Tag Archives: revisions

Writing-Tip Wednesday: When is a Manuscript Done?

There comes in the revision process a point of diminishing returns. And upon reaching that point, we need to say, “The novel is good enough, as good as I can make it with the feedback and skills and tools at my disposal…”

When is a manuscript done?

There are many ways to answer this question, from “A manuscript is never done; eventually we just stop working on it…” to “It’s done when it’s published,” to “It’s done when the author decides it’s done.” To be honest, I find some truth in all three of those, and a host of other answers I haven’t yet mentioned.

Those who follow my social media feeds closely, may have noticed that I post about finishing the same manuscript on two or three or even four different occasions: once when I finish the initial draft, again when I complete my revisions and submit it for consideration or publication, yet again when I complete edits and turn in a production draft, and maybe one more time when the book is in its final form and is ready for release. Each of those is a milestone in the development of a book. Each is worthy of celebration.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)But when do I consider the manuscript done? There is some truth to that first answer I gave. I consider all my books works in progress. My very first book, Children of Amarid, published in 1997 and recognized with a Crawford Award two years later, was, to my mind, never really complete. I knew for years that I could make it better. And when we finally got the rights back, I edited the book mercilessly (and did the same to its two sequels) and released the Author’s Edit of the novel. Only then, did I truly feel I had finished that first effort.

There is also an essential truth embedded in the other two answers I gave above: “It’s done when it’s published,” and “It’s done when the author decides it’s done.” Notice, I didn’t say “It’s done when it’s perfect,” or even, “It’s done when it can no longer be made any better.” There is no novel I can think of – not any of mine, not any by my favorite fantasy authors, not any by Faulkner or Steinbeck, Stegner or McCarthy, Morrison or Marquez – that is perfect, or that couldn’t be made better, even if just incrementally so, by one more editorial pass. There is no such thing as a flawless book. So stop trying to write one.

Seriously.

The true significance of the question “When is a manuscript done?” lies in its import for writers in the early stages of their careers. I know so many beginning writers, young and old, who are working on the tenth or twelfth or twentieth iterations of Their Novels. And for them I offer that first answer again: A novel is never done; eventually we just stop working on it. There comes in the revision process a point of diminishing returns. And upon reaching that point, we need to say, “The novel is good enough, as good as I can make it with the feedback and skills and tools at my disposal. It is time I submitted this book to publishers and agents.”

Now, let me be very clear about what I am NOT saying. I am NOT saying that your novel doesn’t need editing and revision. Of course it does. I’m working on book 25 right now. Or maybe 26. Whatever. I still need feedback and editing. I still need to revise every book, and revise again, and then revise some more. I still use Beta readers. I still seek feedback, tweak the book, and then seek more feedback. Rinse, repeat.

But here’s the thing: I can go through all my edits and revisions and then give my manuscript to a hundred new Beta readers, and chances are each of them will offer some new, unique criticism of the book. Where does it stop? How much editing is enough? When is a manuscript ready for submission?

Obviously, this is a decision each of us must make on his or her own. But the pursuit of perfection can be a career-killer. No editor or agent expects your manuscript to be devoid of flaws. As I said, there is no such thing as a perfect novel, and first novels almost always come with their own set of faults and foibles. Do what you can – make sure your plot works, keep your characters consistent and believable, by all means take care of all the typos and grammatical problems you can find. Your manuscript should be clean and professional. It should be as good as you can make it within reason. It should not be the only thing you’ve worked on for years and years. Because you know what? I’ll bet you every dollar in my pocket that the editor who decides to buy it is going to suggest a bunch of changes. That’s just the nature of the craft, the nature of the business.

In this case, “good enough” is not an abdication, it is not indicative of a lack of caring or effort. It is reality. Work on your book. Make it as good as you can. But don’t obsess over it, and don’t overwork it. Most important, don’t retreat into edits and revisions before you finish that first draft. Get the thing done. Then get feedback and revise. And then send it out and get to work on the next project.

When is a manuscript done?

A manuscript is done when you allow it to be. That’s probably the best answer I can offer.

Keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Self-Editing Techniques

We know the shapes of our narratives, and we also know our own voice and style. So our stories are likely to make sense to us, regardless of whether they make sense to others.

On Monday, I wrote about my recent editing experiences and the new challenges I’ve faced helping authors improve their work. Today I would like to continue in a somewhat similar vein with a post about self-editing.

Editing our own work can be incredibly difficult, but it is also a skill we can hone. Let me be absolutely clear, though: No matter how good we become at editing our own work, we still need outside editors. No one – NO ONE – is so good at writing and self-editing that they can get by without an editor. None of what I’m about to suggest is intended as a replacement for the editorial process. Rather, self-editing is a tool that will make subsequent editorial relationships easier and quicker. Every problem we catch on our own is one fewer we need to hash out with an editor. Put another way, the cleaner our manuscripts, the easier it is to navigate future edits and revisions.

So with those caveats firmly in place, let’s look at a few things we can do to improve our self-editing.

The biggest problem we’re likely to encounter in editing our own work is our familiarity with our stories and our writing. We know what we’re trying to say. We know the shapes of our narratives, and we also know our own voice and style. So our stories are likely to make sense to us, regardless of whether they make sense to others. Our prose is likely to be clear and coherent to us, even if it’s clunky or sloppy to others. As a for instance, have you ever omitted a key word from the sentence, and then read that sentence again and again and again, each time inserting the word in your own head so that you fail to realize that the word isn’t there on the page? Only when another reader comes along and says, “You know, you’re missing a word…” do we finally realize there’s a problem. In the same way, we can often come up with plot points that make perfect sense in our own thinking and remain utterly opaque to our readers.

Thus, the secret to successful self-editing lies in creating as much distance as possible between the writing process and the experience of reading our own work. We want the material to feel as fresh, as much like the work of another writer, as it can.

How do we do this? I like to create distance between the writing and editing experiences using several tools: time, format, medium.

Time is pretty simple, but let me back up briefly to say that I tend to write relatively polished drafts. That’s just the way I work. I want the wording of my first draft to be as close to the final version as possible, so I clean things up as I write. That said, though, once I finish a section of a draft, I don’t go back and edit until I complete the entire book. Any edits I think of along the way, I jot down in a separate file. And then I continue writing. As I said in a post a few weeks ago, I don’t retreat into edits because for me momentum is everything.

Once the manuscript is done, I stick it in a drawer (in a figurative sense) for at least four weeks. I prefer six. And yes, when planning my work schedule and juggling deadlines, I factor in this resting period. During the interim I work on other things, ideally something in a different world or series. That way, when I come back to the piece all those weeks later, it’s fresh. I won’t have forgotten it – that’s too much to ask. But it won’t be quite so familiar.

Format is a bit of an inconvenience, at least for me. I write at my computer. Everything. I can barely hand-write a shopping list anymore. And so I am used to looking at my manuscripts on a screen. Ideally, I then edit with a pencil on a paper copy of the book. Now, I understand that printing our manuscripts is a pain in the butt. It’s time-consuming, paper and ink are expensive, and there are environmental factors to consider. But the fact is, if I write on my computer and try to edit on the computer as well, I miss stuff. When I read the book on paper, I see things I would otherwise skim over. If you are in a position to print out your books I recommend doing so. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.

Medium is easy, although you might want to do this one in the privacy of your own home. We write our books in relative silence (though I do often speak as I type, particularly with dialogue), and we can read and edit them that way as well. Or, we can read them aloud. I’ll admit that at this stage of my career, I rarely print out manuscripts. But I ALWAYS edit by reading aloud. I see the page differently when I treat it as a script, catching mistakes I’d otherwise miss. And more to the point, when I hear the book, even in my own voice, I become aware of things that might escape me in a silent read: clunky transitions, words and phrases I’ve overused, stilted dialogue, and a bunch of other problems. Seriously, reading a piece out loud might leave you hoarse and exhausted, but it’s invaluable as a self-editing tool.

There are other distancing techniques that can help as well. For instance, if you write every day in the same spot in your house or in a library or café, trying editing elsewhere. That change in venue can make a difference.

The point is, you want your writing experience and critical reading experience to have as little in common as possible. Anything that makes the manuscript feel fresh and unfamiliar will contribute to clearing your perspective. And that, in turn, will allow you to see and fix issues you might have missed.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

On Writing: Revisions and the Editorial Process

Sure, these criticisms come in the context of someone saying, “Hey, I love this story, and I want to pay you for it. In real money.” So, thinking about this rationally, we should be able to process the editor’s feedback with this underlying praise in mind.

But we’re writers. We don’t necessarily do rational. And given the chance to fixate on praise or criticism, we will invariably choose the latter. Pathetic, I know. But it’s a living…

I recently completed revisions on TIME’S DEMON, the second novel in my Islevale Cycle. Almost immediately after finishing them, I began editing submissions to the upcoming anthology from Zombies Need Brains, TEMPORALLY DEACTIVATED, which I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. So for obvious reasons, I have had revisions and the editing process on my brain.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson  Art by Jan Weßbecher.When we talk about craft, we usually focus on elements of initial creation – world building, character building and development, plotting, structuring and pacing a story or novel, and all the pitfalls we encounter when writing our stories. And certainly those are topics worthy of vigorous exploration.

The fact is, though, the purpose in working on all of those things is to sell our story or novel. And should we be fortunate enough to do so, pretty much the first thing we will be expected to do is revise our manuscript in response to an editor’s concerns and criticisms. So doesn’t it make sense to turn some attention to that part of the creative process?

Receiving editorial feedback on something we’ve written can be incredibly difficult. Chances are, if we submitted a story or novel for consideration at a magazine or anthology or publishing house, we thought the story was pretty good to start with. So hearing that it has flaws – in certain cases significant, pervasive flaws – often comes as both a shock and a blow. Sure, these criticisms come in the context of someone saying, “Hey, I love this story, and I want to pay you for it. In real money.” So, thinking about this rationally, we should be able to process the editor’s feedback with this underlying praise in mind.

Jacket image for TEMPORALLY DEACTIVATED, edited by Joshua Palmatier and David B. Coe

But we’re writers. We don’t necessarily do rational. And given the chance to fixate on praise or criticism, we will invariably choose the latter. Pathetic, I know. But it’s a living…

Kidding aside, accepting editorial feedback and turning it into a positive revision process is one of the greatest challenges we face as writers. Especially early in my career, I found that my own reactions to criticism from editors ranged between two extremes. At times, I reacted with a knee-jerk defensiveness: “They just don’t understand what I’m trying to do with my story. If they were better readers, they’d get it, and they’d see that there’s no problem here.” At other times, I internalized it all and allowed it to feed my lingering imposter syndrome: “Yeah, they’re right. This is shit. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I have no place even attempting a story this complex or ambitious.”

Of course, both extremes had little basis in fact. My editors understood perfectly what I was trying to do with my story. There were just elements of it that I hadn’t handled well. Which didn’t mean that I was a shit writer. It meant I was human. My story wasn’t perfect. But it was good, and with my editor’s help, I could make it even better.

The emotional health in that previous paragraph was pretty alien to me early in my career. Sometimes it still eludes me. But it’s what I strive for when I receive editorial letters. So, here are a few things I try to keep in mind when trying to turn editorial feedback into effective revisions.

1. Editors are not our adversaries. The reality is that at times we find ourselves thinking of editors this way, in part because the editor-writer relationship is something of a hybrid. It’s a business relationship. Editors buy our stories and books, and at times we want them to pay us more than they’re willing to shell out. But it’s also an artistic collaboration. Our editors want our stories to be as good as they can be, just as we do. Every margin comment and line in an editorial letter is intended to help us get the most out of our narratives and characters.

2. A second set of eyes helps. No matter how much experience we have, or how good we might be at editing our own work, our stories will ALWAYS benefit from another reader’s perspective, especially if that reader is a professional in the field. We can’t possibly anticipate every problem with the things we write; we’re just too close to the material, the emotions, the creative process. Distance is our friend, and almost by definition, another reader brings that distance.

3. Our initial reaction to criticism is not necessarily our most productive reaction. I read through editorial notes the day I receive them. But I never respond until I’ve let myself process them for a day or two or three. Often I find that my first response to certain criticisms is to disagree, but over time I start to see what the editor is getting at. I generally wind up agreeing with 90% or more of the feedback I receive, although on that first day I probably agree with less than half of it.

4. I find it helps when I ask myself why I’m disagreeing with one point or another. Am I being overly sensitive? Am I too attached to a certain turn of phrase or narrative moment? Or is there really something vital here that I don’t want to sacrifice? A good editor will make clear up front that suggested wording changes are just that: suggestions. Early on, my first editor would cross out what I had written and put in his own wording. And sometimes his wording sucked. But when I talked to him about these instances, he said, “I don’t care if you use my wording. That’s not the point. I just want you to look for another way to say this.” Once I understood that he was pointing out problems rather than trying to make my book into his book, I found his comments much easier to take.

5. Sometimes we do have to fight for our artistic choices. There are times when editors get it wrong, and our way really is the right way. And in those instances, we have to hold strong for what we believe in. I try not to do this too often, because, as I say, we are all prone to defensiveness, and I want to be certain that I’m not opposing changes for the wrong reasons. But there have been times when I have had to stand firm on points about which I felt strongly. And a good editor also knows when to back down.

6. The revision process can be tremendously satisfying. Insights from a skilled editor can make the difference between a book that is just fine and one that is truly excellent. I try to approach revisions with my ego as much in check as possible, my mind open to possibilities I might not have considered before, and my commitment to my original artistic vision foremost in my mind. That last point is key. Clinging to my original vision does not mean resisting change. My original vision and my original wording are NOT the same things. Indeed, sometimes my writing carries me away from that first inspiration, and it takes the input of a perceptive reader to get me back to it.

Be open to new ideas, to the possibility that the current draft might not be the best possible draft, to the notion that the person pointing out where you can improve your story really does have your best interests at heart. Do these things and you might find, as I do, that revising a manuscript is every bit as gratifying as creating one.

(Not So) Quick-Tip Tuesday: Ups and Downs in the Writing Life

I’ve published nineteen novels, written lots of short stories, and (for those who like their cautionary tales with a dollop of irony) even co-authored a book on writing. And here I was, totally enamored of a manuscript that had deep structural issues. I should have known better.

Writers tend to want to share on social media when things are going well. We love to trumpet our happy news, and I’m certainly no different.

There are sound reasons for this. One is purely professional: It helps our careers to focus on the good stuff, to show the world new cover art, or to announce an upcoming release, the sale of a book to a publisher, an award nomination or great review from a major journal. Publicizing these things contributes to what the industry refers to as “buzz.” We want people to talk about us, and about our work, for the right reasons.

There is also a purely human reason: As I have said many, many times, writing is a difficult way to make a living. It can be frustrating, even demoralizing. We do much of our work in isolation, struggling with story lines and character arcs, and it can seem, at times, as though those tidbits of good news come all too infrequently. So, when things do go well, we want to shout it from the rooftops. And when those disappointments come, we tend to keep them to ourselves.

Which is why this is such an unusual post for me.

I’m dealing with a professional setback, and I believe it’s worth discussing publicly, because it represents, in many respects the very essence of what a writing career is like. Now let me be clear: In the larger scheme of things, this is a minor reversal, a tiny blip in the course of my career and something I will address and overcome quickly. But it certainly knocked me on my butt for a few days.

In December, I turned in a manuscript to my agent. This is a new project, the first volume in what I expect will be a time travel/epic fantasy trilogy (or more). In my excitement, I announced on Facebook and elsewhere that I had completed the book. I’m pretty sure I said at the time that it was the best work I had done to date. I’ve since been working on the sequel, and just last week I announced, again on Facebook and elsewhere, that I was 50,000 words in to book two.

The day following that most recent announcement, I received editorial notes on the first book from my agent–the terrific Lucienne Diver. And she tore the book to shreds. Poor pacing, lack of tension, slow development of my plot, flaws in the logic of my narrative that seemed to make things far, far too easy on my characters. There was more, but I’ll stop there because, you know, pride.

As you might imagine, I was devastated, and here’s why: A) She was right in just about everything she said; and B) I had thought the book was great and I couldn’t begin to imagine how I could have been so wrong. I’ve been writing professionally for over 20 years. I’ve published nineteen novels, written lots of short stories, and (for those who like their cautionary tales with a dollop of irony) even co-authored a book on writing. And here I was, totally enamored of a manuscript that had deep structural issues. I should have known better.

I wallowed in self-pity and woe-is-me histrionics for a couple of hours, and then called my wise and wonderful friend, Faith Hunter, who basically said, “Yup, happens to all of us. Get off your ass and fix it.” Which was perfect.

Because it does happen to all of us, and it points to several lessons that every writer, at every level, should keep in mind.

First of all, every manuscript has flaws. Actually, I would go further: Every published work has flaws. I have yet to read a perfect book, and I doubt very much that I ever will. This is why we revise and edit. This is why we send our books to beta readers and friends and agents for feedback.

This is also why every book needs a good editor. I don’t care who you are: J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, the next World’s-Best-Novelist, or the next Self-Published-Sensation. Whoever you are, or think you might be, you need an editor. I fancy myself a pretty decent self-editor, and with some books and stories I am. But I can only see so much in any of my own work. I am too close to my own creative process, too close to my own narrative assumptions. I can’t possibly anticipate every potential issue.

Yes, it’s hard to hear from someone we respect that our book, as it stands right now, is not yet ready for publication. Lucienne’s notes hurt. Each criticism felt like a kick to the gut (or a few inches lower); taken together they left me bruised and bloody. (Figuratively speaking–my agent is tough, but not quite that tough…) But taking such criticism and using it to improve the work in question lies at the very heart of what it means to be a professional writer. If we can’t abide critiques of our work, if we can’t step out of ourselves enough to see and accept and correct the mistakes we’ve made, we don’t deserve the privilege of telling stories for a living.

Even in those first couple of hours after I received Lucienne’s notes, as I cursed and flailed and did more than a bit of whining, I also started to ask myself the questions that would move me beyond this setback.

Do I still believe in the novel? Yes, I do.

Do I still love the characters and the world building? Yes, I do.

Am I still satisfied with the prose? Yes, I am.

Can I do what’s necessary to improve my story and make it worthy of those elements that remain sound? You bet your ass I can.

I already have ideas that will allow me to correct much of what my agent found lacking, and I sense the stirrings of additional ideas that will overcome the other problems. I know I can do this. I’ve fixed flawed novels before. Nineteen times, to be exact.

I’m eager to repair this book because I do love elements of it so much. I want to see it in print. I want all of you to read it. And you’ll have that opportunity, because I have no intention of giving up on the project.

I’m a writer. This is what writers do. We write, we revise, we polish, we publish. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Keep writing. Enjoy the process, in all its frustrating, harrowing glory.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.

A Word About Editors

I have just turned in a revised version of the short story I submitted to TEMPORALLY OUT OF ORDER, the new anthology being edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray. I am on “Team Patty,” which means that Patricia edited my story. And her feedback, and the subsequent revisions I did on my story, reminded me once more (as if I needed reminding) of how important a good editor is for all that we write, regardless of length.

As it happened, my story didn’t really need extensive rewriting. But it did need polishing and some subtle changes to deepen the character work and clear up the plotting. I hadn’t realized that it needed these things; it took Patricia pointing them out to me, gently, diplomatically, professionally for me to see the issues and find solutions. It helped that she was looking at it fresh — having a different set of eyes look through a story always helps, which is why having Beta readers can be so helpful. But more than that, Patricia is a fine editor who understands storytelling and can diagnose narrative problems with a simple read-through.

Of course she’s not the only person who can do this. Joshua is an excellent editor as well, and I have been fortunate enough to have worked with countless others — both on my books and my short fiction — who have improved my work and taught me valuable lessons about the craft. And that, really, is the point. We ALL need editing. I have been writing for a long, long time, and I have never written anything that was so perfect it didn’t need at least some help. A good editor is invaluable. And a good writer understands that her/his work can always — ALWAYS — be improved by editorial feedback.

Post up at Magical Words!

I have a post up today at MagicalWords.net. It’s called “My New Old Book,” and it’s about the twisted, meandering history of Spell Blind, book I of the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, the new novel I have coming out in January from Baen Books. I guess you could say that this post marks the beginning of the Winter 2014-15 Spell Blind Blog Tour, but since I don’t really know what kind of blog tour I’ll be doing for this release, that might be a bit premature.

Still, it’s a fun post. Spell Blind has been through several iterations, it has been rewritten and torn down to its component parts and rewritten again. Its impending publication is a case study in perseverance and authorial stubbornness.  So if that sort of thing interests you, you should check it out.  Here’s the link: http://www.magicalwords.net/david-b-coe/david-b-coe-my-new-old-book/

Enjoy!