Showing posts with label Editing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Editing. Show all posts

Monday, August 28, 2017

Two Keys to Page-Turning Novels

Even Bears Sometimes Get Lost in the Wood

Reviews of my Seamus McCree novels suggest many readers find them to be page-turners. Some even “complain” that they lost sleep because they couldn’t put the story down. I can sympathize. There are certain authors whose books I can’t put down—and it’s not necessarily because they are action thrillers.

I researched the issue and paid attention to how authors I can’t put down reel me in to reading just one more scene. “I’ll put the book down at the next white space,” I say, and two hours later I’m still reading. (White space is the term I use for a scene break or chapter break where there are a few blank lines separating the scenes (sometimes it includes a glyph) or—like with chapters—a new page where the next scene starts.)

I incorporated what I learned into Lesson 6 of my online course “Revision and Self-Editing.” Books that capture my attention and don’t let me go have two key components that books I can easily put down do not.

To keep me reading past the point I planned to stop requires a terrific “prompt” at the end of the scene. What makes a good prompt? There is no one way to do it, and if an author uses the same technique at the end of every scene, it could get as obnoxious as the cliffhangers of the 1914 serial Perils of Pauline flicks, where at every break the heroine is about to die.

The ending can be loaded with emotional punch, or a hint or premonition of change, or a question the reader wants answered. The scene can end with a line of dialogue that provides a twist or surprise. The POV character can make a promise (to another character or to herself) and we wonder whether she has really turned over a new leaf or what disaster will come from that decision. Whatever the actual content, it’s important to keep things open-ended. If there is no further suspense, there is no reason to keep reading. And if an author puts their POV character to bed and turns off the light, readers may decide to do the same. Zzzzzzzz.

An intriguing prompt is only half the battle. The terrific scene ending induces the reader to turn a page they didn’t intend to, but they aren’t yet committed to the next scene. That’s the job of that scene’s first few lines. They must set the hook to retain the reader while at the same time orienting him regarding who is in the scene (and who the Point-of-View character is), where and when it takes place, and what the first action is.

Lots of authors (including me in my early drafts) want to make sure readers understand the mechanics of the transition from one scene to the next. But, readers are smart. They know if the character was in California and plans to fly to New York, and the next time we see her she is in New York, she probably took the plane. Unless relevant conflict is involved, we don’t need to get her to the airport, through security and onto the plane, served tomato juice, deplane, grab a taxi, ring the doorbell, go through a long recitation of the last few days in California, etc., etc.

Let’s say we left our heroine worried about whether she was wise to dye her hair purple without letting her lover (who claims to adore her dirty blond hair) know. If the next scene opens with her lover throwing a fit about the dye job, the reader doesn’t care about the details of the trip. Or if the author wants a reaction scene to deepen reader connection with the character, she might cut directly to the heroine’s increasing anxiety as she self-talks her way through doing the laundry, waiting for her lover to get home.

Here’s another example to illustrate the point. Let’s say a scene ends with Barbara slamming out of her sister’s house (an action scene; her sister is named Molly). The next scene is set in a pub where Barbara meets her best friend, Trish, to kvetch (a reaction scene setting up the next action scene). Many authors would take the reader from the sister’s house to the bar: Barbara gets in the car, drives, parks, walks into the bar, her eyes have to adjust to the light, finally sees her friend in a back booth, smiles and waves and walks over, sits down and orders a beer.

I don’t know about you, but I start reading all that and think, “I don’t need to read this now,” and slip my bookmark in place (or close my Kindle).

But if the next scene began with dialogue like this (which assumes we’ve met Trish before), I could be kicking myself a half hour later because I still don’t want to put the book down.

“Next time,” Barbara said, “I’m going to rip her hair out and test her DNA.” She raised her mug high over her head to order another.

Trish’s hoot temporarily drowned out Lyle Lovett moaning from Lefty’s jukebox. “Oh, Molly’s your sister, all right. No one else can jerk your chain so bad. It ain’t even three o’clock and you’re already doin’ shooters with your beer.”

“You say so.” Barbara rolled her shoulders and a bit of tension released from her neck. Thank God she had called Trish. She had been in such a blind fury she didn’t even remember driving here. God, she hoped she hadn’t run that red light with the snitch camera like the last time she was pissed off at Molly. “Mama always said, ‘Don’t get mad. Get even.’ I owe her big, and I got a plan.”

“Oh Lordy,” Trish said. “What do I have to talk you out of this time?”

I’m sure the authors reading this blog could make this snippet stronger, but this example has accomplished a lot in a few lines. The author has defined the POV character (Barbara) and provided additional characterization.

We have a setting (Lefty’s — probably a bar, some place that plays Country music.)

There is a transition from the prior scene to this one as Barbara reflects on how she got here (and provided a speck of backstory about getting nailed for running a red light).

We know the scene objective (Barbara is trying to solicit Trish to carry out revenge).

We have evidence that Trish is going to resist Barbara and so we anticipate conflict between them.

Wouldn’t you want to know what the scheme is and whether Trish can talk her out of it. Of course, good authors make sure to vary their scene openings as well as their scene endings to keep them interesting and fresh.

Readers, does this jibe with your experiences, or is there something else that makes you read late into the night?

Authors, if you’re interested in learning more about Revisions and Self-Editing, the next month-long course starts October 1. You can find more information on my website at You’ll receive a discounted fee if you sign up before September 5.

This blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill (8/27/17)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Five Lessons Learned as a Nano-Press

What is a nano-press? Small presses are often defined as with revenues of less than $50 million. Micro-press frequently refers to the physical size of the books (often pamphlets or comics). Wolf’s Echo Press revenues are WAY BELOW the $50 million mark, so I thought that I should come up with a distinguishing term, and nano-press sounded about right.

Last year, I decided to produce an anthology of novellas set in the lowcountry of the southeast U.S. I invited three author friends who knew the area well to participate with me. The result is Lowcountry Crime: Four Novellas. It’s on Kindle pre-order for only $2.99. Once it’s officially released the price jumps to $3.99. Hurry! Hurry!

Now, the lessons:

1. Deadlines are there for a reason.

Authors are busy people. They often have multiple current writing projects, need to do their own marketing, and many have jobs in addition to their writing. For this anthology to succeed, I set target dates for each major step in the process for both the authors and the publisher: the initial submission from the authors, the first round of edits back to the authors, the second and final revisions, when the publisher owed proof copies to the authors, and when they had to give their okay.

2. Everything takes longer than expected.

I was dealing with three pros, and my first inclination was to develop a nice tight timeframe to move the project from conception to completion. The sooner revenue began coming in from book sales, the quicker authors could earn out their advances.

And then I reflected on my corporate life when I managed people. I had learned through experience that each of us has built-in biases when we estimate how long something will take. A manager’s job is to adjust the estimate for each person’s bias. Some people pad their estimates. Whatever they say can be shortened by some percent. Others assume everything will go perfectly; their estimates must be lengthened to reflect reality.

I know how long something should take, and that’s how long I want it to take. Of course, it takes longer because stuff does happen. Because I know my tendencies, I took my original timeframe and added significant “extra” time. Sure enough, we needed most of that slack.

3. The last 20% takes 80% of the resources.

Getting something close to correct takes considerable effort, but if you want to get it right, it takes a lot more effort. I didn’t measure the specific time each task took, but I suspect a version of the 80/20 rule is applicable to the effort of producing a book for publication.

I know that perfection in an 85,000-word document is impossible. However, the quality of this book reflects directly on me. Not only did I write one of the novellas in the anthology, I helped edit the others, and a quality product may lead others to want to work with me in the future on projects—or if I screw it up, convince them not to work with Wolf’s Echo Press. You can only make a first impression once!

Which means that I spent considerable time trying to ensure we had no typos (I suspect at least one is still hiding. Please let me know when you find it.) Laying out the manuscript for print meant looking at each page, finding ways to eliminate orphans, making adjustments such as inserting soft-hyphens when justified lines spaced too broadly.

And then there was all the time spent in setting up the distribution process. Choosing appropriate meta data, keywords, developing the description readers will see when they look for the book.

Etcetera. Etcetera. Thank goodness I knew my tendencies and set the timeline with “room to spare.”

4. Order Matters.

Consider this nightmare scenario: despite sign off from the publisher’s proofreader and the author, you discover a homonym somewhere in the book. My experience is that readers will tolerate a typo or two, but if they find a homonym or a character whose name changes, it pulls them right out of the story. They read it twice and then discount the author’s intelligence, the publisher’s quality standards, mentally mark down the number of stars they will give the book in their review, start looking for other errors. Not good; not good at all. We want entertainment on every page, not scrutiny of every page.

Fortunately, most homonyms have about the same number of letters as the correct word. But, let’s say it’s a name change. If this error were caught anywhere early in the process, it would be a small matter to make the fix. Late in the process, it requires change to both the print version(s) and the electronic version(s). And in the print version, if you are unlucky (I was), the change from (say) Jennifer to (say) Jess, shortens the text enough to cause one fewer line, which in turn leads to an orphan on some later page.

Decision time. Let the layout go with the orphan, or change the initial document, the print layout, and the file transferred to the distributor(s)? Of course I changed it, but it was all extra work caused by timing.

When I looked at the print proof version of the book, I discovered a major (to my mind) issue. No one—author, proofreaders, publisher (that would be me)—had noticed that one of the novellas used straight quotes (mostly) instead of curly quotes. As I paged through the paperback proof looking for anything that might be a problem, the $%^&* things jumped off the page and smacked me in the nose.

I immediately knew what had caused the problem (the author had returned edits using a program that did not recognize curly quotes) and how to fix it. However, not only did I need to fix both print versions of the book, I had to fix the two electronic versions as well—and do it in a manner that didn’t screw up the direction of the curly quote in, for example, ’cause. [Checking for the straight quote issue is now part of my processing checklist when I go from document to print layout.]

5. The mystery community is generous.

Unlike much in life, the mystery community does not consider writing and reading to be a zero-sum game. One person’s success does not take away from anyone else. We root for each other and help each other along the way.

Other nano-publishers were generous in sharing their experiences in publishing anthologies. Some people generously offered to proofread the manuscript for the thrill of finding errors and because it allowed them to read the stories first. Thank you for your eagle eyes.

I’ve had the chance to work closely with three fine authors on this project (Polly Iyer, Jonathan M. Bryant and WWK’s own Tina Whittle) and see how they each crafted stories using the lowcountry setting and instructions that the novellas were to be “north of cozy and south of noir.”

Lastly, I do want to thank readers who take the time to leave honest online reviews. I think I speak for all authors and publishers when I say we couldn’t do what we do without you, and we appreciate the reviews you write to help others know of our work.

This blog originally posted on Writers Who Kill 1/29/17

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Author’s Toolbox: The Auditory Read Through

Every author develops a toolkit containing writing skills and techniques, preferred software and hardware, and proven processes to develop a polished manuscript. I’d like to suggest authors add the Auditory Read Through to their stockpile of available tools.
If you are like most modern authors, you compose your first draft using a word-processing program, which means you first see your words on a screen. You may rewrite your manuscript using a screen to display your text, or you may print out a copy of your manuscript, make handwritten corrections and then convert those back to an electronic form.
Many authors have learned that they find different problems when they view their manuscript on the screen compared to what they find when using a hard copy. I suggest that you will also discover different issues when you read your manuscript out loud.
Even if on previous read throughs you silently sounded things out in your head, you did not fully utilize your sense of hearing. Before the written word, stories were spoken, and you should listen to yours to discover a few last issues you may have missed.
My approach to the Auditory Read Through
I print out the manuscript single-spaced applying the same font, type size, lines per page and page size as the publisher will use. As I read, I’ll see, for example, a long paragraph that needs splitting or dialogue that runs unbroken for two pages. [I am not worrying about exact layout, orphan lines, where words break on a line, or anything like that. 
What am I listening for? Anything that doesn’t sound right on a sentence-by-sentence basis, as well as considering a paragraph or page as a whole. Whenever I stumble or trip over a word, there is a good chance I need to rewrite something. This gives me the opportunity to straighten convoluted sentences and exchange flabby diction with precise wording.
Often on the read through I’ll discover I used a word several times within a short span. I never saw the multiple uses on screen or page, but my ear picks it up.
I pay particular attention to adverbs: are they covering for a flabby verb? Make sure every adverb is necessary. As an example consider the line “She quickly walked to the sidewalk.” With the multitude of verbs available to describe exactly how she moved to the sidewalk, this sentence employs a lazy approximation for what the reader should visualize as they read.
Where I used multiple adjectives, can I replace them with one perfect descriptor?
Have I noun-ized verbs (xxxxx-ness) or verbed nouns (xxxxx-ize)?
Are my verbs ending with “ing” appropriate?
Have I fallen into a repetitive pattern? Do too many sentences share the same form? Are sentences all the same length?
You can do as I do, printing out the manuscript and reading it aloud to yourself, or you can use software that reads the words to you. I’ve tried both and they both work well. Using software has the added advantage that you use only your ears, since you aren’t the one reading. Plus, it can be entertaining when the software butchers a word it doesn’t know.
Some people record themselves reading their manuscript out loud. While they are reading, they muzzle the internal editor. Once they start the playback, they are truly listening (since they are not also reading). I haven’t used this technique, but it is intriguing, although it seems like extra work—but folks swear by it, and I may try it sometime.
I find the best time in my manuscript creation process for the Auditory Read Through is once I think the manuscript is ready for a final nit check. You may want to wait until you believe you have polished the manuscript to perfection. Others may find it’s useful much earlier in their process.

If you’ve tried the technique, how did you think it worked for you? If you haven’t performed an Auditory Read Through, do you think you might?
~ Jim
This post first appeared 8/24/16 on the Lyrical Pens Blog