Born and raised in Dallas, Ray Rhamey studied at the University of Texas-Austin before embarking on a decades-long career in advertising and marketing communications and a stint as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. Today he lives in Ashland where he devotes his energy to book editing and book design (crrreative.com) and writing (rayrhamey.com).
Rhamey is the author of three novels The Summer Boy, a novel of Texas; Finding Magic, contemporary fantasy; and The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles, a humorous spoof of the vampire myth as told by a cat. He has also recently published a guide to writing fiction and we sat down on the internet to talk about Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.
EB: Tell us a bit about your background in writing and editing.
RR: Even though my major in college was psychology, my first job was writing programmed learning training materials (about insurance policies—what a thrill!). I moved from that to a long career in advertising as a copywriter and creative director. Advertising is a great place to learn the discipline of using language in the most effective—and concise—ways possible. But my nature is that of a storyteller, so I left that to try screenwriting. There was a learning curve, though—screenplays target 120 pages, a page a minute in movie time. When writing my first script I found I was almost halfway through the story on page 6. Oops.
Then I moved on to long-form fiction, and have written a few novels. I was in a critique group in Seattle when the members started asking me to edit their novels. I moved from that to freelance editing, and now have clients all across the world thanks to the Internet. I still work on my own fiction, though.
EB: Who is the book for? What readers did you have in mind?
RR: Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling is based on material I created for my blog on the craft of writing, so it was intended for all writers of fiction. I’ve found that the book works for many levels of skill. The focus on craft is good for giving beginning writers tools to use and grow familiar with—a number of editors have recommended it to their clients. But experienced writers also gain insights and stimulation that helps their writing. I know one author who reviews the book before self-editing to be reminded of the things that are so easy to overlook. I must say that I’ve read some bestselling authors that would have benefited from applying a few of the lessons.
EB: What skills does a good editor need?
RR: I don’t think of skills so much as talents, or affinities, plus knowledge—an eye/ear for language is first and foremost, but editors differ in how they can best apply that ability, and that’s why there are several “kinds” of editors. Here are the three basic types as defined by the Northwest Independent Editors Guild:
Developmental editors help you develop your project from an initial concept or draft, and can consult with you before the writing even begins. Developmental editors can help plan the organization and features of your project. They may make suggestions about content and presentation, write or rewrite text, do research, and suggest additional topics for you to consider.
Substantive editors work with you once you have a full text. They will help you get it into its final form, which may involve reordering or rewriting segments of it to improve readability, clarity, or accuracy. If you’re a fiction writer, a substantive editor can alert you to inconsistent character behavior or speech, help you adjust your language to your desired audience, and make sure your story has believable dialogue and a plausible plotline.
Copyeditors work with your text when it is in final or nearly final form. They read each sentence carefully, seeking to fix all errors of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and word usage while preserving your meaning and voice. With your permission, they may rewrite tangled sentences or suggest alternative wordings. They can ensure that your text conforms to a certain style; if your project includes elements such as captions, tables, or footnotes, they can check those against the text.
Basically, I’m a substantive editor, although I do intensive line editing and am a pretty good copyeditor. For all of my life I’ve had a talent for language and how to use it for the best effect.
EB: What’s the hardest part of editorial work?
RR: For me it’s maintaining a tight-enough focus to spot the tiny shortcomings (comma faults, verb tense, point of view shifts, etc.) as well as the gross, and this is especially difficult if the writing is good. I’m a reader first, and a clean, smooth narrative just pulls me into the story. In my Seattle critique group I never saw anything wrong with the first read of Lynn’s writing. I soon learned that I had to read it a second time before I could see weaknesses. That wasn’t true with the other writers in the group, although they were talented.
And there are times when a writer produces what Elmore Leonard calls “the parts you skip.” I’ll know I’ve hit a patch of that when my eyes start to glaze and my attention wanders. I have to stop for a while and build up enough energy to stay with it. Long flashbacks and detailed description can do that to me. It would help if authors read their work aloud—at a reading in Jacksonville recently an author read a section heavy on description out loud. Moments later she commented that as she was reading she was wishing it would get on with what was happening in the story. She should have done that before publishing the book—or used me as her editor.
Another challenge is to get enough distance to see the story and its paths as a whole in order to understand where it strays or where it’s weak. I read each manuscript three times, and then let it sit in my mind for a few days. It can take a period of “back-burner” reflection to put my mental finger on where the story itself needs work. Sometimes I see structural problems, but primarily it’s where a story deviates from course for a little side trip into material that doesn’t impact the story and slows pace. I exercise the delete key a lot.
EB: What should writers expect from an editor?
RR: First of all, honesty. I try for a pleasant keyboard-side manner, but I don’t pull punches. And a professional writer should be able to handle constructive criticism. An editor also needs to respect the writer’s voice—the biggest sin is to rewrite to make a narrative read as the editor would like it to. Expectations also depend on the type of editing being done—non-fiction is quite different from fiction. Because I also write novels, my edits of fiction are informed by having had to solve some of the problems my clients face, and I can bring that kind of creativity to the coaching and suggestions I make. I have restructured novels and sometimes suggested new endings (which were adopted). The goal is to help the writer make the best of her story.
EB: Is there a single most common problem with fiction manuscripts?
RR: What I see most often are stories that take way too long to get going. Opening pages and chapters are weighted down and slowed by backstory, set-up, and exposition. I deal with that every week on my blog, Flogging the Quill, where I and my readers critique opening pages. Fiction, in my view, needs to begin with something happening. You can weave in backstory and other information as the story takes place; never stop it for what is commonly called an “info dump.”
EB: You mention that it’s important for a writer to inhabit a character’s point of view. Why is that?
RR: I think a writer’s goal is to give the reader the experience of the character. How are you going to understand—and then show—a character’s experience unless you see what’s happening from the inside? The inside of a character—the hopes, goals, fears, flaws—is what drives the action, the plot. In the book I talk about how to use “experiential description,” which is description of place, people, things, or action that is colored or flavored by the character’s personal filters. For example, an objective description might be: The peanut butter sandwich was slathered with a thick layer of grape jelly. A diabetic allergic to peanuts might see it as: Globs of deadly grape jelly smothered a layer of poisonous peanut butter that lurked, ready to attack.
EB: I enjoyed the examples you used to illustrate the importance not just of precise language but of the right kind of precision. For example, your opening discussion of adverbs was very illuminating. Can you encapsulate that for our readers?
RR: There is a meme amongst fiction writers that adverbs are “bad.” A number of bestselling writers preach to avoid them. In considering the use of adverbs in my own fiction, I saw that there were times when they were weak and to be avoided, but there were also times when they strengthened the narrative. The weak use is when adverbs modify a weak verb in a feeble attempt at description. For example, “walked slowly” is poor description when a strong verb can do much better, eg. strolled, or sauntered, or ambled.
On the other hand, I’ve found that adverbs can add nuance and flavor to description when they are used in conjunction with adjectives—they can contribute to the characterization of a character.
For example, this description is clear: He found Emmaline to be cheerful and proficient.
But a couple of adverbs can characterize the person who thinks this: He found Emmaline to be annoyingly cheerful but pleasingly proficient.
Now we can see the person considering Emmaline as a bit of a curmudgeon yet an appreciative perfectionist, all due to the inclusion of those adverbs. In short, avoid adverbs that modify verbs, consider using them to modify adjectives.
EB: You also do book design. What makes a good cover design?
RR: I look at the primary objective for a book cover as being to help the title give the potential customer a sense of the story. It should add emotion, meaning, or intrigue to the words. Of course, as it does that it also has to be eye-catching. It needs to signal what genre the story is. And, in these days of tiny thumbnails on web pages, be understandable at small sizes—what works on a bookstore table often doesn’t on a web page. Book design also includes the design of the interior pages as well.
EB: Are there differences between book designing for ebooks and print books?
RR: Regarding the cover, not in my view. Pretty much all book covers are now presented on web pages, so they need to past that thumbnail test. The design of the interior of the book, however, differs from print to ebook. Most of my clients do both, so I start with the print version and distill the e-versions out of that.
EB: Thanks for talking with us.
RR: My pleasure. There’s nothing I like to talk about more than writing.