24 December 2015

An Editor's Christmas Gift to Aspiring Authors

by Brian Thornton

Happy Christmas Eve! In honor of the holiday, I offer the aspiring authors among our readership the following interview with my good friend – freelance book editor Jim Thomsen. First, a bit more about Jim:

Jim Thomsen came to book editing from the newspaper world, where he spent twenty-four years as a reporter and a copy editor. After leaving that field in 2010, he founded Desolation Island Editing Services, working primarily with self-publishing novelists and authors with traditional publishing contracts who don't trust the quality of their in-house editing process. Jim specializes in line editing, which bridges attention to issues at the story level with the objective discipline of copy editing. He lives in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington, where he can be found pounding his delete key at the local pubs and coffee shops. 

Let's get to the interview!

Thanks for taking a few moments to be interviewed, Jim. Let's start with the basics: what sorts of editing jobs do you perform, and how do they differ?

I do all levels of editing, from developmental work to proofreading, but have found that line-editing is my wheelhouse and have been moving toward making it my focus the last few years. Line editing isn't well understood. A lot of people think it is the same thing as copy editing, but it is as different as it is necessary. I'll illustrate here: 

Suppose you're an author who has gotten a developmental edit. You've done a massive rewrite based on the dev editor's suggestions. The author may think: "Hey, now I'm ready for copy editing — somebody to straighten out my sentence structure and enforce consistency within and conformity to style, and so forth." 

But, Dear Author, you're really not. You need someone who can do the copy editing while providing a second line of defense on story issues that may not have been entirely resolved in your rewrite. What I do, in addition to all the work a copy editor does, is: 

— Strip away expositional fat
— Root out inconsistencies and implausibilities in storytelling and character (If her blouse was green at the beginning of a scene, why is it white now when she hasn't left the table at the restaurant?)
— Query the author about points of plot or character that don't make complete sense or seem to contradict information earlier given
— Fact-check information (this is where my skeptical-journalist background comes in handy)

That's what I like to do, and that's what I'm good at. 

So, sort of a hybrid editor– someone who embodies the basics of copy editing and developmental editing. Sort of a midwife for the writing process, if you will?

Right. I think of myself as a great two-for-one deal. The key is in making authors see that they need the first part of the two-fer. 

You deal with a lot of first-time authors in your line of work. What sorts of mistakes do you see popping up over and over again in their writing?

1. An inch of action, a mile of exposition. There is no greater hallmark of the author who hasn't learned his craft that the inability to suppress the impulse to put the action on pause after a first few paragraphs —if that — and explain the backstory to everything. The minute you do that, you lose your reader. I'm a fan of writing-craft guru James Scott Bell, who says this repeatedly: "Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanation if you're engaging them in the moment." And, he says, when you do explain, marble it in. A little at a time. Argumentative dialogue is a better vehicle for this than narrative. 

Usually the situation is this: Your story is starting in the wrong place. Or the backstory is actually the story.

2. A failure to maintain tension from sentence to sentence. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with #1, in that the minute you step away from a point-of-view character in conflict with himself and with exterior forces or people, your writing goes slack — and so does the reader's attention. Every single passage must thrum and hum with what James Scott Bell calls "pleasurable uncertainty." If you open with a scene between a husband and wife, or a husband and kids, they'd better have colliding agendas and withheld information. Nobody wants to read about happy people. They want to read about people in life-threatening torment trying desperately to figure out how to be happy by the end. It's amazing how often writers don't realize this or shrink from it.

Got any tips as to how to avoid these rookie mistakes?

A: Be an immersive reader of the authors you admire and the books you find yourself wanting to read over and over. And study the craft. My recommendation is to read James Scott Bell's best guides: WRITE GREAT FICTION: PLOT & STRUCTURE, ELEMENTS OF FICTION: CONFLICT & SUSPENSE, and REVISION AND SELF-EDITING FOR PUBLICATION. I'm less concerned with inspiration than perspiration. Everybody's got great ideas, but fewer people know how to wrangle them and massage them into something a lot of somebodies would want to read. 

What sort of manuscript makes you glad you took the gig? And why?

Just that hum and thrum I described. That pleasurable uncertainty. That sense of professionalism and polish. The acceptance of the discipline of revision, again and again and again, and from an author that not only can accept constrictive criticism but craves it. A touch of artistic spark within well-oiled craft. An original and accessible voice. That sense the author knows that what you leave out is as important as what you put in. I care much, much more about that then whether your sentences are full of nested clauses or whether you use too many adverbs or you have a blind spot for homonyms. I don't fault the author for that. Their job is to tell a story that kicks the world in the ass. The other stuff is my job, and if they've done theirs, I'm more than happy to do mine.

Any last bits of advice? 

I have two favorites, from others smarter than me. One: "All writing is rewriting." In other words, don't inflict what we in the business call "vomit drafts" on an editor. It's a waste of your time and mine. I step in when you've absolutely taken your book as far as you can on your own. The other one is "Dialogue isn't conversation; it's conversation's greatest hits." Conflict-free chitchat dialogue is another common hallmark of the craft-challenged writer.

Okay, that's a wrap. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, pal. Happy Holidays!


  1. Now THAT'S some good advice. I have to admit I love to write dialog - I can write PAGES of the stuff. And then I have to cut, cut, cut. Well, as William Faulkner says, "In writing you must kill all your darlings..."
    Thanks, Brian! And Merry Christmas everyone!

  2. Very helpful! (I mean so helpful I've bookmarked the article!) THANK YOU!

  3. Jim and Brian, I appreciate the advice. I confess I never quite understood the differences between the many kinds of editors.

    Happy Christmas eve, gentlemen!


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