Editor’s Critiques and Other Unpleasantries

There’s a reason that universally unpleasant experiences are often likened to a rectal exam. Sports physicals, enemas, IRS audits, TSA screenings…you get the picture. Writers have our own extra-special version of this invasive probing: that first editorial critique.

Ah, but we should welcome the input of wise professionals if we want to become polished writers ourselves. Well, yeah, but…guys my age are supposed to have prostate exams every year too. Doesn’t mean I look forward to it.

I’ve been a contributing writer for an aviation mag for several years now, and must admit that the final copy of most everything I’ve submitted has been much better than the original draft. My editor at AeroSafety World is great to work with and makes me look like a real author. And I fully credit that experience with getting my foot in the door at Smithsonian’s Air & Space. First story I submitted to them went through with hardly any changes, which was a fist-bumping moment.

But as my last post mentioned, after nearly a year of sending queries for Perigee it became clear that the manuscript wasn’t ready for publication. By a stroke of incredible luck, I was able to have my manuscript reviewed at no cost by a real editorial pro. Believe me, that critique is treated like the gold that it’s worth. It could have easily cost me a grand. One agent’s feedback in particular closely matched what the professional reader had to say.

It’s important here to note that you absolutely must not take every point of criticism to heart. Much can be chalked up to personal taste, and you must be willing to leave it at that. But if different readers voice similar complaints – especially if they fill in the blanks of some unknown gnawing at you – that’s when it’s time to sit up and pay attention.

That’s also when the “probing” starts. It’s hard to have something so intensely personal as a completed work of fiction picked apart by a dispassionate professional. It hurts.

Fortunately, the magazine gig taught me to not take any of it personally. That’s the first mark of a professional. If you can stand another American Idol reference: watch the clowns who go all Jerry Springer-hysterical when the judges  point out that they couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow. Think they’re ever going anywhere besides karaoke night at Hooters? Not that Idol is much different, but I digress…

Some common points that the pros dinged me on rang true: too many characters, too much jargon, uneven pacing, and not enough conflict. The last two are especially deadly if you’re presuming to write a techno-thriller.

The jargon thing is a tough call –  it is a techno-thriller after all. But I’m learning how to work in just enough inside-baseball stuff to give it an air of realism. I want readers to feel like they’re stranded in orbit on the Asia Clipper, working nonstop in flight control to mount a rescue, or scrambling to outsmart the industrial saboteur who’s trying to sink your company.

Whittling down the cast of characters to a manageable group was easier than I thought. A couple who I’d thought would be central in the beginning just never really developed. Couldn’t find their own voices, whereas another who was intended to be a foil ended up as a major player in her own right.

Oddly enough, the women were the easiest characters to voice. Don’t ask me how, they just took on lives of their own. Penny and Audrey were a lot of fun to write; Audrey especially. She emerged as someone with a lot of ability who constantly questions herself (am I really up to this?), which should  help the reader appreciate the demanding Mission Control environment a bit more. I think she also helps illustrate the sclerotic bureaucracy that NASA has become.

A lot of my characters are based on combinations of personalities that I’ve run across in the airline business, as these are the people who’ll be making space-tourist companies like Virgin Galactic work. But Penny is the only one inspired wholly by one individual who shall remain nameless, someone I have tremendous respect for. And she gets to really kick @$$ in the next book.

Charlie Grant, the unflappable flight control director, started as one of my favorites but he never really broke out. Probably just as well, since it would’ve been a too-obvious riff on Ed Harris in Apollo 13. A lot of what was intended for him ends up in hard-nosed CEO Art Hammond, another secondary character who moved up the pecking order.

So the concept of re-drawing characters wasn’t too difficult, but building them back into the story is a logistics challenge. The manuscript’s full of circles and arrows in red ink, and that’s not even addressing the pacing yet.

Pacing is a much harder skill to master. Comp 101: every story has a beginning, middle, and end. I got that. And the beginning, middle, and end rock IMHO. Unfortunately, connecting the dots in between is more of a challenge. Something you’d think would’ve been obvious was that I didn’t take full advantage of the range of personality conflicts that could emerge in a diverse group of people trapped in orbit. That, and the subplot of industrial espionage needs to have a larger presence.

Bottom line (which should be obvious): each chapter must move the story along in some discernible way. And there must be some measure of conflict, otherwise it’s just a bunch of drones standing around reading their lines like, I don’t know, the Star Wars prequels.

Oops! He didn’t just say that? Sure did, beeches. Revenge of the Sith was cool, though.

NEXT: Self-Publish or Perish?

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