From a lot of discussion on the topic, I know that one of the reasons a lot of people want to be published by a formal publisher (as opposed to indie or self publishing) is access to the editor. There is this belief that a good editor will increase the quality of the book they’ve written.
Most writers are correct, a good editor will indeed increase the quality. The error, as far too many horror stories tell us, is that the chance you’re going to get a good editor ranges from slim to none. There are a number of reasons for this ranging from too much work for too few hours (and priority goes to the books that’ll make more money) to untrained unskilled hacks who confuse copy editing with editing and call it enough.
I can’t fix that. For that matter I’m not a great editor – though I do think I’m decent at it. And because of that last clause I think I have some advice to offer you while you try to find a good editor of your own.
Like all jobs, 80% (more or less) is mechanical. Part of the job of the editor is to ensure the book “follows the rules”. (Part of the art of the editor is knowing when and how to break those rules. You’ve got to know them in order to break them advantageously, however.)
Most of the mechanical elements are matters of balance, timing, and progression. Notice I didn’t say grammar or spelling (proofreading), nor did I speak of consistency and continuity (copy editing). I’m looking solely at the editing, the work of ‘finishing’ or ‘polishing’ the story so it shines. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at those mechanical elements. Let me take balance first.
Are the chapters of roughly the same length? Also generally acceptable is short-long alternation or similar pattern. Thirdly acceptable is to have length correspond to intensity (an aspect of progression I’ll get to shortly). If your story doesn’t follow these it isn’t automatically wrong, but you should be able to explain why if that’s the case.
This balance can apply to things like paragraphs and sentences as well. In addition the editor should look for run-ons; both sentences and paragraphs that go on and on and on… Again it can be checked mechanically, and once in a while is not only fine but may be necessary.
A somewhat more subtle balance is distribution of point of view (pov) and sub-plot balance. If your story changes pov, either by changing the person speaking or by changing tense, this matters. You’ve got two balances to consider: the balance between the speakers, and the balance of timing. On balance between speakers I don’t mean the balance should be equal between all voices. Instead the main character(s), both protagonist and antagonist, should dominate. As a basic rule they should share the majority of voice time. At worst, and only if you’ve a large quantity or depth of subplot, the main voices should have the plurality. (Meaning while not more than half they have more than anyone else.)
While I’ll get to timing more thoroughly in a bit, the application here is more a case of distribution. Are the points of view more-or-less evenly distributed? Alternately is there a discernible pattern?
Oh, one mechanical on PoV and balance: one PoV per scene. This isn’t true for video (with the camera) but it’s true for books. Even if it is a direct continuation of the same room/discussion/etc., if you change from John’s point of view to Sally’s so you can talk about how Sally is receiving it, consider it a scene change. It prevents reader confusion. Heck, it prevents writer confusion. If you really want to know the internal reaction of both (all) characters in one scene, make the pov omniscient. John wondered he said Sally replied she felt … (secondary mechanical, almost grammatical. Ensure your pronouns are clearly tied to respective characters.)
For all the PoV issues I need to point out that when examining them you need to do so act by act instead of for the story as a whole. It is not uncommon for multi-character second acts to spend a lot more time with the secondary characters than either the first or final act. For that matter the final act almost always demands significant time with the main character(s), with secondaries only appearing to bridge the main plot or resolve a sub-plot.
Since I’ve started on timing, let me continue that direction. Timing, or pacing, is what ‘keeps the story moving’. Simplistically (and so mechanically) story advances only happen from two things: reveals and events.
A reveal is the introduction of something the protaganist (or at least the current Voice) did not know that Changes Things. Yes, I capitalized that. “Luke, I am your father.” Oh, yeah, that’s a reveal. It doesn’t actually move (progress) the story, but it does force a context change on everything that preceded it. By the way, beware of the infodump disguised as a reveal, often indicated by “as you know …” If it isn’t a surprise to the characters it’s probably not a reveal. Not unless it’s a surprise to the reader and changes the previous context. Yeah, I’ve probably beat that one enough, but it’s a massively common think in far too many stories, especially science fiction and fantasy where people cannot rely on Real World Knowledge.
Events are, well, events. Something Happens. Like the reveal/infodump point, not everything qualifies. “The heroine drove to the villain’s lab” is not an event. The out-of-control semi might be an event, in fact probably should be an event. (The necessity of this event may be debatable, but it’s probably an event.) A guideline here: if it makes life more difficult (or at least more intense) for one or more of the characters OR it solves a character problem it is an event.
Now that we are on the same sheet of music I can talk about timing. You generally want to avoid clumping your events. Unlike the voice your goal is an event per scene. At worst you want to have non-event scenes isolated so there are no consecutive scenes without events. Yes, this means “at worst” you alternate event and non-event scene. It can work (I’ll go further in progression). At the same time you want to try for one event per scene. The exceptions are at the beginning and during the climax, and even then you need to look at it with caution. Mechanically I’d say two events and then change the scene.
I said that timing is pacing, and for this I need to blend it with progression.
Every event builds. It adds another brick to the story, and as a result the story gets larger and more complex. Unfortunately a constant progression of build, build, build becomes numbing after a while.
Pacing your progression is intentionally giving the reader breathing space. Go back to your scene marks, both event and non-event. For the event, note if it is main or subplot (and if necessary which subplot). Now, you’re going to do a little charting.
For each act, set your plot score at at zero. For each main plot event that isn’t a resolution add 1 to the existing plot score. Each main plot resolution and all subplot events subtract 1.
Now chart that out on a simple line chart, by scene, for each act. Take that chart and look for the general curve. Mechanically you want the first act to start with a steep climb (at least +1 every scene), then gradually slow its climb by interspersing non-event and sub-plot scenes. You want the middle act (assuming the normal three acts) to have a generally steady growth – say by alternating two positives and one negative – preferably with a slight up-tick near the end with a short sequence of main plot events (and even one or two double-event scenes). For the final act you want to start at a slow climb and built to a steep one. A key thing here is that your climax needs to be the highest point of this act. Your denouement, whether one or more scenes, needs to kick off a sequence of main non-event and subplot event scenes. Oh – if you’re setting up a sequel you can end on an uptick. Just make sure it is lower than the climax.
And we’re back to timing, as it applies to the progression. Unless your sub-plot scenes are clock-timed (meaning Jodie can’t discover her car is missing until Joe steals it, for example) it is usually easiest to move the subplot scenes to form the curves. Non-events are usually necessary to provide background for subsequent events. (If they aren’t, then maybe they don’t need to be there?)
That’s a basic look at the mechanical parts of editing – the 80% (or more) that’s essentially gruntwork. Experienced editors can do this almost without thinking consciously about it — it’s all just “tightening the story”.
I’m going to drag this to two separate conclusions. First, tools.
I use three tools, mostly, for everything I listed above. Two are simple, one is not. I’m going to start with the latter.
If you are editing, I highly recommend either yWriter or Scrivener. Both market as tools for writers, and I know of writers who use both. They allow storyboarding and scene evaluation and clock-timing. They allow you to track by the clock. Scrivener also adds online links to resources and assistance doing scriptwriting. yWriter was originally just for windows and has added linux support. Scrivener was originally just Mac and has added a Windows version. yWriter is free. Scrivener does more, is prettier (and somewhat more intuitive), but will set you back about US$45.
I use it to identify scenes, then add descriptions of the event(s) and whether the scene is main or subplot. I use it to storyboard the sequences. In fact I wind up using this for easily two-thirds of my editing tasks. I can’t use either for the progression directly, but I can break out a list of the scenes with the descriptions and use them for…
Tool two: a spreadsheet. I take the list of scenes and their brief descriptions. This lets me know whether each is +1 or -1. I can then make a simple graph. Just about every spreadsheet out there will do this for you. More expansive sheets will let you draw “smoothed” curves that will help you see more obviously if the progression is following your intent. I’m not going to recommend any one in particular as, again, they all do for this.
Tool three: a text editor. This goes back to sentence length. I convert the whole thing to straight text. I replace all periods with period plus carriage return. I shrink the text to one or two points, make the view NOT wrap, and increase the width to fill my full (wide) screen monitor. I can then just scroll down looking for extremely long sentences. I either add a “findme” mark or change the color to each of these. I can then resize and find each to see if perhaps the sentence needs to become two or three sentences.
I can also do something similar with paragraphs. In this case I return to the original text. I shrink the view to as small as 25% so I see blocks, not text. I increase the view area. And I start scrolling, looking for a rapid series of very short or any overly long blocks. Tag them, move on, then come back and (again) check each tag to see if perhaps any are too long or too short.
Oh, yes. Somewhere between proofreading and editing is looking at the paragraphs to see if they follow basic language requirements. That is, if all the sentences apply to the topic of the paragraph. Even though they’re not too long or too short they can be vulnerable to this. It’s somewhat higher level for a proofreader, but it is still essentially a grammar function and so not really editing.
As I said, all that is mechanical. It is things I can do, and what I consider a reasonably trained and practiced editor should do for me. I’d like to close, however, by telling what better editors do – things that I might ascribe to if/when I actually spend doing the job. They come down to two things.
First, amplifying the writer’s voice. Picking The Word that changes things. Not just saying the sentences are too long and need broken, not just indicating the breaks, but making the occasional shuffle in order that makes it great but still sounds like the Author wrote it, not that the editor became a co-author. It’s hard, even for the great ones. It is especially hard when working with new or uncertain writers, because the lack of resistance makes it more likely the change becomes the editor’s voice.
Second, there’s structural changes. Rewrite commands, with assistance. Not jut moving scenes around for normal linear progression, but recognizing that this may be the time for the non-linear story or that it needs cardboard Sue to turn into Disinterested but Involved Observer (requiring huge scene changes throughout), or possibly for Villain X to quit having scenes.
In other words, knowing when it’s time to break the rules, what rules to break, and how to break them to improve the story.
That is the editor people think they will get if they use a large publisher. Sadly, far too often they get one who doesn’t even do the mechanics. I’m hoping that with what I’ve written above you can at least know enough to challenge the editor you get, whether from a publisher or as an independent. I hope, actually, that you find the editor you deserve.
But insist on at least the editor who can do the mechanics.