Friday, October 11, 2013

Editing, Editing, Editing

Solstice Publishing was not accepting full-length novels when I finished my fourth Miss Havana paranormal comedy, The Trophy Wife. Therefore, believing I needed to find an agent for that novel, I began self-editing the book. I approached the task in a more methodical way than I had in the past. For earlier works, I read through the text a few times, and then passed the manuscripts to the publisher. Solstice assigned a patient editor (Cheryl Nichols) for Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana! and The Training Bra, and she taught me more about writing than I knew. Now I faced the task without Cheryl.

My first few passes through The Trophy Wife were the obvious ones. I searched on words like “was,” “were,” “felt,” and the like and eliminated them. Then I began looking for “Show vs, Tell” issues and passive voice problems. Cheryl’s admonishments circulated in my mind as if she sat next to me. When the book seemed acceptable, and I had included suggestions from two beta readers, I submitted it to a few agents. One responded, “I just couldn’t get into the writing.” That was a wake-up call.

I re-wrote the first chapter, and then made another pass through the novel to eliminate almost all descriptive adverbs (the bane of immature authors). I set the book aside. After two weeks, I re-edited it, with special emphases on the first chapter. I must have re-written the first paragraph ten times after reading articles on what the first paragraph should accomplish. Then I gave the book to my third beta reader, my most stringent critic. I believed the book might meet her standards, but it didn’t. She found several problems: a split infinitive, some missing words (mostly “a” and “the”) and a couple of words used incorrectly.

I had to look up split infinitive. That’s where an adverb is placed between the two parts of a “full” infinitive. I grew up listening to a split infinitive every week, “…To boldly go where no man has gone before,” so I never gave it much thought. “To go” is the full infinitive; “boldly” is the adverb. Ignorance is bliss; split infinitives have been a no-no in English from the beginning (a carry-over from Latin).

While my third beta reader reviewed the book, I found something worse than a split infinitive. I re-read the rules for compound predicates and commas between adjectives. My mouth dropped. I had been punctuating those things wrong without knowing it and not in a consistent way. I thought my beta reader would hammer me, but she only caught a few of them. So, with new knowledge and a determined attitude, I made another pass on the book, specifically looking for those two problems. Here are the rules as I understand them.

 1. There are five classes of descriptive adjectives: general, age, color, material and origin. The classes of adjectives generally appear in the same order in a sentence as they do in the table below, along with some examples. Most descriptive adjectives fall into the “general” category. 







If each adjective used in a sentence is from a different class, then a comma is not needed. If two (or more) of the adjectives are from the same class, then a comma must be used in between them.

2. ONLY use a comma before a FANBOYS conjunction if two independent clauses are joined; otherwise, NO COMMA. If a FANBOYS conjunction is not used between two independent clauses, use a semicolon.

By the time I completed that last pass, Solstice Publishing notified me they were again accepting full-length novels. I submitted The Trophy Wife, the cleanest manuscript I have ever produced on my own, and Solstice accepted it the next day.

Now I have a new Solstice editor. She is finding new issues, and I am anxious to see what I’ve done wrong. To steal a portion of a famous statement, it’s probably harder for a non-English major to become an author … than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.  All I can say is this. The journey is as important as the destination. I write because I enjoy it. I also enjoy learning to do things the proper way. Despite the frustration of editor-directed re-writes, I am thankful for the editors who have taken the time to make my novels better … and to teach.

Thanks for reading,

James L. Hatch


Tina Donahue said...

Wow, quite a journey for this book, James. I applaud your attention to detail.

That said, I've read a number of NYT Bestsellers that weren't close to grammatically correct and they still sold like mad.

A friend of mine is a classical musician. When I listen to pop music in his presence, he always cringes and points out what's wrong with the music. Stuff I don't hear because I don't know much about music, except what I like and don't like. I believe the same holds true for readers. They're not stuck on whether you use an action verb or an adverb, have a split infinitive or not. They care about the story.

You can be a whiz in English, but if you can't write story and deep POV and have characters a reader cares about, all of the other stuff doesn't much matter.

Toni V.S. said...

Since we rarely speak Latin any more, I'm one who sometimes ignores those rules applying to them. My approach is more for "natural-sounding" dialogue and description so occasionally I end a sentence with a preposition, or split that infinitive, etc. (An interesting aside about "to boldly go", I once read a review of the original Star Trek in which the reviewer stated, "Kirk not only split an infinitive, he also splits infinity.") I agree with Tina but no matter how good the story if the grammar, etc., isn't reasonably correct, it'll distract. The flow will be interrupted discordantly by all those homonyms and antonyms, wrong uses of personal pronouns. Apparently copy editors are just as ignorant as the authors in most cases because they don't catch them either. I've noticed recently this is also going over into screenplays now because I've heard so many mis-uses in dialogue lately. It really clashes on the nerves to be hearing some elegant, masterful speech in a drama suddenly be brought to a screeching halt by grammatical errors.

Off the soapbox, enjoyed The Trophy Wife and am always on the look-out for more Miss Havana!

jean hart stewart said...

I have a journalism major and still have major problems with lots of editing errors! I don't think I'm alone

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Tina:

You are probably right about the story being more important than the grammar. Still, from my little world, I am doing everything I can to do it right. Part of the fun for me is learning correct punctuation. I suppose, if I had paid more attention in high school, so many of these things wouldn't be such a surprise to me. As it is, I'm as nervous as a dictator's food taster when I sit down to edit my manuscripts.

Thanks for your comment!

James L. Hatch said...

Great comment, Toni! I am also distracted by poor grammar (especially as I learn more about it) and generally mention the editing of any book I review -- good, bad or ugly. I recently requested the rights back for my first five publications and now face re-editing them. That's like smashing your face into a hot iron; I know I'll be horrified. Still, I just didn't want them out there with the errors I put in them. Sigh. An author's work is never done.

I am delighted you enjoyed "The Trophy Wife." You saw it before all the editing. You might like it better now, but I appreciate your kind words just the same.

Thanks for stopping by.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Jean:

I am comforted that others with far more knowledge than I have still work on editing issues. My third beta reader was a communications major, and she missed some of the issues with the compound predicates as well. English is a beautiful language, but it is also difficult. Maybe it's like thanking God for the Antichrist.

Thanks for leaving a comment.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

It's difficult getting an agent...maybe more difficult than finding a publisher.
We all run into grammar and punctuation problems so it's good to have a reliable reference at hand. The best reference I ever found is Prentice Hall Handbook for Writers. Amazon.com has it and here's the link:
Also, Writer's Digest Book Store has all kinds of helpful books you might find of interest. Here is the link to that:
I wonder what the editor meant by "couldn't get into the writing". That could mean so many things.
You might also consider paying for an editing service. I've never done that so I have no idea who would be good.
I wish you every success, James.

James L. Hatch said...

Thank you, Sarah, for your kind suggestions. Relative to the agent, I suspect he meant he didn't like the writing -- and that spurred me on to re-write again and again. When the first few chapters didn't look much like they did when I submitted to him, I sent the document to Solstice. They like it. In fact, my new editor has written twice telling me she laughed herself to tears. My novels will never be great literature -- they are comedy. If people laugh at the stories, that's almost the whole point (there is another point, but that one is hidden in the symbols used in the stories). Anyway, the comedy needs to come across in a smooth way -- the punch lines need to flow. That's the reason I want the grammar to be correct. What a shame to have a reader stumble on a punch line ... and miss an opportunity for a good laugh. That'd be like eating a fattening desert that not tasty.

Thanks for stopping by!