Tag Archives: Editing

Writing writing writing… and UNSUB is coming


My new thriller, UNSUB, will be published June 27th. This week I’m getting ready — planning my travel for the book tour, writing articles, doing interviews, and honing my ninja skills to a high level. As you do.

I’m also working on the sequel to this novel. So I’ve been editing a fight scene. Which means I asked the Husband to teach me how to take down a knife-wielding home invader, using only a leather belt and some momentum. As you do. Unlike a few years ago, this time I managed to act out the fictional fight without scaring the neighbors or my children. That’s a win.

And after going for my husband with a wrench (standing in for the knife), I feel confident that in real life he would have disarmed me and laid me out flat in less than a second. I’m glad I have him in the house. And I re-confirmed my decision never to take up home burglary.

The fight scene I wrote today will be published in 2018. In the meanwhile, you can preorder UNSUB.

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon | iBooks

Book People | Murder by the Book

August Editing


I’m finishing a major round of edits on my new novel. To give you a glimpse of the process, here are a few of the comments my editor wrote in the margins of my first draft.

“I would put this conversation under the microscope and consider making it more emotionally charged.”

Translation: Cut the characters’ too-clever banter. Instead, consider their emotional distress, think about the conflict between them, and dig deep to give this scene some real impact.

“Does the sartorial choice make her seem too cartoonish?”

Yes. I’ll cut the description. Even though, when I picture the character in my mind, she actually does wear Hello Kitty sneakers.

“I think having this uttered in two lines is a little awkward and maybe too much. How about: ‘F*** me, Mother Mary.’ Or ‘F*** me with a telephone pole.'”

Translation: My editor is awesome. (Also: in the manuscript, those aren’t asterisks.)

“I feel like he would notice the heavy bleeding immediately…”

Oops. Right. Fixed.

“I love this.”

Thank you. This comment makes all the hours of work worth it.

And so you know: The photo above signifies nothing metaphorical. I just liked the sight of last night’s clouds getting feisty around sundown.

Editmania 2016


I’m editing the rough draft of my new novel. Picture me scribbling on printouts, and stabbing the delete key, and sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night, muttering, “This story needs a monkey.”

(Not really. Agent and editor: stop breathing into those paper bags.)

Often when editmania descends — and damn you, autocorrect, editmania is ONE WORD; STOP CHANGING IT — I lock myself in the writing bunker. This time, I tried something new. I strapped myself into a series of jet aircraft and edited at 30,000 feet, where there was no wifi and I had a nice little tray table desk, and well-attired people brought me coffee. That worked splendidly, as I flew from Austin to Key West to Orange County, California, and back to Austin, until my pen exploded from the altitude. Special thanks to my fellow passengers, who rescued me from all the ink. It did wash off in the end.

So now I’m back to the bunker. I’m going in, and closing the blast door behind me. Here, have a picture of some flowers to hold you until I come out again.

Ask Me Anything: Editing a Novel

Today I’m answering a couple of questions about editing novels.

Greg Lewolt asks:

“Editing, what condition is your manuscript in when you finally send it off to get edited? How much freedom do they have to make changes?, and what is the Capital of Washing D.C?, I can’t find the answer anywhere…”

When I deliver a manuscript to my publisher, it’s complete. It has “Chapter 1” and “The End” and everything in between. But it’s rough. By design, I pound out the first draft just to get the story down on paper.

My editor knows that what’s coming will be ugly. I submit a first draft so that she can see the gargoyle while it’s young. That way, she can offer editorial suggestions sooner rather than later.

As for the publisher’s freedom to make changes: they have plenty. But they’ve never, ever forced a change on me. That’s largely because, by the time I submit the first draft, my agent and editor have gone through months of brainstorming and development with me, listening to my ideas for the book, for the basic plot, for the characters. They offer suggestions and let me know if my ideas aren’t going to fly. By the time I actually write the novel, they’ve seen outlines and treatments and are confident that the book is going to work as a whole.

When I deliver a manuscript, my editor at Penguin Random House reads it and sends me an editorial letter. Every author gets one of these. It consists of many pages of comments and proposed edits. We authors generally spend a day or two standing over these letters with a blowtorch before deciding that yes, the editor knows what she’s talking about, and the changes she suggests will strengthen the novel. But, as the editor always tells me: the letter is the beginning of a conversation about the book. It’s not a decree.

After I rewrite, my editor will read the revised manuscript and offer additional notes. Once I revise again (and maybe again), she sends the book to a copyeditor. The copyeditor reads for continuity, grammar, spelling, usage, plot holes, and factual errors. When those edits come back, I have the freedom to accept or reject any changes.

I sit in my office all year, alone, typing. But publishing a book is a collaborative process. And all my novels are better for it.

DJ Paterson asks:

“I’ve got a two-parter for you, Meg O’Death:

a) If you compared that first dirty draft to the polished gem of a published novel, what percentage will have survived the rounds of editing (and I’m talking about physical words, sentences, paragraphs, and not story)?

b) In your writing process, how long does it take you to wrangle a first draft into shape compared to getting that original draft down on paper?

Actually, maybe this is only one question, asked in two different ways.”

I’d guess that half the words in the rough draft end up in the same position in the published novel. That’s because I deliberately write shitty first drafts, and because I’ve learned not to be precious about each and every word.

It takes me three or four months to write the first draft of a novel. (2,000 words a day, 5-7 days a week.) It takes around two months to do the first major rewrite. Honestly, I enjoy rewriting. Because, after I edit, the book is so much better. Every single time.

Your mileage may vary.

Washing D.C.? To do that, you’d need a firehose with enough water pressure to clean out the entire Capitol.

Ask Me Anything: How can an average person get their life story published?

Dana Jean writes:

I have a friend (yes, this is true, this is not me) and he has a really interesting non-fiction story to tell about life in a certain field of work. I have encouraged him to write about it, but he is so reluctant as he is embarrassed about his grammar, punctuation, spelling — he won’t do it.

How does someone with no contact at all with anything or anyone in the publishing field, how would he find a ghostwriter, or a really good, reliable editor? Could he approach an agent with the idea, and just honestly lay out his weaknesses and see if an agent would be interested and then set him up with someone?

The publishing world seems so snooty. So many really good stories out there in people (especially the elderly) who grew up in a time when some had to work a farm instead of getting an education, and we are missing out on history by insisting every comma be in the right place, and spacing be just so, and and and…

Any ideas I could pass onto him?

This is a great question. Capturing first person accounts is wonderful and important. Preserving these accounts for the future is vital.

Finding a commercial publisher for them is a different matter. Who would the story be written for? Family? The historical record? The general public? If somebody wants to get their memoir commercially published, they need to think about its appeal to readers. Is there a large potential audience for this story? Will the author’s voice delight them? Will the tale the author tells hold readers spellbound?

Hiring a ghostwriter would be expensive, and isn’t generally what agents do for would-be clients. As for finding an editor: I’m going to hand you over to someone far more knowledgeable about both editing and memoir writing.

From Ann Aubrey Hanson:

I’m sorry to hear this, Dana Jean. Unfortunately, your friend’s situation is not uncommon. Many people who can and should be telling their stories are inhibited by not being “literary” enough, or fearing that their lack of grammar and punctuation skills are game-enders.

But that’s not the case. In this situation, I would suggest one of two options, both of which I have offered to clients before, and both of which work out.

First, I would suggest that people opt to write a memoir rather than a novel. This isn’t the same as writing an autobiography, but rather is a collection of memories that are woven together into a framework.

I have offered classes as well as individual memoir writing lessons, in which I help people such as your friend to get their stories out, one vignette at a time, until we are able to see the narrative framework that works best for their life story. This is rewarding for the memoirist, as well as for me. I’ve worked with people from age 26 to 98, and each story has been eye opening.

The benefit of working individually or in a small group for memoir writing is that the author gets immediate feedback on his or her work, not only on content but also with respect to grammar, punctuation, and writing style. In this way, the author can improve, learning along the way.

The second option is to write their story/novel, and then to find an editor who will revamp the writing into correct English. This is less advantageous for the author, who won’t learn as much unless she or he studies the edits carefully. But it has the advantage of allowing the author to get the words on paper without worrying about grammar or style.

One caution, however. If a writer contacts an editor, that writer must be willing to pay for services, and not ask for a special discount since the writer is “new to this” and doesn’t “have much money.” The writer’s amateur status means more work for the editor, and logically the editor should charge more. Typically, I don’t do that, but I certainly don’t charge less. If a writer is serious about improving the written word, then the writer must pay for professional editing.

In either case, memoir writing guidance or after-the-fact editing, your friend and others with stories to tell should simply tell those stories, if not for general publication then for their families and friends and neighbors who might enjoy their unique life story. An African proverb says, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Please tell your friend, Dana Jean, not to let his library burn before he records the stories of his life!

As always, I am here to help as memoir coach or editor.


Thanks, Ann. Good luck to your friend, Dana Jean.

First-page critique: Slow Dissolve

Here’s a new first-page critique from me and freelance editor Ann Aubrey Hanson. The page is immediately below, followed by Ann’s and my comments. Thanks to the author for submitting.



Brody Doyle laid the small bouquet of wildflowers at the base of the headstone, picked up the dead bunch that was lying there, crushed the dried petals in his hand then let them blow away on an unusually strong wind. It felt like fall, or as close as Southern California ever got to fall. They both knew what real fall was like – the smell of molding leaves, the crackle in the air followed soon after by snow so high you could lay down in it and disappear.

He missed the snow a little. Missed the fall a lot. Missed the old days even more. Not the days back East. Those days when they were a pair and on top of the world. Just the beginning, was what people said, but it turned out to be the end. The end for both of them, in very different ways, but still the end. Who knew? If he’d known, he would have done things differently, would have savored the moments instead of rushing through them like a child turned loose in a toy store.

With a gentle, reverent touch, Brody stroked the top of the headstone then ran a single finger over the name etched in the face. Then he rearranged the flowers, photos and teddy bears that had been left there by strangers. Even in death, he drew them in.

He can’t be dead. I just saw him on TV yesterday. He’s living, breathing, smiling, captivating the camera, and in turn, the audience with his mischievous grin. And that’s the way he’ll stay forever. Never growing old. Never changing. Never having to see the disappointment in the eyes of a fan when they realize you don’t look anything like the man they remember. They’ve aged, one hundred pounds and bifocals, but still they’re surprised to find you’ve aged, too. Not such bad shape for a man of fifty. Still trim. Still blond and the eyes are still just as blue.

Dorian Gray had his portrait. We have TV.


My comments:

This page drew me in with vivid imagery and an intriguing set-up. It starts in a good spot: in the middle of a scene (thank you!) and at a moment that naturally creates suspense. It features only one character—a tactic I usually warn writers to avoid, because scenes with a solo character tend to be static and can devolve into soggy interior monologue. But in this case, there’s a second spectral character in the picture: Brody’s dead partner. And his presence, beneath the headstone, is what creates the scene’s tension and suspense. What happened to the dead guy? It raises a primal question. Readers will turn the page to find the answer.

The writing is skilled; I feel confident that in this author’s hands, I’ll be led into a story expertly told. The author reveals details smoothly, by showing rather than telling the scene. “Then he rearranged the flowers, photos and teddy bears that had been left there by strangers,” elegantly reveals that the dead man was a celebrity. And the final line is fantastic: “Dorian Gray had his portrait. We have TV.”

My suggestions relate to adjectives. (1) Cut many of them. Write wherever possible with strong nouns and verbs that stand on their own without modifiers. (2) In a number of spots the author uses multiple adjectives where a single, more particular word might create a more vivid impression. For example, “the small bouquet of wildflowers” in the opening sentence would be stronger without “small.” Wildflowers are the distinctive thing. And “Unusually strong wind” may accurately describe the weather, but “unusually” seems bland in the situation. “swirling wind” or “savage wind” would create a stronger image. Same with “Not such bad shape for a man of fifty.” “Decent shape” or even “not bad shape” would be stronger.

And I know the author wants to leave the dead man’s name a mystery for now, but referring to him only as “he” becomes confusing. In the third paragraph, “he” refers in one sentence to Brody, and in the next to Brody’s dead partner. This stops the reader. That would be the spot to say, “Even in death, Joe Bob drew them in.” (If Joe Bob is actually his name, let me know.)

In sum: another strong first page. I would eagerly keep reading.

Ann’s Comments:

This is an appealing first page. I am curious about the “you” in the story, and who Brody is to the main character.

One of the first comments I would make is the inconsistent us of him/you within the narration. I would suggest naming the other character early on if he is to be referred to in the third person, or stick to one point of view, rather than switching as you do at the end.

I agree with Meg’s critique comments. This is a strong opening page, and you write well, clearly, enticingly.

I also agree with the comments about adjectives. Mark Twain said to use adjectives as though you had to pay for them. That’s sage advice. (See the use of adjective there? Sometimes, adjectives are needed for emphasis. Other times, they are just useless filler.) You write, “with a gentle, reverent touch…” I would hardly expect a reverent touch to be anything but gentle…

However, you should also be aware of the cadence of your writing. I highly recommend reading it aloud. Sometimes, reading a sentence aloud will provide a better sense of the cadence of a sentence. Take this example:

“He missed the snow a little. Missed the fall a lot. Missed the old days even more. Not the days back East. Those days when they were a pair and on top of the world. Just the beginning, was what people said, but it turned out to be the end. The end for both of them, in very different ways, but still the end. Who knew? If he’d known, he would have done things differently, would have savored the moments instead of rushing through them like a child turned loose in a toy store.”

The paragraph works as it is, but it is choppy. I think some of the truncated sentences might be blended for better cadence. “Not the days back East, when they were a pair and on top of the world.” Boom. Better rhythm.

All said, however, I would continue reading. You hooked me. Well done.

Here’s your chance to get the first page of your manuscript critiqued

I’ve often talked here about writing: story structure, character development, conflict, action, dialogue, revision, editing — the elements of craft and style. Now I’m going give you a taste of how editorial review works. By giving you the chance to submit the first page of your manuscript for critique here on the blog.

Here’s the deal:

I’m teaming up with my friend Ann Aubrey Hanson (AKA Snart) to offer up to five people a first-page critique. I’m an author and have taught writing courses at the University of California and workshops in the US, England, and Europe. Ann is a writer and editor who has also taught fiction writing at the UCSD Extension program as well as in writing workshops in the US. She’s a veteran journalist, newspaper editor, experienced freelance editor, and writing coach.

Here’s how it works:

Submit the first page of your manuscript — 400 words maximum. We post the selected entries along with our critiques both here and on Ann’s blog, The Writing Itch.

If you want to participate, email me the first page of your manuscript. Ann and I will choose 1-5 submissions from the first 20 entries.

Email your first page in the body of the email. That means: don’t send it as an attachment. Put the text in the email.

Send it to: meg@meggardiner.com.
Subject line: CRITIQUE [Title]

We’ll post critiques of the chosen pages anonymously. The writers’ names will not be posted. However, readers will be able to comment on each post, and if the author wants to jump in and identify him or herself, that will be fine.

Who’s in?

UPDATE: We have a full complement of entries, so the submission period is closed. Thanks to everybody who sent a first page — we’ll let you know when critiques are posted.

My writing advice: Know who’s behind the headlights

At Interviewing Authors, Tim Knox gets me to talk about thrillers, editing, and the winding road I took to becoming a novelist.

You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript:

Meg Gardiner: There are such things as starter novels. Some things are better used for instruction and practice and then lovingly put in a drawer and locked up and thrown over a cliff into a quarry where they’ll be covered with rocks and never seen again.

More at the link.

At The Big Thrill, I’m talking about how editors help writers

Big Thrill logo jpg

Over at The Big Thrill, the magazine of the International Thriller Writers, I’m taking part in this week’s Thriller Roundtable. The topic: How Has an Editor’s Advice Helped with Your Story?

Here’s a bit of what I have to say:

What I’ve learned after working with editors on twelve novels:

Good editors have a 30,000 foot view of a manuscript. They see the forest AND the trees. They take a thorough look at plot and character. They see ways to hone the story, and to bring out elements that are swamped or underdeveloped in my first draft.

Drop on by to read more of what I, Ridley Pearson, Kate White, Tim Waggoner, and other authors have to say. Join the conversation over there if you’d like.

Editing: from ignition to orbit

Writing a novel is a multi-stage process. It took me years to fully understand this — to realize and accept that you can’t do it all at once. And at every stage of development, a writer should expect suggestions, critiques, and corrections, along with (you hope) enthusiasm for the story.

Here are the stages of development, and the kind of comments I might hear at each of them:

1. Brainstorming (“I like the plot, right up to the point where you suggest, ‘The heroine finds out that her mom runs a secret government lab that is cloning the winners of American Idol.’ Maybe something not quite so sci fi?”)

2. Drafting (“140,000 words? I know you wanted to let the writing flow, but… hey, you fell asleep on the keyboard for about 40 pages here, didn’t you?”)

3. Rewrite (“The story features cops named Darryl, Derrel, Darrel, and his other brother Daril. Do you need all of them? And I thought you said you were going to get rid of the clones.”)

4. Revision (“The heroine has three fights to the death with villains on the beach. How about moving at least one of those to the car wash?”)

5. Polish (“‘She fought him to the death in a frothy foam of slick bubbling sudsy slick soap on the floor of the car wash.’ Maybe cut the second ‘slick?'”)

6. Copy editing (Note from copy editor: “Do car washes use soap, or industrial strength detergent? Please clarify.”)

7. Proofreading (Proofreader changes “I have a sawed off shotgun” to “I have a piece of spearmint gum.” Author deletes proofreader’s correction. Changes text to “shotgum.”)

8. Reader feedback (“You don’t know what you’re talking about. The correct term isn’t shotgum, it’s bubble gun.”)

If you get to stage 8, consider yourself successful.

The questions I get from copyeditors

I’m digging, word by word, through the copyedited manuscript of my new novel, The Shadow Tracer. This means I answer the copyeditor’s questions about everything from verb choice to the accuracy of facts included in the story. Some of the questions I’m dealing with for this novel:

1. Should the name Zoe have an umlaut over the e — Zoë? Answer: No. While I love Zoë Sharp as an author and a friend, I don’t want the character in my book to spend her life adding little dots over the final vowel in her name.

2. Did I misspell “crack” as “crank”? Answer: No. They’re two different drugs, and I know which one the evil dude was smoking.

3. Don’t cicadas hatch only once every 17 years? Answer: One variety does. Other varieties are annual — they hatch every year. And after listening to a dozen recordings of their freakishly loud humming, I am positive not only that the insects mentioned in the novel are dog-day cicadas, but that they will haunt my nightmares for months to come.

4. Should shitstorm be one word or two? Answer: I trust the copyeditor’s grammatalogical investigation of the term, and agree that it should be one word.

5. How would a bunch of criminals get hold of a police scanner? Answer: Easy. They’d just do like the rest of us, and buy it on their cell phone from the app store.

6. Does U.S. 60 intersect I-40 in the Texas panhandle? Answer: Wow, did you know that with Google Street View you can take a virtual drive on the highway from Texas all the way up to the Oklahoma/New Mexico/Colorado border? I’d always wondered what the “three corners” spot looked like, and now I know.

7. What about the footprints in the snow? Answer: I’m working on it. I’m working on it.

Half a page of edits

Just so you know what my work looks like at the moment: Here’s half a page of my manuscript for The Shadow Tracer. Lines in red are my additions to the current draft. Lines struck through in red are cuts I’ve made. Strike-throughs in blue come from my editor.

Those few black lines of text? Those are words I’ve left alone.

By the way, the manuscript currently prints out at 424 pages.

The Shining like you’ve never seen it

Editing is everything.

I’m in the Colorado Rockies, so this seemed apropos. Now where’s my typewriter?

This week: Hammersmith, Datchet, editing

This week I’m speaking at a couple of libraries. About thrillers. And writing. And how I work.

Tuesday 27 September 6:30-7:30 p.m.
Hammersmith Library
Shepherds Bush Road
W6 7AT
Enquiries 020 8753 3823

Friday 30 September 7:30 p.m.
Datchet Library
Montagu House
8 Horton Road
Tel: 01753 545310
email: datchet.library@rbwm.gov.uk

The rest of the week I’m wrestling the new novel into readable shape, finishing the first draft. Or, as they say in The Princess Bride, “Climbing the Cliffs of Insanity.”

Fun times! Maybe I’ll see some of you. At the libraries.