The digital age has already come to music, and now publishing is in the same awkward adolescent phase. Record labels didn’t handle it well–think acne, voice squeaks, and a truly disastrous first date with the prom king
As soon as a product goes digital, people figure out how to steal it. It used to be just songs and movies that were pirated, but now ebooks are beset by the same want-it-for-free crowd
One of our favorite things to do is meetup with our writers, coaches, collaborators, and partners when we have the chance.
A coffee shop: the writer’s office. It’s almost a cliche, but there is some truth to it, and for good reason.
Everybody’s heard of show don’t tell, right? That’s so 90s. I say, stop abusing your readers. Let them eat cake!
There’s an annoying thing that happens to writers, artists, and other creative types. Namely, that ideas rarely come at convenient times. They don’t like to show up for their appointment at 7:15 am when your freshly-scrubbed hands are poised on your keyboard, your coffee is still warm at your elbow, and your schedule for the day has not yet been hopelessly derailed. No, ideas like to show up just when you’ve laid down to go to sleep, or when you’re in the shower with no way to jot them down, or twenty minutes into a yoga class (far past the time when you could slink off to make a note without girls with OM tattoos giving you the stink eye).
The reason for the terrible timing of epiphanies seems pretty clear, and I’m reminded of it every time I go into my favorite brewery. It’s my favorite because they make a delectable brown ale, a swoonworthy stout, and they print targets on their cans so you can shoot them when you’re done with your beverage (a must for an Idaho microbrewery). But they also have a terribly apt quote at the top of the mirror in their ladies room:
In other words, relax and the muse shows up.
Which sounds perfectly intuitive, until you remember roughly 600,000 other motivational posters you’ve seen in your life about how hard work is the only path to success.
After all, few people quote the mirrors of pubs in their lifetime achievement award speeches. So which should you be? Working hard to get your book done, or taking a more winding, zen path to finding your muse? Working hard or hardly working?
The answer to the conundrum, I have decided, lies in watching how people kill zombies.
No spoilers for the greatest show on television (because you should all get to enjoy the modern wonder of storytelling prowess that is The Walking Dead) but I happened to notice that the stars of TWD got a lot better at killing zombies in Season 7 than in Season 1. Part of that was because they obtained a lot more machetes (another key to happiness in life, but that’s a topic for another blog post). In Season 1, a single zombie fight would leave them breathless and staggering, trembling and blood-spattered.
But in later seasons, they’d take on an entire herd with a casual swagger and possibly a joke or two.
Why? Because they were using a lot less energy fussing about it.
Instead of being scared of the outcome or tensed against failure, they relaxed and only spent energy on the actual motions required for the task. Which freed them up to be far more effective against the rotting hordes of enemies.
Writing is the same way. The more time you spend checking your email or tweeting about your writer’s block, the less time you have to spend honing your craft. The more emotional energy you spend worrying that you’re a hack and a fraud, the less emotional energy you will have to fill out the highs and lows of your own characters.
So give yourself permission to relax about it. Yes, still sit down to your computer at 7:15 am, but release that iron hold on your own brain and let it meander, the way it does when you’re trying to sleep and instead you’re madly scribbling notes and annoying your significant other by having the light on.
By letting go of what’s not important, you can conserve your energy for what is. And maybe, just maybe, finally get that pesky muse to show up at a more convenient time of day.
I bought my first house a few years ago. It’s a well-maintained home in a quiet residential area with a quaint little office overlooking the street, which makes it an ideal place for an editor to live. I’m grateful that the previous owner took such good care of this house, and for the most part few things have gone wrong.
Of those few mishaps, most were things we could fix ourselves. The latch on the front gate shifts out of position now and then, but it's nothing I can't fix in a few minutes with a wrench. The deck needed a new coat of all-weather stain, and even though the job led to sweat, sunburn, and sore muscles, it was doable in one day. We've installed a new dishwasher, a new washer-dryer unit, and a new element in the stove. We even did out own vinyl flooring.
But then there are the major problems. Late last year, we became aware of a leak in the bathroom. On heading down into the crawl space under the shower (we have a dugout basement and the shower hovers over an expanse of dirt ) it turned out a bracket on the pipe draining the shower to the sewer was wide open. Water was pouring out onto the now-mud. We called in a plumber and, on inspection, it turned out that was just the beginning of our troubles. The pipes behind the shower were also leaky and had caused considerable rot in the wall and the bathroom floor, which in turn was making the toilet slowly sink through the floor.
That was when we reached our limitations for homeowner repairs. We lucked out finding a handyman who not only provides excellent service at a competitive price, but he also likes to teach homeowners how to do further repairs. So he came in and told us what to tear out for him (saving us money by not having to pay him to do it), then he fixed everything, he put some things back in place (like a new wall and a new floor), but then to save us more money, instructed us on how to put down vinyl flooring rather than having him do it. As a result, not only do I now have the bathroom put back together again, I know much more about how this house is constructed, and I’m also experienced at laying vinyl plank flooring.
Self-editing vs. hiring an editor: knowing your limitations
Many authors feel they can edit their books themselves. To a certain extent, they can. This process is called self-editing.
Self-editing a book is like doing the basic repairs on a house. You can fix tense and POV and verb agreement issues. You can fix plot holes and pacing and dialogue. You can tighten sentences, cut your word count down by 10% (a pretty standard recommendation across the board), make great scenes awesome, make weak scenes great, improve sensory details...I could go on and on.
There's no limit to what you can do with self-editing, and the more experienced you are, the more you can apply your skills to self-editing to make your editor's/editors' job(s) less tedious.
However, no matter how good you are at self-editing, you are the equivalent of one hand clapping. Why is this?
No matter how detached we try to be, as writers, we are prone to seeing what we want to see, not what a reader will see. So, while we can self-edit and perfect our book until there's not a thing more we can find wrong with it, this will be limited to our sense of how we react to our own book. Where this becomes a real problem is in scenes or elements of our book we feel are exceptional, which might actually be lackluster and problematic — sometimes even having the opposite effect on readers.
That scene you can't stop laughing at? You might not realize there's a problem until your editor gets back to you on it and tells you it's self-indulgent and eclipsing the gravity of the mood. The kick-ass climax that had you buzzing while you wrote it and which you can't stop playing over and over in your head because it's so awesome? Your editor might be the one who has to break it to you that the scene doesn't even fit in your book, that as a whole it's not consistent with the promises you set up in your opening. It has to go, or if not, it has to change to line up with the expected payoffs.
Now, you might learn to identify these things, but it can be a two-edged sword. We could have definitely tried to rip our floor up, replace the rotted sub-floor, cut away rotten boards, replace a toilet, do the plumbing, learn how to do drywall and paint our own wall...but all that time we could have been busy living our lives and working while someone with the refined skill set would do the job right, efficiently, and quickly.
Likewise, a writer can consult a dozen craft and editing books and try to be objective and become their own editor, but all that time they could be busy writing more drafts; the revision to follow when they work with an editor will take them eons further than if they did it all themselves, and for a fraction of the time in.
But, like we did with out major home repair, through self-editing, a writer can pick up many of the pieces through learning from working with their editor(s) over time. The greatest skill is developing detachment and learning to identify your blind spots.
In my own self-editing, I have become as cynical as the King Solomon of Ecclesiastes. In fact, this last week I just wrote the plot climax of A Thousand Roads and I thought I pulled off something amazing, I was pretty sure, but I kept a healthy skepticism because I knew that, while that ending definitely paid off for me, I have deluded myself all too often in past; off the pages went to my editor and I heard back from her a few days later — indeed, I did rock that scene, but there were some issues, nothing that couldn't be fixed, but it wasn't the perfect Hollywood production I saw it as in my mind; essentially, my instinct was correct that the scene was working, but because of the emotional intensity of being in the middle of it, living it as only an author can, I'm prone to being blinded to other things that, without being addressed, will hinder the reader's experience.
I applied this feedback and already the chapter is taking on a dimension of payoff it wouldn't have without that professional input, and light-years faster than were I to kick my way there through self-editing alone.
Self-editing to death: how to avoid circular revision
The floor in my detached garage is badly cracked and starting to sink. I need to fix the problem and I know that means fixing the concrete floor, perhaps by laying down fresh concrete. However, I happened to show it to the same handyman who fixed our bathroom, and with his professional expertise and his emotional distance (as it’s not his house), he was able to point out the painful truth. The garage was poorly constructed and is very slowly falling down and is irreparable. It might be a good decade before it actually needs to be demolished, but due to faulty construction, the fix is not at all easy. In fact, it's a waste of money unless we're willing to re-pour the foundation and build a new one from scratch.
I came across a similar situation in a novel I wrote several years ago — my first one. As most first novels go, there was something major wrong with it, but I didn't know what. When I was in the midst of writing and revising again and again and again, I was rapidly identifying and repairing all of the little things that were wrong with it, and it was improving a lot with each revision. I even worked with an editor and he pushed me through further revisions, inspiring me to dig deeper. I even cut two of the characters who I really liked when he helped me understand they didn't serve the plot, but still, it just wasn't working. We got up to an eighth draft, and I pushed into a ninth and I was determined that this time I was going to figure out what that deep problem was.
What I had run into was a case of circular revision. Eventually, I had to put it down and walk away.
Several years passed and I wrote several more novels, and always that novel was lurking somewhere beneath the surface of my mind. Gone, but not forgotten, as it is with stories we create, no matter how we go about producing them.
What I found was that over the time that passed, I gained emotional and creative distance that's allowed me to appreciate that book on a deeper, conceptual level. Most importantly, I'd grown so much as a writer and developed my self-editing skills to the level where recently, riding the wave of some caffeinated inspiration, I was able to map out an outline for what a new draft would look like. But like the handyman with the garage, this isn't a plan to "fix" the older story; rather, it's a plan to write something completely new, using the the viable parts of the plot ideas and the same overall concept. Basically, when the time comes for me to pick this one up and redraft it, I'll be making a new novel that works; a new draft vs. a mere revision.
The key lesson for me has been that self-editing is a skill that helps us improve our edge as writers so that our time with an editor, or with revision and redrafting, will be more efficient. But, just as critical to the art of self-editing, is the wisdom to know when self-editing is killing your story, and that it's okay — in fact, it's good for you and your health and growth as a writer! — to walk away for a bit and write something else.
Putting it all together: always write, always self-edit, always revise; develop your own sequence
With writing, we can’t always take five years away from a project and rewrite from scratch. We need to write, polish, publish, repeat. We have to put out books for our readers. We need to build our career.
I've always liked the wine bottling anecdote to describe an effective writing routine. Some bottles of wine can spend years in the cellar before they are sold. But the vineyard produces grapes every season. Grapes are pressed with care. Yeast is added and fermentation begins. Sugar converts to alcohol, then when the desired amount of dryness or sweetness is reached clarification begins. Wine is racked, then it's bottled and the wine maker can decide if it should be bottled for sale or aged. Some wines must age, while others are good to drink right away. But the wine maker makes lots of wine so that every harvest, there's wine to sell, even if some of the finer wines must spend years aging until they are finally corked and ready.
Likewise, a writer must write. Draft daily (as most do), your necessary output. This is your grape harvest. Eventually, you'll reach the end of a given manuscript, and the draft is done. You can self-edit, work with an editor, and decide, depending on the needs or considerations of that given book, if it's ready to publish, or if it's not ready and you need perspective. This is your choice of if the wine needs aging or not.
If your given draft needs more time, put it away, but if you have the habit of drafting every day (my habit is to spend 2 hours drafting every day, no matter what), then this means if your given draft is put away then you have no choice but to write something else. (You will probably find, as I did, that what comes out of this conundrum is a very very good realization about just how much wider your storytelling universe is than one simple book.)
Eventually, this is going to add up. Most likely you might write different things. As a rule, never write something unless you really want to be writing it. But always be writing something, and try to write something different after you finish any given draft and its relevant revisions.
This is your sequence as a writer — think of it as the equivalent of a to-read pile, except as a writer, it's your to-write pile. The point, though, is that you will continually be writing and self-editing and revising, and, for many of these drafts, you will be publishing and making money and building your readership, and your career.
In all this, you will come back to your older drafts. When you have the right perspective on those, you'll know it and you'll write that new draft with the expert skill you've gained because in all the time that's passed, you've kept on writing, and self-editing, and revising.
Self-editing might not be a means to an end, but, used with these other principles, it can serve to add an edge that lets any writer push their drafting power upward in steady quantum leaps.
What are your chances of getting signed if you get an R&R?
An R&R is one of the terms in the publishing industry that frequently has writers drawing a blank…or devolving into sheer panic.
Simply put, an R&R stands for Revise and Resubmit. It means that instead of rejecting or offering representation, an agent thinks you’re close but not quite there yet, so they send feedback, and invite you to resubmit if you choose to revise to their feedback.
They can be exciting (hey, it’s not a no!) but they can also be a lot of hard work. My husband repeatedly pointed out the irony of the acronym when I was working 15-hour, eye-bleeding days on an editorial R&R of my own. No, folks, it does not stand for rest and relaxation.
It also isn’t a guarantee of an offer, even if you follow their feedback to the best of your ability. I did a quick poll on Twitter about agent R&R’s, and this is what I found:
93 people completed R&Rs.
68 were rejected -73%
25 accepted- 27%
*Disclaimer. I am not a scientist. Well, I am a tortoise biologist, but that’s not quite statistician credentials. This is a Twitter poll, not a peer reviewed double-blind study, and the results should be read accordingly.
Dan Koboldt did an excellent blog on this same topic, only on the editorial end (R&Rs from publishing houses rather than agents). You can read it here. He found about a 80% rejected, 20% accepted rate, which is comparable to agents, if a little more discouraging.
Whether it’s from an agent or an editor, an R&R is not a requirement. You don’t have to use their feedback. And even if you use some of it, you don’t have to use all of it. Take the time to digest and decide if it’s good for your book and if it matches your vision for your piece. Or, try it out and if you hate the final result, throw it out. But do remember that an R&R is also an audition of your ability to take criticism, so remember to be professional and gracious. Don’t change two commas and send it back because then you’re just being a jerk and wasting everyone’s time.
However, when you compare these numbers (73% rejection rate) to the normal querying rejection rate (around 99% rejection rate), you can see that an R&R is definitely worth your time. The feedback won’t always fit with your vision, but if a seasoned publishing professional wants to take the time to tell you how they think you can improve your book, it’s always worth at least considering.
Probably the most common editing clients I work with are romance writers. Romance is a very competitive genre, one that requires several releases per year, preferably monthly, to stay competitive and to maintain a readership.
Romance authors, understandably, crank out a huge number of books and can’t spend too much time on any one book, for fear of getting behind and perhaps losing readership. These authors have to quickly perfect their plotting, writing, and revising skills so that their writing is pretty solid from the first draft. (Side note: if you want an interesting read of just how romance writers do this, check out The Five Day Novel by Scott King.)
Readers of the romance genre tend to devour books — with some of them reading as much as a book a day. Granted, some of these are shorter books, so it is easier to read one, cover to cover, in a day. Readers therefore demand much higher turnaround of their favorite authors, meaning romance writers have to be more resourceful, but with skill that comes with writing many novels, great romance writers can turn around books quickly and effectively, because they know how to create the most important thing: a love plot that is worth rooting for and relentless conflict that has you reading on in suspense hoping your protagonist and love interest will get together in the end.
Readers of science fiction and fantasy, on the other hand, are much more interested in the nuances of plotting, world-building, and prose. These readers often, but not always, take more time with their reading than a romance reader does. They aren't in a rush to get through and will often stop to enjoy the view. Due to the nature of these genres, readers want to be immersed in new worlds, filled with fantastic technology and strange beings. They also prefer their books to be longer, especially in fantasy, so time spent on world-building and added layers of plotting is a must.
Thus, authors of science fiction and fantasy know the risk is much higher that they won't engage their audience if they don't go to the extra lengths their readers expect on every book. Science fiction and fantasy readers tend to be okay with waiting for your next book if they know it’s going to deliver on all the extra layers of amazing storytelling they expect. Even George RR Martin's fans, who have waited now nearly 6 years for the 6th book in his Song of Ice and Fire series, despite some frustration you hear about from fans, know that when the book comes out it's going to be stellar because he's demonstrated with the painstaking time he invests in his work that it translates to a book executed with mastery.
And somewhere in between all that is the broad vista of YA, NA, paranormal fantasy, urban fantasy, action, thriller, adventure, horror, and many of the genres where readers can't get enough of their favorite authors' series and the expectation is at least 1-2 books / year, where there is a lot more interest in plot and payoff and the standards are higher, but not so high that you need to make every book a masterpiece. (If there is anyone in the world capable of writing 1-2 masterpieces per year, please let me know because I'd like to study more of their methods!)
Am I ready to publish?
The main point I'm making above is that knowing if your book is ready to publish requires knowing your audience, and that means knowing your genre well. Usually (rarely not), the genre you will devote most of your time to writing in is also a genre you love to read. How else can you know what's going to excite your readers? (I'm not taking into account the exceptions, such as someone who might write a weight loss book based on their strategy to lose 200 pounds; or a fiction writer who had a profound life experience and turned that into a book that captured the hearts of millions.) When asking yourself if you’re ready to publish, you have to consider what your potential readers will think of your book.
It's important to know that, while editing can give your story an edge and prepare it for publication, it can only go so far if your story is not ready for publication; and only you can address that through strategic revisions, possible reworkings, continued education on craft and storytelling techniques, immersion in fiction to expand your awareness of the standards your readers will have (especially outstanding books in the genre you write in), and most importantly, a willingness to be relentless about finishing what you set out to do. When you submit your work, either to your agent, or to an editing team, your part of the work must be done so that the editing process can work effectively.
I write epic fantasy. I’ve been working on my novel, A Thousand Roads, for a few years now. I’ve had a few beta readers who have gone through earlier drafts of the book. I've even hired editors to work on some drafts (including my present one). The draft I'm finishing is hanging together pretty good and there's lots of improvements; in fact, I would be so bold as to say the book is moving into the territory of being very good. But I am also an avid reader of the epic fantasy genre and I know what I'm striving for in this book. I am a fan of exactly the "species" of books my book is striving to be like, and when I work on this book I know what I want this book to be, and this means the potential I'm aiming for is nowhere near tapped yet and I have a long way to go. I'm not discouraged at all because I understand, this being the genre I'm in love with, it just goes with the turf. It's part of the process, and many epic fantasy writers will fail (either through continued rejections, or indifferent readers should they self-publish) because they compromise the I need to get published instinct for I want to do this right.
But that's my set of criterion. You as a writer most likely know your genre, and as a reader and fan of your genre, you know what it is you want in your book. You also know your process and methods that help you create that book, and it's important to trust those instincts.
The important takeaway above all is that the process of channeling your inner ideal reader is a sure criterion for helping you understand if the book you're trying to complete is actually done or not, provided you belong in that group. Why is this? Because if you are a fan of a specific subgroup of book types that have sold well, then you are one of a large group of people who have read those books and want more. You are writing your book because you are creating more for that group of readers, and you, being one of them, know exactly what you'd want in a book, were you to pick it up off the shelves and read it.
The power of channeling your inner ideal reader
Are you ready to publish? Simply ask yourself if the novel you're about to send out into the world is the kind of novel you, as your own reader, would want to read. Is there anything lacking? Are you left wanting? Address that, and ask this same question, and repeat until there is nothing to do. Depending on your genre, this might be a quick process, spending an extra few days with your manuscript and booking those days off work; it might be years' long and seventeen drafts which will later win you a Hugo award (you deserve it if you stick it out that long).
Either way, know your reader, and write for your readers, because you are also that reader, and you know when your work is ready.
Today, I’m writing about neurology because I’m a NERD! And I’m writing about tropes because I just got back from a romance novel conference (RT16 FTW!) where cowboys and Navy SEALS were roaming the hallways and gracing the covers of the books stacked on the tables. On one of my nights off, I hit an erm…adult entertainment show involving dancing and oh my! Turns out cowboys and Navy SEALS and firefighters were all over the stage there, too. This got me thinking about tropes.
What’s a trope?
A lot of people think a trope=stereotype, and that’s not true.
A trope is something universal that always appeals. A Cinderella story. A daring rescue. A wounded but tough hero healed by love. These are things that have been appearing in stories since they were told by the light of a campfire flickering on the cave walls.
Tropes also include person types as well as story types: the athlete, the meek heroine who finds her strength, the firefighter.
Where does neurology come in? Well, first you have to understand how the brain communicates. It’s basically like a forest with a lot of pathways beaten into it that converge and split apart again. Our neural pathways MAKE our brain.
Now, humans like novelty. We all know that. The people who made the Ashley Madison website (Match.com for marital affairs) know that. The men who buy a doctor’s coat to role-play with their wives know that. The people who lease a new car every year know that.
We also like the familiar. The smell of our mother’s kitchen. The Princess Bride movie, played for the thousandth time. That one MOVE that only your husband knows that works every time. More importantly, brains know how to process the familiar, and so you avoid confusion and anxiety.
What tropes know is that if you take something familiar, and give it a novel twist, that’s the best of both worlds. In terms of brain chemistry, we’re taking those familiar paths and forging new ones in between. We’re not bushwhacking through the wilderness the whole way, making an entirely new trail. No, we’re taking advantage of the reward circuits that are tied to familiarity by using the paths that are already there, and we are taking advantage of the reward circuits that like novelty by taking thrilling new shortcuts in between the established paths.
Pop songs know this, which is why every song is made up of verses (new) that return to the refrain (familiar).
What does this mean for writers (and readers)?
It means you want to take a familiar trope and twist it in a new way. Take somebody’s catnip (Spec Ops warriors!) and give it a personality. Make it a real person, and then give it a twist (Spec Ops warriors who are also all members of a band and working out of a tattoo parlor where they specialize in covering scars for burn victims).
If you’d like to read more about how to do that, author Katie Golding has a brilliant post on twisting tropes here.
Here’s a great example of my point in a single picture:
Hopefully Tia Louise won’t mind me using her book cover, because I saw it in a Facebook ad and loved it. Why did I love it? Because it takes the cowboy (a trope I love!) and makes it REAL. One look at this image and you can tell that guy is a real person with a story. He’s strong, and he’s got ranch roots, but at some point he went urban enough to get those tattoos, and he’s got a look on his face like a few things in life haven’t turned out the way he planned. I want to have a conversation with him.
Now, what if the book cover had something I’d never seen before on it?
In that case, it might grab my eye, but I might not have as immediate or as positive of a reaction, because my brain doesn’t know how to PROCESS that. That’s why, in books, it’s best to start with something universal and find a way to make it new, not try to reinvent the wheel so it looks something like this:
My PitchWars mentee said something really smart the other day, in passing. Yeah, I know, I’m supposed to be teaching her things, but if you do it right, it always goes both ways. The thing she said was about always leaving little moments open in her writing like fanfiction prompts. Because “the key to inspiring fanfic writers is leave them wanting more.”
This reminded me of that old saying about “Leave room for the Holy Ghost” at church dances, so the boys and girls don’t get too close to one another. Presumably because boy/girl friction calls up the devil, though in practice we all know that space for the Holy Ghost might as well be magnetized because all it does is make the people on both sides wish really hard that it weren’t there.
Which brings me to fanfiction. Fanfiction is born of dissatisfaction. It is a love child created specifically BY that space between dancers. By that longing for them to close that space, to finally declare their feelings, to KISS ALREADY for the love of puppies. (I won’t even tell you how many thousands of words of fanfic were inspired by the above near-touch dance scene. Several thousand were written by me). That’s why TV shows spawn such great fanfiction. With no end in sight, every romance is a slow burn. Every potential kiss is interrupted to keep the tension up.
Fanfic is frequently about providing that satisfaction, whereas tension is created in original fiction by dissatisfaction. AKA leaving room for the holy ghost. There’s something nice about seeing two characters kiss, yes, but it’s all the more mouthwatering to see their lips hover so close but NOT QUITE THERE!
As a fanfic writer who has since transitioned to original fiction, it’s a constant struggle for me to remember I need to keep conflict and tension high by not allowing reader satisfaction…just yet. My PitchWars mentee’s comment was a perfect reminder to me, because by thinking of writing in near touch moments as a prompt for fanfiction writers to later expound on, it changed my focus.
It helped me to feel positive about not writing what I wanted (KIIIIIIISSSSSS!), it stroked my ego a little (look, maybe someday people will write fanfic of my books! I should be so lucky) and it reminded me to leave room for the Holy Ghost. To leave a gap between their hero and the goal, whether it’s the girl, a magic sword, or their own self-respect. Because leaving that space is what keeps people flipping the pages, hoping for more.
I'll admit that I don't read nearly as much as I wish I could. Since I write all weekend and during the week I’m immersed in editing projects, I often find that my brain wants anything but words by the end of the day. It is for this reason that I always turn down requests to beta read or to read anything that isn't the one thing I am compelled to commit to.
However, I do make a point of reading. In fact, time to read is as fundamental to my day routine as taking a shower or brushing my teeth. While I've experimented with best times to make this happen, at the very least I read for half an hour before I go to sleep, even if it means going to bed half an hour later.
I don’t read fast, though this is by choice. I know of many who can read fast but they admit they don't take everything in. One friend who I know is a fast reader once told me he reads fast and notes where exciting things are so he can come back to them later. I can definitely relate to reading this way -- I do it all the time for non-fiction articles or research (especially online), but not for fiction or books I've chosen to read in their entirety.
When it comes to reading a book for my dedicated reading time, I don't feel I'm adequately experiencing the book unless I'm truly reading it, and that means reading at a speed that allows me to be immersed in every single thing that's happening, live-time.
I don't press 3x-play when I watch a 1-hour TV show so that I can get through it in 20 minutes, and likewise, I don't rush through reading.
Should every writer read?
For writers, reading is an act of professional development. By reading, we are studying what our contemporaries are doing or what the greats who have gone before us have done. Even if we pick up a particularly bad book, we receive an education in what not to do.
It's also wise to read beyond the genre you write in. While there's great value in studying authors in your genre, being limited to specific genres is a sure way to risk putting blinkers on. For example, though I write epic fantasy and, as you'll see if you study my Goodreads shelf, I've read more fantasy books than any other genre, I read a lot of non-fiction, science fiction, and general fiction. I keep lists of books to help me remember titles I hear of, but when it comes to deciding what to read next, I believe in the power of intuition: in fact, many times I have experienced the phenomenon of how the exact book I need just ends up in my hands at the right time.
There is something meditative to reading. It's not just about professional development, but broadening your mind as a human being. In fact, this is the more important part for storytellers, in my opinion, because while it's great to analyze fiction and fiction techniques for inspiration in your own storytelling, this is just the surface layer of what can be gleaned from being open to the far deeper layers of meaning and inner transformation that reading can bring about for us.
Beware the urge to jump ship (otherwise known as managing your influences)
There is also a real danger to reading if you are a writer, and it's this danger that often is the background excuse for those writers who claim they must not read lest they get influenced. I am no stranger to this one.
In fact, I have a fresh anecdote to share. This last weekend I nearly gave up on A Thousand Roads. This was due in part to reading Stephen King's On Writing and realizing, as I immersed myself in his early life stories, how, after discovering Tolkien at the age of 13 I all but forgot about my previous love for horror stories -- one which goes back to the age of 6 when I'd sneak to my friend's place after school and watch horror movies.
In fact, I had my first story published when I was 11. It was called The Shack, a horror story about a boy whose brother turns into a monster and hunts down his family after a possessed egg from some other dimension takes him captive. I'd submitted it for a school contest and came in second place, which meant I didn't win the 1st place prize of getting published by one of the local presses. However, the principal liked the story so much that, unbeknownst to me at the time, she went home and typed it all up, then had it printed and bound. A few mornings later, we were called into the library and she took out this little book and read it to everyone in place of regular story time, much to my shock (and embarrassment).
I still have this story and, as I read about Stephen King's childhood and found many parallels with my own imaginative early years, I fished out this little book and read it again.
Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. Reconnecting to this abandoned path made me doubt what I'm doing now. When the weekend came and it was time to work on A Thousand Roads I wanted to write something else, saw my plan to stay the course and learn how to finish a book as misguided. Heck, I could use a break, work on something fresh and different.
Without realizing it at the time, my free creative space was being influenced by what I was reading.
You might relate to this as a writer if you've ever gone through this vacillating story idea effect. I don't know about you, but I find this usually happens after I see something I absolutely love where I can just tell the author is brilliant and has found true gold to share. Usually, not long after this experience, a new story idea appears, and it doesn't take long to trace the derivative lines.
How to read and be open without be swayed
There's nothing wrong with being inspired and influenced. The key, in my opinion, is discerning the difference between knee-jerk inspiration and inner inspiration that is as strong -- and slow and inevitable -- as the shifting of tectonic plates.
In the case of A Thousand Roads, the knee-jerk response passed when I relied on the much deeper muscle of my years'-long discipline to come back to the same story and discover it in its pure form. Interestingly, after persevering and having an amazing writing weekend wherein I got more fully invested in the potential of the story, I arrived at the part of King's On Writing where he talked about Carrie and how he'd nearly abandoned that book but his wife's persistence pushed him on to write a story that he was convinced wasn't worth it. He pushed on and learned about the importance of going the extra mile, of going on even when he felt like he was "shoveling shit from a sitting position" (love that line).
Much like what we choose to read, we must choose what to write. If we read 20 books at once and bounce back and forth, our experience of any one book is going to be hampered, and no doubt a book we might have gotten a lot out of we might not even finish. Likewise, if we are fickle in which books we choose to write, we lose the opportunity to bring into realization a story that is our pure, unique vision.
Reading and writing are a symbiosis, provided out mind is rooted in our own vision
I'm learning every time I resist the knee-jerk influencing urge to trust the larger-scale call of the work I'm invested in, the work of my own unique vision.
As I mentioned last week, I saw the Fifty Shades Darker movie this week. What a fantastic movie! I'm not speaking as a critic, but as a storyteller going in and appreciating the unique vision of someone else whose heart and passion shines through in the story. Going into that movie and experiencing some of the brilliantly captured scenes and emotional moments presented me with a dichotomy, but I chose the right path.
The wrong path is to get inspired by what the movie does and then go and immediately try and recreate that in my own fiction. Jumping into such left-brain analysis closes me to truly receiving the lesson of those deeper levels of the story. It's kind of like having a conversation with someone and, instead of listening to them and empathizing, wandering off into thoughts about the plans for the rest of the day.
The right path is much like empathic listening in a conversation, and it made my experience of the movie wondering, and spared me conflict in my storytelling life afterward, because I found myself truly appreciating how one of my contemporaries brought out the gold in her story and how she made her unique vision shine. It inspired me not to copy her, but to listen and learn and appreciate, and try to cultivate that same passion in what is my unique yarn which only I can tell.
So, your partial manuscript request just turned into a rejection rather than a full. Don’t worry, I have a plan. First, smash some shit.
Look, I spent ten years in the counseling field, and I’m telling you, there IS no therapeutic modality equal to dressing like a panda and wrecking something loudly breakable (and hopefully cheap and easy to clean up). But once you’re done whacking ice blocks with a sledgehammer, your manuscript will be in exactly the same shape it was when you sent it to that last agent or Pitch Wars mentor. Note: Step away from the matches. AWAY.
What next? Let’s break it down logically.
If an agent requests a partial, it means they like your concept, they like your writing, and you passed all their auto-no red flag warnings. There are a ton of factors that determine whether a query and sample pages will get you a partial manuscript request. But as for what will keep a partial manuscript from turning into a full? There’s really only one.
If they read your partial and don’t want to read more, it’s probably because the story didn’t go anywhere. The conflict did not drive the action forward fast enough for them to keep reading.
This might mean you need to tighten your pacing. Namely, make sure every scene is fully necessary, moving the plot forward, and doing it in as few words as possible. Do you really NEED that scene where your main character plays World of Warcraft and makes a sandwich? I know it’s character development, but maybe you could blend character development into a scene that also moves the plot forward. Kill two birds with one sandwich, that’s what I always say. Which may be why my husband seems so eager to do the cooking lately.
Pacing and conflict are very closely related. Go look at your conflict. Is there enough conflict? (Example: Does your MC want something? What stops them from getting it?) Is that problem introduced early enough? Without a conflict, you don’t have a story. You have people, doing stuff.
Yeah, that gif was boring AF, am I right? Would have been a lot better if a giraffe would have punted that bird, put a foot through his granny’s picnic basket, and spit on the sandwich.
So, more conflict. Faster pacing. Those are the heavy hitters when revising after several rejections on a partial, but there are a few more possibilities.
One: manuscript isn’t evenly edited. Don’t reel them in with your lipstick and miniskirt, and then show up to the second date in sweatpants. I’ve heard agents say for years that writers spend more time polishing their opening chapters than the rest of their book. People. STAHP. A polished opening will get you a partial request but it won’t get you an offer. You don’t just want a second date–you want a ring. Besides, if you don’t have an agent yet, you don’t have a deadline. Take as long as you need to polish your WHOLE book. You are not going to “trick” an agent into signing you with a really great opening and then a sagging middle that you didn’t revise as often as the first chapter.
Two: characterization. I think this is less common, because if your readers connected with your characters enough to get to a partial request, you’ve probably kept up the good work. But if the agent or mentor isn’t any closer to the characters after fifty pages than they were after ten, they will put the book down. So get out your favorite gel pen and make a list. What do we know about the characters after the sample pages the agent/mentor read? What do we know about them by the end of the pages requested in the partial? If the second list is short or nonexistent, you have characterization issues.
Three: synopsis. If the agent/mentor looked at your synopsis, go back and make sure your synopsis contains your conflict, stakes, and ending. Is it a good representation of your book? If this was ALL somebody knew about your book, would it be accurate or would you be scrambling to say, “Wait, but I didn’t tell you the cool twist with the robot-monkey or the part where the MC loses an arm!” The synopsis should not summarize every chapter, but if it doesn’t show what is unique about your book, it might be holding you back.
Take home message: If you’ve been querying for a while and you’ve gotten lots of partial requests but no fulls? Go back and take a look at the pacing and conflict. Then, polish the rest of the book to the same shine as Ch 1. Check your characters. Then, and only then, send more queries.
Also, buy an ice block. They’re cheap, fun to smash, and they melt so you don’t have to clean them up.
I live in the very wintry city of Winnipeg, and this winter has been particularly snowy. In the five weeks spanning December and the start of January, this city had five blizzards, accumulating as much snow as typically falls in a year in this city.
And it’s still snowing.
If weather predictions are correct, we are in for a very snowy February, as there is a major winter storm pattern headed our way.
As you might imagine, shoveling the sidewalk and driveway is becoming more and more laborious with each snowfall. While I try to see each jaunt as an opportunity for exercise, I find myself now wondering if this winter will ever end.
Writing is a lot like winter in Winnipeg.
Sometimes a project feels like it will never end. No matter how much you chip away at it, no matter how many hours you set aside to write, that same deep exhaustion settles in and writers (myself included) sit back and contemplate giving up. Maybe motivation and energy will come to me if I just put it aside for few months.
Imagine if I treated snow shoveling that way. It would pile higher and higher with every winter storm, until it would become so overwhelming, I’d just give up. Snow would reach knee-height (or higher, given how this winter is going) and I’d do my best to ignore this problem that confronts me every day when I leave my house, until I can no longer open my door.
That’s the risk we run when we put our books aside for lack of motivation, or when we give into the many other pressures that might tell us the great writing idea we really want to be investing our time in just isn't worth our while. The feeling of neglect, that we're really not doing what we should be doing with our life, will only get worse with every passing week.
What about the case of setting aside one project to write something else? That's an entirely different topic (because sometimes it has merit, especially if the project you're working on is something you'd rather not be working on), but for the sake of this argument, let's focus on the project you are truly passionate about, the book(s) you really want to write. Maybe you're not even writing it now and, like the recalcitrant shoveler, you're realizing just how dissatisfied you are by not writing what you're truly passionate about.
Bust the myth of the creative muse: you are your muse, and you call the shots.
Many writers believe they are at the whims of their creativity, often citing their "creative muse" as the source of whether they can write or not. I've been one of those writers myself. There is indeed validity to the fact that certain seasons of life, or certain emotional highs or internal nodes we might hit align just so and bring to the page something special that is not merely the result of mechanical novel-writing. It feels like magic. To this day, I still hold in my mind the memory of my greatest writing experience ever, an all-night adventure fueled by a French Press of coffee and discovering just how deep and alive a story can become. To this day, that is probably one of the richest chapters I've ever written (and was incentive to return to A Thousand Roads because that one chapter in the old manuscript captured just what the manuscript was, and for me, 2 years later, helped me understand what the next steps were).
But I've long since busted the myth of the creative muse. True, there have been many moments where deep intuition and a sort of magic align like constellations and bleed into my work. I can never predict when or how. I can only predict that I will continue to show up and do the work and put in a session, good or bad, trusting that the hard work— like shoveling snow to keep the paths clear— will add up.
I’ve also discovered that creativity can be forced — if I sit down and force myself to write, it gets my creative mind going, and then the creativity flows from my fingertips and onto the computer. It requires the willingness to sit with my manuscript and accept that writing time might require time spent sitting in the chair, leafing around the manuscript, thinking about the story, or reading earlier chapters or related notes I've made on promises I need to fulfill. The act then becomes not throwing words on the page, but creative problem solving. I've learned, by rejecting the myth of the creative muse, that it's possible to be proactive about harnessing creativity, and the key is this:
Knowing what to write next is not about knowing what words to write next, but about asking deep questions about what the story wants from us. The answers inform then become our guide as we write forward, an intuitive counterbalance to hone our sense of if the story is on track or not on track, a bit like rails keeping a train on course.
Concretize your process: define incremental milestones for your project.
Every time it snows, I must go outside and shovel. If I just went outside whenever I wanted, I might discover when I do go out that there are packed layers of ice or uneven patches on the sidewalk that will break my shovel.
Likewise, having a regular discipline for your project, with concrete milestones, is a sure way to turn "I want to write this book and get it published" into a certain plan. This is important, because without developing a discipline that progresses in concrete forward units, you risk descending into relativism: the dreaded novel that you've spent years on, convincing yourself it's just "not right yet", when in fact, most of this time has been spent on lateral growth that hasn't advanced the novel. You're revising and changing, without moving forward so much as moving sideways, like a ship going in whatever direction the wind blows.
I'm not saying you shouldn't spend years on a novel. I'm also not saying those years blowing in many directions didn't add rich and unique layers that will make your book great; nor am I saying that lateral growth is not also a component of forward growth. What I am saying, though, is there's a more efficient way to do it that will take less time, and be more rewarding, if you develop a concrete discipline.
For myself, I've also found it helpful to have accountability. Not only am I a book coach at Author Accelerator, I also use the services myself. Having a deadline, like needing to go out and shovel snow, for me makes the difference between spinning my perfectionist wheels and making clear-cut writing decisions that advance by one tiny, yet significant milestone my writing goals. It's helped me develop a concrete writing discipline of flipping into writing mode every weekend and putting in whatever time it takes (and that will vary depending on the specific story problems that come up) to deliver 20 pages. The process of doing this has defined for me the importance of committing every weekend to working toward a specific milestone with A Thousand Roads, and after I'm finished the second draft, I will continue to commit every weekend to further iterations through the manuscript, under a revision regime that will soon segue to pre-publication production with the editing team I have on board to help turn this manuscript into a finished book.
You don't have to write every weekend, but the idea is to define your end goal — the complete book in your readers' hands, amazing as you can make it be — then define achievable, incremental milestones that you can meet to get to that point.
And if you're snowed in and want to get back on track, maybe you need to bust out the ice-chipper and a blowtorch. Craig, our outreach manager here at Story Perfect, had a project he’d been putting off for months. I finally gave him a kick in the pants and told him to get it done. He sat down and wrote 16,500 words in one day. Talk about clearing away all the snow with sweat and fire!
Now, with that goal met, he's given himself momentum to take the next teps, and already has given it to his editor who is defining the process to publication so it can land well with readers.
Writers have a real problem with “just,” and I don’t mean in the filler word sense. I mean more in the way we treat our dearest accomplishments as filler words.
I’m not a real writer, this is just my first book.
I write, but just children’s books.
I’m published, but just small press.
I’m a bestseller, kind of, but just USA Today, not NYT.
Of course, writers aren’t the only artists guilty of this.
I’m not an artist, I just like to take pictures.
I scupt, but just in plain old clay, not marble or anything.
Most of us have done it, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I weren’t one of the worst offenders. It’s a defense mechanism, this self-protective way we downplay our attachment to the things we actually care about the most. And okay, humility has its place because nobody likes a swaggering assclown. But this constant downplaying contributes to a society-wide attitude toward art that is incredibly destructive.
For instance, politicians are always trying to cut fine arts in schools in favor of science. Science builds cities, they say. Science saves lives. Not entirely true.
Emotion saves lives.
Without emotion, nobody would have cared about anything enough to invent science. And art, even more directly than science, is made of emotion.
It would be difficult to find a part of the literary world less respected than romance novels. But I keep writing about love because it’s the most powerful thing there is. People will kill other people for hate, but they’ll kill everything including themselves for love.
That’s why I don’t believe in “just” a zombie show. “Just” a kid’s book. I don’t think a 10-foot painting of geometric, razor-edged penises is more or less valid than a Play Doh elephant.
Literally thousands of lives were changed by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. It doesn’t matter what you think of that book, or that genre, or her writing. What matters is that book mattered. Measurably. To the people who worked on the movies and the YA publishing industry that flourished as a result. To every person it spurred into fanfiction who then moved on to a writing career. To every person who met a lifelong friend through a fan site. Stephenie Meyer can afford a private freaking plane because the way she wrote sparkly bloodsuckers mattered to a whole damn lot of people.
Evoking emotion isn’t petty, or frivolous, or just for entertainment. Emotion is the energy that drives the entire earth. It, not fossil fuel, is what powers the creation of literally everything. And art keeps that that moving, like the water in the turbines of a giant power plant.
Which is why I want to pause here to tell a story about a concert.
Concerts are my church. In the synergy of movement and sound and the upswelling of pure emotion generated by a crowd, I can experience transcendence brought by connection to other beings. And, rather unfortunately, smell their beer breath.
This particular concert was from a band that’s one of my go-to writing playlists. They’re just a mid-level band, popular enough in the Northwest to headline their own venues but not stadiums. I’ve written thousands of words while immersed in their music. Watching them perform those same songs, I saw that they were playing with such absolute passion and heart… The lead singer had to set his microphone higher because every line of lyrics kept drawing him weightlessly up onto his toes like he was straining a little closer to something above us all.
I could see on all the band member’s faces that they were getting caught up in the flow of it, the same flow I had found while listening to their music and creating art made of words instead of sounds.
And snagged by that crazy connection between strangers, I thought, “You know, for everything that’s wrong right now, we’re still doing a few things really right with each other, with our time here on earth.”
Their band name, Blind Pilot, is a two-word metaphor for faith.
Some days, I see a little more clearly than others how all the pieces of art in the world can intersect, ricocheting off each other in arcs of inspiration that create new things of ever-increasing beauty and truth.
Fan art always reminds me the most loudly of that, whether it is paintings, stories, songs…even a really epic cosplay costume. The most beautiful line I’ve written in my entire life is in a piece of fanfiction: inspired by someone else’s art.
Art is seeing the butterfly effect in action. Creation begets creation. Creation begets emotion. Emotion begets everything.
There was no “just” in that sentence.
I drive a 2004 Toyota Camry. It’s a good car — I got it second hand and seemed to really luck out with it. Even though Toyotas last a long time, or so I’m told, this one is doing quite well for its age.
Part of it, I believe, is that I have it regularly serviced and maintained. There’s an autobody shop around the corner from where I live, which happens to be the one that my husband and his family have used for decades. The mechanic’s name is Tony (if I were editing a book about a mechanic, I’d suggest the author change the name because Tony is a little stereotypical a name for a mechanic) and he knows my car very well.
Tony isn’t the cheapest. If I wanted cheap auto maintenance, I’d find a friend who is a mechanic, or learn to do it myself. But that's just asking for trouble (though if you know the right mechanic friend you might be as lucky as, say, the survivors in a Russian roulette game).
While Tony isn't cheap, he's honest and reliable, and never leaves me in the dark. One time, for example, I wanted him to investigate a periodic clunking that came from under my car. He told me it was about a $300 job but not critical. "When you have some spare change and want it fixed, we're happy to do that for you, but if you want to save some money it's not going to cause any harm." Another time, my husband's car wouldn't start in the winter — it turned out his plug-in cord was severed. It took fifteen minutes for Tony to replace it and he only charged for the cord, a mere $30.
Then there was the time, a few months after I bought my car, when something went seriously wrong. The engine seized on me and the car shut down, right in the middle of an intersection. Three different warning light went on that had me worried I'd bought a lemon after all. I had no choice but to get it towed to Tony's. The next day, when I got the call from him with the prognosis, he explained that it was a special part called the throttle body, and the repair was a $1200 job. It was standard for such resilient engines like those in the Toyota for the computer to kick in and shut the engine down when it detected the part needed replacing, so as not to cause further damage to the engine. Such features are a large part of why many Toyotas make it up to 700,000 km and even then refuse to die. So, I paid the extra money and did so with optimism, because of the trust I had in Tony. I knew the work was necessary and indeed, to this day, the engine has run strong.
Here's where I shift gears to writing.
When an author finishes writing a manuscript, they’re similar to someone with a car in need of repair. The author could manage a self-edit or perhaps get a well-read friend to edit it. While there is some benefit, for sure, in self-editing or having a friend look at it, there is a greater benefit in having a professional editor go over your manuscript. It’s more expensive, yes, but just like a higher price for car repairs ensure you'll get service you can trust, paying for editing can help ensure you receive a more professional and comprehensive edit than you or your friend might be able to do.
Just like the example of my $1200 engine repair, a good investment in an editor can give your story true mileage with readers and reviewers. While your investment might not earn out from book sales, it will earn out in a much more meaningful way in that the book you put out will stand strong and be something you can be proud of as an installment in your writing career.
But you don’t have to pay for everything. When it comes to editing especially, author beware is a very important motto to stick to.
What kind of editing you can't cut out
At the very least, make sure you have an edit that addresses developmental issues. This is sometimes called a substantive edit, or a content edit. Both terms imply the edit is considering the "meat" of the story — so the editor is considering the abstract level of the story itself beyond just the line-by-line correctness of the prose. (Such an edit is called a copyedit, which I'll get to next.)
The reason developmental editing is so important is because there are many stories that are published that get "edited" when in fact all that's been fixed are various typos, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and repetitive words. An editor who does a developmental edit is thinking about the story and using storytelling principles to instruct you on rewrites, and that editor will catch plot holes, inconsistencies in characterization, problems with voice or point of view (usually called POV), pacing, and narration — to name a few of the heavy hitters.
Having developmental (or substantive or content) editing done is like making sure you get your trusted mechanic to work on your engine and the parts of the car you'll likely break if you try to fix it yourself.
A developmental edit can sometimes cost a lot of money. Typically, when I do a developmental edit I average about 6 manuscript pages / hour when there are a lot of problems, and 10-15 pages / hour when it's smooth sailing. If your manuscript is 300 pages, then you do the math and you'll see it comes out to anywhere between 20-50 hours. (I want to be absolutely clear though: in my career working on more than 100 manuscripts to date, I have yet to see a manuscript that was that length and needed an hour for every six pages from front to back.)
Now, I'm going to make a very bold statement here: editors deserve to be paid as much as auto mechanics because the work they do is as complicated (maybe more complicated). Just as auto mechanics know all the basic components of a car and what needs to go where, editors are trained in all the essentials of storytelling, writing craft, and grammar, to know what in your story still needs work. Most importantly, like auto mechanics who have stripped down and put back together countless cars, editors who have earned their stripes through editing many manuscripts aren't just going to use book smarts on you.
How you can save yourself a lot of money on editing
I don’t take my car in to the shop when I’m out of windshield wiper fluid, nor do I take it in when I’ve got a burnt-out tail light. There are some tasks I can do myself, or get a good friend to help me with.
Likewise, you can save yourself a lot of money by developing an effective self-editing and revision strategy.
Let me talk a bit about that universe often feared and not well understood by most writers. Revision. I've heard it said that revision is 80% of writing a book, and though I doubted it in the beginning, I've come to understand that it's true. If you think you can bowl through a draft then rush it off to an editor, then either you're asking for a steep bill or you're so gifted you will be the object of contempt by 99% of the rest of us who say "Amen" when we hear Ernest Hemingway's proverb, "The first draft is always shit."
The problem, though, is that many writers take it to the opposite extreme and feel there is no end to revision. In reality your book is never going to be perfect. But it can be sufficiently amazing, a term I just invented which means: "Revised to the point that the reader cannot tell the difference between their version of perfect and yours."
As a writer, you're wise to develop a drafting strategy. Many writers use beta-readers or critique partners, and will plan to write at least two drafts (usually three or more). There is no magic number, because it's going to differ based on the writer and the specific project, but the idea is, with every step of revision, you want to make sure you're getting closer to the final vision you have for your book.
And when you reach that point where you're convinced this is done, then off it goes to your editor.
I hope you see that if you develop a great drafting strategy (I will be elaborating more on the art of self-editing and revision in a few weeks), you can save yourself the need for multiple rounds of editing, or a $2000 bill for a developmental edit vs. an $800 one. It's the same as saying good auto maintenance can mean your trip to the mechanic only requires you replace some O2 sensors, not that you have to repair a cracked cam shaft (the demise of the first car I owned).
What other editing you should have done if you plan to self-publish
You may be familiar with the term copyediting. Sometimes you'll see it written copy editing. Both are correct, but I use copyediting just because the term has stuck and I enjoy rebelling against the spell-checker in another case of knowing I'm right and it's wrong.
Strictly speaking, copyediting comes after developmental editing, and this should make logical sense. After you've done the incredible juggling act of cutting scene X and transplanting it in the middle of scene Y to address a cause-effect issue in your narration, or rewriting the crap out of the three paragraphs where your POV character's motives weren't clear, you're going to have a big mess to clean up. The idea is you can get your hands dirty when you're doing a developmental edit, knowing after it's all done, a new editor with a fresh set of eyes is going to come and focus on keeping everything tidy.
If the developmental editor is the same as the guy at the mechanic shop who goes in and rips your car apart and fits everything back together the right way, the copyeditor is the same as the girl (let's keep this a gender-balanced work place) at the shop who comes in after he's done and looks everything over to make sure all the plugs have been put back on the right way, maybe tightens a few bolts, and while she's at it, checks all your fluids to make sure there's no other issues before you come and drive your car back home.
Copyeditors do not focus on story, unless the element of the story is an actual error. Copyeditors, typically, focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting, logic and clarity. I want to expand on that "logic" item, because it's a loaded term. By logic, this is the part that sets a copyeditor apart from a proofreader. That word means the copyeditor is thinking logically about everything your manuscript is saying, line-by-line, and questioning if what you've written is the best way to write it.
You might sometimes find a copyeditor has cut a lot of words from your manuscript, or rearranged many of your sentences. This all comes down to that "logic and clarity" part, because many times the way you will write a sentence has made what you're trying to say confusing or otherwise difficult to grasp. "He rushed up the steps, his niece following close behind," is much clearer than, "His niece close behind, he rushed up the steps, ascending hurriedly." The first kill in that sentence is due to logic: "ascending hurriedly" is implied by "rushed up the steps." The reversal of clauses is due to clarity (and partly logic too): seeing his niece close behind him is immediately confusing: what's he doing for her to be close behind him? He rushed up the steps establishes for the reader an immediate vision of exactly what's happening, then adding his niece following close behind him allows us to add in an extra detail from an already established visual. Now it's clear, and logical.
I hope I've convinced you that copyeditors put in their share of sweat and hard work, and, like the girl in our example mechanic shop, the work they do is just as important. You wouldn't want to take your car home only to find out a loose screw on your engine came off and caused damage, nor should you as a writer want to pay for developmental editing only to find that all the juggling around you did in your rewrites confused your readers.
Last but not least: proofreading
Let's face it: editors are human. People miss things. Even the big publishers, who often have up to 30 sets of eyes on a book before it goes to print, still will miss a typo or two. Even if you're just paying a thank-you sum of money to a friend, or if you're lucky to have a group of die-hard fans who will gladly be the first readers of your book before it comes out, do not skip this step before you publish. A third (at least) set of eyes, especially after copyediting is complete, is vital. This is a chance for someone to read your book as though it's published, and make a list of outstanding typos.
If you can afford it, have a professional editor do it. The editor, unlike a friend or beta-readers, is trained in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting, and will spot more in the proofread than a reader who might not be familiar with all the rules of spelling and grammar. Your friend / beta-readers might catch the part of your manuscript where you have the,y went to the store but they might not catch the typo go to the sign in table (sign-in is the correct form since it modifies the noun table).
So there you have it. If nothing else, I hope you learned that editing, while as expensive as engine repair on your car, is just as important.
All right, your turn! Have you had any bad experiences with editors who charged too much? Who didn't give you the editing you were expecting? Are you one of those authors who sees the color red when you hear the word revision? I'd love to hear what you think about the cost (and necessity) of editing and why we can't live without it.
A few months ago while driving home I caught part of a Freakonomics radio episode and I’m still thinking about it – specifically, how to apply it to my own writing and to my work with other writers. It’s called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” Link here: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/peak/.
The description of the episode reads:
What if the thing we call “talent” is grotesquely overrated? And what if deliberate practice is the secret to excellence? Those are the claims of the research psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has been studying the science of expertise for decades.
Go have a listen or check out the transcript if you have time. The episode is excellent. Host Stephen Dubner interviews researcher Anders Ericsson and author Malcolm Gladwell, as well as a few people who have had success using deliberate practice to achieve inspiring goals, including Susanne Bargmann, a Danish psychologist who, in her 40’s, returned to her childhood dream of becoming a famous singer.
When I first tuned in, all the talk about practice reminded me of the theory that Malcom Gladwell made popular in his book, Outliers – basically, that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at something. It turns out that theory actually comes from this same research of Ericsson and his colleagues, but – and here’s the key – Ericsson says that it isn’t just the volume of practice that’s important – that is, that “there’s really nothing magical about 10,000 hours.” Instead, it’s “the quality and the nature of the practice” that matters.
First, there’s purposeful practice. “Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect.” To me that sounds like writing with specific goals in mind, maybe taking a class, reading craft books, or doing revisions or exercises aimed at improving a specific aspect of the work. It’s the difference between just sitting down and writing, versus writing with the goal of improving in a specific way.
And then there’s deliberate practice. Ideally:
- it includes working with an experienced teacher
- you receive feedback so you know what kind of adjustments to make
- it “involves well-defined, specific goals”
- “it is not aimed at vague, overall improvement”
- “it takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities”
Sound familiar? This is exactly the kind of work that writers can do with a book coach, developmental editor or mentor. Perhaps even with a critique partner, if you have a good one. But whether you work well with a coach or want to go it alone, every writer can take away important lessons from this research. Write with purpose, with specific goals. Get feedback from someone who knows what they’re talking about, if you can. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and strive to improve. And always remember in the darkest moments of doubt to keep working. Practice and hard work do make a difference. A breakthrough is just around the corner, but it will only come if you’re doing the work.
Hi everybody! In honor of today’s #CPMatch (thanks, Megan Lally!), and all the people polishing their ms for upcoming #PitchWars, it seems like a good time to talk about how to work with beta readers or critique partners. Really anybody reading your writing and giving you feedback. For my definition of CP vs beta reader, see ** at the bottom.
At the bottom of this post, I included a cheat sheet of potential questions to send to your betas/CPs with your manuscript. If you’ve worked with betas before and don’t need tips, feel free to scroll down to that. I’ve found that talking to beta readers is sort of like running a therapy session as a counselor: You get a lot out of what people volunteer, but you get more out of them if you ask the right questions. So look forward to that. In the meantime, let’s talk the Five Commandments of what you should do for your betas. Not ten, because ten is a lot and I don’t like rules that much.
1. Thou shalt not Lie
Find a way to be positive. But if you didn’t like their ‘Jeremy rides a giant squid’ scene, DON’T say you did. This will help no one.
2. Thou shalt be specific
Don’t just say, “You know, Darla’s reaction just didn’t read true to me.” Where? FOR THE LOVE OF CHIPMUNKS, WHERE? It is a 450 page book and Darla has at least 350 different reactions to things in this book. Also, don’t say: “Your grammar sucks. Your punctuation needs work.” Say where or how, or something they can grab onto like a lifeboat in a storm. Make sure they know what to fix, and how to start.
3. Thou shalt not be a d*ck.
Find something nice to say. Did you like that one funny line of dialogue in Ch 5? Did you like the way they had an aunt character because nobody remembers that fictional people have aunts until the parents are killed in a horrible accident? Did you like that their grammar was strong and consistent? Find SOMETHING to compliment. In any piece of writing, no matter how rough, there’s something good, and if you tell the writer what that is, they will find something even better to show you. And folks? Stick around for that moment because it feels reeeeal good. Don’t you like making people happy?
Also, amount of positive feedback: this is different for every writer, but take whatever amount of positive feedback you THINK they need, and double to quadruple it. They know what they did right, you think. I don’t need to say it, do I? You do. In fact, most writers don’t know their strengths and even if they do, they’re probably afraid that they’re wrong and are in fact a fraud and a sham and should probably burn their laptop and take up knitting or perhaps sitting very still in the corner of a dark closet. You need to mention more positives than you think you do in order to convince them they’re wrong.
4. Thou shalt not take everyone
Seriously, don’t sign on with everyone who wants to beta read or CP for you. Try them out first. Trade a chapter or two. See their writing, see how helpful their comments are to you. It’s okay to shake hands, say, this is fun but let’s just be friends. You know? Because first, you want somebody that’s close to your level of skill or better. If they’ve just written their first Post-It note and you’re on your fourteenth epic fantasy cycle, you’re not going to benefit much from the relationship. Which is fine. There is a time and a place for helping out writers and it can be super rewarding and fun and help you organize the knowledge you didn’t even know you had.
BUT. For a really quality beta relationship, you want somebody close to your skill level who writes in a moderately similar style to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t go outside your genre (I have one CP who is a romance writer, and another who writes fantasy. They have different strengths and I need them both to make me whole.) but it does mean just because another writer is good doesn’t mean that their style will be close enough to yours for you to help each other. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Stephenie Meyer would not be great beta partners for one another, even though they’re both seen as fairly successful authors. Similarly, John Green and Tolkien might not be a superb pair. Also, some people are great writers but they suck at giving feedback. They’re snooty or they tear you down to feel good about themselves or they just don’t know how to articulate how you need to fix your book. There, I said it, so you don’t have to.
5. Thou shalt remember thy purpose.
Sweet, you think. My purpose is to make them better and I told them all the stuff that’s wrong with their book. They’ll thank me later.
WRONG. Your first purpose as a beta is to make sure that writer doesn’t quit. They will be a better writer tomorrow than they are today. In ten years, you won’t even BELIEVE the stuff they’re pulling off. And if you discourage them so much today that they quit, the world will never see any of that. Trust me, you don’t want that kind of karma hanging over your head. Also, I will find you, and I WILL kick you in the shins. I have literally nothing better to do than find people who discourage writers and give their shins a good kicking.
So your first purpose as a beta is to encourage the writer and make sure they know what they’re doing right and what their potential might be so they don’t quit. Your second purpose is to help them get better.
And now, because I hate rules and I’m sort of tired of them, let’s talk questionnaires. This isn’t a comprehensive questionnaire. It’s just one my CPs and I made up, to make sure your beta reader notes will cover all the bases. I encourage you to add questions for your specific concerns for each manuscript. Like, “Does Jeannie look like a bitch when she steals Tommy’s pet roll of toilet paper?” “Is it too slow when you watch Kent sort his coin collection or is it good character development to see his precision?” Whatever you’re worried might not be working but you want to make sure it’s not your self doubt talking. Also, I added some happy questions in there because you need to know the good stuff, not just the bad. One of my fave lessons from fanfic writing is that your readers’ favorite parts aren’t necessarily your favorite parts. It’s super fun to see what’s working for people.
-Does the ms have a strong hook at beginning? Does it start in the right place?
-Strengths/Weaknesses of the ms?
-How is the characterization? Was there any place where you felt you couldn’t follow the motivations, or didn’t buy them? Were there any places your reactions to the characters undermined your enjoyment in the story (not that they pissed you off so you turned pages faster- that’s positive)?
-How is the pacing? Were there any places where it slowed down?
-When did you feel the most/least engaged with the text? At what point did you start getting bored/distracted?
-Were there any scenes you didn’t get the point of, or felt that they didn’t serve the story as a whole?
-How was the imagery/description? Do we need more, less, just right?
-What did you think were the overall themes of the book? How would you strengthen them, if needed?
-Did anything in the book seem fake/unrealistic to you?
-What are issues you see agents/editors/other readers having with the book?
-Was there enough conflict? Did it feel natural to you? Were there any points where it felt contrived or forced?
-How was the romance? Did you like both characters? Did you care if they got together, and when they did, did it feel realistic and believable to you? (This should be genre specific. For fantasy: how was the worldbuilding, etc.)
-What was your favorite part/thing/scene of the book?
-What was your least favorite part/thing/scene of the book?
-What is the one problem with the book that you are hesitant to bring up, possibly because you’re not sure how to fix it?
That’s it, folks. So now go forth, get betas and CPs, and be very very nice to them, because your writing future depends on their wisdom.
**Definitions. Many people have different definitions of beta reader or CP. Whatever works for you is fine, just talk clearly to the other person about what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. For me, a critique partner (CP) = somebody who gives you line by line feedback (Wouldn’t ‘dick’ work better here than ‘manroot’? Or ‘add a comma’. Or ‘You spelled schnitzel wrong again.’) and also big picture feedback on pacing, characterization, plot, conflict, whether your story is working, etc. A beta reader is someone who reads and JUST gives you big picture feedback, not line by line comments.
By Julie Artz - Book Coach
Recently, one of my clients asked me for pointers on writing character emotion without falling into telling or cliché. As I wrote my answer, I realized it would make a great blog post because, let’s face it, writing emotion is hard. Here’s a technique I’ve come up with over the years that I hope you’ll find helpful.
A good place to start is with the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The book catalogues the physical responses, mental responses, and sensations associated with each of a broad list of emotions. A lot of authors (including me when I first started learning this technique) stop there. That's why you get a lot of anxiety describes as sweaty palms & thumping hearts in books. But instead of just telling us the character's palms are sweaty, try showing the character wiping her hands on her skirt or shying away from shaking hands with someone, hiding those sweaty palms behind her back. Show her wiggling an eyebrow because she's in a cold sweat that's tickling her as it drips down her face. It's OK to do some physical cues--face getting hot, skin prickling, electricity running up the back of her legs--but don't only do that.
Once you have reviewed the entry/entries for the emotion you’re trying to convey, put yourself into the character's body and conduct a character interview. Why are you doing what you’re doing in this scene? What does it mean to you? How does it make you feel? Then dive deeper, leveraging your own experience with these emotions: How do your legs feel when you’re scared/nervous/angry? How does your stomach feel? What gestures might you make (tugging your hair when nervous, biting your lip or the inside of your cheek, shoving your hands in your pockets, tugging at the bottom of your shirt)? Different characters may tend to feel emotions in different parts of their bodies, and this can be a great way to differentiate voices in a multiple-point-of-view story.
Description also plays a role in getting emotion on the page. What your character notices about the world is influenced by how she’s feeling. For example, if I'm sad, and I look outside and see it's raining, I might feel the rain is heavy and depressing and awful. But if I'm happy, I look out the window and see how the water glistens on the leaves or how the intense green reminds me of my honeymoon in Belize. So you write the emotion not by putting feelings on the page, but by showing how the character's feelings (and their backstory) influence how they perceive everything in the world around them. The details you as the writer choose will help convey the character’s emotions without ever naming that emotion on the page.
Same goes for dialogue. An easy crutch to fall back on is using dialogue to convey emotion such as, “Mom, you make me so angry when you talk to me like that!” I’m not saying you can never do that. In fact, it can be very effective, especially when it’s more voicey than my example, but make sure it’s not the only way you’re conveying emotion.
If you can identify the emotions you want to convey, and then convey them with a mix of gestures, physical sensations, description, and dialogue, you’ll be well on your way to writing emotion that will keep your reader turning pages.
Next time you’re reading one of your favorite authors, pay attention to how they do this.Two of my current favorites,Leigh Bardugo and Maggie Stiefvater, are masters of showing emotion without naming it on the page. Their styles are very different (Bardugo is more lush and Stiefvatermore sparse in style), but they both end up delivering gripping stories in part because of how they write emotion.
What tips have you learned about conveying emotion in your writing? Which authors do you think do it particularly well? This topic could fill multiple books, so feel free to continue this discussion in the comments.