Dealing with major editorial advice

Nobody likes getting rejections, but when you get one with critique notes, you’ve hit the jackpot. It means that the reader liked your writing enough to comment on it, and give you some free advice. Who doesn’t like free advice from a professional? Especially one you hope to work with. What gets tricky, is how you take on that advice.

  1. You can ignore it entirely if you feel that it’s not right for your book.
  2. You can pick and choose which advice to take, and which to leave.
  3. If you’re very intuitive, you can try to read between the lines, figure out what they’re really having issues with and then address that.
  4. You can take it at face value and make edits that exactly match up with their critique.

Each one of these approaches is a gamble, because you never know how the changes will affect your overall story, or how the person giving you the critique will respond to the resulting manuscript. I’ve done each of these over the years, with varying levels of success. You have to evaluate each approach every time you’re asked to make a change to see  which one might work. And still, as everyone who has  ever made an editorial change knows: once you change one thing, you have to change a hundred others to make it work.

Now it may not be hard to decide what to do if the changes you’re being asked to make are fairly small. But what do you do when the changes requested mean nearly a wholesale shift in the perspective of your novel?

On Friday I got a message about the novel I’ve had out on submission. They liked the story. They liked my writing. But they felt a little disconnected from the main character. They said that if I was willing to re-write the novel as a 1st person narrative, they’d like to see it again. Or else, they’d like to see something else.

My husband says this is good news. And it is. Only, to rewrite a novel in first person isn’t the simple matter of changing all of the “she said” into “I said.” It changes the entire vision. It changes the reader experience from one that comes from an omniscient third person narrator, and narrows it to that of a first person. (Though understandably, it would draw the reader in more.) Entire scenes will be lost. Ones that the main character never experiences, but ones that lend to the creepy atmosphere of the novel. Without them, the level of danger that she is in throughout may not be felt, because she never thinks that she is in that much danger until the end. In fact, she thinks of herself as almost invincible until she realizes, almost too late, what she’s really dealing with. And that element of distance, for the main character is something that I played upon in almost every scene. How am I going to deal with trying to do away with it entirely? And is there another way to evoke the danger surrounding her while keeping her unaware and still maintain a first person perspective?

The office dino is ready to tear into some edits! Roooaaar!

When I first got the note, I figured it might take about four months to make the necessary changes, but now I think I may need more time than that. And in that case, perhaps it would be better to show them something new. I could return to the first draft of my new book and whip that  into shape instead. That one is told in first person, though it’s entirely different from the story they just evaluated.

It’s hard to say what would be the best approach. But the nice thing about writing is that I can try a direction, and see if it works. If it doesn’t, no one will know but me. And my beta readers, if I get that far. So I’m going to press on with the edit as they’ve requested it. I’m going to try it their way and see if it does, in fact, work better.

After all, I’ve never been one to turn down free advice.

Editing out loud

As a last-ditch effort to stall sending out my manuscript, I decided to do a read-aloud edit. Actually, this is something I normally do anyway, and I’m not sure why I didn’t do it immediately after the last changes.

The great thing about a read-aloud edit is that you spot all your typos immediately, and can fix them as you go along. The second, and more important thing about doing this, is that you hear when your sentences don’t make sense, are too long, too convoluted, or when you didn’t give enough explanation.

The story that you know is in your head. But when you hear it, it becomes a diferent animal entirely.

Especially if you’re writing for children, this is an essential step. The book will very likely be read aloud by someone to a small child, so you need to make sure it reads smoothly. Otherwise, that’s not going to be a good experience for the listener, or the reader for that matter.

I recommend reading it aloud directly from your computer. That way, you can make the smaller typo changes immediately and simply move on. If you come to bigger sentence/paragraph changes, you can stop your reading to change those as well, but when you resume reading, go back a couple of paragraphs before the changes and start reading there. Then you’ll see if your new changes really work well.

By the time you get to the end of the manuscript, you’ll feel secure that you’ve gotten all the typos and cleaned up all the prose. Then you can send it out without worry.

So I guess I’m not stalling after all. Ha!

When beta readers disagree

Since the (apocalyptically heart-breaking) rejection of my last novel, I decided that I had no perspective on my own writing, so I would use beta readers to give me some for this novel. Except my beta readers had the balls to disagree on something I really wanted advice on: the chapter headings.

In December when I sent the manuscript to my agent, she didn’t like separating them by Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. She suggested that I nix the chapter breaks altogether. I thought that was, um, crazy. So my remedy for that was to name each chapter. If you’ve been following, you probably already know that I am yet to come up with a decent name for the book, so coming up with names for every chapter, while easier, was a little strange. And because I never used that method before, I specifically asked my beta readers what they thought of the chapter titles. One of them thought it worked fine. Another thought they were too revealing about what was coming next.

Aaargh!

My agent wants no chapters. One beta reader feels “meh” about the chapter titles. Another dislikes the chapter titles.

Now what?

Better chapter titles, of course!

I figured the best I could do to marry all of the feedback was to look at what each comment was really about. My agent didn’t want to stop the flow of the story. Beta reader #1 didn’t seem to think the titles stood out. Beta reader #2 thought they had too much going on. The comments seem disparate, but I found a way to use them all.

I’m definitely keeping the titles. Because they are descriptive, they break the flow less than a chapter number. But, I’m making them a little more punchy, shorter, and therefore less revealing. Hopefully this will make them stand out more and still be a little less revealing.

Of course, I can never please everyone. But since I asked for advise, I’m going to make every effort to take it. The trick is not to follow everyone’s idea to the letter, but to find ways to tweak things so they work better, and still satisfy the most important person in the equation: the writer.

Finalizing the final edits of the final manuscript, finally

So I thought I had finished this story almost a year ago. Then, I thought not. So I started re-writing. Then I thought it was finished in January. But no. I needed to do some more revisions. Then I asked some people to read it for me, and now I’m taking their notes into consideration. I keep saving the manuscript as “final” but I’m now on the 3rd “final” version. Is three a charm?

Darlin’ it better be.

It’s been almost 6 years. No, I’m not kidding.

Beta reader time!

By tomorrow, I should be done with the final edits to the novel. So why aren’t I jumping up and down in my chair? It’s because that last push to finish, even though it’s just a few pages, is anxiety-ridden and fraught with doubt. After reading and re-reading and editing and re-editing the book for such a long time, I have no idea if it’s a good book anymore. I remember that I really loved it at one point, but now… I’m just exhausted. I suspect it’s a little like running a marathon. It seemed like a good idea at the beginning, but near the end, when your muscles are burning and there’s more water pouring out of you than you can possibly swallow from a tiny paper cup, you begin to wonder why you started running in the first place.

And that’s why it’s important to have beta readers!

The first readers to your book can give you some real insight into whether or not the book is working. Their input might come in specific points, or just general impressions. Either way, it’s valuable information for you about whether or not you might have an audience for this piece of work.

All of your beta readers are going to be friends and family, and so they might want to be gentle with you. It’s better that you  ask them not to be. You need an honest opinion now, because agents and editors and reviewers (if you get that far) won’t be gentle. At all.

And even if that means you have to get back to work after you get their comments, the good news is, while they’re reading you can take a break from this book and work on something else.

So… who wants to be my beta reader?

No doubt

I sometimes wonder if rewrites happen because the book isn’t ready, or because the writer isn’t.

Yesterday I walked into a children’s bookstore. Immediately I felt comfortable, relaxed, and inspired. But there was an undercurrent of something else… anguish? dread? frustration? No. It was doubt. Yesterday was a bad time to go trolling around stacks of beautiful, published books because I’m in the middle of writing a novel. And middles are famous for becoming quagmires of doubt and questions. Should I change some of the characters’ names? Should I change the central symbol to something else entirely? Should I amp up the humor in an otherwise creepy book?

Of course everything is worth testing out. Why not? Nothing’s written in stone. But at some point I’m going to have to make final decisions. I can’t work for several more years on recreating this novel while doubt and fear make it hard to move on, and ambition makes me take things a little too seriously. It’s a paralyzing combo, one I’ll have to conquer.

We’ll see what happens, because I’m going to keep pressing on. Of that, there is no doubt.

Ode to the index card!

I read somewhere on some author’s blog that putting your novel’s scenes on index cards was a good way to get organized for a revision. So I tried it. Here’s what I found out:

1. Summarizing each scene gave me a great overview of the story.
2. I need to move around a few scenes. The index cards should make that easier.
3. I still don’t have a clear idea where each Act begins and ends.
4. I should probably figure that out, huh?
5. My ending doesn’t work, even in short form.
6. I think I might finally have figured out what my theme is.

My novel arranged into Acts I, II and III

Now I can look at the story in one shot. I’m a visual thinker, so staring at 100+ manuscript pages, or worse, looking at a computer screen 1 page at a time feels limiting and frustrating. Who knew index cards could be so liberating? I’m less panic-filled going into this revision and I can see the finish line.

For the novel that I started during NaNoWriMo ’09, I think using index cards early in the process will make that story much more interesting. I may even shuffle up the cards to see where kismet leads. It’s still early enough that I’m not married to anything yet, so the whole manuscript’s a playground. It’s meant to be a fun story, and taking a more fun approach may help to keep it that way.

Oh, me likey. Me likey mucho.

How to critically evaluate your own writing

Last September, my agent passed on my latest novel. I had been working on it for nearly 4 years. Three previous versions had gone out to editors, all with lukewarm praise and no sales. I embarked on a Major Revision in the summer, and submitted what I thought was my best work. After the rejection, I put it away. Last week I finally found the courage to revisit it.

I don’t know how to tell you this next bit.

It, um, kind of sucked.

I realized instantly that  the version before my Major! Revision! was much better, hence my agent’s enthusiasm for that one, and not this one. What happened was, I put out the latest version without ever really evaluating it. But how do you do that? 

If reading and commenting on bad prose in writing groups is nauseating, you can’t afford to pay an editor, and the feedback from your family and friends is all smiley faces, you need to find a way to get tough with yourself. What you need, I’m sorry to tell you, is time.

I didn’t look at that manuscript for nearly six months, which was enough time to gain the distance necessary to really look at it with a critical eye. Of course in those six months, I worked on other things, which is also necessary. Other projects put the one that’s waiting completely out of your mind. And you need the fresh eye of forgetfulness to tackle it again.

I’m not saying you need to wait six months every time. There’s no magic formula for how long you should wait. But you need to think of the time you take away from a manuscript as an investment in your craft, rather than a delay in seeing your title in print. If you wait to do your best work, you will faster get an agent or editor. If you don’t, you’ll be wasting time in a slush pile anyway. And wouldn’t you rather everyone see your best work at all times?

Novel #2 is DONE!

Yesterday I spent most of the day at my desk typing in the edits that I’d made to my novel. Many times I wanted to stop and do something else–anything else, but I kept pushing and finally got to the last page. Done!

I feel like I’ve come off a marathon. Exhausted, happy, proud and totally over the whole process. I’m printing it out now and I’m going to start reading it backwards to check for typos after lunch and maybe a well-deserved nap… if the kids let me. The little one is in my office under an overturned laundry basket pretending to be a superhero astronaut, so we’ll see how that goes.