Tag Archives: self-editing

Professional Wednesday: Creativity and the Market

As a professional writer — as a professional in the arts — I take on several career roles. I am an artist, of course. I create. I am an editor, and not just in the traditional sense of editing the work of others, as I’m doing now for the Derelict anthology. I also have to edit myself. All the time. Anything I publish will face edits from another editor, but first my work has to get through my own editorial process, which is fairly rigorous.

I am also a business professional. I make career decisions on a weekly-if-not-daily basis, often in consultation with my agent, but not always. Most short fiction projects don’t involve an agent, and the same is true of some projects that I put out through small presses or that I might publish myself.

And, of course, I am responsible for a good deal of my own marketing and publicity. Maintaining this blog, and the websites on which it appears, keeping up with social media, etc. — all of this is time consuming and absolutely essential to my career.

Most of the time, I can fulfill each of these roles without my actions in one coming into conflict with my actions in another. Most of the time. But what about those few occasions when there are conflicts of a sort? What do I do then?

I’m often asked whether my publishers have pressured me to write a book a certain way in order to have more marketing appeal, or (related) whether I have ever had a publisher tell me to write a certain type of book. And the short answer is no. I have worked with many editors on my various series, and (as I mentioned last week) all of them have been very clear in saying that my books are, well, MY books. I retain final creative control over how the books are written. Editors may make suggestions designed to improve the book, but these are suggestions and in the end decisions about content are mine to make.

That said, though, I have throughout my career received suggestions that were designed to maximize the marketability of a book or series. Again, the decision has always been mine to make, but marketing suggestions often come with what we might call “implied incentives.”

“If you do it this way, you may well sell more books and make more money.”

Some of these choices are huge in scope. How huge? Well, when I first pitched the Thieftaker series, I envisioned it as an epic fantasy, set in an alternate world. My editor at the time suggested that turning it into a historical would make it more marketable, and, he added, if I did so Tor would be able to give me a bigger advance. He suggested I set the books in London. I didn’t want to do that, but once I started thinking about it as a historical, I hit on the idea of setting the series in Boston. And, as they say, the rest is history… [Rimshot]

At other times, the artistic/marketing choices are more subtle. And that brings us to the immediate inspiration for this post. I am starting the edits on a supernatural thriller that I have recently sold to a small press. The first book in the series is complete, and I love it. But I have been aware from the very start that the book will not be easy to market. It’s a thriller, intended for adults, but it has a teenaged protagonist and a few elements that convinced my agent we should market the book as a YA thriller. I wasn’t sure about this, but she was, so that was how we pitched it to publishers.

Well, a publisher bought the book, and the series, but like me, the publisher sees the book as an adult thriller and has asked me to make some changes that she feels will make the marketing of the book easier. Her initial suggestions struck me as too drastic, and so we talked and have reached a compromise that satisfies our shared marketing concerns while also preserving my original concept for the book and overall project.

And this is really the point of today’s post.

As an artist, I have in mind a plot, a set of characters, a setting, a tone and pace and voice for the book. I am committed to that initial vision, and certainly will follow it as I write and revise the first iteration. Once we transition from the creative impetus to the actual marketing of the book, though, the business side of my professional brain kicks in a little. I will not jettison my creative vision for money. Not ever. But I also will not — cannot — allow my adherence to a creative vision to undermine a book’s commercial viability. My goal as writer is to put out the best product I can, and to make a living. So, I will strive to find a balance between respecting my creative efforts and working with the publishing professionals who have agreed to put out my book, and who are skilled in the marketing side of the business.

Writing is my art. It’s my profession. It’s my source of income. I’m not interested in preserving my amateur status in order to make the literary Olympics. I want to write, and I want to make money doing it. In order to be satisfied, not only with my work, but also with the results of that work, I need to blend my roles and get the most out of each project — creatively and financially.

That’s what it means to be a professional.

Keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Anatomy of a Rewrite

As I described in a recent Writing-tip Wednesday post, I have been working recently on a trunk series — a pair of books, the first two in a projected trilogy, that I initially wrote nearly ten years ago. I have returned to working on these books for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve always loved the storylines, the characters, the relationships — these stories spoke to me when I wrote them, and have stayed with me in the years since. And second, in the midst of this emotionally challenging year, I have found it hard to create new worlds and projects. I’m not sure why, but there it is. On the other hand, polishing older work, or returning to old worlds for new stories, as I’ve done with Thieftaker, has been productive, rewarding, and even comforting.

In the previous post about trunk novels, I mentioned that while the first book in this series needed close line editing and little more, the second book was “a hot mess.” I’m now neck-deep in my edits of the second book and that impression still holds. The novel has tons of potential, but when I left off with it years ago, it had a number of significant flaws. Which, I suppose, is why it wound up in the proverbial trunk.

Many of us have novels that need work, projects that we’ve set aside, or even works-in-progress that we know have problems. I thought it might be helpful to give you a sense of how I am tackling this rewrite.

1) The Initial Read-through: I started by re-reading the two books in quick succession. I didn’t try to edit as I worked. I just wanted to remind myself of the current state of the novels — the content and the style. I made a few notes as I read, but mostly I approached them as a reader might.

2) The Line Edits: Yes, usually line edits are the last thing we do, after what is known in the business as a “developmental edit.” I chose to do the line edits first, even on the second book, which needs so much structural work. Why? Well, first because some of the prose was so rough that I couldn’t imagine revising the book and ignoring the problems. Those problems included passive constructions, overuse of “that” and past perfect constructions (using “had”), over-explaining, general wordiness, and “humorous” passages that fell flat. Second, I started with the line edits because doing these close revisions allowed me to study the narrative elements more closely and become more familiar with the structural problems I wished to address.

3) The Ruthless Cuts: This is a different editing task, but I actually did it while going through the line edits. There were elements of the story that just didn’t work as written. Unfortunately, at least one of them included some of the best written passages in the draft. Nevertheless, they had to go. I shortened one section of the book by 6,000 words, and cut a thousand from another scene as well. Overall, including scene cuts and general tightening of the prose, I have cut well over 12,000 words from the book. And what a difference this has made. The prose is concise and punchy, and the story flows far better than it did.

4) The Brainstorming: This is where I am now. The book currently stands at about 72,000 words. I can probably delete another thousand, but I’ve cut most of the fat from the manuscript. The story is better than it was, but it needs certain elements inserted along the way and it needs an ending. A good ending. Not the train wreck I was in the midst of writing when I gave up on it a decade ago. By now, though, having read it front-to-back twice, and having done my close edit of the writing, I am steeped in the story and ready to tackle the problems.

When I brainstorm, I tend to open a file in my word processor and type stream-of-consciousness, asking myself questions and answering them on the keyboard. That’s just my approach — your mileage may vary. The point is, I am considering how to work in key elements currently missing from the story. I am figuring out how to work in a new idea for a plot twist that occurred to me during the line edits. And I am keeping better track of all my plot threads, making certain that this ending ties everything up as it should.

5) The Implementation: When I start writing the new scenes, including my concluding chapters, I will create them in separate files. I do this because I find it freeing. It’s totally a mind-game. When I am writing a new book, I work in a single document from start to finish. But when revising, rather than mess with that original file, I not only make a working duplicate, I also create new files for big inserts and additions. That way even if the new scene turns out to be a disaster, the original manuscript is no worse off. Again, it’s something I do out of consideration for my own obsessiveness. And it works.

6) The Final Edit: When I have written and polished these new scenes and pasted them into the manuscript, I’ll then set the novel aside for a while. I’ll work on other projects — I have stories to read for the anthology I’m co-editing; I want to outline the third book in this series; and other stuff… After maybe five weeks, I’ll come back to this book and read it through again. I’ll do a final polish on the prose, but more important I’ll make certain the plot works and that the new narrative elements blend seamlessly with the old. When I’m satisfied, I’ll send both books, volumes one and two, to Beta readers. By then, I hope, I’ll be ready to write the concluding volume of this trilogy. I’ve been thinking about the characters and story for nearly ten years. It’s time I finished it.

I hope you’ve found this deep dive into my process helpful.

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!

(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.

Quick-Tip Tuesday: More on Self-Editing

This is still the work of an inexperienced writer. Comparing The Outlanders to the work I’ve done more recently, I still cringe a little at the habits of that younger me. But I also see growth, a writer beginning to master elements of his profession.

And, to my surprise, I see as well things that I need to be reminded of today as I think about where I ought to go next with my career and my craft.

Today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post at Magical Words again discusses my revisions of my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, and what I have learned from that younger version of myself. It’s not just a matter of correcting youthful mistakes; at times, I’m finding that I need to emulate more some of the things I used to do. Sounds interesting, right? Then read the post! You can find it here.

The Re-Release of My First Novel

To fans of the original, thank you for the support you’ve shown me over the years. I couldn’t be more grateful. To those coming to the series for the first time, welcome. I hope you enjoy reading these novels as much as I have enjoyed revisiting them.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Nineteen years ago, I realized my lifelong dream of becoming a published author of fantasy with the release from Tor Books of Children of Amarid. I followed that up with the second and third volumes of my LonTobyn Chronicle, The Outlanders and Eagle-Sage, books that would win me the Crawford Fantasy Award and establish me in the business.

I have always loved these books, and yet, as I’ve moved forward with my career, I’ve also been aware of their flaws. They were passionate and decently written, but they were also plagued by many of the problems endemic to first novels. For years, I’ve wanted to go back and edit them.

In 2005, they went out of print. Eventually, the rights to the books reverted to me, and at last I was able to revise them. This month, the long process of preparing the books for re-issue finally comes to fruition.

Children of Amarid, art work by Romas KukalisI’m delighted to announce that the Author’s Edit of Children of Amarid is now available from Lore Seekers Press in ebook format and trade paperback. The book bears the original art work by Romas Kukalis, as will the subsequent volumes, which we hope to publish in September and December respectively. I have not changed the story in any way. The plot twists, characters, world building, and magic system all remain as fans of the original novels will remember them. But the prose has been polished, made leaner and more concise. The result is a novel that reads as I wished it had all those years ago.

To fans of the original, thank you for the support you’ve shown me over the years. I couldn’t be more grateful. To those coming to the series for the first time, welcome. I hope you enjoy reading these novels as much as I have enjoyed revisiting them.

And finally, to those attending ConGregate in High Point, North Carolina next weekend, please come to the Friday night book launch. My book will be one of several feted that evening.

A Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Self-Editing

I’ve noticed an incredible amount of extra verbiage in my early books — filler, if you will: superfluous words that add little to the storytelling, but clutter up my prose. For the wordiness-intolerant, these words are as unwelcome as, well, Wonder Bread at a luncheon for the gluten-adverse. How much is “an incredible amount”? In Children of Amarid, book I, I cut 20,000 words without touching plot, character, or setting.

It’s another Quick-Tip Tuesday over at the Magical Words blog site. Today’s post is about self-editing, and specifically finding ways to tighten up our prose. I’m editing my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, for re-release later this year, and I’m doing a LOT of cutting and tightening, so this is definitely on my mind right now. Find out what I’m thinking as I edit my work. You can read the post here.

Enjoy, and keep writing!