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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Publishing 2: Editing

Doing the agent/editor rounds, I'd often heard that *publishers don't want to consider anything over 100,000 words.* I didn't appreciate just how seriously this statement is made, and how important this length limit is. There are at least two excellent reasons why this is so:

1. A long manuscript, especially by a novice author, almost certainly means there is extra verbiage that detracts from the writing.

2. Publishing books gives a narrow margin of profit. Most books don't earn back their advance; this means that most books end up losing money for the publisher. A fat book means more production expense that must be reflected in a higher retail price. All things being equal, why should a publisher publish a thick book when it can just as easily sign a slimmer, trimmer manuscript? It is a buyer's marketplace out there, after all, and there is ALWAYS another manuscript.

Once I had publisher's eyes for my book, I was amazed at how different the manuscript looked. I was the business now, not the hopeful writer.

The first thing I did was farm out the manuscript to a few readers to gain opinions. Critiquing -- getting others to read through your manuscript -- can be so valuable, although you have to realize that there are different personalities and different types of critiques. Some are uplifting, if perhaps not too helpful, with the reader saying *I loved it! Don't change anything!* Others point out a problem area, although not necessarily with a correct solution. Some critiques can be cruel -- yes, I had two of these myself (one in a contest, one in an online critique group), and I was surprised that even though I have developed a thick skin, the comments temporarily pulled my courage out.

As an aside, let me just say that if you critique, remember that there is a living person on the other end of your words who probably feels exposed as you plow through his or her work. I critique others myself, and no matter how awkward the writing is, I know that just to string this number of words together is a brave accomplishment. Remember that the person is always, always, more valuable than the thing. Don't let your ego get in the way of trying to help someone who may not be as skillful as (you THINK) you are.

Jane, as I mentioned, gave me an expert critique. She pointed out places that I was meandering from the topic, or using awkward phraseologies like *she flung her leg over the chair.* (Picture THAT action in your head :-) She made progressively annoyed comments to some of my writing tics as they kept reappearing. She predicted obvious set-ups for plot with funny (and correct) remarks (OK, I'm guessing that by page 162 this character is going to be dead...) The pages were dense with slashing pen marks through paragraphs at a time. I loved it!

The light bulb went on as I transferred her changes to the manuscript. Now, there are many books on the nuts and bolts of self editing (two good ones are the classic Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, and Revision and Self-Editing) by James Scott Bell, so let me discuss instead some of the broad ideas that I learned:

1. make sure the writing is always aimed for the READER and not yourself. Explain the vision that you see in your head as if you weren't already familiar with it. One method I found really helpful for this, for fiction, is to write in deep point of view of the character. Many people, I've found, use a lighter POV and flit above the action. Try to grasp more. Thinking about it, this is a good blog topic that I should cover in the near future, for whatever my opinion is worth.

2. Get rid of extraneous verbiage. I'm embarrassed to tell you, my dear readers, how much I cut from a completed manuscript that had already made the rounds. Shall I just say almost a quarter? You do the math. (Why oh why didn't my agent say anything to me???) I only cut three scenes; the rest were extra words that added nothing to the story. I did a number of edits over 8 months. The first one, I transferred critiques and word-searched for some of my writing tics (for example, I loved the word *murmured*). The second, I word-searched for nothing words like *very*, *much*, *said*, and any word ending in *-ly* The third, I read through and cut any references that weren't directly related to the story action. This one yielded great cuts, sometimes paragraphs at a time, when I found I'd meandered onto some interesting but irrelevant thoughts. The fourth, I fixed unclear or peculiar references: for example, the phrase *the scarf on the chair tied in a knot* makes it sound like the CHAIR is in a knot, not the scarf. I also used the Word function that highlighted passive voice, and got rid of those sentence fragments (*He turned. Turned again. Saw the horse.*) that all writers seem to use, and that are so irritating for the poor reader. The fifth and sixth go around I kept reading and cutting and fixing. I read carefully for accuracy as well, and fixed passages that were unclear or incorrect. I don't even remember all I did; once I got in the groove I was just able to pare, and pare, and pare. If I went through again, I could probably cut even more :-)

3. Believe it or not, after all of this I hired a copyeditor. This is because my grammar is atrocious, and I knew that although it sounded right, it needed to be checked. Sure enough, Chris found some great stuff for me to fix, and a side benefit is that my grammar improved. I finally know what a preposition is :-) (IN the box. ON the box. AROUND the box. UNDER the box...)

A copyeditor, BTW, is really important, and if you can afford one, do it. This is in contrast to a story editor, that IMHO is much harder to determine before the fact if he or she will help you. Money is tight. I was fortunate that my parents spotted me a generous gift for this endeavor, and we also had some money left over from the family budget. I spent money over a year and a half, so the bites weren't as big. Still, be prepared, not just in editing, but in the book set-up, that you're probably going to have to spend something.

I'd love to hear some of your experiences with critiquing or editing! What do YOU think is important?


Jessica Thomas said...

Great post! So many interesting things to comment on.

Jane? Who is Jane and how much does she charge? :-)

I concur, Self-Editing For Fiction Writers is great. I'm sure I will read it over and over. It helped me clean up my manuscript, although, at the moment, I am drawing a blank as to which sections helped me most. I did do the -ly search, the passive voice search, also searched for unnecessary instances of "that", unnecessary "he said", "she said". There are others. I should have written them down! Bah.

"Deep" POV versus "light" POV would definitely be an interesting topic to discuss.

Regarding my manuscript, I sent it out to mainstream agents going on ten (wow) years ago and was universally rejected. I still liked my idea though, so I revisited the manuscript about five years later, and realized, it needed work! There were holes in the plot, overuse of passive voice, goofy science, and some goofy characterization. I won't say it was terrible, there was just definite room for improvement. Interestingly, I have the opposite problem with word count. I tend to be frugal with words from the get go, so my novel started out at around 67K words. (Which, for some may be "too short".) After I made my revisions, which included adding some scenes, totally rewriting others, it came out at just under 65K. Now, I think I need to add about 700 words to get it over that hump.

Regarding simple sentences and sentence fragments--I kind of like those. So long as the entire novel isn't written that way. Varied rhythm is definitely important (at least, it is to me).

I'd love to see some examples of your "befores" and "afters" if you still have them. I just posted a before and after from my current project. (It's sort of nerve-wracking though. What if people don't like the rewrite?)

Anonymous said...

OMG, I had to cut so much redundancy and wordiness it's not even funny. **smile**

But, critiques I got from ACFW crit partners (and others) have helped me grow so much as a writer.

We must always have teachable spirit.

Amy Deardon said...

Lynn, I've heard wonderful things about the ACFW critique groups! I'm so glad they were helpful. I'm convinced that virtually any piece of writing can be improved.

Jessica, Jane is amazing! She is also sarcastic and doesn't pull punches -- truly, I feel like she was a gift from God with her editing. Any one who has an editor like this, whether friend or colleague, you are amazingly fortunate.

Good luck with your ms -- everyone has their own set of problems. The publishing bar is set very very high, so what is *good* writing still probably has a lot of room for improvement. I thought about not running this column because it's a little personal but decided heck, it may be helpful for people to see what really went on with this saga -- sort of like Jamie Lee Curtis posing without makeup or airbrushing. My hope is that anyone reading this will feel that it's not IMPOSSIBLE to get something done pretty well, although it does take an enormous amount of work.

I love your idea of posting before's and after's! Let me look through my files and maybe I can find something.

Also, as with other aspects of this process, I am NOT an expert. I'm simply giving you one person's perspective and journey along the publishing road. I hope it's helpful :-)

Brandie said...

I would definitely be interested in before and afters. They are so much help in finding similar things in my own writing, and with suggestions on how to fix them! Can't go wrong, with that.

Because I like the writing process much more than the revising one, I have yet to do a full rewrite. I have three "finished" manuscripts waiting for my attention, and am attempting the first revision of one now. I will definitely be picking up the titles you suggested! (Oh dear, a forced trip to the bookstore. Whatever will I do?)

Thank you again for these interesting and informative entries. :)

Andra M. said...

We're on the same wavelength today, because I wrote about my favorite writing books in my own blog, and how they reached the top of my must-have list (I hope you don't mind the shameless plug).

As Jessica said, great post. Every writer has something to teach as well as to learn. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

Billy Coffey said...

I'm a little intrigued by Jane as well.

It's taken me a long time to learn brevity, and it's something I still need to remind myself to do.

And sentence fragments? Wow, that seems like pretty much everything I write. Like this.

Philangelus said...

Jane isn't all that intriguing, trust me. She worked her way through grad school doing tutoring and has been workshopped since age 12 (she's 36 now) and has a suit of asbestos permanently welded to her body.

Seriously, though, I've been workshopped by some AMAZING people and one professor who deserved to be nibbled to death by ants. After a while, even with a granite-hard skull, you pick up some stuff, you know?

The thing with Amy's manuscript (and really, anyone's manuscript) was on two levels: one was just the words and the phrasing. "This sentence adds nothing; remove it." "Combine these two sentences." Etc. But the other is the metastructure of the book: "What does this have to do with the plot?" "I can't figure out this character's motivation." All that stuff went onto the white space at the end of the chapters and what, five pages at the front?

It takes about five pages for a reader to see what the cardinal sins of the book are going to be, and after that, once you know what to look for, you just flag the things when they happen.

(I'm sorry about getting progressively irritated, though. It's not as if you saw the correction I made on page 5 and could change it on my printout before I read up to pages 55, 67, 110, and 135. ;-) Forgive me.)

Jessica, Amy and I did a crit-for-crit swap. She critiqued my novel "Seven Archangels: Annihilation" and pointed out one huge stylistic flaw that required me to go back through the entire manuscript to rewrite it. ;-) That's why I wanted to do a good job with hers. My book is available through my weblog at

Jessica Thomas said...

Oh, hello Jane. :-) Actually, it turns out I visited your blog yesterday. I read about Emily Rose. What a heart wrenching, yet beautiful journey your family went through. And what a joy it will be when you all meet again! My little boy is 14 months, so it really hits home.

I visited your site just now and read about your novel. Wow, what a premise! I would have no idea how to characterize an angel. Congrats on your publication.

The crit-for-crit sounds like a great idea. And now I know where you live (in cyberspace, that is)...bwah ha ha ha ha.