Everyone Needs a Good Editor


Most of you here know me as an author and book raconteur, but the bulk of my time is spent editing other people’s books.

I’ve been doing this professionally for over twenty years and find it very gratifying to help an author make the book the best it can be. The quality of manuscripts I get for editing varies widely, but usually if there is a kernel of a good plot and a few compelling characters, it can be transformed with tweaking, content editing and copy editing into something that shines and sings, that is, a winner.

Savvy, market-smart authors, particularly the best writers, recognize the high value a good edit imparts to their books, a value that often translates to increased recognition and sales. They wouldn’t dream of foregoing a professional edit for they know they cannot catch  everything, they are too close to it, and really dumb errors will be invisible to them after working on a manuscript for a length of time. And those errors will wind up, to their great embarrassment, in the published book, significantly detracting from the positive impression the author wants to make.

Novice writers, on the other hand,  in their rush to publish and urge to skimp, often skip this critical editing step and, sadly, reap what they sow: poor reviews and poor sales. Readers are an unforgiving lot; today they will not tolerate a poorly edited book. They call you out on them in many cases in reviews, blog posts and Face Book, compounding the problem and spreading the bad news.

A professional edit protects you from this potential public ridicule and increases exponentially the chances of your book in the marketplace. Don’t skimp on it, consider it insurance against a natural disaster endangering the life of your beloved book you’ve worked so hard on.

To reach me with editing queries, email margaret@margaretlangstaffeditorial.com or visit my site Margaret Langstaff Editorial for additional information

Posted in book marketing, Literature | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Writing Rules: Avoid the Hoopdedoodle

elmoreElmore Leonard, the modern master of the “low life” detective story and mystery, was one of my favorite contemporary writers and when he died a few years ago I felt a personal loss of a very unique, important voice on matters literary.  Most will know him from the great movies made from his books, like “Get Shorty” (John Travolta) and “The 3:10 to Yuma” (Russell Crowe).

The strong points of his books were distinctive unforgettable characters and drop dead dialog. Elmore could do more with dialog than most writers could with their whole bag of tricks.  It’s a gift, but one that can be cultivated if you pay close attention to how people really speak and render that in your fiction accurately.

Anyway, a passing reference to Leonard in a column recently brought to mind how much I truly owe him, for he taught me so much by example and made a huge difference in my own writing.

He had a word for all the extraneous frippery some novice writers load into their books: hoopededoodle. It should be avoided at all costs. It is death to a work of fiction.

At one point in his life not too long ago at the pestering of understudies, he put together his “10 Rules of Writing,” showing how to do this, which I share with you here for your own edification:)

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

“My most important rule is one that sums up the 10,” he wrote. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Nuff said.

For a more in depth look at the rules of the road a la Leonard, check out this NYT article
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/entertainment/movies/Elmore-Leonards-10-Rules-of-Good-Writing.html#hIatAzrZwYJqmdt8.99

Posted in Literature, publishing | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Best American Novels? from The American Scholar

[Something to argue about.]

One Hundred Best American Novels, 1770 to 1985 (a Draft)

A reading enthusiast’s list

By David Handlin

About a year ago I put an end to my indiscriminate reading habits. I resolved to read, at least for the time being, only American novels. But I quickly understood that, even within that limited scope, I could be almost as indiscriminate as before. Therefore, to give my reading purpose and focus, I decided to make a project of it. I would compile a list of the 100 Best American Novels, 1770–1985.

A month into this exercise, I suddenly understood what I was doing. I was filling some of the gaps in my undergraduate education. Since college I have been a devoted reader, but for almost five decades my primary focus has been architecture—studying it, teaching it, writing about it, and practicing it.

I write, then, as an enthusiast, not as a scholar. I know something of the difference. I took courses with two preeminent scholars of American literature, Perry Miller and Alan Heimert. Perhaps more consequentially, I was fortunate to be considered a friend by the late Michael Davitt Bell, one of the major scholars of American literature of his generation. While compiling this list I reread his books, filled with wisdom and humor, and was delighted to discover that in 1975 he edited and wrote the introduction to an edition of the improbably titled Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca (1770), the first American novel. I see Bell smiling now at the preposterous nature of my undertaking, while also urging me on and wanting to join in.

Since I can already hear your questions and even protests, I will address them by following my list with a brief discussion of each of the words in my title. (I have rendered in bold the 10 novels I like best.) ….

[Read the rest (and the list) at The American Scholar]

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Music to My Ears

After three years my MARLIN, DARLIN keeps on garnering great reviews. The latest —

5.0 out of 5 stars Thrills, Chills, rofl, Realism, and Just Plain Good Writin’!, February 8, 2015
This review is from: Marlin, Darlin': Garnet Sullivan Live from Florida (Kindle Edition)

As a journalist myself…early in my career…I have to first point out, “It really is like Langstaff describes it–the wit, the sarcasm, the backstabbing, the bickering! Kinda’ like siblings. By the same token, ‘they’ can slam’ya, but no one else better try it. Unless they’re busy, of course…”

“Marlin, Darlin'” has it all. Fast-packed action, great storytelling, humor, mystery…Did I mention the dead body hooked to a fish? Well, part of him…

Lush, beautiful descriptions of Florida and other picturesque scenes and the icky stuff as well, but realism is realism. Can’t have one without the t’other…

This review is not like me. I’m not usually so tongue-in-cheek, but ya’ just can’t help it after reading “Marlin Darlin'”. I even sound like a southerner. Yeah, I’m from the southern part of Cleveland.

Margaret Jean Langstaff is delicious! No spoilers–just read it! The whole series. You’re gonna love Sullivan and Chester and the rest of the cast of characters…emphasis on “character” and not in the refined sense.

There are some books you gulp and some books you savor. You’ll be gulping till the final page and then beg for more. Thank goodness it’s a series. Whew! Don’t forget to breathe!



Posted in Book Reviews, Literature | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

There’s Something About a Man in Uniform

soldierThis is off topic for this literary blog (unless I try to tie it to the many fine novels written about the travails of the military in wartime, which I won’t.).  But I observed an incident at the checkout at the grocery store yesterday I’m burning to share.

It was one of those all too rare personal interactions showing respect and appreciation for our men in uniform and it brought tears to my eyes.

A young man in Army combat fatigues with his young son in tow was ahead of me in the checkout line. He had just a handful of items and his darling kid was brandishing a cold Dr. Pepper. When it came time to pay, the soldier realized he left his wallet in the car, so he told the cashier to hold his stuff while he ran outside to get it.

As he and his son dashed out the door, the woman who had been ahead of him and had just finished making her purchase observed all of this.  When she did, and after he was out the door, she came back and gave the cashier a ten to pay for the guy’s groceries, insisting she take it, even though she could assume he had the funds to pay for them himself.

“No, really. I want to do this, take the money!  It’s the least I can do! Take it!”  The cashier was abashed–as was I–it was such an unlooked for gesture of generosity and appreciation, completely out of the blue, our jaws dropped. The woman then instantly disappeared after receiving her change, before the soldier returned, wanting no thanks or recognition whatsoever.

No sooner than she did, the soldier blew back through the door, his son tugging at his pants saying he sure hoped his Dr. Pepper was still there!

I let him go ahead of me, both the cashier and I blurting nonsensically to him at once about the “nice lady” who’d paid for his things. He looked off into the distance and frowned for a sec, then a smile a big as Texas spread across his face when he took the gesture as a compliment, the compliment that had been intended. Sonny boy hadn’t a clue about what was going on but was relieved to find his Dr. Pepper in the bag with the other things, including the paid receipt.  It was all too cute, but such a surprise as to seem surreal.

These things don’t happen every day, small gestures of anonymous appreciation that mean so much.

I choked up paying for my few things right after that and shuffled off to my car in a muddle of admiration for the thoughtful kind woman and personal heartache that I so rarely went out of my way to thank the men defending our freedom and way of life.

I should, and now will, do more.  All of us should, don’t you think?

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Writers, Is it a calling or a job? NYTBR

I don’t know how something can be both interesting and pedestrian at the same time. In this case it may be that it’s interesting that the New York Times Book Review has chosen to spotlight so pedestrian an essay about “Oh, wow, I’m a writer. What does that mean?”
The lack of a single original thought or metaphor makes it no less curious that the NYTBR devoted space and ink to it. Talk about dumbing down (a trend there).
An excerpt–
“Is Being a Writer a Job or a Calling?” by Benjamin Moser

Even the best writing won’t have the immediate, measurable impact of a doctor’s work, or a plumber.

When, in adolescent secrecy, I began making my way from reading to writing, the writers who attracted me, the writers I wanted to be, were those who conceived of the writer as a member of a priestly caste, those whose view of literature as a means of understanding the self and the world offered a noble possibility for my life. Those writers who touched me were those who had wanted, literally, to make something of themselves; and who offered me and others a means of understanding, and thus of elevating, our everyday lives.

Perhaps I was given to vocations — but vocations, as opposed to ambitions, were not much appreciated in high school; and, as when I returned from a week in a Benedictine monastery and knew not to mention how badly I had wanted to stay, I never mentioned the exalted idea I had been forming of writing. The earnestness, the vehemence the notion implied were so at odds with the surrounding ethos that it took me much longer to admit wanting to write than to admit wanting to sleep with men.
That teenage vision of Parnassus was followed by years of sitting at the computer, fighting off feelings of boredom with work and frustration with self, as visions of art were replaced by visions of picking up the dry cleaning. “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” Thomas Mann said; and it is good that no beginner suspects how torturous writing is, or how little it improves with practice, or how the real rejections come not from editors but from our own awareness of the gap yawning between measly talent and lofty vocation. Fear of that gap destroys writers: through the failure of purpose called writer’s block; through the crutches we use to carry us past it.

No young writer can know how rare inspiration is — or how, in its place, the real talent turns out to be sitting down, propelling oneself, day after day, through the self-doubt surrounding our nebulous enterprise, trying to believe, as when we began, that writing is important. Not to believe that literature — other people’s writing — is important. But to believe that our own writing, imperfect, unfinished, inevitably falling short, might matter to anyone else.

We never know if we are doing it right. Even the best writing will never have the immediate, measurable impact that a doctor’s work has, or a plumber’s. To discover if we are on the right track, we can, and do, become obsessed with our “careers,” which is the word we use for what other people think of us. And we secretly welcome the unanswered emails and unpaid royalties that beleaguer us as they do every working life — their whiff of bureaucracy making us feel part of the adult world. Because, hard as it is, writing rarely feels like a real job ….

Read the rest at “Is Being a Writer a Calling or a Job?”

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Oh, The Joys and Hardships of Revision!

As every serious writer knows, a good book has to be assiduously and meticulously revised to reach a satisfactory (if not “perfect”) state before publication.  After the initial flush of inspiration, one must go back over the text word by word, line by line, to make sure the writer has effectively said what he or she meant to say.

This process can be by turns fun and infuriating and laborious. But it simply cannot be skipped or the resultant manuscript is doomed to be malformed dreck.  You can bet on it.

I thought the writers here would appreciate some vivid examples of just how hard our very best authors worked the revision thing. It’s gratifying to know we are not alone, but in excellent company!

proustProust’s maniacal revisions of Remembrance of Things Past

jane austenSome of Jane Austen’s own edits of Persuasion

great expectations msCharles Dickens’ revisions of first paragraph of Great Expectations

So take heart, writers, nobody ever said writing great prose was easy or dropped like ripe apples fully formed and polished from the pen or keyboard. Hang in there and re-work it until it sings!

For an affordable professional humdinger edit, something I’ve been doing for over 25 years, contact me through Margaret Langstaff Editorial.

Posted in fiction, Literature, novel, writing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments