Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Guest Blogger - Kelly Schaub. Both Sides of the Story

Welcome Kelly Schaub! An author and editor, she's here to talk about the story from both sides of the process. Much to learn here! Let's dig in!

Kelly Schaub works as a staff editor for The Wild Rose Press. She is also available freelance through her website The Write Critter

Kelly holds a BS in Zoology, and worked as a zookeeper for five years. A student of Kenpo Karate, she’s learning how to use nunchucks, sticks and staves as well as her hands and feet to cause pain…lots of fun. She and her family live in Oregon on a hill, under trees

Hello, Fiction Matters readers. I have two tales to tell. As an author, I’ve dealt with requested changes from editors. I am also a professional editor—and have had to deal out requested changes to my authors.

Part I. “Taking it.”

The act of creation is aligned with light—as authors, we shine our light into the dark corners of readers’ imaginations. No one thinks of those words in that combination until we put it before them—we fill the void. Our words are magic.

Some of us are blessed with critique partners or groups who helped us polish the first few drafts of our work—until they, too, think it is the best we can make it.

Last February, I sent my baby to The Wild Rose Press, and (after waiting about a month—very short turn-around) I received that magic e-mail—the editor wanted to contract “Martial Hearts.” Oh, happy day!

There were just a few teensy changes she’d like me to make.

My baby was BLEEDING. Red marks all over the page. “You use “that” way too much—cut. Try not to begin sentences with ‘it’ or ‘there.’ Kill prepositional phrases at the end of sentences. Look for cause and effect order—‘as’ and ‘when’ often give these away—fix them.” And she’d marked many other things as well.

(Sigh) What exactly did she like?

I looked through my editor’s notes and used the highlight function to find the offenders, fixed the ones I found and was at a loss for how to root out certain changes she wanted. My editor had made notes on the first five pages only and expected me to carry out the same changes throughout the document. But how?

See, when I’d sent it to her, I thought it was perfect. She expected me to find defects I didn’t understand were defects. I could not see the things she said were wrong—and she had not flagged them for me beyond the first few pages.

On my first read through her notes, I yelled at the computer screen. I rebutted each of her comments with snide replies she’d never see. She didn’t get it. She didn’t see the artistry at work. I was a better author than she knew. Harumph.

I closed the file and moped. A day or so later, I reopened the file, knowing that I was both under contract and on a deadline of 30 days to make revisions. I had to look at it again and make an attempt at changing my work. Some of her comments were easy changers, and correct. Fine. I fixed the easy ones first.

I muddled through this for a week on my own, and then turned to my critique group for help. Here’s the note I attached for them:


What you’re looking for is (after her comments stop on p.5) dangling modifiers, Omniscient POV, and here are her words:

“In several areas the transitions need to be mentioned or strengthened…Also I spotted a couple paragraphs that seem scattered with actions and dialogue from more than one character.”

If you all could flag these things for me to change if you spot them, I’d be much appreciative.

Some examples of the commentary from my crit group and how I fixed the ms:


“You seemed to be getting the worst end of that Super Soaker,” Mari said, mopping up poppy seed salad dressing with a roll, diamond flashing on her left hand.

Editor: Be aware that phrases like this pull power from the verb. Could say ‘you were sure getting….

My whine: Mari is being ironic. Yes, obviously Austin shot April with the super-soaker more than he did the kids. I’d agree with you if this were narration, but not in dialogue. Mari is aware of something April does not fathom—that Austin likes April. She’s pointing that out indirectly.

Crit partner 1: That doesn’t come across. She’s just eating and chatting, to me. Maybe a sly grin that April wonders at or something along those lines?

Crit partner 2: I’m not sure this pulls power from the verb – but it is wordy. Your eyes have to dance over a bunch of words to get the point. “You got the worst end of that Super Soaker.” Does that say the same thing?

My crit partners also questioned the need to mention the diamond ring—it played no significant part in the story and sat as a distracting detail.

Final version:

“You got the worst end of that Super Soaker,” Mari said with a wink, mopping up poppy seed salad dressing with a roll.

Editors are inside your head—an editor can only get the information you’ve given in your text. Sometimes, their opinion of a change needed is wrong—or needs clarification elsewhere in the narrative. Don’t be afraid to differ with the editor on changes he or she asks for. Here is one I fought for:

“I plateaued pretty bad at blue belt,” Mari had once told her, “I hung there for like, three years.”

Editor: changed sentence to “I plateaued pretty badly at blue belt,” Mari had once told her, “I hung there for like, three years.”

My comment: Mari has a specific way of speaking. She said “pretty bad.”

My version stayed in—after I added earlier in the text that Mari was 19 years old. That fact had been missing from the original version, and explained a lot about her grammar.

My editor and I negotiated on a few changes. Overall, she enjoyed the layers and texture my first edit back to her added—the additions my wonderful critique group pushed me to make. This book went through two revisions with my editor before the manuscript went to galleys. Some books will need three or four rounds of revisions. (Be the two-revision type of author—your editor will thank you).

The author’s job is to consider each change the editor asks for. Your editor wants your writing to shine, to be the most polished piece of prose it can be. She wouldn’t tell you to make changes that would weaken your book. Selling books is a business, and bad reviews mean low sales, which leads to less profit for everyone. Highly polished good prose leads to good reviews, which can bring in more sales. Royalties are good.

Remember the most important thing: the editor who acquired the book liked it enough to contract you.


Part II: “Dishing it out”

We turn now to the dark side, the Cave of the Editor.

The inbox dings. Message incoming from Senior Editor. “We have a query that looks fairly decent. You want to take this one?” Attached synopsis and query letter read okay, though the author is most likely unaware of how her lack of polish in the spelling, grammar and syntax makes her appear. No matter. The story seems to fit my line and the basic premise of a romance book, so I contact the author. I ask for the partial manuscript.

The partial arrives, and I schedule a time to do the read-through. Contact author, let her know the file arrived and when to expect an answer.

Edit books 1,2, and 3 currently on my desk. A gap will happen after book 3 is sent to galley-land, so at that time (no more than 60 days from receipt of initial query) I open the partial manuscript from Hopeful Author and read.

What you need to know as an author is that a book is judged as good or bad within the first six pages.

Six pages.

This does not mean the content cannot make or break the story’s potential after that, merely that my impulse to continue reading is generally triggered either direction by page six. If the prose isn’t up to publishable standard, as set down by my superiors at the publisher, I begin to compose the rejection letter. I look specifically for craft areas the author can improve on. That’s what we do at The Wild Rose Press—no form letters allowed.

If the first six pages have grabbed me so well that I’ve read to page fifteen without noticing, that is a good thing. I usually stop there and email the author to send me the full manuscript.

When that full arrives (you’d be amazed at the speed of email when it’s a positive experience for both parties), I open the file to be sure it is in one piece, alert the author that it did arrive, and again schedule a time to do the read-through.

The most difficult part of reading full manuscripts for consideration is NOT EDITING THEM. Forcing myself to read, and read only for content, plot, character, structure, voice…any one of those can go sadly awry beyond what I expected from reading the polished partial.

If I reach the end of the book and don’t have that “Yay! Good book!” feeling (and yes, books with problems such as head hopping, too many adverbs, unclear transitions, echo words, “junk” words, poor use of commas, etc. CAN give me that feeling, if everything else is right about the plot and structure and characters) then I have to compose a rejection. So hard to do that, when a book is almost there but not quite yet.

A fair percentage of the books I have rejected were excellent, well-written, stirring prose…but were not romances. Authors, make certain you follow the publisher’s submission guidelines. Look through their catalogue to see what else they publish, read blurbs, excerpts, look at cover art. For example, a good adventure with a love story entwined in the plot cannot be categorized as a romance if the hero and heroine marry on page 60 of a 380 page book and continue to work together to bring down their foe.

When a manuscript is accepted for publication, that manuscript will undergo at least one round of copyedits. Some writers are so clean that the only marks the editor makes regard pulling the punctuation in line with house style (for example, the serial comma in a list with a conjunction—leave it in? Take it out?). More often, though, the editor will have questions about content that is inconsistent within the manuscript, and guide the author into smoothing these bits so the reader will not hit “speedbumps.”

My favorite trick for tracking consistency within a manuscript is to set up a chart, a style sheet, broken down into pairs of letters, A-Z, and a column for miscellaneous facts. While reading for the first edit, I write down the name of every character as I run across them, every fact (Brandy lost her locket on Tuesday), and when I get tidbits of character description, I add that after the character’s name, to keep a running list of how this person is described.

This style sheet helps in two ways—easy to see if facts such as a character’s hair or eye color suddenly changes, and also to find repeat descriptions. One of my authors caught that she referred to the hero’s hair as “shaggy” way too often, and that she alternated between the words “couch” and “sofa,” ultimately choosing only one.

The editor’s job is to make the author look good. I polish my “babies” and declare when they are ready to go out into the world, the proud auntie of all the books I’ve worked on. In the end, few acknowledge the editor’s hand in making the story richer, better, deeper. The publisher’s name is on the book, and the author’s name. Once in a while, you’ll see a thank you to an editor in the dedication.

Remember, your editor is invested in your story too. She loved it when she read it the first time. And she contracted it knowing she’d have to read it over and over and over…

Be professional in your communications with your editor. As gabby as authors are, editors are just as talkative. If you have not received an answer, feel free to ask your questions again—emails can and do disappear. But be polite on the second ask as though the first was not heard. Allow your editor time to find your answer and reply. Sometimes she or he is waiting on someone else in the company in order to give you the best information.

I enjoy editing. I enjoy interacting with authors. I enjoy being an author. I do not enjoy interacting with editors as an author LOL. So I hear you. I’m still going to change the wording in that sentence, because it does not mean what you wanted it to say.


It can be a tightrope, the author/editor relationship. I love hearing both sides from one person! It helps authors find focus and understanding for the other side of the process while maintaining their own sense of contribution.

I bid you good writing.


Lisa Lickel said...

Thank you, Bonnie and Kelly. It's so fantastic to see both sides, and I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing your own experience. I've looked at Wild Rose in the past and decided that what I was writing didn't fit the guidelines. Maybe someday...
I'm pleased to see what works for you and what doesn't; what to fight for, and what to just play mercenary for. And your schedule and who are to read and edit. Sometimes I wondered who was behind that screen! On a whim I once sent a novella to a small press and it came back rejected because (one of the oddball reasons) there were too many characters (7, including the main couple). I spent a couple of hours trying to figure out how to eliminate a character without collapsing the story, then I started to laugh. In this fiction, the characters did matter....
Lisa Lickel

Glynis said...

Thanks Bonnie for allowing Kelly to share on your blog. It's good to see and hear from an editor who has savoured both ends of the buffet! And how important it is, as you say, to pay attention to submission guidelines. A writer only serves to waste time (author's and editor's) if the 'homework' is incomplete. Great info. Thanks. Blessings, Glynis