The Five Stages of Novel Revision

Pick an emotion…any emotion…

The other day I watched a video by James Andrew Wilson, called The Emotional Stages of Writing a Novel. It’s both funny and true, so if you’re a writer (or even if you’re not) you should go and watch it.

Having recently been asked by an editor to revise a novel*, I think there are several stages to that process, as well. Here they are:

1. Elation Disappointment Disalation? I don’t know what to call this stage. Someone likes your novel and has said nice things about it! They think it has promise! Hurray! But you have to change things. It’s not perfect. The road ahead is paved with hard, hard work. Wah! It’s wonderful and horrible at the same time. You need a drink, some ice cream, or (insert favorite comfort item here) while it all sinks in.

2. Despair You don’t know how to do this. You can’t do this! Those changes won’t work! They’re too hard! They’ll wreck your novel! You can’t cut that subplot because then no-one will understand why the vagrant had to be blind. You can’t cut the busboy character because wasn’t it obvious that he was the one who saw the murder and reported it anonymously to the police? And how can the novel work at all without the circus? *headdesk*

3. Planning Okay, you just need to take a while and think about this. Think, and make a lot of notes. Maybe buy one of those huge whiteboards and diagram the entire novel on it. No! Better still, paint a wall of your office with chalkboard paint and diagram it there! Also, print out all the editor’s comments and highlight them with different colors according to level of importance, then glue them onto giant pieces of bristol board and brainstorm revision ideas around them! Oh yes, the pieces are all going to fall into place now…

4. Actual Work Half the time allotted for the revisions has now flown past. You’ve started seven different methods for working out how to fix your novel, but they’re all too much work or are too confusing. Finally you sit down with a printout of your novel and a red pen, and start reading and making notes. When you’re done, you start typing in your changes. It takes you all the rest of the time you’ve got and you have to alienate your family and friends to get it finished, but you do it. You think it stinks.**

5. Collapse You’ve sent in the revision just in time. By now you hardly care if the editor likes it or not–all that matters is that it’s done and you don’t have to look at the horrible thing any more…at least until the editor emails you…

*more details on that another day
** or you think it’s brilliant. Don’t worry, that won’t last.

Summer Project

So, that Bare Knuckle Writer really knows how to pull the strings and make me dance, whether intentionally, or not. She’s got me blogging more often (almost, like, regularly), and yesterday she threw down a gauntlet. (Yeah, she’s a little confrontational, but in a very endearing way.)

You really should go and read her entire post, because it’s fun and quirky as usual, but here’s the gauntlet part:

Every writer’s got one. That project whose time never comes. All it needs is a little love, but somehow it keeps getting pushed back in favour of new things and shinier ideas…This is its time. Dig that thing out, take it out to the back deck or the beach or the patio with you, and get to work.

And…she’s right. Of course she’s right. Who doesn’t have one (or more) of those projects, whether it’s a half-finished story, a novel, or something else? Honestly, I have more than I care to admit, but I’m not going to think about that or I’ll start crying into my keyboard. Or start a new chocolate binge. Possibly both. But I digress.

After reading the challenge yesterday, I printed out the manuscript you see in the photo above. It’s so close to being done that you can almost smell the done-ness on it. One more line-edit pass, that’s all it needs. It’s already been rewritten, revised, substantively edited and mostly line-edited.

Why has it been lying around for so long in this state of almost-finished-ness? Because it’s a bit of a strange project. A bit unclassifiable. A mash-up of genres. In plain words, I have no idea who might want to publish it.

But that’s not really the point, is it? The problem of what to do with it is not a problem until it’s done. So I’ll finish it. And then I’ll worry about what to do with it.

Sounds like a plan. BKW, I hope you’re reading this.

Self-Editing For Dummies

By Kadellar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsOh, calm down, I’m not really calling you dummies. But after thinking about my post the other day regarding the dearth of attention paid to editing lately, I realized that some portion of the blame must come to rest on the author, as well. The better we are at self-editing, the lesser our dependence on outside editors to catch all those little things that are dragging our stories down. Which, of course, puts us in a better light–both when editors and publishers read our submissions, and when our work (eventually, hopefully) finds its way into the hands of our readers.

So–how do you become a better self-editor?

1. Practice. Repeat after me: the first draft is not a finished work. Yes, you may complete your first draft in a rush of adrenaline and endorphins and think it’s the best thing anyone has ever written, anywhere. It’s not. Never send out something until that first fine rush has ebbed and you start to doubt. Once the doubt is there, you can start looking for all the things that are wrong, and begin to fix them. And fix them, and fix them, and when you think they’re fixed, see #2, below.

2. Other Eyes. My friend Steph has a great post over here about the necessity and value of first readers. The more eyes you can get on your work–knowledgeable, practiced eyes–the more chances you have of finding those things that editors will (or should) only fix later anyway. So those problems won’t be there to trip up your readers later.

3. Tools. Don’t underestimate the value of your word processor’s built-in spell-check and grammar-check; at the very least, they should make you slow down and look at possible problematic areas of your work. But they’re only the very minimal basics. One tool I love is Cliché Cleaner. Run your work through this handy little program to find clichés, overused expressions, and internal repetitions. It’s amazing how much one tool like this can help you clean up your work. You may have your own favorite cleanup tools–just don’t forget to use them.

4. Distance. Remember that first rush we talked about, that comes with completion of your first draft? One way to avoid falling victim to its siren song and sending your story out too soon is to get some distance from the work. Let it sit until it’s no longer totally fresh in your mind–a week, a month, even longer if you have the luxury. There’s nothing like coming back to it with some heightened objectivity to clear away the tint of those rose-coloured glasses.

5. Humility. No matter how competent or skilled a writer you are, you will always benefit from remembering that you are not perfect and neither are your early drafts. Expecting that your work will need polishing allows you to see its flaws more easily. Accepting that others will spot problems that you haven’t seen will make you more open to using their suggestions wisely.

For more advice on good self-editing, I highly recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King. Got your own self-editing favorites? Share them in the comments!

Image courtesy of Kadellar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tales of Tales ~ Part 7: Common Ground

Staying on the science fiction side of things, today I thought I would talk a little bit about “Common Ground,” another story in my collection To Unimagined Shores.

I actually can’t recall the “inciting incident” or the idea spark that led to this story. It’s based around a colony ship arriving at a new planet to find that it’s not as empty as the colonists expected. It also has a lot to do with parenthood, and I suspect the idea first came to me not long after our daughter was born. I do vividly remember lying awake one night thinking about the story and how excited I was to start writing it. There was a particular idea in it that, at that time, I thought was one of the best things I’d ever come up with. It’s a magnificent feeling, when you know you have a great story idea and it’s just waiting to come to life under your fingertips. The wonderful feeling doesn’t always last, and the story doesn’t always turn out to be as fabulous as you thought it was going to, but those moments of excitement and the feeling that you really have something are priceless.

“Common Ground” was published at Nuketown in 2001. Later, in 2003, the aliens from “Common Ground” formed the basis for one of the alien races who showed up in the novel I was writing for National Novel Writing Month, “One’s Aspect to the Sun.” I had obviously enjoyed writing these aliens. They were one of the first really well-developed alien races I’d created, and they have stayed with me. Years later an editor would tell me, “You really do write great aliens.” She wasn’t talking about these aliens in particular, but I’m quite proud of that comment, and it makes me strive, whenever I create an alien race, to make them very believable.

Once past the end of the garden we saw the cave. A dozen yards distant the shrouded entrance gaped blackly in the rock wall. And under a natural outcropping, half obscured by shadow, stood three aliens.

My stomach churned. My own breath made a hollow whistling sound in my throat. These were the creatures who had our babies. I could not even see them clearly yet, but a fist of fear tightened in my chest.

One of them held up a hand, but we had already stopped. The others were armed, not overtly menacing but standing easily erect, perhaps five feet tall and garbed in wrapped shirts and loose leggings.

The apparent leader gave a short speech, the words a tumbled gibber of growls, yips, and barks. It ended on a questioning note.

It’s the last day to enter my contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from thirdpersonpress.com, amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

Image “Planetfall by Moonlight” copyright 2010 by Sherry D. Ramsey

Tales of Tales ~ Part 6: On The Road With Fiamong’s Rule

Writing some stories is an uphill slog from start to finish, while others are so much fun to write that they practically seem to write themselves. “On The Road With Fiamong’s Rule” was one of those pure-fun stories for me.

Yet another of my stories that was idea-sparked by an anthology call, this one was originally written for an anthology looking for road trip stories–with, of course, an element of the speculative thrown in. The idea of a human-alien partnership in that road trip materialized quite quickly, as I recall, and as I said, the story seemed to write itself. This was one that I actually finished before the anthology’s deadline date, submitted and had accepted. Alas, something went wrong with the project, the anthology itself never made it to print, and I had to send the story out looking for another home. Such are the vagaries of the writing life.

The good news is that it did find another home, in the premiere issue of the Canadian Neo-Opsis magazine. If you look carefully, you can actually see my name on the cover. That was a first for me. Cool!

This story doesn’t follow a strict chronological timeline–there’s a fair bit of jumping back and forth between the “present” of the story and flashbacks to the past and the events leading up to the story’s “present.” I think I was experimenting a bit when I wrote this one, and I’d probably just been reading something that recommended starting a story “in medias res”–in the middle of the action. To illustrate what I mean by that, here’s the opening:

The worst moment of the whole trip came just before three a.m. on Friday. I stood in the driving rain, mud seeping insidiously into my shoes. The alien’s outline looked enormous in the dark, and the tire iron in his hand even more so, silhouetted against the probing glare of the police car’s headlights. When the cruiser had driven past a moment ago I thought we might be in the clear, but no, it had turned and was coming back.

My credit card was still being held hostage by the jerk at the service station and I had lost the rest of my ID in the motel fire. We had to make it to Ottawa by noon the next day or the entire mission could fail. I had about thirty seconds to think of something to tell the police, and if I didn’t get rid of them quickly, the alien would give himself away and we’d both be in the soup.

What was I, a previously normal at-home-mom of two, doing here? Tim was going to be furious when he found out.

Definitely the worst moment of the whole experience. Well, except for what happened later.

“In medias res,” indeed. I think I might have been testing to see just how far into the action one could really start a story. :)

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from thirdpersonpress.com, amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

Tales of Tales ~ Part 5: The Ambassador’s Staff

Keeping to the SF side of the equation, I thought I’d take a look today at “The Ambassador’s Staff.” This story was originally published in the anthology Thoughtcrime Experiments. There’s a lot of interesting data on the website, compiled by the editors during and after the process. If you’ve ever thought about putting together an anthology, it makes a very interesting read. You can also read the entire anthology there.

Funnily enough, what I didn’t realize when I submitted the story to this anthology, was that they were particularly looking for stories that had been previously rejected by other markets. I don’t know how I missed that, but I did. This was actually the first place I’d submitted the story, and it was accepted. Oops!

The editors liked it, but wanted me to rewrite the ending to some extent. They gave very clear suggestions, but my first reaction was panic—they wanted it done over the weekend! At first I honestly didn’t know how to tackle it. But after some calming breaths and a hot drink, I got to work, and the editors were happy with the result.

Where I live, there’s talk from time to time of building a launch base for boosting things up into orbit—apparently our geographical location makes it a prime spot for this. It has never materialized (and I somehow doubt that it will, although I would love to be wrong about that), but I did start thinking…what might it look like here in a hundred years or so, if such a thing were built? The result was Cape City, a spaceport town. The other big idea in this story came from—spam! The subject line of a spam email made me imagine a drug called Level…and once again, two ideas clicked and decided they needed to be together.

I followed him to the door and he headed into the street. I watched him through the window, weaving his way through the folks milling around the spaceport, a few going to or from jobs, more just wandering—the street vendors, the homeless, the dealers and the Levelers.

One of those was sprawled in the doorway of Kugar’s video shop across the walklane, and I could tell the way he just stared, not moving, not blinking, that he was Leveled ‘way up. Kugar wouldn’t like that, but if he wanted the Leveler moved, he’d have to pick the guy up and carry him away. Once that white liquid finds its way down their throat or into a vein, they’re living in an alternate reality, and they don’t see, hear, feel or care anything about this one until they come back down.

I sighed and turned away from the window. The joke is that Leveling is the furthest you can get from Earth without actually boarding a ship. If I’d gone off-planet when I’d had the opportunity—well, who knows what would have happened. But chances are I wouldn’t be living in a tiny apartment above my office in a place like Cape City. Even if it was my own office.

“The Ambassador’s Staff” mixes genres, something I’ve realized I really like to do. This one puts a sort of hard-boiled female detective character on the streets of a spaceport town. I’d like to do more with this character as well, and I have a couple of ideas percolating. When she’s ready, I’m sure she’ll tell me how they turn out.

Lowering the Scalpel


The past number of weeks I’ve been busy with revisions to a novel manuscript. A publisher requested them, and I have a deadline, and it’s been an interesting and challenging task. My first thought when I got the email requesting them, of course, was, I don’t know how to do this!

But I soon found out that, also of course, I did. It turned out to be a pretty logical process, once I took a few minutes to think about it. Re-read the manuscript, because it had been some time since I’d actually looked at it. Make copious notes about what to change and how to change it and how best to address the concerns. And then—do it.

The reading and note-making took the bulk of the time, because I wanted to be thorough. It’s also sometimes a precarious undertaking, to start tinkering with the innards of a novel manuscript, because if you’ve done it right, it all stands up, nicely stacked and interdependent like a house of cards. Switching out and adding in new cards after the fact can cause the entire thing to come tumbling down, so it takes a lot of care and a steady hand.

I got to a point eventually, though, where I knew it was time to turn on the change-tracking feature and start making those changes. Beginning that part of the process was something I had to push myself into a bit. To switch analogies from cards to medicine, starting to mark up the manuscript felt like the start of a surgical procedure. The scalpel is in hand, you know it’s time, but you haven’t cut into the skin yet, and there’s a moment of hesitation. You have a plan, but you don’t really know how much blood there’s going to be once you start to cut. Any number of things could go wrong. Once you make that initial incision, there’s no going back—you’re committed to seeing the whole thing through to the end.

However, the surgery is the only treatment option, and you know it. And I knew it. So I pushed past that moment of hesitation, and so far the surgery is going well. It has a ways to go yet, but I think the patient is going to survive, and emerge stronger than ever. I’ll report on the prognosis as it becomes available.

Photo credit: chrisgan

The Waiting Game

old typewriter keysRome wasn’t built in a day.

Good things come to those who wait.

A watched pot never boils.

These are the things we tell ourselves as we wait for our manuscripts to be read, evaluated, and (we hope) accepted by editors and publishers. One of my novel manuscripts has made another jump up the ladder, an email today informs me.

{happy dance, happy dance, happy dance}

Okay, back to the waiting game. I’ll try to put it out of my mind again for another little while.

Manuscript Impressions ~ The Cover Letter

Although we’ve detoured into novel formatting in this series of posts, now we’re going back to talk about short story submissions. In most cases, it’s a good idea to include a cover letter with your submission. Remember, we’re talking cover letter here, not query letter. That’s a whole other post (or series of posts!).

In writing a short story cover letter, keep the KISS principle in mind. Keep it Simple, Submitter!

1. The simplicity should begin with your paper. Don’t use fancy, overblown letterhead, paper with images of books or other writerly symbols, parchment-look paper, or anything other than plain white bond. If you have a simple letterhead, just something with your contact information, like this:

Sherry D. Ramsey
123 Street Street, Sometown, Someplace, Country, Code
Phone, Email, Website

…go ahead and use it, but remember, keep it simple! Otherwise follow standard business letter format.

2. Use a plain, easily-readable font. We’ve discussed fonts previously, and the same rules apply–don’t make the editor struggle to read your letter. The letter is brief, so if you want to move a little outside the box of Times New Roman and Courier, it’s probably okay, but stay simple and professional. Using something like Old English or Jokerman is not going to make you stand out from the crowd–at least not in a desirable way.

3. Know the proper name and address of the editor you’re contacting. These things change, so check for the most recent information you can get.

4. First paragraph: Tell them what you’re sending.

Please find enclosed my story, “This One’s A Winner,” which I would appreciate your considering for publication in Your Awesome Magazine. This piece runs approximately 5000 words.

If you want to call it “my science fiction story” or “my steampunk story” etc., that’s okay, but sometimes it’s better not to pigeonhole your work–let the editor decide what it is. If you’ve done your market homework, you’re sending the right type of story to the right market anyway, so you shouldn’t have to mention it. Right?

4. Second paragraph: Tell them who you are. By this, I mean; mention any previous publications in the same general genre as the story you’re submitting. If you have quite a number of credits, don’t list them all; just the few (three or four) most recent or most prestigious (however you define that). If you have no previous publication credits, don’t sweat it, and don’t try to stick in a bunch of other stuff instead. You may, if you wish, mention fiction for which you’ve won an award, but only if it’s relevant.

5. Third paragraph: Thank them in advance for considering your story, and tell them you look forward to hearing from them. Finish with a standard business closing.

That’s it. Short and simple.

Now, for those of you who think I must have forgotten something, here are some things you do NOT want to include or try to do:

1. Don’t include a summary or synopsis of your story. Your story is going to speak for itself, and that’s what the editor wants to read.

2. Don’t try to be cute, clever, funny, threatening, or anything other than straightforward and professional. This is only a short story you’re trying to sell, and the editor will know if it’s right for the publication upon reading it. Anything else is irrelevant.

3. Don’t tell the editor how many times this story has been rejected, that they will love it, or anything else about it.

4. In short, don’t do anything that isn’t listed above. CAVEAT: Always read the guidelines (have I mentioned this before?) and if they request anything else, then of course include that. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

More questions? Anything I haven’t covered yet? I can’t think of anything just now, but of course I reserve the right to post more on this subject at any time. :)