If you write mysteries – stories about crimes, their investigation and prosecution – and want your writing to be publication perfect, wouldn’t you love to know someone who could help you achieve that goal? Then prepare to meet your next best friend, Mike McNeff.
Mike is a retired law enforcement officer and lawyer. He’s worked as a state trooper, a deputy sheriff and a city police officer; a prosecutor, police legal advisor, defense lawyer and a civil trial lawyer. He’s a firearms expert and certified instructor who volunteers as a teacher for a local gun club. He’s also a published author of three novels and in addition, has recently completed a certified course in editing from the University of Washington.
Mike’s the guy who’ll tell you the crook wouldn’t “snap a cartridge in his gun”, he’d “jack a round in the chamber”. The proper methods of searching a crime scene. The sound a bullet makes when it hits the trunk of a car or passes within inches of your head. How a corpse would smell or appear depending on the environmental conditions and TOD. He knows this all firsthand.
As a qualified editor, he can tell when a scene moves the story forward or drags down the narrative. He also knows an m dash from an n dash, when to use ellipses, whether that number should be written out, and how many sentences comprise a complete paragraph (hint: it depends on whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction – the answer will be at the end of the interview).
And if that wasn’t enough, he’s a great guy and a good friend to all, especially writers.
Mike, could you begin by explaining the four types of editing that can be done?
There are actually five types. First there is acquisition editing, a review of a manuscript for possible acceptance by the publisher. There’s developmental editing, where the content and structure of a work is developed for publication. Then there’s a line editor, whose job is not to correct punctuation, but make certain that everything written properly develops and moves the story forward. Next is a copy editor and there are three stages: light, medium and heavy. Light is mainly going over the work for major mistakes in punctuation and grammar when the piece is well written and it doesn’t have to be delved into deeply. Medium is really going into the grammar, punctuation and sentence structure to make the piece as readable as possible. Heavy is medium copy editing mixed with line editing. The last is proof reading. The proofreader looks at every word, punctuation, spelling, formatting, looking for any mistakes in the final draft of the manuscript to make sure the copy is clean.
You’ve been outspoken about the need for writers to have certified editors review their manuscript before publication. Why?
Editing is the most crucial thing a writer can have done to their work. I never knew there were five levels of editing before I was certified. To have a neighbor or your mother do the editing isn’t going to work. You need a trained editor who knows what it takes for a manuscript to be ready for publishing. It’s very important because you have to impress readers right out of the gate. A poorly edited work will make it very hard to recover your reputation as a writer.
You and I have shared our bafflement as to why so many writers resist allowing their work to be edited. Why do you think that is?
Two reasons: One, “I can’t afford an editor”. When I hear that excuse I say, “You can’t afford not to have an editor.” Others don’t like having their work critically reviewed. You need to have the skin of a rhinoceros to be a successful writer.
How can you change their minds?
You have to convince writers they need an editor, or else they’ll learn it through the cruel world of publishing. The market will eventually determine how good your book is, including the reviews you’ll get. Bad reviews hurt.
What advice would you give a writer seeking an editor?
There are books like The Writers Market that offer writers resources. Online there’s the Northwest Editors Guild, the PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writers Association) and other groups like that (in your area). Go on Google and type in editors. It’s important to get editors who are familiar with your genre. Look at websites of different editors. And there’s word of mouth. Talk to other writers about their experiences.
What questions should writers ask before hiring someone?
Find out how long they’ve been an editor. Have they any formal training, either a course or working as an intern for an editor. Ask for references, and then ask what books they’ve edited and take a look at them. Check reviews, but also read at least one or two chapters.
Let’s talk about your expertise in law enforcement. Does your earlier career give you an advantage when content editing mysteries, police procedurals and legal thrillers?
I was a police officer for 29 years. I did what cops call a trifecta – state trooper, deputy sheriff and retired as a city police officer. I’ve been assigned to federal task forces, worked with FBI and U.S. Customs/Border Patrol, so I know how federal officers operate. I was a team supervisor with two SWAT teams and commanded one. Having worked almost every detail an officer can do and almost every type of crime with those investigations, I’m familiar with all the procedures officers have to follow to make a case right. It also helps that I was a prosecutor for five years.
What are the biggest mistakes mystery writers make in their manuscripts?
They get too mired down in police detail.
That surprises me. I’d have thought the opposite – getting it totally wrong.
You want to show you have credible police knowledge, but don’t let reality get in the way of a good story. You see things on TV that cops cringe at but if you get into too much detail you slow the pace of the story, so you need balance. Good example: Law & Order. On every episode the suspect would be brought in with his or her lawyer for interrogation and the lawyer would let the client talk to the police. In real life that would never happen – it would be malpractice for the lawyer, but as a device to move story forward, it works.
What about self-published writers, regardless of their genre?
You need a professional editor. Your English teacher is not an editor for the purpose of storytelling. You need someone who knows how to tell a story and what makes a story work.
It must drive you crazy when you read books or stories that get the law enforcement and legal facts wrong. What are some of the worst examples you’ve seen?
Really egregious are stories that have cops arrest people without probable cause, kick in doors without a search warrant—things that would get a real cop in trouble and the case kicked out. Pushing to the limit is okay, but total breaks with the law don’t fly, unless the story has the offending cop punished. If the story has a cop who commits a felony and he or she doesn’t get punished, that drives me up a wall. It’s one of the reasons so many people have distrust for police officers. They think because it’s on TV or in a movie it must be true.
What sources (local agencies; websites) would you recommend to writers who do not have a cop or lawyer in their circle to prevent these inaccuracies?
Lots of cops write books and pay attention to the legal aspects. Zack Fortier writes about working patrol and dealing with gangs. Another fine author, Bernard Schaffer, has several books out and is still active in law enforcement. Pick up books by those authors and you’ll get an idea. Also read my first novel, GOTU (pronounced GOT-U).
Lastly, what reference books should every writer have on their bookshelf?
The one book I recommend for all writers is The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler. Also Gregg’s Grammar Reference, and a good dictionary.
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Mike McNeff is the author of the western Hard Justice and the Robin Marlette series of Black Ops; the third installment, Blood Wealth will be available soon. He’s currently writing a non-fiction book about four Vietnam vets who survived a horrific battle and its aftermath. For queries about manuscript editing, he can be reached at his website, mikemcneff.com.
Finally, as promised, how many sentences should be in a complete paragraph? In fiction, there is no rule. In non-fiction, a paragraph should have a minimum of three sentences.
Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.