10 Simple Steps To Reno a Manuscript

So you’re cleaning out your files of works in progress, false starts and abandoned projects. Delete, delete, delete. Crumple and dump. It’s going great. Then you start reading.

Cancel plans for the rest of the day and follow these steps:

  1. Pull up (or out, if in a drawer) the old manuscript. Dust off the real or metaphorical cobwebs.
  2. Read the manuscript.
  3. Realize it’s pretty good. Decide it needs to be published.
  4. Sit down to give it a quick edit, or type it into Word (if a printout).
  5. Realize it’s pretty bad and needs to be beaten into shape.
  6. Highlight. Delete. Patch in new stuff. Highlight. Ctrl X, Ctrl V.
  7. Read it over again. Decide it’s much better and just needs another once-over.
  8. Three minutes into the once-over, realize it’s a big mess.
  9. Patch in more new stuff. Highlight. Delete. Highlight. Ctrl X, Ctrl V. Repeat Steps 6 through 9 as needed, pulling hair (if any) to relieve stress.
  10. Publish. OR say “Nuts to that,” and start writing a brand new version something else.

Last week I remembered a sort of by-product of my first novel that I stashed away on a floppy disk (back in 2001, this was). Like anything with that brink-teetering, obsolescent technology feeling, it suddenly seemed worth another look. And bonus! I found a printout, so didn’t have to dig out the old grey, 2-inch-thick Toshiba laptop from the previous millennium to read it.

After a quick read I thought “Wow! This is great! An almost lost gem. So I hastened to key it in to a fresh Word document.

Tip: If you’re not sure about the quality of a piece of writing, print it out and try transcribing it. Typing out every single word reveals a multitude of faults. A couple pages into transcribing the almost lost gem, I was making parenthetical comments in the text, like: (Geez! Enough already! You’ve already said this three times!)

Pop on the thinking cap. Think, think, think. Result: a better idea of what the piece has to look like.

Back to the manuscript to start the beating-into-shape process.

Right now, it’s been reduced from 10k words to about 6k. Some paragraphs have been moved so many times their little heads are spinning. Others have been highlighted in an array of colours meaning “Delete” or “Consider deleting” or “Repurpose.” Lots of new text has been added (and changed, and deleted, and moved).

I’m reminded of remaking a garment. Turning a pair of pants into a skirt, for example. Or a dress into a smock. Or a silk purse into some sort of unmentionable. One of those projects that seems simple at first blush.

And to complicate things, I’ve already designed a cover image for this story. (Trying out Canva!) So I have to to make it work! Look for more in the next couple of months.





Editors and Credibility

Since joining LinkedIn’s Fiction Writers’ Guild last year, I’ve wasted — er, spent a lot of hours reading and occasionally commenting on several discussions. They are all about fiction writing and increasingly about self-published fiction. Inevitably, the topic of editing comes up. Someone opines that of course a self-published work must be substandard if the author has skipped the all-important step of having their work “professionally edited.” In the throes of one of these debates, someone said, “A writer who edits him- or herself has a fool for a client,” echoing a similar opinion about people who represent themselves in a court of law.

I found this statement quite provocative and felt a Rant coming on. Several weeks have passed and now I can offer a few temperate observations.

First of all, I will say that a writer who has contracted with a “traditional” publisher to publish their work has no choice in the matter of being edited. Since the publisher is investing their time and treasure in the work, it is entirely logical that they should shape the product in whatever way they believe is necessary. I’ll say no more about this. This screed is entirely about self-published works.

“Editing” is not a monolithic process. There is structural or developmental editing, in which the editor suggests getting rid of characters or giving specific characters more important roles. Entire scenes or chapters may be cut, or new ones written. The entire novel may be rewritten. This is huge and fundamental stuff. To me it makes sense that structural editing happen early in the writing process. A writer who is having trouble making their story come to life as envisioned may well need a structural edit.

Line and copy editing happen in the final stage of a manuscript’s life, to deal with things such as typos, grammatical problems and continuity.

Freelance editors with connections in the traditional publishing industry may be worth paying for, but I suspect they are in a position to command high prices and be selective as to which writers they take on — just like agents.

So who is a “professional editor?” Anybody. There is no accrediting body or degree-granting authority for editors. Like writers, they create their reputations by pursuing their craft. Success comes in the form of recognition by readers, writers and peers. And as with writers, just because someone calls themselves an editor doesn’t mean they are any good at it. Writers who want to hire an editor to help them structure their work or provide the professional polish are advised to use a process similar to that of hiring a contractor to do renovations on their house — request references and ask to see samples of their work. Someone suggested getting test pieces edited and going with the one you like best, but given some of the opinions expressed on LinkedIn, my suspicious self wondered if the opposite approach wouldn’t be better. We writers are a self-castigating bunch.

Here I’m getting into Rant territory again. Perhaps because the current abundance of self-published fiction includes quite a lot of naive, or unpolished, or — to be quite frank — “bad” writing, some people have decided that all self-published writers are childish, self-indulgent seekers of adulation, brainlessly inflicting half-baked textual travesties on the overburdened reading public. They need to be whipped into shape by Editors.

Like all sweeping condemnations, this bugs me. Which is why I’m writing this.

Back to that “fool for a client” remark. I disagree with that 100%. I think anyone who wants to call themselves a writer should also know how to edit. It’s part of the package.

Another thing to keep in mind is that independent, self-published authors are just that — independent. Unlike editors who work for publishing houses, they are not obliged to create a marketable “product” that will show a return on investment in a limited time. The self-published writer decides how much of their time and treasure they are going to invest in their work, and what constitutes success. Options for editing include critique groups, beta readers and endless rewriting.

In the end, what is the worst consequence of publishing a flawed, unpopular or obscure piece of writing? If it’s an e-book, it will cost the reader no more than a few dollars (less than $5 in many cases) and however much time they are prepared to spend reading until they decide a book isn’t for them. That happens all the time with traditionally published books — even so-called “best-sellers” — bought for considerably more money. And at least an unwanted ebook can be disposed of with the push of a button. It won’t be cluttering up anyone’s shelf or taking up space in the landfill.

Back to the Comma Bucket: the Perils of Hasty Editing

A while ago I bemoaned the loss of a lot of edits when I copied an old version of a file over the new one instead of the other way around. Having to do all that editing over again meant that I did it at lightning speed, creating fresh new errors in the process. A few days ago I decided to have a quick read of Hunting the Phoenix, the ebook that was the object of all this editing, and discovered a few embarrassing mistakes — “was been” (from changing things like “had been” to “was”), missing words and punctuation and other instances of sloppy deletion.

So I turned my quick read into a slow one, finding and correcting perhaps a dozen of these small but irritating errors and picking off dozens of superfluous commas at the same time. Editing has been on my mind for a while, so this was a useful exercise in more ways than one.

Writers are constantly advised to hone their craft. Part of the honing process is learning how to edit. Yes, you can hire someone to do that, but it’s an essential writerly skill. Even if you choose not to edit your own writing, you can perhaps help someone else with theirs. (Just here I’ll throw out an observation that as far as I know there is no accrediting body for editors, so you can’t be sure that the person you hire is any better than you).

The order in which you do different kinds of editing is important. Don’t bother with line editing right after you’ve finished your first draft. Not even your second, third or fourth draft. Save it until you’re happy with the structure of your novel — the plot, the characters, the pacing, the way the scenes unfold. At that point it’s worthwhile to focus on grammar, punctuation, superfluous words and other niceties.

Now, after several more hours of intense and focussed work, I’m fairly sure I’ve corrected my errors without making new ones. The comma bucket is overflowing and I’m about to re-upload my Phoenix to fly unburdened into e-readers and imaginations.

Hooks, Tics and Tension

When I read a work in progress presented for critique, I am a different sort of reader than when I read a completed book for entertainment. As a critiquer, I am looking for things to critique — awkward dialogue, improbable situations, confusing structure and so on. As a regular reader, I’m not consciously looking for anything, just going with the flow of the narrative wherever it takes me. Only if that flow is interrupted or destroyed do I notice the actual writing, and even then I don’t think about it much but simply stop reading.

If a piece of writing is effective, the casual reader doesn’t have to think about it, any more than someone luxuriating in a hot tub has to think about the plumbing. Most writers I know, myself included, write for that ideal reader, making the narrative flow easily to help them create a mind-movie.

But before there’s a casual reader, there are non-casual ones, aren’t there? Fellow writers in critique groups, test readers, and (if the work becomes a submission), publishers’ readers or editors. They resist being carried along. The first two are on the lookout for bumps or snags, and the gatekeepers are looking for reasons to throw the manuscript onto the “rejects” pile and move on to the next one.

I touched on tics a few posts ago, when I mentioned a recommendation to target the word “that,” removing as many instances of it as possible because in many cases it is redundant and slows down the flow. I have read similar suggestions about other words: only, just, still, some, had (as in the much-maligned past perfect) and was. The trouble is that if you read with the target word in mind, that word is all you see; the piece of writing becomes otherwise meaningless. It’s sort of like the dripping tap or the ticking clock — once the sound has claimed your attention, it’s all you can hear. The best way to look for any of these suspect words would be with the Find feature in Word, which lets you hop from one instance of a word to the next and decide whether it’s needed. But if you are doing a general read-through, don’t focus on a specific word.

So much for tics.  How about hooks? Writers are told that to keep a reader’s interest they must “plant a hook” at the beginning of a novel and at the end of every chapter until the work bristles with them, like a longline fishing setup from which a reader cannot possibly escape. The trouble is that not every type of writing lends itself to the hook-planting technique. Quite often a bridge or a winding path is more appropriate, or an alluring vista in the distance. I suspect the whole hook business comes from readers who must get through dozens or hundreds of submissions from the slush pile. To keep them interested, hooks are absolutely essential — no hook, no luck.  Many casual readers, I think, don’t need hooks everywhere, only writing that’s easy to read (in the sense of “flow”), punctuated with instances of greater intensity (action, tension, sex or transcendence) at regular intervals. These may be called hooks, I suppose, but in that case we may need a different term for devices that generate readers’ interest.

Finally, tension. At a recent critiquing session, I was told that one of my scenes lacked tension. I made things too easy for my characters and they needed to experience more difficulties. Well, OK, maybe so. Rewriting, I added a few obstacles and disconcerting moments. I’m aware of the advice to “Torture your characters. Make life really hard for them, because that’s what makes a good read.” Indeed, but like any other fictional devices, the obstacles must be plausible and contribute to the plot. Traps set for their own sake may well snap down on the writer if they lengthen the story too much or create a lot of pointless detours.

What’s this post about, really? Partially it’s me venting my annoyance at the suggestion that a piece of my writing is flaccid. More justifiably, it’s me questioning another set of Rules for Writers. Show me a rule and I’m inclined to quibble with it. Creative writing isn’t something you can do by slavishly following a set of rules, like a paint-by-number. Come to think of it, visual artists don’t seem to bother much with rules any more. It’s true that some artists are more successful than others, but that’s true for us writers too. We make our choices and take the consequences depending on our individual situations. If I had a publisher’s team behind me, investing their time and treasure in marketing my work, I would have a real incentive to follow whatever rules they came up with. But I don’t, so I can write things like the foregoing with impunity (I hope).

The Comma Bucket

Editing my writing over the years, I’ve had a mental image of a big bucket full of commas that I’ve deleted from the novels in my Herbert West Trilogy. Running along the rows of text, I’ve plucked out commas right and left and tossed them into the bucket.

I admit that my usage of commas is largely determined by the way a sentence sounds in my mind as I’m composing it — rather like creating music without bothering to learn musical notation. In fact, I see prose as a kind of word-music, and apply commas in spots where one might take a breath while reading aloud.

I just did some superficial (is there any other kind?) web searching on the topic of comma usage and found a list called “10 Completely Wrong Ways to Use” this punctuation mark. Number 4 is my personal bugbear, as it turns out — inserting a comma after the first component of a compound predicate.  “She hated going to the dentist, and cried the whole way there.” Yes! This is exactly the kind of thing I do, not because I want to break a rule of usage (chortling wickedly as I insert the comma), but because to me the comma here represents a tiny pause in which the reader may savour the fact that “she” hated going to the dentist, before going on to the consequence of that hatred, her tears. If I want to do this and remain on the right side of the rules, I must turn the sentence into a compound one by repeating the subject “she” in the part after the conjunction, like this: “She hated going to the dentist, and she cried the whole way there.”

Well. I am a cataloguer by profession and therefore used to complex rules involving tiny details of wording and punctuation, but even to me this seems quite byzantine. (You don’t know what a cataloguer is?  A kind of librarian.  “Cataloger” is another way to spell it. Look it up).

The point is that both the correct and incorrect sentences I quoted look OK to me. I’m almost certain that if I were reading an interesting book, eager to find out who did it, or whether they get back together in the end, or if she escapes, I wouldn’t notice such an error.

This brings up a blog post by a fellow writer (also Canadian) that mentions “Canadian punctuation.” It seems that if one is preparing a book for the American market, one must punctuate American style. Do Canadians use more commas? If I’m an example, I suppose the answer is “Yes.” But again — does it matter? In fiction at least, if your prose is such that readers actually notice the way you use commas, the commas are probably the least of your problems.

This calls to mind yet another fellow writer’s blog post, recommending that writing may be improved by deleting instances of the word “that.” For example: “Alma thought Herbert had been dead for fifteen years,” instead of “Alma thought that Herbert had been dead for fifteen years.” She’s right; the “that”  doesn’t really add anything and the sentence is smoother without it. The problem is that once you focus on a word or punctuation mark, it’s all you can see as you read on. Sentences become meaningless because your brain can’t focus on anything else. It’s like when you notice a clock ticking or a fly buzzing; suddenly that sound seems intolerable and overwhelming. When that word or that comma is all you can see, you need to disengage and reset your brain. Take a walk, do some pushups, chase the cat around or have a drink — whatever it takes — before getting back to the text.

Words arranged in order have meaning, sharpened by the squiggles and dots that are punctuation marks. A deleted sentence falls back into its elements of words and letters; the commas, periods and dashes are tossed carelessly into the virtual bucket sitting by the writer’s feet.

For the last word on usage, you may wish to consult William Strunk’s 1918 classic The Elements of Style.

Saving the Phoenix

A word of warning to writers — be very careful when you wrap up a late night of editing.  Last weekend I did a thorough overhaul on a huge document, getting the final book of my Herbert West Series ready for publication.  I finished it late Sunday night and decided to save a backup copy on a flash drive. Tired and muddled, instead of copying the newly edited document over an older version on the flash drive, I copied the old version over the new one. I didn’t even realize the mistake until I pulled up the document the next day to admire the edits and wondered why it was back to its original length instead of the slim, trim version achieved by deleting countless commas, ellipses, “hads,” “woulds” and “of courses.”

The only thing more devastating is to lose an entire document. I’ve done that too, but was saved by the fact that I always write my stuff in longhand first. Both then and now the real loss was time. I figure it took me a good sixteen hours to redo that editing. Then there’s the uneasy feeling that the lost text was better than the redone version.

I still have more than 100 pages to go before I start formatting the document for upload, and I automatically edit whatever I read — magazine and newspaper articles, weather forecasts, recipes.  One really good thing is nearly 20 mm. of rain yesterday and last night, watering the garden and leaving me free to stay with this project until it’s done.

Look for Hunting the Phoenix early next week!

Revision is Endless

Once you’ve written something, especially something long, like a 150,000+ word novel, you have a preoccupation that can last the rest of your life, if you let it. Now that books have become ebooks, there is no reason to stop revising, tinkering, polishing and embellishing, even after the thing is published. In the past, once a book was printed, that pretty well put an end to revision, unless there was a good reason at some point to produce a second edition. That makes sense for certain kinds of non-fiction, but rarely in the case of fiction. Now the whole concept of “edition” is becoming obsolete.

I can upload a new version of my novel to Smashwords any time I want. Should I discover an irritating typo in the text, or have a brilliant idea that improves the plot, I can make corrections, insert a new scene or even do a major rewrite. Out with the old text, in with the new. Yes, in effect there is a new edition, but if only the new text exists (outside of my own computer) it’s not exactly the same as in the world of print.

Just because something is possible, however, doesn’t mean that it’s the thing to do. There comes a time when further tinkering with a piece of work no longer improves it. If you get a great new idea, write a great new work, rather than trying to make the old work into a new one.

A rational approach to revision might be as follows:  ask several people to read your opus in manuscript. If you belong to a writers’ group, you may find readers there. In any case, it’s best to ask people whom you know to be readers. Non-readers probably won’t give you the kind of feedback you need. Family members and friends? Only if they will give you objective opinions, and only if that won’t compromise your relationship afterward.

The comments most worthy of your attention are those made by more than one of your readers. If all or most of them agree that a character needs more development, that a scene does not contribute to the plot, or that your dialogue is weak, those are probably valid criticisms that you should address by rewriting. Then take the rewritten sections back to your readers.

A group of readers also delivers a diversity of comments. Some pick up on lurking typos or grammatical problems, others pounce on continuity problems, still others focus on character motivations. This is another helpful aspect of asking a group to read your work, since it’s unlikely that any individual will note all those details.

Then there’s the question of “professional” editing. Some writers declare that no one should dare to send works to publishers or agents, or self-publish them, without first having them “professionally edited.” I don’t necessarily agree with this opinion. I think it depends. Some writers are perfectly capable of editing their own works, especially in conjunction with thoughtful critiques by a group of capable readers. More particularly, before rushing out to find an editor, consider that anyone can call themselves an editor. There is no testing and approving body for editors analogous to a college of physicians and surgeons. Presumably, editors make their reputations through the results of their work, which suggests that a certain amount of research and investigation is in order before you fork over your cash (which can be considerable for editing a novel — hundreds or even thousands of dollars). Second, know what you expect from the editor — an overhaul of the entire work from concept to plot to characters and scenes, or merely a thorough read-through to pick up typographic and spelling mistakes and other minor flaws. Finally, bear in mind that paying an editor to review and revise your work is no guarantee of success (i.e. acceptance). Decide in advance what you are going to do after the editor is finished — revise their revisions?

This posting is prompted by the fact that I am right now in the midst of a revision of my second novel, Islands of the Gulf, which is the sequel to The Friendship of Mortals. Once I have worked through it with input from my novelists’ critique group, my intention is to make it available on Smashwords, by the end of 2011, I hope.

However you undertake revision of a piece of writing, do it with an end in mind. When that end is reached, declare the work finished and move on.