On the Same Page

Last weekend, I attended Jami Carpenter’s editing workshop at the Clark County Library on Flamingo. Jami’s a good friend and a professional editor for Stephens Press, one of our only credible local publishers. Her presentation reminded me (and the other fifty or so folks in the audience) why writers should never go it alone.

Remember the adage, “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client?” The same could be said of authors and editing. Recently, a fellow told me that he’s polished his manuscript “five or six times.” I’ll bet it’s still rife with errors. (If I were a bookie, I’d place the over/under at one hundred.) The human eye tends to skip over small mistakes and little omissions, especially when we’re so close to our own material.

But there’s a lot more to editing than just catching spelling and grammatical slip-ups – even though that’s challenging enough. (And, as Jami cautions, don’t rely solely on Spell Check. Or is that SpellCheck? Either way, it can’t deal with context. That’s why it will approve this phrase: “Slowly the cross-eyed bear” – a blunder of biblical proportions).

A good editor will delve into plot, theme, characterization, dialogue, point of view, flow (as Nate once said on Six Feet Under while in the midst of an unintentional ecstasy rush, “It’s all about the flow”), and dozens of other elements, including my personal bugaboo, continuity. Have you ever read a book where one of the children ages four years in four weeks? Or inexplicably changes names? Nothing will pull a reader out of his or her suspension of disbelief faster than a dumb mistake. And if that reader happens to be in the acquisitions department of a major publishing house, you’ve lost that golden ticket for good. That’s why, in the immortal words of my buddy Jay MacLarty, your manuscript needs to be “pristine.”

Deke Castleman, my own editor on “Dice Angel” and “Money Shot,” likes to do things the old fashioned way. He marks up page after hard-copy page in pencil, sometimes using every inch of the back to make his case for fine-tuning a character’s motivation or  switching up chapters five and thirteen. Sometimes a simple “Ha!” in the margin will keep me going for days. It also helps that he flat out knows a lot of stuff. In “Dice Angel,” he had me change “deep fryer” to “Fryolator,” the more specific restaurant industry term. Little things like that really add flavor to your story. Working with Deke is like getting an MFA without all the parking tickets  (students at UNLV and colleges everywhere will know what I mean). Editors like Deke don’t come cheap, but you get what you pay for.

Yes, writing is a solitary discipline. We sit alone in front of a white screen, the cursor mocking us with every blink. Some days inspiration strikes and we can’t type fast enough. Mostly we grind it out. Either way, writing should also be a collaborative effort. Take the time to find the best professional editor money can rent. Beyond mere expertise, put someone on your team who “gets you.” It’s always nice when you’re both on the same page.