Just When I Thought I Was Done…

Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time!           –C.K. Webb


English: Manuscript fragment from Chapter 14 o...

Editing (manuscript fragment from chapter 14 of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man/photo credit: Wikipedia)


You guessed it. In the midst of querying, when I’m supposed to be done editing, I’m still editing. As a friend once told me (and I’ve heard it echoed by numerous other writers), you will always find something you want to fix with your manuscript.

I thought I was done; truly, I did. After all, I put my novel through a lot. Before I let anyone lay eyes on it, I edited out the embarrassing first draft kind of garbage that no one needs to see. Then I distributed it to beta readers. The feedback was incredible, allowing me to make more much-needed changes.

Amidst these changes, I signed up for a workshop with a team of literary agents, in which I had the opportunity to really work on the first 10 pages. After all, the first 10 pages may be all anyone ever sees if they don’t compel people to keep reading.

So I got my criticism, swallowed it even though it tasted bad, and I changed my book some more. One comment was that my manuscript was much too long, so I cut over 30,000 words. With a new ending and lots of proofreading under my belt, I figured I should quit procrastinating and start querying.

Nowadays, the majority of literary agents ask for a sample of the manuscript. The most common request I’ve seen is for the first 10 pages, although the odd agent wants 20 or the first three chapters. (Some even ask for the entire manuscript, bless their hearts.) The theme seems to be that they want to see a significant enough chunk to get a good feel for how the rest of the book will (or won’t) flow.

I was a little stumped when I found an agent who only asked for the first chapter. After I cut and pasted that one lonely chapter into my e-mail query, I realized that it wasn’t an adequate representation of my story. Without the next few pages to go with it, the pacing was too slow, and it ended in a bad place. I had edited it down from a much longer first chapter. Also, when I was concentrating on 10 pages, I didn’t pay much attention to how the first chapter ended because the first 10 pages went well into chapter two. I should have made sure that chapter one had an enticing ending. You know what the last word of that chapter was? “Okay.” Which is not okay, unless you’re John Green.

Thus began revision number four.

A couple years ago, while querying a different novel, I decided that I would make absolutely no changes (unless I found a typo) on my manuscript during the querying phase. I sent out 10 at a time, and it wasn’t until after each round of rejections that I looked over my query letter and manuscript for ways to improve.

This time, I’m making corrections as I go. Never have I made so many changes from one query to the next. If an agent happens to like the version of my book with an anticlimactic ending to the first chapter, I have that version saved. But I’m not going with the status quo anymore. I will not sit around and say, “Oh, it can wait.” It could be that the agent who’s right for me is the next one I query, and if that’s the case, I don’t want to send a chunk of my book that I know I can improve.

Painful? Yes. And I love editing. But it’s hard to think, I’ve done all I can do, only to look back and see that you didn’t.

This likely means more drastic cuts for my book. I’ve already come to the realization that I may have to trim it by another 10,000 words-plus in order for anyone to even give it a serious look. Do I think the word count alone should be the deciding factor over whether my manuscript it rejected or accepted? Absolutely not. (And I’ve climbed on that soapbox before.) But I also think that it would be a mistake to grow complacent.

So it’s time to continue cutting, revising, and searching. The right agent is out there, I know it. It will just take a more vigilant search than last time, and I have to be willing to do my part to earn a contract.


biltmore garden peace rose

Biltmore Garden Peace Rose (Photo credit: zen)

For the first time in our married lives, Thomas and I have a house, and we love it. I could write a blog just about all benefits of living in a house versus living in a condo, one of the biggest being that my kids now have a fenced yard where they can play in safety. But with that yard comes one drawback: yard work. Of course, Thomas says that’s why we have two boys, but since one of them still tries to cram dirt into his mouth every time he goes outside, it’ll be a while before we can turn that duty over to them.

My least favorite part about lawn upkeep is weeding. I did enough of that as a teenager to make me swear off the practice for the rest of my life. If ever I had a house, I promised myself that a yard man would be included in the budget. As I often do, I spoke too soon. And it seems that our lawn, more than any other, is mostly composed of weeds. My husband set aside an afternoon for working in the yard last week and said he filled two of those big, black garbage bags with weeds, and when he surveyed his handiwork, he didn’t know if anyone else would be able to tell he’d done anything. Part of me thinks, Just mow it. Mow those suckers down, and get it over with. This, however, is only a temporary solution. The roots are all still there, and they’ll pop up again in no time.

As I struggled with one of those nasty weeds—you know, the kind you have to dig down about seven feet to really get—it struck me that I actually weed all the time. It’s something I’ve been doing for years. I’m an editor.

This weekend I’m finishing weeding my own book. It’s almost ready for the presses! Ha. I know if I’m lucky enough to find an agent, the next step will be another thorough edit. It doesn’t matter how well I think I’ve done, there will always be something that can be tweaked just a little bit. I know the yard analogy isn’t one hundred percent accurate, but think about it this way: how many people plant a garden, stand back, and never lift a finger again? Same thing goes for writing. If someone had been foolish enough to publish my book after I finished the first draft, not only would my publishing career have died right there, but the book would have looked like a kindergartner’s half-tended bean sprout with a compost heap in the middle of it, not the Biltmore gardens. (Not saying that it’s reached Biltmore quality yet, either, but it’s a heck of a lot closer.)

And just as there are people who love to get outside and dig their fingers into the dirt, stir up earthworms, and toil the day away, there are those like me who would rather pay someone else to do it. I can say that I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride when the job is done, but I am also not brave enough to start a flower garden or do anything artistic, for that matter. We have grass. End of story.

With writing, however, I do like to get my hands dirty. I don’t mind mentally sweating. I love the initial outpouring of the story, too, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing like having a brainwave, sitting down, and getting it on paper. But it’s a different kind of fun to go back through it, pruning and weeding and clipping a choice blossom to display in a prominent place, where others can see my accomplishments. Some people hate this part. They would rather mow. This scene isn’t working? Just get rid of it. But in the process, while many problems might be solved by such a drastic approach, some of the good stuff is lost, some really small but glaring mistakes are left to grow up between the cracks, and it’s obvious that the writer hasn’t learned much. The only growth is of the wrong kind: overused artistic license, misplaced apostrophes, passive voice popping up at the worst possible times.

Editing isn’t glamorous, whether you’re an editor by trade or just revising your own work. While authors often thank their editors, the readers don’t know who these people are. They’re largely invisible, but if they do their job right, the work is invisible, too. Or, I suppose a better way to say it is that their work is seamless. A badly edited piece is, on the other hand, painfully conspicuous. I’ve read many wonderful books that were full of some of the worst typos I’ve ever seen. Typos that would not be forgiven if I were to submit a manuscript in such a state. And these are big-name authors with bestselling books. I would be embarrassed to work for those publishing houses that put out books like that. (In fact, I’ve often thought, Note to self, don’t ever go with that publisher.)

Take the time to edit. Take the time to learn the rules before you submit, and then go back and make sure you followed them. Or, if you don’t have the time or really need help polishing your writing, we editors are waiting for you to call on us. Your name will still be on the cover of the book, and it really is your garden, anyway. We’ll just make sure that when others stop by to admire it, there aren’t any weeds choking your roses.

And the Award for “Most Improved” Goes To. . .

Writer Wordart

Writer Wordart (Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea, Anne and her best friend Diana are getting ready to host an esteemed author for the afternoon, and among other worries, Diana frets about embarrassing herself by forgetting good grammar and saying “I seen.”

I recently rediscovered some of my own “I seen” moments in my own writing. While transferring all of my documents from my eight-and-a-half-year-old PC to my MacBook, I found some files that have been following me around from computer to computer since my early teens.

One story has been kicking around since I was thirteen, and although I haven’t worked on it since I was a junior in college, I still think about it from time to time. (If you read last week’s blog, it’s one of my infamous books that I wish someone else would finish writing for me.) When I was fourteen or fifteen, my computer corrupted this story’s original file. Thank goodness I’d printed some of it, but even that was only about a tenth of what I’d written and an old version, to boot. Naturally, I became depressed about not being able to replicate all that I lost. Not that any of it was great, as I rediscovered when I re-read some of it. Granted, the awfulness I am about to shame myself with is from the story’s outline, not the narrative itself. But still, I wrote it. Ready? In the second point of my outline, a character “has a car accident that strikes her in more ways than one.” I am pretty sure that I thought I was being clever with this terrible pun-slash-cliche. The only thing I can say in my favor is that I wrote it in high school, but I wish that I knew better back then.

The story itself is better, at least. I’ve always been a good speller and proofreader, and my real talent is dialogue (although dialogue tags are another matter). But there is too much exposition, too much telling bogging down the narrative. I was worried about readers seeing hairstyles and sweaters and kitchens exactly as I saw them–a common mistake for new writers. And it really did take until college for me to understand that cliches are no-nos. Here’s another little gem (from the story this time) that I can’t believe I wrote: “The world is everyone’s backyard.” Ugh. No wonder I gave up and went on to other stories.

When I took my first fiction workshop in 2002, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. Naive enough to assume that I was one of the few unpublished future bestsellers just waiting to be discovered, I was knocked off my self-constructed pedestal when my first story was critiqued. I thought it was unique. Well, it was definitely different. No one really understood it, and the piece that I thought would be published in some well-known literary rag and set me down the road to stardom soon went into my own personal slush pile. I worked with it some, but once I began to see the flaws, I realized there were more problems than acceptable prose.

I was disheartened to discover that, while I was an excellent editor, my writing skills weren’t nearly as honed or appreciated. I continued to write but with more realistic expectations. The key is that I did not give up, and I published a couple stories. One of them, “Stranded,” made it into the University of North Florida curriculum for some literature classes, and I visited a couple of those classes to talk to students. I always liked that story, had fun with the ending because it doesn’t resolve in a gift-wrapped package, complete with little bow. But I always had this nagging feeling that something needed to change, that it could be better. I even thought it might have to do with the pacing, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem. And since it was already in print, there was nothing I could do about it anyway, right?

I moved on again, devouring adolescent lit in every spare second, and that’s when I discovered my true voice and style as a writer. I started and finished my first novel, then had it workshopped and critiqued by a room full of writers. It was rough, very rough (even though I’d already revised it once), but with those critiques, I started making changes that improved the manuscript. I read more novels, more advice from writers, and I kept working. I received rejection after rejection from literary agents, which made me second- and triple-guess every element in my book. Often I despaired and gave myself ultimatums: If I’m not published by such-and-such a time, I’ll just save the money and self-publish it, so I can at least show my family what I’ve been doing all these years. I could have done that at any time, but while I might have had the joy of seeing it in print, I would not have made some of the changes that have finally brought the book to life. Recently, I asked some of my original readers from years ago to read a little of my book in its current revision. The story that had a good start eight-plus years ago but still had so far to go was met with unanimous enthusiasm, encouragement, and praise, not to mention some incredulity that I have yet to find a publisher.

As for “Stranded,” which I liked but never quite felt was finished, there’s this new thing you might have heard of called e-publishing, and it’s awesome. It puts not only publishing but even formatting into the authors’ hands. Of course, it also means that there are more people than ever who are able to publish absolute crap, but the readers are ultimately the ones who decide which writers make it or not. Through the eBook distributor Smashwords, I finally reprinted “Stranded” with the changes that I wanted (but didn’t know how) to make years ago.

I’ll never stop learning. Every time I read a book that gives me the best advice I think I’ve ever read, along comes another one that delivers new revelations. I love the challenge of topping my personal best, of moving ever forward. Maybe one day I’ll pass the level of “most improved” to “most read.” (A girl can dream, right?) Until then, I’ll make sure I don’t revert to my personal “I seen” moments.