Getting from your best version to the version people buy.

This is the fourth of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

Who Are You? – Character and Relationship

We’re over halfway through the process of constructing a scene and now we get to the characters. About time. When going through this exercise as an actor, you really only have to worry about your own character. When you’re a writer, you get to worry about all of them.

I could (and probably will) spend a lot of time on constructing a character and how best to do that, but for our purposes here, let’s assume you’ve done that work. You know your character, her flaws, her aspirations, her habits, her quirks, and what she does and does not know about herself. Now you have to take that character – or those characters – and place them in the scene you’ve created using the first three of the Ws.

Sticking with the birthday party example, let’s say the hero is at a birthday party for her son at her ex-husband’s house. The apparent event is the birthday party, the actual event is she intends to tell her ex-husband she’s moving across the country and taking the son with her, the environment is her ex-husband’s house, not a friendly environment for her.

Now what? You put the characters in that situation. Let’s say the hero is not good at conflict at all, but has resolved that this discussion has to happen this day, at this time, before she loses her nerve.

Can you feel the tension building? The situation is set to explode.

The Setting Changes Characters’ Relationships

This seems simple enough, but too often I see characters whose relationship seems equal on both sides all the time, and that just never, ever happens in real life. There’s always a power dynamic, and that balance shifts over time, or even over an afternoon, and especially when they have a change in venue.

Here’s a concrete example: you have characters who work at a restaurant, where one is the manager and one is a waiter. There’s a power dynamic there, boss/subordinate. No matter how friendly they are with one another, Jeff is the boss and Mike is the employee.

Now switch the location. Move Jeff and Mike to, say, a seedy pool hall. Mike comes here every Friday night after his shift, he knows the people, he’s one of them. Jeff is a newcomer, sticks out like a sore thumb, and – God forbid – is still wearing his restaurant manager’s tie. Who’s the boss in this situation?

Same characters, but their relationship, and thus their interaction, changes with a simple trip a couple of blocks away.

The Scene Can Change The Relationship

As a matter of fact, I’ll go so far as to say that every scene should alter the relationship between its main characters. That’s not to say it has to be a positive change, but if there’s no tension to resolve there’s no movement in the plot and there’s no growth in the characters.

Back to the birthday example. The hero is at her son’s birthday party at her ex-husband’s house, where she’s going to tell him that she’s moving away. As the hero works up her courage to have the conversation, her ex-husband surprises her by confessing that he’s not over her and asks if, maybe, they could give it one more try. With a few words the ex-husband has completely changed the tenor of the scene, and subverted the hero’s intentions.

Does the hero stick to her guns and tell him she’s leaving? Does she back down? How is she going to deal with this surprise?

You tell me, you’re the writer.

This post isn’t so much about the content of your writing, or about technique, it’s about your environment. Believe it or not, your environment can make a world of difference to your creative output. Pay attention to it.

Whatever Space You Have, Make It Your Own

I’m lucky, I have a house with a spare bedroom that I’ve turned into my office. I have a desk, and a desk lamp, a nifty computer, a crazy-expensive office chair, and walls painted a soothing maroon. This is where I write.

But I didn’t always have this. I have written on planes, on trains, in ratty efficiency apartments, in hotels, even outside on a porch. The one thing all these environment have in common is that I took a little bit of time to make them my own.

Wherever you write, even if it’s temporary (or especially if it’s temporary), take a few minutes to rearrange things. Move a chair around, clear off the coffee table, vacuum the carpet, close the blinds, place your laptop just-so… whatever it takes to announce to yourself that this is your environment and this is where you write.

When I had roommates, I didn’t have any permanent writing space. So every time I needed to write, I set up my space. This also let them know that I meant business. It’s a psychological crutch for you, too, kind of like putting on your golf shoes before you head for the links. ( I imagine, I don’t golf, but you get the idea ).

Your Chair Makes A Tremendous Difference

I know, it sounds like grandpa advice, but it’s true. Don’t shortchange yourself on a chair.

If you have a permanent writing space, get yourself the best chair you can afford. You’re going to spend a huge amount of time at your desk, in front of your computer, and you need to take care of your back and shoulders. You don’t want to cripple yourself for your art. And, if you think of the money you spend vs. the amount of time your butt’s in that seat, even the most expensive chair will be very cheap on a per-minute basis.

If you don’t have a permanent space, creating a comfortable chair is part of claiming your space. Believe it or not, a beanbag is often a decent solution. A kitchen chair is usually not. Yes, if you have to set up in the dining room you have to deal with what you get. But if that’s your situation, please work to make the chair better for your back. Kitchen chairs and dining room chairs might be sturdy, but they’re not designed for you to sit in them for any period of time longer than a meal.

Remember, if you do it right, you’ll be writing for the rest of your life. Take care of your body like you take care of your mind.

Let There Be Light!

I cannot stress this enough. Turn on the lights. Please. You’re a human being, not a troll under a bridge, darkness is not your friend.

I’ve seen people working in darkness, with the only light coming from their computer. This is SOOOOOOOO bad for your eyes. Don’t do it. Whatever your environment, turn on the lights. If you have to, bring in a light from somewhere else and plug it in.

Don’t Snack ( At The Desk )

Sacreliege! Snacking while writing is how we know how far we’ve gotten. Half of a pound bag of M&Ms means we’re almost done with a chapter, right?

If you have snacks – or, God forbid, meals – at your writing desk, you’re blending two things. It’ll be very easy to get into the habit of eating ALL THE TIME while you’re writing. If you’re lucky, you’ll be writing a lot, which means you’ll be eating a lot. A LOT. Which means you’ll get fatty, fat fat. And at your age that’s not charming, it’s unhealthy.

I do snack. Probably too much. But I do it in front of the TV like regular folks. No food allowed in my office, only drinks. When I’m working it’s all business. Pleasure, like eating, is for other parts of the house.

You’ll see this advice given to struggling writers: write what you know. Is this good advice, or just well-intentioned bad advice?

‘Write What You Know’ Is The Stupidest Advice Ever Given

I’m sure someday I’ll think of some advice that’s stupider, but ‘write what you know’ is at the top of the list for now. Writers use their imaginations to come up with worlds, characters, and situations that have never existed and likely can never exist. If someone nowadays stuck with writing what they know, then we’d only have stories about people living comfortable, boring, middle-class lives where their biggest problem is dogs barking at the UPS guy.

Did J.K. Rowling do an autobiography about her time at Hogwarts? Did Dan Brown mine his meeting notes about his time with the Knights Templar? Did C.S. Lewis refer to his AAA triptych about Naria? Absolutely not, these writers made that stuff up. They didn’t know anything about those places, events, or characters. They created everything.

Same thing with you and your writing. You don’t have to have been a philanderer to write about adultery. You don’t have to have robbed a bank to create a gripping tale about your character doing so. Your job as a writer is to put yourself and your characters in unique situations, and to bring your readers along with your. Write what you know is bogus.

‘Write What You Know’ Can Help Your Writing Immensely

Aw… crap. Here he goes again with saying the opposite of what he said before. Make up your mind, Jack…

I just said ‘writing what you know’ is bogus. So how can it help your writing in any way? You not going to write what you know, you’re going to relate what you’ve lived. The two things are very different. Bring your own experience to your writing. Once you do that, the truth can’t help but shine through.

Say you’ve been a waiter. But your story isn’t about a restaurant or about waiters, or about the felonious cook staff who are always stoned and stealing frozen steaks. How do you write what you know there?

Take a step back. Make your experience general. Abstract. Being a waiter is serving in a low-pay, menial job, where you are pretty close to the bottom rung on the social ladder. The only person lower in the restaurant pecking order is the dish dog. Maybe in your story your main character is struggling, trying to pull herself up by her own bootstraps only to discover she’s not wearing any shoes at all. You can make her experience real – even if she’s in a dystopian future hellscape – by tapping into your own experience as a tipped employee/wage slave/menial laborer.

‘Write What You Know’ might better be said as ‘write your own truth.’

Write Who You Know

Do you want to know a secret? Okay… but you have to promise to keep it to yourself.

The secret to ‘writing what you know’ is actually Writing Who You Know.

Who should you know best? Yourself. Now, while that might not be the case for every writer, you really should be familiar with your preferences, foibles, and flaws, especially if you’re not a child any more. You put yourself in your characters, and if you do it right, you make them very real with almost no effort.

But even if there’s a spark of yourself in every character, not all of them can be you. To make your characters unique – and to tell them apart from one another – you should base them on someone you know. When your characters look at the world through a lens that is not your own, then you can’t pretend to be writing what you know. You’re making stuff up again, as a writer should.

Let’s say you have a character who is an overbearing Olympic coach. A real prick, but a guy whose athletes win championships and medals. Who is that guy? You could take your example from any number of real coaches you’ve seen on the news or seen profiled on the Olympics. But wouldn’t it be better if that coach was modeled after your college art teacher, who was an annoying prick who always thought he was right about everything even though he was wrong most of the time? You don’t know an Olympic coach (probably), but you know that art teacher. And you hated him. Except maybe now you understand him a little better.

Up until now the editing process has been pretty sweet.  I felt it was a collaboration, my editors making recommendations based on their experience and their reading of what’s best for my story.  You need someone to point out your blind spots, you know?  Keep you honest.  And it was going well.

And then 17 May happened.

Houston, we have a problem.  During my regular proofread edit I came upon a ‘suggested’ change that I did not agree with at all, not in the slightest.  I felt it was arbitrary, with nothing behind it but the editor’s preference.  To make it worse, that edit changed a foundational element of my story, a main character’s reason for a decision he made 10 years prior to the story, that directly led to the story taking place.  It was like deciding that Bruce Wayne’s parents weren’t killed by a robber, they were just inconvenienced by a kindly panhandling hobo.

I fixed the suggested edit as best I could, without changing the tentpole premise of the entire story, and sent it back with the rest of the proofread edits.

On 17 May my manuscript came back.  There was a ‘plot change comment that was not addressed.’

Well… I addressed it, I just didn’t gut my story to suit someone’s whim.  To make matters worse, I got that email after a 16-hour day working the job that pays my mortgage.  The phrase ‘did not take it well’ would be something my neighbors might say if you asked them.

Now I was in a dilly of a pickle.*  Up until this very last minute, all my publisher’s suggested edits made my manuscript stronger.  This one made it much weaker.  I really, really, really disagreed with their suggestion.  What could I do?

There is very specific language in my contract that states if the author (me) refuses to make edits the publisher deems necessary, the publisher has every right not to publish my novel.  To pull the plug and never look back.  This is my debut novel, I can’t make waves, I can’t stand up and fight, I can’t adamantly refuse to change a very, very basic story element.  I have to surrender.  I have to be someone else’s bitch, or I won’t see my name on that nifty cover.

So I made the change.  23 words out of 83,204.  I tried to face down the playground bully and ended up stumbling home bruised and shoeless, with my mouth full of sand.

Am I overstating this?  Possibly.  Am I concerned that this edit changes my story for the worse? Absolutely.  Am I right now stabbing voodoo dolls of editors I’ve never met in person? No comment.

I don’t think I’m being a touchy author here.  Sincerely.  I took the notes they gave me, I made the changes they suggested, I engaged in the process fully.  I played well with others.  Until the very last day, when they wanted a major change that made the story weaker.

No, I’m not going to tell you what that change was.  When my novel is published, you tell me what the weakest part of the story is.  If it’s the change I’m talking about here, I will definitely let you know.

 

*dad joke

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It’s been a week since I turned over my pass at developmental edits on my manuscript, and I’ve had some time to digest the experience. It was, in turns, both infuriating and gratifying.

Infuriating: ‘You use this word too much to describe this character.’
How dare you question my authorial voice? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: do a simple count of the offending word to find that, in fact, it’s in every description of that character.
Oh yeah, I see what you mean now. That is annoying. You’re right, I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘You state your theme very plainly several times when you don’t need to. Let the narrative state your theme for you.’
I would never state my themes outright! Do you think I’m some kind of hack? I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the offending passages out loud to myself.
Holy cow, I really did exactly that, three different times. You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Infuriating: ‘This bad guy turns good guy, and it doesn’t feel authentic to the character.’
My characters are mine alone to manipulate! I am their God! I am infallible! And all my writing is flawless!
Gratifying: read the last scene the character is in and get the same feeling.
That character’s wrapped up in an inappropriate little bow, isn’t she? You’re right. I’ll fix it.

Overall, I’d give it 10% infuriating, 90% gratifying. When I found it infuriating I was really being defensive and blocking myself from the process. If I took a deep breath or two and listened instead of reacting, I discovered that my editor was trying to make my manuscript the best it could be. He’s got skin in this game too, you know? He’s not making edits to piss me off ( or not just to piss me off ), he’s very invested in putting out a great product.

Authors, when your time comes and you have your first work with an editor, embrace the process. Listen to what your editor’s saying; they’re not always 100% right, but they’re almost always right. They do this all day, every day. Trust them.

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I have finished my round of Developmental Edits!!

Yay me!!

This is the first round of edits, from my editor to me and back again.  I’ll have more feedback in a later blog post, but I figured I’d let everyone know that I completed this major first milestone.  Only four or five more to go.

Also: my publisher has come up with a different title.  I have some opinions on that, too.  More to come.

It’s been two weeks of work, and I’m going to go outside now, to refamiliarize myself with fresh air and the sky.  More posts this weekend.

 

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I’m about 50 pages into the developmental edits, and I have a few thoughts.

  1. I’m far less prickly about this than I thought I’d be. Not that I’m entirely cool with it, that’s a little much to ask, but I’m not as precious with my writing as once was. There have been a few points so far where I was thinking ‘come on, now… really?’ but once I got over myself those edits made the narrative stronger.
  2. I’ve encountered a few dev edit comments, and they’ve been right on. That is, they’ve made the story tighter, made the words hang together better. I haven’t yet found a comment that I disagreed with. But I’m only 50 pages in.
  3. What copy editing has happened has been strictly according to established style manuals. I have to confess, some copy edits feel like flattening out my own style – I’m not a newspaper reporter – but I’m letting them go. They stick out to me like a neon sign, but more than likely no one else is going to notice them.
  4. From time to time, I’m being ‘handled.’ That is, my editor will leave me a compliment when he wants me to change a error he feels is sloppy and unprofessional. For instance: ‘Reword: kind of a cliché. Your writing is normally so good and so original – so I’d hate to have it marred by such a common turn of phrase.’ Translated from Touchy-Authorese this means ‘Seriously? Put some effort into it, don’t be a hack.’ All right, I get it.
  5. My years as an actor gave me a pretty thick skin for notes (thanks, June!), but that doesn’t mean I’m invulnerable. I’m learning to let it go, though, and trust that the guy who pays his mortgage by editing books knows what he’s doing. Kind of like they’re trusting me to know what I’m doing.

My main takeaway so far? This really is a team effort. I do need an editor, which means I’m going to have to accept that his goal is to make my book the best it can be. Even if that means losing most of my precious, precious ellipses…


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Publishing News: I got the developmental edits back this morning! Now I have something I can do! Yay me!

I you have a moment, you can review developmental edits.

My publisher returned to me three items:

  • Editing letter – where the editor explains his edits in general, and what he’s looking for me do with my turn at the manuscript.
  • A marked-up copy of the edited manuscript – where all the changes the editor made are highlighted for me, so I can see what he did and digest any notes he may have left in the margins.
  • A clean copy of the edited manuscript – a copy for me to perform my edits on. There are some markups still in it, but not as many as the other copy.

I read over the editing letter, fully anticipating being outraged and offended. I was not. I agree with everything my editor said, and I will fully comply with his wishes.

To be honest, I’m a little disappointed that there’s not more drama here. I kind of wanted to exercise a little righteous indignation, to rage against the machine. Oh well, maybe later.

My editor has four items he’d like me to work on. In dev edits these are big-picture items, not missing apostrophes or participles dangling.

  • Ellipses – I use these to indicate hesitation and uncertainty in dialogue. My editor wants me to cut a third of them, at least. This is the part where I might get a little touchy, but if I’m overusing ellipses and they distract from the narrative, I need to get rid of many of them.
  • Over-stating my themes – Yeah. I do that. Fair criticism.
  • A big fight scene feels staged – I agree. I’ll work on making it feel more dynamic and emergent rather than long-anticipated and planned.
  • A character’s big change – my editor would like to see this character remain unapologetic and unrepentant until several books later. I agree. This character is too valuable as a foil to change so soon. In my defense, I originally wrote this book as a one-off, I hadn’t planned other books. Now that I am planning more, this is a necessary change.

I have 14 days to do my edits and hand my edited copy of the manuscript back. I am going to use every hour of those 14 days. I feel good, I think this is going to go well.

Big Plus – it looks like my editor and I are in synch. A good writer needs a great editor, and I think I got one. I took a quick look at some of his notes in the marked-up version, and, so far, I agree with them all. To quote Rick Blaine, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Big minus – I have to work in MS Word. I do my writing in Pages, not just because it works so much better than MS Word, but because in my day job I use MS products almost exclusively and I am not a fan. Bloatware. Look it up. Or click the link. So maybe this is my ‘rage against the machine’ moment. Curse you, MS Word! From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!

I’ll have more next week, after I really dig into these edits. I’m sure I’ll find some nit-picky things to complain about.

 

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Last time, I ended with my need to find out more about the editing process. There are developmental edits, copy edits, and proofreading, and these different phases take up a large part of the publishing process. So what happens in each one?

Developmental edit: this phase examines the manuscript as an entire story, including all the vital elements. Does it hold together? Does it move to slowly in some parts, or too quickly in others? Does the story fit the target audience? The editor will look for character development, plot, tone, and voice to make sure those things are consistent throughout the manuscript. Typically, the editor will not focus on typos or grammatical errors because whole sections of the text might need to be rewritten or might get thrown out entirely. There is back-and-forth between author and editor in this phase.

Copy edit: the meat and potatoes of editing. This phase is like handing your manuscript over to your 9th-grade English teacher, you’re gonna get it back dripping with red ink. This phase is where editors work on spelling and grammar and sentence structure and paragraph construction. There is back-and-forth between author and editor in this phase, too.

Proofreading: essentially the last pass at copy editing. This is the detail phase where the editor is trying to catch every remaining error. Which is, of course, impossible. I’m sure everyone has seen typos in major book releases, it’s unavoidable. But the editors in this phase try to get it perfect. This is usually an editor-only process, with author review after it’s finished.

Now that we know what’s involved, at least at a high level, with each editing phase, I can see a couple of possible issues.  And by that, I mean issues I’ll have with the process.

Dev edit – the editor and I might disagree on some major points, like tone, or target audience, pacing, or even major plot points. I hope this doesn’t happen, but I need to decide how I’m going to deal with a disagreement like this if it comes up.  I’ll probably defer to their expertise, unless their expertise suggests something stupid.

Copy edit – I need to repeat my mantra of ‘be patient, be kind’ when this phase starts. I hate, hate, hate nitpicky edits to my stuff, and that’s something I’m going to have to get past. Yeah, I ended a sentence with a preposition, so what?

Proofreading – I’ll have a go at it when the time comes, but, honestly, by that stage I will have gone through the manuscript three or four times already, I’m not sure what I could add to the proofreading process after that kind of fatigue. But I’ll grind it out.

When these phases begin, I’ll let everyone know. And, of course, I’ll keep you posted on the details as they happen.
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Previous The Schedule

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I got an email today regarding the schedule behind getting my novel published. As you may have guessed, it’s a lengthy process, an estimated 38 weeks. That’s a lot of weeks. I’m sure I can short-cut some of that because I’m highly motivated and can get my part of the schedule done under the estimated time. That still leaves others and their workloads to consider, though. I only have to worry about me, the publisher has to worry about me and everybody else in their pipeline.

There are seven (7) caveats the publisher puts right up front, before outlining the schedule.  These include things like larger project volume (more books in the pipeline), or complicated formatting requirements, or… author problems.  They don’t say ‘author problems’ but that’s what they mean.  More time required by the author than estimated = ‘this guy’s taking too long’ and Changes requested by author at a later stage of the project = ‘author suddenly realized he wasn’t taking this process seriously enough at the beginning.’  I get it, authors are the major barrier to getting a book published.  The whole enterprise would go so much smoother without them.

Be patient, be kind. That’s my mantra when I go to the grocery store, it’ll be my mantra with this process, too.

So what’s the schedule look like?

Contracts – 4 weeks
Developmental edits – 5 weeks including author and publisher time
Copy edits – 5 weeks including author and publisher time
Edit review – 1 week, publisher
Proofread, second editor – 2 weeks, publisher
Proofread review, author – 1 week, author
Print formatting – 1 week, publisher
Kindle formatting – 1/2 week, publisher
Formatting quality check = 1/2 week, publisher
Print and Kindle review, author – 1 week
Proof copy upload and order (I’m not sure what this means) – 1 week
Marketing and trade reviews – 16 weeks

Whew! My manuscript is going back and forth over and over again! If I’m counting right, SIX TIMES! No wonder the publisher puts a lot of language in their contracts to protect themselves, that’s a ton of work on spec. Imagine if I were a writer who didn’t know what compromise or collaboration were, I’d drive the editors crazy. I understand collaboration, but that still doesn’t mean I won’t drive the editors crazy. I’ll just try to be polite about it.

It looks like 22 weeks (-ish) for the process to reach a final product.  That’s 5 months, or somewhere in February for a release.  I’m guessing.

The first thing I want to know: what’s the difference between developmental edits, copy edits, and proofreading? Luckily, the publisher spells that out for me. I’ll fill you guys in on the details in my next post.

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Next Changes? The Editing Phases