Sunday, June 17, 2012

Writing 101: Reality Check

Fair use allows me to use the cover art to this wonderful manga comic Reality Check!, however truth in advertising requires I state that this blog post has absolutely nothing to do with this comic. I just needed a catchy graphic that contained the words "Reality Check" -- and this Rikki Simons comic [full title: Super Information Hijinks: Reality Check!] serves that purpose.

My reality check, the one about which I am writing today, has to do with that point in a writer's life when s/he has to come to grips with the manuscript they've been working on for months, possibly even for years.

In mid-2007 when I was acquiring for Golden Gryphon Press, I received a submissions query from a writer who was a fan of "pulp sword & sorcery" fantasy fiction. He explained that since little fiction had been written recently [at the time of this query] in the style of Robert E. Howard and Lin Carter, among others, he had written his own pulp sword & sorcery novel and was seeking publication.

His email was well-written and quite intriguing; he had my attention, so I replied in kind. In his next response, he attached a copy of the full manuscript, but included a caveat:
...the opening couple of chapters are admittedly the weakest portions of my novel, and I am at a loss as to how to improve them, so if you wouldn't mind reading ahead to chapter three or so where the real action begins, I would greatly appreciate it.
Trust me, this is not something I want to hear as an acquiring editor, that the first two chapters of a submission are weak and the author is at a loss on how to fix it. [Maybe just begin the novel with chapter 3 and weave in the necessary back story from chapters 1 and 2 where appropriate?]

So I read the first three chapters; actually, the novel began with a lengthy prologue, too! The overlong, wordy, winding sentences, that seemed to ramble on and on, nearly drove me to drink (well, at least an excessive amount of coffee)... As a test, I rewrote one paragraph (only two sentences!) without all the unnecessary verbiage and reduced it from 84 words to 77 words. Doesn't seem like much but it made a huge difference in the flow of the paragraph. In another scene he introduced five major characters -- plus a demon -- all with names that weren't...well, they weren't as easy to pronounce as "Conan."

So I sent him a response that included quite a bit of feedback: the paragraph example from above, the overwhelming number of characters in the scene from above, a few examples of sentence structure issues (misplaced phrases), grammar errors, etc. I also suggested that he find himself a local writers group, through a bookstore, or library, or college, so that he could obtain feedback from fellow writers. His response to my email was quite cordial [I had also mentioned that I was leaving Golden Gryphon Press at the end of the year] but not what I had expected:
Thanks for taking the time to evaluate my submission, and best of luck to you, as well, in your future endeavors. As for your suggestion to allow my work to be critiqued by some manner of reader group, I will have to pass, as I generally find writers to be a rather pretentious lot, and I have no desire to associate with such. Just so you know, I wrote this novel for my own personal amusement, and only decided to shop it around to publishers at the behest of friends and family. Obviously, based upon your critique of my work, I should just stick to writing for pleasure as I obviously haven't the necessary skills to compete in the professional market nor do I have the drive to make myself more competitive. Lesson learned.

That, boys and girls, is a reality check.

Which brings me to the present: Baycon 2012, held over the Labor Day weekend. I participated on a panel entitled "Self-Publishing: Where Does It Fit in the Literary Food Chain." This was one of those panels that was so well attended, so active a discussion, and so engrossing that I wish we had had at least another hour to continue the dialog; one and a half hours simply wasn't sufficient time.

Every discussion and panel on self-publishing in which I have participated has inevitably covered the subject of editing -- specifically the need to have one's manuscript professionally edited. Too many self-published writers are hoping to be the next Amanda Hocking, and to accomplish this rare feat with little or no out-of-pocket expenses -- like professional editing, professional cover art and design, etc. So when this subject came up during the panel discussion, one of the audience members asked: "Where do we find professional editors?" -- and I blurted out: "You can hire me!"1 In addition to my blurt, the panel covered other ways in which a writer might connect with an appropriate editor.

The convention was still in full swing, when on Sunday I received an email with the subject line: You said, "You can hire me!" One of the audience members at that panel discussion wanted to hire me to edit her manuscript, to which I eventually agreed.

First, however, I wanted to make sure we were compatible, so to speak. I requested the first chapter of her novel, which she sent me; I then did a full developmental edit on it, and provided her feedback via email. There was quite a lot of red ink -- including a suggested title change -- and I wanted to make sure she was open to this degree of feedback. She was.

This individual had been working on this novel for four years. Not full time, of course, as few writers have the luxury of being able to give up their day job. But nevertheless, she had put a lot of time into this manuscript; she had paid one professional author for an overall critique, she had workshopped parts of the novel at a past Worldcon and at a past Baycon, received feedback from writers met during NaNoWriMo, and she had also received feedback from beta readers.

She had been doing everything right [write] so far, at least in my professional opinion, but did she really want to invest further in this manuscript, or was she simply too attached to it to let go, to move on to something else, something new. Few authors write and successfully publish their first novel, even second and third novels. Many writers have one, or two, or even more completed novels stashed away in desk drawers or boxed on shelves in the garage that they don't want to toss away, yet hope no one will ever read them.

I felt the time was right for a reality check. I emailed the author and reiterated much of what she had communicated to me already regarding the novel's history. And then I asked her point blank if she was ready to rework this four-year-old novel yet again? Or, was she simply too attached to it due to personal familial reasons? Would it be more productive to set the novel in a drawer and move on to the next one?

I realized that if she agreed with me, I had just talked myself out of a job -- and income. But I couldn't ignore this concern.

She responded: "Your concerns are fair enough..." She explained that other writers had encouraged her to do something with the novel, specifically to publish it online. She went on to say:

I'd initially had very negative feelings about any kind of self-publishing, but I attended panels at BayCon planning to reconsider the idea within the current environment of online publishing.... However, I would still like anything I make publicly available to be my best effort and as close to professional quality as I can get it.

I had asked the author to rethink this project -- which she did -- and I was satisfied with her response. She is considering publishing the novel for free, online [she could possibly ask for donations were she to release the novel, say, one chapter at a time]. This action, if properly promoted, could develop a reader base, which in turn would be essential to any future self-publishing endeavor. But, bottom line, she insisted on professional editing even though she may be offering the novel to readers for free. That impressed me.

My question to you: Do you need a reality check on your work in progress?


1. I don't promote myself, per se, on this blog as much as I probably should. So let me take this opportunity to do so: I am an editor, and I am available to work on your manuscript. I can be hired to do developmental editing, line and copy editing, proof reading, or any combination of all three. My availability is determined by my workload at any point in time. Please feel free to contact me about your project and your requirements, and my rates. If you "View my complete profile" on Blogger you will find a link to my email address. 

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