Tag Archives: Debra Dixon

Professional Wednesday: Dealing With My Latest Editorial Feedback

I’ve written many times before about dealing with edits on a story or novel manuscript, and I don’t want to repeat myself any more than necessary. But I have just received feedback from my editor on the first book in my upcoming Celtic urban fantasy series, and I thought a return to this topic might prove helpful to some. Including me.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my expanded editorial responsibilities, and the ways in which doing more editing had made me a better writer, as well as the ways in which writing for more than twenty-five years had helped hone my editorial eye. I also mentioned that the best editors are those who help writers realize their creative visions without imposing the editors’ own, and that professional writers must learn to be open to editorial comments and to avoid defensiveness.

Neither of these things is easy to do.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)My editor at Belle Books is a woman named Debra Dixon, and she is a truly remarkable editor. This first book in the Celtic series is our third novel together, after Radiants and Invasives. In our time together, I have never once felt that her responses to my work were intrusive or unhelpful. With each book it’s been clear to me that her every observation, every criticism, every suggestion, is intended to help me tell my story with the greatest impact and in the most concise and effective prose. A writer can’t ask for more. This doesn’t mean I have agreed with every one of her comments. Now and then, I have felt strongly enough about one point or another to push back. And she’s fine with that. That’s how the editor-writer relationship is supposed to work, and she has always been crystal clear: In the end, my book is my book. But even when we have disagreed we have been clear on our shared goal: To make each book as good as it can be.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)My struggle right now is simply this: Her feedback on this first book is quite extensive and requires that I rethink some fundamental character issues and cut or change significantly several key early scenes. And she’s right about all this stuff. No doubt. This first book has been through several revisions already, and the second half of the book — really the last two-thirds of the book — just sings. I love it. She loves it. The first third is where the problems lie. To be honest, the first hundred (manuscript) pages of this book have always given me the most trouble. I wrote the initial iteration of the book more than a decade ago, and in some ways those early chapters still reflect too much the time in which they were written. They feel dated.

So I am rethinking the opening. Again.

In the weeks to come, I will likely rewrite most or all of those early chapters. Right now I am still struggling a bit to wrap my head around how, exactly, I am going to tackle those rewrites. This is a book I love, a book I have lived with for twelve years, a book I have worked and reworked and reworked again. I thought I was done with it. I thought it would be fine as written. I needed Deb to look it over and tell me all the ways it doesn’t work.

Now that she has done this, I can’t think about the book without cringing at all the flaws I missed, that I was willing to accept. Again, to be very, very clear, I do not disagree with any of Deb’s critiques of the novel. But this doesn’t mean they don’t pain me.

And that’s all right, too. Again, as I have said many times before, writers have to be open to editorial feedback. We have to understand that our first draft, or our second, or even our tenth, isn’t perfect. A book can always be improved. We don’t publish when our books are perfect. If we did, no book would ever be published. We publish when the book is as good as we fallible humans, working together, can make it.

What I don’t always mention when writing about editing and revisions, is this: I go through a complicated emotional process when dealing with an editor’s feedback. It starts with grief. I always feel a little hurt by the criticisms of my newest baby. I feel bruised and battered, sad and even a bit helpless. We love our books. We have worked so hard to make them as wonderful as they can be. Being told they need still more work, having all their faults and flaws pointed out to us — that kind of sucks. [Editor’s note: delete “kind of”]

Grief gives way to anger pretty quickly. It’s not that this hurts, although it does. No! It’s that [insert editor’s here] is just flat-out wrong! What they hell do they know? Okay a lot. But it’s not like they’ve been doing this for years and years! Okay, yes, they have. It’s not . . . It’s not . . .

It’s not them. It’s me. And my book.

Anger sluices away, and what’s left is resignation, recognition. All those problems the editor has identified? They’re real. They need our attention.

Which brings us to despair.

My book is terrible. Despite what my editor thinks, it can’t be saved. I should just give up now.

But, of course, we have no intention of giving up. We’ve written the damn book. If we’d intended to give up, we would have done it ages ago, when we were first struggling to write it. No, the only thing we can do is fix it, make it as good as it can possibly be, which was the entire point of submitting ourselves to the editorial process in the first place. And so at last we come to acceptance.

And at that point we are ready to begin revising.

I am somewhere between despair and acceptance right now. By the time you read this, I should be fully in acceptance and ready to begin revisions.

Because I’m a professional writer, and this is what we do.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: Cover Art and Why It Matters

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)Last week, I was able to share with you the incredible art work for my upcoming novel, Invasives, the second Radiants book, which will be out February 18. And because I’m mentioning the art here, I have yet another excuse to post the image, which I love and will share for even the most contrived of reasons . . .

I have been fortunate throughout my career to have some really outstanding art work grace the covers of my novels. It began with my very first book, Children of Amarid, which had a striking wrap-around cover from artist Romas Kukalis. Romas did terrific work on the other two LonTobyn books as well, and also on the third, fourth, and fifth books of my Winds of the Forelands series (Gary Ruddell did books one and two), and the three volumes of Blood of the Southlands.

Children of Amarid, art work by Romas KukalisFor the Thieftaker novels, Tor hired the incomparable Chris McGrath, who has also done the art for the Lore Seekers Press publications of Tales of the Thieftaker (the Thieftaker short story collection) and The Loyalist Witch.

And I have had amazing art for the Islevale Cycle books (Jan Weßbecher and Robyne Pomroy) and for the Radiants series (Debra Dixon). As I say, I’ve been astonishingly lucky.

But does it matter?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we’re told. And as a saying using the proverbial book as metaphor for others things in life, it makes lots of sense. But as a practical and literal (as well as literary) matter, it’s advice we ignore all the time. Of course we judge books by their covers. We do it every day, and one reason we do it is that publishers use cover art to signal genre, story-type, the age of a book’s intended readers, and even the possible series relationship between one book and another. We are programmed to judge books by their jacket art, and we have been for a long, long time.

The truth is, having cool jacket art can be a tremendous boost for a book. Need proof? Hang out by a bookseller’s table in the dealers’ room at the next convention you attend, and see which books shoppers ignore, which they linger over, and which they pick up and open. Covers matter. People are drawn to the Thieftaker books for several reasons. The blend of history, mystery, and magic helps. But few potential readers would know even that much about the books if not for the allure of those Chris McGrath covers.

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)The thing to remember about artwork, though, is that it’s not enough for the covers to be eye-catching. They also need to tell a story — your story. The Thieftaker covers work because they convey the time period, they offer a suggestion of the mystery contained within, and they hint as well at magic, by always including that swirl of conjuring power in Ethan’s hand. The Islevale covers all have that golden timepiece in them, the chronofor, which enables my Walkers to move through time. All my traditional epic fantasy covers, from the LonTobyn books through the Forelands and Southlands series, convey a medieval fantasy vibe. Readers who see those books, even if they don’t know me or my work, will have an immediate sense of the stories contained within.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)And that’s what we want. Sure, part of what makes that Invasives cover work is the simple fact that it’s stunning. The eye, the flames, the lighting in the tunnel. It’s a terrific image. But it also tells you there is a supernatural story within. And while the tunnel “setting” is unusual, the presence of train tracks, wires, electric wiring, and even that loudspeaker in the upper left quadrant of the tunnel, combine to tell you the story takes place in our world (or something very much like it). And for those who have seen the cover of the first book in the series, Radiants, the eye and flames mark this new book as part of the same franchise. That’s effective packaging.

When I started in this business, and was writing for big publishing houses, I had relatively little input on my jacket art. Sometimes that was frustrating. Other times, it was fortuitous: I had an idea for the cover of the first Thieftaker book that was nothing like what Chris came up with. Thank God they didn’t listen to me.

In today’s publishing world, with so many authors self-publishing or working with small presses, which tend to be far more open to involving authors in these sorts of decisions, we have greater control over what our books look like. We also face challenges that didn’t exist back when I was starting out. Today, a cover doesn’t just need to look good in hand. It also needs to convey a sense of the story, genre, series, and audience age in thumbnail form. It doesn’t just need to stand out on a table in a bookstore. It also needs to compete with a dozen or three dozen other thumbnails on a single web page. Effective art is more important now than ever.

And yet, I don’t want to leave you with the sense that a great cover is the silver bullet for book marketing. Not even the coolest image can help you if the book within is poorly written or sloppily edited. Sure readers might fall for that once, sold on the book by the great image. But they won’t be fooled a second time.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)In the same vein, poor marketing practices by a publisher, even if inadvertent, can doom even the most beautiful book. I LOVE the art for Time’s Demon, the second Islevale novel. But the novel came out when the publisher was going through an intense reorganization. It got little or no marketing attention, and despite looking great and being in my view one of the best things I’ve written, it was pretty much the worst-selling book of my career.

Yes, art matters. Good art attracts readers and brands our books. But we still need to write the best story we can. And we still have to bust our butts marketing the book once it’s out.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Lessons From A Recent Edit

As part of my new Professional Wednesday format, I intend to tie advice posts to issues I am encountering “in the moment” with my own work. And so, today, I share with you a few insights that grew out of an editorial note I received from the marvelous Debra Dixon on the supernatural thriller I’ve recently sold to Belle Books.

Writers, myself included, sometimes “make” things happen to our characters, either for good or for bad, that are essential for our storylines, but not necessarily convincing in the natural flow of events. Put another way, sometimes we contrive things to happen because we need them to happen. This is one of those writing pitfalls that brings to mind the old Tom Clancy quote: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

Real life is filled with coincidences, with random occurrences the timing of which could not be better (or worse), with odd little quirks that make us stop to take note of how strange/funny/ fortunate/terrible (pick one or more) the world can be.

But when we put such things into our books or short fiction, they seem to lack authenticity. “That’s too convenient.” “No one will believe this.” “This feels contrived.”

In my thriller, I had my two young protagonists, having just been separated from their mother, taken in by a couple who wind up helping them at potentially great cost to themselves. The circumstances of their encounter with this couple made perfect sense. But as Debra pointed out, the mere fact that the couple were willing to help, despite the danger — well, that strained credulity just a bit. Not a lot. I was almost there. But the couple’s backstory needed… something to make their choice more understandable.

First of all, this is a GREAT editorial note. This is just the sort of thing a developmental editor is supposed to notice and bring to a writer’s attention. As a writer, the note is both helpful and, yes, a little frustrating. I had worked hard to make the interactions believable, and, as Debra said, I almost succeeded. That I hadn’t meant more work, and changes that might upset the flow of the book. That, at least, was my initial reaction. Something along the lines of, “Well, crap. She’s right.”

As it turned out, the fix I came up with, far from upsetting the flow, deepened the story and the interactions between my protags and these two people they meet in the midst of their adventure. The backstory of the couple feels richer now. There is a poignancy to the entire encounter that makes everything around it better. As you’ve probably sussed out by now, I’m not going to tell you what I did. You’ll have to read the book when it comes out.

But I can tell you HOW I did it, and I can share with you a few lessons I draw from making these revisions.

First the “how.” I needed to build into the couple’s backstory a trauma that was somewhat related to what my heroes were experiencing, but not so similar as to raise new believability flags. That was fairly easy — the lives of my heroes are quite different from those of this couple. By the same token, though, all of them are human. They love and feel, they experience loss and tragedy and injustice. There were actually several directions I could have gone, and I chose one that was neither the most obvious nor the most complicated. Which, I suppose is a lesson in and of itself: When developing backstory, particularly for secondary characters, strive for the somewhat unexpected, but keep things simple.

Once I had decided on an approach, I didn’t simply blurt it out. I meted out the information in dribs and drabs throughout the pages that followed. The couple are “on stage” for only two or three chapters total, but that gave me plenty of time to build in the information. I hinted at it early and had one of the characters make a cryptic reference that put the history at the heart of their decision even before I explained that history fully to my reader. Finally, when the emotional payoff seemed likely to be greatest, I wrote my reveal, working the information into an exchange that served as the final button to a key scene. So that would be lesson number two: Give out information to your readers on a need-to-know basis. Don’t resort to data dumps, and don’t feel that your reader has to know every detail up front. Sometimes a slow reveal can be far more satisfying to the reader than having all that knowledge from the start.

As I said, this was a great editorial note, and like all great bits of editorial feedback, it improved my novel. It forced me to rethink an essential narrative element, and in doing so it strengthened my plot AND my character work. Which makes lessons three, four, and five really easy: Trust your editor. Be open to constructive criticism. And look at the editorial/revision process not as a burden, but as an opportunity to make the story you love even better than it already is. As I’ve written before, edits are part of the business. Accepting feedback is part of being a professional.

So in the end, I wound up with a better book, a more powerful way of getting my protagonists the help they needed, and, most important, a deepened appreciation of and trust in my new editor. I also reminded myself that at times withholding information from my reader, at least in the short term, can heighten the impact of the revelation when it finally comes.

I hope you found this helpful.

Keep writing!