The Experience of Editing (with glossary)

Regular readers will know that I am both an editor and a writer. I have spent eighteen years tweaking* people’s manuscripts. (* See Glossary.) However, I am a novice at being edited, and I have just had my first major line-editing experience. Imagine a desolate post-nuclear wasteland of shattered buildings and shambling undead. Then imagine that’s your MS after the copy editor’s comments.

It’s very easy to do things as you write that look ridiculous once pointed out. The following are all real examples (many of them mine but not all, and keeping anonymous to avoid embarrassment), but shouldn’t be taken to suggest a lazy or a sloppy author. People are very quick to call mistakes ‘sloppy’, and sometimes that’s fair, but very often errors are the result of an author concentrating on one element, usually the story or a dramatic effect, and thus simply not noticing another. And because the author’s focus is elsewhere, these things are surprisingly hard to spot…until the book is printed, at which point they become glaringly obvious to everyone.

  • If your big dramatic chase scene begins on a Saturday night, your character really won’t be fighting her way through crowds of early office workers as dawn rises the next day, no matter how filmic that is.
  • If your character is going to point a gun at someone, it really helps if you give the poor sod a gun in the first place.
  • A bald character should not run his hands through his hair, even when upset.
  • ‘Good morning’ actually means ‘Good morning’ rather than ‘Standard Greeting’ and thus should not be used by characters who had lunch hours ago.
  • If you have an arm round your son at a football match, and you also have your arms in the air, your son needs to put some weight on.

It is possible to feel like a total idiot when the copy editor points these things out (for good reason). It is also a pretty damned hard job for an editor to comment on these things without sounding like a patronising teacher from hell. (‘She appears to have three pairs of shoes and five changes of outfit in a “small handbag”, p.93. Consider revising.’ ‘Unfortunately the character’s name is also the name of a brand of personal lubricant.’ ‘As a brontosaurus femur is quite a lot larger than a human femur, I’m not sure this confusion is likely to arise.’ Etc.)

However, speaking from both sides, as the editor shouting, ‘For God’s sake!’ at the screen and the author curling up and dying at the sea of red, the following are useful touchstones:

  • The question is not ‘have I missed anything?’ but ‘what have I missed?’
  • There is no shame in making mistakes. The shame lies in being too proud, too touchy or too lazy to fix them.
  • An editor should never be soft on the MS, but she should be gentle to the author, because this stuff really stings.
  • An author who can’t take editing is an author who will never improve.
  • Sometimes the editor is wrong: she doesn’t get the author’s style, or jokes. Sometimes editors make mistakes. Have ‘the editor is probably right’ as your default assumption, but don’t be afraid to discuss or query. You might both learn something.
  • Being edited is temporary. Mistakes in a published book are forever.

A quick editing glossary for novices

Tweak: A change to a book. May be the alteration of a comma to a semi-colon. May involve identifying a huge timeline flaw and swapping scenes according, bringing a character back from the dead, and changing the ending.

Echo: Stop using this word. Stop. Using. This. Word.

A little convoluted: Reads like it was translated from the Korean by Babelfish

Rather convoluted: I don’t know what this passage means.

Very convoluted: Nobody knows what this passage means.

The writing is strong enough not to need [ellipses/exclamation marks/adverbs]: Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you. Now never do that again.

Comments, thoughts and examples of comedy bloopers are very welcome!

I’m off on my holidays shortly, so normal service will be resumed in mid January, when I’ll be getting all excited about my (impeccably edited) second book A Case of Possession coming out.  The first review is in…

Terrible Book Covers: The Return

I have no words this week due to Extreme Writing of Book, so here are some pictures: a few of my all time favourite book covers, lovingly curated for you.

It’s very hard to make a good book cover, and very easy to mock a bad one. Sometimes a group of talented people with the best intentions can produce a disastrous cover more or less by committee. And then there’s the other reasons covers go wrong…

Mistakes happen.

This one is deservedly famous. Go on, have a look, see if you can spot what’s wrong with it. I’ll leave a space for scrolling:


Count her hands.


This one…I don’t know how this one happened. It looks OK at first glance, but just try to work out how the lion’s leg got there. Then try to find its body:


Sometimes people fail to think through the implications.

Yes, yes, the title probably didn’t mean that to most people back in the day. Although, the impressively phallic lighthouse suggests the cover artist was, at least, channelling Freud.



This is just obviously wrong:



And this is just obviously even wronger:


(Yes, I look at a lot of Tarzan pulp covers. Your point?)

Sometimes the whole project is … poorly conceived.

I really want to do a movie updating of this. We could call it Dude, Where’s My Skull?


The tagline really helps this. ‘The Man They Couldn’t Kill’ plus ‘Lady, That’s My Skull’ adds up to an incredible Clive Barker horror of a revenant PI with an unpleasantly floppy head, determined to retrieve his own cranium before his brain falls out. Sadly, this is not actually the plot.


OK, you need to brace for the next one, this is weird. Assume crash position. Even better, assume foetal position.




And sometimes it was the 70s.


Enough said.

Got any favourite covers to add? Share them in the comments!

Goodreads Members Choice Award nominations

I’m slightly stunned to have picked up a few nominations in the Goodreads M/M Romance Members Choice Awards 2013. And when I say a few, I mean that The Magpie Lord has been nominated in eight categories, which has left me completely thrilled. Including this:Image

…and this, which may be the best award I have ever been nominated for:


It’s also been nominated for the fantastic cover by Lou Harper. As well it might be.


And The Caldwell Ghost and Butterflies have both been nominated for Best Short Story! (You can judge Butterflies for yourself for free.)

Voting is open to anyone, not just group members, so if you fancy voting, either for me (well, duh) or for any of the many terrific books on the list, here’s the link.

Thank you for your patience, we return to our regularly scheduled yattering about books and stuff next time.

‘Interlude with Tattoos’ – free Magpie Lord story

I often wonder what happens to the characters at the end of a big plot climax. The vampires and werewolves eat each other, the alien spaceship is brought down, the centuries-old conspiracy of factions within the Catholic church is foiled (probably not all in the same book, although that does sound pretty cool). Our lovers run into each others’ arms at last… and then what? It’s all very well falling into bed with the rogue slayer/gruff CIA agent/Harvard symbologist, but what happens when you wake up with them?


Seriously, suppose the book ended and then you woke up with no albino monks trying to kill you, and you really looked at his hair.

My first book The Magpie Lord ends with a newly forged and fairly unlikely relationship, and quite a few unanswered questions. The sequel, A Case of Possession, kicks off four months later, with our heroes established in a relationship, even if it’s not entirely an easy one. So I thought it would be fun to hop back to the end of The Magpie Lord and look at the bit in between when everyone’s wondering what the hell they just got into.

The resulting short story, Interlude with Tattoos, is free on Smashwords and Goodreads as a small Christmas thank-you to all the readers who enjoyed the first book. I hope you like it!


Cover designed by Susan Lee, and isn’t it lovely.

NB: Interlude with Tattoos probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t read The Magpie Lord, so my advice would be a) rush out and buy The Magpie Lord right now, b) check out The Smuggler and the Warlord, a free Magpie prequel, or c) give up and read my standalone free short Butterflies instead.

A Case of Possession is out 28 January.

All About Sales: a rant

A couple of conversations I’ve had that left me wanting to slam someone’s head against a wall, possibly mine.

Me as author

Friend: But why write romance? Don’t you want to write something more literary?

Me: No. I like writing romance. And people buy it, which is more than you can say for a lot of literary fiction.

Friend: Well, I suppose, if you want to make money. I guess you can just knock them out for a quick buck, can’t you?

Me as editor

Me: Sorry, but you’ve delivered your MS much shorter than we agreed. I don’t think buyers will see it as value for money at the current length, and I think sales will suffer if we don’t make it a more substantial offering.

Up Himself Author: I think there are other, more important concerns than just the number of copies we sell.  I don’t feel I can compromise on the quality of my work by padding it out.

For the avoidance of doubt: I do not just write for the money. Very few people are in that privileged position. On a time and motion analysis of effort vs reward, I think most authors would agree writing is a lot less lucrative than hanging around on junctions with a squeegee. I don’t publish books with nothing but a balance sheet in mind, either. To publish in the niche that Up Himself Author writes is a constant struggle. The list is constantly teetering on the edge of financially unjustifiable. I still do it, because it ought to be done.

Notwithstanding, I want my list to be profitable, and I want to make a living by writing. That means writing and publishing books that plenty of people will pay money for. Apparently that gives people (who presumably expect to receive a salary for their work) the right to sneer.

But the fact is: Yes, it is about sales, because sales are people reading my books, as author or editor. Sales are royalty cheques that will cover my childcare costs while I write in the afternoons. Sales are paying a good designer to do a great cover. Sales are my salary as an editor. Sales are what allow me to make a business case to publish the author’s next book.  Sales may be what allow me to rejig my life to more writing and less paid work, rather than stealing writing time from my sleep and my family. Sales are what gets everyone else’s next book published. The extra 200 copies we’ll sell if Up Himself Author’s book comes in at a non-padded decent length will probably make a pass/fail difference when it comes to getting his next book accepted for publication by the editorial meeting.

You don’t have to care about sales. If you publish your stuff for free as a life-enhancing hobby and the fact that people read it is enough reward, that’s lovely. You are probably a deeply content person. But if someone – you, or a third party publisher – is paying money to get your writing out there, paying for editorial and cover costs and overheads and maybe an advance to earn out, and you genuinely don’t care about how many books you sell, you’re an idiot.

As if an author caring about sales somehow compromises the value of what they wrote. As if there’s something shameful about making something good enough that you can legitimately ask people to pay money for it. As if  creation loses value when it’s given a price.

I do not think anyone is or should be above sales. ‘Commercial’ is not a dirty word. Book buyers are the most precious thing in the world: people who give their time and money for books, thus keeping writers and the publishing industry alive. Sneering at sales is sneering at book-buyers, just as much as not caring about quality of content and value for money is sneering at book-buyers.

And the next person to imply that I ought to write or publish without hope of financial reward had better bring proof that they work for free, or I will have words. For which, no charge.

Free Magpie Lord short: The Smuggler & the Warlord

So, as promised in the last post, a free short!

The delightful people at the Blog of Sid Love interviewed me the other day, since A Case of Possession, the sequel to The Magpie Lord, is out in Jan. There were lots of questions about backstory, one of which was a request to expand on the mention of a warlord from Crane’s past. (This plays a small part in Case of Possession but the eagle-eyed may pick up a mention in Magpie Lord as well.) So I decided to write a snippet about that.

And, because I [became fascinated with exploring my characters’ backstory / can’t shut up] (circle one), and also because I wanted to have a go at Merrick’s point of view, this snippet  turned into a thousand word scene. Which is now up for you to read right here as ‘The Smuggler and the Warlord’. I hope you enjoy it! 

I posted previously on the topic of teasers and backstory, when to reveal details and when to leave them for the reader’s imagination, and there was some really interesting discussion. In this case, I decided to reveal and expand. I’d love to hear your thoughts!