Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Why we need editors

Editors have been weighing heavily on my brain of late. Mostly because Kelly and I recently turned in the rewrites on our new book and our new editor had requested more changes than we have been used to making over our eight-book career.

But other bits of brain lint have balled together in my lobes to have me thinking about this special species of human being:

1. I read an entry over on Lee Goldberg's blog from a self-published author who wrote: "When I finished the novel, I put it into the hands of a few big-time publishing houses. They all told me the same thing. 'We like the writing, but in order for us to sell it, you have to rewrite this and rewrite that, then send it back to us.' I wasn't about to start rewriting my book so that maybe some traditional publisher would take it."

2. I just got an email from an unpublished writer whose manuscript Kelly and I critiqued for charity a while back. This writer had a good idea, an engaging character, even a nice voice. But all that was obscured by the usual problems (wavering POV, throat-clearing opening, unclear physical action, too many characters introduced too quickly, adverbitis...) But this writer stuck to it, rewrote and rewrote, got an agent who made her rewrite some more. She just sold that mystery as part of a three-book deal to NAL. She's on her way and emailed me: "So right now I'm waiting for the revision letter from my editor for the first book, and meanwhile, I'm writing the second one."

Which of these two has the right attitude? This is not a trick question. It if were, why don't more writers get it?

You need an editor.

I need an editor.

Every writer needs an editor.

This goes straight to the heart of why I am so down on self-publishing. There is no real editing in the self-publishing process. Yet it is precisely the ONE THING every beginning writer needs most desperately. This is the reason why almost every self-published book out there today is so bad: there is no one in the process to put on the brake, no one to tell the poor writer where the wheels came off.

Now before I go any further, let's get our terms straight. I don't mean a copy editor (the comma and lay/lie arbiter). I am talking about the first reader of your book after you turn it in, the person who can tell you if you've tangled your plot in digressions, misunderstood your hero's motivation, or picked the wrong bad guy. The Big Picture Guy or Girl who understands what you are going for in your book and helps you get there.

Let me get back to my own experience for a moment. Because we collaborate, Kelly and I edit each other's writing. But we know that isn't enough. We know we need the entity we have come to call The Cold Third Eye.

Why? For the same reason any writer does. Because we, like all writers, live our story with every breath we take, intimately for months on end. Every day, it is playing on those screens in our heads, and we can see everything so clearly. But as with any writer, there is often a disconnect between that screen and our fingers as they hit the computer keys. Something misfires, something is lost in translation.

That is where the Cold Eye comes in. This is the person who tells you where you have gone astray. The Cold Eye (aka the editor) usually communicates in the form of the dreaded Revisions Letter, a document that can run as long as a legal brief and be just as scary. Now, getting this feedback is tough and sometimes writers get a tad defensive about it. Here are the kind of comments you might see in a revisions letter -- and how some writers might react:

Editor: Think about making this a Prologue.
Author: What? Prologues are strictly bush-league! It's the crutch of every bad writer! I won't do it! You can't make me!

Editor: I think X is a wonderful complex character but her relationship with Y is underwritten.
Author: But X doesn't really LOVE Y, so it's supposed to be without passion! We aren't writing romance suspense here!"

Editor: Is all this stuff between Y and Z necessary? Cut as much as possible.
Author: But we need this scene because it illuminates Y's motivation while introducing two quirky secondary characters who help convey the small-town setting!

Editor: Unclear whether X or Y is asking this. And they just don't seem to be as concerned about the evidence tampering as the reader will be. This whole plot element doesn't land properly.
Author: Doesn't this guy watch Cops? Police do this kind of shit all the time!It's completely believable!

Editor: Timeline problem: Is this the same day or a week later?"
Author: This is a simple linear plot! A ten-year-old could follow this, for god's sake.

Editor: "X pursed her lips." You use pursed lips too many times.
Writer: (sigh...)

Editor: Think about making this an epilogue
Writer (Gigantic sigh...)

Okay, for the record, these are actual comments from our editor's recent revision letter to us. His seven-page revision letter. And you know what? Once we got over ourselves and went back into the manuscript to see what he was talking about, we realized he was spot-on about every thing he said:

Chapter 1 works better as a prologue, making us rethink the advice we have given to other writers over the years that prologues don't work. Sometimes they do. In other words, there are no fast rules.

The romantic relationship we had set up in our book WAS underwritten. Our experience writing hardboiled stuff had made us squeamish about mucking about in such emotions, so we had tried to ingore it. Result? Anemic character development that didn't set up the impact we were going for at book's end.

The scene he asked us to cut with our beloved quirky secondary characters was nicely written but useless. We had fallen in love with the sound of our own words and disobeyed one of our own prime tenets of crime writing: If it does not advance the story in some way, take it out.

The part about the evidence tampering? Technically, we were right in that the scene we had written WAS true to life. We knew this; we had done our homework. But sometimes the truth isn't true in fiction. If your reader can't buy into the reality you are creating on the page, you have to bend reality enough to make it feel right and help your plot. Or as Stanley Kubrick once said: “It may be realistic, but it's not interesting.”

The timeline problem our editor noted? Here is the perfect example of author blindness. Kelly and I saw our story perfectly in our heads. We had even storyboarded it and charted the timeline on a graph. But the way we had written it was confusing, and we couldn't see it. You have to slow down and stick in enough time and place signposts so your reader doesn't get lost. Lost equals confused. Confused equals angry. Angry equals book thrown across the room.

Pursing lips? Well, that's our Author Tic. Every writer has one or two. You just don't see 'em. The Cold Eye does.

And yes, we changed the last chapter to an Epilogue.

So, what's the lesson here? Find your Cold Eye. Unfortunately, it may not be easy. Many editors are mediocre or indifferent. Some are truly bad and meddling. Raymond Chandler once wrote to his publisher: "Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive."

But that rare good editor? That person won't kill your style. But neither will he tell you you're brilliant (that's mom's job) or that your stuff is a million times better than James Patterson's (that's your hopeful spouse). A good editor -- your Cold Eye -- will tell you how to be better than you already are.

I leave you with one more quote, this one from James Thurber:

"Editing should be a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The [editor] should say to himself, 'How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?' and avoid 'How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?'"

p.s. I have no editor for this blog. It is self-published. Any mistakes are mine alone, God help me...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am realizing the absolute truth of this rigth now. I just finished my own round of final revisions on my second book but I am still to close to it to make it any better right now. It needs that cold third eye.

I know there is alot of promise there but I def. need someone with a different eye to get me to the next stage. I can't imagine wasting your first impression as an author by being too lazy or stubborn to work with a good editor. Thanks for the advice and the encouragement guys.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

How true. I've been quite blessed with fiction editors who seem to understand what I'm trying to accomplish and want to help me do it and give me some good ideas on how.

That's not always the case with nonfiction editors, who sometimes don't seem to know what THEY want, let alone what I want, but hey, that's a different biz.

Mark Terry

5:44 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

You had me rolling around laughing so hard I was crying! That disgruntled author is ME! And, just like you, deeply insulted, I say all that stuff in my head (especially about the timeline), wait a day or two, and suddenly think: maybe she's got a point. I am lucky enough to have a great editor who usually doesn't ask for too many changes. But the things she does want me to change are golden. She asks the uncomfortable questions, usually about something I've glossed over, hoping I'd get away with it without even realizing.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Toni McGee Causey said...

An author saying they don't need an editor is like a quarterback saying he throws so well, he doesn't need a defensive line. Sure, he might make a pass completion or two, but he's going to get sacked, hard, in the process, and for no reason, when he could have been protected. I always wanted that extra line of protection and am thrilled with my editor. Like you all, there are comments I think, "No, that's obivious!" only to go back and realize, er, nope... maybe something got cut or never fully made it to the page, but it's definitely not obvious. Thank God my editor catches these things.

1:55 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

To pick up on your metaphor:
Joe Montana, John Elway and Peyton Manning, three of the best to play the game, struggled mightily as rookie QBs. They all had raw talent but needed great QB coaches who helped them hone their mechanics and let their talent shine. So it often is with writers.

(I adore pro football...)

2:34 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Bryon and Jake,

Don't you find you can, to a point, be your own Cold Eye? I find that if I put my chapter or whatever away for about a week and go back to it cold, the crappy parts fairly jump off the page.

Distancing oneself from the work is the hardest thing for a writer to learn, I think.

I am struggling with a short story right now and I KNOW the middle is flabby and weak. But I have worked so hard on just getting it to this point it is hard to admit defeat and hit the delete key. But I know I have to do it...

2:38 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Don't forget Dan Marino, Kris. My all-time fave. Dan and I are about the same age. He's very rich and will hold some NFL records for a long time, but I still have knees. :)

I've been fortunate enough to become very good friends with an author who was a book editor for ten years. When a seasoned pro offers help, I'm all ears. I'll be the same way when I get a publishing deal.

Until I have the chops of a Ray Chandler (which will probably be never), just tell me what to change and I'm on it.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Two more reasons why you need an editor:

A quarterback is protected by the OFFENSIVE LINE.

Also, saying 'An author' denotes singularity, but following it with 'they' denotes plural.

So Toni's correct statement should be, "An author saying he/she doesn't need an editor is like a quarterback saying he throws so well, he doesn't need an offensive line."

Do you hate me yet? :-)

10:46 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...


Toni's statement about the defensive line could have been a brilliant irony regarding the Jaguars' performance yesterday. I'll give her the benefit of a doubt.


"Though the masculine singular pronoun may survive a while longer as a generic term, it will probably be displaced ultimately by *they*, which is coming to be used alternatively as singular or plural." (Bryan A. Garner's *Modern American Usage*, Oxford University Press, 2003).

I think none of us hates you (yet), Jason. I, for one, have been known to be a misinformed smartass on occasion myself. :)

8:42 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


"They" is becoming accepted useage for single references? ARGH!

The decline of Western Civilization as we know it has truly begun.

As for offensive offensive lines, Drew Bledsoe just got sacked for a safety. Signing off for the night and going back to Monday Night Football now...

9:25 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

"Argh!" is right, Kris.

I keep telling myself, "It's only a language...It's only a language...."

9:59 PM  
Blogger Danica/Dream said...

Great post! Loreth linked here from her blog and I'm so glad she did.

Definitely a good reminder on editors. I know I can't be objective about my own editing ability.

9:18 PM  

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