How to Catch An Editor’s Eye, or Ear, or Heart
Writing is difficult, and rewarding. It is lonely, and feeds the creative urge we were all born with. For some it looks easy, effortless. For others, writing is like pregnancy: never ending in the duration and brutally painful in the delivery. In the end it is the best feeling in the world when you hold your ‘baby’ in your hands.
Published author and editor Kaycee John honed her presentation skills the same way she learned most of life’s lessons–the hard way.
As the director of a victim advocacy agency she often found herself standing at the front of classrooms filled with raw police recruits, women’s studies and criminal justice majors, and emergency medicine providers, dispelling the myths that surround sex crimes and teaching effective techniques for dealing with victims of violence. Then came press conferences, op ed pieces for the local papers and news bites on the nightly news. All this while raising three terrific kids and working weekends as a nursing supervisor.
These days she speaks from a different POV: as a once fledgling author who survived the trenches of rejection and learned how to turn her stories into award winners. She knows the pain of less than encouraging comments from contest judges and acquiring editors so is determined to pay it forward and help others turn so-so submissions into contract offers.
- Follow the rules of the publisher you are submitting to. If they ask for a double space partial, one inch margins on all four sides, written in Courier or Times New Roman font, do it. If they don’t publish inspirational or erotica, do not submit the hottest, sexiest thing ever to come down the pike because it’s the best thing you’ve ever written and all your pals think it’s the bomb. If the publisher asks for a partial [usually the first three chapters not to exceed fifty pages], send the first three chapters and don’t go over fifty pages. Trying an end-run doesn’t work.
- Great characters are unique and believable, right down to the warts on their big toes. They hang with interesting people and live in cool places–real or invented. And while we’re talking about where a character lives, treat the setting as another character in the book. For each lead, use their choices in food, movies/TV, reading for pleasure, sports heroes [or anti-sports] and style of underwear as a way to flesh them out. Don’t be afraid to take risks. A woman who routinely dresses in severe dark colored suits, ankle breaker heels and pristine white blouses paints a picture of a no-nonsense ball-buster career woman. What if she wears sheer lingerie underneath the suit, or maybe none at all. What if that same no-nonsense professional is drawn to a man in hip-hugging jeans, wrinkled flannel shirt over a ratty t-shirt and muddy boots? To me, her tastes in men make her a three dimensional character over a woman who plays it safe by sticking to her side of the professional fence. Trust me, opposites do attract in real life and in fiction.
- Keep things, like the setting, simple. Draw yourself a map if you like and refer to it as often as you need in order to keep characters’ actions logical and purposeful. On this map, mark in the churches, schools, laundromat, bars, post office and grocery stores. Have a working knowledge of what the area is like during each season. There’s nothing worse than an author who has her characters taking a quick dip in the outdoor pool in the middle of May in Western New York. As a long-term resident of Western New York, NO ONE deliberately swims in an outdoor pool at this time of year–unless they certifiable or card carrying members of the local Polar Bear club.
- Pay attention to the voices of each character, both primary and secondary. A person with little formal education or who is still in their teens is not often going to use multi-syllabic words–unless they possess an off the scale IQ. As an editor I don’t need to be reaching for a dictionary because I don’t know what a word means. Likewise, don’t have each character use the same vernacular. For example, the word “Aye-yuh” is a commonly used phrase in Central New York where I was raised. Perhaps in reality every adult in the small town of Fabius NY says “Aye-yuh” when trying to convey they agree or understand what the speaker is saying. As much as I don’t like reaching for a dictionary; I don’t like needing a score card in order to keep characters straight.
- Build the story around characters who have well-defined Goals, Motivation and Conflict. If a character doesn’t have a logical and realistic goal, with logical and realistic motivation, I don’t want to read about them. If a story doesn’t have conflict, internal and external, don’t send it my way. To simplify: Hannah Heroine wants ____ [goal] because ______ [motivation] but ______ is preventing her from achieving or attaining that goal [conflict]. It works really well if Henry the Hero has goals and motivation which are in direct conflict with what Hannah wants.
- I’d like to talk a bit about sexual tension. If you plan a romance or perhaps a romantic suspense, carefully and slowly work the attraction into the story. Personal interest is one thing–and is important to mention by the time page 20 has rolled around. Don’t have your characters, especially those who just met five minutes ago, be thinking about what the other looks like naked. Too Much Too Soon.
- Show don’t tell. Don’t tell me Allison, age fifty, is exhausted and leave it there. Show me her pale, pinched features; the slow drag in her gait and slumped posture. Don’t tell me the meal Hannah and Henry shared was delicious. Show me the juices seeping from the cut of steak, the steam rising from Henry’s baked potato, the burst of tart cranberries filling Hannah’s mouth with the first bite of a fresh from the oven muffin. It might be cold as a witch’s butt in Western New York in February. Show me the frost on the windows, the impassable roads and bitter bone-wracking chills that make sleep impossible.
- Point of View. On a personal level, I prefer reading third person POV. As an editor, first person makes me sigh and ask ‘why did the author do this?’. Omniscient POV–like some unseen, all knowing being floats over the action, telling the reader what each characters thinks and feels, gnashes my molars into dust. And head hopping makes me nuts. Some NYT’s multi-published authors pull it off–and do it well. When you’re first starting out, keep it simple. Stay in one character’s head. It’s safer for all concerned.
- Passive Voice. In the words of Stephen King: adverbs are not our friends. Please don’t have a character ‘jokingly ask’ or ‘laughingly remark’. Let them joke–straight out. Have them laugh, long, loud and deep. Keep the adverbs in the desk drawer where they belong. Make your sentences strong and active. Keep ‘was’ ‘were’ ‘could’ ‘would’ out of your prose.
Examples: Jane could hear the fear in Dick’s voice. BETTER: Jane heard fear in her lover’s voice, saw angst in his furrowed brow and hunched shoulders.
Dick was standing there, waiting impassively for the train to arrive. BETTER: Frozen in place, Dick waited in line with the rest of the late evening commuters for the last train to arrive.
- Please, please, please remember: evaluation of any submission is one person’s opinion. Before I am an editor, I am a reader. If a story doesn’t grab me, I’m likely not going to offer a contract. Following the Wild Rose Press philosophy, as well as my own, it’s my job to tell a reader why the story doesn’t ‘work’ for me. It’s not personal. But . . . if different people, such as critique partners or other editors are saying the same thing about your writing, pay attention to it. As one person, my opinion might be off the wall; three people who make the same observation make a difference. Listen.
Lastly, here are two excellent references for authors, new and maybe not so new:
Revision and Self Editing by James Scott Bell
Fire Up Your Fiction by Jodie Renner. Both are excellent sources.
Thanks for letting me run my mouth, Alicia. It’s been great.