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.

UPDATE: Part 1 is Done!

It’s been awhile since I talked about where I stand in terms of my manuscripts.  My first completed novel, DONOVAN, is being queried, and the second, THE WOODSMAN’S ROSE, has gone through my edits and is now with my extremely helpful critique partners.  I’m also just finishing up my final edit of the third manuscript, entitled RAINBOW MAN.  It’s not quite ready for the beta readers yet.

But the good GREAT news is with my fourth novel in the Donovan Family Saga.  THE WINDS OF MORNING is actually a “pre-quel”, and tells the story of Molly and John Patrick’s emigration to America just after the Potato Famine of 1847-1851.  It’s told in four parts: their meeting and marriage in Ireland; their trip across the sea to Philadelphia; and their journey first south to Terminus (now Atlanta), then west to Texas.

PART 1 IS DONE!!!

This is a huge accomplishment for me.  I started writing this story about two years ago and I got to a certain point and simply could not decide where to go from there. I knew I had to get the Donovans to America, but I also knew that if I followed them every step of the way, I’d have a 1,000-page book.  That’s where I broke it off and started working on revising and re-editing the first two books (which at that time were one book, but that’s another story!)

The problem wasn’t writer’s block, per se.  I was fully capable of writing new scenes in the other 3 books, and even some scenes for the book after this one, as well as the book that will, someday, close the series out.  I even wrote a couple of scenes that will appear later in THE WINDS OF MORNING.  In short, I just suffered from a lack of direction for this particular situation.

I finally solved it by a stroke of luck.  I was reading another historical family saga and the author simply skipped over a few years.  That’s right, just skipped them.  The first part was labeled 1697, the second part 1705.  As soon as I saw that second date, I had my answer.  I could simply skip over the years when nothing (or almost nothing) changes in Molly and John Patrick’s lives.

My conclusion?  Those who say the best way to write better is to read more are absolutely right!  If I hadn’t been reading another author’s novel, I could have been stuck for even longer.

How about you?  Did another writer’s work ever influence your work-in-progress?  ever give you an idea that you had searched high and low for?  ever pulled you out of the blue funk of not knowing what to do next?  I’d love to know I’m not alone in this, so feel free to share your stories with me …

Anachronism in Historical Fiction

No matter how careful a writer is, or how much research s/he does, there’s always the possibility of anachronism showing up in historical fiction.

What’s an anachronism? It something that doesn’t fit into the time period you’re writing about. King Tut would not have worn a Stetson, nor could Marie Antoinette have worn nylon stockings. Of course not, you say, that would be ridiculous!

stetson

And yet there’s always something, it seems, that manages to slip through the cracks. I recently read a novel about Scottish characters who emigrate to America at the turn of the 20th century, pretty close to the Old West period that I write about. The book was good: the story well-told, the characters appealing, and there was just enough tension and conflict to hold my interest throughout.

Sounds like a great read, right? But the thing that I remember more than anything else is a breakfast scene. The young woman makes oatmeal for herself and her brother by putting the raw cereal into bowls and pouring hot water over it. Two minutes later, they sit down to eat.

Instant oatmeal? In 19th century Scotland? What made it worse was that the author had obviously done some research into the cookery of the time, and had explained how to make bannock (a quick bread), as well as colcannon (a traditional stew of potatoes, cabbage, leeks and cream), and the never-to-be-forgotten haggis. But the fact that even the finest steel-cut oats will take 15 to 20 minutes to cook over an open flame had somehow escaped her attention.

Some other examples:

In a book set in 15th century Italy, a character says, “You need to loosen up”. That’s a distinctly modern saying.

In a novel set in 19th century Ireland, the main female character is named Shannon. At that time Catholic girls were always named after saints; Anglican girls were named after their ancestors, or queens, Biblical women, and Roman empresses. Neither a Catholic nor an Anglican girl would have been named for a river.

So how do you avoid anachronisms in your manuscript? First research, then research, then research some more. And then find someone who’s as familiar with the era as you’ve become, and ask them to read your book before it goes out into the world to stand on its own. Chances are good that you’ll catch most of the major gaffs.

And the more meticulous and detailed your research is, the better the odds are that you’ll avoid the minor ones as well.

Tuesday Trivia #10: The Origins of “OK”

As I was editing my manuscripts, I noticed that I occasionally used the word Okay, or its abbreviation OK. There’s nothing that peeves me more than an anachronism in historical fiction, so I decided to see if I could trace the origins of the word.

Easier said than done! I did find out that OK has been in common usage in the US since the 1830s (meaning I was safe to use it in the context of the 1880s). However, the actual formation of “OK” is credited to the French, the Scots, the Greeks, and a railway freight agent, among others. My personal favorite origin story is from the Chocktaw Indian language, where “okeh” means “it is so”.

However it came about, OK’s popularity certainly rose when Martin van Buren ran for re-election in 1840; his nickname was “Old Kinderhook”, and his supporters formed the “OK Club” during his Presidential campaign.

While it was not enough to win van Buren the election, OK’s popularity has not waned at all since that time.

Bad News, Good News (2)

I got another personalized rejection in response to a query letter recently. If you remember, the first agent liked the characters and plot of LET THE CANYONS WEEP, but she felt my writing was too brusque. I’ve taken steps to correct that.

The new agent likes my writing and the plot, but rejected it because she did not “connect with the characters” within the first few chapters. And that, to me, is a much more critical problem.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to do. So I shared the results with a good friend, also a writer, who read the first few chapters for me and felt the problem might be too much backstory. The portions of these chapters that told the family history were too long. They interrupted the flow of the story and prevented the characters from becoming the centerpiece of it.

Her recommendation was to remove some of it and “sprinkle” it through the later chapters.

“Sprinkle”. I really like that concept. Like you do for the lawn. If you just put the hose out there on the lawn, a small portion of it will be waterlogged, while the rest suffers drought. But if you set the sprinkler up to reach the entire lawn, all of it will be healthily saturated.

So I am again editing, and this time, I’m sprinkling the family history around. Perhaps the next agent who requests pages will find them irresistible. I live in hope.

Slainte!  And a tip of the Stetson to T. C. B. (You know who you are!)

THE BEST AND THE WORST

I just read the most excellent news!

Early each year, Publishers Weekly does a rundown on the best and worst sellers by genre from the past calendar year, looking specifically at print book sales.

In 2014, most adult categories fell off, including romance, horror, and fantasy (remember, this is strictly print book sales. Ebook sales are not taken into account). In only two adult fiction categories did print sales increase over 2013: graphic novels and … wait for it … Westerns!

By no means are Westerns the most popular category, encompassing less than 2% of print book sales, where Romance (the strongest category other than “General Fiction”) is almost 25%. But it’s still good news: Westerns are gaining print book readers.

Now, my novels are not Westerns, per se. Westerns, like Romance, usually follow a pretty standard outline. Where romance is usually a variation of “boy meets girl, boy marries girl”, Westerns follow more along the lines of “hero cowboy/rancher/lawman saves the day/ranch/girl” (usually killing all the bad guys along the way).

(Yes, I do realize that these themes are boiled down to their simplest elements, and that there are many Romances and Westerns with other themes as well. But, within these genres, the basic themes are almost always there.)

All that being said, why is it good news? Especially if my stories don’t qualify as Westerns? Because for a very long time, the Western has been almost completely overlooked. If not ridiculed. Their rising popularity among readers may foretell a better future for print books set in the Old West, whether or not they qualify as genre Westerns.

And I choose to see that as a very real plus.

Cast of Characters (3)

It’s been awhile since I posted about the Donovan books’ characters, but now let me present:

The Siblings

John Patrick and Molly Donovan had ten offspring, Adam and Brian being the eldest and twins (see Cast of Characters 1).

When her sons were born, Molly had honored the Donovan family tradition of naming the first-born male of the new generation for the first man in the Bible. Then for her pride in her own family, she had named her second son for the greatest High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, from whom her father had claimed descent. A third son followed, and was named Conor, the honor going this time to John Patrick’s mother, Katie O’Conor Donovan.

Katie teased John Patrick and Molly about the names their first three children bore, calling them “my little alphabet”. But when the fourth boy was born, she suggested he be named Daniel. When their first daughter came into the world, John Patrick and Molly christened her Evelyn. The tradition continued: twin boys were born again, and named Frank and Geordie. Then little Henry, who died of influenza when he was two years old. Another daughter, Irene, and finally an eighth son, named John James and called “Jake” to distinguish him from his father.

Conor Donovan was nine months old when the family left Ireland. During the eight-week voyage he learned to stand, and then to walk, with a sailor’s rolling gait. Eventually he went back to the sea, the Captain of his own ship, the M‘Lady. Conor does not often get to visit his home and is sorely missed.

Daniel is essentially “odd man out” in the Donovan family. Neither farmer nor cowboy, he does not work the land he loves, and yet he lives closer to it than any of the others. He wears buckskins of his own making. The local tribe of Navajo have dubbed him The Woodsman for his skill in hunting and tracking.

Daniel is a sensitive, thoughtful man, slow to anger and quick to laugh at himself. His voice is deep and gravelly as the result of a childhood accident, and it is Daniel who is the first to discover Jesse’s tragic secrets.

Evelyn is the image of her mother. Tall, regal, with a generous figure and fiery red hair, Evelyn is Adam’s closest confidante. Willful yet persevering, she is first to volunteer when Adam wants to help Jesse Travers, and her kind-hearted empathy with the younger girl helps pave the way for Jesse’s acceptance of the family’s assistance.

Frank and Geordie, the younger twins, prefer farming to ranching. Like the older twins, they have totally different personalities: Frank with a mind always focused on money and a face and body always in motion; Geordie calm and seemingly detached, seeing much more than his family realizes. But when it comes to looks they are, as Brian puts it, “as like as two ears on a jackrabbit. One’s jus’ a little bit longer and does a sight more twitchin‘, but find ‘em standin’ still and it’ll take some doing’ t’ tell the right ear from the left.”

Irene is sixteen and as tall as Evelyn, worried about becoming taller still. With black hair, ivory skin and deep blue eyes, she is the female version of Adam, as lovely as he is handsome. Still the spoiled baby, not above pouting and sulking to get her way, Irene is also generous, soft-hearted and naïve.

And finally, Jake. At fifteen, his school days are over and he’s struggling with manhood. He apes his brothers, imitating Adam’s hint of brogue or Daniel’s deep southern drawl. He flashes from pillar to post with Frank or relaxes with Geordie, straws sticking from both their mouths as they lounge in the grass. And he follows Brian around like a puppy. Almost as tall as Adam and thin as a rake, with shock of bright red hair and freckled skin, Jake has an innate optimism that’s rarely shaken.

And there you have the Donovan siblings. Good people, hardworking, generous and instilled by their father with the belief that without family, a man has nothing. And without being a good neighbor, a man is nothing. And that’s the philosophy that lays the groundwork for their story.

an Gorta Mor (or The Great Irish Famine, 1845-1852)

Most of the time I find history boring. But every once in awhile, I stumble over something fascinating. And usually, that something makes me cry.

I’d heard quite a bit about the Irish Famine at different places along the way, like in English class in high school when we read Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal (if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend it. It gives an incredible satiric look at the British government’s feelings on “the Irish problem.” The problem, in short, was that there was such a thing as “the Irish”.)

At any rate, the subject cropped up now and again. But it wasn’t until I started writing my Donovan series that I realized how closely related I was to it. My father’s family emigrated from Ireland in the early 20th century, chased out by the British Army (or so the story goes). As I started my research into Irish history, it suddenly hit me: my father’s family must have lived through the famine.

Wow! When you consider that a million Irish citizens perished within that eight-year period, it’s kind of amazing that I exist at all.

So what happened in Ireland in 1847? What caused the famine? The simple answer is “potato blight”, a fungus that causes the tuber (the edible part of the potato) to turn to black stinking mush underground. (Ever had a potato go bad at the bottom of the bin — yeah, that black, stinking mush!) But the stems and leaves of the plant aren’t affected, so no one knew of the damage until harvest time.

The blight hit many countries in Europe. Belgium, Poland, even Western Russia were badly affected. But in those countries, the failure of the potato crop was not catastrophic (unless you count the impact on vodka production for a few years). Why? Because those farmers raised other crops as well, and had other sources of food.

In Ireland, the staple crop for tenant farms was the potato. In many cases, it was the only crop they grew to feed their family. There were a slew of social, economic and political factors that caused this, and I won’t enumerate them here, but the upshot was that the potato could meet a peasant’s dietary needs all by itself. It was easy to grow, easy to harvest, easy to prepare and tasty. So it was grown almost exclusively and became the diet for hundreds of thousands of people.

“But Ireland is an island, surrounded by water. Why didn’t they just eat fish?“ I can’t count the times I’ve heard that question, and sometimes from people who think they’re being funny.

But the fact of the matter was that the fishing industry was controlled by the English, as were the livestock industry, the grain industry, and the flax and wool industries. And the English weren’t about to give up their rich diets and fancy clothing just to save a few Irish peasants. (After all, they are a problem, aren’t they?)

During the famine, some scholars estimate at least thirty shiploads of food were exported to England per day. That’s right, per day. During a former potato crop failure in 1782-1783, Irish ports were closed to exports, despite the objections of merchants to falling prices. By the time of the Great Famine, up to 75% of Irish soil raised crops or animals for export. This time, Queen Victoria and the Parliament took no action to close the ports.

Ireland raised enough food to feed its people, but exports were the money makers and the overlords simply refused to sell their crops in Ireland.

Not everyone was completely blind to the disaster. The Society of Friends ran soup kitchens, and American corn farmers sent their grain free of charge to Ireland. The Choctaw Nation of Native Americans donated to the cause, remembering their own history of starvation on The Trail of Tears just years before. Most of the cash contributions, however, were made through the British Government, and we all know what “administrative fees” can do to charity.

On top of all of that, the British overlords began a systematic eviction of tenant farmers from their land. In History of Ireland, John Gibney tells us that, in 1847 alone, one family named Mahon evicted 3,000 tenants, but still dined on lobster soup.

And the Mahons were by no means alone. Thousands of peasants’ houses, cabins and shacks were razed. Hundreds of thousands throughout the Isle were dispossessed, and they trudged in weary lines to the port cities, hoping to find passage to America. With no food and little to no money, inestimable thousands died along the way and were buried in mass graves.

In the annals of history, it seems to me that this entirely preventable tragedy stands in a class of its own. So it makes me wonder why, among so many deaths, my family survived.

Perhaps so that the story gets told once more.

Cast of Characters (1)

The cast of characters for these family novels is fairly large, so I’ll begin with the main characters in LET THE CANYONS WEEP.

ADAM DONOVAN. This 32-year-old bachelor is considered by his family to be a cowboy with a poet’s soul. He’s tall, dark and (yes) handsome (what Irishman isn’t?), and has a quick hand with a gun. He’s always thought of his life as complete — he enjoys the cowboy’s role and doesn’t really look beyond the family for his happiness. He’s not a shallow man, though, understanding almost all there is to know about grief and sorrow. His family depends on him to help them with their troubles. He’s never seen a problem he couldn’t solve, until he meets Jesse Travers.

BRIAN DONOVAN. Adam’s fraternal twin, and a red-haired giant of a man. His patience is the envy of his twin, and his calm acceptance of what life gives him makes him much admired by his family. When he sees that Adam has fallen in love with Jesse, he works to bring them together, though he is deeply in love with her himself. He knows that it is Adam’s strength and understanding that Jesse needs if she is ever to recover from her horrific past.

JESSE TRAVERS. At nineteen years old, Jesse is no bigger than she was at twelve. When her father dies after hearing of his only son’s death, Jesse is left alone in a remote canyon. The ranch she inherits is bankrupt, or so she thinks. Abused by her brother for years, she is reluctant to accept help from the Donovans. It is only Adam’s persistence, and Brian’s kindhearted scheming, that convinces her otherwise. But her brother’s treachery has gone deeper than even Jesse knows, and when all the facts come to light, Jesse is in danger of losing her mind.

I’ll be presenting more of the characters in future posts, including Adam’s parents, John Patrick and Molly Donovan, and Jesse’s friend, a Navajo blacksmith named Tommy Twelve Trees.