I’m loving these Editor’s Note posts! I feel like I’ve learned so much already — about improving ancillary characters and sacrificing the scenes we want to write for the ones that move the story along. Today’s post is full of gems from Dahlia Adler, author of BEHIND THE SCENES, and copy editor at Spencer Hill.
Me: So, Dahlia, tell me about yourself and your book.
Dahlia: I’ve been writing contemporary YA for about as long as I can remember, and I’ve been interning/working in the publishing industry since I was eighteen. Currently I work as an Assistant Editor in the Mathematics group of a STEM publisher, a Copy Editor for two very different publishers, and a Blogger for Barnes & Noble’s book blog. My debut comes out on June 24, 2014, and it’s a contemporary YA Hollywood-set romance called BEHIND THE SCENES. It’s (hopefully) funny and sexy and touches on some issues I think will be a little unexpected, and I’m very excited for people to read it!
Me: When you had your initial call with your editor, Patricia Riley, did she give you an idea of how she wanted the story to change or the vision for the project?
Dahlia: A little bit, but really, the biggest thing I got from Patricia was that my manuscript was very clean as is and wouldn’t be getting any huge big-picture edits. Based on the call, I was really primed to both amp up and streamline the character development, and that did indeed turn out to be the biggest focus of revisions. She also mentioned one (non-romantic) character pairing she really wanted to see, so it was fun to contemplate how I’d work that in.
Me: When you got your editorial letter, how did you plan your attack? Was there any special method you used to work through the changes?
Dahlia: My method for juggling anything is to start with the things that are basically screaming at you to be done, because those will always go the fastest. The other biggie is anything that really echoes your own deep, pushed-down thoughts of “OK, I know this is an issue, and maybe I can get away with it, but if someone calls me out on it, I know it needs to fixed ASAP.” There was a huge one of those in this book, where I basically glossed over a period of time in a way that was glaring, and of course that came up in the letter. I ended up adding 11,000 words in that spot in a way that fixed a lot of the other issues, including the character pairing I mentioned above.
So, tackling that trouble spot really came first, and helped with a lot of other things. Another top priority was really nailing this one specific secondary character, because he has sort of a weird role in the book, and the feedback was that a lot of people were confused by him. You never want something like that, and for me personally, I think it was good to be challenged to really understand and clarify what he’s doing there, so I really went into each scene with him and honed in on his dialogue and interactions until I felt like he was much more clearly defined.
Oftentimes, revisions can seem so daunting, but the trick is to figure out what’s giving off the unintended/unclear impressions. If a character is “unlikeable,” why? If a motivation is confusing, why? And what’s interesting is that so often, it’s just one phrase, one line of dialogue, that shapes the way a reader views a character or scene. So I attack revisions by trying to figure out where I went wrong in the reader’s eyes in the first place, and I think doing that critical reading before attacking saves me a lot of heartache and darling-killing!
Me: How has working with an editor changed your writing?
Dahlia: The thing is, even before I send my books to my agent or editor, I run them through the CP/beta gamut. So it’s hard to say my writing has really changed as a result of having a professional editor in my life, because I’m always revising like crazy based on brilliant critique. Professional editors are definitely less forgiving and make you dig deeper, and I’d probably be less likely to gloss over things now, but I don’t know that my writing itself has really changed.
Me: What kind of mistakes have you learned to avoid?
Dahlia: A big one I’m trying to work on is not having enormously long sentences. (Me: Ha! I have exactly the opposite problem!) And part of this is because yeah, they’re unpleasant to read, but it’s also a question of ensuring that not all my characters sound the same. I have a tendency to sound like me in my writing, but when you’re doing a multi-POV book especially (as I am now, for my follow-up to BEHIND THE SCENES), you have to be really careful. Vocab isn’t the only thing that has to vary; speech patterns do too.
Me: What’s the greatest lesson you’ve gained from working with a professional editor?
Dalia: Hands-down the different ways you can affect and create character development in your writing. Yes, I added 11,000 words to fill a gap I shouldn’t have left, but all of the new scenes do so much to show development in ways I would never have thought to do on my own, as do many of the edits throughout. BEHIND THE SCENES is a romance, and there are kissing scenes and flirting scenes and all that, of course, but so much of couples is in how they fight, and handle their unique issues, and interact with the important people in each other’s lives, and I love how much more of that there is now.
Me: As a copy editor, what are common mistakes you come across?
Dahlia: Number one is definitely lay/lie/laid, with raise/rise being a close second. This is wrong at least once in almost every manuscript I read. But that’s what copy editors are for! The occasional typo is never gonna keep you from getting an agent or publication, but if your manuscript is riddled with typos, it kills it for me as a reader. Dangling modifiers are another huge one, as are subject/verb agreement and using action tags as dialogue tags.
Me: If there’s one (or more) thing you could tell writers that would help them polish their stories, what would it be?
Dahlia: Push yourself. Don’t leave holes just because you can get away with it. Don’t rely on communication breakdowns or easily clarified misunderstandings for plot devices. Don’t start subplots you don’t finish. You will love your book the most when you feel like it’s finally doing everything you wanted it to do. Give yourself that opportunity, because you never know how many chances you’ll get!
Me: Nothing drives me crazier than a plot that hinges on a conversation that didn’t happen! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and wonderful tips! I really appreciate your insight!