Revising Fiction

Ladies and Gentlemen, an announcement: The next online “Revising Fiction” workshop has been scheduled to begin on August 13 and is now open for registration. This workshop is for writers with a complete draft of a novel or a body of short stories, who want to work on bringing their fiction to the next level.

writing class

I’ll tell you more about the workshop in a minute, but first, a digression. At a party not long ago, I overheard two aspiring writers talking about difficulty of selling their work. “It’s all about who you know,” one said. “You can’t even get an agent unless you have got an in.”

“Totally,” replied the other. “They don’t even read the stuff that comes in over the transom. It’s a fixed game.”

I envisioned that scene in a Harry Potter movie in which Harry and Ron are whispering during Professor Snape’s class: not a smart move, when that character is portrayed by the inimitable Alan Rickman. He positions himself behind them, rolls up his sleeves, and in one swift motion bangs their heads together.

I myself refrained, with some difficulty. I’ve heard this claim so often, and it is so untrue and counterproductive. New writers get published all the time. Over the years, I’ve seen many of my writing students sell books that they labored over, sometimes for years; none of them had contacts in the industry. I’ve been in the writing/publishing business for over 40 years now, including 12 years as a literary agent. A lot has changed, but one thing hasn’t. While many factors are involved in an agent or publisher’s decision to take a chance on a writer, great writing trumps them all.

slam dunkIt’s hard; why wouldn’t it be? Getting published by one of the big five houses is to writers what playing professionally is to athletes. In addition to talent, you have to be at the top of your game to have a chance. Athletes train for years to reach that level. Some writers expect to achieve it with the first story they write. A very few actually do; they have that level of talent and ability. But most published writers have had to go back of the same book time and time again, or write another with the lessons learned from writing the first, before they break into publication.

Consider another comparison. Getting published commercially is to writers what a gallery show is to painters. Aspiring painters study their art. Writers? Not so much.

When I was an agent, the hardest submissions to deal with were the ones that came within a draft or two of being publishable: the almost-but-not-quite books. Editors don’t want to invest the time, or don’t have it to invest. Agents who give notes and ask for revisions have filled in the gap to some extent, but writers are still expected to learn the craft on their own dime. Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and the one most often neglected. First drafts are where writers capture the story, pin it to paper so it can’t escape. Subsequent drafts are where they turn that raw material into art.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’d like to believe that all writers understand the importance of editing. As William Zinsser said, “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.” But it’s easier said than done.  Part of the difficulty for writers lies in getting the necessary feedback in order to raise their level of play. Another part lies in the fact that writers are often too close to their work to see it objectively.

That’s why “Revising Fiction” was the first workshop I created, with the intention of addressing both those problems. To succeed in this market—no, more than that, to succeed in their art—writers need to edit their work. This does not take the place of having one’s work edited by a professional editor, whether supplied by a publisher who buys the book or hired by a writer prior to self-publishing. That’s essential, because we only see what we see; it takes an outsider to point out what we don’t see. But revision, or self-editing, comes before that; it’s the final step in the actual writing of the book.

You can read more about “Revising Fiction” here, along with some testimonials from writers who’ve taken the workshop. Participants emerge with a much improved draft, along with tools they can apply to everything they write in the future. This is the most advanced workshop I offer, and it’s open to published as well as aspiring writers. Please note that the workshop requires a significant investment of time, typically 12 to 18 hours a week over 14 weeks—but that includes time spent editing your own work. If this sounds useful, and you have a finished draft, I’d be happy to hear from you. Applicants should include the first 5 pages of their mss. The workshop is limited to eight writers, because I spend a ton of time working with each; and I try to put together groups that are compatible but varied. It’s not always possible for me to offer every applicant a spot; but one way or another, you’ll definitely hear back from me.

Editing: Brain Surgery for Writers

 

brain surgeonsIf you needed brain surgery, how much time would you invest in searching for the right brain surgeon? Knowing that outcomes vary, experience and dexterity matter, competence is paramount, and an incompetent practitioner can leave the patient in worse shape than when he began, I guess you’d spend as much time as it took to find the right person.

Writers in search of an editor need to exercise the same rigorous search, because editing, especially editing of fiction, is a sort of brain surgery. The editor operates in the gap between the book the writer envisioned and the one that actually made it onto the page. Thus the editor must see clearly not only the imperfect story on the page, but the story it wants to become, its ideal self. If the author has taken chances in the writing (as good writers tend to do) some of these will have succeeded and others will have failed. If cutting is inevitable, the surgery must be performed delicately – because the last thing any editor wants to do is to excise healthy tissue.

What I mean to do in this post is to talk about some of the decisions writers face with regard to editors: whether to hire an editor and if so, what sort of editor to hire; at what point in the process; how to recognize good ones and avoid bad ones. But I should begin, in the interest of fair disclosure, by saying that I myself am an editor and writing teacher as well as a novelist. You can, depending on your disposition, take that as an admission of vested interest or as an indication that I have had occasion to think seriously about the intersection of writing and editing.

Types of Editors

First off, we need to define terms. There are different types of editing. A novel acquired by one of the large commercial publishers typically undergoes four layers of editing by at least three different people.

Developmental editors look at the big-picture items: pacing, structure, characterization, style, point of view, theme. They track plot and subplots, consider the arcs of the major characters and the novel as a whole, examine the opening and ending of the novel as well as its structure.

red penLine editors examine the novel on a line to line basis. They look for continuity, logic, clarity, consistence in POV and tone. They will also address grammatical and style issues, though not to the extent that a copy editor does. In publishing houses, developmental and line editing are usually done by the acquiring editor and may be combined.

Copy editors focus closely on language. Their job is to rid the manuscript of any grammatical, spelling, usage and punctuation errors, as well as stylistic inconsistencies.

Proofreaders are the last line of defense, the final readers. They read typeset proofs to look for the same mistakes that copy editors do, including errors introduced by the typesetting process.

In this post, when I refer to editing, I’m talking primarily about developmental and line editing.

Should Writers Hire Editors?

Some should, some shouldn’t. It depends on the writer’s intentions. I believe that writers who intend to self-publish should, in fairness to themselves, their books and their potential readers, have their books edited. Few self-published writers can afford the four separate layers of scrutiny given to books published by commercial houses. But many editors offer combinations of developmental and line editing, and some offer copy editing as well, although ideally that should be done by someone other than the developmental editor. In editing, as in surgery, two pairs of eyes are better than one. If the writer at that point is confident in her ability to spot any deviations in the proof from the copyedited manuscript, she can do her own proofreading.

Having one’s manuscript edited is a learning experience. As writers grow more experienced, one thorough edit in addition to their own careful revisions may well suffice. But every writer has a tendency to make certain types of mistakes, everyone is blind to their own worst prose; and writers who publish without an editor do so at their own risk.

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Writers who aim to be commercially published have a different set of calculations. On the one hand, all four levels of editing are provided by the publisher at no expense to the writer, and the editors who provide the services are usually first-rate. Good editing is one of the great perks of being professionally published. On the other hand, the bar to acceptance is very high, and if the book is almost but not quite where it needs to be, a good editor can make the crucial difference.

I advise writers who are trying to make their careers in traditional publishing to do everything they can with their manuscripts before they consider hiring an editor. Writing is a craft that takes a great deal of practice to master. Learning to revise your own work is very much a part of that process. Writers can take classes, which I highly recommend, the more rigorous the better. They can join critique groups and seek out skilled, savvy beta readers; they can read books by great practitioners about their craft; they can study the work of writers they admire; and they can apply all that they have learned and are learning to their work in progress.

Foetus_in_the_Womb_detailA novel is not written in one go, and first drafts are still soft clay. I think it’s dangerous to turn an embryonic first draft or incomplete novel over to an editor. It should go through serious revision and refinement before that step is considered.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea for a writer to begin submitting that final draft to agents and seeing what sort of response she gets before deciding on hiring an editor. If the response is positive, she may never need to hire her own. If, on the other hand, she gets a significant number of rejections, it may be time to consider enlisting a freelance editor or manuscript evaluator (basically the same thing as a developmental editor), someone savvy and objective who can help her see the book as she could not see it herself.

Qualifications

Anyone can call himself an editor. He may as well call himself a “professional editor” too, while he’s at it; it sounds even better and means just as little. Anyone who’s ever corrected a child’s school essay is an editor, but not necessarily one who would be useful to an aspiring novelist. Academic degrees do not necessarily confer competence in the field of editing fiction. What qualities should a real editor have?

I’m going to respond to that from the point of view of a novelist whose books have been greatly enhanced by smart, sensitive editors. These are the things that I would look for in an editor.

Experience. This can come from several different areas. Some freelance editors have experience working for publishing houses, and if I were in need of an editor, I would take a good look at anyone who had edited for a major house. Those jobs are highly competitive and you have to be good to get them. Ive worked with editors from Simon & Schuster, Morrow, Doubleday, Atheneum and Viking, and I never had one who didn’t contribute significantly to the finished book. Be careful, though. I’ve seen editors who claim to have publishing experience… but when you check out the companies they worked for, you discover that they are merely fronts for the writer’s own self-published work.

A lot of writers moonlight as editors, myself included. The advantage of having a writer for an editor is hands-on experience: they’ve wrestled their own novels into shape, and they know the tricks of the trade. The disadvantage is that these editors can be tempted to impose their own taste and style on the work to a greater extent than editors who are not writers: one reason that a sample edit is essential. (More on that below.) Writers who offer editing services should have solid achievements in their own fields; otherwise, you have to wonder how can they help you succeed if they couldn’t help themselves. For the same reason, I would never hire a writer to edit a novel if I didn’t know and admire his own fiction.

A solid track record.  Everyone has to start somewhere, but you don’t want anyone cutting their teeth on your book. Editors should be happy to provide you with a client list. I would want to see that some of those clients at least had been published commercially. If the editor specializes in a particular genre, and you write in a different genre, that is at the very least a matter to be discussed. Many fiction editors don’t specialize, however, because while conventions may differ, good writing is good writing.

ArethaRespect. A good editor enters into what you are trying to do and helps you get closer, rather than trying to squash your work into preordained parameters. Part of respect is honesty. The editor has to be frank about what’s working and what isn’t. Soft-peddling problems to spare the writer’s feelings does that writer a great disservice.

Communication. The best editors are natural teachers; but every editor should be willing and able to explain the reasons for his recommendations. Honesty is important, but so is reasonable tact and the ability to point out what does work well, so writers can build on it.

Mad_scientist_02_by_LemondjinnEducation. A degree in English is a useful credential for a copy editor, but has no bearing on that person’s ability to do developmental editing. I would look favorably at an editor with an MFA from a good writing program. Someone who has studied writing seriously can be a very discerning critic. But I’d also want to see evidence of practical experience and/or achievements. Otherwise, it could be like hiring an astrophysicist to fix your toaster.

Regardless of academic degrees, a good editor is widely read and conversant with the literature of the day, including the best genre writers. A wide frame of reference is a necessary prerequisite of the job. Editors also need a solid knowledge of the publishing industry, to be able to help writers who aspire to break through.

How to Recognize Good Editors…

1. They possess the qualifications listed above. I realize that this is a tall order, and that by the time you finish eliminating all the editors who don’t measure up, you may be left with only me. This is purely coincidental. *

Kidding, of course. There are many editors out there, and some of them are excellent. Others aren’t. That list of qualifications can be a useful tool in looking beyond the hype on a website.

2. They come recommended by or have worked with writers whose work you admire.

3. They are willing to provide a sample edit for a nominal fee.

4. They are discriminating. The hard truth is that some books are too rough to edit. They need to be substantially rewritten, which is not an editor’s job. Even when the writing is creditable, there’s also a question of fit. Not every editor is right for a particular writer. Good editors know this and do not take on all comers. The sample edit is an essential way to assess how writer and editor would work together. I never take on an editing job unless I’ve first done the sample edit offered on my website, and I would be wary of editors with set rates who accept work blindly.

5. The sample edit knocks your socks off. It may sting a bit at first, because there’s a part of every writer that wants to hear nothing but praise. But there’s another part of every serious writer that strives constantly for better tools and more facility with the craft. Once the sting wears off, a good edit should enunciate things about the work that the writer sensed but couldn’t articulate, as well as showing a way forward. Of all the criteria, the sample edit is the most important in choosing an editor.

… And How to Avoid Bad Ones

1. They don’t meet the qualifications listed above.

2. They make inflated claims. Anyone who promises that with his help, his clients will go on to sell their work is either a huckster or shilling for a vanity press. There are no certainties in publishing.Free Clipart Illustrations at http://www.ClipartOf.com/

3. They solicit you. Good editors tend to be backed up with work. Anyone who solicits you is suspect.

4. They don’t offer to provide a reasonably priced sample edit, but press instead for a larger commitment.

 

I hope  you find this useful and welcome your comments. I wish I could append a list of recommended editors. I do know several who are excellent for nonfiction, and I’ve referred writers to them; but unless I’ve worked with a fiction editor myself, or seen their work, I don’t feel comfortable referring novelists. I invite readers who have worked with first-rate freelance editors to share that in the comments section, as well as any other experience you might have had with freelance editors.

 

As I mentioned above, I do some editing myself when I’m not in the midst of writing a book; but my special offer is valid for any fiction writer who cares to take it up.

I also teach writing workshops several times a year. These classes are small, rigorous and intense.  The next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, starting April 2, 2015. At the moment I have one spot left, so if you’re interested, drop  me a line at ASAP:  Barbararogan (at) gmail (dot) com .

For more on this topic, see What to Do When You’ve “Finished” Your Novel and Good Writers Are Good Editors.

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I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

The Biology of Fiction: Putting Stimulus Before Reaction

 

Before we were writers, we were readers; and to understand how fiction works, we must first understand what happens to us when we read fiction.  When we immerse ourselves in an absorbing story, the real world fades out and the fictive world fades in. We are not conscious of reading; rather, we feel as if we’re inside the story, experiencing its events through a character, or watching like a fly on the wall as they unfold. To say we are transported is to express a literal truth.flying carpet

How does this transportation happen? Not by accident, flying carpet, or magic, but rather by art, the writer’s art. I couldn’t hope to summarize in a blog post even the little I know about the craft of fiction. But I can address (and do, when the pedantic spirit overcomes me) very  specific issues, those small things that, taken together, make the difference between the talented amateur and the professional. Previous posts have addressed settings and the use of body language. Today’s topic is chronology, aka putting the stimulus before the reaction.

Below are two versions of the same scene. The first one is an example of the sort of writing I often see in classes.

Version 1:

As Lola descended the basement stairs, bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled at the stench of something rotten down below. It made her sick, but she kept going. At the bottom of the stairs, she moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter. What she saw filled her with revulsion.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, had been arrayed in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each. Lola’s flashlight clattered to the floor and the light flickered and died. She screamed in horror as an icy hand clasped her own, and a cold little voice said, “How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

 

What do you think? Nothing wrong with it grammatically, nothing glaringly wrong at all…but are those chills running down your spine, or prickles of irritation?

Now consider this alternative.

Version 2:

basementLola descended the basement stairs, one cautious foot after another.  The stench of rot intensified with each step, but she forced herself to keep going. She reached the bottom, moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter.  The beam snagged on something unexpected, moved on, came back.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, sat in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each.

Lola screamed. Her flashlight clattered to the floor; the light flickered and died. An icy hand clasped her own, and out of the darkness, a cold voice spoke.

“How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

Are you feeling the difference?

The reason Version 2 works better is clear when you consider it from the reader’s perspective. For the writer, words are the medium; but the experience for the reader transcends words and involves all the senses. The reader is in the story;  it’s happening all around him. Writers, working behind the scenes, create that world. We paint the scenery, write the dialogue, give the characters conflicting agendas and set them into motion. And we do all this to draw the reader in and keep him immersed in our invented world. The last thing we want to do, then, is to get in the way of the reader’s direct experience of that world. Nor do we want our POV character to interpose himself as a filter.

In the first version of the cellar scene, the writer tells the character’s reaction to something before showing the thing he’s reacting to. The reader’s experience is thus second-hand, channeled through the intermediary of the POV character, whose reactions, spelled out by the writer, are meant to dictate the reader’s own.

In the second version, readers experience everything first-hand. This allows for the elements of surprise and suspense that the first version lacked. Equally importantly, it allows the reader to react directly to the sights and events of the scene, rather than cuing him with the character’s reaction. The POV character is still there—readers see through her eyes, feel through her skin—but she doesn’t stand between the reader and the action. Things happen in the proper biological order: stimulus first, then reaction.

But notice what else happens when we put the stimulus before the reaction. Some lines from the first version were cut from the second: “bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled,” “It made her sick,” and “What she saw filled her with revulsion.” Lola still screams, but the words “in horror” are gone. None of these explanations are needed in the second version. By allowing readers to experience the events directly and viscerally, we no longer need to tell them how Lola reacted. They feel it for themselves.

Screaming_In_My_Head_by_Etherhel

 

For writers interested in improving their craft, I teach several online workshops.  These classes are small, rigorous and intense.  The next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, starting April 2, 2015. At the moment I have one spot left, so if you’re interested, drop  me a line at ASAP:  Barbararogan (at) gmail (dot) com .

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

What To Do Once You’ve “Finished” Your Novel

Jo BourneEvery once in a while, I come across a blog post so informative that I just need to share it. Jo Bourne, for those of you who don’t already know her, is a critically acclaimed writer of historical fiction, including THE BLACK HAWK and THE SPYMASTER’S LADY.  She’s also one of the smartest people about the craft of writing I’ve ever met. We are old friends from the Compuserve Book and Author forum, where we both serve as section leaders, and over the years I’ve found myself savoring (and quoting) much of her writing advice. This time, with her kind permission, I am reprinting an entire blog post. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and check out her blog for yourself. If you’re a writer, you’ll thank me.

Here, with no further ado, is Jo:

 

“Congratulations on finishing your manuscript.
Woot woot.
Go celebrate.

We’ll wait.

 

 

…  All through with dancing and whooping it up?
Now there are a few necessary steps to take to get from here to publication.

 I. Get Crits

What:  Turn some chapters of your manuscript over to harsh, knowledgeable critters.  Listen to what they say.  You need critters who haven’t been with you every step of the way as you wrote.  Critters who are not your family or friends.

This is not putting a saucer of milk out for the tabby.  This is wrapping yourself in raw meat and stepping into the lion’s cage.

How:  There’s a Writer’s Workshop in the Books and Writer’s Forum.   Here.  Absolute Write, here has a ‘Share Your Work’ section.  Writer’s Forum here has a Writers’ Workshop.
If you are writing genre, there are probably specialized sites for writers of your genre.

Why:  Intelligent criticism of your work will help you write better and will prepare you to edit your manuscript.

II.  Let the manuscript rest

What:  Put the work away for as long as you can.  Six weeks.  Three months.  Six months.
(You spend this time working on the next ms and critting other folks’ manuscripts, which is an excellent way to improve your own writing skills.)

How:  Print it out and put it in a locked drawer in the bottom of your desk.  Put all the work in a folder named “Open in January.

Why:  This lets you look at your own work with a critical editorial eye.  It gives you distance.

III.  Learn how publishing works

What:  Spend a solid 40 hours studying the publishing industry.

How:  Start out by Googling everything you can find on the subject.  Then drop into places full of knowledgeable folks and ask questions.

Why:  If you were going to (a) take a job in Thailand for a year or (b) go to State Aggie to study animal husbandry or (c) work for Avis Rent-a-car, you’d do that much research about (a) the country, (b) the university or (c) the business.
Why would you go into writing with less preparation?

III. Learn about agents

What:  Start making a spread sheet of agents who work in your field.  See who they represent.  See who they sell to.  See what kind of deals they’re making.  Find out what folks say about them.
If they have an on-line presence, get a feel for who they are.

How:  Google.  Look at the acks in the front of books similar to your own writing.  Publisher’s Lunch and Publisher’s Marketplace.

Why:  That’s the list you will query, when you query, if you decide you want an agent.  And after all, you have some time while your manuscript is resting.

IV.  Revise

What:  When the manuscript has aged like, y’know, fine wine … take it out of hiding and read it over.
Now you will revise.  Now you see what’s wrong.

How: Read and correct as if someone else had written it.

Why:  Because, unless you have indeed done this, the manuscript is not as good as you can make it.

V.  Find Beta Readers

What:  Beta readers take an entire manuscript that is ready for submission and crit it.  Beta readers, if possible, have never seen the manuscript before.

How:  Find them by doing beta reads for others.  Find them by making friends in writers forums.  Pay them in chocolate.

Why:  Because they will tell you if the whole thing works.  They’ll point out illogical story lines.  They’ll improve the manuscript.

 
VI.  Re-revise in light of the Beta read

’nuff said.

VII.  Get an agent … or not

Three months have passed since you declared your manuscript finished.

You will have read 10,000 words arguing Indie/Big Press/Small Press.
You’ll have the best manuscript you can write in one hand and a significant bit of WIP in the other.

Now you make this decision.

 

Many thanks to Jo for permission to reprint this post. If you appreciate her thoughts, you know the best way to thank a writer, don’t you?

Speaking of which, I’ve just learned that my new book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, has just made one of Amazon’s top 100 bestseller lists recently, the one for thrillers with female sleuths. So woot woot!, as Jo says!  Recently there was a wonderful review by Joan Baum in Dan’s Papers and a couple of fun interviews, one by My Bookish Ways and one by writer Sara Bowers, and there’s more to come.

The past few weeks since launch have been quite a whirl.  In fact, A DANGEROUS FICTION, worn out from the rigors of self-promotion, was recently spotted taking a bit of well-earned R&R.

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Completing the Circle: From Idea to Book to Audience

ElizabethLyon-fIf you’ve ever gone to a writers’ conference, chances are you’ve met Elizabeth Lyon. As the author of half a dozen widely-read guides to the craft and business of writing, including The Sell Your Novel Took Kit: Everything You Need to Know About Queries, Synopses, Marketing, and Breaking In and Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write: How to Get a Contract and Advance Before Writing Your Book, she is in great demand as a workshop leader and presenter. I had the pleasure of getting to know her at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference near Vancouver, where we were both presenters, and having many interests and pursuits in common, we’ve stayed in touch and followed each other’s careers ever since.

Many of her books are about breaking into the publishing market. As a freelance editor, she  works hard to find agents for her editing clients. Her own books have been published by Perigree/Penguin.  So I was surprised to hear from Elizabeth recently that she’d self-published her latest book, WRITING SUBTEXT. In this interview, Elizabeth talks about why she made the switch. She also has some really smart, sensible advice for writers contemplating their options.

 

BR: After a career spent helping other writers get published, and having been commercially published yourself, you have now taken the plunge into self-publishing.  What led you to that decision?

EL: Actually, self-publishing is a homecoming. In 1980, I published my first book, Mabel: The Story of One Midwife, about a Ghana-born woman who “caught” my two children when I was doing the baby boom in Corvallis, Oregon. Handling all aspects of the book—interviewing, writing, editing, book production, and promotion gave me the publishing bug. It’s immensely satisfying to make all the decisions, feel all the responsibility, and earn all the rewards—or lack thereof.

No doubt, having a book accepted by a publisher is heady. When my agent, Meredith Bernstein, called with a four-book contract for writing books from Perigee/Penguin, I thought I had “arrived.”

“For everything there is a season.” When friends began “going indie,” with their e-books and POD (print on demand) books, they became my Sirens, calling me back to my roots.

 

BR: Many aspiring writers imagine doing what you’ve done, publishing multiple books with a major house like Penguin, as the height of aspiration. Why change a good thing?

EL: My editors at Penguin were and are highly skilled and lovely people. Yet, I’ve always been uncomfortable with corporate publishing policies that put most books on a conveyer belt. Most have a short life. Others, like my own, become slow backlist sellers.

While publishers don’t make giant profits, except from the mega bestselling authors, the standard publishing contract sucks. They are not written for fairness; they’re rigged for the publisher—in money and in rights.

The royalty in the contract is seldom what one receives. Almost all books are heavily discounted pushing the royalty rate to 5% of retail or even less. That’s 64 cents on a $14.95 paperback, subtracting my agent’s 15%. Publishers don’t promote non-best-selling books, and bookstores can’t possibly have midlist instructional books that span decades taking up shelf space.

I am grateful that I had that experience. I gained prestige and support for my teaching and editing work. My best publishing experience, however, was with Blue Heron Publishing, my first publisher. The owners, Linny and Dennis Stovall, nurtured writers and their careers and their publishing contract was modeled after one recommended by the National Writers Union.

 

BR: What have you learned from your venture into self-publishing that might be helpful to others contemplating that route?

EL: With “Writing Subtext,” my first booklet in a new series, I feel the weight of responsibility, which I’m also happy to have. I’m hyper-aware of accuracy, quality of content, and proofreading. That’s a good thing. I rely upon my critique group’s suggestions and corrections, perhaps even more so than in the past.

As I learned with my first book in 1980, there is a daunting number of skills to master when you DIY—“do it yourself,” including knowing when to job something out. I turned book cover design and digital formatting over to others who do those tasks well. With just a few hiccups requiring advice, I was able to upload my digital files and cover image files to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, for sale as e-books and to Amazon’s CreateSpace for print-on-demand.

pink elephantThe big pink elephant in the room for all writers who publish is promotion—reaching the targeted audience. If a writer is content with selling (or giving away) books to a circle of friends or family, that’s easy. But if a writer wants to build a name and following, and even make a part-time or full-time living, then book promotion skills will require as much time as writing and revising the book, and maybe more. Writers with money can hire publicists, and these days that means someone who knows how to use the Internet for book promotion in addition to more traditional publicity.

 

BR: If an aspiring writer asked for your advice on whether to self-publish or to seek an agent and try to get published commercially, what would you answer and why? Would your advice differ for fiction and non-fiction writers?

EL: My answer is the same for fiction or nonfiction writers: What is your dream? Most writers I know, and who come to me for editing, would like to see their books published in a traditional way, whether with a large publisher or a small press. I call this Plan A. The possibility of acceptance is slim. My job, however, is to support, help, and encourage any writer with a Plan A dream. Some do succeed. Realistically, novelists (and memoir writers) typically underestimate the amount of revision needed to reach a polished and professional book. Often it will be a 3rd or 4th novel that will be well enough written to succeed with Plan A.

Writers of other forms of nonfiction may reach the high bar of outstanding writing and a unique book that contributes to the literature. However, to fulfill Plan A, these writers face expectations of a strong author platform. Platform refers to how broadly a writer is known and whether he or she can guarantee strong sales through ambitious actions such as speeches, workshops, interviews, book signings, blogging, and other Internet-related promotion. Most nonfiction book writers either have to stop marketing and build that platform or move to Plan B.

Plan B recalibrates the GPS to a small, specialty, or regional press. For instance, I’ve had one editing client whose novel was published by an LGBT press. A health and medical press published a client’s nonfiction book. But all too many unpublished writers receive offers of publication from companies that are essentially print-on-demand publishers who, like the vanity publishers of old, make the writer feel as if the book is “acquired.” I always caution about these offers because there may be smoke and mirrors. In these situations, the writer can self-publish with more rewards in all ways.

Plan C is self-publishing. The long-ago stigma over “vanity publishing” is mostly gone. Producing a book with new technologies is now easy and inexpensive. For some writers, Plan C is their Plan A.

I’ve always believed that all writers deserve to complete the circle—from idea to book to audience.

 

BR: Positing a reasonable facility for writing, what other abilities does a writer need to make a success of self-publishing?

EL: Every self-published writer has to decide how to quantify or qualify success. I’ve worked with writers for whom a dozen copies given to friends and family constitutes success. Memoir writers, for instance, may be writing to leave a legacy as well as to reach other people who have experienced something similar to what they have.

When a book is well-written, it stands a chance of word-of-mouth recommendation, which is the most potent form of sales. Readers buy books that are recommended and books written by authors they have heard of. For the self-published author, there is typically no access to distribution, to bookstores, beyond being listed or having a page in an online bookstore. The good news is that online book sales continue to expand.

Writers seeking a large audience must devote regular time to promotion, and to the degree the writer is comfortable, learning the ropes of the Internet, and pursuing opportunities for talks, book fairs, and any face-to-face sales.

I should have said earlier that most self-published books could have benefited from more development and revision. And everyone who self-publishes should seek professional line editing or memorize The Chicago Manual of Style. I also recommend asking three eagle-eye, grammar- and punctuation- smart friends to do final proofreading.

 

BR: The e-book revolution has already changed publishing profoundly, in part by leveling the distribution playing field for self-publishers. Would you venture an informed guess on the future of publishing as we know it?Crystal_Ball

EL: People will continue to buy books for their e-readers or tablets, in ever-greater numbers. Instant gratification, the impulse buy, is not only going to increase readers but it favors the self-publisher. Our price points are typically lower, much lower, than traditional publishers. In that sense we are more competitive.

Many types of books are not presently suited for electronic format, although that hurdle is sure to be overcome. Even so, I can’t envision books featuring art and photography, for instance, offering sustained pleasure in any other form but paper. Any book that invites consideration, a chance to grasp a whole, to flip pages back and forth should if not will be preferred in paper.

Yet, my opinions may be a function of living six decades plus. When books owned in most households are few, libraries are Red Box outlets, or an aisle of Office Depot, the mega conglomerate publishing industry may no longer exist as it is.

 

BR: What is your new book about, and where can readers find it?

WritingSubtext-variation21AFINALEL: My newest work is “Writing Subtext,” a booklet of 50 pages available in paper at CreateSpace/Amazon and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. “Writing Subtext” is the first booklet in a series that features one technique or topic at a time. Subtext is a subtle, often confusing concept and technique. Writing it, developing it in revision, makes all the difference in boosting suspense, deepening characterization, and supporting theme. I consider it one of the “super techniques.”

My next booklet will be “Crafting Titles.” On first blush, choosing a title for a book seems easy. I’ve seldom had an editing client or writing friend who hasn’t struggled to find the best title. So much goes into the choice.

 

Thanks so much for a really informative interview, Elizabeth.  With so much hyperbole on both sides of the publish/self-publish divide, it’s a pleasure hearing and sharing your balanced  take on the topic. Writers looking for a first-rate editor can contact Elizabeth through her website.

 

If you enjoyed this interview and want more like it, please subscribe through the link on the top right. Lately In Cold Ink has been overrun with news about my new release with Viking Books, A DANGEROUS FICTION,  and I guess that’s forgivable, seeing as my new books come around as often as cicadas. But as you can see, I’m slowly getting back to my usual subjects:  writing and publishing.  

That said, I do want to thank  Book Page for its wonderful review of A DANGEROUS FICTION, which they pronounced “a thoroughly entertaining and engaging mystery,” and to Zan Marie Steadham for the interview on her engaging blog.  If you’re looking for little frisson in the last hot days of summer, I hope you’ll give it a read.

 

Good Writers are Good Editors

 

Consider this scenario.  The first novel of writer John Doe has landed on the desk of a leading literary agent. Attached to the title page is a post-it from the agent’s assistant: “Good writer!” it says. The agent eyes the note and sighs. She has meetings lined up back to back all day, fifty calls and emails to return, and a three-foot pile of manuscripts waiting to be read. But she has ten minutes before her next meeting starts, and so she reaches for the manuscript.

The first couple of pages are enough to tell her the writer has talent. She takes the manuscript home, reads a few chapters, and stops when she determines that the writing is not quite good enough. The next day, she hands it back to her assistant. “Close,” she says, “but no cigar.”

Potential isn’t enough. Talent doesn’t equal execution. Either it’s on the page, editors say, or it’s not. Back the book goes, and in all likelihood John Doe will never know why or how close he came.

The only fictional part of this scenario is the writer’s name. The event itself  happens all the time. One could write a whole book on Why Bad Things Happen to Good Writers, bemoaning the impersonal, bottom-line state of publishing, but such a book would be of little comfort or service to writers struggling to break through.  Rejection is part of the writer’s world, perhaps even a functional part of the artistic process. (See “What if JP Rowling Had Self-Published?”) What’s really unfortunate (though unavoidable, given the volume) is that most rejections come with little or no explanation or guidance. Writers are expected to master the craft on their own time, which means learning not only how to write but also how to edit.

As the comment section of my last post revealed, there’s a lot of debate about the value of outlining for fiction. But there’s virtually none among professional writers about the value of revision…probably because they couldn’t have become professionals without learning  it. In my experience, including 15 years as a literary agent and editor, most writers spend as much time editing their stories as they do writing them.

Here are a few thoughts on revision from some writers you may have heard of:

“My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

 

256px-Roald_Dahl“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

 

“But why must writers edit their own work?” I’ve been asked by aspiring writers.  “Writers write and editors edit; isn’t that the way it works?”

Well, no, that’s not how it works. Writers do need editors to see what they’re too close to see, but that’s at a later stage. To get to that stage, they first need the ability to edit their way toward the heart of their stories.

Imagine Rodin sculpting “The Thinker.” Does he simply envision the finished work, grab his chisel, and sculpt it fluently in all its detail? Of course not; such a thing is inconceivable. The vision must be there, or nothing will happen, but we understand instinctively that the artist must first produce a rough version, which he then goes on to refine and perfect.

450px-Le_Penseur_de_Rodin_à_Saint-Dié

So, too, with fiction. No matter how impeccable writers are, their first drafts will be but a rough approximation of what their stories could become. Editing is not just a matter of chipping away excess bits or changing a word here and there. It also entails building up, shifting emphasis, adding or omitting characters and subplots, clarifying theme. Many writers do not fully understand what they’re writing about until they’ve written it. Only after they become conscious of their underlying themes can they go back and enhance their expression.

Good writers are good editors.

Disagree if you dare; or share some of your own tips on editing.

 

In my Next Level school of writing, I offer a 14-week online workshop called “Revising Fiction,” which leads participants (who must have a completed draft of a novel) through a series of edits. This workshop is intensive and requires a significant commitment of time. But the reward is commensurate with the effort, as students come out the other end with a greatly improved novel and tools that they can go on to apply to everything else they write. The next workshop will be offered in the August 2015. A couple of spots are left. For more information, or to get on my emailing list  (most classes fill entirely from that list), drop me a line.