- by Dara Girard
I’ve been in the publishing business for over 20 years, and have been reading fiction for longer than that. When I was in grade school I tried to hide my mom’s hardcover Gone With The Wind inside my Dick and Jane reader. I got caught, learned my lesson, and hid my mom’s paperbacks instead.
I still feel the same sense of joy and discovery when I read a non–clichéd, well written, character–driven novel. I want to BE THERE, in the scene. For example, I don’t want to know that General Santa Anna was captured in 1836. I prefer to know that he was naked except for his underpants.
My publishing house, Five Star, is an imprint of Gale, part of Cengage Learning. Our first edition mysteries have earned starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus and Booklist. Many have been nominated for major awards.
You’ve been a Weight Watchers lecturer, a singer, an actress and presently you’re a multi-published author under two pen names. What made you decide to edit fiction?
Once upon a long time ago, bestselling author Emily Carmichael asked me to edit an historical romance she’d sold on proposal. I agreed, and the book was contracted without a single edit or revision. Word spread and I established my free-lance editing service, Stray Cat Productions, where 90% of my clients were authors who’d sold on proposals and/or signed two and three book contracts. I’d edit the manuscripts before submission.
That led to my position as an Associate Editor for book packager, Tekno-Books. After 6 years with Tekno, Five Star offered me the Senior Editor position. I begged, er, asked if I could respond to authors’ queries and submissions in a reasonable amount of time—weeks rather than months—and they said yes.
Here’s a funny story: In one of Emily’s novels, the hero had a pet wolf that followed him everywhere. In a vividly-written scene, the hero fought several outlaws. Even though he was outnumbered, he won the fight. I wrote in the margin: WHERE’S THE WOLF? It’s become a catch phrase at my house. When I edit my husband, novelist Gordon Aalborg, a.k.a. Victoria Gordon, or he edits me, and we come upon something illogical, we say, “Where’s the wolf?”
Are your favorite pleasure reads markedly different from the fiction you edit?
Only when it comes to genre. I read, edit and write mysteries, but I like to read (and write) sagas. I also like to read (and write) horror. In fact, my mystery-horror novel, Fifty Cents For Your Soul, inspired by events that occurred during the filming of The Exorcist, is due out this fall.
I’ve always loved, and still love, a good historical romance—except I no longer have to hide a book like Heaven’s Thunder (by Mary Ellen Dennis) inside a school reader
What kinds of manuscripts do you acquire? Who are some of the writers with whom you work?
I will consider manuscripts from 65,000 to 120,000 words in any subgenre of mystery including but not limited to: Cozy/Amateur Sleuth, Hard-boiled/Private eye, Traditional, Psychological, Police procedural, Suspense, Thriller, Historical, Humorous, Medical Thriller and Romantic Suspense. We do not accept: Nonfiction, Poetry, Memoirs, Short Story Collections, Autobiographies, or Children and Young Adult literature.
What turns me off: I don’t like forewarnings: “If he had only known she’d be dead by nightfall, he’d have kissed her goodbye.” I don’t care for travelogues (“She drove down highway 140, took the Duma Key exit, turned right on Stephen King Lane then left on 39th Ave…”).
I practically scream aloud when the character is TSTL (Too Stupid To Live). Example: A heroine who agrees to come alone to meet someone at midnight in a deserted graveyard, forest or shopping mall. I cringe when a character says, “I know who killed Professor Plum with that candlestick, but I can’t tell you over the phone!” (DEAD! Trust me, he or she will be DEAD before the start of the next chapter!)
Another example of TSTL is a protagonist who hears a noise in the basement and decides to check it out, minus—at the very least—a semi-automatic or a trusty rottweiler.
I work with lots of first-book authors (and I do a Snoopy dance when they receive rave reviews). Sappy as it sounds, that’s my way of paying it forward. So many published authors encouraged me (I did a dozen rewrites of my first mystery about diet club members getting killed off at goal weight—editors kept telling me it was “too funny” J). I wouldn’t be published were it not for Jasmine Cresswell and Maggie Osborne, both of whom went out of their way to help me.
I work with far too many authors to list them all here, but they include Edgar-nominated Kate Flora, Edgar winner Richard Helms, best-selling authors Jonnie Jacobs, Robert Levinson, Fran Baker (recently nominated for the American Association of University Women’s Thorpe Menn award), Left Coast Crime “Lefty” winners Kelli Stanley and Linda Richards, and Agatha-nominated Amanda Flower.
Newer writers can be desperate when it comes to publication. Can you share some funny queries you’ve received?
The people reading this blog will think I’m Cruella De Vil—collecting wonky queries rather than Dalmatian pelts—but here are 4 of my favorites:
1] I hope you will read the entire manuscript since, in my own opinion, it starts very slowly and I have not yet, even after several re-writes, found a way to get around this. I have been told Part two is better than Part One.
2] My book is a Romantic Schizophrenic love story. Target audience whole planet.
3] If I format, I’ll have to proof the whole manuscript. ** Please note** Writing is a recreational pass time.
4] Please let me know when we can meet to talk about my book. Next week would be ideal as I will be off my meds!
And here’s my favorite wonky synopsis: Not to give too much away but the lead character goes from bottom to top to bottom again and it’s quite the rollercoaster ride along the way.
How do you balance the commercial with the literary value of a book, either in your buying decisions or your editorial approach?
I often get submissions from multi-published authors who have been unable to contract a book because it “pushes the envelope.” I love those books and will fight tooth and nail for them to be included in our list. However, “literary value” is difficult to define.
Last year an author described his submission as a “literary mystery.” His idea of “literary” was to eschew quotation marks. While the author considered his quirky punctuation literary, I thought it pretentious.
Here’s a reality check: If I don’t believe a book has commercial value, I can’t, in all honesty, fight for its publication. It might have literary legs, but even if I give it wings, chances are it won’t fly.
What makes for a great editorial relationship with an author? What doesn’t?
I have a button that states: BECAUSE THE EDITOR SAYS SO! That usually induces a grin, but it’s too simplistic. One of my precepts is communication. An author/editor relationship depends on the ability and desire to listen, really listen, emails notwithstanding.
Also, an author should discuss something bothersome with his/her editor, rather than bitching to his/her peeps. What doesn’t make for a good relationship? When an author feels he knows more than his editor. In my completely unbiased opinion, Five Star has the best editors in the business
What’s one myth about editors that you’d like to see dead and buried?
The biggest myth is propagated by TV and movies, where the life of an editor looks so darn glamorous; where the author has a massive launch party and her editor has a manicure, buys a new outfit, flies out to attend, and solves a murder in between cocktails. The second biggest myth is that, if a book is good, an editor will cheerfully fix all the mistakes and typos.
Here are some comments I’ve heard about editors. I call them WONKY EXCUSES FOR NOT FORMATTING ONE’S MANUSCRIPT:
“I’ve always used two spaces between sentences and can’t change now, why should I?”
“I like Courier better than Times New Roman. It’s not my fault an editor finds Courier hard to read. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
“Editors should format. It’s their job.”
“What’s a page break?”
“What’s a tab?”
“I won’t format my manuscript until I have a contract.”
“Editors are just hacks who think they are God.” (I kid you not!)
What advice do you have for seasoned authors in the current publishing climate?
HAVE FUN! Remember the bliss we experienced creating our fictional worlds before we became jaded and/or encountered burn-out? Today that sense of joy is returning because there are so many new, exciting options available.
If we want print publication, there are trade publishers—like Five Star—who won’t gobble up digital rights. And you know what’s really fun? A full-cast audio (like a play). Siren Audio did that with my mystery, Footprints in the Butter. My sleuth writes anti-war songs and a professional musician even took her lyrics and composed music to go with them: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0QPVTIUe-4
Is there anything else you’d like to address?
I often give workshops on self-editing, so here are some self-editing hints: If your character is named John, do a search-and-replace and change it to Bruce (same for Mary vs., let’s say Ethel). When you proof your chapter (or book), “Bruce” will leap out at you and 50% of the time it can and should be “he” or “him” (I do this when I write my books).
If you’ve used oddly-spelled names, places, or even made-up words, spell-check will flag them, so it’s best to put them in your toolbar dictionary. That way, if you’ve misspelled the name, place or made-up word, it will have red squiggles underneath. And be careful about a character dropping his or her eyes to the floor. They could get stepped on!
Just for fun, here’s my own 17-word elevator pitch: “A young blonde trespasses, steals food, falls asleep, and is eaten by three Bears. It’s an erotica.”
And: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” A crime-fiction elevator pitch for The Wizard of Oz.