Archive for editing

How to avoid a too-big book

Even an author who’s published multiple books feels the siren call of a big book. One day, they might think, I can get that 150,000-word epic published. I’ve cut a lot, they might say, already 20,000 words. I need to stick to my guns, submit something that big, and not get talked out of it.

Don’t cut. Divide and conquer.

As a novelist who’s finishing a draft likely to be 170,000 words, I can relate. “The I-Like-Big-Books and I Cannot Lie” lure is always in the water for us. We pick up the scent of something like the Karl Marlantes epic about Vietnam, Matterhorn. We say to ourselves, “Somebody had to believe extra hard about a book of that size.” We think, Hey, that somebody could be me.

You’ll need two or three or four other people to believe in that mantra. Most of them have more on the line than you do. As an author, you poured months and years into a book of that size. Now you’ll need an agent to believe, then an editor, then sales and distribution, and finally the influencers and reviewers, that 150K is not all that big.

They all have books smaller to embrace, unless your agent only has you as their client.

Is a sequel a solution?

Why, you must ask yourself, is that Big Book so essential to your story? Be honest about whether what’s creating the bloat is really world-class scenarios that would spice up any narrative. Perhaps these are scenarios that belong in a related book. The second in a series. Volume II. A sequel.

Too-big books surface. But not many survive into readers’ hands here in 2021. Those that survive hail from the genres built for massive books. Fantasy. Science fiction. Historical fiction. Even those books are shaped and tempered by beta readers who are asked one important question by the author:

Where did you start to lose interest when you read it?

Until you’re ready to consider where your sails flagged, you’ll struggle to avoid your too-big book. Flagging sails can lead to flagging sales. That’s a condition that publishers and agents work hard to avoid. Make a couple of books. My own book is really two. I just need to find a better ending to the first half. It might be inspired by the ending to the second half.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Is it National Doughnut Day?

Marketing companies create national days. We enjoy a Secretaries Day, National Golden Retriever Day, and even a National Take Your Dog to Work Day (make plans to give Sparky a seat in your bedroom office on June 25).

Today is National Donut Day. But is it really spelled and styled that way? The question offers a look at three facets of copyediting: style, house-style, and usage. They all play a part in what that delicious treat looks like on a page of text.

All three also serve one key mission. Copyeditors say, “Don’t confuse the reader.”

On to the doughnuts. Webster’s Seventh has but one entry for the “small, usu. ring-shaped cake fried in fat.” It’s doughnut, using that spelling and style so we don’t mistake the treat with donuts you spin in the snowy parking lot with the car.

Webster’s only reports on language, though, like every dictionary. Language, as written in books and articles, establishes what the dictionary reports. This is how more than one spelling on this national day exists. No matter what Webster’s says, the comprehensive websites use donut for this day.

Webster’s reports on written language as an authorities on usage. Style, in contrast, is a matter of how you apply language to written instances. You spell out numbers at the start of sentences. US is the preferred abbreviation of the United States, but U.S. is permitted.

House-style is a publisher’s rulebook for punctuation and spelling. Anything not commonplace (there’s usage again) needs to be put into a style book. That keeps the expressions consistent, which is the most important element of styling text.

Consistency matters

That last part, the consistency, can be tough. Even the real pros have moments when they must deviate. Doughnut Day isn’t spelled that way at Shipley’s Donuts. However, they also use Donut and Do-Nut interchangeably — mostly because the founder, in the 1930s, exhorted the world to love “do-nuts” in early marketing copy.

Matters of whether to include a hyphen in air-conditioned, or putting an en dash (a little longer than a hyphen) between numerals for a score, all become things to turn to The Chicago Manual of Style to settle. Or other style guides, such as the AP, or the APA, or the MLA.

Making a house-style guide begins with the author, because a book contains proper names whose spellings must be consistent. There’s also keeping characters in line by using the same name in different scenes. It’s a good practice to give your copyeditor a working house-style guide with place and person names. The more time you can save your editor, the better job they’ll do on things that might vex you, like question marks. You use periods instead of question marks when you know the answer to a statement, don’t you. Like that. Or whether you capitalize the word “it” in the headline above. (You don’t, since the line works as a sentence.) Or when to italicize works of art and when to surround them with quote marks.

Go enjoy a doughnut today, or follow more common usage and buy a half-dozen donuts from Dunkin’ or Horton’s. Or if Shipley’s is your jam, take home a few raspberry do-nuts.

Photo by Heather Ford on Unsplash

Point of View: how many do you need?

Writing stories in first person is a electric thrill for many authors. You have easy access to emotions and sensations, plus the mystery of solving the problems of the plot are intense, too. Sometimes it’s tempting to want to use multiple first person points of view. If you can imagine Silence of the Lambs told in first person by Hannibal Lecter and Clarise Starling, you’re looking at a different book. Plenty challenging to write but maybe worth it.

How you decide to introduce first person POVs, and how many, is a juicy and complex choice as a storyteller. Julie Carrick Dalton even toyed with time, using her heroine’s point of view at age 11 along with the character’s POV three decades later. I began my second novel with a single first person point of view, then added a second as a character took a leading role in the book. Right now it’s just got a single first person narrator, with the rest of the book told in close third person. You don’t need a first person POV to show the heat of a character’s heart. First person gives and takes.

Willing to walk away

The choosing will mean revising and walking away from earlier attempts. Jessica Brody’s fine website Writing Mastery Academy examines many aspects of multiple points of view. As the author of the craft book Save the Cat Writes a Novel, she says you’ll need to decide who your book’s super-hero is if you have more than one protagonist. Each of the first person narrators needs a Beat Sheet, if you’re applying the Save the Cat method of storytelling.

It took her 13 years to write her novel. Dalton says, “The structure of this book gave me fits. In its final form, Waiting for the Night Song is a dual timeline narrative that switches back and forth from Cadie’s point of view at age 11 to Cadie’s POV three decades later. In the early drafts I wrote the story chronologically, including all the stuff in between – high school, college, and beyond.”

Then she reveals that the story’s middle section meant more to her than the reader. “After several drafts, I realized I only wrote the middle part for myself, so I would know who Cadie was and where she had been. I cut out the middle and wove the childhood and adult parts together to tell a single story. It was exasperating, but definitely the right way to tell this particular story.”

Investing to send your books into the world

We need to know if we’d like our books to become a part of a bigger world. Many like to call that publishing, but I consider that a business term. Getting a book into the world is all we can count upon. If you’re honest, you might find you’re not counting on it — and regretting the investment to carry your book into its next phase, so it can have a better shot to get an agent’s offer to represent it.

You’ll be able to make your way into the world without investments you might regret. The question is, can you go as far as you desire? You might have something free going for you: this book won’t leave you alone.

One of my workshop members queried 32 agents to get representation. She got it, and a good agent. Those were hand-tooled queries, too. I’m not one to handicap the future where art is concerned. But that desire to make a book, or a lack of it, has an impact upon the energy needed to make your book grow clearer and stronger.

Together we do make a book better, to give readers as discerning as yourself an easier time of finishing a story. A better book has a better chance of becoming a published book, but there are no formulas. For example, I’ve learned there’s many a memoir hiding inside a novel. Our wish as readers in the 21st century is to demand more realism in our fiction. “Based on a true story” is like catnip. Some novels are better as memoirs. But even memoirs have conventions. I think of these conventions like manners. They make access to your story easier. Even literary fiction has conventions.

I help people with memoirs, too. It’s about creating a story arc, no matter what the form. As humans we’re trained to expect things within story, but nothing is the same for everybody. (Well, being thrown into a lava pit is the same for all of us except the masochists. That’s over quickly, thank goodness.) I believe art doesn’t care about fiction or nonfiction. Art cares about deeper truth, the kind that moves hearts, using stories that linger in our bones. You can get there faster and go deeper with a bigger readership by believing in whatever you aim to build.

Painters can be self-taught, but visual art stands alone as one field where the discipline and training isn’t obvious to many viewers. People do train and study, though, and there’s a great deal of craft in the creation. The self-taught painter might be more common than a self-taught novelist. But there’s learning of the rules to be done everywhere before breaking them, I believe. Not just that rules of prose, but practices that open up what we need to say, so people get to our story’s climax — and carry that joy into the rest of the world.

Using scenes to win a NaNoWriMo challenge

This Sunday starts a new challenge for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, untold novelists try to write 50,000 words in just 30 days. I’ve attempted this a dozen times since I started on novels in 2004. I have never written that many words in one month. However, even my failures taught me plenty.

November was always trouble for me in NaNo. For more than 15 years, November was a month we’d publish our 3000 NewsWire newsletter. Journalism on deadline doesn’t give much room for 1,700 words a day of fiction. Then there’s the holiday. Thanksgiving usually meant at least a couple of days off, and that didn’t even consider the years we’d travel to our Turkey Day meal.

NaNo can be won. Here are some things to practice and attempt.

You must consider what “winning” at NaNo means to you. A glut of 50,000 helter-skelter words is a great chunk of your work of making a novel. You can judge for yourself, but a glut of words that are, instead, aimed at an outline, chapter summaries, or even scene goals — that’s really useful during the month of December (more on that in a minute).

Advice: have a rudimentary outline or set of goals at hand. There are 30 shots at getting 50,000 words finished. Knowing where you’re headed really helps get your writing into your head. You’ll find yourself thinking about new writing even before it appears on the page. If you need a way to think about key points in a big book, look at my article Use 10 Key Scenes to Win NaNoWriMo.

Be realistic about how many days you will work, or can make the hour or two it requires on writing days. The closest I came to winning my NaNo month was in 2011. I was revising my novel Viral Times in the wake of the movie Contagion, so I had the fire to finish. I easily wrote that many words, inside of my advanced draft.

Advice: Get your calendar out and make marks for your writing days. Try to be honest about distractions. If Sundays are a wonderful jumble of family and long walks, take them off. Double up on four other days. Time away from the 1,700 words a day is useful. See that “thinking about the book before writing” advice above.

You can do your own countdown of how many words you’ve got to write. Getting support from a group of writers who you don’t know had limited benefits for me. I did better when writers I knew were keeping me accountable. Something as simple as holding myself to a schedule I dreamed up in Excel got me through the Viral Times revision.

You can use the Show Project Targets window in Scrivener to keep track of your daily writing. The window fills up a progress bar and accounts for deletions as well as any new writing. If your net is 1,700 new words a day, success is yours. Think of it as a series of winning innings, or quarters in a game. NaNo is a lot of innings, almost like a World Series’ worth of baseball wins. If you’d like a little help on using Scrivener for this, get in touch and I’ll help out. I also coach authors in making good use of Scrivener, 1:1.

Advice: Count up somewhere outside the NaNo website. Count more than words; count the days you have written. Put up a calendar with a daily update of when you’re written. This follows the Seinfeld method of developing a habit: Lots of x’s in calendar blocks will make you reluctant to break a streak. Seinfeld wrote three jokes every day for a few decades.

When the month of November is done, you’ll have a lot more finished on your book than you did on Oct. 31. What to do with all of that? December is National Novel Editing Month. I have some openings for book editing during that month, so reach out and get something booked with me. You can put down a nominal, fully refundable deposit to hold your space until you submit your pages.

In the meantime, get a special pen if you draft longhand, or use the 30 days to experiment with drafting right off the keyboard. I’m working on the back half of Sins of Liberty, my historical novel about suffrage and progress. Ask me how it’s going.

How long should your memoir be?

Authors ask me if their memoir is long enough. Actually, they usually ask if it’s the right length. How long should your memoir be? There’s a wide range of answers, and one of them is the right answer for you. The skill you will need from an editor of your memoir is knowing which length is best.

It’s not enough to say it depends, when I hear the question of how long should your memoir be. I usually ask questions like how much time does your story cover? Years, or months, or weeks? Some memoirs, only a few, can cover a handful of days. The shorter the time span, the more likely it is you have a good sense of how long your memoir should be.

You want to locate the turning point in the story. It might be after your wife died and you found your path onto schooling, leading to an advanced degree. In one book where I’ve helped out, that degree showed the author had healed his pain over the troubled marriage. Memoirs demand focus for writers, to keep readers engaged. That’s one reason they run best at about 65-75,000 words.

Make the story fit

It can be a real challenge to get a story that you’ve lived all your life to fit into a container of that size. Jeanette Walls has a memoir, The Glass Castle, that memoirists everywhere like to reference. Yes, it’s been a movie, it’s that popular. It’s super-long at 100,000 words. And Wild has been an astounding success at 130,000 words. Again, movie-worthy, and it’s important to note that the finished screenplay was about 150 pages. They winnowed on Cheryl Strayed’s winnowing. But Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, about losing her husband and her daughter in the same year, in just 50,000 words.

Glass Castle runs from the author’s little girlhood to her entry into college. Wild covers just the weeks of a long trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, plus many flashbacks into the author’s girlhood and addictions. The Year of Magical Thinking covers a year. Each of these stories has a container in time. Without a container, the meaning of the book drifts. Everything we live through is vital and searing to us. It has less potential for such sharp meaning to our readers, though. We pick our storytelling spots and work on making them sparkle.

A subset or a slice of life

As a development editor, I tell my authors we may look at a manuscript and come to a decision that it’s going to need a refocus, a winnowing of the many stories into a one subset of a life. That’s memoir’s mission: to help both the author and readers see how one chunk of a life changed things for the better.

No matter who you talk with about editing, everyone should be recommending Beth Kephart’s memoir book Handling the Truth and the one by Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir. Refer to them in that order; Karr has a more poetic approach. They both have memoir reading lists for your reference. Since you want to get published, rather than publish yourself, you’ll be in the race with books that follow those books’ guidelines. Knowing what else has been commercially successful is important.

Memoir editing can be a big journey. Sometimes there’s that moment when your editor says, after reading your pages, “How about more on that topic?” Memoir demands emotionally difficult material, usually, when you’re asked to add something. The hardest stories can come out last. My father’s suicide was the portion of my memoir Stealing Home that my editor asked me to write.

You’ve spent many years living and remembering your story. Giving it the best chance it can get will be worthwhile. It will also give your writing a better chance of a publishing contract.

Write well. And remember what to do with commas and conjunctions

I often see manuscripts and drafts that are relentless about using a comma whenever the word “And” or “But” starts a sentence. English teachers must have drilled this into us. Comma use right after but or and start a sentence is simply incorrect.

From The Editor’s Blog, these examples are incorrect usage.

X But, not because of the answers I gave.

X Or, she would have to do it alone.

X For, it was a mistake right from the start.

X And, my brother needed me.

But, and, or — these are among the conjunctions we know as FANBOYS. They include the conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. It’s completely accepted to  use them to begin sentences, but that makes them connectors — and that means the clauses that follow them must refer to the sentence or phrase that precedes them.

You don’t need to make a pit-stop with a comma when you’re using a but or an and to start a sentence. Just get on with the connecting.

Photo by Chris King on Unsplash

Put proofreading into books after copyedits

Ah proofreading, the finish carpentry of editing. Many authors who create their own books think they can skip it, leaving the proofreading work to a copy editor.

Pro publishers do not do it this way.

These are the kinds of things I never thought I’d care about while I was traffic director at Graphics Express in Austin in 1984. Inside that typesetting shop, though, we had a dedicated proofreader who read every bit of type that was set. The mission was, and always is, to find typos.

I have a funny story about proofreading. In a bit of maximum irony, it comes from a writing coach. In a PDF handout, the coach writes this…

“Wikipedia says copy editing is ‘the process of reviewing and correcting written material to improve accuracy, readability, and fitness for its purpose, and to ensure that it is free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.’ ”

Then she adds, “There is a great deal of overlap between this kind editing and proofreading. It would be unusual for a writer to have both a copyedit and a proofread of the same manuscript.”

I’m going to tell you there’s a typo in the coach’s advice, and let you have a little sport in finding it. Hint: it’s only two letters long and is a missing word.

Just to be thorough, that coach’s advice from that PDF uses two different styles of copyedit. The Chicago Manual of Style recognizes only the verb without a space between copy and edit. So copyedit, not copy edit.

And the person doing the work? They can be a copy editor, or a copyeditor, according to the Third Edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary and the British Oxford Dictionary of English. (These are the flesh and bone of Apple’s Dictionary app.)

So clearly, any advice that you don’t need to get an MS both a copyedit and a proofread depends on who’s doing the proofing. It’s safe to assume the coach had her writing copyedited. Not so much for the proofreading.

With all credit to the Chicago Manual of Style, here’s what the CMOS says about proofreading:

“Proofreading here … applies to the review of the manuscript after it has been converted to a format for publication but before it is published. Usually, this format consists of the typeset and paginated pages of a book or journal article (referred to as proofs or proof and read either on paper or as PDF) or the full text of a book or journal article intended for publication in one or more electronic formats other than PDF.”

Go the extra step and get your book looking professional. Even if its only format will be digital. Pro advice: have proofreading follow your copyediting. Try to get two pros here — or if you love your copy editor, give the copy a week or two to rest before that person gives you a proofread.

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Open your wheelhouse: submit your requests

You might have been fortunate enough to have an agent request pages for your book. You may have taken a lot of time to make them better first. For example, if you’re writing crime fiction (a mystery) you may say

1. My book is too long today
2. I don’t want my mystery to be obvious.


3. My plot is intricate, so I’m wary of severing the links throughout.

Those are all related. Your book is probably running as long as it does so it will contain everything to keep the plot bolted together. The complexity of the plot makes a mystery deeper, for example. If it’s longer for any other reason, it becomes a bit easier to cut. If it was a piece of seasoned beef, it might be overseasoned with characterization or scenes that run long.

That effect of “goes on too long” is a matter of taste and talent. Even when you’re writing well, you don’t get as many extra pages as you think. You get more pages, but you have to keep readers turning those pages.

If you want to be double sure that your plot is durable, you will need a second check. That’s a set of outside eyes. I’m talking development editing, not copy editing or line editing.

Letting your story loose into the world is the solution to these problems.

“I want a book that holds together and keeps the reader wondering what’s going to happen.” That’s noble. It can be a road sign toward complexity, of course, depending on how many subjects are in play. Your book should have a primary story mission, and that mission had better fulfill the protagonist’s desire.

Just because a book’s structure has come together over years of work, like it does for most of us, doesn’t mean it can’t get streamlined. I think here about the rivets in the planes that Howard Hughes built for competition. Always streamlining. He set records, his accomplishments you can see in The Aviator.

I once edited a book from 140,000 words to 75,000. The author went too deep in many passages and her protagonist was inside internal monologue at great length.

I edited my novel Viral Times down from 144,000 to 98,000 words. To do this, I discovered Scrivener and used it to identify what was in the book and what could go. It helped that I’d already worked 30 years as a copyeditor. Cutting isn’t easy, but it feels good after you face it down. At some point every creator has to have some compassion for readers who, frankly, would like to get to the next book, either in the series or from another author. Savoring a big novel is a delicious thing, of course.

It also helped that I performed in and watched many hours of theatre — where the dramatic arc includes nothing but scenes, and they each must have good work to do to serve the narrative.
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How to give readers a break with chapters

Photo by Justine Camacho on Unsplash

“I like big chapters, long ones,” said just about nobody who reads books. Readers need rests, like the rest stops on a 100-mile century bike ride. I did one of those rides a couple of times. Never ride the century, we’d say. Just ride to the next rest stop.

Books can be centuries, with historical fiction running above 100,000 words and even more. Unless you’ve got extraordinary break points within a chapter, though, readers need rest.  Locations shift, and times of the week, month, or year advance. Even a POV shift or just a focus on a new character’s activities calls up chapter possibilities.

Creating chapter breaks gives your skills of transition a way to shine. When a reader picks a book back up, they can restart easiest at the chapter break. Good, obvious section breaks will do the same kind of job.

The biggest chapters I ever read in a book were All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, the Pulitzer Prize winner. I got to the end of each of them (maybe 10 in all, for a 80,000-word book) gasping for a break. You’re always going to want to make 20,000 words represent four chapters of a book. It serves a story well to break it into episodes. If not, let’s hear your reasons for leaving it as one chunk.

As to what’s inside that chunk, it’s more of a matter of how well does the material serve the main mission of the main character. We need color and context. Making choices is important, I and I like a willingness to cut things out. Just because something is interesting doesn’t automatically win it a place in the finished story. As a novelist, you can make me trust you when you cut something out and make the leap. “Two weeks later, she had different ideas about that.” Just skip over time, for example.

I’m reminded of the line in the movie Wonder Boys about the main character, award-winning novelist Grady Tripp. He’s had a real problem finishing his second book. One of his students discovers the 2,600-page manuscript draft and reads it (somehow). She says, “Professor, you taught us that making art means making choices. And with the details in here, the geneology of the horses of the characters, for example — it doesn’t look like you’ve made any choices.”

I hate making choices and need outside eyes to help. We all do. Grady Tripp never had anybody read his book while he made it. Then a windstorm boiled up and threw all of his pages into a riverside breeze. He had to start over. Wonder Boys is a great book and a great movie. Make your book great and find the points where the story can rest. Not everybody has time to binge.