Editing case study: “The Killing Frost”

From Scott:

It all began in early 2005, with an unusual response to a query letter. I’d been sending letters to publishers for over a year, trying in vain to convince them to publish my first novel, The Killing Frost. Rejection letter after form rejection letter followed. I was disappointed, but my time in the Army taught me to never give up. Finally, a publisher responded with a rejection of a different sort. They loved the book, but they felt it needed the help of a professional editor. And with good reason: my only writing training came in the form of college English classes, where I learned to write formal papers. Way too stiff of a style for a science fiction novel!

I searched the Internet, tried out a couple of editors, and decided I was happy with Marti Kanna of New Leaf Publishing. For a fair fee, she edited the first three chapters of my novel. I used this as a template and rewrote the rest of the book. When it was finished, I submitted to that same publisher. Fingers crossed, I waited.

Christmas Day, 2005, I received a phone call from their senior editor: they wanted my book. And a mere nine months later, a box appeared on my doorstep: the first 36 copies of my novel. It hit the store and sold a few thousand copies. All around, not a bad offering for a no-name, first time author. And over the next few years, two more books followed this one.

So why, you might ask, am I about to take this book to task? I edited it multiple times, then reworked it with the help of a professional editor. And a publishing house—a real publisher, not a vanity press, or a small house—also ran it through the process. What could possibly have gone wrong? Let’s begin …

The first thing I would point out is the size of the book. Industry standard for a mass market or trade paperback is about 80,000 to 100,000 words. Frost came in at a smooth 160,000 words. I wrote two novels in one! Sure, Terry Brooks or Robert Jordan can write one that size. But a new author? No way. The book should have either been put on a severe diet, or split into two novels. In this case, I would have to say it would be the latter. When I released Frost as an ebook, I cut some words, but nowhere near enough to bring it to a reasonable level. In the online reviews, one person remarked that the book was way too long for a “freshman effort.” Right on the money, sir.

As a side note, I would like to add that my second novel, The Piaras Legacy, was also too long. The owner of the publishing company told me to cut a hundred pages to make it a better read. At first, I was appalled. I feared the story would lose some of its focus if I cut that much. In the end, I cut 98 pages, reread the book, and found myself amazed by the results. What an improvement! The publisher was right.

If Rick and I have not mentioned this next issue before, we will again, soon. Habit words are a problem, there is no doubt. In my case, “that” was my problem. That, that, that. Unfortunately, my editor took me to the other extreme: eliminate “that” from the book. The problem is, when you completely eliminate such a common word, the wording becomes forced. In reality, you are no better off than if you had left the habit words alone. I should have caught the problem in my edits, and corrected by eliminating some of the uses of the word. Most of them, even, but not all (or almost all—I’m sure one or two slipped in there).

Another problem was my overuse of –ing forms. Again, using them is not a problem. Overusing them, is. A couple of times per page is acceptable, and it helps vary the style of your writing. But when you have two or three per paragraph, it’s a problem. I missed it, and so did the editor. This should have been caught by me, and ditto for the editor.

“Said” tags became an issue, as well. The reading is much smoother when the dialogue flows such that you don’t need to keep saying “he said” / “she said.” I have since learned to use small descriptions of gestures, facial expressions, and the like, to indicate who is speaking, rather than hitting the reader over the head with it every time. Anything that pulls the reader out of the story is bad, and having an extended dialogue filled with the word “said” (or its variations) can be very distracting. Using the descriptors has the added benefit of producing visual, auditory, and olfactory descriptions for the reader, which immerses the audience in the story rather than distracting from it.

I also used an abundance of the passive tense. While not strictly wrong, grammatically speaking, it is still a weaker form than an action verb. Consider this example, paraphrased from the pages of Frost:

–The victim was tied down, spread-eagle. A rune was burned into his chest, and he was forced to ingest a virulent poison.

It tells the story, but it’s very weak writing. It fails to immerse the reader in the story. A stronger version:

–They tied the victim down, spread-eagle. One of the Disciples used a band of metal to burn a rune into the victim’s chest. The other pried the victim’s mouth open and forced a virulent poison down his throat.

Much stronger. The description of the scene is much clearer, and the live action puts the reader into the moment. You turn a dull passage into a page-turner by avoiding the passive phrase, wherever possible. It would have been a simple matter for me to catch this in the editing phase, and should have been caught by the editor, as well.

You might be wondering how these things could have slipped through the editing process and wound up in print. The answer is simple. I had no idea what I was doing, and made no effort (at the time) to improve my skill set. Since then, I’ve put my time in, studying the art and improving my technique while helping others improve theirs. The ebook version of Frost is a much better read than the paper version, for that very reason. As far as why the editor missed these things, I can’t answer that. Since I was not privy to the process, I don’t know what went on at their end. I can tell you this: I was appalled at the number of mistakes that ended up in the print version. Mistakes that were not in my manuscript. Misspelled words, missing punctuation, dropped italics … several of these mistakes litter each and every chapter of my book. So if you feel that your novel is fine the way it is, that a publishing house’s editor will fix any problems, think again.

This is actually how Rick and I met. He published his first novel through the same publisher. He contacted me and offered a critique of Frost. A critique, not a review. And for me, it was quite an eye-opener. The mistakes in Frost don’t end with what I listed above. But with Rick’s help, those mistakes did not find their way into my next novel, The Piaras Legacy. I have continued to learn from him for the past five years, and I think he might have even picked up a thing or two from me. (Rick says: Yeah, he’s the first to point out my -ings if I get carried away with them. I also trust his editing eyes for my work.)

Speaking of my second novel, The Piaras Legacy, I’d like to take this time to make the first announcement concerning its sequel, Archon’s Gate. The book is in the final revision, and I am currently working with a local artist to design the cover. I’ll be releasing it this fall, primarily as an ebook, but also in paperback through Createspace. Stay tuned!


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