Editing a Manuscript to Death

A couple of years or so ago I was seeking a new publisher for my Mac McClellan Mystery deadlyseries. Despite very good reviews the previous publisher decided to cut-back their “private eye” series to focus more on legal, medical, and international thrillers (or so I was informed). With a couple of new books in the McClellan series already completed, my agent and I set out to find a new home for the retired Marine sleuth before an extended absence caused readers of the first two books to forget about Mac and Kate Bell, Mac’s squeeze and sometimes Girl Friday.

While my (then) agent beat the bigger bushes, I began querying small and mid-size houses in hopes of finding that gem in the haystack of the publishing world. Within a few days a small press (who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons) its-a-mysterycontacted me, requesting the full manuscript which I promptly sent. They were a startup house with two published books–one by him, and one by his wife. But you never know; it could’ve been an opportunity to get into something good from the ground floor. Fast forward a couple of weeks:

“We love good mysteries, and this is a very good mystery! But . . .” (ellipsis added by me).

What followed was a list of “major problems” with the manuscript, and the editor’s ideas of how to fix this, that, and the other. Ultimately, his suggestions amounted to an entire overhaul/rewrite of the manuscript.

My initial thought? Not going to happen! My reasons were sound. Without going into endless detail, trust me when I say I wondered if the guy had read the same book I’d written. Every issue he had, be it with the plot or otherwise, I came back with a logical explanation. I’ll give a few examples and leave it at that:bad_guy

(Editor): The bad guy is brought in way too late. You’re not playing fair with your readers. Have him show up early.

(Me): Um, the bad guy strikes in Chapter Two. His/her identity isn’t revealed then, but he/she does make an offstage appearance by murdering his/her first victim in Chapter Two. He/she strikes again and again later in the story just to stay in the picture before he/she is finally revealed. Is Chapter Two really “way too late?”

(Editor): Your backstory is overwhelming.


(Editor): I realize this is a series and you can’t retell the whole backstory on that but give us enough to explain why the character and the relationship is important.confused1

(Me): Huh? First my backstory is overwhelming, and in the editor’s next breath I’m being asked to give more backstory? Hmm, am I missing something here?

(Editor): You have a huge amount of clichés in here; get rid of all of them.

(Me): I counted eight of what could be considered true clichés. Eight. My protagonist, Macavoid-cliches1 McClellan, has a sense of humor, and he will occasionally use a “dreaded” cliché in conversation or to make a point. People use clichés in real life. I choose not to ban all clichés. Don’t fill up your manuscript with them (unless it’s a book about clichés), but don’t treat them as anathema, either.

(Editor): Semi-colons and ellipses should be cut. (I love them, too, and when I write, I keep them all in until the last edit and cut them out.)

(Me): Since when should all semi-colons and ellipses be cut? Who made that rule? Instead of an ellipsis to indicate a pause in conversation, should I use (beat) instead? Okay, don’t overdue either, but sometimes compound sentences are called for, and what the heck is wrong with an occasional ellipsis? That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

(Editor): Get rid of all the bad words that are nothing but busy noise (just, very, pretty, repetitive wordsreally, still, some, perhaps, maybe, which, since, etc.)

(Me): Are you kidding me? ALL of them? Wow, talk about dry, boring dialogue, especially if your book or characters are located in the South. Okay, per the usual unspoken writing rule, don’t overuse these words and others so that they jump off the page at you, or every character says these words over and over. But get rid of all of them? Really? I think not.

Here is the shocking conclusion to this semi writing rant: I told this editor and his publishing house “No thanks.” And a short time later my agent landed a new home for the next four books in the Mac McClellan Mystery series. The lesson? You are the writer; (oops, semi-colon, sorry!) you know your characters, you know where your book is going, and you are not averse to listening to sound advice from a competent editor. But watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing (oops, cliché!) that lurk out there in the publishing world. Don’t destroy your book at another’s whim. After all, it’s your baby, not theirs.


11 thoughts on “Editing a Manuscript to Death

  1. Fine post, Michael! On the one hand, no manuscript is perfect, let’s be honest. On the other, there is definitely such as thing as giving up the story you love and want to tell. It’s sometimes a tough balance, but worth working to achieve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Margot. I’m far from a “know it all” who refuses editorial help. But when someone comes along spouting unsound advice, I can usually spot a wannabe from a mile away. This post was about cautioning writers to not fall from others’ advice who might not know more than what they’ve read in a few books or articles on the Internet. Once a writer has gotten enough words/works under his/her belt, trusting yourself often trumps what others claiming the title of editor might offer. The savvy writer learns to distinguish between the sound and unsound, rules be damned. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. So true, Kristina. Wearing the “editor” tag does not an editor make. Good editors are invaluable. But writers, especially those just beginning the rocky road towards publication, need to be forewarned of the scammers out their waiting to prey on their inexperience. Thanks for your input! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have read all your works Michael and so many other classics. If editors could write they would write something immortal. As it is, they help to tighten things up and give feedback. When they cannot do either they are simply a nuisance. When a writer creates a body of work as large as yours it is time to move to the next work and do what is in your heart. It is time to leave this behind. It does not have meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the support, MJ. This post was far from a tirade against editors in general. Good editors are much needed and vital to whip a decent manuscript into good shape. My patience with those who think they “know it all” wears thin, especially when they crown themselves as “editor.” That, and that alone, is my beef. 🙂


  4. Yes, I understand that. Good editors are needed. Know it all would be editors are not. I was a bit annoyed that you were dealing with such persons. It is obvious you know how to write a book. Sometimes I get a bit edgy. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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