#Edit or #Revise? Why not both?

In the craft of writing, editing is accepted as a necessary evil. We all realize that our sentences must be properly punctuated, our noun/verb combinations must agree, our sentence and paragraph structure must meet certain recognizable norms.

Yes, there are exceptions. Books are written in verse. Writers experiment with no dialogue tags, single-sentence paragraphs, and chapters that consist of fewer than 10 sentences. And at least one author, Cormac McCarthy, has eschewed the use of almost all punctuation.

But for most of us, editing is an acceptable, if somewhat mundane, chore.

Revision, on the other hand, is greeted with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Revision is “hard”. Revision is “based on someone else’s opinion” and is “not the way I write.”

Yet revision can be the most satisfactory part of writing.

cat on book

I’m not talking about the “Revise & Resubmit” advice an agent or editor may give, and which any author is free to accept or reject. I’m talking about recognizing the shortcomings in our own work, and making a concerted effort to improve them.

In a previous post, I talked about the books, primarily mysteries, that my grandmother and my mother have bequeathed to me. A few days ago, I was reading one by Ed McBain, an author very popular in the 70s-90s, whose style of terse conversation and fact-based investigation is a bit Hemingway-esque. McBain’s most popular book is probably HEAT, and if you’ve ever seen that movie FUZZ where Burt Reynolds dresses up as a nun to catch the bad guy, you know the one I mean. But the point is, in this book, POISON, McBain waxed poetic over the weather. Not the spring or summer weather, or even autumn. But winter weather.

It was unexpected, and breathtakingly beautiful. I can do that, I says to myself. In my first novel, LET THE CANYONS WEEP, I have a scene where the winter weather is at the heart of a conflict. I can make it much more dramatic. I can almost make it a character – an antagonist – in its own right.

That started me off. The next question was: where do I have weather? Or time of day? Or anything that has to do with the characters’ surroundings. I can do this. I will do this!

In most cases, it doesn’t take much. The description of a table as old and scarred; of a porch as sagging around its posts; of a cabin with grass that’s been seared to gray. Sometimes the scene calls for more than a few words. As an example, I’ve made a change at a critical point in the story. I started out with:

When he left her, the night was at its darkest hour.

Everyone’s heard “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” Most of us have spent at least one night awake, drunk or sober (oops, did I say that?) and have experienced it for ourselves. The sentence as it stands brings that idea to the mind of the reader.

But so much more has happened, so much terror and heartache was revealed in the previous chapter, that the opening was really, really trite. Revision created this:

When he left her, the night was at its darkest hour. The stars had faded, the tired old moon had set. But the night was no blacker than the wound on his heart.

And now, it’s not just a dark hour in the night. There’s a complete lack of light. And a more complete understanding of the character’s emotions.

Revising is difficult, yes. It takes a lot of time, a lot of thought, and a whole lot of willingness to look at those perfect words we wrote and find a way to make them better.

No one can deny the importance of editing – every comma needs to be in its place, every pronoun needs to refer to the right person. But revision – I’ve come to believe that’s what makes the difference between a good book and a great one.

What are you working on now, and what specific revisions have you made or do you intend to make?

Beta Readers: What are they & why do I need them?

#amwriting #amediting #revise

First of all, as with Critique Partners, you’ll notice that the question isn’t “Do I need them?” because that’s a given. You need them. Period. So what are they and how do you get them?

First you might ask: how does a Beta Reader differ from a Critique Partner? Both are all about helping you create the best story or novel you can. Critique partners usually focus on the “bones” of your manuscript, looking at grammar, sentence composition, punctuation. In other words, all of the elements that make your story function, that make it easy to understand and to read.

A Beta Reader’s job, on the other hand, is to look at the big picture: are there plot threads that got lost? did a character do something unexpected and unexplained? Are the characters likable (or at least identifiable) at the beginning as well as at the end? did you overlook something that seemed to be important in the thrilling denouement? are there unanswered questions in the reader’s mind when they get to the end? is there anything about your story that seems impossible or improbable?

While some of these questions may have been answered by your critique partners, there are probably some things that don’t become obvious until the work is read as a whole. Critique partners often swap a few chapters or a given number of pages at a time; Beta Readers are normally asked to read the entire story at once, and base their judgments on the entire manuscript.

books stack

Beta Readers don’t necessarily need to be writers, but they should be avid readers with an interest in your genre. The Beta Reader can be given a list, similar to the one you gave your Critique Partners, so that she or he knows what specific feedback you’re looking for. While neither a critique partner nor a Beta Reader should ever be sent a first draft of a story, Beta Readers should be given the final version: after your critique partners have finished and you’ve made all applicable changes. They get the version that you would deem good enough to send to a publisher. The Beta Readers are the final step in the chain to make sure your story is publication-ready.

As with the critiques you’ve received previously, your work is your own: no matter what feedback you receive, it’s up to you to adjust or not. But it’s important not to argue with your beta readers – after all, they’ve gone to some trouble to give you their best advice. For free. Thank them, if for nothing more than their time and good will.

So, how does one find a Beta Reader? Again, if you belong to a writers’ group or association like Romance Writers of America or The Historical Novel Society, you may find it a ready-made source of interest. If not, there are many services listed if you Google “beta readers”. Twitter and Tumblr also offer connections, as will Yahoo Groups, though you may have to join the groups first. In short, beta readers are easy enough to find – and your work will be much better for their input.

Did you use a beta reader’s services? Would you recommend it to other writers? Tell us about your own experiences.

Next: what to do if the relationship with your critique partner or beta reader doesn’t work out …

Critique Partners: What are they & why do I need them?

#amwriting #amediting #revise

First of all, notice that the question isn’t “Do I need them?” because that’s a given. You need them, and they need you. So what are they and how do you find them?

A critique partner is someone who reads your manuscript after you’ve gotten it to a somewhat polished state. A critique partner should never be given the first draft of your novel (unless that’s the arrangement you’ve made with them up-front). Don’t expect a critique partner to do your work for you. Do your spell-check, check the grammar rules, and make your manuscript as good as you can without independent feedback.

Yes, independent. As in, not your mother, your best friend, or your great-aunt Sadie.

books glasses

The best critique partners are people who also write, and normally critiquing is a give-and-take situation. They critique your work, you critique theirs. It’s often best to pair up with someone who writes in the same genre as you do. I’ve had critique partners who write in other genres who have been an enormous help to me, but I’ve noticed that writers in my genre have been a little more specific about their suggestions, because they understand the wants and needs of the genre better.

So, what does a critique partner look for? That’s largely up to you. You can agree upon any or all of the following services:

  • Grammar check (with or without punctuation)
  • Sentence construction (varying lengths of sentences; repetition in the openings of sentences)
  • Cliche identification
  • Fact checking
  • Plot consistency, resolution, & pacing
  • Consistent characterization
  • Excessive back-story or descriptive scenes
  • Showing vs telling
  • Any other area where you feel your skills are not as strong as they could be

When you list a want ad for a critique partner, offer your own skills honestly. If you’re not a grammar maven, that’s okay – just don’t say you are. If you’re a danged good researcher, offer fact-checking as one of your strengths. Whatever your skill level, you want to team up with someone who needs your skills and who offers what you need. And make sure it’s someone who wants as much work done as you do: if one of you is doing significantly more work, chances are that person will soon be feeling a little resentful.

The most important thing about critiquing is to be kind. Be honest – no need to tell a lie – but couch your criticisms in kind words. You are offering an opinion on a manuscript that someone else has taken months or years to create. Say anything that needs to be said, but don’t say it in a way you wouldn’t want to hear applied to your own work.

The second most importing thing is to be constructive. “I didn’t like Chapter 3” is not a critique. “I felt like the plot moved slowly in Chapter 3” is better; “In Chapter 3, my attention wandered due to the amount of back-story” is even better. Be precise, give a specific idea of what’s amiss, and be sure to add praise when the story exceeds your expectations. If Chapter 3 is slow, but Chapter 4 is perfectly paced, be sure to mention Chapter 4 in your critique of Chapter 3.

But remember, the critique you’re giving is only your opinion: your partner has absolutely no obligation to accept it. And vice-versa. Your work is your own: no matter what critique you receive, it’s up to you to adjust or not. But it’s important not to argue with your partners – after all, they’ve gone to some trouble to give you their best advice. For free. Thank them, if for nothing more than their time and good will.

So, how does one find a critique partner? If you belong to a writers’ group or association like Romance Writers of America or The Historical Novel Society, you may find it a ready-made source of interest. If not, there are many services listed if you Google “writing critique partners”. Twitter also offers connections, as will Yahoo Groups, though you may have to join the groups first. In short, critique partners are easy enough to find – and your work will be much better for their input.

Did you use a critique partner service? Would you recommend it to other writers? Tell us about your own experiences.

Coming next: Beta Readers …

What If You Get a Call to Revise & Resubmit?

#amediting #revise #resubmit

If you’ve noticed that the blog has been quiet for the past few weeks, it’s because I got a request from a publisher to “revise and resubmit”.

You might think publishing houses accept a manuscript “as is”, but reality teaches us differently. Almost everyone is asked for some revisions to their manuscripts, whether it’s to fall in with a publishers’ or agents’ guidelines; to better fit the expected length of the genre; or because the agent or editor finds something that keeps them from loving the story wholeheartedly.

Editing

In my case, LET THE CANYONS WEEP falls into the last category: the publisher’s editor likes most of the elements of the story as well as my writing style. But there’s something that’s standing in the way of her loving it wholeheartedly; she suggested I revise it and resubmit the edited story for review.

So, where would you go from here?

First, recognize that a revise/resubmit request does not guarantee that your edited manuscript will be accepted for publication. It’s a risk you’re taking that may or may not pay off. So the amount of work required has to be a factor in your decision. Will it take a day or two? A month? A year? Once you undertake the revision, you are essentially putting your “baby” on hold for that length of time. The reward of possible publication has to be weighed against the time you’ll spend revising.

Second, the feedback you get needs to be specific. “I didn’t like this character” is not enough information to base a revision on. What if you eliminate the aspects of the character that appealed to her and play up the ones that didn’t? What if you eliminate the character completely and it changes the story in a way the editor doesn’t like? You’ve wasted both your time and theirs.

I worked in Customer Service for a loooooooong time and always told my trainees: The only stupid question is the one you didn’t ask. Ask away – the agent or editor has something specific in mind and it’s your job to make sure you understand it. So ask for details before you set out, and get as much information as you can about the editor’s request.

I was fortunate enough to get really specific feedback: the editor did not like one of the sub-plots and wanted more world-building.

So I had to decide if the changes requested would cause any harm to the story as I envisioned it.  Ironically, I had taken some of the world-building out to cut back on the overall length.  (A first-time author has little chance of placing a book that exceeds the norm of her genre by too much, and mine was over by more than 20,000 words before I cut it back.)  Revising that part was simple; I had saved all the passages I had removed and I just put them back in. Took two days. Well worth the effort.

Second part, not so simple. This particular sub-plot was fairly extensive. Yes, there were a couple of chapters that focused on it and could be taken out completely, but there were also a few details in those chapters that I felt were critical to an overall understanding of the main plot. Not to mention being critical to the flow of the story itself.

So I decided to identify every chapter in which the sub-plot played a major role. I had already created a chapter-by-chapter outline that I based my synopsis on; I took that spreadsheet and highlighted all of the chapters that would need to be re-worked in yellow, and all of the chapters that could be eliminated in orange. End result: over one-third of all my chapters were highlighted.

Huh.

My first reaction was, This is just not possible. My second reaction was, Maybe I could, but it would take months. Or even a year. My third reaction, and the one that really counts, was Let’s look at this more closely.

I pulled up all the individual chapters that had been highlighted in yellow. I found that, far from being intricately woven in, the sub-plot was almost always a separate scene within the chapter.  I was pretty surprised — I had thought of it as an integral part of the story, not separate vignettes. 

I started pulling the chapters and scenes out.

I created a new version of the manuscript, so if I didn’t like the revisions, I would still have my original. This is a step I couldn’t afford to skip. I had no idea what my reaction to the new version would be: what if I hated it? what if I went too far? what if nothing made sense any more? I couldn’t let that original version go.

I also created a new document for every scene I pulled out, and put them in the folder called “Snippets”.  I stored and labeled each scene individually: Daniel proposes, Annie is sick, etc. That way, I could easily go back and put in anything that might still be necessary to the main plot.

So where do I stand now?

I’ve got three more steps to go: I’ve identified the details that are essential to the main plot and I need to find the best places to put them back into the manuscript; then I’ve got to re-read the entire thing making sure that what I’ve done hasn’t interrupted the flow of the story; and last, but most important, I need to send it to the Beta Readers I’ve lined up, and they’ll tell me if they think the revised story works.

Oh.   Wait.   I guess that’s not the last step. Would be nice, after all that work, if I send it back to the editor, too!

BTW: If you’re not sure what a Beta Reader is, stay tuned for a follow-up post.