I love this series! It’s been so interesting and insightful to interview my author friends about their editorial experiences. Today, I asked author Stephen Kozeniewski about the process of editing his book, BRAINEATER JONES. You might remember hearing about the novel on my blog here. He tends to be funny and just a little bit snarky, so his interviews are always a pleasure to read. Enjoy!
Me: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your books.
Steve: I am an army veteran of the Iraq war (although somehow in my day job now I work for the Navy – go figure.) I’m going on ten years married to my lovely wife and we are the proud parents of two fur babies, both of the feline or “correct” category.
My first novel is an offbeat tale about a hardboiled zombie detective named BRAINEATER JONES who has to solve his own murder during the Prohibition era while trying to find enough liquor to keep his brain functioning. (I got some good pre-publication notes from a beta reader named Becca…Becky…something. Can’t remember.)
Steve: My sophomore effort is a grand guignol hardcore horror masterpiece called THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO. It chronicles a power struggle between smugglers, pirates, and robber barons set on the high seas of the South Pacific against the backdrop of the zombocalypse. I’m fond of saying that BRAINEATER is 90% humor, 10% horror and GHOUL is 90% horror, 10% humor.
Me: Pirates! Smugglers! Big words that sound cool! (I just googled guignol. It’s a main character in a French puppet show known for its “sharp wit and linguistic verve.” In other words, it’s going to maintain Steve’s clever, impossible to ignore voice and style).
When an offer is made on your manuscript, do you get to talk to the editor right away? Do they give you an overall vision for the story or do they wait till the editorial letter?
Steve: I believe I had to wait about two months before my first manuscript made it through the editing queue. (Becky can probably tell you this is lightning-fast compared to how long you would wait for a Big 6 editor. One of the advantages of going with a smaller press is speed.) As I recall my content editor introduced herself via e-mail, then after she read the manuscript we had a conference call to discuss the rest of the process. She explained her overall impressions on the call, and pointed out her major, non-negotiable plot holes to fix. The editorial letter was more specific with broad stroke concerns, and listed them from, say, 1-5. Then my manuscript was marked up with individual changes, some of which were linked to one of the numbered concerns. So if one issue was “3 – Be more descriptive” then one of the markups might be “What color are his pants – re: 3.”
Me: As a critique partner and beta reader, I love this editing method! If you go into a manuscript with things you know need to change, and tag the with an associated note and number it would make the process so much easier. For everyone! I’m totally stealing this idea!
Do you have a specific method that helps you work through your editorial letter?
Steve: Well, I think it’s important not to get bogged down on any one change. My first editorial letter was well over five pages and I had something like 200 markups on the manuscript. I started out going in order, fixing each change as it came up, but if I hit a change that I didn’t know how to fix (or, worse, didn’t agree with) I would just skip it and go to the next one. Once I had made, you know, 75% of the bubbles disappear it was less daunting to go back and really dig in on the ones that were giving me heartburn.
Me: That’s how I worked through mine too and it did seem to help. Once I got rid of all the “fix this transition” type things, I had an easier time focusing on the….”kill this character” elements.
How have you seen your writing change as you’ve worked with an editor?
Steve: It’s subtle things. I have author friends who have told me instead of a devil and an angel they now have a content- and a line-editor on either shoulder. It’s not quite THAT extreme for me, but there are times when my conscious mind stops and breaks in on the subconscious rhythms of my writing and says, “You need more description here” or “Is this character serving his own interests or that of the plot?” Now that I’m aware of what an editor would say, I can try to incorporate a poor man’s version of editing into the writing process, rather than just fix it all in post.
Me: Yes! And I think it’s making rewriting and revision a little less painful.
Is there any step/trick/secret you learned with your first novel that you will apply to all the others? Any specific mistakes you know now to avoid?
Steve: Just say no to “just.” Watch out for overuse (or misuse) of parentheticals. My editor also told me, “You can combine dialogue with narrative in a paragraph; you don’t always have to separate it.”
Look, every author has certain bugaboos and tics that slip into their writing. The three above are just a few examples of mine. Trust me, I’ve got a ton more (and my editor would probably tell you more than just a ton, but she’s a known liar.) I think our tics are subconscious for the most part, even when you’re slavishly concentrating on crafting your words. And if you do break yourself of the habit of using a certain turn of phrase it’s probably because you’ve replaced it with another bad habit. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with individual peccadilloes. In fact, it’s just one of those reasons why we need editors, so that another set of eyes can objectively judge your work.
Me: Can you give us one special piece of wisdom that will help our manuscripts sparkle? Or maybe a hint of what you think editors are looking for?
Steve: Don’t use words like “sparkle,” especially if it’s about vampires. No, um…I think editors just want to know that you’ve put the same thought into penning your prose as they are about to put into fixing it. It’s not like they’re ogres. I’ve “won” arguments over wording and even plot points whenever I could justify my choice. Just because you can justify your choice doesn’t always mean you made the right choice stylistically, but it’s better than saying, “Oh, I dunno, I just threw words against the page and saw what stuck.” All of which is a long way of saying, “Know why you wrote what you wrote and be able to articulate it if you don’t want to change it.” I think if you follow that special piece of advice you and your editor should get along just swimmingly. 🙂