Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Editing - Who's on the Page?

Thanks to Karla for her inspiring post yesterday.

Monday afternoon, I got the first edits for the second of my short stories for the upcoming anthology. Publication has been delayed well over a year, so I wanted to try to get them finished before I left for a visit to my parents in LA on Thursday morning, and hoped the edits wouldn't be extensive. The story is only about 9,000 words, so it's nothing like having to turn around edits for a novel.

I found that the editor didn't ask for any revisions, so all I had to deal with was either agreeing or disagreeing with her changes. For the most part, they were technical or style things. Dashes, commas, and some differences in dialogue tagging. Nothing major and nothing I didn't agree with.

But (there's always a but, right?) She did change a few words, and I really didn't agree with them. Really, really didn't agree. And, if you follow my Facebook page, you might have seen some of the discussion yesterday.

The story is a police procedural, told in first person by a seasoned homicide detective. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that I researched all my cop stuff for all my books, and I talked to a variety of law enforcement officers. One of my first crit partners had been married to a cop for 20 years. I even had a cop read my story, and after making a few suggestions as to procedure, he proclaimed it "right."

So, this is my opening paragraph:

"Call me when you've got a dead body." I hung up the phone. I'd finally managed a few hours of shuteye, and wasn't going to function until I had a few more. On the bright side, the asshole who'd murdered two people was now behind bars. Cursing the idiot in Dispatch who'd punched my phone number instead of someone on the Missing Persons Squad, I went back to sleep.

Imagine my surprise when the editor replaced "asshole" with "jerk." I can't imagine a cop using the term "jerk" – and you've probably noticed that the paragraph is almost all internal monologue, so we're in the cop's head. As one FB commenter said, "a jerk cuts in line, a double murderer is an asshole." (And after asking a lot of cops the specific question, "What do you really call 'bad guys' when you're talking to each other?" I felt that asshole was a very mild expletive.)

Later in the manuscript, there was this paragraph:

Charlie parked her car a couple doors down from the Masons' address. Proper procedure, but these residences were spacious enough that it meant a walk in the Florida heat. I recalled the first time I'd been with Charlie on a case. That was during the coldest spell Florida had seen in donkey's years, and I'd nearly frozen my ass off as we'd made the same kind of a walk.

Here, she substituted "rear" for ass. Apparently ass is a hot button for her, because in the manuscript she didn't mind my use of crap, damn, or bullshit meter.

Another editor with another publisher's hot button was the word crap. However, after she told me she didn't like the word, she had no problem when I said it was a word the character would use. One has to separate personal preference from what works in a story. I shouldn't be on the page, and neither should the editor. It's all about 'what would this particular character say in this situation?'

As I type this, I haven't turned in my edits with my comments. I'm hoping that she'll accept my explanation and let my word choices stand. Or at least "negotiate" some other possibilities. I'm afraid if my cop spoke the way she wanted, he'd have to turn in his badge – and his man card.

If you want to see a little more of this story, and its companion, they're on my website under "Coming Soon."

As I mentioned, I'm hitting the road (and air) tomorrow and will be back late Monday night. My blogs are scheduled, so I hope you'll all keep coming back, and telling friends to drop by. Click the like button in the sidebar. Click the tweet button below this post. Comment. Share. Let me know people still visit even if I'm not around to keep reminding them!


Anonymous said...

Great blog Terry!

I hope she accepts your comments! :)

Have a great trip!


Jim Hartley said...

"PG-13 syndrome"! "Ass," and especially "asshole," don't fit. When they show "Back to the Future" on network TV, they dub over Marty's use of the word "asshole." I don't agree with this practice, but they forgot to ask me.

You might want to take a look at your publisher's guidelines ... if it says anything about PG-13 or bad language or whatever (and I have seen some that do) you're probably going to lose this one. If the guidelines don't mention it, dig in your heels and keep fighting! What you have sounds like it fits the story quite well.

Terry Odell said...

Jane - we'll see. And I posted this for discussion, so I haven't even approached the editor yet.

Jim - nothing in the guidelines about specific words, and as I mentioned, she did let other "PG-13" words through without comment.

E. B. Davis said...

I think in genre fiction especially language must be loose to be believable. But I know what you mean about editing. I recently got "edits" on a short I submitted to an anthology. I looked forward to the editing process as a learning experience. The editor explained the criticism the panel gave. Then, she re-wrote my story, "showing" me how the revisions should be implemented. The "revisions" were attached to the email for my approval. I was so mad. Basically, I had to accept the piece as this award winning editor had rewritten. Oh yes, it was quite a learning experience!

Chris Quinton said...

Stand your ground, Terry. The editor seems to be placing personal preference ahead of professional editing. Your character's dialogue is 100% right and to emasculate it is completely wrong on several levels.

Terry Odell said...

EB - now that would really have bothered me. My editors have always been open to discussion, and we have the understanding that it's MY name on the book. I'm not sure what I would have done in that situation.

Chris - I agree the word seems to be a hot button for her.

Gabrielle said...

I'm glad you stood your ground. Your cop would sound ridiculous calling a murderer a jerk. When I received my edits on my novel with my publisher, I can't tell you how many words had been changed, not because they were grammatically incorrect but because the "editor" was someone who believed her way was better than mine. I disagreed and stood my ground until they relented. As E.B. said, it was quite a learning experience.

Anonymous said...

A- I want to read more!

B- "rear" and "jerk" so not cop speech. I hope your words stand.

Good luck = )


Barry Ergang said...

When I was a fiction editor and later managing editor for Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and Mysterical-E, I'd sometimes suggest word changes, or ask that clumsy sentences be recast. In doing so, especially with clumsy sentences, I'd sometimes write one to illustrate what I meant, but emphasized to the author that it was only a suggestion, and that he or she could rewrite in his or her own style. Some authors went with what I wrote, others rewrote. My attitude has always been to emphasize an individual author's own voice and style rather than to try to impose mine, and I wish all editors felt that way.

As to what you're contending with, Terry, I think the editor is being foolish--unless the guidelines specified that they only want squeaky-clean language. The words she's objecting to have become commonplace on television, so they're unlikely to shock readers. And, as you point out, the alterations affect characterization. It almost sounds as if this particular editor just doesn't get it.

E.B.'s experience reminded me of one of my own. Back in the early Eighties I was writing a lot of poetry but placing relatively little of it. I submitted a long poem celebrating the generic fictional private eye to a magazine that had formerly published literary fiction and poetry but switched to genre material, including poetry that fit into a genre. An editor reworked the poem, "distilling it's essence," if you will, by rewording. Excited at the prospect of being published here--and actually being paid $15, the first money I made for a poem--I consented to the changes. The problem was, the poem's original intent was now murky at best, impenetrable at worst. I once showed the original (which was later published elsewhere) to someone who, after reading it, said, "Now it makes sense!"

Anonymous said...

Although your story sounds interesting and I would definitely read it, I have to agree with your editor. At the risk of sounding preachy, there is too much profanity in fiction AND in life. Is it any wonder our young people have such filthy mouths?

Anonymous said...

I agree with your words, not hers, but you'd be surprised how many readers are offended by realistic cop talk AND realistic situations.

I didn't worry about those people when I wrote Raven Talks Back because I knew they weren't my core audience, but it still cuts when you can practically hear them sniff because they're offended.

I've seen subtle remarks about it on a few different lists, usually from readers who aren't accustomed to real life cops or much of real life anything, apparently.

Fortunately I didn't have an editor even try to change any of my language (which did not ever contain the F bomb) because my editor IS a cop and he knows it's true to life.

But some don't want true to life, they want puppies and kittens and sunny skies and people who don't say anything more than, "Shucks, another dead body!" Or "Oh, my gracious! It looks like he's got a gun!"

Set your editor straight if you can possibly do it and stay true to what you KNOW is real. And accept ahead of time that some readers will be offended. That's their problem, not yours.

E. B. Davis said...

Terry and Barry, thanks for making me feel sane. I try to be professional by not arguing with editors, who presumably know more than I do and by not considering my words scacred. But this editor went too far. In Terry's case, it changes the characterization of her cop (would readers now think he's a nerd?). By rewriting the short, she robbed me. When I have a choice of editors, she won't be mine.

jenny milchman said...

Have a great trip, Terry! I think it's a tough balancing act--being true to the character versus language that may turn off some readers. You can always go for authenticity as the choice of the artist--and sometimes there's no way not to. "Rear" really doesn't work, imo. But I had a character recently who at first said effed with, then I changed it to "messed with" and it worked just as well. Interesting topic.

Terry Odell said...

Gabrielle - I try to keep "me" off the page, so I'd hope an editor will understand the rationale when I tell her why I don't want the change. And, because it's important to be adult and professional, I'm always open to a discussion of other terms the cop would use -- although most would probably be even more "colorful"

@karen - Thanks for A. And B is why I am not willing to change the wording to her suggestion.

Barry - yes, working with editors should be an open forum for discussion. I've found that true of mine so far.

Anonymous - nothing works for everyone. I think I have 4 or 5 instances of words which might offend someone. No F bombs, and little actual out and out swearing (as you probably saw in the example, the usages are in internal monologue). That's why there are so many books.

Beth - those readers can find plenty of other books. I'd rather not offend my readers, but I think I'd "offend" more by having a squeaky-clean police procedural.

Terry Odell said...

Jenny - I think you've hit on it. If "messed with" worked, then by all means, it would be "right."

Another editor and I discussed my cops "go to" swear word, and she did point out that I had him using it in social situations, which would NOT be right, and I changed those without hesitation.

Anonymous said...

I'd rather have a tough editor than look foolish for my mistakes. And cursing is a tricky issue. Most writers don't realize what a hot button it is for readers. It could be that the editor was protecting the tone of the publication. It's hard to have an anthology of cozy mysteries with one cursing hard case in the middle.

Terry Odell said...

Anonymous - I agree with you. But these stories were submitted to the editor over a year ago. If the anthology was supposed to be made up of cozies, then there was no reason to offer a contract. Or, the stipulation should have been mentioned in the acceptance letter. And, as I mentioned in my post, other "colorful" words didn't create a problem.

Barry Ergang said...

Anonymous said: "I'd rather have a tough editor than look foolish for my mistakes."

Absolutely! But editors are human and fallible, too, so the good ones ought to be willing to negotiate rather than "edit" with iron fists and arbitrarily rewrite an author's work. If, as Terry does, the author researched his material, he can and should inform the editor accordingly, and the editor should be willing to listen.

Karen said...

I hope your words stand. I get really tired of everything, not just books, having to be 'dumbed down' so a couple of people aren't offended. Don't read it or watch it if you think you might be offended and leave the rest of us alone to enjoy it as it is.

Jude Mason said...

Hi Terry,

Often times, it's difficult enough to get into the character's head. It really shouldn't be an editor who drags us all out. I've always said, dialogue (internal or external) has to fit the character and yours did. I hope your editor sees that and leaves it alone.

Good luck and I hope you have a grand vacation


Terry Odell said...

Karen - I just sent the edits back. We'll see what happens. And I will report.

Jude - thanks. Glad you liked it.

Calisa Rhose said...

I know there are some publishers who prefer specific language, but if it fits the character then I believe you have to know when to bend the rules and erase that invisible line.

M. S. Spencer said...

Terry--your point about setting aside personal preference in favor of authentic dialogue/monologue is a good one. But it is very important to make your case calmly. I find most of the time I can talk my editors into keeping my text when I make a clear case for it. By the way, "ass" is a word that's always made me uncomfortable--I had to force my fingers to type it in one case because that's the word the character would have used! M. S. Spencer, author of contemporary romance novels Lost in His Arms, Lost & Found, and the soon-to-be-released Losers Keepers (from

Maryann Miller said...

Coming into this discussion late, but I do hope the editor realizes that that kind of word choice is up to the writer, not the editor. She should never have changed those words as their usage is not an issue with craft or proper grammar. The only way it would make sense to change it is if the publisher had a rule that there would be no colorful language in anything they publish.