Category Archives: Editing
If you ever play the game of Uno with my son, you will find yourself holding dozens of cards. I don’t know how he does it, but I swear he gets every Draw 4, Skip, and Reverse in the stack. I have actually gotten down to calling Uno a few times, but with an impish grin, he lays down a multitude of Action cards and my Uno turns to “Oh No!”
I had a similar experience recently with a client and it got me thinking. No, I wasn’t playing cards with my client, but I was definitely playing a game of whose card trumps.
In my line of work, my client is not just an individual. I answer to a panel. In a perfect world, everyone would be in agreement. We do not live in a perfect world.
On one particular project, I worked with two subject experts, their supervisor, an editor, the publisher, and the client who would get final say. I worked with the subject experts first. They gave me great information, but they could not agree among themselves and they did not like the way I laid out the information. I wrote and rewrote several times until they were satisfied that what I had written was clear. It was a tough subject. Now it was their supervisor’s turn.
As a subcontractor on the project, the senior subject expert had to sign off. Guess what? She did not like the layout that the subject experts in her charge said was best. She didn’t like my proposed layout either. I spent hours revising the work for her specifications, sometimes undoing the very things that her employees demanded that I include.
Finally, it was time to send the work to the editor. Remember, my work has to go through a full edit, a cold edit (with another editor), and often additional edits if major revisions are made between edits. By the time it made it through the editors, the project again changed drastically.
One thing that had been changed multiple times was a simple definition for an acronym. One person defined it with an “s” on the end of the word. The next person told me that the acronym did not contain an “s”. (This was a specific acronym that will not show up on the web for easy validation.) The subject expert said to put it in. The supervisor told me to take it out. The editor told me to put it back in and showed me a page in the style guide where the “s” was listed. The next editor told me to take it out. I wanted to scream.
We finally came to a consensus (I thought) and everyone signed off on the work. I should have known it was too good to be true. The work was sent to publishing and it was time to compare the published copy with my manuscript to make sure that it was correct. If I had known it was going to create a firestorm, I would have kept my mouth shut.
There on page 61, was a single little acronym that was missing an “s” and I pointed it out. I sent an email to the publisher, the design team, and the supervisors in between as was protocol, and asked for the error to be corrected. What came next, was enough to make me crawl under my desk the rest of the afternoon and stuff large amounts of junk food in my mouth (yes, I am a stress eater). The subject experts were on the email chain and one hit reply all. She told me that the word did not contain an “s.” She had told me that she had previously informed me that it did not contain an “s.” She told me that I was wrong, the editor was wrong, and the style guide was wrong, and when I say “me”, I mean everyone on the email chain including the client.
I won’t go into detail about how this story ends with the exception of saying that many apologies were sent out to the client and publisher and a future version of the style guide will contain the acronym without the “s”; however, it brings up a significant issue in writing. Who has final word on the way a writing project is completed?
As a writer, I am the wordsmith. I should have significant influence in the layout of chapters and the way sentences are constructed. The subject experts are not writers. They are subject experts. On that note, I am not an expert on every subject that I write. I rely on the subject experts to give me correct information.
I also rely on editors. I try to present a quality project before it ever gets to editing, but clients often have specific styles and standards that do not always adhere to Standard English (try writing for the government some time and you will understand what I mean). The editors job is to edit. My job is to reconcile after the edit. So if an editor changes something that the writer or subject experts believe should be included, who has final say?
Publishers also change things. While I do mocks of how I envision the physical layout of a project, the publishers often change that layout to best fit their needs. After it goes to the publisher, my job is simply to make sure that the words are correct and the images and illustrations convey the meaning that I want them to convey.
Then there is the client. I usually send my work to the client at various stages to get their input. Ultimately, they are the one who must be happy with the product. They have to be trump.
Too often, however, other people try to be trump and the writing project that once brought joy now brings frustration. By the end of the process, your writing is not your writing. If you are writing for a client instead of writing fiction (my first love), your writing will not contain any individuality. As a writer for a large client, I am one of several dozen writers. We are nameless. We are clones of style because that is what the client wants.
So where does the writer fit into the scheme of things? I have to separate my desire to express my individual voice and write in the manner that I want by the type of writing that I am doing. When I am doing technical writing for a client, the client is trump. When I am trying to publish a novel, the publisher is trump. When I am writing poetry and things for myself, I am trump. It isn’t always easy to differentiate.
The most difficult thing for me is that when too many people in the writing process try to be trump at once, I suddenly feel like I’m not playing with a full deck. My only recourse is to walk away for a while and go play Uno with my son.
I’m a woman. I’m a librarian. I’m a wife. I like to be correct, OK. It is just in my nature. So when I was working on a crime scene for my upcoming novel, I researched as thoroughly as I could. I wanted the scene to be realistic. I absolutely did NOT want anyone pointing out factual errors.
We are at the point where the investigator and coroner are at the scene and examining the body for the first time. I wanted to point out that it was evident that the body had been moved, so I had one character point out the bruising pattern on the victim’s body to indicate that the body was in a different position for several hours immediately after death. It is called livor mortis. The blood pools to the lower levels of the body leaving large purplish bruising at the body’s lowest points. If the body is face up, the pooling would be on the back of the legs, back of the arms, and back of the torso. If an investigator comes across a body with the pooling of blood on the top, he or she knows that the body has been moved.
This is not to be confused with rigor mortis. Rigor mortis involves the muscles. Chemical reactions in the body after death cause the muscles of the body to stiffen for a length of time before they again soften and start to decay. People think that rigor mortis is permanent. It is not. Rigor mortis normally begins within 4 hours of death and will continue for the next 12 to 48 hours when the body begins to relax again. Both livor mortis and rigor mortis help the investigator determine an approximate time of death and other important details about death. For more information in livor mortis and rigor mortis as well as other great forensic information, check out Foresncis4fiction (but not until you finish reading this post).
So in the effort to be realistic and correct, I used the term livor mortis. Not only did two of the three evaluators circle the term because they thought that it was in error, they included it on a handout as an example of lack of proofreading AND put it on the overhead for the group to discuss. I was horrified. I knew that I was correct, but I found myself justifying my use of the term in a boardroom full of other authors.
I won out in the end, but I did come away with an important lesson. I may be right. I may know my detail, but if my readers don’t know the terms, all my research is for nothing. They will think that I am wrong. They will think that I meant rigor mortis and did not edit properly. I have gone back to that passage and rephrased it. Now it contains a brief definition through a dialogue exchange and it sounds much better.
I will still fight for accuracy in my fiction, but I will now also consider my audience. After all, I want my work read by the masses, not just the forensic pathologists who understand the terms.
*Livor means discoloration of the skin. Liver is that reddish-brown organ in the upper right section of your torso. The only connection that the liver has to time of death determination is through the rate of cooling (algor mortis) where a probe is inserted into the liver to determine internal body temperature. Confusing, huh!
They say the clothes can make a man. Well, clothes can make a character as well. How you dress your character affects what the reader thinks of them, what they think of themselves, and what how other characters perceive them.
People choose their clothing, so it says a lot about their personality. When they do not get to choose, they are clearly uncomfortable. Clothing reflects economic status, cultural affiliation, membership, personality, and even emotional state. Let’s look at an example:
Margie wore a green corded jacket.
Now let’s add shoes.
Margie wore a green corded jacket with champagne-colored RSVP 4 inch heels.
Margie wore a green corded jacket with a vintage-inspired suede Bastien boot.
Margie wore a green corded jacket with splashy rubber floral green mules.
Just adding different types of shoes changes the way the reader perceives the age, wealth, and personality of the character.
Characters react to their own clothing choices as well. Is the clothing meant to make an impression or make the character comfortable? Did they choose to wear this outfit or was it selected for them? What are their thoughts about it?
Margie wore a green corded jacket with champagne-colored RSVP 4 inch heels. The jacket was a perfect fit– snug in all the right places with a small flare at the waist which drew attention to her best asset–her face. She admired herself one last time before closing the door to her office. Confidently she walked into the conference room with the proposal in her hand. This account was going to be hers.
Margie wore a green corded jacket with champagne-colored RSVP 4 inch heels. She knew that it was not the most flattering design in the room, but hopefully it would serve the purpose and no one had to know she got it at the GW Boutique. She had carefully tucked the tag in under her arm and nervously crossed the room. She would keep the meeting short. Her feet were already begging for the warm, fuzzy slippers tucked under the edge of her bed.
Other characters are also influenced by what a character wears. By occasionally having a character react to another character’s clothing gives insight into both the wearer and the observer.
Margie wore a green corded jacket with champagne-colored RSVP 4 inch heels. “What on earth was she thinking?” Selina thought as she glared across the table.
“I told you that we needed to go into the country today to help Grandma. You can’t work in the barn with those clothes,” she fumed.
“Oh, Selina, take a chill pill. Grandma can wait. I just scored tickets to the art premiere opening today. Jean Marcell is going to be there. You have about 30 seconds to change or I’m leaving you.”
Take a look at your characters clothing choices. Use their selections to your advantage to deepen your characterization. Clothing is not just a covering. It speaks volumes. Use it.
Jessica Fletcher, the retired English teacher turned mystery writer turned homicide detective, in Angela Lansbury’s Murder She Wrote seemed to be able to read people’s minds around her in order to solve the crime. She thought like a criminal….at least in television land.
In the real world, law enforcement often uses criminal profilers to help narrow down the suspect list. A criminal profiler uses science, logic, and cognition to analyze crime scenes and develop a report of both offender and victim characteristics.
Understanding how criminal profiling works can help your mystery and thriller story lines become more realistic.
First, we need to think like an investigator. Whether your protagonist is an amateur sleuth or an expert detective, your character needs to be able to think logically.
Your character should think inductively. In other words, they need to be able to draw inferences and make predictions backed on a set of specific observations. These are your hunches. They are not just random thoughts or feelings that pop into your character’s head. They are educated guesses.
For instance, your investigator comes upon a crime scene where a deceased victim has been shot in the head. Statistically speaking, most homicides committed with a gun are committed by male offenders. The victim has also been capped in the knees which increases these statistics. Although it is not full-proof, your investigator may surmise that the offender is a male with a high probability of accuracy.
Your investigator must also think deductively. Deductive reasoning is based on evidence and premises. It states that if the premise can be proven true through evidence, then the conclusion must therefore be true. In other words, it takes us from one “truth” to the next “truth”.
For example, our victim mentioned earlier was shot with a Beretta M9A1 which is a military issue handgun for United States Marines. A bloodied knife was found next to the victim. A blood trail leading away from the crime scene was matched to a soldier who had deserted his post three months before. When the suspect was located, a stab wound was noticed on his upper left arm and his fingerprints were found on a Beretta M9A1 found in his possession. The investigator could deduct that the soldier fired the gun that killed the victim.
As fiction writers, we often stray from logical thinking in order to lead our reader down a certain path and help them reach conclusions that we want them to make. When used correctly, our readers feel like real-life investigators. When used incorrectly, our readers feel the writing is shallow and unrealistic.
Be careful when using these tactics:
Suppressed Evidence or card stacking–only presenting one-sided information that fits your theory of the crime. Make sure that you throw in red herrings, clues to purposely throw your reader off. Give them multiple suspects or at least questionable evidence that could be interpreted multiple ways.
Appeal to Authority–implying that information must be true because it is being reported by someone as important. You can have your characters hang on every word their father, boss, best friend, lawyer says even if they are inherently evil, but make sure that your reader knows that just because this person is important to your character, they are not necessarily truthful or an expert on the subject at hand.
Appeal to Tradition–implying that information must be true because it has always been proven true before. Remember, everyone used to believe that the world was flat.Tradition is important. We create histories for our characters which influence how they believe, think, and act. Don’t throw tradition away, but remember that the most intriguing stories are those that leave us thinking new thoughts about life.
Character attack–describing characters in such a way to make them appear undeniably evil despite evidence otherwise. Make your characters human. Give your antagonist good qualities. Give your protagonist flaws. When compiling evidence against your suspect, make sure that you are using objective evidence and not just attacking their character. Save that for the daytime talk shows.
Emotional appeal–This is where fiction differs greatly from objective writing. It is all about word choice. Words have both connotation and denotation. Denotation is the definition of a word. Connotation is the feelings or impressions that a word represents. The words you choose to describe characters and events will set the tone and direct your reader towards your interpretation of the case.
Coincidence–When coincidence happens in real life, we think it is ironic. When it happens in fiction, we think it is bad writing. It may be true that your victim was shot and then burned to death when the cigarette they were smoking fell into the bed sheets, but be cautious of how you present that to the reader. Perhaps your investigator believes that the fire was an attempt to cover up the crime. Give the reader reason to question that the two might not be linked.
Generalizations–Your investigator may be quick to accuse a suspect because of a piece of damning (yet incomplete) data, but do not let your reader totally buy into the theory. Constantly make them question whether your investigator is really on the right track. Also avoid general stereotypes. Actually writing to the contrary is what makes memorable characters.
Be creative, but stay within the limits of realistic writing. Charles Darwin said in The Descent of Man that “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Your suspects can be incompetent and cocky. Your investigators can be arrogant and make mistakes. Your writing, however, should be smart and calculated. Understand how people reason and your writing will sour to a whole new level.
If you enjoyed this article about criminal profiling, be sure to come back. There will be more to come about victimology, crime scene analysis, and offender characteristics.
Tags: angela lansbury, author, authors, character development, crime, crime drama, criminal profiling, editing, FBI, fiction, jessica fletcher, murder, murder she wrote, mysteries, mystery, publishing, reasoning, thriller, writer, writers, writing
Have you ever looked at a photograph and become overwhelmed at how extraordinary it is? “How did they capture that?” you ask. It is odd. It is different. It is beautiful. Those photographs stick in our mind. I find this especially true of nature photography. They make us pause and appreciate those things we miss as we rush through our lives.
These types of photographs can teach us how to make extraordinary stories as well. Here are 5 lessons that you can learn from extraordinary photography.
Change the point of view of the story teller
Many amateur photographers go straight to the most beautiful flower and focus on its delicate petals. Photographers with a better eye, look beyond the obvious and maneuver their bodies to get the shot that no one else sees. They help us see life from a new perspective.
Authors usually write from the perspective of the main protagonist, but they might not be the best one to tell the story. Whether you are using first person or third person, objective or subjective point of view, look around at which character would make the most profound story teller. It might not be the prima donna. It could be the spent character that most people ignore.
Your use of light and shadow can change the focus of the story
Light exposes things, emphasizes things, and draws the onlooker’s eye to a focal point. Shadows hide things and warn the onlooker to be wary of entry. A picture made of entirely light or entirely darkness is not interesting to look at. What makes a photograph extraordinary is the contrast. The light pulls our eyes to things we have never noticed. The shadows now seem darker and more ominous.
Take a flashlight to your story and turn it at various angles and distances. What is exposed when you look at it these different ways? Where you shine your light in your story could show the means of escape or it could point out an inherent evil that no one previously saw.
Characters, settings, and conflicts need complexity
One of the first things that draw me into a photograph is the use of texture. Most extraordinary photographs balance soft elements with hard elements. They play on straight lines and hard angles against soft curves. They pair delicate elements with harsh elements.
Stories need layers and variety to add complexity and richness as well. A tornado would just be a tornado except that it left a single rose next to the house it destroyed. A murderer would just be a murderer except they killed to protect a child. Add a new dimension to your characters’ lives and see what happens.
Zoom in and zoom out from your characters lives
Some of the most interesting photographs are those that zoom in on a tiny aspect of an object that one would normally ignore. Zooming in on the Grand Canyon, however, would make an amazing piece of natural art look no different than the sand in a child’s sandbox.
Stories need both. Think about what you are trying to say. To get your theme across, you might zoom in on a single action or thought and give the reader a microscopic view of human nature. In other cases, the message might be more powerful if they saw human nature as a whole. Where in your stories should you zoom in? Where is it better to zoom out?
Flaws are not bad. They are what make your characters unique.
If you wander through a wooded area, you may see hundreds of trees. They bend and twist in various directions. Each one is unique. But suddenly you stop. In front of you stands a tree that is gnarled and broken. The tree is different from all of the strong, proud trees that rise around it, but you prefer this tree. “It has character,” you think as you rub your hand along its rough bark, “It has a history.” You want to know more about what caused the tree to grow this way.
The same applies to your characters. Row after row of perfect, beautiful characters make a story dull. Throw in someone flawed, someone unique, and your reader will want to know more. The character bends and twists. He has bumps and scars. Something has changed his path along the way. Your reader wants to know him and understand how he got that way. Give your characters character.
Step back and look at ways to improve your story.