Editor or surgeon?

There are as many kinds of editors as there are writers. From the editor who gives you feedback and lets you decide how to address it all the way to the editor who rewrites your work like a plastic surgeon.

On the extreme end is the legendary short story writer Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish. Lish made such deep changes to the stories, that they are almost like a joint work.

In one story, Raymond’s original ending:

For myself, I knew I wouldn’t forget the sight of that arm emerging out of the water. Like some kind of mysterious and terrible signal, it seemed to herald the misfortune that dogged our family in the coming years.

—is transformed into the dry, ironic and Hemingway-esque:

That arm coming up and going back down in the water, it was like so long to good times and hello to bad. Because it was nothing but that all the years after Dummy drowned himself in that dark water.

I had a very fine editor who pointed out numerous plot holes and areas for improvement. Our collaboration forced me to think through various pieces and sometimes make sweeping changes. I definitely appreciated and would work with her again, although a part of me wanted the plastic surgeon approach.

Which do you prefer?

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Finding the right editor

After working on my book for a few years and pitching several agents, I heard my book was good but not compelling enough. I decided to hire an editor.

The challenges:

  1. Find a genre editor with a lot of experience
  2. Find an editor whose work you appreciate

I started with recommendations, my friend had an amazing experience at Girl Friday. They have a lot of editors and they’re friendly and professional. The main reason I didn’t go that route was after searching through their team, I didn’t see anyone with mystery experience. (I didn’t think to ask them who their freelancers were.)

Each genre has its own special tropes. In mystery, why does the policeman accept help from an amateur? Etc. I wanted someone who was deeply familiar with the tropes. Ideally, they would have worked on mysteries set in the 1920s or in England.

Next, I read the acknowledgements sections for historical mysteries set in England to see who the author thanked. Most of these editors were nestled in publishers and not available, except for one editor who had a Reedsy profile.

While he wasn’t doing freelance any longer, I was delighted with Reedsy – they vet all the book professionals (editors, publicists, etc.) on their site. They show you reviews. And – amazing! – they link to the books that these professionals worked on.

After reading samples of the books each professional worked on, I sent a request for quotes to 5 editors. Everyone replied, some asked to see more of the book and others sent samples of their work. The prices ranged from low to high, and I chose the expensive end of the spectrum because of the editor’s historical mystery experience. But there were a ton of great editors at lower price points too.

I would highly recommend Reedsy. Next up, how the editing process went…

The true cost of self-publishing

Reedsy is a London-based marketplace for book services – everything from editing to cover design to marketing. What makes Reedsy stand out is that they diligently screen everyone who wants to offer services. They take only around 10-15% of the professionals who apply.

Based on their 15 months of usage, they’ve put together a truly comprehensive infographic of self-publishing costs. It’s nice to see a real budget and explanation of what you’re paying for.

Even though I’m going through the agent route and will be pitching again at a conference, I’m using Reedsy for editing. The consistent feedback is that my book has a strong premise and writing, but there are a few major threads that need to be fixed.

I just started the process with an editor who has years of mystery editing experience – fingers crossed!

Pitching at a writer’s conference

Over the past few days I’ve been attending PNWA 2016 in Seattle. I’ve attended many technical conferences but never one for writing. It was a very rewarding experience, especially as I’d done a lot of prep ahead of time.

A writer’s conference lets you meet the local community, learn from others and pitch to agents and editors. I had business cards printed and I got more active on Twitter since so many book folks are there. I definitely met a lot of great writers and hope to stay in touch with them.

One thing I wanted to focus on was the pitch…

Preparing my pitch

I spent weeks scouring the internet for tips about writing a pitch, a query letter and a synopsis. I found help everywhere from Writer’s Digest to personal blogs. I got advice from a friend who was also attending.

I finally realized that the pitch should be more of a conversation – starting with why I was interested in the agent, a quick sentence about my book, then answer their questions.

Finding the right agents and editors to pitch

Mystery commonly gets lumped in with thriller and suspense. Mystery is a whodunnit (starts with the crime), thriller is how to stop them, and suspense often has elements of both. Cozy and historical mystery are their own sub-genre, and someone who represents might not like noir, for instance.

So I looked at the list of agents and editors who would be there. I really wanted to find great matches – people who were interested in cozy / historical mystery and whose companies had represented similar books.

Once I narrowed down to about 6 people, I researched their agencies, bought books they’d represented or edited and honed an individual pitch for each of them.

The result?

I’m excited to say that all of them expressed interest in seeing more!!

Now I need to re-read my query letter, get a fresh pair of eyes on it and send it out. This is just the beginning of a long road – even if I am lucky enough to land an agent in this round, it’s going to take a while to get published.

Write like Hemingway?

Want the maximum readability when you’re writing? Then you need the Hemingway App. A free website (or $10 app) that edits your prose for readability and simplicity. Such fun to try a few lines of a book and see how it does.

Hemingway’s theory of omission is that the writer ought to write all the backstory of a character but then cut anything that isn’t necessary, because the reader will pick up on all the context and the character will feel truer. He focused on using the least and most simple phrasing that he could, with the idea that the “iceberg” of the characters is 90% under the water.

I’m not sure if I always agree, but I do think that many books could be served by providing fewer and stronger phrases that leave more to the reader’s imagination. Given that attention spans and vocabularies are getting smaller, rather than fight this tendency, why not embrace it?

Here’s an excerpt from my book, A Cup for the Dead:

Rhoda Hervé looked down at her husband from their balcony at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. He was a small but erect figure with a drink in hand as he went along the terrace, stopping here and there at tables along the railing. The guests would all be properly awed by the great man in his glory, the discoverer of Queen Nefrina’s tomb.

A pity he had begun so soon, she thought irritably.

Hemingway App rates this as Grade 8, overall good, but that my second sentence is hard to read.

If I make some changes, I can get Grade 7 with only a complaint about adverbs:

Rhoda Hervé looked down at her husband from their balcony at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. He was a small but erect figure with a drink in hand as he went along the terrace, stopping here and there at tables along the railing. The guests would all be properly awed by the great man in his glory, the discoverer of Queen Nefrina’s tomb.

A pity he had begun so soon, she thought.

I think it’s an interesting exercise, regardless of whether you follow the advice or not. It helps us think about sentence construction and vocabulary that we choose.

PS: You can get an excellent and short overview of his top 7 tips from Open Culture.