Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Revision with a Pro

HALLIE: When I wrote my first mystery novel, I was old enough to know that I didn’t want to waste a lot of time sending out a manuscript that wasn’t ready for prime time. So I took it as far as I could on my own, and then I brought it to freelance editor Lorraine Bodger.

The good news was that I had a great plot. The bad news was that my characters were, well, insufficiently developed. Cardboard and bland. I had a major revision ahead. But when I was finished, I did find an agent.

Lorrie has published more than thirty books of her own, and she’s been a professional freelance editor for more than fifteen years. She says, “Writing books makes me a better editor, and editing makes me a better writer.” And though most of her own books are nonfiction, she found that she had a gift for editing fiction and personal memoir. “It’s all about telling a story.”

She remembers working with author Ted Kerasote on his first novel. Until then he’d written only nonfiction about the wild. “He came to me with a 450-page manuscript that his agent wanted cut by at least 100 pages. Which we did, and it was a wonderful story, but it never quite worked. After that it was hard for Ted to find his next book, and I kept telling him, ‘You talk to me all the time about your dog, why don’t you write about your dog?’ I nudged him mercilessly. And finally he wrote his hugely best-selling Merle’s Door.”

Lorrie, welcome to Jungle Red Writers. (Lorrie can be reached at roxielifton “at” hotmail dot com.)

JRW: You see a lot of crime fiction from aspiring writers. What are the most common problems?

LORRIE: Top of the list: unoriginal plot and undeveloped characters.

JRW: Yikes, that about covers it. What do you usually see lacking in the plot?

LORRIE: Invention. The plot feels like chewed-over material—too imitative of David Baldacci or Agatha Christie, for instance. The writer hasn’t found or worked with his or her own originality. Often it’s missing an interesting hook, or the plot points aren’t clear enough, or they come too soon or too late, or the story isn’t hanging together in a compelling way. A good mystery or thriller keeps you turning the pages.

JRW: And what’s wrong with the characters?

LORRIE: They’re flat, two-dimensional. Or they’re generic to the point that you could give them titles like “The He-man” or “The Nasty Mother-in-law”—so stock that they’re not interesting.

JRW: Are writers surprised when you tell them the plot and characters are weak?

LORRIE: Writers I work with are often astonished when I explain the problems. They’re too close to the manuscript and they can’t “see” it anymore. Every writer suffers that—it’s why we have other writers read our work. But it’s extreme with new writers, and that’s the value of having a fresh and professional eye look at your draft.

JRW: What do you look for in an opening?

LORRIE: The important thing is that the reader must attach to the main character. And I almost always tell writers to think twice about starting with a prologue. With rare exceptions, and of course there are those, it’s a distraction that keeps the reader from getting into the book. Better to plunge right in and take the reader with you.

JRW: Do you think most new writers are willing to do what it takes to revise a manuscript?

LORRIE: What I’ve found is that people who are open to change are more likely to be able to do the crucial rewrites—because they’re flexible enough to change direction and make the work better.

But I couldn’t count the number of writers whose manuscripts I’ve read and critted who say, “I’m going to go back and revise it,” and then don’t. What distinguishes an amateur writer from a budding professional is understanding that good writing takes time and doesn’t happen on the first try. You have to take the long view. And it’s very hard for impatient new writers to take the long view.

One of the best writers I’ve worked with was a woman living in a small town in Oregon. The minute I read her manuscript I said whoa, she’s really got it. It was a little bit Sue Grafton, but it was also very original. She worked really hard and took crit really well. She got a lot of agents to read her manuscript, and she got very close to a sale. If she goes on and writes another manuscript or even does more rewrite on the first one, there’s a good chance she’ll get her work published. You have to understand that getting close is a very big deal.

JRW: Is that the measure of success a new writer should shoot for?

LORRIE: Aim for publication, of course, but to get an agent to read more than your query letter and your five submitted pages is major. It opens the door for the future. You can go back to those agents with your next query and manuscript and they’ll respond positively to hearing from you. And you can’t get anywhere without an agent.

JRW: Do you think that if a writer works long and hard enough, and writes a good enough manuscript, that it will find a publisher?

LORRIE: Not necessarily. I wish I could be more positive, but lots of very good work doesn’t find a publisher. It’s totally unpredictable. There are so many uncontrollable exigencies of the marketplace at the moment you send out your manuscript. What you can do is pay attention to what’s happening in your genre right this minute. But at the same time, search for your own originality.

JRW: If a writer is going to work with a freelance editor, when is the best time to do it?

LORRIE: When you have a complete manuscript—preferably copy-edited and using industry-standard page setup—and you’ve taken the writing as far as you can get on your own.

JRW: Thanks, Lorrie. Any questions for Lorrie? Now’s your chance… Or reach Lorrie one-on-one, e-mail her: roxielifton “at” hotmail dot com.


  1. Thanks for a great interview, Hallie, and welcome, Lorrie! I appreciate all the useful tips. Now I just have to apply it all to my fiction. I work as a software technical writer and editor, and in my field, too, the editing improves my writing and vice versa.

    Edith Maxwell

  2. Thanks for the tips Lorrie. As a novice fiction writer it's scary to hear, but good too. I have a question. How much should a writer expect to pay for a freelance editor?

  3. Your point about new writers being too close to "see" their characters is interesting. We see them in our heads, and often we forget that we didn't actually set down on paper a lot of the information about them. But at the same time we're told: don't load on the backstory, show don't tell, etc., so it takes time to develop a character. How do you balance not-enough vs. too-much information?

  4. Let me start with Dori's question: Different private editors price differently, of course. Some charge by the job, others by the page, still others by the hour. I've found that page rates are the only ones that work for me. I have different rates for reading, light editing, medium editing, and the full-out super-duper line edit. And then there's "developmental editing" (a sort of ghost writing) and hourly consultation. Private editing isn't cheap, but it's often invaluable. (If you want to get more specific, I'll be happy to go over it with you at the e-mail address Hallie's included in the interview.)

    Now re Sheila's question: The truth is that all those rules (like don't overdo the back story and SDT) are good rules when they're good rules. Which means usually, but not always. Sometime you have to "tell" and sometimes you want to use back story. The trick, so to speak, is knowing when to do what. And for that I recommend something that's very hard for a lot of new writers (and some old ones) to do: put the manuscript away for a while. Don't read it, noodle it, fuss with it for a couple of weeks or even months. Let it rest, and when you go back to it I guarantee you'll see it far more clearly.

  5. Wonderful to have you here Lorrie! I'm wondering about a comment another editor made about how crucial it is to know exactly where your story fits. That is, should we be able to say it's a traditional mystery or women's fiction with elements of crime or...

    any adice?

  6. I love Sheila's question, because that's EXACTLY the problem I'm having with my new novel. My writing group keeps saying: "Cut, cut, cut! Enough with 'the history of the world.'"

    So much for "it gets easier" - it doesn't. This is my seventh, and it's gotten hard in new ways and the bar keeps getting set higher.

  7. Thanks for the lovely welcome, all of you!

    Roberta, interesting question. There's no doubt that editors often get hung up on categories. That's partly because their sales forces are focused on how they're going to sell each book--they're thinking about how they're going to pitch a book, and so the editors are focused on how to describe a book to the sales reps. And they're all worried about where B & N is going to put the book in the store!

    If you CAN give it a category (esp in your query letter), do it. If you can't, don't spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. Let the work speak for itself.

  8. Hi Lorrie,
    Welcome to Jungle Red. I love this interview -- especially what you said about the need for new writers to be open -- because I think its so true. I'm going to send my son --- a budding writer still in college -- a link to this and nag hard for him to read it.

  9. Welcome, Lorrie.
    I've been on the faculty at several writers' conferences and been amazed by what new writers think is original and wonderful. so many of them don't take the time to see what's out there. Some can't translate what is obviously in their head to the page. And others think their little world is universally fascinating. If they are an actuary, their sleuth is an actuary!
    Do you find that tough love works with these people?

  10. Hi Lorrie,

    That's some great advice. Revising is really the hard part.

    Here's my question: How do you know when enough revision is enough? Are there some signs a writer can look for that will tell him/her when it's time to stop messing with things?

  11. Hello, Rhys--What a great question! It's one I have to consider continually when dealing with clients. And that's the answer: each client is different, and it's part of my job to figure out how to deal with each one so that she gets what she needs to move on to the next draft. Tough love is the best course with some writers--but gentle nudging or a straightforward collegial approach may be better for others.

    I can usually tell in my very first chat with a potential client whether he or she is going to be amenable to the sort of help I give. And if I'm hearing too much resistance, too much explanation, too many excuses, too many conditions under which the writer will work with me, I know we're not going to do well together. At that point, tough love means saying "sorry."

    Alan, hello--Another great question, and one that's tricky to answer. I think most writers are more likely to know when they've revised enough and less like to realize when they haven't. If you're revising something you've been working and working and working on, take your temperature: Are you bored? Are you exhausted? Do you feel itchy-twitchy when you sit down to rewrite? Are you inclined to use words like "noodling" and "fussing" and "nitpicking" when you describe your writing activity? If so, you may be experiencing ordinary resistance--but it's just as possible that you've hit the wall and need to stop rewriting.

    That's the moment when you should either put the work away for a couple of weeks OR find a reliable person (my bias: a reliable professional editor) to read your manuscript and give you feedback. I'll take this opportunity to say that "reliable person" usually means another writer with whom you have rapport. It emphatically does not mean your spouse, your best friend, your sister, your child, or your parent. These people, however well-meaning, are not appropriate critics of your work.

  12. Hey Lorrie!

    SO wonderful to have you here. Thanks.

    As a reporter, I've worked with editors for 30 years. In my "youth" I would struggle and struggle to get my way--I'd thought of it, after all, and it was MY story. So I must be right.

    I actually remember the moment (many years ago) when an editor suggested something, and I had a dawning realization that--he was right.

    Whole new worlds opened up. I could be wrong. There's a lot of freedom in that!

    When you realize that it's a collaboration designed to make the author's work better, not to slap the author on the wrist for being "wrong" or "bad"--it becomes a very different--and very lovely--experience.

    Now when my editor says--"Cut cut cut. Move it along, Hank", I look at that as another step to success. (Unless, of course, SHE's wrong!)

  13. How right you are. When you trust your editor, the best sort of collaboration can happen. I've always found a great relief in leaning on--getting help from--the colleagues I trust. There's also a wonderful sense of community in that kind of exchange.

  14. Great interview, Lorrie and Hallie.

    I think I'm unusual, and possibly weird, because rewriting is the part I enjoy most. The scariest thing for me is writing something fresh, pulling new words out of the air. Once I've got a big lump of story, however messy, I'm greatly relieved and can happily work on kneading it into shape.

  15. Sandra, you're not weird at all! In my experience, most writers LOVE the rewrite stage, once they accept the fact that they need to rewrite. That's when the fun begins because the major work (even if it's a big messy lump) is done and the shaping of the lump can begin.

  16. What a great interview, Lorrie and Hallie.
    Lorrie, I loved the comment in your last post, about how most writers love the rewrite stage "once they accept the fact that they need to rewrite." This is so true! When I first get comments back from my editors, I'm terrified to look at them. Even when I finally force myself to read them, I have to take a good week or more to absorb them, and only after I've done so can I get to work on the revisions. But once I do, it's a blast digging back in.
    Thanks for your insights and a great discussion!

  17. Great to have you here, Lorrie. I'm with Sandy..I love rewriting..so much that I have a hard time handing the manuscript over to my editor.
    I'm on the third book in my series and I'm starting to feel that some of my characters have already told their backstories, but of course, if people haven't read the first two books they won't know them. How do you recommend dealing with the need to give the some of the same information in each book?

  18. Hello, Rosemary--Yes, that comes up often, the question of repeated information.

    We've all had that moment, as readers, when we we're in the second or third book of a series and the author is giving us character info we already know--and what's our reaction? If the story is good and we like the author's work, we simply go along with the repeat. We know why it's there, and we cut the author (and her NEW readers) some slack.

    Think of Sue Grafton and how many times she's had to describe Kinsey, Kinsey's life situation, Kinsey's little apartment, and so on. She tries to do it inventively, to slot it into the story in new ways--but basically it's the same info each time. I'd say you just have to trust your readers to go along with you when you're working on a series.