accustomed to seeing movie posters, but book posters! What a great idea!

Now, how to turn that into self-marketing? That’s the challenge.

With new publishing horizons come new opportunities to market. Use the Internet, Twitter, YouTube, and perhaps even posters. It’s a brave new world for those who have the courage to seek new horizons.