Should You Hire a Pro?
A writer friend asked me whether it was really a good idea to pay a professional editor to read her manuscript. My immediate response was yes, but the question made me pause and reflect on my personal experiences.
I have had all six of my novels (number six coming this summer!) edited by pros. Here are my thoughts.
There is huge value to editors who “copy” edit, that is, they read for spelling, grammar, syntax, etc. You always miss something: a comma where it doesn’t belong, the incorrect use of a semicolon. In terms of the broader picture: the plot, characters, structure, tension, conflict, on and on, the pro can be very helpful. . . or not.
In The Triangle Murders, the professional editor I hired was so intrigued with the historic story that her suggestions would have made me totally change the book. It would have become a historic mystery rather than a historic mystery that is solved today with modern technology. She had her own vision for the book. But who was writing this?
The editor I hired for my Civil War book, however, was extremely helpful. He gave me an idea for a dynamite ending that I hadn’t even considered. It totally changed the story for the better.
Before you consider hiring a pro, however, do your own self-editing. Believe it or not, there is a lot you can do to improve your writing before it gets the going-over by someone else. Some suggestions:
Edit in small sections at a time. If possible, reread the section before and then edit the current 5 to 10 pages.
Also, read aloud (or to your dog or cat.) I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. You’d be surprised what you hear that you didn’t think you wrote. Dialogue may sound stilted, tension weak, setting inappropriate. Often I will come away from my reading out loud thinking, ugh, did I write that?
Some things to look for when you’re self-editing:
- Do you want to turn the page?
- Did you stumble over awkward phrases or clunky words when you read aloud?
- Were you confused by your own plot twists?
- Did punctuation mess up your reading?
- Were your characters boring, too flawed (yes, that’s possible) or totally unbelievable (unless you write Bourne thrillers)?
- Were there plot inconsistencies ie: a character appeared after she was murdered?
- Were there setting inconsistencies? It was hot as Hades one day, snowing the next?
- Did you get your facts right? Very important if you want authenticity.
You can be your own best editor. But, just to be sure — reread, rewrite, read aloud. And again x 3.
Now hire a professional for the final read.
Your thoughts welcome.
Hart Island is a small island located in the Long Island Sound,
off the coast of the Bronx, in New York City.
It has been a public mass burial ground,
a colossal “potter’s field” for a million souls since 1869.
The crumbling remains of its buildings once served as:
a Union Civil War prison camp,
a tuberculosis sanatorium,
a boys’ reformatory and . . .
a woman’s lunatic asylum.
1902, New York City: Nineteen-year-old Ruby Hunt comes home to her Park Avenue apartment to find her family murdered. She is the prime suspect in these gruesome crimes but instead of being placed under arrest, Ruby is committed to an insane asylum for life.The insane asylum is located on Hart Island, just off the coast of the Bronx. The island has served as the city’s largest potter’s field since the mid-1800s. Over a million lost souls are buried there.
Ruby’s life has irrevocably changed. Her only hope is a kindly caretaker at the asylum and a handsome young rookie police detective with the NYPD.
Detective Liam McCarty is convinced Ruby is innocent and sets out to prove it with the help of investigative reporter Nellie Bly, whose experience in an insane asylum makes her the perfect partner. Time is running out, however, because Ruby’s treatments are becoming increasingly debilitating. If Liam doesn’t rescue her in time, she will be scheduled for a lobotomy.
2016, New York City: A descendant of Ruby’s uncle is murdered and homicide detective Frank Mead soon realizes that the connection between Ruby’s case and his current murder is inescapable. It won’t be the first time Frank has solved a cold case from the distant past to resolve today’s crime.
Digging into the Hunt family is no easy task. Each relative has something to hide and unless Frank can uncover the killer soon, there will be more murders. Using the latest in forensic technology, Frank enlists the help of digital photo expert, Maggie Thornhill, to match photos found in an old suitcase passed down by Ruby’s descendants. Along with handwriting analysis and ballistics, Frank is able to piece together the puzzle that spans over a hundred years.
Watch for premiere summer 2018.
A young friend, beginning her first foray into fiction writing, asked me: “What is conflict in a novel?” I thought I’d take a stab at an answer.
The simplified dictionary definition is: “A conflict is a struggle or an opposition.”Conflict comes from the Latin word for “striking,” but it isn’t always violent. Conflict can arise from opposing ideas. If your character is torn between two different desires, say, marrying a woman who lives in Boston, but dying to take a job offer in Saskatoon (where is that, anyway?) he’s conflicted.
Conflict is key to your characters’ relationships. If everyone gets along beautifully and there are no differences of opinions, arguments, debates, fisticuffs . . . no screaming, pulling hair, beating up or murdering someone, well, there’s not much conflict. And not much interest.
Conflict can occur within a person’s mind. This is the most interesting of conflicts and defines the character’s character, if you will. When a character confronts another character, there is drama. When a character confronts his/her own self, there is drama plus. Now, the stage is set for future interactions with everyone he/she meets.
In The Triangle Murders, my protagonist, Frank Mead is overwhelmingly conflicted about his relationship with his daughter, whom he feels he has abandoned after his wife’s suicide. The daughter feels similarly. However, circumstances bring the two of them together, creating not only conflict, but often tension. There is great strain between them and the reader must wonder if it will ever be resolved.
Emotions play a large role in portraying a character’s conflict. If a character keeps his emotions hidden, any conflicts he faces may stretch these hidden emotions to a breaking point. As a reader we need to know what’s happening in his head – how this conflict is affecting him. We also need to see how it manifests itself in his behavior. Does serious money problems cause him to drink more, beat his wife and kids, or retreat further into himself? How your character handles conflict makes him unique . . . or not. Unique is better, by the way.
Conflict between characters can take many forms. It can be job-related, school- related, socially-related, sexually-related, family-related, or other (everything else) -related. Often all. However, too many conflicts in too many places can cause the reader to get worn out. Give your character, even a cranky one, at least one amiable relationships, even if it’s with another cranky character, please, or we won’t like him very much.
I like to find new ways to help my characters resolve their conflicts. For instance, in Frank’s case above, he enlists his daughter’s help to solve an ancient murder. They form a tentative truce to accomplish this, which may, or may not, last into another book.
My advice is to maximize the use of conflict in your story. It is a great tool to keep readers turning the page.
As always, I welcome your feedback.
My Civil War mystery, Time Exposure, was recently reviewed by Susan Weintrob, who hosts a site called Expand the Table: https://www.expandthetable.net/foodie-lit. In it she blogs about “Foodie Lit,” a genre of novels and memoirs filled with stories and food. Each month she shares the magic of a good foodie lit read and one of its recipes to pair with it.
Cooking and recipes in books takes us into the mind of the characters and brings us into the book’s kitchen to see, smell, and share the lives within.
I wanted to share an excerpt of her Foodie Lit review of Time Exposure.
The Gibbs Museum in Charleston, South Carolina mounted an exhibit of Civil War photographs, which I went to see a few years ago. The black and white photographs were clear and surprisingly modern. There was the heroic; there were also the photographs that were brutal, unnerving and full of war’s agony. There was the view of Robert E. Lee’s home, with Union soldiers on the porch, his property made into the now national cemetery at Arlington.
Lynne Kennedy’s Civil War historical novel, Time Exposure, is seen through the lens of photographers, the first time that civilians are on the war fields to photograph warfare.
Lynne, once a museum director, had attended a workshop on Civil War Photography at her museum. And she told me that she became hooked on the subject. “After much research about Civil War photography, I chose a real CW photographer, Alexander Gardner, who worked under Mathew Brady before he set up his own shop. I also fictionalized a photographer for story purposes: Joseph Thornhill. His descendant, Maggie would, 140 years later, become involved with his mysterious death.”
We see the scenes of war literally through Joseph and his lens. As modern readers, we know more about war details than those in the Civil War era. Yet the descriptions still send chills to us, as we contemplate this deeply divisive war, some divides that last until today.
Joseph to his fiancé, “Fences are down, rails blackened and burnt, orphaned children wander hungry and homeless, begging for food from strangers.”
Photographs were exhibited during the war. Joseph watches the crowds that come to his gallery. “They gaped at the images so powerfully depicting the brutal nature of war. Ladies, dressed in their finest, with parasols folded at their sides gasped at the scenes, covered their eyes from one horror only to come to face with another death scene.”
Lynne said to me, “Photography hugely impacted the way society viewed the war. Through the photographs, the public got up close and personal to the horrid battleground landscapes…that they may otherwise have only imagined.”
Louisa May Alcott enters the novel as a friend of Thornhill’s fiancé. In real life, the beloved author of Little Women volunteered as a nurse in Washington and wrote a series of sketches about her experience.
The author includes scenes of Gettysburg, the most brutal Civil War battle. Thornhill tells his companion photographer, Alex Gardner, “You know Alex? Men get to know each other pretty well in this sort of experience, being confined so closely together. Living together, working together, freezing together for more than a year. Some form bonds that will last a lifetime.”
The author writes eloquently of the mundane and the philosophical. Kennedy has much experience writing in this genre. She draws us into the very fabric of life in another era, allowing us to view events in the Civil War era that so dramatically influenced our country, even to this day.
During the Civil War, a favorite sweet side or dessert was Fried Apples. In the field, it was typically made in a cast iron pan over a fire and worked well with tart apples or ripe, if available. A variety of sweeteners could be used from honey or brown sugar, more available than white at the time.
At the end of each Foodie Lit review the reader is tempted by a recipe that complements the story. For Time Exposure: Buttery Fried Nutmeg Apples. https://www.expandthetable.net/fried-apples
Since my mysteries take place at different time periods in the past, one of my personal “research” assignments is to study the language of those times. The style of language is important, certainly, in the narrative, but, absolutely, in the dialogue.
The flow and rhythm of the narrative helps set the tone for the story in the past. The dialogue should be close to language at the time, although revised enough so the modern reader can understand it. Here’s a combination of narrative and dialogue from Pure Lies, about the Salem witch trials of 1692:
Sixteen-year-old Felicity thinks: “Was all this a grand deception? A vile and sinful imposture? Could her own friends fabricate such a cruel and terrible scheme? Procter’s words came back to her and filled her with a morbid sense of dread. ‘They have concocted the devil out of the stuff of nightmares and, more, out of taedium vitae.’”
When it is useful to the story, I use the actual language written at the time. For example, here are some words from an arrest warrant for Susannah Martin:
“You are in their Majests names hereby required forthwith or as soon as may be to apprehend and bring (before us) Susannah Martin of Amesbury in the County of Essex Widdow at the house of Lt. Nationiell Ingersalls in Salem Village, in order to her Examination Relateing to high Suspition of Sundry acts of Witchcraft donne or Committed by her upon the Bodys of Mary Walcot Abigail Williams Ann Putnam and Mercy Lewis of Salem Village of farmes.”
Believe it or not, many citizens of Salem were literate at that time, simply because they were required to learn the Bible.
In my research, I read as many books of the time and about the time as I could to get a sense of the proper language but I often had to look up the date which many words or phrases came into use. For instance, I wanted to suggest that the “afflicted” girls were bored and cried out against their neighbors for sport. However, the word boredom didn’t exist at that time. Interesting, eh? It actually came into use around 1852. The word sport, however, dates back to 1582.
The modern story in Pure Lies takes place in 2006 and, for the most part, didn’t present language problems. Although with the constantly changing technology, I had to keep an eye on that as well.
Critique groups and a good editor can be very helpful in pointing out flaws of language in both historical . . . and modern pieces.
One of the major characters in my book, TIME EXPOSURE, is Alexander Gardner, a famous, and real, Civil War photographer. Gardner hailed from Paisley, Scotland and arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1856 with a thick Scottish accent. How was I to handle dialogue? I wanted to make sure that the reader knew Gardner was from Scotland. So, I added a bit of dialect. Check this out:
“I must speak to ye, Joseph.” Gardener took a deep breath. “I’ve had a special offer I must consider. Mind ye now, it doesna preclude my maintaining an association with Brady. But, I want ye to be part of me decision.”
I also sprinkled in lots of dinnas, shouldnas, couldnas, ayes, me for my, etc. Ugh. The reader couldn’t possibly forget that Gardner was from Scotland. Or care. He’d already given up on the book.
Thanks to my critique group my eyes were open to this dialect dilemma. I began to notice it in other novels. Too much of an accent: “How vould you vant me to wote?”
Or overuse of slang: “He needs to mellow out, he’s bonkers and that’s too dicey for this girl.”
Or clichéd idiomatic expressions : “Once in a blue moon, we see eye to eye, but you’re usually on the fence, which only adds insult to injury.”
Eeek. The use of “casual” spelling such as lemme, or gimme, can be used . . . sparingly. Dropping “g” for a word ending in “ing” gets tiresome too if used every other sentence. We have to give the reader credit and assume that by dropping a slang word, accent or expression in, they’ll get the point and as they continue to read that character’s dialogue, they’ll naturally hear the dialect.
Some of the worst examples of overusing dialect can be seen when characters have southern or New York accents. Like the use of “Ah” for “I” or “y’all for, well, you know. Then there’s the exaggerated Brooklynese – “toidy-toid and toid street” or “poils for the goils.” (These may actually need translation!) I grew up in Brooklyn and, frankly, you do hear this. It’s one thing, however, to add it to a movie, where you can hear the character say it. It’s another to read it in a book ad nauseum.
So how do you get the character’s geographical location, or educational background across? The best way is through the rhythm of the dialogue and the words you choose. One “aye” from my Scotsman and the reader hears his accent through the rest of the dialogue. To portray a well-educated German you might avoid contractions and use the full words to make the speech more formal sounding: “I should not bother with that if I were you. Do you not think so?”
In the end, you need to do your homework. Learn the true dialect, accent, slang expressions of the region your characters come from, both geographically and historically. Depending upon the time period, speech was often more formal than we’re used to today.
Practice on yourself. Once you know how the dialect really sounds have your character try it out in dialogue in a scene. Read it aloud. Very important, to really hear the effect, you must read it out loud. You’ll find you will most likely want to eliminate all but a smidgen of the dialect. What will be left is the essence of your character.