“Authors Talk Editing” with Brenda Gayle and Carolyn Heald

Wednesday, May 12

Author Brenda Gayle

My first novel, a romantic suspense, was published by a small press in 2008. At that time, indie (self-) publishing was frowned upon. And the industry barely tolerated small presses. It would be a couple of years before international associations, like the Romance Writers of America, “officially” recognized small-press publishing houses.

I was lucky. My publisher, Wild Rose Press, was, and still is, one of the better small presses out there. Over eight years, I published four full-length novels and three novellas with them. For all those books, I had the same editor—even though the books weren’t all under the same imprint. For example, I wrote a three-book romantic suspense series featuring the same family and an overarching theme. The first book was published under the contemporary romance imprint, the was a second romantic suspense and the third, a Western romance. I still don’t understand the rationale. And this is one of the problems authors have when they’re told that, to be successful, they need to “write to market.”

How do small presses differ from traditional publishers, and how are they similar?

  • They don’t pay advances; however, the royalties are higher—35–45% versus the traditional 7% (paid only after the publisher has recovered your advance).
  • The contracts are book by book—so an author can set her own deadlines.
  • Small presses are known as digital-first: geared primarily to producing and selling ebooks; print books are secondary.
  • Like the big houses, you have virtually no say in your cover design—although you may if have a supportive editor.
  • You have to do most of your own marketing. This isn’t much different from a mid-list author at a traditional house; the big publishers really only promote their top-tier authors.

Publishing with a Small Press

When you submit a story, either it goes into the general (slush) pile (if you haven’t published with the house before or it wasn’t requested from a pitch) or you send it directly to your editor.

Each imprint has a senior editor and several other editors under her. It’s unlikely that any of them are trained or accredited—most are authors themselves. Your editor reads your story, then sends it to several reader-evaluators, and if all agree, it then goes to the senior editor, who has to approve it. Only then will a contract be issued, and you can start working on your book.

The story will receive a combination of structural, developmental and grammatical editing. Once you and your editor are satisfied—for us, this was when we were moving commas around—it’s sent to a copy editor, who, again, is likely to be an author supplementing her income.

Your editor is paid as a percentage of your sales, but the copy editor is paid a set rate—it could be as low as $50 and is unlikely to be more than $300 for a full-length novel. Later, the manuscript goes back to the author for final approval; then it’s formatted, and a release date is set.

All this is done electronically. In all my years with Wild Rose, the only person I every physically met or spoke with was a senior editor—and that was for five minutes when I pitched her my original book at a conference.

I believe small presses are a good way to learn the ropes of publishing because you’re supported all along the way. And when that first bad review comes in, you can at least console yourself that there were several other people who thought your story was good enough to publish.

Becoming an Indie Author

But at a certain point, I wanted more control over my career and decided to take the leap to indie publishing.

In the last 10 years, more and more authors—even some well-known, traditionally published ones—have gone this route or become what is referred to as a hybrid author—meaning that some of their work is traditionally published, while other work—prequels/sequels or stories written in a different genre—is self-published. This has removed a lot of the stigma around indies, although I believe that readers don’t care who the publisher is, provided the story is engaging and readable.

After I’ve written a book and gone through it several times, I send it to a developmental/structural editor who is familiar with the genre and looks for things like consistency, pacing, and blind spots—such as writing a story that takes place around Christmas but never mentions anything Christmasy until the final Christmas Eve scene. That was a major rewrite.

I write my first draft in Scrivener, a comprehensive writing program that helps me keep track of character names and traits for the series as well as for each book. But when I’m in writing mode, I don’t always think to check or record them, so a lot is correcting after the fact using from Carolyn’s notes.

Having a quality product is the key to competing in the new publishing marketplace. This means a professional cover done to market as well as a book that is well edited in terms of content, structure, grammar, and spelling.

Authors can’t edit their own work. The fact that many think they can is the reason self-publishing has a bad rap. In my many years in corporate communications, I edited a lot of articles and reports, even books. I’ve taken editing courses to improve my skills. But I just can’t edit my own work as well as it needs to be done. The mindset of writing is completely different from that of editing, and even if I put my manuscript away for a few weeks and come back with fresh eyes, I can never fully overcome that writer’s perspective.

I believe readers appreciate the care we take in producing these books. Unless they’re complaining, reviews rarely mention a book’s editing, but here is a comment from a book blogger for A Shot of Murder: “The book design and editing are impeccable. In this day of sloppily assembled ebooks, I really appreciate the care that clearly went into this book’s production.”

The Charley Hall Mysteries

I self-published the Charley Hall Mystery Series last fall. These are cozy historical mysteries set in post–World War II Kingston.

Although technically they’re cozies because they’re small town–focused, the murders occur off-screen, there’s an amateur sleuth, and there’s no sex, they diff in that they lack some of the more cutsie or fantastical elements that are often found in cozies today. There are no talking cats. No ancient librarians. No culinary clichés. They’re more like the traditional mysteries of the 1930s and 40s, but with elements of today’s women’s fiction.

I set them in Kingston because I wanted a Canadian location. With its university, military base, prisons, the old asylum, as well as its history, Kingston offered limitless possibilities for plots and characters. The late 1940s interested me because the country was just emerging from World War II. There was a sense of fragility but also optimism as people tried to reclaim their lives. And for my heroine, it meant the expectation that she would give up many of her new-found freedoms to return to the traditional roles of wife and mother.

But setting the story in Canada created a dilemma: spelling conventions. By far the largest reader market is the United States, and in the past, all my books—set in Canada or the US—have used American spelling. For my Charley Hall series, I decided to risk the wrath of Amazon reviewers and use Canadian spelling. I really wanted these books to feature Canada. And so far, so good. I think the fact that they’re historical and have an international feel has helped. But I’m sure there is at least one one-star review complaining of spelling errors in my future.

Editor Carolyn Heald

Before starting to edit for Brenda, my background was in non-fiction—specifically in copy editing and proofreading (history, archival studies, genealogy); emphasis on grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.; emphasis on accuracy, correctness. I thought I wasn’t cut out for editing fiction, but I really enjoy it. It’s definitely a different skill, with different issues to look out for: plot, character, setting; dialogue doesn’t need to be grammatically correct.

The Editing

I do copy editing and proofreading, but will also point out things about plot, character, setting that don’t ring true or are confusing. When I read a manuscript, I look for errors (always see them more readily the first time) and read for plot (can’t read a mystery the same way twice).

For spelling, I use the Canadian Oxford; for style, Chicago Manual of Style, Canadian Press Style, and/or certain author’s preferences (e.g., all plural possessives end in s’). I keep a list of characters’ names, Kingston proper names, physical features, etc., and a list of style choices (e.g., abbreviations, capitalization, punctuation, number and time formats). I keep a timesheet (tend to work at 18 pages, or approximately 4,000 words, per hour). I edit in Word using Track Changes.

I act as a “beta reader,” and as a resident of Kingston, I add value by finding inconsistencies in names (Charley/Charlie), facts (Queen’s has a principal, not a president), terminology, and timing within the plot. I think I’ve loosened up (or learned more about fiction editing) over the five books. Sometimes I’ll recommend breaking the rules (e.g., ending a sentence with a preposition because it sounds better) or using fewer semicolons.

The Proofreading

I’ve proofread books as a Word file and as an epub on my Mac. In the latter case, there was a technical problem in that Brenda couldn’t read my edits, so we discussed them by phone. Both she and the designer provide additional sets of eyes.

I appreciate how good a writer Brenda is. The stories are focused and fast-paced. They don’t “head hop” but use close, third-person point of view and one point of view per scene. They don’t include a lot of superfluous detail, and the chapters end with good cliffhangers. I’m in awe that she can construct mysteries with clues and red herrings, and I’m impressed by what she knows or has researched.

Resources for Editing Fiction

About Brenda

Life is messy, and Brenda tries to reflect that in her stories while still leaving readers with a feeling of hope. She wants them to see themselves and the people they know in her characters.

You could say writing is in Brenda’s genes. Her paternal grandmother was a formidable diarist; her father was a journalist and poet; her sister and cousin are both published authors; even her son has shown a talent for putting pen to paper (or thumbs to keypad) to tell awesome stories. So it came as no surprise to anyone when she returned to her love of fiction after more than 20 years in the world of corporate communications—although some might argue there was plenty of opportunity for fiction writing there too.

A fan of many genres, Brenda finds it hard to stay within the publishing industry’s prescribed boxes. Whether it’s mystery, romantic suspense or women’s fiction, her greatest joy is creating deeply emotional books with memorable characters and compelling stories.

Brenda loves hearing from readers. You can connect with her through her website at BrendaGayle.com.

About Carolyn

Although not a professional editor, Carolyn has been editing almost all her life. From being asked to look over friends’ and colleagues’ papers and reports to taking on the general editorship of the academic journal Archivaria, she’s honed her skills through practice and editing courses.

She began her career as an archivist at the Archives of Ontario, slid into records management and privacy at York University, and is now the Chief Privacy Officer for Queen’s University, where she also runs the records management program.

Carolyn joined the Editors Association of Canada in the early 2000s, briefly ran her own part-time editorial business, and went back to full-time government work when she realized that a pension and benefits are better than starting on the bottom rung in your forties.

In addition to her day job, she volunteers as co-editor of the annual Irish Palatine Association Journal, based in County Limerick, Ireland, and is editor and proofreader for her sister’s series of mystery novels set in Kingston.

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