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Is there such a thing as over-editing? June 9, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Novel, On Writing, Study.
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The last week or so I had been desperately trying to get my manuscript into shape (or at least the part of it that I had to prepare for submission).

I had already touched on how difficult it is to edit your own work in a previous post, but what I have realised lately is that there comes a time when you just don’t know whether further editing is beneficial or detrimental to your work anymore!

Of course, I’m not talking about copyediting — what I am referring to is more substantial edits and rewrites.

My supervisor had given me a number of high level suggestions to improve my work, which required a lot of thought, a bit of deletion and more addition.  So I went ahead and tried to implement the suggestions while also attempting to fix the narrative on a sentence by sentence level.  Of course, I was reading everything out (a huge help), though it did give me a sore throat by the end of the day.

Anyway, it got to a point where I had done perhaps 5, 8 or even 10 drafts of individual chapters, and to be honest I couldn’t tell if the newer versions were any better than the older ones.  I was afraid I had deleted quality stuff and added stuff that didn’t improve the story.  Just how do you know, when everything starts to look the same and all versions start blurring into one?

It was something I discussed in class the other day, and as it turned out, fear of over-editing was a common occurrence, even for experienced writers.  The recommendation was to put the work aside to sit for a while, go do something else, take your mind off it, and when you’re ready, come back to it and read it again with fresher eyes.  And if you are game, showing the different versions to friends for comment would also be very helpful.

The most important thing to remember, of course, is to keep track of all your different versions and don’t save or write over them so if an older version is indeed better or there are deletions you want to reinsert you’ll have access to them.

Becoming a ruthless killer…of words May 31, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study.
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It’s getting down to the business end of things.  The due date for my novel project is just around the corner and I have buckled down for the home stretch!

The novel itself will not be complete (the project only requires a certain number of words) but what I submit will have to be high quality, polished stuff.  And so I have essentially stopped drafting new chapters and am solely focused on reshaping and reworking the existing ones.

On top of that, I have to start trimming the words down to a manageable size.  I’m about 10,000 words over what I should have, and it’s going to be brutal.

Yesterday I commenced what I thought was a murderous rampage through my draft manuscript.  I deleted whole chunks, moved others, rephrased and slashed words and sentences here and there.  I thought I was on a roll.  But when I checked the word count at the end of the day, I had only cut a few hundred words!  It may have had something to do with me adding a little too much new material.

The good news is that I can simply cut entire chapters for the submission.  Find the ones that aren’t working yet and just take them right out.  Get back to them later.

The best advice I received from all the  workshopping I’ve done recently is that for comedic writing (which is what I am striving for here), the best way to go about it is to gather a whole bunch of stuff, find out what works and what doesn’t, and just keep the best bits.

For some reason I was under the assumption that brilliant comedic writers struck gold every time — and some of them probably do — but there’s bound to be certain passages that don’t work and some that work better than others.  The key is finding out which ones.  I find reading the writing out loud really helps — in identifying the strengths and weaknesses, separating the interesting from the boring, and assisting with the rhythm and comedic timing of the jokes and punchlines.

Oh well, better get back to it.  Time is running out.

Editors need love too! October 30, 2010

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Last week, we had an award-winning author come speak to our editing class about the relationship between writers and editors.  She’s worked with editors from around the word, but she has also been on the other side, for she once worked as an editor for a collection of short stories.

It was fascinating to find out just how closely some authors worked with their editors, and how little credit editors seem to get despite how much they put into the published product.

First-time authors like to think that once their manuscript is accepted by a publisher, there is nothing left to do except wait for the advance and royalties to roll in.  But of course, there will probably have to be rewrites and rewrites and rewrites, even when the author is probably exhausted and never wants to touch the manuscipt again after working on it for god knows how many years.

One of the first times that the publisher does is to get an editor to review the manuscript and write a structural report to the author with a list of high level suggestions on how to improve the manuscript.  So not typos or grammar — these are crucial or fundamental things the author has to go back and try and fix or improve, things that may take weeks or even months.  Like point of view, voice, structure, character, dialogue, the beginning, the end — things that could change everything!

Anyway, this author that came to speak to us raised some interesting issues.  She said that authors (especially first-timers) are usually hyper-sensitive about their manuscripts because they are anxious about whether it works and whether it will sell, so any criticism can depress them and reinforce their anxieties.  Accordingly, mass overreactions are not uncommon.

But on the other hand, authors need editors to make them feel comfortable, to tell them what works and what doesn’t work in the manuscript in the nicest, most soothing way possible.  It needs to be a relationship of trust, not power.  Therefore, the structural letter always starts off with praise.  The constructive criticism will come eventually, but first the author needs to feel good about him or herself.

The author told us about a devastating structural letter she received once from an overseas editor that she has never gotten over.  I won’t repeat what was said but it was enough to kill any writer’s confidence, even one that has received critical acclaim and won literary awards.

Okay, so I understand the author’s ego is fragile, and some editors can be dicks.  And yes, the author does write the book.  But don’t editors deserve more credit for helping authors get there?  How many books have gone from flop to international success because of suggestions an editor made?  Don’t they deserve more than just a regular paycheck and a thanks in the acknowledgments section?

Manuscript Assessment is a Rort! October 19, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Novel, On Writing, Study.
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Source: NYmag.com

Hold up.  Let me make myself clear.  I think the concept of manuscript assessment is a terrific thing.

For those who don’t know what it is, it’s a service whereby a writer (or potentially, a publisher or a literary agent) submits a manuscript to an assessor, who reads it and writes an appraisal report for a fee.  The report will tell the author what is good and what is bad about the manuscript, and maybe provide some tips for improving it – but the most important thing is that it tells the author whether the manuscript is likely to generate interest from a potential publisher.

There’s nothing wrong with a writer wanting to know how they are progressing with their writing.  After all, many first time writers have little idea whether their writing is good enough to be published, and want to know what they have to do to make it happen.

So why is it a rort?

Well, this week we had a session with a manuscript assessor.  The guy works for an agency that specialises in manuscript assessment, but there are also some freelancers out there.  Guess how much he makes for one manuscript?

Think about it.  He has to read the entire manuscript from start to finish.  It could be 500 pages, or longer (first novels are usually doorstoppers).   He has to write a report on it.  And it’s got to be comprehensive, considered, and most of all, helpful to the person that paid for it.  How long do you think that would take you?  How much do you think you should be paid for it?

$200-$300.  Australian dollars.  Per manuscript.  That’s how much the market rate is.

This guy is now a bit of an old pro with the process, and it still takes him a couple of full days per manuscript. He says any longer than that and you’re just wasting your time.

For $200 a manuscript, even if it only takes you two days, is still a waste of time in my opinion. You’d make more working at McDonald’s!

Don’t do it for money, the guy said.   Do it because you enjoy it, you want to help people, and so you can improve your own writing and critical thinking.

That may be so, but when it takes up so much time, it’s not something you can do on the side or for a hobby.

How can you, as the great George Dubya Bush once said, “put food on your family”?

As for the author, they are forking out anything between $400 to $1000 (to the agency) for someone to read and assess their manuscript.  Is that worth it?  I don’t know, but the guy told us that around 95% of the manuscripts he assesses are pretty hopeless and don’t stand a chance of being published.  Do they really need to pay someone hundreds of dollars just to be told that?  Wouldn’t it be better spending that money on a writer’s course to improve their skills, or heck, even self-publish the manuscript?

This is not to put down anyone who has sought that path.  Finishing a manuscript in the first place is a fantastic achievement.  And wanting to get it published is every writer’s ambition.  My issue is with the money — the amount that the manuscript assessor gets paid for the time put in, and the amount that the author has to fork out for what he gets in return.  One doesn’t get paid enough, and the other potentially pays too much.  There’s no easy way to reconcile this.

One way is for assessors to not go through an agency and work as a freelancer, though, as we were told, sticking with an agency that takes 50% of the money might actually be better.  It avoids all the messy stuff that comes with dealing with an inexperienced author, who may bug you constantly and ask for additional ‘chats’, and worse still, want to meet up and become friends.  And of course, advertising costs a lot of money.

At the end of the day, it is what it is.  Maybe I shouldn’t be complaining.  There are people out there willing to spend time assessing manuscripts for a pittance, and there are also people out there willing to spend money for their manuscripts to be assessed.  Supply and demand.  As long as both sides get what they are looking for and don’t mind the money (received and paid), what’s the big deal?

Lessons in Editing: Writing a Novel is Hard Work! October 17, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Novel, On Writing, Study.
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My editing class is getting down to the business end of things.  We’re no longer looking for typos and grammatical mistakes.  It’s time to take an entire manuscript and assess it as a whole.  What is good about it?  What doesn’t work?  And most importantly, how do you make it work?

I must admit, I’m not the hardest person to please when it comes to novels, but it is rare for me to think of something as truly magnificent.  It really annoys me how some members of my class act like every bit of writing we are given in class to edit is a piece of crap.  It’s as though in expressing their horror at someone else’s writing ability they are somehow elevating their own.

“This is just atrocious.  A good writer would be able to make this work.”

“Oh, it just irritates me how trash like this can get published!”

“What are these writers thinking when they submit garbage like this?”

And so on and so forth.

The stuff we edit in class is obviously not perfect — otherwise what’s the point of using them as editing exercises?  On the other hand, they are not that bad.  A lot of the writers have genuine talent and ability — but it is what it is — an unpolished draft that needs some work.  One of the pieces that was trashed in class (which I thought was pretty good) was actually written by quite an established writer.

We’re reading a full-length manuscript at the moment so we can assess it as a whole.  It’s not my piece of cake but there are some good things about it.  I’m sure some of my classmates will come with their teeth sharpened and ready to tear into it.

Which finally brings me to the point I’ve been trying to make — writing a novel is really really hard work.

I once thought it was virtually impossible to get something published these days, especially for a previously unpublished writer.  But that’s not the case.  If you write something good enough to be published, then chances are, it eventually will be, provided you are persistent and work at it.  The hard part is coming up with something good enough to be published.

Simply put, the majority of the stuff that is being submitted to publishers is not up to par.  A lot of people submit manuscripts they think are good, and could be, but aren’t.

But the question is, are you willing to take suggestions on board?  Are you willing to go back and tear the manuscript apart, re-write massive chunks, kill off characters and change the voice?  It can be quite demoralising, especially if you’ve just spent years on what you thought was perfect masterpiece, only to be told that it’s far from it.  The problem does not lie with the talent of writers out there — it’s more about having an idea of what is good enough to be published, and having the strength and determination to keep going until your manuscript gets there.

These thoughts remind me of my own stagnant manuscript, which I hope I will be able to get back to soon with some renewed enthusiasm.  It’s still only a first draft, but I can already see some the things I’ll need to go back to and fix.

There are so many aspects to a novel and all the pieces have to be aligned in order to make it work.

Does every character need to be there?  Do they all serve a purpose?  Can certain characters be combined or discarded?  Do all the central characters have a personal journey, a story arc to go through?

What about the dialogue?  Does every piece of dialogue contribute to the progression of the story or character development?  Do characters speak the right way?  Can you differentiate characters from the way they talk?  Do the things they say match their personalities?  Is the dialogue truthful to the characters?  How about dialogue attribution?  Are there too many unnecessary adverbs?

What about tone, voice, point of view?  Structure?  Pace?  Logic?  Plot holes?

It gives me a headache just thinking about it all, but each and one of these things is crucial if you’re serious about getting your first manuscript published.  Do you have what it takes?  I’m still hoping I do.

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