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February 24, 2010

YourBookBiz: Conversations With Your Editor

Entering into an agreement with a professional editor for your manuscript is a giant step forward in your Cover imageprocess to produce a high quality book. The editor agrees to read the work attentively to rules and punctuation, spot typos and usage errors, target trouble spots and awkward sentences. A verbal debriefing on other larger issues is usually in order. The editor is not a miracle worker who will cure all the ills of your manuscript. Only you can do that kind of resurrectional surgery. The author agrees to measure gains from the relationship with a more error free text and swears to not be defensive if some of his cherished wordings are labeled troublesome.

Gatsby’s Last Resort: A Telluride Murder Mystery is now in the hands of a local editor for a workover and I wanted to share what I feel was a very typical first correspondence between us, as the editor assessed the scope of the work ahead:

Bob, I have looked over the manuscript. Actually, I read Chapter One carefully and flipped through the rest of the book. I found the beginning intriguing and want to keep reading.

Based on my academic training, this is what I notice with regard to language.

1) Punctuation, specifically the use of commas.
Example: "I have a favor to ask at the Telluride Savings and Loan and with the way my life is going I expect a negative answer."
"I have a favor to ask at the Telluride Savings and Loan, and with the way my life is going, I expect a negative answer."

Example: "Sweetheart, I recognized most of those men and I didn't need their faces to do it."
"Sweetheart, I recognized most of those men, and I didn't need their faces to do it."

2) Verb Tense Shifts
Sometimes this occurs in a paragraph.
Example: "For no apparent reason, on this particular bright day, a shadow passes over me from the cloudless sky........Sixty seconds later I twisted the knob on a major problem."

Sometimes this happens in mid-sentence.
Example: "I try to yank him from the swivel chair to put him on the floor but came up short."

Perhaps these issues have more to do with your style. Perhaps you like using or omitting commas for certain reasons. Perhaps the shifts in verb tense are a way to keep the reader present while digging into the past. I am not sure, but the suggestions I am offering would help me read the text more easily.

Please let me know what you think of my ideas. I think I could help with your book.

Dear Editor,

Thanks for being so prompt in your response.

I agree that two major areas where the manuscript could benefit from are fine tuning punctuation and not have any unintended bumps in the grammar department. Let me try and explain my writing style for this particular project.

Mary and I go back and forth on the comma issue. First person is such a hard medium to use effectively as an honest and believable intimate stream of consciousness between reader and narrator. Hearing the character’s thoughts helps the reader “suspend their reality within the story.” Our protagonist’s mind is opened up and exposed to the reader with all its warts, grammatical nuances and phobias. A writer shouldn’t hide (except on purpose) anything from the readers; they are smart customers seeking intimate connections.

The sentence you mention is a fine example. If I were giving stage direction for a reading of that first paragraph sentence aloud to an audience I would not acknowledge any pause or change of inflection for the “the way my life is going” in the cadence of the line. Commas are truly essential to give the reader a break if the sentence gets long or confusing. I am as guilty as all writers imagining that my readers will always hup-to and keep up my intended pace. That is why a third party is so important in the process of publication. It might help to imagine this book as an old radio show and what you read is what the actors are saying. Please note all suggestions for punctuation that helps the words sort themselves out.

As for the frequent and random tense shifts, Gatsby is a genre farce, giving homage to a style of fiction that was at its pinnacle in the 1920s. Books were meant to be, and often were, read aloud. The hard rules of no tense shift within a story segment often has to bend when a “train of thought” collides with an “action.” The genre of detective fiction almost always demands that action take place in the present tense: “Last week he pulled a gun on me. I punch him in the snoot” vs “I have/had/did punch(ed) him in the snoot.” Train of thought or descriptions offered by the narrator are usually conversations with the reader that can’t possibly all be happening in sequential order. Offered facts are often in the past: “We dance. Her eyes were blue and at half mast.” How the main character’s thoughts “sound” says a lot about him, his mood, his state of mind. The expected deviations for our flawed hero in Gatsby, from perfect English, are branded character attributes. Think Rocky Balboa. Again it is helpful to read possible trouble spots aloud and, if the tongue gets twisted, a reader’s attention might also get tested. I know there are many places like that in the story. I know we will revisit every one.

Thanks for taking on this project and I look forward to working with you.



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