Notes from a seasoned editor…

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Here are some things that I feel are important for writers (filmmakers, musicians and artists, as well) to grasp, pro and con: a lot of this is based on various writing books I’ve read, and some is personal observation. This will be updated at intervals.

Here goes:

Stories – regardless of length or medium – should always

1. engage all of the senses (touch, smell, sight, sound, hearing)
2. involve the reader with the protagonist, mentally
3. leave room for the reader to inject some details into the narrative (not so much superfluous/cluttered/banal info that it “strangles” the reader)
4. illuminate some aspect of human nature, whether good or bad
5. have realistically believable characters (especially their reactions), even if their situation is bizarre, mundane or high-tension
6. have characters with at least some suggestion of a backstory, even if it is not developed fully
7. have fully dimensional characters, even the villains
8. adhere to these principles: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
9. make the reader care about the circumstance/character(s)
10. grab the reader and pique their curiosity
11. follow principles laid out in Aristotle’s Poetics
12. have triumph and tragedy in relatively equal measure, though one should predominate in the end
13. avoid neat resolutions
14. be different from one to the next
15. force the author to “murder darlings”
16. surprise and satisfy (emotionally) the reader
17. invite criticism (albeit about the impact/mechanics – how did it affect the reader? how was the plot/characterization/pacing/style and so on – only, not the author personally)
18. have an overall arc and sub-arcs for the characters
19. have exterior and interior plot threads
20. have an internal logic which is never violated
21. address some aspect/all of the concerns: What if…? If this goes on… If only…
22. engage the reader with suspense, conflict, tension and obstacles to be overcome by the protagonist
23. remember that the most important things are: character, pace, timing, logic, rationale and setting

Stories – regardless of length or medium – should never

1. be “donut” stories – all the trappings, but no “heart”
2. be too genre-bound (such as the trite aspects of genre pertaining to the evocation of institutional association – Stoker-esque vampires, Universal Studios Frankenstein laboratories, et cetera – unless that’s the purpose, or it’s a period piece)
3. be too time-bound (via pop-culture references, slang and so on)
4. call attention to the writer’s writing
5. be “cutesy” or pedantic
6. get too “geeky”: preoccupied with minutia that only shows off the writer’s knowledge or research
7. condescend to the reader
8. have what I call “mind shoes” (long story): intractable or rote ways of conveying plot (there is more than one way to tell a story: keep it fresh)
9. favor plot/action over characterization/substance (there should be a balance, ideally)
10. divulge or communicate the outcome (unless this is on purpose, or cryptic) in advance: this is not the same as foreshadowing (in which the key elements are realized only in retrospect)
11. allow the author to avoid tough questions, even if they express no ready answer
12. preach to the reader
13. cater to well-worn cliches
14. cater to the author’s personal cliches: this is not the same as “style”; this is an affectation that the author cannot seem to shake (a “darling”) that does not add to the story
15. be monotonous, even in the guise of “story type” or “genre”: in other words, tell the same story over and over without any insight or interesting POV
16. trick the reader, or resort to gimcrackery
17. rely too much on first person
18. waste the readers time
19. fail to engage in the first paragraph (even novels)
20. take too long to get to the point; exposition can come after the reader is interested

Other Thoughts/Observations:

1. Do at least three TOTAL re-writes (more than a line here or there). (Preferably more.)
3. Put the first draft down quickly, then leave it be; come back after an interval (at least a week, preferably more) and be scathing in your critique (others will, trust me).
4. Do not read out loud as a primary form of revision: only do this with VERY late drafts to catch run-ons and inconsistencies.
5. Don’t TRY to do something: DO IT, or don’t bother.
6. Get out of your own way. (Think about it.)
7. Avoid being too literal.
8. Open the story up; make it universal. Too limited a scope is worthless.
9. Think unconventionally: is this the correct POV? Is the character’s gender correct? Is the story mired in obscure, distracting detail? Is the plot easy to follow, even if the construction is unorthodox? Are there in-jokes that are weighing the story down?
10.  All considerations should serve the story.
11. The best never rest. (Think about it.)
12. Avoid slavish imitation. Be the best you, not a second-rate (or worse) bestseller-type. Write for yourself, not the “market”.
13. There are no original ideas/premises for the most part, but there are unique slants and perspectives. Combine multiple things to get fresh(er) ideas.
14. If one has an impulse to do something, question it; if it is obviously an overused personal trope, do the opposite.
15. Read a lot, and read widely (non-fiction, magazines, classics, poetry, textbooks, manuals, criticism, et cetera).
16. Talk to people, and listen.
17. Stop reacting. Observe the world and how things interact to it. Be open-minded.
18. Make up characters, make up stories: CAREFULLY RESEARCH supporting details from a variety of perspectives.
19. Realize that writers such as King, Koontz and Barker need good editors that are not afraid of their wrath, just like the rest of us do: when this source of blunt feedback (though it should be gentle) is lost, writers suffer (as in the names above).
20. Editors are looking for reasons to hate your work and put their friends or a well-known author’s work into their mag/anthology/fill-in-the-blank. Don’t hand them reasons to do so: have the manuscript and formatting perfect, use good grammar/punctuation and have something to say, or do everyone a favor AND QUIT BORING US ALL WITH YOUR WORK (applies to the “Old Pros” equally).

More later… in the meantime, look at this:

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One Comment

  1. Love this. Thank you!

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