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Observations for New Authors
First off, I’m not an expert. While I did earn a Bachelor’s degree many moons ago, it was in Computer Science. My success in seeing my novels published came in 2011, but the journey really began in 2004 when I made the decision to pursue the life-long dream and do something with my love of writing. With five books published to date and more on the way, the road to this point was long and paved in the disappointment of rejections. Some came in the form of a preprinted slip of paper arriving in the obligatory SASE saying, “No thanks.” Others, however, offered guidance and references to resources, and I would like to share some of what I learned with writers out there who are “pre-published.”
A Simple and Daunting Truth: Thanks to personal computers and no shortage of word processing software options, including ones that will “hear” spoken words and turn them into text, everybody who ever thought they had a story to tell can get it down in a readable format. This has inundated agents and publishers with material, to the point where they can barely process it all to decide on a yea or nay. One of their favorite ways of winnowing is to identify manuscripts that will require major editing before they are ready for public consumption. Editing equals time, time equals money. Publishing is a business, and editors and agents must therefore estimate return on their investment for a work they have been asked to review. While a best-selling author will probably always draw sales, for the unknown author, the submission must be darned near perfect to get a chance to show it too can earn a profit.
Editing: A clean manuscript for submission is crucial for the pre-published writer, because a lot of mistakes will make an agent/editor/publisher stop reading after a couple of pages and send out a form rejection. Proofing, proofing some more, having someone else proofread, and maybe proofing again, still may not be enough. Editing is more than proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Some nuggets of knowledge I’ve picked up along the way follow.
Microsoft Word Gets It Wrong: Yes, spelling and grammar checking are wonderful tools, but they are computer programs that try to apply logic to English, an impossible task for a language built upon many others. By all means, use them as a first pass, but be wary. For one thing, Microsoft Word is geared toward business writing, not fiction. When an author writes in first person point of view as well as in dialog, Word will come up with a thousand and one recommendations that are, essentially, pointless. For example, in conversation, people do not always speak in complete sentences. Word will call it a fragment and suggest rewriting such statements. Also, this software has some sneaky errors. It will routinely recommend using “it’s,” the contraction for “it is,” in place of “its” which is the possessive form of “it.” Yes, it’s one of those goofy rules of our language, but chalk it up to one of its quirks that defies logic. Word also suggests changing “peeked” as in taking a quick look to “peaked” as in reaching the summit of something.
Homonyms: To, too, two. Which (witch) is it? So maybe those are pretty basic examples, but it takes real vigilance in proofreading to catch the not-so-common errors. I was recently writing a novel involving witchcraft, and one character was showing another the implements used in casting spells. I wrote the word “challis” for a goblet instead of “chalice,” meaning to look it up later, but grammar checker did not notice. After all, I spelled “challis” (a type of fabric) correctly. This sort of mistake makes me wonder about those software packages that convert spoken words to text and what sort of product they turn out.
Apostrophe Hell: Most style manuals will say to avoid using contractions as much as possible in narrative. (They are okay in dialog because people do talk that way.) There is a good reason, which I unexpectedly appreciated when I picked up a novel by a best-selling author who had published dozens of books. She ignored this style rule. With all the contractions, which require an apostrophe, and possessive additions of an apostrophe and an “s” at the end of a name and characters quoting within their dialog or dropping letters in lazy speech, the first page was just littered with apostrophes, and it so annoyed me I quit reading. That’s what editors and agents do, too--when they get annoyed, they stop reading.
Repetition: The first novel I started shopping to agents was never published. One agent sent the first few pages to a professional editor who sent them back to me with comments. The one thing that completely blew me away was that I had used the phrase “and the like” three times on one page. (Oh, I had so much to learn.) Repetition also applies to individual words, of course. With a bit of web searching, I found a free tool that will process an entire manuscript and provide a table of every word used, how many times it was used, and how many words separate the two nearest instances. I use it to check for overuse of words or use of the same word too many times in a short crop of text. Also in regard to overused words, verbs such as “was” and “got” are boring and tell rather than show. Action words are better. Instead of He was angry, try His face turned scarlet with fury. Which one paints a picture in the reader’s mind?
Give It A Rest: It becomes easy to miss errors after reading your own book for the umpteenth time, and taking a break can help. Another advantage, though, is best shown by example. In the second novel I wrote (also never published), my hero was named Michael and my villain was named Maxwell. The manuscript hibernated in my computer after many rejections, but I went back to give it another read after a couple of years with the thought of doing a rewrite. During the climactic scene, hero and villain had a physical struggle. I, and I’m sure other people, tend to read faster during high-action sequences, and I found myself losing track of who hit whom because of the name similarities. In the words of my current publisher: “Never confuse your reader.” This sort of thing can be hard to spot while in the process of creating the story, but after the hiatus, the problem became all too obvious. I now allow a manuscript to rest for a couple of days at least and get back to it with fresh eyes.
Lulling Rhythms: If every single sentence in a paragraph is the same construction, a singsong rhythm starts to develop in the reader’s head. John went to the racetrack in the afternoon. Mary waited at home for him. The kids hardly noticed he did not come home for dinner. Another example would be using an introductory clause in front of every sentence. Like the sound of a train on the tracks, it becomes tiresome and annoying. A writer needs to mix it up a bit with some compound sentences, prepositional phrases, and other stylistic tools.
It’s All About Conflict: My first published novel, The Dreamer Gambit, went through several rewrites, but the one that really turned the tables was initiated by a comment from an agent in a rejection letter. In my effort to put the reader where the action is, i.e., “show, don’t tell” as the advice usually goes, I had too much back-story. The trick is to get some kind of conflict going within the first couple of pages. Instead of starting Dreamer with a key encounter that occurred ten years before the mystery begins, I rewrote it to start with a car crash which sets off the chain of events. That is where the story starts. That is where the novel must start.
Start Small: Write articles for free. Enter contests. I wrote an entry for the Chicago Tribune when they had a Halloween ghost story contest and it was posted on the paper’s website. I also wrote sci-fi stories for a contest and got a couple of honorable mentions. Agents/publishers like to see something tangible in that last paragraph of the dreaded query letter that deals with writing credentials. If you write something that gets any type of acknowledgement--newspaper, magazine, website, prize--it’s a credential and far better than a simple “I have always loved to write.”
Start Smaller: My first novel weighed in at a hefty 120,000 words. That would be the makings of a very expensive printed book, and what publisher is going to take a chance on producing it for an unknown commodity of an author? POD publishing faces the same problem of expense to publish. Nobody will want to pay the price they would have to charge to produce a tome that size. Yeah, there are those who have gotten away with it, e.g. J. K. Rowling, but the odds of it happening to most people are up there with winning the lottery. I tend to shoot for somewhere between 75,000 and 80,000 words. It requires ruthlessness in editing, but if that lyrical description covers something that never appears again or the clever passage of dialog does not move anything forward, I get rid of it.
Bigger Is Not Necessarily Better: E-books have opened up a whole world to writers, and even the major publishing houses have come to realize they are no longer king of the hill. People are hungry for content, more than traditional print books can fulfill, and the notion of toting an e-reader device instead of piles of books has great appeal. A small publisher got me my start in e-books, and I feel extraordinarily blessed to have found my way to them. And without an agent!
Read Other Writers: Common advice, but I offer a caveat. Read first novels, the ones that got those best-selling authors out of the slush pile to begin with. Once an author gets name recognition, his/her name alone with sell the book whether it is any good or not, like the apostrophe-riddled one mentioned earlier. There’s an anecdote that goes around about someone retyping A Tale of Two Cities or some other classic with an unknown name as author, and having it rejected everywhere it was sent. That’s just how it is.
I have learned a great deal from rejections, from books of advice for writers, from reading articles by writers, from talking to other writers. I don’t know if anyone ever really knows everything about writing for profit because it is an industry under constant, and of late, rapid change. Always be on the lookout for hints, tips, knowledge, and learn from mistakes, your own and those of others. If someone gives you negative feedback, it is not an insult but a chance to learn. Step outside your love for your novel and try to see it from an outsider’s view. The best advice of all, I think, is simply to keep at it, keep learning, keep writing.