I edit all fiction to lull the reader into, as John Gardner called it, the ‘continuous dream.’ This means not only hypnotizing the reader into a receptive state in which they come to believe that the story is actually occurring to them, but also not waking the reader from that state.
When the reader wakes from the continuous dream, they remember that they have a life, then they put down the book and walk away. Our job as writers is to prevent this from ever, ever happening until the very last page. If the reader wakes from the continuous dream because the writer has offended them, not only do they put down the book and walk away, but they also tell everyone they know not to pick it up. This is word-of-mouth, and it is the engine that either drives or destroys the best sales in the publishing industry.
There are any number of things that an aspiring writer can do to accidentally wake the reader from the continuous dream. The most common in our era are excessive sex, violence, bigotry and traumatizing material for teens and children.
General taboo issues
I always edit according to the sensitivity of the average reader of ordinary moral compass.
The average reader is sensitized to such taboos as child abuse and profanity. So please do not send me manuscripts containing graphic descriptions of child abuse, as I will not read them. And please do not send me manuscripts full of profanity—a very minimal scattering of it is fine, but if I consider it excessive I will do a Find & Replace on my copy to turn all profanity into childhood terms that make me laugh.
Erotica and p*rn
I do not edit erotica or p*rnography. So please do not send me manuscripts containing this, as I will not read it.
I do edit sex scenes.
The sex scenes I edit—like all scenes—must be essential to the forward motion of the story. I edit them for the average reader, who expects all scenes to be focused upon the characters’ emotional needs and relationships, without startling, specifically sexual anatomical terms or practices.
I do not edit manuscripts in which the author or narrator indulges in bigotry against those of another sex, race, sexual orientation, able-bodiness, or other delineation. So please do not send me manuscripts containing this, as I will not read it.
I do edit manuscripts in which an unsympathetic character or characters might indulge in bigotry as part of the forward motion of the story.
I do edit manuscripts in which the author uses self-denigration as a technique for winning the reader’s sympathy. Self-denigration is almost always a humor technique, and as such is very tricky to use successfully. Humor is fabulous if you can do it right. But you have to be able to do it right.
Horror in Middle Grade & Young Adult
I do not edit “horror” for children or teens. So please do not send me manuscripts containing this, as I will not read it.
I worked for decades with children, and I am very concerned that the fad of offering them trendy dark fiction is shaping their brains for terror and anxiety disorders. They do not live in a world full of strangers constantly trying to hunt them down and kill them. They live in a world full of peers, mentors, allies and dependents, in which very real problems need very real solutions, and they must grow up to be emotionally-stable enough to create those solutions.
Gratuitous violence and gore
I do not edit gratuitous violence or gore. So please do not send me manuscripts containing this, as I will not read it.
I do edit action scenes with violence in them and descriptive scenes after which violence has occurred.
However, the violence and descriptions must be essential to the forward motion of the story. Because my favorite genre specialties are the murder mystery and ghost story, I know quite a lot about ways to portray damage to the human body within the expectations of the average reader. I edit action scenes by minimizing the violence, because action scenes must move forward swiftly, with perfect pacing and a minimum of language. And I edit descriptive scenes for the average reader, who expects all scenes to be focused upon the characters’ emotional needs and relationships, without disgusting or repulsive gratuitous gore.
Medical science shows that when we experience horror and violence—even in entertainment—our brains store those experiences as actual trauma. Readers exposed to this trauma will be running the world when you and I are elderly and frail. We cannot afford to numb them now to the very real consequences of treating horror and violence as entertainment.
It is the responsibility of all of us, whatever our skills, to be building a world of compassion and common sense for the future.