Actually, I want you to meet Hector. My friend, Hector Duarte, Jr. to be clear. He’s a fiction editor at The Flash Fiction Offensive. He’s lectured at The Crime Fiction Here and There and Again Conference in Gdansk, Poland; the second and third Captivating Criminality Conferences in Corsham, England, and Theorizing the Popular at Liverpool’s Hope University. A talented writer in his own right, his work has appeared in Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, Sliver of Stone, Foliate Oak, Shotgun Honey, Shadows and Light: An Anthology to Benefit Women’s Aid UK, The Whimsical Project, Spelk Fiction, and HorrorSleazeTrash. In his down time, he teaches seventh graders and travels the world.
Hector’s love of the written word is obvious and his desire to help up and coming writers is clear. This week he joins us at Do Some Damage to drop a little truth on the editing process. This subject is front of mind for me as I’ve just reviewed a recent submission only to discover my character was holding a star-foam cooler in one key scene. STAR-FOAM! I even used a hyphen. To make it all official. Gah. Hector help me.
Let’s grab our pencils and take some notes.
The Importance of a Fine-Tooth Comb
In the spring of 2016, Joe Clifford and Tom Pitts asked me to take over as co-editor at The Flash Fiction Offensive. It was a flattering moment of complete joy where I humble-bragged to all my friends. My time there has been nothing but fun, building relationships in a community of supportive, like-minded people. Don’t be fooled, crime writers are some of the nicest folks out there. As a self-proclaimed hippie, it’s the closest thing matching the Phish community when the band isn’t on the road. Everyone smiling and glad-handing, happy to be in one another’s presence.
Aside from getting to read great flash stories and collaborating with a huge community of established and up-and-coming writers, I also have gotten a few requests to read and review advanced reader copies, which to me is a huge sign of having “made it” as an editor: when someone trusts you enough with their copy to ask for your editorial advice. Any writer knows how much time, labor, and outright stress even a flash piece can consume. You’re not going to trust just anyone with it. You wouldn’t hand your kid over to any random teen for a Friday night babysitting gig, right? Same thing here.
So, for whatever it’s worth, this article is meant to serve as a caution, a quick manual; hell, a warning, about the importance of editing. You’ve dedicated weeks, months, years to this draft. It’s ready to be sent out to that important publishing house. Now, pore over the thing like it’s sacred religious text. Because that’s what it is. To you, after all.
Many of the ARCs I get are going to indie publishers. It’s no big secret many of these indie houses don’t have huge stacks of cash lying about and the publishing game, for them, is a labor of love.
This means you’re on your own when it comes to editing. You will not have someone dedicated full-time to reading your book, making sure it’s both grammatically and factually correct. In a rush to publish, some writers are putting sloppy work out there. Sure, your plot is tight and everything connects in the end, but if the pages are riddled with simple grammatical and factual errors, there goes the reader’s attention. Because, now, they’re playing grammar police, wagging their finger at the pages, thinking: I can do better than this.
Sadly, genre writing already gets enough raised eyebrows, folks. Don’t give the haters all the more reason to hate. My suggestion? Before sending it off to the publisher, send your story to someone you know is going to be brutal. Got a friend who’s always correcting your grammar or usage over a round of drinks? That’s probably the person. In fact, I suggest sending it to someone who’s not really big on plot. Writers, for the most part, are going to focus on the story you’ve laid out, red herrings, plot twists, B stories, and dialogue. Right now, you’re looking for the person who won’t be afraid to call you out when you’ve got, “A car parked over their,” or are returning a family, “there jar of sugar.” Maybe your character is a huge fan of Sid Viscous.
These kind of minor—but embarrassing—errors happen all the time. Don’t make the mistake of trusting your eyes to catch them, either. After you’ve been crafting and editing the same story over and over again, countless times, correcting pace and continuity, your eyes become exhausted, easily glossing over these small kinks throughout the pages.
It’s impossible to know everything. There’s just no way. Even your grammar-cop friend doesn’t know it all. So keep a dictionary or thesaurus nearby and constantly check your work. It’s even easier these days. Just keep a blank tab open on your browser. That way you can quickly check Dictionary.com while poring, (not pouring), over your story.
When handing your piece over for editing, give it to someone who’s never read it before. If it can be someone who knows near to nothing about the plot, even better. This makes it easier for that reader to step into the universe you’ve created without feeling something is expected of them. Tell them it’s an homage to Sherlock Holmes stories and they might feel a need to impress you by solving the case before your detective does. What you need at this crucial moment is the high-school-lit teacher ripping your introductory paragraph apart.
In life, we’re told to avoiding sweating the small stuff. Well, when editing, I’m going to advise the opposite. You have to do a close edit of your piece when it’s done. That first edit is the most important, because after that you and your brain are familiar with the story, so, by the second edit, you’ll feel more relaxed and it’ll therefore be easier to gloss over the small stuff. Make sure a quote that is opened is ultimately closed, and vice versa. Ensure punctuation marks fall inside quotations when they’re supposed to. Start a new paragraph when a different character performs an action. Please, regularly tag dialogue throughout a long conversation so it’s easy to keep up with who is saying what. Playing dialogue-tag-Jenga is a huge distraction for the reader.
I know what you’re thinking: Who is this guy giving me a random lesson on the most basic of editorial rules? I’m no one of importance. Nothing of mine has been published in print yet. My graduate program may even argue I’m not much of a writer.
I will attest to this, though: I care about the writing I’m given to read and edit. I want to see crime fiction and genre writing succeed because I know they get so much shit from academic and literary circles, and I can’t stand it.
The names attached to a lot of these stories are people I know, in some form or another, and that gets me stoked.
Who am I? A guy who just wants to help. Who are you? Someone who wants to put their best work out there.
Now, go to it. And remember, check your, (not you’re), shit.
~ Hector Duarte Jr.