Thursday, 30 March 2017

How to Work with Your Editor

I see it all the time. A potential client contacts me. "I've written a book! I'm so excited! How much would you charge to edit it?" After a little investigation I learn that she hasn't written a book; she's written the first draft of a book--or maybe just extensive notes. And now she wants me to turn it into a masterpiece that will make her rich and famous.

Unfortunately, that's not how editing works. And it's not how writing works. For an indie-published novelist, the reality is more like this:

Before you even start the actual writing, you do all the groundwork, which will include:
  • Coming up with the premise
  • Creating and developing characters
  • Working out a plot
And possibly:
  • Doing research
  • Writing backstories
  • Creating an outline
  • Writing notes

Now you're finally ready to start writing. You write the first draft.
You read your first draft and use the benefit of hindsight to create a much better second draft. You repeat this process until you have a story you're proud of, and which you don't think you can improve any more on your own.
Now you can hire an editor if you'd like. The kind you're looking for at this point is a content editor. Your editor will point out plot holes and confusing passages and make suggestions to improve character development, tighten suspense and so forth. When you get your marked-up manuscript back from your editor, it's time for another rewrite!

(If you're tight on money, you may want to consider using beta readers instead. Beta readers are book lovers who will read your fledgling book just for the chance to get in on the ground floor and be part of the process. Show them lots of love. Bake them cookies or something, because they're doing you a huge favor. Then weigh their advice and rewrite accordingly. If you do choose the beta reader option, you'll need to be doubly sure that your plot is well constructed. Watch here for a post on how to plot a novel.)

Once you and your content editor are satisfied that your manuscript is in its final draft, check it over once more for typos, format it the way it will appear as a published book (if you haven't already) and send it off to your line editor. When you get it back, you'll know what to do! Don't forget to make any formatting adjustments that may be necessary after you've entered all the corrections you agree with and dismissed those you don't.

Finally, it's time for the proofreader, who is another kind of editor. The proofreader's job is to make sure the book is error-free, but she won't be able to do that unless you supply her with a clean, professional book that's virtually free of errors to start with. On a messy copy full of mistakes, it's just about impossible to find them all.

Once you've entered the proofreader's corrections, it's time to publish. And if you still want to be rich and famous, try buying a lottery ticket and inviting a royal out on a date.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Pronouns: Who Is Doing What?

Have you ever read a story and wondered who was doing what? Have you ever wondered if your own stories might be just as confusing? Then you could be having trouble with your pronouns.

Pronouns (words like he, him, she, her, that, who and which) stand in for names and other nouns so we don't have to keep repeating them. Take this sentence, for example:

Hazel eased her car into her grandmother's garage and hurried into the house with a freshly baked gingerbread cake--her little cousin's favorite.

Without pronouns, it would look like this:

Hazel eased Hazel's car into Hazel's grandmother's garage and hurried into the house with a freshly baked gingerbread cake--Hazel's little cousin's favorite.

There's no question that pronouns are important. I would hate to have to put up with that kind of repetition all the time.

In our example, the pronouns all stand in for Hazel. In technical terms, Hazel is the antecedent. But what if there's more than one noun and it's not clear which one is the antecedent? It's reminiscent of the classic story of the little bird who doesn't know which creature is its mother. We might have something like this:

Hazel hugged Vicky, kissed her grandmother, then took Amelia's gingerbread cake out of her car.

Whose grandmother did Hazel kiss, Vicky's or her own? From whose car did Hazel take the cake, Amelia's or her own?

There's a simple rule that lets us answer these questions. More importantly, it lets us write so that our readers will not have any trouble knowing who is doing what.

A pronoun's antecedent is always the last matching noun mentioned. 

"Matching" means that it has the same gender and number (singular or plural). 

So now we know that Hazel kissed Vicky's grandmother and took the cake out of Amelia's car. But I would still recommend rewriting the sentence. Sure, now that we know the key we can decode it, but we can do much better. 

Most of our readers, of course, won't know this rule. They won't have the key. So our job as writers is to use the rule to make the antecedent so obvious our readers don't even have to think about it. They can just lose themselves in the story.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Why Spaces Matter in Your Writing

Did you know that "everyday" has a different meaning than "every day?" That's right: if you type up a one-sentence sign and hang it in your workplace, your coworkers could be reading one thing when you meant to write something totally different, and all because of one little space. Write a whole book that way, and ... well, I'm sure you can imagine.

Same goes for:
anytime/any time
backroom/back room

Here's why:

In our examples, the words day, time and room refer to things (in a very broad sense of the term). The words every, any and back tell us something about those things. In fact, they change, or modify, the meanings of the words day, time and room a little bit, so we call them modifiers.

But let's look at these sentences:

The traffic has become so bad here that car accidents are now an everyday occurrence.
Cashews make a great anytime snack.
We need to crack down on corruption and backroom deals

Now everyday, anytime and backroom have become modifiers to the "thing-words" (Grammar nerds call them nouns) occurrence, snack and deals.

So that's the difference:

"Every day" is a modifier followed by a noun. It means all the days in whatever portion of the calendar we're talking about. "Everyday" is just a modifier. It means that whatever we're about to mention next is commonplace, usual, run-of-the-mill. 

"Any time" is a modifier followed by a noun. It means that no time is better or worse than any other. "Anytime" is just a modifier. It means that whatever we're about to mention next isn't pinned down to a particular time. 

"Back room" is a modifier followed by a noun. It means a room at the back of a building or behind some other room. "Backroom" is just a modifier. It means that whatever we're about to mention next is sneaky, underhanded, illegitimate. 

Notice how this sentence changes meaning when we take away a space:

Every day, dishes are broken in this house. (Not a day goes by when dishes are not broken here.)
Everyday dishes are broken in this house. (The dishes that are broken here are ordinary ones.)

I found this ad in the wanted section of the classifieds:

ISO Farm Hand Job

 I'm looking for a part time paid position on a farm. I have much experience with cleaning stalls, turning in horses, feeding, etc. 
 I'm pretty sure the poster meant to say "farmhand."

Spaces matter.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Writers as Social Activists

While some may argue about whether or not writers should engage in activism, I believe that whether we want to or not, we already do.

Jane Goodall put it beautifully: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” What we write to entertain people probably has a greater impact than most people's daily lives, so our responsibility to decide "what kind of difference [we] want to make" is greater.

Sometimes it can be very difficult to choose a cause. We have starving children, tortured dogs, mass shootings, police shootings, child brides, genital mutilation, honor killings, slavery, suicide bombings and a dozen other horrific situations, each of which is bad enough to make any decent human being want to drop everything and go rescue the victims.

If we choose a cause that is already well-publicized, then our job as activist-writers is to cut through the paralyzing "there's nothing I can do" mentality that pervades our culture. We can emphasize practical, reasonable, sustainable ways that everyday readers can help.

In other cases, public awareness is a worthy goal. Most grocery shoppers had no idea how dangerous the meatpacking industry was before Upton Sinclair's The Jungle came out in 1905. I personally became aware that slavery is still a problem in America through Peter C. Bradbury's 2013 novel The Innocent Children.

I think the greatest challenge comes when a cause is well-publicized but the real-life villains creating the suffering have managed to capture public sympathy. For example, if you could write a book and go back in time and publish it in Germany, how would you attempt to prevent Kristallnacht? Similar problems abound in our own time, so the question of how to open the eyes of everyday readers is an important one.

I think it's useless to try to change people's minds. People who are easily swayed are not the ones we want to reach, because they'll change their minds back again as soon as they turn on the TV. Here are some tips I've picked up from reading some effective--and not so effective--activist fiction:
  • Don't preach. If your novel is a soapbox, then it's not a novel. Wayne Dyer's Gifts from Eykis may make some excellent points, but it's an entertainment flop. It sells because he already had a following from his nonfiction books, which means he's preaching to the choir.
  • Educate. Use your fiction to introduce readers to new situations and perspectives or ones they may not otherwise think about. Show them what life is like for those affected. But don't be melodramatic or exaggerate. Do your research and create an accurate portrayal, or your efforts could backfire. If there's more than one side to an issue (and there almost always is), use subplots to show them fairly.
  • Your book can be about the cause. Next by Michael Crichton is about gene-related ethics. It's a gripping novel and a powerful argument for his position on the issue. Harriet Beecher Stowe set out to write about losing a child, but Uncle Tom's Cabin influenced her and many others to make a stand against slavery.
  • But it doesn't have to be. M. Joseph Murphy's books fight anti-LGBT stereotypes simply by
    including very relatable non-straight characters in a genre where, even now, that just isn't done. Four or five books about what it's like to be gay probably wouldn't have the same impact.
  • Ask questions. In my opinion, the highest compliment a reader can give me is "Your writing made me think." Change, as the Buddhists so eloquently remind us, must come from within. No matter how much we want to, we cannot make the world better by changing even one person's mind. But we can start a dialogue. We can bring up questions that inspire people to think.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Review of The Strongbox by Michael Pon

If learning history were always this much fun and always worked this well, the world would be full of enthusiastic history buffs. The Strongbox takes you inside the brutal reign of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo with characters and settings that feel so real you can almost smell them. Michael Pon weaves political, religious, family and work aspects of his characters' lives into a story that's as gripping and memorable as it is educational. I didn't want to put it down and I didn't want it to end.

But there's an even better reason to read this book and share it with your friends. In the most delightfully entertaining and relatable way, Pon shows us the ugly horror of life on the unlucky side of the political power game. We all know in theory that war is hell and cruel dictatorships tend to come with atrocities, even if we don't want to think about it. This book brings those cold facts to gut-wrenching life and leaves them lingering in our minds long after we've read the last page.

The Strongbox is available from Amazon, Smashwords and Booksamillion.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Book Release: The Thirteenth Snare

Tomorrow, my newest book will be released on Amazon, Smashwords and many other ebook stores. The print version is already available from Createspace and Amazon.

It's called The Thirteenth Snare: Thirteen Stories of Kidnappings, Traps and Dead-End Situations.

The stories are a mix of genres, including science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery, military and contemporary. Some are dark or dystopian while others are more uplifting. It's my hope that they will help my readers to escape, to unwind or to cure their boredom. As Donna Tartt said,

“The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.”
But if you're reading this, you know that human rights issues are important to me, too. They're bound to show up in my writing at least sometimes, and this book is no exception. You won't find any preaching here, though. I've tried to ask questions rather than answer them, to raise awareness rather than make arguments. I believe that by working together in positive, creative dialogue, we can solve our problems in a way that works for everyone.

People often ask me where I get my story ideas, and there's no one answer that's true for all of them. Sometimes the way a story came to be is almost as interesting as the story itself. There's a brief synopsis of the premise of each story on my website, and you may find it useful to refer to those as you read below. But here I'll tell you the stories behind the stories:

Deathday: I'm a big fan of space opera in spite of (okay, maybe because of) the fact that it's so eye-rollingly improbable. It's fun to watch, fun to read and fun to write. But I also feel that if all I can write is space opera, I don't really have any business calling myself a science fiction writer. So I gave myself an assignment: write something in the genre without using any of the common space opera elements such as faster-than-light travel and humanoid aliens. I wrote two stories in response to this assignment, and "Deathday" was one of them. The idea came when I was driving and saw two vehicles ahead of me, traveling side by side like a blockade. One was a stretch limousine and the other was a Clean Harbors truck.

Wearing the Enemy: This is one of several pieces I wrote for, and which Chainbooks owners Greg and Sally Humphrey graciously released for publication in this book. These pieces were written as first chapters of novels, so I had to turn them into complete stories before I could include them. The title comes from the security devices Jacoby is forced to wear. Even though they don't figure very prominently, they were the idea that inspired the story. "Wearing the Enemy" was an exploration or mental exercise in the process of working out the plot for my Star Trek story, Cracking Cardassian.

The Knight Wench: This is another Chainbooks story and my first successful attempt at writing fantasy. I added the horror element for this edition.

Acid Chain: When I read Errihu's "The Bones of Little Dolls," I discovered that I don't dislike the entire horror genre after all. It was a short step from there to wanting to challenge myself to write in it. "Acid Chain" was my second successful result. (The first was "The Debriefing Chair," which does not appear in this book.) 

The Tarsus Secret: This is a Chainbooks story, and it started as a dream. I dreamed the kidnapping scene, and it felt so powerful that I knew I had to put it into a story. But going from an emotionally captivating dream to a story that others could understand was harder than I had anticipated.

Outage: This was the other story I wrote for my science fiction challenge. It was inspired by the eerie feeling I had once when I drove up to a road in Merrimack, New Hampshire, that I had previously seen full of traffic, and found it empty. (I recently learned that feeling is called kenopsia.) I kept the road name in the story: Continental Boulevard.

Tour of Booty: When I wrote this for Chainbooks I imagined it as a romance, but when I finished it for this book it didn't turn out that way. I hardly ever read romance stories and I've never written one. But someday I want to, just so I know that I can.

Seeing Scars: This is an adapted excerpt from Cracking Cardassian.

The Privilege of Sleeping: This one was inspired by all those signs saying "no overnight parking" in places where the owners make absolutely no use of their parking lots at night.

Fighting Fire: Another Chainbooks story, this is a space opera indulgence--although it does stay within our solar system. The title comes from the adage, "Fight fire with fire," and the nickname for liquor, fire-water.

Gene Pollution: This was originally a Chainbooks story as well, along with the next one. "Gene Pollution" is a new rendition of the classic playing-God sci-fi story.

The Tumbleweed: Named for the rootless, directionless, constantly moving life of its heroine, this story puts a twist on a few space-opera cliches.

Hallowed Walls: This one started as a world-building exercise for my book series The Fletcher Variable and quickly took on a life of its own. Taken alone it could be either soft science fiction or fantasy, as it's set entirely on a non-human world. In the process of writing it, I fell in love with Gali and became so invested in her dilemma that I'm considering incorporating her story into my next book, The Erratic.

The Thirteenth Snare is available from Amazon, Smashwords, Createspace and your favorite ereader or reading app store.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Why You Should Polish Your Manuscript

One way you can tell professional novelists from hobbyists is by seeing who polishes their manuscripts. Polishing a manuscript is the last step in writing it, but many new writers make the mistake of leaving out this essential step.
A real ad served to me about a month ago.

Because polishing a manuscript is also called self-editing, many writers confuse it with editing and suppose it's someone else's job. After all, you can't edit your own work, right?

Right, but your editor can't do her job until you've finished doing yours.

The Goal

It's just about every writer's dream to produce a hit that sells hundreds of thousands of copies...or why not a hundred million while we're at it? While there's no secret recipe for winning the bestseller lottery, there are plenty of ways to make sure your book will lose. And one of those ways is letting readers find mistakes in their copies.

To sell well, your book needs to create buzz. To get buzz, you have to put it into people's heads that your book is 'the real thing.' If they think it's an amateur attempt at a novel, or a manuscript that's so good it's going to be published someday--or anything at all short of a bona fide, perfect final product--that buzz will never have the chance to get started.

So besides having an enticing cover, a killer plot and fascinating but relatable characters, your book--if it's ever going to have a chance to hit the big time--needs to have:
  • Proper spelling
  • Proper punctuation
  • Proper capitalization
  • Proper spacing
  • Grammar that accurately communicates your message on the first reading
  • A consistent, engaging voice

The Process

Now that we know where we're trying to go, how do we get there? The major publishing houses of the old print-book industry perfected a process that works at least as well for us in the internet age as it did for them in their day. It's easier to understand if you look at it backwards, so here it is starting with the final step:
  • 11. Printing
  • 10. Proofreading: A sharp-eyed individual carefully searches the book to catch any stray errors that could hurt its public image.
  • 9. Approval: The author and publisher agree that the manuscript is in its final form and is ready for publication.
  • 8. At his discretion, the author implements the corrections and revisions suggested by the line editor.
  • 7. Line editing: Someone with a fresh perspective catches the errors the author missed and makes suggestions for improvements.
  • 6. Polishing: The author carefully reads through the manuscript, correcting any errors he finds and making sure the narrative sings and every paragraph has the message and tone he was going for. 
  • 5. Rewrites: At his discretion, the author implements the changes suggested by the content editor.
  • 4. Content editing: The content editor makes suggestions to improve aspects such as clarity, structure, flow and suspense.
  • 3. Final solo draft: The author tweaks the manuscript until the glorious story in his head is now fully reproduced in the manuscript.
  • 2. Intermediate drafts: The author improves on the first draft.
  • 1. First draft: The author begins with a very rough version of the story.

What Happens When You Don't Polish Your Manuscript?

Leave out any of these steps, and you seriously undermine the success of every step that comes after. Think about it. If you give your editor something like this...
On top of all of that though, in his effort to posit himself as some kind of martyr “for all people” he tells us that getting on a plane for a few days in sunny Puerto Rico where he cut through standard government used barbed wire to and trespass to be arrested, was posed a major risk to his life as if the government were killing protesters, while at the same time showing us details of the efforts made to be arrested.  
...she's not going to be able to do a whole lot with it. It would be like calling in a maid with a duster after finding your house flattened by a mudslide. The maid will dust the rubble, if you really want her to, but you'll be wasting your money.

More Posts on Polishing Your Manuscript:

How to Edit Your Manuscript by Michael Lane
10 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Derek Haines
On an Economy of Words by Dan Moore