In your book Don’t Murder Your Mystery, you give examples of 24 mistakes that send writers’ manuscripts into the reject pile. What do you think is the number one mistake beginning writers make?
In general I try not to talk about mistakes, because that gets into right and wrong, and that presupposes rules. The only rules in writing have to do with punctuation, usage, grammar and spelling--PUGS--which many other books deal with. I deal with techniques and the many effective ways a writer can use them instead of the habitually ineffective ways that make an author’s voice sound “average” and lead to quick rejection.
That said, if I had to name the number one beginner's mistake, it’s underestimating the importance of craft. Writers who haven’t seen how certain techniques are more effective than others believe that compelling characters and plot are all it takes to win over a first reader. But few manuscripts are read far enough for characters and plot to strut their stuff. Instead, 90 percent of manuscripts go into the 'no' pile almost immediately, because first readers spot the clues to ineffective craft right away. We know that clues on the first page or two keep repeating throughout.
What do you think is the number one mistake established writers make?
Number one is arrogance, the attitude of "Me big-time author, no need to learn more." Fortunately, I’m using only the fingers of one hand to count how often I’ve personally run into that attitude.
Number one in frequency, which means it affects many more writers, is assuming that deficiencies will be fixed by their agent, in-house editor, and freelance copyeditor. I understand only too well the pressure of tight timelines on established writers, who are often marketing their current book while also writing the next one. I realize they don’t have the luxury of revising as thoroughly as they might like to. But as helpful as one’s own agent and editor are, these are busy people whose skills are focused on acquisition and developmental issues--as they should be.
And as vigilant as many copyeditors are, their job is not to massage the prose as a line editor does, but to catch mistakes--those right-or-wrong-according-to-rules issues. Too often, those involved count on an underpaid freelance copyeditor to take up all the slack. In fact, I see writers themselves often asking for recommendations to proofreaders, who perform an even lower, later editorial function. But copy editors--some of whom might also be good line editors--are not paid to perform line editing. Nor is there enough time allowed for it. Yet that’s the type of revision that can accomplish two things: (1) improve the manuscript, and (2) furnish a useful and welcome training opportunity for the established writer.
Why did you decide to write a how-to book on mystery writing?
I got tired of seeing manuscript after manuscript filled with the identical habits of craft that sabotage the majority of submissions. I’ve been seeing those same habits for the 44 years I’ve been in publishing.
What can writers who do not write in this genre learn from your book that will help them improve their chances of being accepted by a publisher?
Just about everything in Don’t Murder Your Mystery applies to all writers, according to what its reviewers and readers have said. In fact, FMAM added, “Don’t be fooled by the title.” Even so, my publisher asked me to revise the same book for a broader audience under a more generic title. I’m excited to say that Don't Sabotage Your Submissions is coming out June 1, with 124 new excerpts for a total of 238 positive examples. Although these come from about 8 genres, the majority are from mysteries.
As a professional editor, how long does it take to edit an average book before it’s ready for submission?
I’m very thorough, so it takes me 4 to 5 uninterrupted days to complete a developmental and line edit of 400 manuscript pages. That includes editing directly on the hard copy, then typing additional notes, recommendations, and suggestions.
What qualities should writers look for when searching for a quality editor for their manuscripts?
Experience and training, mostly. An article of mine in SinC's "Breaking & Entering" suggests one way to compare manuscript editors. I place less emphasis on testimonials than other people do, because I’ve seen authors praise their editors for catching a few big mistakes that saved them great embarrassment, but I've also seen what wasn’t caught. Authors whose writing can be improved with a high quality line edit are least likely to recognize what their editor does not catch.
As an editor, what type of author grates more on your nerves and what type of author do you enjoy working with the most?
I think we all enjoy working with people who accept other interpretations, even if they ultimately decide not to follow every suggestion. My nerves are not easily grated on, but I can be driven batty by the sentence-opener “As” when the writer attempts to link events that supposedly occur simultaneously--but don’t.
You’re a very sought-after speaker, and I noticed that your calendar is always packed with guest speaking gigs across the country. Is there anything specific that stands out in your mind when meeting writers at these conferences and workshops?
Thank you. I do enjoy conducting workshops. What stands out for me at conferences are the writers who introduce themselves to me and ask questions. Yet I'm unbelievably shy about introducing myself to well-known authors.
Have you always liked mysteries?
Always. But I'd been an editor for many years before I believed I was capable of editing a mystery. That’s because I consider a well-written mystery a work of art.
As a non-fiction writer, do you prefer to write during a specific time of day (e.g. early morning, night, etc.)?
What I prefer is not to write at all. I do so under duress. Once I get started, though, I don't want to stop. My most productive hours are between 1 pm and 9 pm.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started?
How to estimate time and cost for a project. When I left a managing editor’s position 25 years ago to become an independent editor, I discovered that estimates pose difficulties for most independent contractors. I rarely charge by the hour.
What is your pet peeve?
The assumption that there’s not much difference between editors or between the work they do.
What can’t you live without?
You're trying to get me to say chocolate, aren't you? Since you asked for pet peeves, one of mine is the chocolate lover who calls herself a chocoholic even though she's capable of stopping. I can't stop, so I'm happier if I don't take the first taste.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing writers now?
The amount of online material, because it competes for a writer's time and attention and makes it harder to stick to priorities. The Internet, while a blessing, is also my own biggest challenge.
What makes a successful writer?
Reading, in my opinion--reading from a young enough age to absorb, unconsciously, language, syntax, vocabulary, structure, and other fundamentals. That allows the writer to develop his or her voice on a solid base. As far as becoming successful in the financial sense, luck does play a role, especially in terms of who you know, but even then it’s mostly hard work.
Are there ever circumstances under which you think a writer should censor her writing?
Because I work in publishing I’m more of a pragmatist than an idealist, so I say it depends on knowing the audience the writer wants to be read by, and knowing how to meet that audience’s expectations. Leonard Pitts, one of my favorite syndicated columnists, says, “A writer without readers is like shouting in an empty room.”
If you could take the place of another writer for the day, who would it be and why?
Oh, gosh, that’s tough. I'd like to be Lisa Scottoline for a day and learn the secret of how she makes an audience laugh.
Do you think the Internet age will lead to a decrease in book readers and buyers?
It's already happening. As for the demise of the book itself, that speculation emerged at least 30 years ago, so it won't take place in my lifetime, thankfully. Whatever ultimately happens, there will always be writers, and they will always find a means to express themselves. Given the nature of the Internet, though, I’m doubtful they will know enough to seek good editors.
There’s a saying that goes: “If writers were good businessmen, they’d have too much sense to be writers.” That being said, do you believe authors should take on more of a role in marketing themselves to the public so as to generate book sales?
If they like marketing, yes. If they hate it but like getting and staying published, they have to consider hiring someone else to do it for them.
If someone was making a movie about your life, what would be the title of the movie?
"Leave No Stone Unturned”? “The English Patient”? Maybe “Analyze That.” You want just one? “Pay it Forward.”
What would you want your epitaph to be?
My best friend already wrote it: “A writer’s best friend & a tireless cheerleader for those laboring to create well-crafted stories.” But she’s biased.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Yes, my gratitude to the many Sisters who’ve trusted me with their writing. They’ve made my work so enjoyable that I sometimes feel I won the lottery but didn’t have to pay the tax.