Editing Isn’t Easy (for the author)

I have finished the manuscript for my latest novel.  I’ve read and re-read it several times, always finding small things that needed to be improved.

It was time to call in a professional editor, and I wanted a good one.  The editor who worked on Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives didn’t seem to understand that there were three narrators: a universal narrator, God’s representative, and the devil’s representative.  She objected repeatedly when the latter two infrequently appeared, even though each of them introduced himself (or herself) on their first appearances.  This lack of understanding seemed to colour her experience of the novel in a negative way.  Only one of the reviews since publication has disliked this device.  One was almost ecstatic about it.  From my point of view, it didn’t take a great deal of brainpower to figure it out.

Author or Editor?

So, finding a good editor isn’t easy, even though there are literally thousands of them who have set out their shingles on the Internet.  I started off trying one of the ubiquitous websites that promises all manner of help for the Indie writer.  Their offering was that they have a stable of scores of editors, and that all I had to do was specify the type of editing, and the genre of the novel.  I didn’t want copy editing (spelling, punctuation and basic grammar), and I didn’t need a re-write editor.  What I wanted was a structural editor, who would pay attention to what could be deleted, what should be added or clarified.  My input yielded the names of five editors.  To each of them I sent a message: “Yes, tell me more!”  All five of them declined; some for workload reasons; some for “don’t do that genre” reasons.

At that point, I threw the Indie approach out the window, and started looking at professional editing websites.  Having narrowed it down to one website, there were two named editors, both of whom liked working on inspirational novels, and both had glowing testimonials.  I sent each of them the synopsis.  The woman said she would take a month longer than the man.  They both were charging $0.03 per word.  I went with the man, who was enthusiastic about working on a novel about fear of dying.

The editor overran his completion target by two weeks, but he sent me several “almost finished” emails.  Then, he wanted my postal address to send me the physical edited manuscript.  There was no soft copy.  He offered to get it scanned for an extra hundred dollars.  The problem for me is that I spend the summer in Sicily, which has a third world postal service.  It took two more weeks for the physical manuscript to arrive.

I found it somewhat easier to make corrections from the physical manuscript, with the original soft copy on my laptop than to switch back and forth between copies on my laptop.

The editor was very conscientious about use of commas (I use too many); he frequently broke my long sentences into two (I generally felt he was right); he corrected my use of ‘that’ vs ‘which’ (as a result, I’ve learned the ‘that vs which rule’); he put a full stop after each abbreviated title (Dr. vs Dr).  Actually, in the UK we don’t put a full stop after Mr.; it’s always just Mr; perhaps he should have asked, because the manuscript is set in London.

He commented when a point in the text wasn’t clear, and usually, I would make a clarification.  Exception: when he challenged a character’s statement to her husband that he had determined the gender of their unborn child.  I left the text unchanged and pointed out to the editor that the male sperm determines the child’s sex, the egg is neutral.

Occasionally, he would suggest that I show the emotion a character is feeling, rather than just have him/her express it.  Being a relatively non-emotive person, I have let the characters say what they feel, but gradually I have realised that it deepens the reader’s experience to have a character express and show her feelings.

The most difficult part for me was the very frequent suggestion to ‘skip this’ of ‘drop this character’.  The compromise I worked out was that I would eliminate the social, chit-chat portions of dialogue that make it seem more real but don’t add any value for the reader.  I also scrutinised scenes to eliminate portions which seemed real, but added no value.

Here is what I said in my email to him: “You made a number of recommendations to cut scenes and characters on the basis that they tended to “stop” the story/plot.  Leaving aside that to do so would have reduced the manuscript to a sub-saleable size, your advice seems to imply that a fictional biography has a linear story/plot.  I would argue that no one has a linear life; rather, it is a collection of kaleidoscopic experiences and characters that, in the end, make us who we are.

“I have tried to structure Fear of Dying with Bertie’s fear of death as the central theme, and with three supporting themes which converge on the central theme and moderate it.  The supporting themes are Bertie’s views and feelings about family, vocation and faith.  Having read the manuscript through an extra time, I’m confident that every scene and every character supports the development of at least one of the supporting themes.  If I had a doubt about the relevance of a scene or character, I had Bertie express his view.”

His response was to the effect of “it’s your novel, you decide.”

So, my next hurdle is finding an agent.  I’ll let you know how that works out.

Famous Writing Quotes

The Reedsy blog has 170 quotations on writing from famous writers.  Here are some of my favourites:

  •  “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” — Annie Proulx
  • “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson
  • “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” — Stephen King
  • “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” — Natalie Goldberg
  • “Sometimes the ideas just come to me. Other times I have to sweat and almost bleed to make ideas come. It’s a mysterious process, but I hope I never find out exactly how it works. I like a mystery, as you may have noticed.” — J.K. Rowling
  •  “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” — Meg Rosoff
  • “There are some books that refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn’t because the book is not there and worth being written — it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and, if you fail to find that form, the story will not tell itself.” — Mark Twain
  • “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” — Ray Bradbury
  • “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner
  •  “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” — John Steinbeck
  • “I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” — Pearl S. Buck
  • “I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them — without a thought about publication — and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.” — Anne Tyler
  • “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler
  •  “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.” — Virginia Woolf
  • “When your story is ready for a rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” — Stephen King
  • “People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.” — R.L. Stine
  • “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.” — Gore Vidal

We Need to Talk About Children’s Books in a Grown Up Way

There was an article in the Evening Standard on 28 January with the above title written by Katie Law, an ES journalist, covering the views of Lauren Child, the best-selling author-illustrator and current Children’s Laureate, on the problems faced by children’s books.

Lauren Child

Law says: “Lauren Child thinks children’s book publishing still gets a bad deal. It’s one of the reasons she is so happy to be a judge for this year’s Oscar’s Book Prize ‘There’s still a lot of snootiness about children’s books. Just look at the teeny-weeny percentage that get reviewed compared to adults. It’s as if there’s a kind of hierarchy.’

“Child is best known for her books featuring Clarice Bean, Charlie and Lola (who became a TV series), Ruby Redfort and Hubert Horatio, which together have sold more than five million copies worldwide. In the two decades since we first met quirky, snub-nosed Clarice Bean and her chaotic, trendy family, her legions of original fans have become adults. ‘The most touching experience in my whole career is talking to grown-ups who tell me what the book meant to them when they were growing up,’ says Child, 53. ‘It’s why I’m so passionate about the idea that children’s book writing and illustrating should get more recognition, and why prizes like Oscar’s Book Prize are so important, because there is so little coverage. We know that a child’s life can be changed by what they read, so why don’t we spend more time thinking about what that material is?’

“Pippi Longstocking, Mary Poppins and The Secret Garden — all of which she has illustrated — were the books that had the most profound effect on Child when she was growing up. ‘The Secret Garden was a gamechanger because it was about someone who was so hard to like. She was plain, had a horrible expression on her face, was bossy and ungrateful. As a child I felt like her, I felt all of those things. I felt it was me. So for children who might think bad things about themselves, these stories can help let them off the hook. It’s all a drip-drip effect, which is why it’s important we talk about children’s books in a grown-up way, in terms of what they’re about, rather than just saying ‘Isn’t it lovely?’

Clarice Bean

“Ms Child says: ‘We’re great at giving prizes for unusual adults’ books but not so good at praising people who have different ideas about children’s books; things need to be a bit more extraordinary.’ Her own trajectory is a great example: Clarice Bean only took off when she stopped trying to please her publishers. ‘I was young and kept trying to do what they wanted and getting it wrong, so every time I rewrote or redrew something, it would get more dead. It had none of me in it, so quite rightly they rejected it. I actually started writing Clarice Bean as a film and forgot about all the things you need to make a book, and that’s when the publishers suddenly became interested. It’s about the need to reject everything you think they want and find your own voice.’

“The National Literacy Trust finds that one in 11 children and young people in the UK don’t own a book (a figure that rises to one in eight children on free school meals), and that book ownership is one of the highest predictors of reading attainment and mental well-being.

“Child grew up in Wiltshire in a happy family not unlike Clarice Bean’s. Today she lives in north London with her partner, criminal barrister Adrian Darbishire, and their daughter Tuesday, now nearly nine, whom she adopted from Mongolia at the age of two-and-a-half after visiting the country as part of a Unesco project.  ‘Having Tuesday doesn’t change the way I write or illustrate but it does make me see more than ever how important illustration is. We had no common language when she arrived. But we did have drawing, and she was a natural right from the start, which really helped us communicate. It’s important for children that their drawings are looked at and that it has a wide role in education because it’s about learning to observe and understand, just like creative writing, and having these skills can make you much more empathetic.'”

I particularly agree with what Ms Child says about book publishers: they don’t know what they want, but when they find something eclectic that is well-written and full of the author’s passion, they go for it.

 

Doing Whatever It Takes

There is an article by Sandra Wendel which appeared in the December 2017 issue of the IBPA Independent magazine.  Ms Wendel is an experienced book editor who specializes in helping authors write, polish, and publish their manuscripts; she gives the following example of “doing whatever it takes” as an editor.  Her website is https://www.sandrawendel.com/.

 

Sandra - headshot 082918.JPG

Sandra Wendel

“After working his way up through the ranks in narcotics and homicide, putting plenty of bad guys in prison, and retiring from exemplary work on the Omaha Police Department, detective Brian Bogdanoff sat down to write a story.”  (A true story of two bad guys who stole tons of marijuana from three Mexican drug minions, shot the three and burned their bodies along the roadside near Omaha.)

“Brian and I met in a book-writing class I was teaching at the community college. The manuscript he brought me read like a police report with words like “vehicles,” “perpetrators,” and “victims.” So I invited him to my home office, sat him down, and we began.

“He had written:

As I spoke with each of them separately, I could see nobody wanted to talk yet, so I made it very clear to Preston and Gaylan that I was a homicide detective, not a narcotics officer, and this case that brought me to them was just getting started.

As if he were on the hot seat in an interrogation room, I grilled him: “What did Gaylan look like?” “What was he doing?” “What exactly did he say?” “And then what did you say?” “Describe the room—how big, furniture, what?”


Here’s the revision of the same passage:


Gaylan was first. If someone was going to talk, I thought it would be Gaylan.

I walked into a fourth-floor interview room of the Criminal Investigation Bureau at downtown police headquarters. Gaylan was sitting at the same table where he’d been sitting for nine hours while we were searching his house, the recording studio, the lawn service, the remaining storage units, and his secondary houses.

His head was down, he looked up at me and said, “What’s up, man?”

He’s a big guy, twenty-four years old, and was tired from sitting in a ten-by-ten room all day. He wasn’t handcuffed, but there was a guard outside the door.

“You got big problems.” I opened the conversation. “I got a receipt and inventory of all the stuff we recovered today, and it doesn’t look good.” I handed him a list of the property seized.

“I’m a homicide cop, and that’s what this is all about, so you might be in your best position right now to tell me what you know,” I said. “If someone else wants to talk first, they’ll get all the good things that come with it.” And he chose not to talk.

I gave the same spiel to Preston. He had the same attitude. He wasn’t talking.

Roscoe and I then walked Gaylan to the jail elevator and rode it to the basement of the police station. We put our guns in the gun locker and walked him into jail. He was booked in for his marijuana charges and taken to his concrete ten-by-ten cell in solitary confinement, which on the street has earned the name Bedrock.

We did the same procedure for Preston.

“And the story came out, excruciating detail by detail, so readers could go inside the mind of this talented detective and follow his story from crime scene to courtroom, gasping when blood was found under the carpet of a home, unbeknownst even to the current residents. Readers followed the thread of a note found in the pocket of one of the burned bodies to the hotel where the cartel guys stayed.

“We described more key scenes with fresh detail and dialogue. And then we went to the crime scenes themselves where I took photos of the roadside burn site where religious artifacts had still been left presumably by grieving family five years later; to the yellow house where the gangbangers shot the Mexicans and loaded their bodies into a pickup that left a dripping blood trail down the street; to the neighborhood where the bangers lived that didn’t feel safe even at two in the afternoon with an armed police officer giving the guided tour.

“We gathered yet more detail, so I could add pertinent facts and observations. That’s what an editor does.”

Three Bodies Burning by Brian Bogdanoff

The moral of this article is that it takes a different mentality to be a good homicide detective, than the mentality of a writer who can make the detective’s story come alive in the mind of the reader.

Freelance Editing

There is an article on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) website with the title ‘Freelance Editors: Find and Cultivate Top Notch Talent’ by Deb Vanasse who is a reporter with the IBPA Independent magazine.  Wikipedia says that: “Deb Vanasse is an American writer of more than a dozen books, many of which are set in Alaska. Her children’s books include six picture books and two young adult novels.”

Deb Vanasse

While the  article appears to be directed mainly toward publishers, it interested me, because I used an editor for the first time on Achieving Superpersonhood, and while the editor did a reasonably good job for me, I felt that she was sometimes missing the points I was making in the novel.  So, while I’m now committed to using an editor, I need a better process to select him/her.  An editor can help the author see problems in the construction – the substance –  of a novel that an author might miss.  So I am interested in getting some ideas about a selection process.  I should mention that the editorial work to which I’m referring here precedes the copy editing which comes just before preparation for printing and which includes grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.

I also thought that there is material in the article which could be of interest to readers of this blog who wish to become freelance editors.

Ms Vanasse says, “Within the past decade, market changes have created a healthy supply of freelance editorial talent. But in the wide-open field of freelance editing, quantity is no guarantee of quality.  ‘There are more editors looking for freelance work since the Big Five have let a vast number go from full-time or part-time work,’ says Geoff Brown, acquisitions editor at Cohesion Press. ‘Combine that with the many self-published writers who think they can now work as editors because they put out a memoir or urban fantasy through Kindle Direct Publishing, and you have a lot of freelancers looking for work.’

“Freelance editor Amanda Spedding laments that some in her field fail to grasp the nuances of language or understand how it contributes to storytelling. ‘I know of a lot of authors who have been burned by people claiming to be editors when they have no right to call themselves such,’ she says. ‘It gives a bad name to those of us who have done the study, have put in the long hours, who continue to learn, and keep up to date. I hate defending my profession, but I’ve had to do so more these last few years.’  Some publishers even outsource editorial work overseas, a trend that puzzles freelance editor Kelly Lydick. ‘To me, this is a difficult thing to understand,’ she says. ‘Not just because it affects me personally and narrows the job market, but in particular how a non-native English speaker could have an expert command over grammar in the same way a native English speaker could. It is a genuine concern when the ultimate goal is to honour an author’s work.’  Lydick ranks those in her profession in terms of good, excellent, and superb. ‘A good editor will have a sense of content and how content can be organised so that it’s interesting and sparks something in a reader—hopefully inspiration,’ she says. ‘An excellent editor will have a good sense of audience and how a particular work will be received by a reader—and will tailor the work with this in mind. A superb editor will have a sense of the literary marketplace and how and why a book may do well in the market, knowing that it’s often a tough market to predict.’

“‘Talented freelancers also enjoy what they do’, says Renni Browne, founder of an editing service called The Editorial Department. ‘I’ve been at it for over 50 years, and I’ve never known a good one who found their work boring,’ she says. ‘Every author is different, every manuscript is different, every chapter, paragraph, sentence is different.’  Ms Browne likens the work of a developmental editors to that of an architect, suggesting where to place lines and paragraphs for maximum effect. Ross adds that good developmental editors use diagnostic skills to identify strengths and weaknesses, which they must then convey effectively to the author.  When they work at the line level, Renni likens editors to mimics who recognise an author’s distinct voice and then work to make it shine. Line editors also need a good ear, says Ross, Renni’s son. ‘By ear I mean sensitivity to the way language sounds, the way it flows, to the rhythm between dialogue and narrative,’ he says. ‘They’ll know what sounds real and what sounds phony, what sounds natural and what has a strained literary effect. And they probably won’t think about any of this.’

Internet searches, professional associations, and personal recommendations are among the resources for publishers to tap when seeking editorial talent.  An internet search led Crosstown Publishing’s Jim Laughren to The Editorial Department. ‘I saw they were owned by Renni Browne, author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a book I had read and been impressed with,’ Laughren says. ‘There are good bios of all their editors on the website, so I was able to select an editor who I felt was most appropriate for my particular book.’  Geoff Brown, acquisitions editor at Cohesion Press, discovered Spedding through a professional association of writers. After he confirmed her qualifications and experience and checked references from previous clients, he hired her to handle all editorial functions at his small press.  Professional associations may offer request-for-quote (RFQ) services that broadcast publisher needs to their members, notes Ross Browne. But depending on how the service is set up, he warns that the response can be overwhelming. ‘Editorial Freelancers Association has several thousand members, and you can expect several dozen members to respond to your RFQ,’ he says. ‘Thankfully, EFA also allows you to post a supplemental notice stating you have received sufficient replies.’   Other professional associations of freelance editors include the American Copyeditors Society and the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors.

“Editorial relationships begin with an exchange of information between publisher and editor. Specifying the scope of services, scheduling, and compensation, a formal or informal agreement binds the relationship.  ‘When I’m exploring the possibility of a new project, I first get a sense of how well I communicate with the author and how well the author communicates with me,’ Lydick says. “’ also take a look at the content and see if it’s within my scope of understanding or, even better, expertise—a subject I know a lot about—and also whether I like the style of the writing.’

“At The Editorial Department, the business relationship begins as something of a matchmaking process in which Ross Browne works with the client to choose the best fit for the project from among the company’s 16 editors.  ‘We ask a lot of questions of our new clients at the intake stage about the manuscript and its author, including publication goals and intended readership, the author’s experience with writing and publishing, and where they feel they need the most help,’ he explains. ‘I read some of the manuscript to make sure it’s ready for our process and to get a feel for the writing so I can make a good match to an editor.’  After recommending an editor, Browne offers details of the services, costs, and time frame proposed for the project. He provides formal agreements upon request.

“Lydick affirms arrangements with work orders, project agreements and, if necessary, confidentiality agreements.”

 

Enter Celebrity Editors

Time magazine, in its 25 June issue, has an article about how celebrities have become editors at the major publishing houses. The article says, “The worlds of fashion and music have long understood the  power of celebrity collaborations, which count on high-profile partners to combine expertise and star power.  Now book publishers are breaking out of their bubble and looking to outsiders – people with name brand cachet and stratospheric social-media followings, and who presumably love books – to curate and helm boutique lists.  ‘Publishers want celebrity stardust, and, let’s face it, most writers don’t have that’, says Claibourne Smith, editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews.”

Sarah Jessica Parker’s new publishing imprint, SJP for Hogarth, released its first novel on 12 June, as the realisation of a longtime fantasy  “I never imagined at this point in my life I’d have the opportunity to turn my lifelong hobby of reading into my work,” she says,

The Time article says, “The proto-celebrity editor might be Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who took on a consulting editorship at Viking Press in 1975.  The former first lady oversaw titles on Russian costumes and fairy tales.  ‘Jackie Kennedy is one of the models Sarah Jessica and I discussed when we started talking about the partnership’, says Molly Stern, senior vice president and publisher of Crown, Hogarth and  Archetype  books, who first approached Parker about taking a shot at publishing.  ‘Jackie was a journalist before she was married to the President, and Sarah Jessica was a lifelong reader before she became an actress’.

“SJP for Hogarth will publish literary fiction – Parker’s favourite genre – with an emphasis on multicultural voices.  ‘I’m focused on stories that cultivate empathy and expose us to people whose homes I’m not likely to be invited into,’ the newly minted editorial director says of her mission,”

Sarah Jessica Parker

“Parker say she gets nervous in her new role.  Taking an approach that’s part book nerd and part method actor, she travels to bookseller conventions, doodles book cover ideas and attends Penguin Random House launch and marketing meetings – where she presents her selections in hopes of winning internal support necessary to any book’s success.  ‘I don’t want to look like a lightweight,’ Parker says.  ‘I don’t want people to think I’m dabbling.  I want them to know I take their work seriously, and I try to learn about the trade – I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the importance of bookshelf placement.’  (If it isn’t visible, she notes, it’s not going to be purchased.)

“Kirby Kim, a literary agent with Janklow & Nesbit Associates, has first-hand experience with the soup-to-nuts nature of Parker’s involvement.  In March, when he submitted a novel to multiple houses ahead of the London Book Fair, Parker took a break from fair events to read the manuscript, and her imprint wasting no time coming in with an offer.  ‘Instead of just networking and schmoozing, she actually zoomed through the submission,’ Kim says.  Ultimately, another publisher won the title.  ‘You lose books – that has been gutting,’ Parker says.  ‘It’s tough, but it’s good for me.  I don’t have a limitless budget.  I have to be thoughtful about how we’re spending our dollars,’

“Nearly every major publisher is now in the celebrity business.  Simon & Schuster has Jeter Publishing, a partnership with baseball legend Derek Jeter that launched in 2013.  Random House offered Lena Dunham, the creator of the HBO television show Girls, and her producing partner, Jenni Konner, their own imprint in 2016.  Henry Holt & Co., known for elevated fiction and news-breaking political titles . . . announced in 2016 that it had bestowed Bravo TV personality Andy Cohen with his own imprint.

“Even so, certain authors might prefer the imprimatur of a literary institution over a celebrity’s.  ‘I could see why celebrity imprints would be ripe for derision – critics might say celebrities are trying to look smart,’ says Katherine Fausset, a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd.

“Parker, meanwhile, is off to the races promoting her first novel.  Two weeks before its release, she posted a picture of herself hailing a cab with SJP for Hogarth’s debut book in her hand.  It got nearly 167,000 likes.”

Real Editing

Many of you may like to know what it’s like to work with a real editor.  Until very recently, I never have.  Of course, I’ve had my manuscripts checked by a professional editor before publication, but that was copy editing: editing of grammar, spelling, punctuation and consistency in presentation.  With my latest novel, I decided it was time to ignore – for the time being – my grammar, spelling and punctuation, and focus on my presentation skills as a writer.   The editor I worked with is a published author, and she took two months to review my 529 page, double spaced manuscript.  What I got back from her was my edited manuscript with one or two comments on nearly every page (none of them related to grammar, spelling or punctuation) and a one-page summary of areas where I could improve the manuscript.

This isn’t mine, but you get the idea

For me, the experience was very good: I learned a lot.  It also meant that I have a major re-write underway.  The current re-write is in addition to the revisions I undertook after completing the manuscript and having some reservations of my own about it.  The areas for attention she mentioned included:

  • Character development: she noted that, while they were all well-defined, there is much that happens to the three main characters, and one of them changes his identity.  What about identify changes for the other two characters?
  • The novel would benefit from more tension for the characters in some of the events
  • I am too kind to some of the characters
  • Some of the dialogue and description does not really add to the story
  • More attention to the time line; there are gaps in the time line
  • The ending needs to be punchier
  • The point of the novel needs to be defined earlier and often
  • Point of view is an issue

Regarding point of view, with three main characters, I decided to use an omniscient point of view, rather that the point of view of one of the characters.  The editor pointed out that the omniscient point of view is not ‘fashionable’.  Perhaps she writes from a singular point of view.  In any case, I complicated things by permitting God and Satan to interrupt the story occasionally, to reveal their views and their covert involvement.  This, she found very confusing.  I think I have now eliminated any confusion.

For me, one problem was that she apparently didn’t read the manuscript through before beginning her editing; this could have clarified what seemed to me to be her early misunderstandings.  Having said that, her comments were generally very helpful and thorough, and as I went through the manuscript, I tried to eliminate opportunities for misunderstanding

In my current re-write, I have cut out about ten percent of the manuscript which, while mildly interesting, is not essential to the advancement of the plot.  I have also focused on how the characters are feeling about the events and the changes in their values.  Tension is also increased, and I’m planning changes to address her other comments.

The real test of all this will be when I submit it to literary agents/publishers.

Lessons from a 20-Year Career

In the IBPA Independent magazine, December 2017, there is an article by Ron W Mumford about the lessons he has learned on his 20-year path through the industry.  He certainly has a sense of humour and some good advice to offer, so I’ve quoted excerpts below.  Ron has written a non-fiction book, Finding Your Soulmate, God’s Way, a thriller, Gray Justice, and a fantasy trilogy: Wayne’s Angel, Betwixt, and Z-Gen.  As a businessman, before his started writing books,  he had taken a company public on NASDAQ, become a licensed financial consultant with two of the largest brokerage firms in the US.

Ron W Mumford

He says, ” During the 1990’s I wrote my first novel: 800 pages double spaced, 200,000 words.  I was so proud of myself.  The work was sure to win the Pulitzer Prize!  Sound familiar?  After my first edit by a professional editor, the work was cut in half with a notation from the editor, ‘Ron, you have written two books in one and you ramble.’

As regards the publishing industry, he says, “What a new and different industry full of well-wishers, scammers and instant-success gurus, all looking to take your money while promising the bestseller list and delivering nothing.  I queried literary agents for two years, finally found a couple, and, again, got nothing.  Finally I decided I would become a literary agent and go to New York and Hollywood to learn first hand how this crazy industry worked. I picked up several writer clients and headed to New York City with client manuscripts in hand.  All the Big Five publishing companies rolled out the red carpet to a new literary agent from Texas.  I spent half a day at Simon & Schuster and even met Stephen King’s editor.  I asked each editor, ‘What are yo looking for?’  They all replied, ‘Great writing.’  I asked, ‘Define ‘great writing.’  Again, each editor replied similarly, ‘We’ll know it when we see it’.

‘”What a cop out!  What they should have said in complete honesty was, ‘We are looking for well-known authors and celebrities with a huge following so we can sell hundreds of thousands of books.  Your chance of being published by us are about 100,000 to one.’

“My last stop in lower Manhattan was at Warner Books, where I was granted an appointment with a vice president/editor.  When I entered his office and gave him my card, he snapped, ‘What gives you the audacity to think you can be a literary agent?’  This guy did not know Texas audacity.  I took a deep breath, leaned on his desk and replied, ‘The same audacity that told me I could swim with the sharks on Wall Street.  Do you want to talk books or what?’  Needless to say, Warner and my literary agency didn’t do any business.”

Ron says that he sent out 100 client manuscripts a month to small and medium sized publishers and he managed to get 12 books published.  He mentions that he got one client a seven-book deal, and that the client later got a five-book deal with HarperCollins.  “After my money and my passion hit new levels of low, I passed her (the client) on to a great literary agency.  There are good lit agents out there.

“I sent emails to every IT/social media guru that I personally knew, asking them, ‘How do you mass market books?’  I got no replies.  I talked to one guy that guaranteed a best seller.   I asked him how he does his marketing and how much he charges.  Answer, ‘For 30 days, I send out tweets on Twitter, I charge $3000.’  I passed on that offer, even for a ‘guaranteed bestseller.”

Unfortunately, Ron does not offer any sure-fire solutions to the achievement of mass book marketing at an affordable price.

 

What Is a Novel?

When I first started writing, and someone asked me the question, “What is a novel?”, I would have replied, “A good story.”  But frequently, brief replies don’t really enlighten the questioner, and the more I write, the more I understand that a ‘good story’ is actually very complicated indeed – at least when it is written down, printed, publicised, sold to the general public, and liked by its readers well enough to earn its writer more than a trivial income.

So what does a ‘good story’ consist of?  There are a number of qualities of a ‘good story’, and while some may not be directly measurable, they are all, at least scrutinisable and subject to opinion:

  • The Plot:  A plan of what happens in the story.  Is it interesting?  Is it predictable or unpredictable?
  • The Characters:  The fictional people who populate the story.  Do they come alive?  Do we care about (like or despise) them?  Are they active or passive? Are their relationships to one another interesting?  Do the characters’ beginnings and end points support the Message?
  • The Setting:  The time(s) and place(s) in which the story takes place.  Is the particular setting of interest to the particular reader?  Is it easy to place oneself as the reader comfortably into the setting?
  • The Message:  What, in an overall sense, is the author trying to say to the reader? If nothing, do we care?  If something, is it clear?  Does it make us think?
  • The Tone:  The kind of emotion which is inherent in the language the author uses.  Is it sad? angry? melancholy?  matter-of fact?  Does the tone seem to support the Message?
  • The Narrator;  Who’s telling the story?  Is the choice of narrator supportive of the above five characteristics?
  • The Tense:  Is the story told in the present or the past tense?  Is the story supported by the choice of tense?
  • The Action:  Exactly what happens.  Is it credible?  Is it attention grabbing?  Is there too much or too little action?  Is the action relevant to the Message?

And then, there are the variables which define how the story is told:

  • The Language:  At what educational level is the story pitched (toddler vs college grad)?
  • The Words:  Do the words convey an exact (vs approximate) meaning?  Are there cliches?  Are there too many or too few words?  Do they convey appropriate feelings as well as facts.
  • The Sentences:  Does the author use correct grammar and punctuaton?  Do the sentence structures facilitate understanding?   Are they readable without difficulty: not too complex; not too simple?
  • Realism vs Fantasy:  Is the author’s choice of realism vs fantasy supportive of the story overall.  If there are elements of fantasy, does the reader automatically suspend disbelief?
  • Dialogue vs Backstory vs Narrative:  Is there a balanced use of these techniques?  Does their use support the story?
  • Tension:  How much tension does the author build into the story?  Does it support the plot? is there too much or too little tension?

Perhaps there are some variables I’ve overlooked.  Please don’t hesitate to mention them.

Revising

‘Revise’ has a number of synonyms, including: improve, reconsider, update, rewrite, amend and modify.  With my current novel, having finished writing it, I am doing all this and perhaps a bit more.  It is a tedious process, but, to my surprise, I’m enjoying it, because, as I get closer to the end – I’m now about half way through – I’m feeling an increasing sense of pride in the output.

You may recall that in an earlier post, I said that I would print each chapter out in an unusual font and read it aloud, marking anything that jarred on my senses for later correction.  I have done that, and I would recommend it for any author before submitting his/her manuscript for final editing.  Before I started my reading aloud process, I had made a list of ‘lingering concerns’: issues which I felt had to be addressed.  For example, I thought that I had left the characters’ feelings to much to the reader to interpret: they needed to be clearer.

So, here is what my revising process included:

  • Restructuring:  My draft manuscript was 16 chapters long, each about 17 pages.  I thought it would be better to shorten the chapters, particularly because there is a lot that happens in the book.  I’m in the process of reducing the chapter length to about 10 pages, so there will be over 25 chapters.  I also wanted to have a title alluding to the content of each chapter, believing that this would add to reader interest and attention.  The hard part was deciding where to separate the chapters, because previously, I didn’t worry much about that.  As a compromise, I have some material which relates to the topic of a preceding or a following chapter an the beginning or the end of some chapters, but I decided that this was a better solution than having some chapters as short as 6 or 7 pages.
  • Voices: Apart from the narrator, there are two other anonymous, contrarian voices.  I did not want their identity to be obvious, so I have reduced their roles.  But, at the same time, I wanted to reinforce the relevance of these voices to the characters, because they are part of the theme.  I’ve been doing this by having the characters make oblique references to the voices.
  • Characters: I have sharpened the characters so as to make their personalities more unique by having them do or say unusual things which are still in keeping with their individuality.  There are also two minor characters which are too neglected in the original manuscript.  As I’ve mentioned above, clarity of the character’s feelings is essential.  I’ve had to add passages which define the character’s thoughts or actions which reveal feelings, or something about their body language.  I’ve tried to avoid writing ‘the character felt . . .’, but I will let the narrator clarify the character’s feelings without using the word ‘feeling’.
  • Theme:  There is a theme based on Nietzsche which has to do with the development of the individual.  I felt that this theme was well introduced but faded in the later parts.  So, I’m bringing in reminders.
  • Dialog: I have been told that I write good, believable dialog, but I know it can be unnecessarily long.  There is a lot of pruning going on.
  • Unnecessary wording: Like the previous point, I have been unmerciful in deleting text which does not contribute to the reader’s understanding.
  • Time line: The story takes place over a period of about 15 years, but I sensed it was becoming difficult to keep a strict time line in order.  I’m deleting all references to sequence or the passage of time, believing that these milestones tend to be a distraction for the reader.
  • Consistency: I’ve found that I called a restaurant ‘Poseidon’ in the early chapters and ‘Neptune’ in later chapters.  I confess to being hopeless at remembering the names of people and places.  Similarly, in one chapter a terrorist organisation was called Dhul Fikar (Sword of the Prophet) and Dhul Fakir later.  The first spelling is correct.
  • Clichés: When one is reading aloud, clichés tend to reverberate, and they can be re-written
  • Inadequate words: Similarly, an adjective or a verb or even a noun can sound and feel inadequate in best defining the character’s feeling, the situation, or the setting.  Thesaurus to the rescue!
  • Typos: I’ve read the original manuscript three or four times, but I’ve still found (a few) typos!