How to Love Editing Your Novel, Step One

Over ten years ago, a close friend died from cystic fibrosis. The courage with which he conducted his life, doing all the things he loved, touched me deeply. I wanted to honor his memory by writing him into my next novel. After I completed two drafts of this story (my writing group offering encouragement along the way), I showed it to my husband. Some writers would rather subject themselves to Charlie Sheen’s bayonet arms or eat a Madagascar hissing cockroach than share an early draft of their novel with their spouse. But I trust Hub’s instincts and he’s given me some very good feedback.

On this project, however, what he said stopped me cold. “You’re too close to the subject,” he said. He elaborated that because I had elevated our friend to hero status, I didn’t allow for the character to have any flaws, which made the story less realistic.

I haven’t touched it since.

I know someday I will get back to it. It’s a good story with fascinating characters. But as a younger writer, comments like this made me wish I’d gone to nursing school like my mother always wanted.

As the days following his critique stretched forward, and that manuscript composted in my closet, I kept wondering when I would attain enough emotional distance, not just to make this character multidimensional, but to start the revision process in general. A week? A month? A year?

The answer is, as with so many other things in life, it depends. Some people are ready to go into the next draft right after typing “the end” on the last one. Some people take longer. For me, it depends how excited I am about the story. The Joke’s on Me, which is coming out this summer, was one of those stories. I could hardly wait to start revising each time I neared the completion of a draft. But some stories have plodded on, and I put them aside to work on more exciting things.

You might find, though, setting your first draft aside for a short time (at least a couple of weeks to a month) to be helpful in gaining perspective. If you jump back into it right away, you run the risk of what I call “story saturation.” You will read this manuscript so many times during its lifespan that you may stop seeing the words. Even if you’ve gone through six, seven, eight drafts before you pronounce it ready to shop around, you will go through even more with your agent, your publisher and their editors. I lost track of how many times I’ve read The Joke’s on Me during its various iterations. Multiple readings without a break increases your risk of typos, grammatical errors, missing words, dangling plot lines, unnatural dialogue, and all of the other demons we massage out of our manuscripts.

So what’s your style? Plow ahead or let it compost?

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Fighting for Reviewer’s Eyeballs

I’ve read enough and talked to enough other authors to know that once you sign your publication contract, everything doesn’t magically become wonderful, or easy. True, there have been wonderful moments: finalizing the manuscript, seeing the art for my cover, and having two giant boxes of review copies deposited at my front door.

Now the hard work begins. First, to identify appropriate reviewers, and convince these very busy professionals that my novel is worth 234 pages of their time. You think you’re busy? Some of these people receive thousands of inquiries each month for reviews, and have backlogs of hundreds of books waiting for them, for when a free moment or two pops up. Add the usual challenges of life, the day jobs some of these people have in addition to the websites they maintain.

It makes me understand why some are so quick with the thumbs up or down. I just have to figure out how to cut through the pile, with a pitch that’s pitch perfect but not too over-the-top. Ideally, all of this should fit on one page. It almost makes me miss those frustrating, hair-pulling days of writing draft upon draft of the original synopsis.

Through trial and error, though, I’m discovering what gets reviewers’ eyeballs and what is just noise. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about writing reviewer pitches:

1. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Then get someone else to proofread. As Writing 101 as this sounds, it still applies. It’s often the first thing a busy reviewer will see about you. Typos in the address block? Missing words? Eye-rolling grammatical errors? It all counts, and it could count against you. You don’t want to give the reviewer the impression that your book could also be full of typos–how ponderous would that be to read? Especially critical are errors in contact information, because you are accustomed to seeing that information in all of your correspondence and thereby stop seeing it. I almost sent out six valuable review copies along with a set of letters that did not contain the correct area code. D’oh! But this turned out to be a good thing. It gave me an opportunity, while I was correcting the phone number, to fine-tune a pitch that seemed a little flabby.

2. Do your homework. Think like a busy reviewer. It’s Saturday morning, your parents are watching the kids, you’ve got a pot of coffee on, and you’re shuffling through a mountain of review packages that have been piling up in your office. You only have a minute or two to decide up or down on each one. Do you want to review that 400-page zombie western? Or a 250-page romance novel? Oops…you don’t do romance. And the author would have known that if she had checked the reviewer’s submission guidelines. Just like when you were selling your novel to agents and publishers for the first time, submission guidelines still rule.

3. Make it easy for them. Put everything they need for a quick decision up front: title of the book, genre, release date, publisher, number of pages. This way, he or she will know if this work is in their wheelhouse, and if they will have enough time to read it and write a review in a timely enough way to meet both of your needs. After that, include a well-crafted blurb about the book. This might be the same kind of copy you put in an ad or on the book jacket (assuming your book has a book jacket.) Don’t forget to include, probably at the end, a bit about you, where the book will be sold, and relevant web pages (like your publisher’s online catalog and the page on your website where they can read an excerpt.)

4. Manage your rejection. You thought all that rejection ended when you got an agent or publisher to say yes? Not so fast. Remember that bit about the really busy reviewers? Yes, they might reject you, too, and it probably has nothing to do with the quality of your book. It could merely be that they have too many books to review that month. Or, they just posted two apocalyptic zombie novels in a row on their website and including yours would turn them into a niche reviewer. Cry if you need to (I pass no judgment) but don’t let the rejection stop you. Somewhere out there are reviewers who will love you, or at the very least, agreed to read you.

Most importantly, know that the author/reviewer relationship is symbiotic. No, the reviewer doesn’t stand to make immediate buckage taking on your book (unless you choose a reviewer who charges for reviews, a practice I’ll tackle in a future blog.) Some do it for the sheer love of reading and support for authors. They also do it to get good web content to attract more visitors and therefore make some money from their websites. So if you adjust your thinking and work with your potential reviewers instead of against them, it could turn a worrisome task into an adventure. Continue reading