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?
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