Writer Beware

If you're serious about publishing your own work, you should be reading Writer Beware

If you’re serious about publishing your own work, you should be reading Writer Beware


Thanks, all, for your patience while I finish up work on my novel, The Road Unsalted. It’s been sent to 52 Novels for conversion to ebooks. (By the way, they are terrific to work with–very knowledgeable, priced right, and you get to talk to a Real Person when you have questions.)

I’m currently finishing up the details on my InDesign files for books-on-paper. (After years in traditional publishing, I converted to the indie way and I’ve been producing books for myself and other authors for quite a while.)

In the meantime, I wanted to alert you to this very important blog for all indie publishers, Writer Beware. You can subscribe to it here. And make sure you read today’s post here.

Writer Beware is a service supported by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a very important group if you write in that genre. The principal writer of this blog is Victoria Strauss who has been doing great work warning writers of all genres about what she calls the “author exploitation business.”It is so important to be informed about the scams that Victoria uncovers so that you can publish your own work safely.

Editing for Character—Editorial Lesson 4

Note the circled names. Who are these people?

Note the circled names. Who are these people?


It’s interesting to write about editing at this point in time because I am both giving advice and getting it at the same time.

You see, I just finished making the corrections noted by my proofreader to my novel, The Road Unsalted, and will begin typesetting the interior pages for a book-on-paper today. (I’ve been designing books for nearly 20 years now so I do my own covers and interiors. I do them for other authors too, by the way.)

I’ve also made arrangements with 52 Novels to convert my text to all the versions of ebooks I need to distribute it everywhere possible. So I’m in the home stretch of book production.

Let’s turn to the piece we’ve been editing together (posted here), and take a look at it in greater detail. Today’s topic is introducing characters.

Have you ever had the experience of reading a book and not remembering who is who? Too many characters is a common new-writer error. You’re moving along and have a great idea and BINGO—you make a new name, adding another character to your work.

That is not to say that there’s a limit on the number of characters you can have in a book. I daresay that if we added up all the characters in the Harry Potter books or Game of Thrones or David Copperfield, we’d have a full slate.

But here’s the key to fixing the problem of forgettable characters—whenever a new character is introduced to your readers, you need to give them something visual to link to the name.

For example, you could introduce a man named John Smith who has a cleft in his chin that disappears when he smiles or a woman named Sally Smith who has hair so thin, it floats about her face or a fairy name Avrina whose red skin glows in the dark. Now you’ve given your readers something besides a name to remember.

This process duplicates the visual tagging we do in our lives all the time. We’re always noticing details about one another that get unconsciously recorded as we fill our mental filing cabinets.

That tagging never happens in the piece of writing used in our example here. We have three characters who are nothing but names: O’Malley, Captain Fauser and Colonel Kevin Schmidle. You could swap one name for another, and it wouldn’t make any difference. The reader is not going to remember them.

As the editor of this piece, what would you do to fix it? Does every character need to be memorable?

Digging In—Editing Lesson Three

An example of a good, thorough edit

An example of a good, thorough edit


Let’s jump right into the editorial pool for a swim, shall we?

In a previous piece, I posted a very short book excerpt so that you could practice your editorial skills on someone else’s raw writing. It’s easier to see someone else’s difficulties on the page than our own, and I want to help you understand that editing is all about words on a page. It is not a judgement on you personally.

Now I’d like to lead you through the editorial process I used on this piece.

To begin, I’ve repeated the whole excerpt and then added my general comments. I’ll post my line-by-line edit when next we meet.

———– The Excerpt —————-

“Yes, sir,” snapped O’Malley as he pivoted and smartly left Captain Fauser’s office.

Captain Fauser, following his dismissal of Sergeant O’Malley made the appropriate entry into his daily log book. Next he searched his in-office computer screen for the index entry on Roswell, New Mexico. A portion of the Roswell file was labeled MOST HIGHLY CLASSIFIED. The only information provided on the computer screen was the indexing of incoming phone calls regarding this historic UFO episode. All incoming calls were required to be reported in person if possible within four hours to his supervising officer, in this case, Colonel Kevin Schmidle. Since Fauser had previously made similar reports on this subject he was familiar with the drill. First, he dialed Schmidles’ office, also located in the Pentagon, and scheduled a meeting for that afternoon. Fauser then collected the tape of the phone call, the stress analyzer printout, and the telephone trace information. At 14:30 hours, Captain Fauser straightened his Navy issue blue tie and presented himself to Colonel Schmidle in his more spacious wood paneled government-issued office.

“What’s up this time, Captain?” asked Colonel Kevin Schmidle.

Captain Fauser reported that The Pentagon had received a telephone call this morning requesting information on the Roswell incident. The caller identified himself as a Mr. Rick Franke. Upon receiving the call, standard protocol was engaged and a trace on the call was placed to establish a preliminary telephone number and address. The stress analyzer indicates that the caller intentionally misidentified himself. From the initial information collected it appears that the caller was a Mr. Casey Foster employed by The Washington Post. Mr. Foster indicated he would place a follow-up call later in the week so that I could report the results of my research on his request.

—————— My General Comments ——————

You’ll have to take my word for some of this because I’ve edited this whole book and you haven’t but here goes.

The entire tone of this book is stilted, stiff, and formal. This is supposed to be a novel, a work of fiction, and readers expect a certain amount of ease in their prose under these circumstances.

In this excerpt, that formality is emphasized by the use of administrative lingo such as “index,” “incoming,” and “scheduled.” These are “cool” words, meant to distance a reader from the action, and yet it is obvious from the rest of the book that that was not the author’s intent.

There’s a military flavor in the use of 14:30 hours. If this were a book set in the military, this might be acceptable. But the military aspect of this novel is minimal. Unless you’re writing a “ticking clock” screenplay, most readers will be annoyed and distracted by specific references to time. They’re keeping track of your story, not their clocks.

Nowadays, would anyone say “in-office computer screen.” Most of us would just say “his computer.” The author’s wording makes him seem computer illiterate.

There’s unintentional humor here as well in the phrase MOST HIGHLY CLASSIFIED. Really? If the Pentagon has such a classification, they’ve kept it secret for decades. And even if they do, I think this phrase comes across as something the writer did solely to impress his readers. It’s akin to putting up a billboard to tell readers that THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!

Part of good writing is keeping the phrasing smooth so that the reader is effortlessly drawn into the world you create. Putting anything in all caps actually interrupts flow, making the reader stub his optical toe.

Two other comments and then we’ll meet back here again next week.

Comment number one: Take a close look at the second paragraph and note the words index and indexing. These are red-flag words that draw far more attention from a reader than “the,” or “was,” or “and.” Not only are they repeated in back-to-back sentences, they are used to convey two different meanings.

Repetition of red-flag words or phrases should be done deliberately, and in a way that the reader notices for a good reason. You could repeat a word to replicate a sound such as “clop, clop, clop” or repeat it between characters as an inside joke. I’ve used deliberate repetition twice in my comment below. These are examples of what I mean.

Unless you are using repetition to achieve a specific effect, eliminate it.

Comment number two: If you read this book excerpt aloud, you’ll realize that the tempo of each sentence is similar to the one before it and the one after it. This plodding tempo adds to the stilted feeling of this piece.

As listeners, we are very adept at picking up on monotony. In fact, we often avoid speakers who repeat and repeat and repeat themselves.

As readers, we’re not consciously aware of this same factor in writing. When asked to explain why something bores us, we might not be able to pinpoint the cause.

Tempo is just as important on the page as it is when we speak as it is in music. One of the best ways to improve a piece of writing is to say it out loud. Your ear can often hear what your eyes cannot see.

Improving the Reader’s Experience: Editing Lesson Two

An example of a good, thorough edit

An example of a good, thorough edit


You might have noticed, as a reader, that more and more books from traditional publishers contain lots of mistakes such as misspellings, punctuation omissions, missing words, etc. This falling standard is a direct result of cost cutting at the publishing houses.

Make no mistake—editing costs money because you pay someone for their time and expertise. There are no shortcuts.

Failure to edit is costly in another way because disappointed readers warn everyone they can (in Amazon reviews, on Goodreads, on their blogs) to avoid badly written books. And if there too many complaints about mistakes in a book, websites such as Kindle and Kobo remove it from their digital shelves until it is fixed.

And fixing an ebook or print file after the fact is more expensive than editing it in the first place. How expensive? Everyone who provides author services understands that making author corrections is a time-consuming process so in order to encourage clean copy, they charge anywhere from $175 to $200 an hour to make corrections.

Yeah, that price point is supposed to sting.

So how can you, as a writer and independent publisher, save money on editing?

By becoming a better writer. There are no shortcuts there, either.

So here’s your lesson for today. We’re going to take a small bite of the excerpt that we’ve worked on before, and edit it with the reader in mind.

I’ve posted it for Editing Lesson Two.

Generally speaking, books by first-timers need heavy editing, often called developmental editing. And yet, this is exactly what first-timers resist. Every editor I know can spot a first timer in the top paragraph of a book, a query letter or a synopsis. With so many professional writers now eager to publish their own work, good editors can afford to refuse to work with new-to-publishing writers and their fragile egos.

In subsequent posts, I’ll go through this excerpt line by line, making changes and comments so you can see how and why I made my editorial choices.

I hope you find some tips along the way that help you improve your own writing or deepen your appreciation of the power of good editing.

But Is It Better for the Reader?

Correcting grammar doesn't necessarily improve the reader's experience.

Correcting grammar doesn’t necessarily improve the reader’s experience.


How many grammatical, punctuation, and capitalization errors did you find in the book excerpt I posted yesterday? I found sixteen, mostly missing commas. I underlined the places where corrections needed to be made in a PDF that you can find here. This PDF shows the same document after the changes were made.

When you look for editorial services online, minor changes like these are considered “light editing.” But it’s not much more than the results you’d get after running spell check and grammar check on your word processing program, is it?

In my opinion, these changes have done nothing to improve the writing in this excerpt, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t read a book done in this rather stilted style.

But this is the level of editing that most new writers say they want. Then there are new writers who believe that every word they write is pure gold, and resent even this light glossing over. “No one touches my words,” is an all too-common comment, one that makes an editor’s blood run cold.

But “light editing” is nothing more than correcting the last typos just before a book is sent off to the ebook conversion house or the printer.

Strictly speaking, this is not editing at all because it does nothing to improve the reading experience.

It’s correcting.

So, how would we go about editing this excerpt so that the writing pleases a reader? That’s editorial lesson two.

A Lesson in Editing

The Road Unsalted with editing comments and corrections

A copy of my novel, The Road Unsalted, with editing comments and corrections


Last winter, I taught a 15-week course called Publications Practicum at a local college. It was the first opportunity I’d had to spend a lot of time (relatively speaking) on each phase of the book publishing process. There was a lot of experimentation on my part, and given the feedback I got from my students, they got as much out of it as I did.

One of my goals was to help my students get over their fear of being edited. For many writers, the thought of submitting their work to the studied gaze of an editor is equivalent to going naked in public. So my job was to show my students that editing is all about words. It is not a personal judgement.

I did this by giving them different pieces of writing by first-time authors, and asking them to edit the pieces in several different ways.

In the first exercise, they were given an excerpt from an unpublished book, and I limited their editing to just surface stuff. They could not change sentences, fix paragraphs or alter the wording. They could only fix typos, punctuation, and grammar mistakes.

They were pretty eager to jump in, ready to compare someone else’s raw writing to their own. For my part, I was eager to hear how they reacted to their editorial limitations. Did they think that their efforts really made an improvement in the text?

You’re welcome to join in on this exercise. Here’s a link to that first editorial lesson. We’ll discuss the limitations tomorrow.


The Difference Between a Professional Writer and an Amateur

Cover quilt for The Road Unsalted by Nancy Graham, all rights reserved

Cover quilt for The Road Unsalted by Nancy Graham, all rights reserved


On Wednesday, I finished making all of the corrections my editor recommended for The Road Unsalted. Then I added in the last bits of the book—dedication, acknowledgements, about the author, and an excerpt from the second book in my Carding series, Thieves of Fire.

Since The Road Unsalted is the first in this series of books, I am determined that it represent my best professional effort because I want to wow my readers. You only get one chance with readers, one chance to impress them, one chance to make them keep on reading, one chance to entertain, enlighten, make them laugh.

And most important of all, one chance to make them feel so good about reading your book, they’ll recommend it to others.

I’ve helped any number of writers publish their work over the years, folks with lots of experience in being published, academics who are used to writing in a certain style, and new authors. By far, the most problematic area is editing, especially with new authors.

In fact, everyone I know in publishing has problems with new writers and editing.

We’ve all heard the same protests:

1. “The editor changed the way I write.”
2. “I don’t need to be edited because I am so careful.”
3. “This doesn’t sound like me.”
4. “I’m not going to submit my work to an editor.”

This terrain can be so difficult to negotiate, I know of several freelance editors who now refuse to work with first-time authors. I’ve heard editors in traditional publishing houses say, “The problem with publishing is authors.”

When I teach classes in publishing and get asked about editing, I am quite frank with my opinion. After 27 years as a freelance writer, publisher, book designer, and editor, I have come regard editing as the dividing line between professional writers and amateur wannabes.

If you are unwilling or unable to submit your work to an editor because they may find something “wrong” with it, how do you think your readers will react when they find typos or plodding sentences or boring paragraphs or inconsistencies in the plot? Do you think they will rush out to tell all their friends that they’ve “got to read this book?”

Would you?

My next non-fiction book is a handbook for independent publishers, and I’m on the chapter about editing so this subject is on my mind. Let’s devote the next week to thinking about the relationship between writers and editors.