Editorial Advice — Revisions?
Screw the Punch was the first editorial idea to work for me in a big way.
Traditionally published or indie, everyone agrees that authors need to be edited. But what do we do with those editorial reports? One of the most crucial judgements for a professional author to make is deciding exactly that.
You sought an editor’s help. You got it.
Now you have their report and you’re back on your own again.
- Do everything the editor recommended?
- Deal with each point but in your own way, not hers (or his)?
It’s your call and yours alone. And that’s brutal.
There came a day when I got a new editor. By that time, I’d written half a dozen books for Mills & Boon. My Big Novel had been turned down by three publishers. I’d accepted that I wasn’t going to earn a living from writing any time soon. The Day Job was increasingly demanding. Even I knew that my latest ms was a turkey. Didn’t have much hope that the next would be any better, either. I was reluctantly bracing myself to wave goodbye to my career as an author.
My new editor was not reassuring. “You’ve gone dark. Tell me about the day job.”
I was writing reports, mainly about overseas economies. The readers were largely Whitehall officials plus assorted researchers and bureaucrats.
“Facts,” she said, putting her finger on the nub of the matter. “No adjectives. No key moments.” She pondered. “Right. What I want you to do is write me a key scene. Any key scene. It doesn’t matter which. And as you write it I want you to screw the punch.”
Screw The Punch — in a good way
Now, according to the expert, this technique was invented by a boxer called Kid McCoy. He said he developed it by watching a cat batter a ball of string. It’s basically a corkscrew. This apparently increases the power of the punch and, back in the bad old days before protective gear, also cut the opponent’s skin.
My editor described it thus: “You make your point, back off for a heartbeat, give a quarter turn and then do it again. Only harder.” She was gleeful.
“But that’s gratuitous repetition,” I said, secretly shocked by the shadow of violence. “It will bore readers. And irritate them.”
No, she said patiently. It was how real people talked in real conversation. Indeed, how they needed to talk. Listeners pick up a general outline idea first. Then they return to it to fill in the details.
Revelation! Of course, she was right.
Even in those blasted reports I’d been taught to write an introduction, specify details, conclude with a summing up paragraph. Or, as my cynical economist boss explained, “You tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, then you tell ’em, then you tell ’em what you’ve told ’em.”
People take time to assimilate.
Yes But —
Could I write fiction her way? It didn’t feel natural. Anyway, I took my turkey home.
The first big scene where Jacqui said I was short-changing the readers was when my heroine, wounded and inexperienced, would have fallen into bed with the hero, if her ex-fiancé hadn’t come banging on the door. Hero gets wrong idea. Leaves. No seduction. Heroine in shock. 800 words or so.
After re-reading it I understood more what she meant. I decided not to write anything new to begin with, just tell the scene as if I were talking to a friend – and record it.
Just doing that showed me that what I thought was a 3-action scene, actually had 7 distinct activities and 3 major changes of mood. I hadn’t dictated every single reaction either, which would make the written scene longer. Nor had I included what I call the “night and silence” scene-setting, which a novel really needs, though you wouldn’t bother with it if you were just gossiping with a friend. And my heroine was on a major but unspoken internal journey of self discovery. So the reader needed to keep track of that as well. In fact, huge stuff was happening which I had barely touched in the turkey draft.
It took a load of words, paper and screaming but I did it. 6,270 words. Pleased, I sent it off.
Back came the comment. “That’s the idea. Now OTT. Look forward to your next go.”
Next? Not even final! How long would this take?
Proof of the Editorial is in the Re-Writing
It took 9 weeks, back and forth. In the course of re-writing, I got to know my heroine down to her blood and bones which, though I hadn’t realised it, I didn’t until then. As a bonus, I got to understand my flawed hero’s behaviour properly. The cost was that I wrote, and then cut out, some wonderful stuff. The scene as it now stands, is 2,450 words, give or take.
Oh, and along the way I found the nasty exchange between hero and heroine which gave us the title:
“You’re very flattering but I think it would be better if I went. I hadn’t realised you were another man’s possession.”
Sara’s head reared back. She met his angry eyes straight on.
“I’m no man’s possession,” she said between her teeth.
So, yes, that was editorial that worked for me, by the bucketful, not just in that book but ever since. And yes, I often still do the truncated version, then the overwritten version, before I reach the place where the scene is supposed to be.
Doesn’t mean Screw The Punch will work for everyone, though. It just deals perfectly with one of my particular besetting sins.
Dealing with editorial comment is a very big subject. We at the Libertà hive are looking at producing at least one follow-up blog on the issue. If you have specific questions or comments, do let us know.
You’ve quoted that to me in the past, Sophie. I always think it as your quote! And editing – yes. I occasionally disagree with my editor (male – both of mine have been male) but he’s very reasonable, and so am I. However, I don’t like submitting to my agent, which I’ve only had to do once so far. I think I might be a bit over-possessive.
It’s terribly difficult to reveal your darling in case it turns out to be a little monster. I do understand, Lesley. At that point myself, right now.
But as Joanna keeps telling me, the comments people give me are usually more than helpful. Even when I disagree, they make me think along a new line.
And Jacqui’s Screw The Punch was life-changing.
I found this fascinating to read. In my publishing life, I was the other type of editor (the copy editor) and I worked with textbooks. But free-lanced some with fiction! (Our textbooks followed that three-prong formula; I always mentally referred to it as “sermon style.”)
I doubt if the copy editor is as challenging to listen to, but we must be heard also. Are you going to talk about that at any time?
Very good point, Sue. We will certainly think about it, now you’ve raised the point.
The copy editor’s role and responsibilities are a bit of a mystery to lots of authors. Though I remember an excellent talk by jay Dixon at the London Chapter of the RNA on her job as copy editor. I was so impressed by her filing system for each book, especially on consistency issues.
Of course, there are authors and copy editors whose relationship is clearly made in Heaven. You see the copy editor regularly thanked by name in some best-selling authors’ acknowledgements, I’ve noticed. Their discussions must be quite as lively as any I’ve had with a development editor. Maybe we can persuade one such author to give us an interview or even a blog piece.
Love screw the punch. And so true. There’s that fine line with driving the point home and not batting your reader over the head with it. That’s the difficult part, I find. And keeping the balance between internalising angst, showing it and punching it out in dialogue.
Much of this stuff comes to me through theatre background. Understanding how things work as an actor and then as a director has helped enormously with my writing. I’m planning a book on how these skills from live theatre translate onto the page.
Really, don’t get me started! I can go on for hours if we are going to talk editing and writing skills…
One of the first reviews (by a crime writer I admired) on my first Libby book commented on how good my dialogue was. I’m convinced that came from the theatrical background, and especially from having written scripts, where everything has to be conveyed through dialogue. It certainly didn’t come from the dry computer science articles I’d been writing in the day job!
I’m sure you’re right, Lesley. I can always hear your characters, absolutely as if I’m eavesdropping. It’s a great talent.
I’ll be first in the queue to buy that book, Liz. I have been known to act out scenes that feel wooden, varying the points of view. It’s a great way to work out whether you’ve got someone saying what they wouldn’t in real life.
It’s a great way to find voices of characters. I often do it in the bath! Thanks for the heads up on the proposed book.
Oohh, I’d definitely like to read that book, Elizabeth! I’ve got a background in Theatre so it would interest me a lot!
How interesting, Karen. It’s quite common in writers, I’ve found. And not uncommon among the famous: Dirk Bogarde for one. I’m so happy the proposed book is of interest.