Letter From the Editor

My…uh…legions of followers know that I was waiting for the editor to comment on the manuscript of my novel Beautiful. This happy event occurred the beginning of February. I’ve devoted my time since then to rewriting my novel. I won’t lie: this has been a lot of work.

I can laugh now, but when I first received the comments, I remembered how I felt as a freshman at Oberlin College. I thought I was a good writer in high school, but my first few English papers at Oberlin were dripping with red ink. Huh? I’d taken care to liberally sprinkle passive voice and big words so that everyone would know I was educated…and college professors hated it. Over time I learned to write. But now, as an adult, I at first felt as though I were starting over.

In a way, I suppose, I am starting fresh. There’s a gulf between getting an A on an English paper and writing a novel that is worthy of being published and read. I read somewhere about the difference between an amateur writer and a writing professional. It’s more than saying “the latter gets paid,” because most writers can’t support themselves through their art. The difference between an amateur and a professional is in how the writer reacts to (intelligent) criticism. The professional wants to improve their craft, and if that means cutting some prose that they liked, or letting go of some plot device that they felt was “important,” so be it.

My editor, Julia, gave me an eight-page editorial memo and a marked-up version of the manuscript with many hundreds of margin notes. I opened a new version of the novel side-by-side with the margin comments in Microsoft Word. Then, I addressed each comment.

Her comments fell into two large categories: 95% of her comments I agreed with; the rest were honestly things that I hadn’t explained well enough. In other words, there were a few places where she concluded something different from what I’d intended, but I could see that if I had painted a clearer picture, there would have been no confusion. I didn’t see any of her comments as the “sorry, editor, but you’re just wrong” variety.

I cut a chapter that I deemed unfixable and half of another chapter that didn’t move the story along (even though I liked it). I completely rewrote the entire first chapter, and I rewrote much of the manuscript. Beautiful is now almost 3,000 words leaner, but it’s tighter, better, faster-paced, and much-improved.

Oh, and for fans of my original title The Chokecherry Tree, I can say only that Julia, with her vast experience in publishing, recommended that I keep the title as Beautiful. She gave me several good reasons why: It fits the major theme of the story – what is beauty? It highlights the juxtaposition of seeing someone with scars as beautiful and may resonate with readers who are trying to see beauty in ways that aren’t usually considered as such. It’s a good, strong, one-word title. The main issue with referencing the chokecherry tree in the title is that it was a negative reference in the story; Cara disparages the idea that a scar that supposedly resembles a chokecherry tree could be beautiful or powerful.

What next? Julia and I have a phone conference coming up. We’ll see what happens after that. It seems to me that the rewrite was so comprehensive that the manuscript would need another edit.

Fight Like a Girl

I was “doing research” for my novel and somehow found myself on a Facebook group called The Geek Strikes Back (don’t laugh!), and I found this:

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“Yes!” I yelled. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about!” In the world of Young Adult literature, with rare exceptions, it doesn’t seem to matter how well the teen girl main character can kick butt, she still spends way too much time wondering if the hot boy likes her. I raised three daughters, one of whom is nationally-ranked in TaeKwonDo, but despite what my wife and I tried to teach at home, my daughters soaked up popular culture that taught them that “all girls” should spend way too much time obsessing about the hot boy (who, often, isn’t worth being the object of anyone’s obsession).

I would have liked to show my girls a book with a teen girl main character who is fascinating in her own right, who is trying to figure out her place in the world but is not desperately looking for a boy, and over time she becomes friends with a young man based on mutual interests and based on him being nice and respectful to her. And then, when we get to the part of the novel where the poop hits the fan, he steps up and chooses to put his life and future on the line for her. I’d never seen a book like this back in October 2016 when I decided to write the novel I’d always wanted my girls to read.

As writers know, one very important part of the query letter you send to agents is the “readers who like this novel will like mine” part. I recently found a novel that, in my opinion, gets this relationship between “strong teen girl” and “boy who is respectful and loyal no matter what the risks” exactly right. The book is You Don’t Know My Name by Kristen Orlando. I found it an exciting and enjoyable read that I couldn’t put down. Reagan and Luke have the relationship I described above, despite both of them having the ability to kick most anyone’s ass. There was action, spycraft, dangerous bad guys, quirky and loyal friends, dysfunctional family, romance: everything that makes life fun. I was thrilled when the next book in the series, You Won’t Know I’m Gone, came out a week or so ago. I loved it too! I plan to preorder Kristen Orlando’s next book as soon as it’s available.

I hope my novel is this good! Kristen raised the bar pretty high!

What To Do While I Wait

The editor has had my first manuscript for about a month and a half. I’m not expecting a finished product until early February. What to do while I wait?

I’ve been amusing myself two ways: reading and writing. I read copiously, in and out of my genre. I read novels published through the traditional pathway, and I read self-published novels. I’ve also been doing a little beta reading, though that requires a lot of time to do right. But you have to give some to get some.

Reading is what keeps me excited about writing. I see things that work and, maybe more important, I see things that don’t work. A few weeks ago I read a novel that had been self-published on Amazon. The second chapter was a presentation of a long list of secondary characters and their back stories. I had no idea at that point which of those characters was important to the story. Later in the story, when the author would refer to one or another of them by name, I had to go back and remind myself which character that was. I also noticed a paragraph that appeared, word for word, twice in the same chapter. This experience reinforced to me the importance of hiring an experienced editor, whether the intent is to publish traditionally or self-publish.

I’m trying to control the only two things I can: my actions and my attitude. As of today, I’m a bit over 12,000 words into my next novel, yet unnamed, which is a continuation of the story from my first novel Beautiful (or whatever I end up calling it). Also, I’ve written down some thoughts for a short story or novella that is unrelated to my current project. Regarding my attitude…well, like many writers, I oscillate between excitement and despair. Some days I see myself so clearly as a financially-successful writer, other days I think my work is average at best. I’ve read that the best thing for a writer to do is to write something every day; I’ve been pretty good about that. Writing every day seems, for me at least, to modulate the low days. The more you practice something, the better you feel about it.

Getting Professional Help

In my previous post, I intimated that I was considering getting professional help. Then I clarified, for those who know me, that I was referring to professional help for my novel: an editor, not a psychiatrist! Ah, this business of finding an editor is fraught with uncertainty! I’ve learned that much as with music teachers and martial arts instructors, one can call oneself an editor without having any specific training or certification. A quick Google search reveals thousands of self-styled editors who would be happy to take a look at my novel in exchange for a pile of cash. Editing isn’t cheap!

On the other hand, I believe in my idea. I believe that inside the words I wrote, there is an excellent novel. I feel as though I’ve chipped away all the superfluous stone I can find, I feel that I’m close to seeing the angel inside the rock, but at this point, I need an experienced sculptor to help me.

I researched potential editors on the internet. Not everything one reads on the internet is true, but it’s a reasonable place to start. The first thing that became apparent to me was that not only are there a multitude of editors out there, but there are several different types of editing that an author might require. Significant structural anomalies such as problems with plot, dialogue, point of view or believability issues need a developmental edit. Once that’s completed or deemed unnecessary in the case of a very talented and experienced author, there is stylistic or line editing. When there are no further significant changes in the text, copy editing fixes the grammar and punctuation. Proofreading is the final pass over the work after the page proofs are complete. In traditional publishing, copy editing and proofreading are the responsibility of the publishing house; in the self-publishing world, the author needs to find her copy editor/proofreader. I learned that copy editing requires different training than developmental editing.

To improve the signal-to-noise ratio in my search for an editor, I determined to disregard those who are primarily authors or whatever, but who “will also provide editing services.” I looked for websites that are professional yet friendly, that focus on editing or publishing services, that include up-to-date blogs, and that provide information that is useful to writers. As examples of websites that impress me, I offer this from a publishing consultant and this from an editor. As it turns out, I don’t know either of these people, and I didn’t end up hiring them, but based on their professional internet presence I feel I would like to know them and I could see using them in the future.

So which girl did I ask to the dance? I read an article in Business Insider that impressed me. I like the way Natasa thought. The idea that I could work with one of the most respected editors in the industry, someone with extensive experience in a major New York publishing house, without my own New York connections…that fired me up! Their website met all my criteria for professionalism, approachability, and usefulness. I decided I was willing to risk paying a little more for someone who knew the business and who would look at my synopsis and part of my manuscript and match me with an editor who was likely to fit with me. I paid for a trial edit of my first 2,500 words. Here’s the critical point: I agreed with every suggestion she made, yet each idea was something I had not seen on my own until she pointed it out. My editor has many years of experience at two well-respected New York publishing houses and has worked with some famous authors. We spoke by phone. I felt we clicked. So I decided to go for it.

I’ll let you know in a couple of months how it went. But I’m excited and feeling good about it!

Name Change

My novel has a new name! When I began writing it in October 2016, my temporary working title was Scarface. Obviously, given the famous Al Pacino movie of the same name, that was not a viable choice for the long term. At some point in late spring 2017, I renamed it The Chokecherry Tree. When you read the book, you will see why that name makes sense, but there was something about it I didn’t like. It wasn’t a name that would lead a person to pull my book off a shelf. Also, I learned that few people had ever heard of chokecherry trees. I just couldn’t think of a title I like better.

On the advice of a friend, I wrote out the major themes of my novel. It became apparent to me that beauty, in its myriad aspects and levels, is really the focus of the novel. So I decided to rename my book Beautiful. I do not promise not to change the title again, but for now, I like Beautiful; I feel it passes the “pull my book off the shelf” test.

So far as I can tell after extensive research on Amazon and Goodreads, there are no other books with “Beautiful” in the title that a reasonable person would confuse with my novel.

What do you think of my new, improved book title? I’m pretty excited about it!

Beta Readers Improve Your Work — Ego Be Damned!

A few weeks ago I gave the second draft of my novel The Chokecherry Tree to my first beta reader. I was looking for someone who is not family, someone who I know to be unafraid to speak their mind, and who is highly literate. My family read parts of the book and tell me “this is very good. You’re a good writer.” Note the overuse of the word “good” without detail as to why it’s good, or what I might do to make the work even better. On the other hand, one can trust family not to say that it sucks, that I’m fooling myself if I believe I can write, and in fact, I should be legally barred from ever putting pen to paper.

I want my novel to be the best work of which I’m capable before I start looking for an agent. To get there, I needed a frank critique of this second draft of my book. My beta reader delivered! As I drove to her house to retrieve the marked-up copy of my novel, I reminded my fragile male ego that this exercise is about becoming a better writer. It’s not about surrounding myself with people who tell me everything I write is fantastic.

Despite my best mental preparation, I may initially have been a bit defensive. My intrepid beta reader sure gave her red pen a workout! But she found several plot holes for me to fill and several places where character motivation was unclear or unrealistic. She convinced me to make one of my main characters two years older so she’d be more believable. (That one I struggled against for a while, till my wife told me she agreed with the beta reader. Now it seems as though the girl has always been twelve rather than ten years old.) And of course, my beta reader found some misused homonyms, etc., that my spell checker and Grammarly failed to catch.

As I write this blog post, this same beta reader just returned to me her thoughts on my synopsis of The Chokecherry Tree that I will need as I look for an agent. I agree with every one of her suggestions.

The third draft of my novel is tight. I’ve fixed every point that she made. So based on my n=1 experience with using beta readers, count me as an enthusiastic proponent!

 

Your Work Doesn’t Have to Please Everybody

My wife’s cousin is a Command Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army. My wife and I, and others of my wife’s extended family, watched him retire after 31 years of service. It was a moving ceremony. I’m proud of what that man did for our great nation. Also, I deeply respect his wife who followed him around the world while raising a family.

The retirement ceremony and celebration took place in Fort Campbell, which borders Kentucky and Tennessee. The day after the festivities, some of us road tripped an hour down to Nashville, TN. We spent a pleasant afternoon in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. While there, wandering through the exhibits and soaking up the music, I found an excellent illustration of the lesson that you can be wildly successful — by any measure of the word — while still not pleasing everyone.

In the Museum, there was a large exhibit dedicated to one particular artist who has won ACM Awards Entertainer of the Year or Male Vocalist of the year for the past several years. His tours pack coliseums. Several of his albums have been certified Platinum or better. Of course, he is good-looking and extremely wealthy. Aren’t they all?

But here’s what struck me: I’ve heard his name, but I’ve never, so far as I know, heard him sing. I own none of his albums. I couldn’t name even one of his songs without help from Google. And I have never been to one of his concerts. Same for my wife. Such incredible success, yet there are whole swaths of the population who are not fans of his work.

This insight is neither new nor surprising. Yesterday, I was reading another writer’s blog. The subject was authors who are not very good writers. They gave as an example a certain well-known author of mysteries and thrillers who, according to my quick Google query, is worth over $700 million. Not bad for a fellow who cannot write well. Again, I have no personal opinion because I’ve not read any of his books. I’d wager he doesn’t care.

Zig Ziglar wrote a book called See You at the Top. There’s plenty of room at the top, especially since there’s no general agreement as to where “the top” is located. We each have to find it for ourselves. Enjoy the journey!