Category: Editing


So yes, I have an apprentice.

By the way, Rebecca hates this reference now.

By the way, Rebecca hates this reference now.

Rebecca’s not to be confused with an intern. I don’t make her do any of my work, and I don’t provide any college credits. I do, however, occasionally assign homework.

One of the first things she learned was that an editor must know how to write. An editor must try her hand at writing, because there is no way to really understand how a story works without playing around with it yourself.

An editor, essentially, needs all the skills of an author: language, plot, character, research, setting — whatever it is, an editor must know how it works. The one thing that isn’t truly necessary is creativity. That spark possessed by all storytellers that makes them not only craft a great story, but want to tell it too.

Now, most editors actually are writers, if not published authors. (I’m joining the ranks of the latter group next year.) The job of an editor, however, is not to come up with the story in the first place. We make it better, and that means we must be experts in the art even if we don’t produce it ourselves.

And that brings us back to the matter of writing. There is always a story to tell.  We practice this all the time, sometimes without knowing it. We just have to hone the skill.

I’ve told Rebecca that I don’t need to see her homework. I’m not even making her write. I just strongly recommended it. She’ll be attending my workshop (having done the grunt work of setting it up . . . okay, I guess I do make her do some of my work!), and I told her she’ll learn more about editing if she’s also got a story to apply things to. She’ll get her chance to practice critiquing other stories, including my own, but it’s important to have something to work on even if you’re never going to show it to another living soul.

flannery_oconnor_quote_writingI’ve encountered bestselling authors who tell me they get burned out on stories. I tell them pretty much the same thing every time: burnout and writer’s block can very often be cured by the same thing: starting another story. Both can come because the current work-in-progress is taking up too much real estate and you need to rest so you get a fresh perspective. Anyone who writes knows that this can be easier said than done, because we’re always writing in our heads.

So you just start a new story, something you don’t intend to be “serious.” Fanfic is a great tool for this, for example: no pressure, no stress of creating characters or settings, just writing and clearing the cobwebs. Or take your characters and put them in a different situation, even if it doesn’t make sense in the context of your story. What happens if your characters encounter something funny? What if your characters’ parents had an adventure that they never knew about? What happens if your characters have a day off — what would they do?

Artists keep sketchbooks to doodle in; writers keep a notebook or computer folder for the written equivalent. All artists need to relax and fiddle with their art to practice, to refresh themselves, or just for the sheer fun of it.

Never let yourself feel pressured unless you yourself want the pressure. Sometimes we work better with a deadline; other times, we just need to relax and let the story flow. You discover a lot about yourself and your art that way.

Well, sort of.

I just got word from my apprentice, Rebecca, that the administrivia has been settled. I’m officially teaching an extracurricular writing workshop this fall at my alma mater, Christendom College. It’ll be on Wednesdays from 6:30 to 8:30. Continue reading

Alpha, Beta, Editor?

Over the last few months, I’ve been surprised to encounter several people (including established authors) who don’t know the distinction between alpha and beta readers. As a consequence, this got put into my Stack of Stuff (aka the list of “Gee, I should write a blog post about that” topics).

The most common definition I’ve encountered among authors, fellow editors, and laymen was that an alpha reader was the first reader, and everyone else who read it before publication was a beta reader. That’s wrong; not completely off, mind you, but wrong. I was a little surprised, but it makes some sense that people would think that just from the names. There are other distinctions, though, even among people who know the origin of the two terms.

That same origin might be the cause of some of the confusion, though. The two terms come from software testing, where alpha testing is done during development by professionals while beta testing is conducted with members of the general public. The fact that “alpha reader” and “beta reader” come from something so tech-based might make the terms seem a bit arcane to people not already steeped in this stuff, and the vast majority of people I’ve talked to who didn’t know the definitions weren’t people who considered themselves geeks.

Of course, I learned about the definition so long ago that I can’t even remember how it first came up, only that I knew it was a while before I connected it with “beta test software” and the like. So who knows? Tracking the differences in my friends and coworkers has been interesting, but hardly conclusive. And probably boring to most people, so let’s skip ahead to the meat of the matter.

When you’re looking for an alpha reader, you’re looking for someone who knows about writing. You might ask experts in fields you’re writing about (law, history, medicine, engineering, astronomy, whatever) to read parts of your book before it’s finished, but they aren’t alpha readers. An alpha reader is examining your story, identifying parts that work, making suggestions about parts that don’t, and generally giving you semi-professional feedback. Your alpha readers are generally reading along as you write and rewrite the first few drafts. They generally have to know something about writing themselves, so most alpha readers are either writers and editors or they’re close friends and family who know you and your writing very well. (The most common non-professional alpha reader seems to be the author’s spouse. That probably won’t surprise anyone.)

Like with software companies entering beta-testing phases, you want a beta reader when you feel you’re almost ready for publication. It might not be quite done, but you feel most of what is remaining is a matter of polish and line-editing. You don’t necessarily have everything phrased the way you want it, but you’re done moving chapters around and changing the ending. Your writing might need some work, but your story is finished. That’s when you get your test audience: trusted friends, significant fans, people who would be normally reading the sort of thing you’re writing. They’re a sampling of your audience, and as such they don’t need to have any professional writing knowledge. You just want to make certain that your target audience likes your book.

Oh, that doesn’t mean you can’t have beta readers looking for mistakes, whether they be typos or factual errors. That’s actually encouraged most of the time; in fact, publishers and authors alike, when they send out something to be read, will usually only mention proofreading when they don’t want you to do it.

So where does an editor fall in all of this? That was another source of confusion among people I talked to. The simple answer is that an editor — meaning your editor — is in a different category. If you’re submitting a finished manuscript to a publisher, you’ve probably gone through both alpha and beta reading first. You might have even hired a freelancing editor at some point. You might be discussing ideas with your editor before you even start writing. An editor can come in at any point in the process. Our job as editors is to help you build, create, shape, and entertain. Depending on the project and where you are in it, your editor might be dealing with abstract plot sketching or something as specific as figuring out what word-choice habits a bit character might have in chapter twelve.

But as vital as my job is, I’m only one person — and as I repeat so often I sound like a broken record even to myself, even an editor needs an editor. Cultivate your alpha and beta readers. They’ll catch things that you and your editor miss. They’ll have ideas that you and your editor wouldn’t think of. Usually they won’t be what you want; only you can tell your story, after all, but even knowing what will not happen helps when you’re not certain what will happen. Bouncing ideas off your readers as well as explaining to them why their suggestions won’t work will improve your art.

One more thing!

Always listen to Uncle!

Who says you can’t learn anything from a Saturday morning cartoon? Uncle’s timeless advice always pops up when I get excited about research. (Mind you, it’s usually accompanied by the mental image of an old man whacking me on the side of my head with two outstretched fingers.)

And yes, research can be exciting. If you’re not eager to learn new things and insert them into your craft, you’re probably in the wrong business. Not all research is fun, of course — but from the number of authors and editors I see who share things they find on social sites, it’s fairly obvious that I’m not the only one who likes finding new things.

And I not only enjoy it, but I’m actually good at it, which is why it’s one of my offered services to authors and publishers . . . and one that a lot of people take me up on.

Someone tried taking me to task on that at Balticon, though, claiming that it’s not the job of an editor to do research for an author. Aside from the fact that I get paid for it in addition to more traditional editorial services, I had to explain to him why he’s wrong. And while I’ve talked about the importance of consulting experts already, I figure I ought to give another concrete example.

Almost exactly one year ago, I brainstormed out a YA contemporary fantasy series (The Chronicles of the Ruahim) with my friend and sometime client Regina Doman, and that series is currently coming together. For the sin of coming up with the idea, I’m the managing editor and (technically) senior author on the series. Since it deals with myths all around the world, I find even my childhood fascination with comparative mythology can’t keep up, and I’m constantly doing more and more research on different cultures, different creatures, and different versions of particular legends. Apache, Irish, Norse, British, French, German, Polish, Russian, Jewish, Egyptian, Arabic, Indian, and Japanese have all come up in the context of this series, and we’re just getting started. It also means we have to find words in various different languages, sometimes all for the exact same creatures and concepts.

That’s only part of it, of course. The first book deals with sword techniques, (Irish, Norse, and German techniques, plus modern foil as well), and while I’m pretty knowledgeable on the subject of “real” swords, I know I can always learn more; and of course, I’ve never formally studied fencing, but fortunately I have a good friend who actually teaches it.

The second book (being co-authored by Elizabeth Hausladen of Confessions of a Seamstress) in the series takes place entirely in Paris, which means a lot of research into more mundane matters: maps of the city, Parisian habits, art history, Versailles, the French Revolution, and even life in a convent.

The man who tried telling me off for doing research for an author has obviously never done a typical book project before. I’ve talked before about how an editor is concerned with more than just grammar; an editor’s job is to make the book as high-quality as possible in the time available. That means fact-checking, because you never want your book to contain an error so egregious that experts and knowledgeable amateurs alike will find themselves just talking about what you got wrong.

What I just described for The Chronicles of the Ruahim is merely the most obvious research topics, and only what’s come up so far.  It’s too much for one person. I’m not even talking about the man-hours here; the person doing the research has to process it, translating it into what is necessary to tell the story correctly. Time isn’t so much a factor here as just dealing with all the mess of information that pours in once you open the research floodgates.

Sure, you as an author need to do your own research, but the editor’s job is — among other things — to make certain your work is consistent. If you’re lucky enough to have one already, or you’re willing to hire a freelancer like myself to help out, do it. No one person can do it all alone.

One more thing: listen to Uncle!

There are books on my shelf written by a man with two names. Those names are David Wolverton and David Farland.  Why he publishes under two names is irrelevant to this post. What is relevant are these facts:

  1. He’s good.
  2. He’s entertaining.
  3. He’s an excellent teacher.
  4. His son is currently in the hospital, fighting for his life.

Yeah. Heartstrings are tugging. Continue reading

I’m woefully behind on my planned blog posts — which is potentially a good thing, since I’ve been too distracted by editing to write about it. Right now, I’m taking a moment between emails to put down a few thoughts.

Odds are that whatever you write about is, to some extent, outside your area of expertise. No one person can know everything about every subject. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, your job as a writer is to get your head into the heavens; if you try to get the heavens into your head, your head will explode. Continue reading

No, this is still your same friendly neighborhood editor — I haven’t been hacked, and this isn’t a guest blogger. (Though I might have guest bloggers in the future.) No, the point I want to make today is that I don’t call myself “the Novel Ninja.” I am, at most, a novel ninja. Continue reading

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