TIP #4: GET OUT THE SCALPEL, IT’S TIME TO EDIT!
I love to write. I love to just sit in front of a blank screen and bleed all over the page. There are snippets and gouges and puzzle piece bits of story saved all over my hard drives. Sometimes I see a file with an intriguing title and open it up to find a little nugget of gold I had forgotten I had written. More often than not, however, I open a file and find a little rat pill.
Not everything I write is worth saving. Not everything I write deserves your attention. Like excessive adverbs! I enjoyed reading the Harry Potter series but I don’t believe there is a single adverb in the English lexicon that J. K. Rowling failed to use in her book series. But, when you’ve sold billions of dollars worth of books, you can pretty much write anyway you want.
Recently at a book signing, I was asked the question that all writers get. “What is the writing life like?” or “How do you find time to write?”
Let me give you a snapshot of my life, right now. I never anticipated the writing life would be like this. I feel overwhelmed much of the time. But, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Let me say at the outset what I tell anyone who asks about time management. You don’t FIND time to write, you MAKE time to write. If you are serious about writing, you MUST sit down and carve out very specific times in your week to write. Some authors choose to write for a specific period of time, say, six hours a week. Other writers choose to write a certain number of words per day, say 1000 words per day. It doesn’t matter which pattern you choose. The point is to set aside a time for writing and then WRITE. Don’t check email. Don’t read blogs. Don’t read a book. WRITE. From the moment you sit down before your computer or your legal pad, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!
Eventually, you will find yourself surrounded by DEADLINES. Some may be self imposed. Others are imposed by your publisher or a deadline for a blog for which you write. Deadlines are GOOD. True, they are a necessary evil, but they force you to MAKE that time to write.
Now, I find myself dividing my time between FOUR processes. First, there is the process of IDEAS. Second, there is the process of ROUGH DRAFT. Third, there is the process of EDITING. And, finally, there is the process of MARKETING.
Let me give you a sneak peak of my past two weeks.
In the IDEA area, I have already shared my experience at the International Christian Retail Show. In the aftermath of a divine appointment at the ICRS, I am in the process of developing ideas for not just one book, but an entire book series. This means research into the subject matter; examining competing works; looking for that unique “hook” that will make this book different from others; and collaborating with my co-author and mentor on the final content of a book proposal.
Also, in the IDEA area, I am working on two other fiction books and two other non-fiction book series ideas. Two publishers have expressed an interest in these books. And, if I don’t get something to them soon, they will move on.
In the ROUGH DRAFT area, I am finishing up my fourth book in the Chronicles of Jonathan Steel for Realms. I turned in my third book in December and I have until the end of this year to complete my final draft of “The 10th Demon: Children of the Bloodstone”. I am setting aside an entire week in August to write everyday for six days.
In the EDITING area, I can count on spending January through April of each year heavily editing the book that will be released in October of that year. This editing process consists of an initial edit for story substance. I work with my editor and his suggestions are legion, but always right on the money. For two months, I will rewrite and edit the final draft to fit my editor’s suggestions. This takes hours and hours of my time. After this initial edit is done, my editor returns the line edit.
The line edit is a tedious line by line edit for such things as grammar and spelling. My editor(s) will make suggestions and I have to go through the document line by line and either accept or reject the suggested changes. Line by line. The entire manuscript. Literally, thousands of changes. Yes, it is tedious and it takes days! Now, once this line edit is done it is now April and I’ve been working on this final manuscript for at least three months. But, it doesn’t end there. Along about July, the galley proofs arrive.
The galley proofs are the final printed version of the book with the layout, fonts, pagination, title page, etc. Once again, I have to go through the entire book, word by word. On my first book, the software program used to lay out the book omitted an entire three pages. If I had not gone over the manuscript word for word, I would have missed it. Once I approve the galley proofs, the book is on the way to the printer and it is out of my hands.
In the MARKETING phase of the book, which covers the months from April through the release in October there is a LOT to do. First, I have to pick key scenes from the book that might be useful for the cover. Since I am an artist as well as an author, I visualize the cover and I make suggestions of exactly how a prospective cover will look. I am very fortunate to have the graphic team working on my books at Charisma. They produce some awesome covers and it is as if they have read my mind.
Second, once the cover is on its way to completion, I have to think about the back of the book and come up with “copy”. This is the blurb, or “sound bite” that will hopefully motivate a prospective reader to open the book and read the first paragraph. It is the “elevator pitch” so to speak. Once the back copy is completed then it is on to the endorsements.
Third, beginning in June, I must come up with a list of prospective authors who are asked to read my book and give me an endorsement. This is the trickiest part of the deal. Without good endorsements, my book will languish in limbo. Advice time. If you are an author, become a member of a blog tour in your genre. For instance, I am a member of the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy blog tour. This means that I have to read a book once a month and post a three day review on my blog. So, in addition to the other tasks in the MARKETING section, I must maintain and update this blog often. The blog tour drives readers, and authors, to my website. I contacted some of these authors and some of them agreed to read my manuscript and provide an endorsement. I have discovered this process is VERY important. If you just give your publisher a list of possible authors to endorse your book, the author is very likely to delete the request and never give it another thought. Also, I’ve learned to remind the author there is a deadline for the endorsement!
By late July, the upcoming book is done and in the hands of the printers. Now, the promotion phase begins. I am now looking at how to promote the release of my next book, “The 12th Demon: Mark of the Wolf Dragon” for its October release. Note that my first book was released in October, 2011; the second book is being released in October, 2012 and I have worked on it most of this year; the third book final draft is waiting for editorial evaluation in late 2012 and will be given back to me for editing in January, 2013; and I am currently writing the fourth book for completion by December. Literally, I juggle four books in a year’s time.
You see why I feel overwhelmed. My main concern is to make the time for each one of these important phases. And, it is amazing how many “things” I spend my time on that can be eliminated from my schedule. I do miss reading books. It is very difficult to work into this kind of schedule the simple pleasure of spending time with a good book. Now, when I read, I feel the pressure to hurry up and finish the book so I can post a review. I very seldom have the time to just sit down and savor a good book. I do miss that.
So, there you have it. I am currently in the IDEA phase; the ROUGH DRAFT phase; and the MARKETING phase. I can forget about heavy EDITING until January. But, it is coming and I’m loving every overwhelming minute of this journey. It can be done if you are willing to make the commitment and to pay the price of long, hard hours of work. If you have the passion to be a writer and the discipline to be a published author then go for it. When I get an email from a reader of “Conquering Depression” telling me the book “saved my life” it makes it all worthwhile.
I have now finished going through my manuscript, “The 12th Demon” twice and making the suggested changes from my editor. The first time was very comprehensive. The second time was for continuity. The third time, yet to come, will be to whittle down the word count. As with my first book edit for “The 13th Demon” my editor, Andy, has taught me SO much. And, since this is a blog for those wondering about the world of writing fiction, I thought I would share the three main lessons I learned in this edit over the next three posts.
I have spend the past 23 years working in church based drama. For 15 of those years, I was the drama director of my church. And, the requirement from my pastor was that every production had to be an original piece written by moi. As time went by, I learned how to write short and long drama and, in fact, I have been speaking at regional and national drama conferences for 13 years. If that sounds like I’m bragging, that is not the point. The point to be taken is this: writing dialogue for the stage is VASTLY different from writing dialogue in fiction.
On the stage, dialogue serves many purposes and one is to introduce exposition. Unlike fiction, there are no descriptions of action and setting. There are no backstories to relate. It is up to the actor to portray these important elements of exposition through the dialogue and the acting. The challenge is to find a balance between dialogue that sounds natural and at the same time conveys important background information. The weak playwright uses “as you know”s to do this:
“As you know, my father is the owner of this vast estate. And, as you know, he just lost a fortune in a sugar cane fire.”
Good dialogue catches the right balance. Just listen to some of the dialogue in your favorite television dramas. See how many times the actors say something that you know they know and everyone else knows but the audience. The worst example is the droning on of “Trekkie” like scenes where the actor says things like, “Engaging autopilot, now!” Just flip the switch, Sulu!
In my writing, I have found that I tend to slide toward dramatic dialogue. I forget I have so many other tools for exposition. One rule I always tell aspiring dramatists is to read their dialogue out loud. This is mainly to avoid difficult to pronounce phrases. But, reading fiction dialogue out loud really gives you a good idea of the sound of the character’s voice. Would they really talk that way? Would they really say those particular words?
In my just completed third book, “The 11th Demon” I tried something different. I originally wrote the book for Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month. I decided to write each major scene/chapter from the point of view of one of the main characters in first person. This forced me not only to write dialogue as these characters would speak out loud, but to also speak with their inner voices. The exercise helped me further define the characters and find the voice for their dialogue.
Going back to the second book these past couple of weeks has allowed me to rewrite that dialogue now that I have a better feel for how these characters are thinking.
— Ask yourself, does the dialogue sound “off”? Does it sound almost “inhuman”? Avoid using dialogue for pure exposition.
— Read dialogue out loud! Try speaking in each character’s “voice”. Take a cue from Walt Disney and become each character as you read through the dialogue copying their body language and their vocal tones.
— Try to make dialogue as real and conversational as possible without dropping in inane drivel like, “Good Morning.” “Good Morning to you.” “How’s your morning going?” “Fine. How about yours?” ETC
— Keep the dialogue consistent. Don’t allow one character to sound like another. Give each character a distinctive voice.
Tomorrow — PLOT
There was the mystery of the man in the rocker. My mother often told the story of how, at the age of 14 (which would be in 1932) she was forbidden by her mother and father to go to a dance party. In the small town of Saline, Louisiana there just wasn’t a whole to do for entertainment and my mother really wanted to go to the “Jump Josey” party. So, after she was sent to her room, she slid out the window and ran across the yard in the dark toward the neighbor’s house.
She would talk about how much fun she had at the party and suddenly realizing how late it was. So, she ran back to her house. It was now close to midnight and the little hamlet of Saline was quite and dead as a door knob.
She eased up on the front porch with her shoes in her hand and into the house. As soon as she shut the front door behind her, she head someone rocking in the rocking chair. In the dim interior of the living room only lit by reflected moonlight, she saw someone sitting in the rocker. Her heart was beating and she was so afraid it was her mother and father. She quietly slipped by the chair but when she passed her parents’ bedrooms, they were both in the bed fast asleep. All of her sisters and her brother were in their beds. Then, who was in the rocker?
This was the great mystery. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat as my mother told this story. She told it over and over throughout my childhood. And, I jumped every time the big Reveal was, well, revealed. In fact, my mother and father were incredible story tellers. It seemed as if their entire lives were one unending story after another. I grew up believing in fairy tales and ghost stories and that good would always triumph over evil. I grew up believing that life, like stories, has a beginning, a middle, and an end and the best stories always have the strongest endings! I grew up believing that everything in life was a story; coherent; understandable; forward moving toward a satisfying end.
In our postmodern culture where relativism rules supreme, it is difficult to see where life in the 21st century matches the classic story. I guess that is why I absolutely LOVE anything written, directed, or produced by J. J. Abrams. Yes, I watched every episode of LOST with breathless anticipation. And, yes, I loved the finale. It fit. It was inevitable. It was a strong ending. I watched every episode of Alias. I went back and watched Mission Impossible III again and loved it. And, Fringe is one of my favorite shows right now. Just last week, I got hooked again by Alcatraz. And, as a life long Trekker, I was shocked and stunned by the brilliance of his reboot of Star Trek.
This past week I began the long process of re-editing my final version of my next book, “The 12th Demon”. Today’s post is about plot. My editor, Andy, had this to say about character development in light of the plot devices regarding one scene where Jonathan Steel has “lost” the teenager Josh again and is reeling with emotional conflict over this failure to keep his promise to Josh’s mother:
You’ve written a novel that centers around action, which is excellent. However here it would be good to dwell on Steel’s emotions. He’s just lost Josh. He would be feeling ashamed, angry, and even afraid. Help the readers connect with him on an emotional level by giving Steel a moment of vulnerability here. See this talk by JJ Abrams about the most important scene in Jaws (start at 10:00).
Here is the link to this most excellent discussion. Watch it over and over and bathe in the pure brilliance of the Mystery Box.
My mother gave me a “mystery box” each and every time she told me that story. It set the stage for my entire life. It has made me an investigator of all around me: people, places, things, situations, life in general. For in everyone of us, in every situation there is a mystery to be solved. And, it is in the journey to discovery that life finds its most satisfaction for me. In fact, the greatest discovery of my life was in finding a relationship with Jesus Christ. Opening that “mystery box” was the most profound experience of all.
Oh, yeah. The rocker.
My mother slowly crept back into the living room, still carrying her shoes. The rocker was still but as she got closer, it began to rock again and she could now hear a deep, throaty breathing from the person in the chair. Who was it? Had someone come into the house to rob them? She should have run back to her parents’ bedroom and cried for help, but if she did, she would be in big trouble over the dance. So, she drew nearer to the chair and asked, “Who’s there?” More deep breath and now, a thumping sound like a heart beating hard and slow. She reached out in the darkness and felt hard, scratchy whiskers and she screamed, throwing her shoes up in the air. The man in the chair bolted up and landed right on top of her as they toppled to the floor. The man’s face grew close to hers and he . . . licked her. He licked her? The lights came on as the family tumbled into the living room and there perched on top of my mother was the family hound. You can figure out the rest!
To all prospective writers today I start a new series of blogs dedicated to the process of taking a novel from a final draft to the finished, published project. To this end, I will share with you some of the comments I just received from my editor for my second book, “The 12th Demon: Mark of the Wolf Dragon”. Don’t worry! There will be no spoilers. I want to dwell on the process so you can see what I see as I hack and hone the work to its final product.
Here is the opening paragraph of my editor’s letter to me regarding my final manuscript “The 12th Demon: Mark of the Wolf Dragon” slated to debut in October, 2012:
What a pleasure to work with you again on this series. You’ve put together an excellent novel here—and I find the move to more of an action / thriller genre a good one. Horror protagonists tend to be pitiable, average Joes put in unfortunate circumstances, but Steel is the Jason Bourne of paranormal Christian fiction, and I love that you play to his (and your) strengths here.
Wow! That really pumped me up. Then came the next 14 pages. Yes, 14 pages of detailed suggestions on improving the novel. How would you react to receiving 14 pages of suggestions? At first, I was very overwhelmed when my editor sent me a similar set of pages for my first book, “The 13th Demon”. It was almost a year ago and I remember sitting at my desk stunned at the amount of work it was going to take to bring my novel to where my editor thought it should be. I almost called my publisher, Realms Books, and told them I would send back the advance check and could we please tear up the contract?
Isn’t it funny how easily we can be discouraged? I’ve found that one of Satan’s most powerful weapons is discouragement. Years ago, I wrote a short sketch. I played Satan and my friend, Mary come out on the stage holding a little candle. She was singing, “This little light of mine. I’m going to let it shine . . .” I was dressed all in black and I leaned in and began whispering words of absolute doubt and self loathing in her ears. I kept it up until she stopped singing and I blew out her candle. She relit the candle two more times and each time I chose another area of her life to talk about such as her failures with her marriage, etc. and blew out her candle. At the end of the sketch, I went one last round of discouraging words and she blew out her own candle!
Satan discourages us, but ultimately we are our own worst enemy. We blow out our own candle. I realized Satan was whispering these words in my ears and I chased him away with some choice words, the name of Jesus, and a few scriptures. I sat down and completely rewrote most of my manuscript in six weeks until my editor and I completed the final product, “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye”. After that rewrite, even though I had turned in the final manuscript for “The 12th Demon” I went back and took it through a similar process and rewrote it and sent it in to Realms this past November. Gratefully, they passed it on to my editor, Andy Meisenheimer and now I have twice as many suggestions as on the first book!
But, I am not in despair. You see, Andy told me in the email with the attached notes that he really liked this second book and wanted to really push me even harder than on the first book. Push me harder? Okaaaaay!
Lesson learned. You can always improve. You can always grow and be better. I strive to always remain teachable. Many of my favorite authors started out a book series with a book that was good, but had weaknesses. And, with time, their subsequent books just got better and better and better. This is what I want to do. I am hoping for that day when I have learned enough of the ropes of writing that the pages diminish, but the praise increases from my editor.
“Once I started “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye,” I could hardly put it down! I just had to read one more page and suddenly I found it was three a. m. and I had to start work in four hours. I can hardly wait for the next Jonathan Steel book, “The 12th Demon”.”
Most blogs end the year with a review of the past year. I thought I would do something a little different. This is my first year to release a fiction novel with a major publisher. I have self published my fiction in the past and I have a non-fiction book, “Conquering Depression” that celebrated ten years on the market in February! But, this past year was a huge work in progress in learning the ropes of being a published author promoting a new book in the twenty first century. I LEARNED quite a bit. I thought for the end of the year, I would summarize what 2011 taught me as a published Christian fiction author. So, any PROSPECTIVE authors out there can learn a few tidbits from my experience. Here goes:
YOUR EDITOR CAN MAKE OR BREAK YOU!
During my three self published works, I had very weak experiences with editors. Each time, the editorial “review” was more grammatical than substance oriented. My greatest challenge in revising “The 13th Demon” for Realms was in bringing the 105,000 word length down to 75,000. In the process, I had to cut and cut and re-cut scenes. In February of 2011 I received my initial editorial review from my most excellent editor, Andy Meisenheimer. Four pages of rather disappointing news almost convinced me to return my advance and sever my contract. Who was I kidding? I’m not an author! Obvious, now that I see how weak my book was. Andy made two very powerful statements. First, “Who cares?” In the chopping process I had eliminated very important scenes that established a relationship between the reader and my main characters. Second, “Whole scenes seem to take place off stage.” Yeah, those are the scenes I had to axe to meet the word limit.
At first, I was angry. Why couldn’t the publisher just let me put my book out there the way I had written it? But, as I prayed and mulled over Andy’s suggestions I realized that most of the changes he suggested matched my first, original manuscript. I went back in time to 1999 and pulled out my first rough draft. Over the years of self publishing and trying to change the book to meet editor’s expectations at prospective publishers, I had radically departed from my original format. I realized that in writing, like in life, your first impressions are usually the best. I tossed everything out after 1999 and rewrote the entire book in six weeks from the first manuscript adapting the changes Andy suggested. I am happy with “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye”. Without Andy’s editorial suggestions, it would have died on the vine. Instead, my book has received universally good reviews and I owe it all to my EDITOR!!!!
PROMOTION AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE!
Publicity versus Marketing. They are different. But, to me they are just words on a page. When Mark Sutton and I released “Conquering Depression” in 2001 we mounted a two month campaign consisting of radio interviews. We placed magazine ads. I hired a marketing/publicity firm for my two self-published books and had several radio and television interviews in 2007 and 2008.
But, TIMES HAVE CHANGED! Marketing today hinges on social media, not the traditional marketing techniques. This past year, I spent two hours A DAY on Facebook, Twitter, and my website promoting the upcoming release of “The 13th Demon”. I visited key blogs and made as many salient comments as possible to drive traffic to my website. I was invited to post guest blogs on some of these sites. I accepted invitations to review books on blog tours in order to drive traffic to my website. Did it work? I think so. I’m not sure. How do you know? This is very new to me and probably new to many people. The entire industry of promotion and marketing is in flux. The learning curve has been steep and just when you have a handle on it, things change! Just be ready to change with the times. Promotion and marketing are a DAILY process. Should an author hire a marketing firm? Good question. I’d like to hear from some seasoned authors on this point. Such a move worked well for me four years ago. I’m not so sure it would work now.
BOOK SIGNINGS ARE NOT A GUARANTEE FOR SALES
When Mark Sutton and I released “Conquering Depression” in 2001 we went on a book tour and had several book signings. We always sold dozens of books at each book signing. We met lots of people. We had great conversations. But times have changed. I set up a book tour for “The 13th Demon” and appeared at about a half a dozen book stores. I sold a maximum of 8 books on one book signing and a minimum of 4 books on another. My wife and I drove literally two thousand miles in the process over a three week period. I have to ask myself if it “Was worth it?”.
Why should an author participate in book signings in 2011? Most books are sold through ebook sales. The idea of a “virtual” book signing is still so new it may not work. There are sites for virtual book signings such as Kindlegraph. I agreed to book signings for two reasons. I want to continue to support the book store. I know times are changing, but Amazon and Barnes & Noble have yet to match the ability to walk into a book store and just EXPLORE. Online book stores do not lend themselves to wandering around, being enticed by a book cover, and picking up the book — holding it in my hands — and reading the first page.
I also want to meet people. At each book signing I have participated in, there was at least one “divine appointment” God had set for me. In each case, I connected with a person who had a need that I managed to meet through my knowledge as an apologist or my profession as a physician. In each case, the conversation that ensued had NOTHING to do with “The 13th Demon”. In each case, the person bought a book. In each case, the person visited my website. So, I am not going to give up book signings. I may give up the traveling part of the book signings. Driving three states away may not be the best use of my time and money! But, I still want to meet people.
TIME MANAGEMENT IS IMPORTANT (OR, LEARNING TO JUGGLE SIX BOWLING BALLS IS ESSENTIAL TO BEING A PUBLISHED AUTHOR)
I am NOT giving up my day job. If there was anything I learned this past year it was that being a published author will NOT pay the bills. Unless you’re a Tosca Lee or a Ted Dekker, you must keep your day job. That advance on my book paid off some of my marketing bills — but only SOME of them. I mentioned spending one to two hours a day online. How do you do that, keep your day job, write the next book, revise the current book, and work on the rewrite of the book you’ve turned in to the publisher?
It is not EASY. The WRITING LIFE is a hard life. As I tell people, “You don’t FIND time, you MAKE time to write.” And making time means taking time away from something else. That something else may be family time or leisure time or wasted time. It is amazing how much wasted time I have eliminated from my life. What I miss are the hours I used to spend just reading a book. It is essential to be a good reader in order to be a good writer. But, in accepting monthly book reviews in order to promote my website, I take up what little time I have left to read with reading a book that may not be very good or may not be my genre. And, often, I find my self rushed into finishing the book to meet a review deadline. I don’t get to relish the story and slow down to enjoy the writing.
I have learned to combine travel with promotion opportunities. This not only allows me to work in some kind of book signing or personal appearance, it gives me the opportunity to write off the travel as a writing related expense. Here are some photographs from my trip to London and Paris. My fifth book, “The 9th Demon: A Wicked Numinosity” will take place in London. The first photo is of the Tower of London and a guard outside the building housing the crown jewels. The second photo is of the Lyceum Theater and a scene in the book takes place in the adjacent alleyway. The third photo is from the Doctor Who exhibit in Cardiff, Wales.
Fortunately, my children are grown and my wife loves to play bridge online with other women all over the world. Each night, I have about an hour to spend on writing. That helps. But, inevitably, I have set aside a week I am off from my day job for writing only to have some crisis eat up the free hours. I have to take my 97 year old father to the doctor. I have to get my aching tooth filled. I have to schedule a doctor’s appointment. You get the drift. And suddenly, I’m looking at a deadline for a book review or, most importantly, the time to turn in the last draft for my next book and I have to really sacrifice to make the deadline.
Time Managment is something I have always been good at but I MUST get better at it if I am to continue this WRITING LIFE.
Those are just four things I learned last year. Now, 2012 is looming and I am anxiously waiting for my editor’s suggestions for “The 12th Demon: The Mark of the Wolf Dragon” in January. And, I just turned in the final draft for my third book, “The 11th Demon: The Ark of the Demon Rose”. AND, I am now about to tackle the revision of the fourth book “The 10th Demon: Children of the Bloodstone”. That will be the most difficult task to date. It is 150,000 words and I have to cut it in half and still keep the story intact!!!! Looks like 2012 will be just as busy as 2011. But, you know what? I am so blessed and so fortunate to have an awesome publisher in Charisma Media and a fantastic editor in Andy Meisenheimer and such a good God to give me the opportunity to turn my writing into something useful and hopefully positive for the advancement of the Kingdom. It’s all worth it. I’ll rest when I get to heaven!!!!