Monday, 20 November 2017

Working with the editor: a case study

Editing has been on my mind lately, as I’ve been preparing Tracy Hayes, P.I. with the Eye for publishing. As a happy coincidence, Delilah S. Dawson had a lengthy tweet chain about the topic too, prompted by her annoyance with aspiring authors unwilling to make changes that editors suggest to their books. Her response, in short, was that no author escapes the changes, so you’d better get used to them from the start. Her notes are useful to read in full.

She was speaking from the point of view of a traditionally published author who has more than one set of editors making suggestions and demands, all of which strive to make the book as good as possible. She doesnt claim its easy to let other people to have their say, but that its necessary.

Listening to one’s editor is even more crucial for self-publishing authors, as we lack the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. If you’re lucky, you find one who understands your writing, and who isn’t afraid to tell you how you can improve it. If not, you have the annoying task of finding a new one.

I’ve been working with the same editor, Lee Burton from Ocean’s Edge Editing, since 2012. We pretty much know what to expect of each other by now, but that doesn’t mean the process of fixing the manuscript is a shoe-in. There are different layers to the edits, all of which demand careful attention.

Mostly in my case, it’s about the correct use of language. I use incorrect grammar and words, in this case British English words instead of American, which there were more than usually. In my defence, I’d been writing another book right before this one in British English. He also suggests words that might fit the style better, but these are always suggestions. The final decision is mine. However, I always think them through carefully. Sometimes he has misunderstood my meaning and made suggestions based on that, which in itself is a reason to make changes to my writing. Clarity is the key.

It’s also about sentence structure. Lee likes tighter sentences than I do, hears a different rhythm than I, so he makes quite a few changes there. Sometimes I agree with his changes, sometimes I don’t. Being my own publisher, I can make my own decisions about them. That doesn’t mean I make the right choices, but I have to own them.

Then there are the larger issues of plot, characters and pacing. The greatest fear the new authors seem to have is that the editor forces them to make changes they don’t want to one or all of these. We’ve all read about authors who have been told to add a romance plot to a thriller, or change the point of view from the first person to third, all to make the book sell better. Delilah S. Dawson has good comments about that in her twitter rant too. Mostly it’s about what’s comfortable to you. Everything is negotiable, if you can make a good case for yourself.

Usually, though, editor’s suggestions spring from the manuscript itself, to make it better. Editor doesn’t tell you exactly how to fix the pace or the plot, and then expect you to follow their suggestion to the letter. They challenge you to read your text with different eyes. This time I’d managed to pace the book well, but if needed, Lee points out where the pace lags, or if a scene isn’t quite in the right place. I’ve only ignored his suggestion once. He found the ending of one of my books abrupt, but I didn’t change it, and the first reader to review the book made a scathing comment about it. In my defence, a year later, I still don’t know how I should fix it.

And then there’s a lot of fine tuning. This time round, it concentrated on the first paragraph of the book. Every author knows that the opening sentence and paragraph are crucial, so I’d really put some thought into them. I thought I’d nailed them too. Imagine my dismay, then, when the first thing I see opening the edits were two lengthy comments about the opening paragraph. In short, Lee didn’t think it worked at all.

This is the original opening:

I was trying to keep a tray-full of champagne flutes from gliding to the floor when the thief struck. Not me, or Mrs. Snobby-as-fuck I was serving would’ve got her jewel-adorned cleavage doused with champagne -- or the sparkling white wine the glasses actually contained, and about which she’d been complaining to me for the past five minutes.
I was sorely tempted to soak her anyway.

Lee didn’t like the transition between two different kinds of ‘struck’, figurative and literal. He didn’t like the pacing of the paragraph either, with one short and one long sentence. I thought he was wrong, so I moped a little. Then I rewrote the paragraph to this:

I was trying to keep a tray-full of champagne flutes from gliding to the floor when things went south. Not the tray, or Mrs. Snobby-as-fuck I was serving would’ve got her jewel-adorned cleavage doused with champagne -- or the sparkling white wine the glasses actually contained, and about which she’d been complaining to me for the past five minutes.
I was sorely tempted to soak her anyway.

But Lee liked this version even less. It removed the hook of the thief, and he found ‘went south’ to be a cliché. In his words: The issue as I see it now is that by removing the connection between the second and the third line (the struck pun), we have to find a new way to get from the good hook to the lady. The issue is made difficult as we're introduced to the idea of there being a thief and a robbery, but then we're taken back in time thirty seconds to the conversation with the Snobby-as-fuck lady, and then walked forward in time until the fire alarm goes off, so it would probably be useful to – in place of the pun – acknowledge the time gap, and then switch up the circumstances around how Tracy comes to the idea that she could use a good dousing with champagne. Something like...

And then he gave me a number of suggestions of how I could fix the issue.

I spent an hour or so going through his suggestions, trying to fit them into the paragraph and into what I wanted to say. I consulted my sisters who didn’t like my earlier versions, so I kept working on it. Eventually, it turned out like this:

I was trying to keep a tray-full of champagne flutes from gliding to the floor when the thief struck. I was serving Mrs. Snobby-as-fuck at the time, and contemplating her impressive, jewel-adorned cleavage with fascinated horror. I was kind of hoping one of the milling guests at the upscale party would nudge me from behind, so that I could “accidentally” douse her with champagne -- or the sparkling white wine the glasses actually contained, about which she’d been complaining to me for the past five minutes. But no one bumped into me.
I was sorely tempted to soak her anyway.

This, finally, found everyone’s approval, though Lee would’ve wanted to remove the last sentence of the first paragraph too. That one I kept though, as it serves as a bridge to the punch-line.

All of this took more than a day – though mostly because Lee and I live in different time-zones. It wasn’t an easy process, but it was a necessary one. I think the opening paragraph is stronger because of the changes, but I would never have thought to make them. So, an editor is definitely necessary – and nothing to fear. It’s not always easy to let go of words you’ve carefully chosen, but if you do, you can get something better in return.

What do you think, did the first paragraph improve or not?

Tracy Hayes, P.I. with the Eyes comes out later this week. Until then, the first book in the series, Tracy Hayes, Apprentice P.I., is only $0.99. Don’t miss!

Monday, 13 November 2017

Tracy Hayes is back! With a sneak preview.

As I promised last week, this week’s post is about my writing. Coming up later this month – the date isn’t set yet, but I’m hoping around US Thanksgiving – is the fourth book in my Tracy Hayes detective series, Tracy Hayes, P.I. with the Eye. For those who haven’t met her yet, Tracy is a Brooklyn waitress who, after losing her job, becomes an apprentice to a PI. All sorts of shenanigans follow. Adding to the mix is Tracy’s family, two brothers and a sister, with their problems. If you want to read the previous books in the series, you can do so here, here, and here.

In today’s post, I have the description, the cover, and the first chapter for you – though still unedited. I hope you like them. And stay tuned for the publication date so that you won’t miss Tracy Hayes, P.I. with the Eye.

What do you think of the cover?

Thieves and baby nappers, Tracy is here to catch them.
It’s Thanksgiving Eve, but Tracy isn’t happy. She’s back to waitressing, a thief ruins a perfectly good party – lousy beverages notwithstanding – and she fails to apprehend the culprit. As the sole eye-witness, she is needed by the police, but she has a more important case to worry about. Babies have gone missing in her parents’ neighborhood and the police have no clues. And then one is found dead.

Tracy sets her sights on finding the baby-napper while juggling a family Thanksgiving, a jewelry thief, and two gorgeous men. And all this with a shining black eye. Who said being an apprentice P.I. would be easy?

Chapter One

I was trying to keep a tray-full of champagne flutes from gliding to the floor when the thief struck. Not me, or Mrs. Snobby-as-fuck in front of me would’ve got her jewel adorned cleavage doused with champagne. Or the sparkling white wine the glasses in fact contained, about which she’d been complaining to me for the past five minutes.

I was sorely tempted to soak her anyway.

It wasn’t just her complaining that irritated me, or the fact that her dress, which she was too old and portly to wear, cost probably more than I made in a year. It wasn’t even solely that it was the night before Thanksgiving and I should’ve been at my parents’ house helping Mom prepare for it instead of serving pretense champagne and hors d’oeuvres to who’s who in Brooklyn – and probably half of Manhattan as well.

No, it was the misery of being back to waitressing after three months as a private detective. Worse yet, my body had naturally activated the muscles needed to hold the large trays hours on end while wearing high heels. I had been waitress extraordinaire once, and it was as if I’d never stopped. Even my attitude became subdued as befit a person in servile position.

Not exactly my natural state.

The only thing that saved Mrs. I-know-champagne-when-I-taste-it from getting a bubbly white bath was the knowledge that this was only a temporary assignment. I wasn’t back to waitressing for good. I was undercover for a case. And I couldn’t mess this up, or my boss would be very upset.

And when Jackson Dean, my boss at Jackson Dean Investigations, became upset, he got angry. Then he would yell at me, which would upset me. It wasn’t so much the yelling that did it – he was entertaining to watch – but the knowledge that I’d earned his anger. I’d been on a roll this past month and preferred to continue my winning streak. He’d only yelled at me, like, once or maybe twice, if you count the time I slept in and forgot to show up for our morning jog. He’d run two and a half miles from his home in Marine Park to Midwood where I live, in rain, just to vent his aggravation to me.

That’s dedication.

“What is your name, girl,” Mrs. Real-champagne-has-tinier-bubbles demanded in a haughty tone you didn’t often hear outside British period dramas.

“Jessica, ma’am.”

It wasn’t. My name’s Tracy Hayes, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. I was undercover, after all. However, why I gave her the name of my former roommate eluded me. Especially since it wasn’t the name I’d picked for this job. I’d chosen Henrietta Fern, for those curious, a name that had caused Jackson infinite mirth. His undercover name was Dean Jones, which totally lacked imagination in my opinion, but which he’d said was easy to remember in a tight spot. I guess he was right.

Don’t tell him I said that.

Jessica and I had parted in nasty terms about a month ago when she’d moved away with some of my furniture without asking my permission. I’d retaliated by confronting her in front of her date, one Thomas Thane Westley, a tech start-up millionaire and – incidentally – the host of the party tonight.

He hadn’t remembered me when he briefed Jackson and me about the evening, and Jessica was no longer his girlfriend, so I hadn’t had to face her here. But perhaps I’d been subconsciously bracing for the encounter and the name just popped out.

“Well, Jessica, why don’t you scurry into the kitchen and bring me proper champagne,” Mrs. I’m-too-important-to-be-served-inferior-stuff suggested with an arrogant sneer. I widened my professional smile from polite to indulgent, as if it was my privilege to serve her, and said “Right away,” without the least intention of doing so and turned to leave.

That’s when the fire alarm went off.

The entire roomful of people froze when the loud beeping started. The large loft apartment had an open floor plan – only the kitchen at the back and the bedrooms on the mezzanine were closed off – and the sound echoed from the high ceiling and bare redbrick walls, making it impossible to detect where it came from.

“Is that the fire alarm?” the woman demanded affronted, as if it was a personal insult to her.

“I’ll go investigate.” I pushed the tray at her and she instinctively accepted it. Then I dashed off as fast as I could in my high-heels, ignoring her protests.

I located Jackson in the foyer at the foot of the curving metal and glass stairs leading up. I’d forgotten he was wearing a suit tonight, so it took me a moment to spot him, as I kept looking for a man in a black T and jeans. I barely recognized him in his James Bond getup and I startled when my eyes landed on him. He looked good.

Don’t tell him I said that either.

“What’s going on?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the noise.

“Fucked if I know. I’ve been keeping an eye on these stairs the whole evening. No one’s gone up, so it can’t be the safe’s alarm.”

The reason we were undercover was to protect the host from being burglarized. There had been a series of break-ins into the finest homes of New York the past month, mostly on Manhattan and always during a party like this one. While the house was filled with people and the hosts busy, the thief snug in, broke into the house safe and left with whatever they’d contained. The police had no clues.

Thomas Thane Westley hadn’t wanted to take chances. “I don’t have valuables in my safe, but I do keep some important papers there.” So he’d hired us to keep an eye on the guests. The police assumed that the thief either impersonated as a guest, or was someone from the upper echelon of society to get an invitation.

Since Mr. Westley didn’t want to ruin his first big party after listing his company by bringing in the cops, he’d selected us. “I doubt I’ll be targeted, since the thief seems to know when there are valuables in the house, but better safe than sorry.”

It seemed he’d been wrong. And that spelled trouble for us if we couldn’t handle the situation.

The irritating beeping continued without anyone seeming to be able to do anything about it. “I think it’s the fire alarm,” I said to Jackson who nodded, sweeping his gaze over the guests who were looking at each other in indecision, wondering if the situation was serious enough to merit evacuation and leaving a perfectly good party.

“But what caused it? And is it genuine?”

“I’ll go check the kitchen,” I said, assuming that if there was a fire, the kitchen was the likeliest source.

I’d barely taken a step towards the other end of the room where the kitchen was, when there was a sort of ‘whoosh’ sound and the sprinklers began to spew cold water on us. It cut off the beeping, so I took it as an improvement. Not so the others.

Screams and curses filled the air, and the guests began to mill towards the front door, their heads pressed down and hands lifted over their heads to protect their fine hairdos, as if it would help against the determination of the finest sprinkler system money could buy to extinguish all fires. In mere moments everyone and everything was drenched and the floor was swimming.

Jackson took instant charge. He was a former cop, so he was trained for it, and he was the kind of person who naturally assumed he was the one you should listen to when things went ape-shit. He rushed to open the door out of the apartment and began to issue orders about orderly exit and telling people not to use the elevator. I don’t think anyone paid any attention. They were in too much of a hurry to get out of the cold water raining on us.

I wanted to flee too. I didn’t have a death wish and a house fire was one of my least favorite ways to die. But I didn’t see or smell any smoke, and since I was wet anyway, I couldn’t get more miserable than I already was. My clothes weren’t expensive and a few drops of water wouldn’t ruin them.

Instead, I retreated on the stairs to get out of the way of the people pushing towards the door. Water was dripping down my face and into my eyes, but I got a good look at how Brooklyn’s finest treated each other in a crisis situation. It was pretty ugly. I wouldn’t trust any of them with my back. There wasn’t a woman so old and feeble that she wouldn’t be pushed out of the way by a strong younger man. I was about to dash over to the woman when she bashed the man with her handbag. She clearly didn’t need any help from me.

The crowd was thinning, but not very fast – the door wasn’t wide enough for such a disorderly exit. But they were consistently pushing to the same direction. All but one man, who was calmly heading to the kitchen.

Now, he could’ve been a man blessed with more than common sense who had realized that the place had to have a second exit through the kitchen that no one else was taking. But there was something in his studied nonchalance that was calculated to keep people from noticing him that instantly put my Spidey senses on alert. Or whatever senses private detectives have.

I considered my course of action for as long as it took me to slip off my high heels. Then I pushed into the exit throng, as heedless of their well-being as they were of each other’s. I’m average height and half the Brooklyn Nets seemed to be among the guests, judging by how they towered over me, but what I lacked in vertical reach, I more than made up with the sharpness of my elbows. They met their targets unerringly, and in no time at all I was through the milling people. The floor clear before me, I took off at full speed – or as fast as I was able to through the water – after the man who had already disappeared into the kitchen.

Behind me, the first shouts erupted: “My necklace!” “My wallet.” And then, the inevitable: “Did that girl take them?” “Stop that girl!”

But I couldn’t pause to tell them they had the wrong person, because I now knew I had the right one. Sliding on the wet hardwood floor, I pushed through the swinging doors into the kitchen, only to see the man exit through the open back door.


That was the first chapter of Tracy Hayes, P.I. with the Eye. Tell me what you thought of it in the comments.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Reading recap: October

I got back on my reading track in October with five great books. Well, technically I finished the last one in November, but it was in the small hours of the morning, so I’m counting it to this month. As has been my habit this year, some of the books were outside of my reading list, some from it.

I started the month with a great young adult book called Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John. It tells about Piper who ends up as a manager of the up and coming – hopefully – band called Dumb of her high school, mostly on dare, but partly because her parents have raided her college fund to pay for a hearing implant for her baby sister and she wants to get rich fast. It would’ve been a good premise as is, but the twist is that Piper is deaf, so she has no idea if the band is any good or not. Also she has zero knowledge of the music the band is interested in, or music in general. The book is kind of an emotional roller-coaster with both the band and her family offering her plenty of opportunities for personal growth. And she mostly learns from them too, but not before creating quite a mess. The only parts that felt a bit glued on were the trips to the past music scenes of Seattle where she lives, presumably to teach Piper about it, but mostly, I felt, to show the readers how much the author knows about it. But I can forgive that, because Piper was a wonderful character and the author had taken great pains in imagining what it would be like to be deaf in the world of the hearing and not be discouraged by it.

Five Flavors of Dumb by Anthony John

In sharp contrast with the first book was White Hot Kiss by Jennifer L. Armentrout, also about a high-schooler, Layla. She, too, is different from her friends, she’s part demon, part gargoyle, but since she can’t talk about it with them, her school friends are sort of add-ons to the story instead of part of her life. She’s not really accepted at home either among her adoptive caretakers, who are full gargoyles and hunt demons.  The story is basically about Layla finding out about her roots, why she is the way she is, but since it’s the first book in a series, nothing conclusive is said about it. There’s a love story too, between Layla and a demon who claims to help her against demons who hunt her, but for a book with such a name, it was disappointinly chaste and lame. I found the book tedious and too long, and ended up skipping a bit. But the ending was good.

White Hot Kiss by Jennifer L. Armentrout

My best readings of the month were two books in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence series, Two Serpents Rise and Full Fathom Five, which are books two and three in the series. Gladstone has created an amazing fantasy world were soul stuff is currency that can be accumulated and saved in banks, and which is used for all kinds of transactions that bind the countries, the people and the gods. The world is divided to countries with and without gods, the Gods War having killed most of the gods in the former. They are ruled by craft users, sort of magicians, but more like lawyers who negotiate intricate contracts to bind the world to their will. But gods haven’t completely disappeared and it’s the theme in both books.

Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone

In the first book, Caleb Altemoc who works as a risk manager for a water company – basically – is sent to investigate why demons are infesting the water reservoir. It starts a long and complicated crime mystery where dormant gods play a role too. And things aren’t made any easier by the fact that Caleb’s estranged father Temoc, the last living priest of the former gods, is the prime suspect. In the second book, set in a far-off island, idols that are used for storing soul stuff for companies that need gods but do not want them, start gaining consciousness and becoming gods in truth. Like in all the books in the series, this isn’t a theological or metaphysical problem, but an economic one and requires complicated action to save the entire world from a financial ruin. Easiest solution would be killing the emerging gods, but the main characters, a beggar and thief Izzy who’s become an unwitting priestess of the gods, and Kai, a priestess-accountant who creates the idols, have other ideas. A couple of characters from the first book make an appearance too. After three books, it’s evident that this is definitely a series unlike anything out there, both big and small at the same time, an amazing world combined with characters that feel real.

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

I ended the month with one of my all-time favourite urban fantasy series, Charley Davidson by Darynda Jones. The Trouble with Twelfth Grave is already book twelve, but the series is still going strong – though sadly soon to end. We pick off where the previous book ended, Charley’s husband Rey returning from a hell dimension as an evil god. Charley isn’t discouraged by it – she’s never discouraged by anything, she’s too ADHD to think that far ahead; she tries to prove that her husband is still somewhere inside the evil version of him. But a series of gruesome deaths that might be done by him dampens her spirits a bit. After all sorts of shenanigans, the true killer is found, but it only delivers a kick-in-the-gut twist that ends the book in a cliff-hanger.  It was a good book, though not quite as funny as most of the previous ones. And now we have the agonising wait for the next one.

The Trouble with Twelfth Grave by Darynda Jones

That’s my recap. But I’ve done more than just reading, I’ve been writing too. Coming up next week, cover reveal and an excerpt of the fourth Tracy Hayes book, Tracy Hayes, P.I. with the Eye. Stay tuned. And if you haven't read the earlier books, you can start with Tracy Hayes, Apprentice P.I.

Tracy Hayes, Apprentice P.I. by Susanna Shore