Editing: Pay Now or Pay Later

IMG_0234It happens every time. OK, nearly every time.

I unwrap the book-size package and am soon holding the dream-come-true from one of our Beachside Writers workshop students: the memoir that they’ve worked on for years, finally out.

I’m so proud of them. And, a few pages into it, so wishing they had found an editor — or four. Because as I read along, I am suddenly jolted by by an extra word.     Or by four spaces after a period instead of one. Or by a writers’ negligence in putting an apostrophe in the wrong place.

You get the idea.

If you’re going to invest the time, energy and money into a book, be willing to invest in a good editor.

Even then, your book will still have errors. All of my twenty books have had errors. Anytime flawed human beings have their manuscripts edited by flawed human beings, imperfection is assured. Still, discipline yourself, humble yourself and bring in others to create the cleanest book you can.

Why doesn’t that happen?

  •  By the time you get to the final edit of a book, you’re so physically tired and mentally drained that any goals of perfection fell by the wayside three meltdowns ago.
  •  Your eyes are so focused on the finish line — I just want this thing done! — that you miss the barriers right in front of you. Editing/fact-checking a book is the literary equivalent of running track and field’s steeplechase event: in your deepest fatigue, you still have to jump barriers — and splash into a water pit — lap after lap.
  •  You can’t afford—or aren’t willing to pay for—an editor.
  •  You can’t find such an editor.
  •  You subconsciously know an editor will find lots of errors and you can’t take the humiliation.

I get it. This is not the fun part. But here are some solutions:

  •  Go into it with your eyes open, understanding that when you’re done with a second or third draft, you’re not nearly done. I remember building a kitchen add-on, my first project of this caliber. When I had the space all framed in, I famously said, “Almost done now!” A contractor friend politely pointed out that I wasn’t even half done. Trim work takes way longer than you think.
  •  Edit and fact-check along the way so there’s less to do at the end. It takes discipline, I know. But every weed you don’t pluck by hand in April is a field of weeds you need to take a gas-powered string trimmer to come August. Put another way: better to floss regularly than think you can go at it diligently the night before your cleaning appointment — and fool your dentist.
  •  When setting up long-range deadlines for the book, leave ample time for editing your manuscript yourself and bringing in others to help. Yes, that’s others, as in more than one. I’ve had up to six people read my manuscripts before I send them to the publisher. My reasoning? Pay now or pay later. I’d rather be humiliated midway through the process in front of a few people than embarrassed at the end in front of thousands.
  •  Hire a professional editor if possible. If not, seek out friends and acquaintances who you think will do a good job. They needn’t be writers themselves, though, of course, that’s a plus. But, for my needs, they need to be “detail” people who know language, play well with others and, amid their surgical incisions, put on an occasional happy face to remind me I’m not a total loser.
  •  To find an editor, start talking to people. Editors are hard to find; it’s not like ordering a pizza. But if you just start talking, texting and e-mailing people, you’ll find someone.
  •  Be willing to spend some money. I’m always amazed at the number of writers who cringe at the idea of paying someone to edit their manuscript. And yet they’d pay someone to mow their lawn, clean their gutters or change the oil in their car. I generally pay someone $100 to $500, depending on the project. I also have friends who refuse to accept money, and who wind up with gift certificates or a dinner out instead. But to not expect to pay someone is to undervalue the worth of your project — and their time.
  •  Consider going the print-on-demand route. I call it “grace personified.” You have chance after chance to be forgiven the errors of your ways, in that you can can make fix after fix once the book is initially released.

You’ll never produce a perfect book. And that’s OK. We’re imperfect people. But at least put in the effort — and perhaps money — to try.

Sharing Insights Through Stories

I first learned the value of stories in sharing insights through public speaking. A fascinating story can captivate an audience, build rapport, illustrate an important point, and make the speaker’s message memorable. In writing, an appropriate story can keep a nonfiction book from becoming dull, and teach truths about life in a work of fiction. So, what makes a good story?

Opened magic book with magic light

1. Vivid and Sufficient Details

In reading along with my daughters several children’s books awarded the Newbery Medal, I found myself transported to a different time and place by the skillful writing of the authors. In these books, the authors provided enough details to help the reader enter into the world described in the book. In describing a food foreign to most American readers, one author provided such vivid descriptions of the taste and smell that I felt as though I, too, was sitting down for dinner next to the characters in the story. In any story, too many extraneous details can cause the impatient reader to start skimming the page to the next section. These award-winning books had the proper balance of information and brevity.

2. Relevance

For a nonfiction writer seeking to illustrate a certain point with a story, relevance is vital. To illustrate the author’s message, the characters and plot must be relevant to the theme of the book, the intended audience, and the point to be made. In writing my nonfiction book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I learned to edit out parts of a story that slowed down the reading of a passage without further elucidating the concept I was illustrating. In fiction, story lines that do not further the plot may be interesting, but they may also confuse the reader and become a distraction that takes away from the flow of the book.

3. A Story Arc

All stories, even short illustrations contained within one paragraph, need to have a story arc. We need to meet the character or characters in their everyday setting. Next, we learn of an event that brings a challenge to these characters and starts off the story. Then we must see the character(s) grow, learn something new, overcome a hardship, resolve a conflict, or make a difficult decision. Finally, we need a sense of closure as the changed character(s) resume everyday life in a new set of circumstances, perhaps a bit wiser for the experience.

Knowing what elements to include within each section of the story arc is an art. Timing makes the difference between a forgettable story and one that drives home the author’s message. Sometimes I find that reading a passage aloud can help me identify which words can be deleted and what sentences should be smoothed. Feedback from beta readers also can be useful for determining if a story succeeds in illustrating your point.

As a reader, I remember the insights I glean from stories more than those presented through statistics, lists of information, and persuasive language. When writing, I include stories for my readers to make it easier for them to process the insights I hope to share with them.

What do you think makes a good story?

Winning Writing Contests

I’ve both entered and judged several writing contests over the last four years. Not only that, but have been asked to review a myriad of early manuscripts for newer writers.

award-152042_1280Most recently, I entered the Blurb to Book contest sponsored by Love Inspired. I’m happy to report that I made it to Round Two (Go Team LIS!) What I thought was interesting about this particular contest is that the sponsoring editors sent out an e-mail to all the participants before they released the round two results that outlined several reasons why you may not have progressed in the contest.

I found this information highly valuable and also found it to be consistent with entries and early manuscripts I’ve judged/read that didn’t fair too well. So, I thought this list would be interesting to you because it speaks to universal problems among writers. The LI editors should receive credit for these items and I’ll be expanding on their list with thoughts of my own.

1. No strong hook. For this contest, we had to write a blurb (something akin to back cover copy) and were limited to only one hundred words. You realize very quickly how few words that really is. But this comment of the blurb or hook not being strong enough can be carried over into other things. Your cover letter didn’t have enough punch. Each word has to be powerful. A short blurb like this is easy enough for other people to read and critique.

2. Too much back story in the first page. This is so common I almost gave the editors a standing ovation when I read it. This is a very common mishap in writing. In round one of this contest, we submitted the blurb as noted above and just the first page of a first chapter. That’s it. Imagine how strikingly engaging this first page must be! My professional writing opinion is that it takes authors time to “warm up” to their stories and this is a lot of what’s happening in those first pages. It’s really character profiling. My suggestion is to look at page five of your first chapter. The first event that happens is really the start of your story. Back story can be dropped in as the story progresses.

3. Not following the guidelines. Every time you submit something as a writer, there’s likely a document that covers the submission process–whether it be for an agent, an editor or a contest. Read them. Double check them. Even if your writing is fabulous, if you haven’t “followed the rules” you can be kicked out of the contest just for formatting issues. Seriously, don’t let the wrong font drop you from a contest. You also cannot “break the rules” in the sense that if a publisher says a character cannot do such and such–they really mean it. If you don’t like the guidelines of that particular publisher–don’t write for them.

4. No conflict. Every story, regardless of genre, must have tension/conflict. It’s why we read story. Readers don’t want to read about happy people in happy places where nothing ever happens. Even the sweetest romance story has conflict. James Scott Bell has a whole book about it called Conflict and Suspense. Check it out.

5. Telling rather than showing. A common issue for writers. I’ve written a blog post on showing versus telling here that will better illustrate this point.

6. Confusing. Have another writer read your entry. If it’s not clear to a reader, clean it up regardless of how you feel about the passage.

7. Writing . . . not quite there. As the editors said in their e-mail– everyone has to start somewhere. Writing is a craft that must be learned and honed. Did you know just learning a craft takes 6-10 years? Think about musicians, dancers, or painters. Did they succeed at their first attempt? I think people don’t give learning the craft of writing enough credit in the sense that because we know English and can craft a sentence since grade school– we should be able to write a great novel the first time out of the gate.

Have you ever watched The Voice? We can all sing, right? Of course, some better than others. But if you listen to the mentors work with these young singers, you’ll hear them talk a lot about practice, about craft, about emotion in singing. “Come back next year when you practice these things.” You know what? The singers that take this to heart do practice, they do come back, and often times they do better the next time around.

So… keep writing! Keep entering those contests regardless of the result. Take the information from the judges as a learning opportunity to grow.

Have you ever entered a writing contest?

Writing With Style

All writers want to write with style. However, your publisher thinks of style less in terms of crafting words with fashion and flair and more in terms of communicating with good grammar and consistency. iStock_000003403361MediumHere are a few resources you will need as you polish your prose for publication:

1. Manual of Style:
A manual of style (MOS or MoS) is a comprehensive guide to editorial style and publishing practices. These thick books cover industry-wide or profession-wide guidelines for writing. If you are writing a book for general readership, you probably need to follow The Chicago Manual of Style. For both UK and US usage, you can turn to the New Oxford Style Manual.

If you are writing articles for newspapers or magazines, you may need The Associated Press Stylebook. If you are writing for a scientific or medical audience, you will need to use the AMA Manual of Style. Other academic fields and professions have specific manuals of style. I keep several manuals of style handy on a bookshelf near my writing desk. All of these reference books provide guidelines for grammar, citing sources and use of terms specific to that writing style. They also help you better understand the publishing process and the final layout you can expect for the piece you are writing.

2. Publisher’s Style Guide

The publishing house for your book may have its own style guide that serves as a supplement to an industry-wide manual of style. InterVarsity Press, the publisher of my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, provided me with an editorial style guide that addressed how they format parts of a book and answered specific questions about grammar, punctuation, word usage and appropriate choice of abbreviations. Remember that your publisher’s style guide can overrule a more general manual of style, so always follow your publisher’s editorial direction.

3. Style Sheet

While writing a book or an article, you might find that certain words or phrases could be spelled, capitalized, punctuated, abbreviated or used in more than one way. To keep your writing consistent, create a style sheet that tracks your own or your editor’s rules for these words and phrases. This style sheet will take precedence over the more general publisher’s style guide and the industry-wide manual of style. Make a simple template with two columns: one that lists each word or rule and one that defines the style. Fill in the template as you write or receive comments from your editor.

A style sheet also can help you achieve consistency across a series of articles for the same magazine or for each book in a trilogy. It can save you time when editing your final draft by eliminating the need to look up a given rule in a larger reference work or trying to locate a particular email from your editor. With style sheets, guides and manuals helping you handle the mechanics of writing, you will have creative energy left over for the fun part of writing, such as choosing great literary devices and playing with the rhythm of a sentence. Within the constraints of proper style, your own writing voice will emerge.

Which resources have you found most helpful for keeping your writing in style?

Writing Off The Leash

11021249_10205885141785471_6207685168227967330_nToday was the first day above 32 degrees Indiana has seen in forever, so I went gallivanting with my gaggle of golden retrievers. They haven’t had a real walk since the extreme cold came around, so they were giddy. The oldest one (the darkest brown) literally skipped down the street and back. They held their noses high and curled their tails and could hardly keep from tearing themselves from their leashes and running free.

Prior to the walk I’d been at my women’s Bible Study where we talked about 1 Thessalonians 2 and how Paul, Silas and Timothy had to press on with their mission and message despite often overwhelming suffering and odds. In verse 2:2 Paul writes, “Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition.”

While not necessarily a Paul-worthy struggle, writing novels does not come easy to me. I write, delete, and rewrite several times over before I get a scene–let alone a plot–to come out right. I question my calling, my ability, my gumption. I call my agent and freak out. I call my husband and freak out. I freak out to my friends on Facebook. But the longer I write, the more I realize that often what hinders me are my own doubts and hang-ups and attempts to write something perfect instead of just…


Ray Bradbury, in his book, Zen and the Art of Writing, says as writers, “What we are trying to do is find a way to release the truth that lies in all of us.”

Truth is hard to find. We have to dig for it in the places of our hearts which would rather be left alone. We have to hack through icy corridors of our soul which would rather remain frozen shut. We have to distance, if not remove ourselves, from a world which begs us to tidy up, straighten up, and shut up. Because we can’t release truth into our writing unless we allow ourselves the permission to write poorly, the wisdom to write something wrong, the unencumbered freedom to write the worst thing the world has ever seen.

Beautiful writing, like truth, only emerges when we allow words to roam unhindered across our screens, when we throw off the baggage of perfection and tune out the voices which tell us we are not capable of the task before us.

If you’re called to write, you probably already know the process is a battle, and that you have to be prepared to stay the course despite the worst of odds, the cynicism of the marketplace, and the opposition–whether self-inflicted doubt or another rejection.

My challenge to you is to write off the leash.

Don’t give up.

Spring is coming.

And the words will, too.

Lessons I Learned From My Editor

From conception to finish, I spent a couple of years on my first novel, Shaken. I had a mentor who coached me, a professor who professionally edited the manuscript, and an internationally acclaimed novelist who provided a critique. But nothing affected my story quite as much as signing with my publisher and beginning work with my editor.

Writing is difficult. You are bleeding your emotional artery on the page, complete with life experiences, beliefs, and creativity. But editing? That became another playing field entirely. In my military-romance-driven brain, it could be described as surgery to remove shrapnel. Each piece of metal must be plucked for an individual to get back to full health. In a similar way, editing requires painful digging to remove everything that does not add value to the character. After the shrapnel of your story is removed, you are freed to enhance and improve your story until it’s as close to perfection as you can get it this side of heaven.

KarissLynch Kill Your Darlings

Working with an editor is refining, a true process of iron sharpening iron (just don’t throw the sword at them if you don’t like what they say), but ultimately, it is a beautiful journey. The longer I work with my editor, the more I am thankful that God gifted her to look at stories differently than I do. She makes me better, and she is constantly teaching me and reminding me of craft tips that just haven’t taken root yet. Over the course of writing The Heart of a Warrior series, here is what my editor has taught me:

  1. Timeline is everything.

By the time my first novel went to my editor, the timeline needed major surgery, something I hadn’t thought about in great detail during crafting. I am a pantser and only use a bullet point outline to guide the major points of my scenes. Everything else just spills out on the page. This can make editing much harder for me. When it came time to edit Shadowed, I had a better timeline in place. Lesson learned? Don’t make the same mistakes on the second novel as you did on the first.

  1. Ground your character. Ground your scene.

Ever heard of floating head syndrome? No? Well, that’s probably because I just made it up. But I have it. Bad. Especially when I am writing in a steady stream of consciousness. Characters speak but you don’t know what they look like or what is going on around them. Thankfully, I am now aware of this ailment and am working to correct it before the manuscript goes to my editor. Each character needs to be firmly grounded in whatever is going on, each person in the scene accounted for, even if only briefly. Your scene also needs to be grounded within the larger story. Your reader should have no question where the character is, what is going on, who the character is with, and what drama is unfolding.

  1. Provide concrete details. Paint the canvas.

I actually love this part of writing, but I also struggle with fear. What if people think that a place or person doesn’t look that way? What if I get a detail wrong? What if, what if, what if? The “what if” game keeps me paralyzed from simply using my imagination and the beautiful tools of my eyes and the Internet to ground a scene exactly as I see it. I use research to make sure I didn’t get a basic detail wrong, but otherwise, I craft exactly what I want the reader to see. They are less likely to question what I paint in great detail than they are a canvas where I leave glaring holes due to my own people-pleasing and insecurity. No fear. Write boldly. Paint that canvas, and give the readers a scene they don’t have to try to imagine. Let it unfold in all of its beautiful detail. And then make that process even better in the next book.

Time for surgery on your manuscript. What weaknesses do you notice that you could improve on next time? What lessons have you learned from your editor (or critique partner)?

In Praise of Editors

facebook personPosting a comment online this morning made me suddenly hyperaware of the publicness of published writing. Publishing actually does mean, as I tell my students, making something public.

“Everything you write for a class, even if it’s disseminated no further than the classroom, even if I’m the only one reading it, is public writing,” I tell them. “Don’t tell me you just wrote it for yourself or attach a sticky note saying it’s just for me. Assume that whatever you hand in may be made public. That it’s already public. It was public the moment you printed it up and put it in my hand or clicked ‘attach’ and then ‘send.’”

copyedited manuscriptIt’s easy to forget that writing is public, though. Consider Facebook, where people often post sentiments best kept to themselves. However tempting it might be to rail or even to agree—by liking it—with someone else’s railing, I generally restrict myself to happy birthdays, comments about good-looking photos, and commiserations with others’ suffering.

Today I was doing just that: commiserating with a friend whose autistic child had just “had a huge meltdown . . . complete with yelling, food throwing, and tears running down his face” in front of, as she wrote, “almost everyone I know.”

It was a wonderful post, as those who’d already commented said, because it was so frank. So, as my students say, “relatable.”

“Most of the time I suck it up,” my friend wrote, the “meltdowns, 10+ accidents a day, the stares, rude questions, the incomprehension on the faces of people around me, but today it was all too much, so I walked to the car sobbing my heart out.” She confessed, “it felt, somehow, like it was my fault,” and I sobbed too. For her. For her son. For sufferers of autism and their parents. For parents in general. Is there a more agonizing feeling than the unavoidable conviction that it’s somehow our fault whenever anything goes wrong—even something we didn’t cause and couldn’t have stopped—with a daughter or son?

It’s hard to respond to someone else’s pain in a way that doesn’t compound it, though. I learned that when, in the aftermath of a sexual assault at gunpoint, friends commented, among other intended condolences, that I was “lucky not to be dead.” I didn’t feel lucky and wished I was dead. Being told the contrary merely intensified those feelings.

I was thinking about that as I commented and (hopefully) didn’t make that error. Not this time, anyway—thanks to my best editor, the Holy Spirit, who, I’m convinced, translates our groans not only to God but to everyone else and (with some effort, in my case) bleeps our stupidest words. After telling her I’d cried, I advised her not to blame herself: she was doing the best and only right thing to do—loving her son—and doing it perfectly. So far so good, I thought—or anyway, I didn’t feel that tug in the direction of the delete key at that point.

BloggingI did feel it moments later, though, when I helpfully passed on a reassuring comment from a pastor’s wife eons ago when I was in the throes of parental shame about a problem with one of my toddling daughters: “God chose you, precisely you, for your girls,” she said, “because he knew you’d be the best possible mom for them.”

Sounds safe enough, I thought. And I was mightily comforted by that woman’s words at the time. God chose me to parent my girls. I was the best possible mother they could have. Everything was going to be fine.

But, as I say, the Holy Spirit apparently didn’t think so. In the fraction of a moment before I pressed enter, stories of parental abuse and neglect poured into my brain. A friend whose mom once told her children she hated them. Did God choose those children’s parents, too? What child, grown now but surely still suffering that meanness, might be reading my post?

The public is a tricky sea to navigate alone. Our kindest intentions, our most heartfelt theologies, have as much potential to mislead and hurt as to inform and uplift. Thank God for editors.