The best thing I ever discovered about editing a novel

Assuming you survive the heart-wrenching, glorious process of writing a book, now you just need to destroy it.

Okay, perhaps I’m being a touch dramatic.

If you’ve gone through a developmental edit or you’re self-revising with a magenta marker, you know how hard it gets. Trying to look objectively at your lovely book feels like being forced to torture your loved ones with a rusty pitchfork.

Every change spawned additional changes, so I couldn’t get myself out of the maze. “But if this happens in chapter 2, then chapter 10 is all wrong and chapter 15 will break…” I was paralyzed by indecision and worry that I was ruining my book.

How I stopped losing my mind…

Make one change at a time. Make that change throughout the entire book. Resist the urge to fix everything at once.

When I changed my protagonist’s backstory, it meant she shouldn’t respond the same way in some situations. But the most important thing was to fix the actual backstory scenes first. Once that was done, then I could do a pass making sure her interactions with the killer were consistent. Then her interactions with the inspector, and so on.

How do you edit? Are you able to edit all the things at the same time as you move through the manuscript?

 

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Why traditionally published writers go self-published

Elizabeth S. Craig is my kind of hero in the writing world, she was successful through one of the Big 5 publishers but she eventually went her own way. Her blog is a gold mine of resources from other writers and her own articles.

In this post, she explains her reasons for going with self-publishing. Things like releasing when you want, price control and making more money are excellent reasons.

But my favourite reason is how her idea of validation changed:

“Originally, it did feel good to be validated by a gatekeeper…I was a newer writer and I needed that. Now, I prefer reader validation. It’s ultimately more valuable.”

Writing and sewing

My sister is an amazing sewer of vintage patterns. I was talking with her about how I’d just started the 4th draft of a short story. I had a great title, a great protagonist and a solid plot. So why was I on attempt #4?

Just like a sewing machine, it was the tension. If you’ve ever sewn, many times the problem is the tension–thread is too tight or too loose, so the fabric bunches up or gets stuck or the stitches won’t hold. 

With some digging, I realized what was wrong. The tension in my story was off because the murder took place in the heroine’s past, distancing the reader, and the victim wasn’t important enough to her. 

With some tinkering, I adjusted the plot and wrote it again–this time, the beta readers were delighted.

Here are some more great tips on upping and maintaining tension from Writer’s Digest: up the stakes, reduce backstory, more emotion.

Any other good tips to fix a story’s tension?

The Art of the Plot Study (NaNoWriMo 2016)

National Novel Writing Month is such fun – writing a 50,000 word novel in one month. This year I’m using it to complete a 50K “plot study”. I hope it becomes a great way to give the inner critic a much deserved vacation.

I like the idea of a new term for this, how about “plot study”? In art, “a study is a drawing, sketch or painting done in preparation for a finished piece, or as visual notes. Studies are often used to understand the problems involved in rendering subjects and to plan the elements to be used in finished works, such as light, color, form, perspective and composition.”

I’d define a “plot study” as “a study is a draft done in preparation for a finished piece. Plot studies are often used to understand the problems involved in rendering characters and to plan elements needed, such as story arc, characters and plot techniques.”

Hope to see everyone working on something fun, whether you’re in NaNoWriMo or not. 

Converting a PDF to a Kindle compatible book (AMZ)

Having your book work on a Kindle is really nice for beta readers. It’s also handy for proofreading your own books, since it feels more like a finished book.

It took me some time to dig up old forum threads about how to convert a PDF into a MOBI or AMZ file. Most articles say to download Calibre or other software, but I hate downloading software. Others say to use a PDF file directly, but the formatting is rigid and never looks right on a Kindle.

The best way is surprisingly simple. You can email your Word file to Amazon and they’ll convert it for you in a matter of minutes.

Follow the steps at https://www.amazon.com/gp/sendtokindle/email

PS: I tried emailing a PDF file as they suggest, but I found the formatting always came out wonky, whereas Word files convert beautifully.

 

Pitching at a writer’s conference

Over the past few days I’ve been attending PNWA 2016 in Seattle. I’ve attended many technical conferences but never one for writing. It was a very rewarding experience, especially as I’d done a lot of prep ahead of time.

A writer’s conference lets you meet the local community, learn from others and pitch to agents and editors. I had business cards printed and I got more active on Twitter since so many book folks are there. I definitely met a lot of great writers and hope to stay in touch with them.

One thing I wanted to focus on was the pitch…

Preparing my pitch

I spent weeks scouring the internet for tips about writing a pitch, a query letter and a synopsis. I found help everywhere from Writer’s Digest to personal blogs. I got advice from a friend who was also attending.

I finally realized that the pitch should be more of a conversation – starting with why I was interested in the agent, a quick sentence about my book, then answer their questions.

Finding the right agents and editors to pitch

Mystery commonly gets lumped in with thriller and suspense. Mystery is a whodunnit (starts with the crime), thriller is how to stop them, and suspense often has elements of both. Cozy and historical mystery are their own sub-genre, and someone who represents might not like noir, for instance.

So I looked at the list of agents and editors who would be there. I really wanted to find great matches – people who were interested in cozy / historical mystery and whose companies had represented similar books.

Once I narrowed down to about 6 people, I researched their agencies, bought books they’d represented or edited and honed an individual pitch for each of them.

The result?

I’m excited to say that all of them expressed interest in seeing more!!

Now I need to re-read my query letter, get a fresh pair of eyes on it and send it out. This is just the beginning of a long road – even if I am lucky enough to land an agent in this round, it’s going to take a while to get published.

Going from draft to published book

Writing the book is not the end state. Going from concept to draft is really only the halfway point. It takes a daunting amount of hard work and skills to get published.

Genre/Audience. I touched briefly on the need to have genre-specific readers give you feedback. But how do you know what genre you’re in? Genre is your best friend and a little bit frenemy. A genre like cozy crime books helps you target a specific audience of readers. You can look at what people are reading and why, you can emulate their pitches and reach out to their fans. Imagine trying to sell a sports car to a family of 5. Knowing you have a sports car and what sports car fans love gives you a lot to focus on. And even if you have what seems like a broad genre, the book The Fine Print of Self-Publishing is an excellent resource on pitfalls to avoid.

Self-Publish, Crowdfund or Agent. So many options. Self-publishing is great if you like control, want to publish quickly and don’t mind if the book doesn’t make it to many physical stores. It has a stigma because there’s zero quality control. Crowdfunding is now an option thanks to Inkshares and Unbound – you still have to hustle for readers but they help with things like editing and distribution and you have proof people wanted your book. And finally the agent. The gatekeeper to the big publishing houses, agents can make sure your book gets past the slush pile (mileage may vary.) If you want a smash hit, the agent is far more likely to get you there than the other options.

Pitch. No matter how you go, you’ll need to craft a compelling tagline (1 sentence) that describes your book, like Twilight meets Star Trek or heartbroken animal trainer is Earth’s last hope for survival. Then you need a pitch, 2-4 paragraphs succinctly describing your book, who would like it and why. You don’t describe every character like someone’s third cousin Lizzie or that gas station attendant.

Proposal. As if writing your book once was not enough work, many agents and publishers require a proposal with an outline of your book and the market possibilities. The outline is 1 page of the essential events, so they can see that your book is structured well and doesn’t have major plot holes. The proposal includes a lot. It’s a good idea to do this even if self-publishing, so you can get an idea of where to market your book (more on that later).

Cover Letter. Even on a crowdfunding site, you need to convince people why they should buy a book from you. A short, professional letter with your basic details and any special qualifications you have. Being a hard worker does not qualify you, sadly. Reading a ton of books also does not qualify you. Having a degree in mathematics when writing a kids book on learning math is worth calling out.

Publisher. Still with me? Great. Now you need to identify which agent or publisher or self-publishing or crowdfunding option is right for you. The vast majority of publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts – they are often barely making ends meet and cannot meet the demand of writers seeking a publisher. The few that do must be hunted out and located through lots of research. Agents can get your work through the front door and help make sure you get a good contract, but you have to research to find a great agent. Crowdfunding gets your book idea out there quickly, but you have to do almost all the work  of hustling readers, convincing people to buy the book and generally being shameless (see the marketing post). Self-publishing lets you do a whole bunch of other fun stuff before you get to the point of having to hustle, but that hustle is still waiting for you.

Developmental Editing. Developmental editing is when someone looks at your work to figure out plot holes, places you could strengthen the story, gaps, character behaviours that don’t match their psychology, all sorts of big picture things. A publisher pays for this, but for self-publishing you have to pay.

(You did a bunch of revisions in the earlier stage, why edit again? You really need to get your book edited by a professional editor who went to school for this and does it for a living. Having your friend who was an English school teacher is not enough if your goal is to get your book on physical shelves and in a best seller’s list. Why is editing expensive? It is really time consuming.)

Copyediting. There are types of editing?! Yikes – just like there are so many vaccines, you can’t just get one kind and be done with it. The copy editor helps improve your writing so that it follows good conventions, called style guides. They make your writing more readable and help improve flow.

Cover. This is the fun part, right? It is, but it is also the difference between getting into a best seller’s list and selling a few copies to friends. In general, homemade covers tend to be easily spotted and people believe they reflect the quality of the writing. Homemade covers don’t look polished and compelling like a professional cover, because unless you are also a graphic designer, you don’t have the experience and training to make something that resonates aesthetically. If you need to do it yourself for budget reasons, start with these tips. If you’re looking to hire someone, start here.

Fonts. Have you ever looked at a book cover and just felt that something was off? Something didn’t seem quite done somehow? Fonts make a huge difference. Each font can convey a very different atmosphere for your book, just like the creepy, sad or uplifting music can make a movie scene powerful. Scarlett Rugers has a great guide to fonts for the self-published.

Layout. I was reading the other day that a single line in a book should be 8-10 words long. A paragraph that looks okay in your word processor might be way too long once the book is printed. The margins for the pages need to be much bigger on the inside of the book because of the room needed to open the book. Even if a publisher handles this for you, you should be aware of how long this process takes. For a self-publishing author, there are some templates but it’s not a foolproof process.

Proofreading. Wait, wait… how many kinds of editing are there?! I think this might be the last one. Proofreading is typically done on a physical proof copy. Someone who is not the first two editors will go through your book with a fine tooth comb and look for any typos, spelling errors, incorrect formatting, etc. They aren’t reading for quality or enjoyment, but solely to help make you look as good as you can.

Okay, now you’re done, right? No, no … sadly, we’re not done. Your book may be published, but if you want to actually sell copies you have some marketing to do.

Going from concept to a solid book draft

As an aspiring author who has finished several books but not published them, I’ve been struggling with the Great Debate over traditional publishing and self-publishing. But regardless of which route you take, I was dismayed to find that the author still has an enormous burden after they write a book.

This post is helping me work through my process and how I decide on publishing and marketing my book. As the first post, I’m covering what’s involved in getting a book from concept to published work.

Idea. Contrary to what you might think, great ideas are everywhere. This is the easy part, even though coming up with the next killer idea can feel daunting.

Research. Even if you write by the seat of your pants, you probably do some research. Whether you read tons of books in the genre because you love it, or pull together a comprehensive roadmap for how the plot progresses, this is important. The more work you do at this stage means that it will be easier to keep writing.

Writing. You and a pen. Or a keyboard. For hours. Oh, the hours. Every established writer says essentially the same thing – you have to just sit and write even if you don’t feel like it. A fantastic suggestion I saw was to figure out what time of day you are most productive and keep doing it then. For me that is early in the morning with a cup of tea. For you it might the wee hours of the night after all distractions are gone, or lunchtime.
Scientific advice for what time to write
Writing habits of famous writers

Revising. You did it! You made it to the end! From here you could just publish the book and move on. But then you realize if you want to turn your good book into an AMAZING book, you need to rewrite it. More than once. My trick is to start a new file while feeling free to liberally copy from the original. It should feel like a new book with hints of the old one.
Editing vs revising

Feedback. A book is a labour of love and you’re putting a piece of your heart out into the world to get shot down. This is really painful. Most of us think we’re open to honest feedback but the truth is it stings. I don’t have any suggestions for mending the hole in your heart, but I can recommend that you find readers who are interested in your genre. I’m writing a 1920’s cozy crime mystery, so I need readers who love Agatha Christie, Jacqueline Winspear or L.B. Hathaway. If I had a Sci Fi reader give me feedback, they’re going to hate a lot of the qualities that make my book great for my genre.

Once you’ve done all these things, you’ve got a solid draft! This is excellent news. You’re halfway to publishing! It is sadly true that all of this work only brings you to the halfway point.

Even if you’re going to self-publish, there are a ton of next steps to get your book in the hands of readers and to build up an audience who is interested in your next book. The second post in this series covers the publishing process…

Write like Hemingway?

Want the maximum readability when you’re writing? Then you need the Hemingway App. A free website (or $10 app) that edits your prose for readability and simplicity. Such fun to try a few lines of a book and see how it does.

Hemingway’s theory of omission is that the writer ought to write all the backstory of a character but then cut anything that isn’t necessary, because the reader will pick up on all the context and the character will feel truer. He focused on using the least and most simple phrasing that he could, with the idea that the “iceberg” of the characters is 90% under the water.

I’m not sure if I always agree, but I do think that many books could be served by providing fewer and stronger phrases that leave more to the reader’s imagination. Given that attention spans and vocabularies are getting smaller, rather than fight this tendency, why not embrace it?

Here’s an excerpt from my book, A Cup for the Dead:

Rhoda Hervé looked down at her husband from their balcony at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. He was a small but erect figure with a drink in hand as he went along the terrace, stopping here and there at tables along the railing. The guests would all be properly awed by the great man in his glory, the discoverer of Queen Nefrina’s tomb.

A pity he had begun so soon, she thought irritably.

Hemingway App rates this as Grade 8, overall good, but that my second sentence is hard to read.

If I make some changes, I can get Grade 7 with only a complaint about adverbs:

Rhoda Hervé looked down at her husband from their balcony at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. He was a small but erect figure with a drink in hand as he went along the terrace, stopping here and there at tables along the railing. The guests would all be properly awed by the great man in his glory, the discoverer of Queen Nefrina’s tomb.

A pity he had begun so soon, she thought.

I think it’s an interesting exercise, regardless of whether you follow the advice or not. It helps us think about sentence construction and vocabulary that we choose.

PS: You can get an excellent and short overview of his top 7 tips from Open Culture.