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Reading out loud

September 17th, 2013 Comments off

In a 1962 letter to Robert Wallsten, John Steinbeck advised, “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”

I don’t entirely subscribe to this philosophy. Dialog in fiction doesn’t resemble real speech. People stop and start, hem and haw, talk in circles. Fictional dialog, unless the author is making a point, is devoid of most of these quirks. To demonstrate how ditzy Rita is in the Dexter novels, author Jeff Lindsay usually has her start a sentence several times without ever reaching the conclusion. People don’t really talk the way they do in Elmore Leonard’s novels, even though he’s a master of dialog. Well, they do on Justified, but mostly people only wish they could talk that way.

Still there is a value in reading aloud. Not just your own work, either.

For the past several years, I’ve gotten into the habit of reading to my wife. She enjoys hearing the sound of my voice, she says, and I’m happy to comply. We have a number of go-to authors who write straightforward and charming stories. We enjoy Alexander McCall Smith, for example, author of the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mysteries, as well as a number of other series. I’m currently reading The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney, the most recent in a series featuring an Irish man who, in the 1950s, works for the Folklore Society gathering and recording oral traditions. Every now and then I attempt a brogue, just for the fun of it.

Last year, I read aloud two Bradbury books: Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury’s language is magical and florid, but it was interesting to see how different his style was in these two books. In the former, there are copious colorful metaphors, but the language is fairly direct. The latter almost broke my tongue when reading aloud. Sentences that started off in one direction shifted halfway through and took off in another. Searching for the right way to emphasize words meant sometimes quickly reading ahead to figure out what it was going to be about. Occasionally the sentences came out feeling leaden and clunky, but when I realized what he’d written, I’d go back and took a second stab at them. It was an edifying experience. More recently I read Death is a Lonely Business and had much the same experience. I think that’s one reason why Bradbury has virtually no imitators. I still can’t figure out how he does what he does.

One of the final things I do with a work of short fiction is read it aloud to myself. Now, prose isn’t designed to be read out loud, at least not primarily. Prose is for the printed page, and the process of reading is quite different from reading aloud. As I discovered, Bradbury is much easier to read inside my head. However, one of the surest ways of finding things that will sound clumsy and clunky, whether read aloud or internally, is to read them out loud. If you stumble over your own words, imagine what it will be like for another reader. If a transition catches you by surprise or feels awkward, it will stick out. You’ll hear the echo of awkwardness in your own voice. You’ll feel your own confusion. It’s also a great way to find typos because you are forced to read every word and not skim, the way you might if reading internally.

I reserve this process until the very end, because there’s no point in finding those last few clunkers if you’re just going to rearrange the story substantially afterwards. Who knows how many awkward things you’ll end up inserting.

Did I read this essay out loud before I posted it? Well, honestly, no. But maybe I should have. Read it aloud to yourselves and let me know where I went wrong!

Not the time to rewrite your text

December 17th, 2012 Comments off

When we last spoke, I was working on the copy-edited manuscript of my forthcoming book, The Dark Tower Companion, which will be published in April, less than four months away. My, how the time does fly. When I was writing it, it seemed like publication day was in the distant future.

The copy-editing process took place using the track changes and comments functions of Word. Thus far, I have only printed out the entire book once, and that was shortly after I sent it in to my editor the first time.

This week I received the page proofs, which look like this:

For the first time, I get a sense of what the finished book will look like. Page proofs are printed on only one side, so this stack is twice as large as the finished book, but it’s a ream of paper, and there are marks around the page that indicate the final trim size. Each line is numbered for easy reference. The layout and design are complete. For the first time, I see how the maps I drew will appear in the book, what the section headers will look like, and all the little adornments (see the bird beneath the book’s title above?) the designer has added to the book.

I have until January 3 to report back to my editor, though I will probably finish well before then. The cover letter contains a series of instructions. Don’t try to write between the lines—all comments and corrections are to go in the margins. I only need to send back the pages where I have corrections. Be sure to make a copy before sending back the report in case it gets lost.

And there’s this stern warning: This is not the time to rewrite your text. That ship has sailed, in other words. Small corrections are okay, but if my requested changes end up costing more than 10% of the original design and layout, those costs will be passed on to me.

That was a lesson I took to heart early on, though I didn’t have any direct experience with the potential repercussions. When I was addressing final editorial comments on my short story “Unknown Soldier” for All Hallows, the editor pointed out a passage that she thought was clunky. I agreed, but to de-clunk it was going to require adding a number of words. I tried to take a shortcut, but the editor hated my change even more than the original! I explained: I was trying to keep from messing up the layout. I think the editor was surprised by that. She expressed her appreciation, but gave her blessing to a wordier fix for the problem.

On the other hand, I attended an appearance by crime writer John Lescroart a few years ago. He was in town for a signing, but one of his biggest fans had managed to snag him for a more intimate appearance for the local writers guild. He had a new book coming out and mentioned during his talk that he had received the printed galleys for the novel and decided to entirely rewrite the opening chapter. I can’t even imagine what his editor’s response was to that!

My job for the next couple of weeks is simple and painstaking: to go over a book that I have been working on for over a year and look at it with fresh eyes. I need to make sure that the process of incorporating the copy-editor’s changes and my stets and deles over those, didn’t end up causing missing or extra words, for example. I have to look for previously missed problems, formatting errors, ungainly layout issues and everything else. This is called the “first pass” of proofing, but it’s the main one. There will be the bound galleys at some point, but by then almost everything should be fixed.

That stack of paper above and me are going to be close companions between now and the end of the year.

Taking care of the laundry

November 17th, 2012 Comments off

For the past week or so, I’ve been working with the copy-edited manuscript of my forth­­­coming book, The Dark Tower Companion (NAL, April 2013). I’ve often said that turning in a manuscript to your publisher is like sending your kid off to college. It will be back, usually bearing dirty laundry.

The copy-editor’s report is usually the second trip home. In most cases, the writer first has to deal with the acquisition editor’s report, wherein he or she asks for structural changes to the book. I had a fair amount to do on that front with my first book, The Road to the Dark Tower. Less with The Stephen King Illustrated Companion. Much to my surprise, my editor requested no changes with this new book, so I must be learning.

It’s been over more than six months since I last looked at the manuscript, so I was able to review the copyedits with a fresh mind. The process has changed substantially in the eight years since The Road to the Dark Tower. Back in 2003, after revising the text based on the acquisition editor’s requests, a hardcopy version of the manuscript was generated and from that point forward everything was done on those pages. It came back from the copy-editor accompanied by a style sheet listing the overall decisions that had been made concerning italicization, punctuation (whether or not the serial comma would be used, for example), and all the non-standard words that needed review for consistency. The printed MS had insertions, deletions and comments scrawled in the margins. My job, then, was to accept all those changes with which I was in agreement. To use “stet” and “dele,” words that usually only show up in crossword puzzles. To over-ride some changes and explain why, using a different colored ink. Ultimately the proofreader would have her crack at it, adding another hue to the rainbow. Down the road, some brave soul would have to sort through this bowl of fruit loops and come up with a near-final copy of the text.

This time, I received the manuscript and style sheet by e-mail and the whole process was accomplished using Word’s “track changes” feature. Certain kinds of changes were locked out. I couldn’t simply undo a copy-editor’s insertion, for example. I had to delete the insertion, which left a history of the change and counter-change.

The style sheet ran to nearly a dozen pages, mostly because the book features a lot of strange names and words. House style included always using ‘s for possessives (even for names ending in “s”), no serial comma, no hyphen for “-like” words of fewer than three syllables unless attached to a proper noun (dragonlike but Mississippi-like). Numbers less than one hundred were to be spelled out, as well as large round numbers.

One of the global changes caused me to question my knowledge of grammar. Every time I wrote “over” (as in “it had been over six years since…”), it was replaced with “more than” (see example above). Apparently this is a stylistic quirk rather than a grammatical rule. There’s nothing wrong with using “over” (though William Safire held a strong opinion on the matter). It’s simply that newspapers decided “more than” was preferred.

I favor the Oxford (or serial) comma, so there were a lot of deletions in the manuscript. I was hard pressed to find a single page (out of the 680 total pages) that didn’t have one of those vertical red lines in the margin that indicated a change in the text. Some of the copy-editor’s changes were for formatting. Italics, paragraph styles, heading alignments, etc. The manu­script more closely resembled the final product than was possible when working from a printed MS.

There were over 500 comments in the margins. Many of them simply said “ok?” connected to a change. For most of those, I responded with a simple  ✔. Others pointed out differences in the way certain words were typed. Should it be “Speaking Ring,” “speaking ring,” or “speaking-ring,” for example. Sometimes words from the original text in King’s novels were used differently from book to book (“Oracle” in The Gunslinger but “oracle” later in the series, for example). I had to come up with my own set of house style rules to address inconsistencies like that and respond to the copy-editor’s queries.

I have the utmost respect for copy-editors. Their attention to detail is awe inspiring. Imagine having to go through a 180,000 word manuscript and making sure that “Denby’s Discount Drugs” is used throughout (instead of “Denby’s Discount Drugstore” or “Denby’s Pharmacy”). Word’s search function is helpful, but if you want to make sure every occurrence of a word is spelled the same, search won’t help you find misspellings. It’s a daunting job, and requires attention to detail that borders on obsessive. The copy-editors I’ve worked with (including this one) are so good at their jobs that I feel a sense of triumph when, upon reviewing the MS, I find something that they missed.

By the time I was done, the manuscript was littered with the copy-editor’s red marks, my blue insertions and deletions, the copy-editor’s purple comment bubbles in the margins (to which I often added my responses) and my blue comment bubbles in cases where I over-rode certain general changes. It still looks a fright, but I know that with the click of a button it can all be sorted out. I’m not sure if the proofreader will do an “accept all changes” before beginning his or her work. I probably would; otherwise, it’s hard to pick up on accidentally deleted spaces between words, for example. All I know is that, before very long, the manuscript will be back in my inbox and it’ll be time to dig out the laundry detergent again.

Where did that story come from?

June 17th, 2012 Comments off

The perennial question writers get is (altogether now): Where do you get your ideas? Everyone has addressed this question at one time or another, I’m sure.

Of course, there’s no one answer that covers everything. However, if you limit the question to “Where did you get the idea for this story?” then it’s a different ball game. In many cases, the question is easily answered. Sometimes the answer might be convoluted and make sense only to the author, but there is usually an answer.

This month, I thought I’d give you a glimpse into how I came up with a short story that I finished a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been working on a non-fiction project for most of 2012 so once I shipped it off to my editor, I decided to switch gears and write a short story. I didn’t have any concrete ideas burning to get out, just a vague desire to write something.

When I’m in that situation, I either pull up a document that has a bunch of random story ideas or observations that I’ve gathered over the years, or I leaf through the anthology guidelines that have come to my attention lately. In this case, I did the latter. The anthology had a vague theme: the weird west. Western stories with something weird happening. There’s a lot to play around with there. What I generally do given a theme is to first consider the question: what are most of the stories people write going to be about? If I can see that, I can then possibly come up with something sufficiently different to catch the editor’s attention.

In this case, instead of going with zombies or vampires or other monsters, I decided to go with aliens. I know it’s not an original idea, especially with that recent movie, but it’s where my mind went, so I decided to follow. I did a little bit of Internet research and found a couple of things from that past that I could make use of. One is a fairly famous incident where a space ship supposedly crashed in this Judge’s backyard. I took the gist of this incident and relocated it elsewhere, because I had a plan. A plan is good.

What I didn’t have, though, was a character to tell the story. Until that happens, all I have is an idea and a plan. And not a lot of time, because the submission deadline was in about two weeks. I let things rattle around and percolate in my head for a while. Then I woke up one morning with the opening scene in my head. I knew who was telling the story and what he saw. I made a few false starts, though. I started in first person, but I found that limiting after a page or two, because my protagonist is young. I wanted to be able to use words he wouldn’t necessarily know in my narrative, so I rewrote everything in third person limited.

After writing that scene, though, I stalled. I had a general idea of what would transpire as a result of the incident in the first scene, but none of it really seemed to matter. There was nothing at stake. Then I came up with the notion that this small Western town was dying. More people were leaving than were coming because the rail line ended up being built 25 miles to the south instead of through town. It had suffered a couple of other injuries, too. So that upped the ante a little. Still, I was having trouble. Then I realized that not only was the town dying, the family of my protagonist was, in a way, too. They had suffered a terrible loss and it was destroying them a day at a time.

Now I had my stake. This incident would rouse both the town and the family out of its doldrums. And, of course, since this was a Western, there had to be a stranger in town. Or, at least, I felt like there needed to be one. He had to come in response to what had happened, but he had to get there a lot faster than he should have been able to do in that era. He would take the bull by the horns, start handing out orders, and seem to have everything under control.

But the story wasn’t about him, so I realized that the stranger had to fail—or be on the verge of failing. The fractured family couldn’t sit passively by while this dude fixed things. As the ideas flooded in, I kept going back to the beginning to revise and rewrite to lay the foundation for what came later. By the end, I was very pleased with how it all became internally consistent—that something mentioned in the opening paragraphs came into play symbolically at the end.

The story came in at something like 6200 words, which was well within the guidelines’ limit, but only half the work was done. Though I had done some revision along the way, it was time to look at the story as a whole and every single word and sentence and paragraph individually. I can get quite ruthless at this stage. One of the most important things to me is flow. From one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next. I move sentences and paragraphs around to find the best order so that one idea flows logically into the next. This is where reading out loud helps a lot. Awkward transitions really stick out that way. I can feel them in my bones.

When I started editing, I only had two or three days to get the story polished because it was a postal submission. During that weekend, I probably created a dozen drafts of the story, though none of them survive. I save the first draft as a separate document, but each incremental revision overwrites the duplicate document. At least three of my editing passes were done on hardcopy—I tend to alternate back and forth because I do different kinds of editing on-screen and on paper. I can feel the story converging, so that there are fewer changes on each subsequent pass, but then all of a sudden I’ll upend the whole thing and make some radical change on the next pass. The honing process can reveal problems if you can mentally sit back and look at the bigger picture while concentrating on the individual words.

When I was done, the story came in at about 5400 words. That’s pretty typical—I usually lose about 10% of the length of the first draft upon revision. But it’s more than simply taking away words. Probably half the sentences didn’t bear much resemblance to the original version.

Then away it went in the mail and I had a chance to think about where my mind had taken me during those two weeks. A few snapshots turned into a movie in my mind and when I consider the story now, I feel like I was there watching everything unfold, even though I had to micromanage every bit of movement along the way.

The process for the next short story will probably be completely different.

Desperation and Impatience

May 17th, 2012 Comments off

Several years ago, I wrote an essay for the HWA handbook On Writing Horror titled “For Love or Money: Six Marketing Myths.” While I called them “marketing” myths, in fact they were really publishing myths.

Recent events which you may already have heard about via the blogosphere inspired me to write this entry. The moral of that story is the thesis of the above-mentioned essay.

The concept isn’t new, and I’ve written about it in various ways over the years, but it bears discussing again. Novice writers (and all of us were novices sometime) share a burning compulsion. Perhaps more than one, but one applies here: the need to see our name and our work in print. (These days the definition of “in print” is a little different than the classical definition, but there are analogies to be made: some e-zines aren’t so different from the typed, mimeographed zines of a few decades ago.) We’re willing to do almost anything to see that happen (deals with the devil aren’t out of the question), and this desperation can lead us to make bad publishing decisions.

Neil Gaiman writes about Yog’s Law on his blog, inspired by the same event. The law is simple: money flows toward the writer. In one form, this is a warning against paying to get published: paying for representation, paying the publisher for editing services, etc. From another perspective, though, it is an admonition to insist that you be paid for your work, regardless of the venue in which it is published.  Among the six myths I wrote about, two are particularly applicable: 1) Payment in exposure and 2) Royalty-only markets.

Novice writers believe the myth that simply having something “published,” and the concomitant exposure they will receive, has some intrinsic value. They will no longer have to write cover letters where the paragraphs listing previous publications are blank. Now they can write, “My story, Title of Story Here, was published in Slapdash eZine.” This will guarantee that editors will give submissions extraspecial consideration because, after all, they’re reading something submitted by published authors. Editors might even remember those previous publications and the new submissions will get gold stars and go to the top of the stack. Woo-hoo!

Chances are: 1) The editor didn’t see that publication because it’s nothing more than a post on a blog in a dark and rarely frequented corner of the internet, or 2) Even if the editor is aware of that publication, it won’t have any impact whatsoever at best and, perhaps, a negative impact at worst. Being poorly published isn’t better than not being published at all. If your resume is a list of non-paying markets that have come and gone like the spring rains, it will make you look unprofessional.

Here’s the second sad truth: Royalty-only markets are non-paying markets 99% of the time. These books (usually anthologies) sell so poorly that they never recoup their publishing costs, let alone generate any income down the line. If they do bring in a few dollars, that will be split 10 or 20 ways, usually with half of the profits going to the editor off the top. Expect pennies at best.

Desperation—a force as strong and nearly as irresistible as gravity—allows us to delude ourselves. The only exposure that is worthwhile is appearance in a market that people 1) see and 2) respect. With the exception of literary magazines, these are almost always paying markets. Almost always pro-paying markets. Why? Because these are the markets that have major distribution channels and (generally) good reputations. With so much material out there, who do you think reads Slapdash eZine? The contributors and a few of their friends, that’s who. And that royalty only anthology that contains work by previously unpublished authors? Who will pay $18 for the trade paperback (did you ever notice how pricey those books tend to be?) or $9.99 for the e-book? Your friends and relatives might be counted on the first time or two, but even they may stop ponying up after a while.

Another issue with exposure/royalty markets is that they won’t teach you anything about your writing. In the best case scenario, your story will be published exactly as you submitted it. If you’re lucky, someone may catch your typos, grammatical errors and continuity flaws. In the worst case scenario (see above), the editor may decide to do something abysmal to your story, and you’ll have no recourse. Those of us who’ve been around a while probably would have smelled something bad about the market discussed above. One look at the web site, replete with typos, bad grammar and questionable layout, would have been enough to tell us that we wouldn’t be dealing with a pro.

With a pro market, if your story has a few flaws it will either be rejected (with or without comment) or—best case—the editor will accept the work and offer some suggestions to make it even better. Experienced writers learn the value of a good editor, one who encourages a writer to improve (not one who arbitrarily rewrites a story in his own image).

There are many codas that attach themselves to this message. For example, if, in your desperation to be published at all, you aim low and submit to a non-paying market, you’ll never know if you might have done better by sending it to a pro-market.

I know it’s hard to have the level of patience required to develop to the point where you can be professionally published. I was in my late thirties when I scored my first pro sales. I made a few mistakes in the beginning. Not many people are totally immune to the temptation to settle for something less in order to satisfy that gravitational pull, that vanity appeaser. My message is this: resist with all your might. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it will be different for you. Listen to and learn from the experiences of others.

Words count

September 17th, 2011 Comments off

If you’ve ever read an author’s blog for any length of time, or followed his or her Facebook feed, you will no doubt be familiar with the tradition of posting sporadic or daily word counts. It is, perhaps, the only metric that writers have available to measure our productivity.

My favorite anecdote comes via Stephen King in On Writing in which he recounts of a possibly apocryphal encounter between James Joyce and a friend. The friend finds Joyce in a posture of utter despair at his writing desk. Being familiar with Joyce’s issues, the friend asks, “How many words did you get written today?” Joyce answers, “Seven.” The friend is impressed. “That’s good…for you.” To which Joyce responds, “But I don’t know what order they go in!”

People comment on how prolific certain writers are, producing two or three books a year, even more. When I stop to do the math, I’m astonished that more writers aren’t that prolific. On a typical day, which for me means an uninterrupted writing window of no more than 90 minutes, I can write 1000 words. Some days it’s 750, some days it’s 1250, but 1000 is a good figure. If I did that every day for a year, I’d have the total word count of three decent-sized novels. If I were able to write longer, I could imagine writing 3-4000 words per day. I think my personal record is something on the order of 8000, which I cranked out at a beach house while on a working vacation during a NaNoWriMo marathon.

Of course, not all “writing” involves producing new words. On another sort of productive writing day, I can crank out -500 words. Yes, that’s negative five hundred, which means I’ve cut that much fat from a manuscript. I tend to write long on the first draft and it’s unusual if I can’t remove at least 10-15 percent of the total word count from a short story upon revision. How does one measure that type of productivity? It’s a different type of accomplishment, one that is at least as important as the one that created those words in the first place.

An efficiency expert might look at my process and tell me how much better off I’d be if I hadn’t written those 10-15% extra words in the first place, but I simply can’t. To do so would require editing every sentence as I wrote it and that would interrupt the flow, that mysterious gush of words that comes from a source I can’t define. I wouldn’t dare place a governor on that lest it slow to a trickle and stop. I don’t mind editing yesterday’s work before I start today’s—that’s one of my favorite ways to get that gusher going again—but I have to write things that I know deep down won’t all survive. At least not in that shape or order.

What about the days we spend on the internet doing research, or driving around a neighborhood to pick up local color, or reading a book to gather information on a particular subject, or simply sitting in a dark room or taking a walk to think about the work and where it’s headed? Our word count meters don’t record that creative homework, but it is part of the process, too, and contributes to the end product. Those words that we count don’t always just spring into our minds. We have to feed the mind with information at times.

The ritual of posting word counts is one way that we assure anyone reading our blogs—and ourselves—that we are hard at it. Doing the work. If too many days pass without anything substantial to show for them, we start feeling nervous, like a batter in a slump. At the end of the day, though, all the research and ruminating in the world is for naught if we don’t get AIC (ass in chair) and produce words. Because words count.

P.S. In case you’re interested, I wrote 2000 words today. Nearly seven hundred in this essay and a little over 1300 on my current work in progress. A very good day indeed.

The Work of the Copy Editor

April 17th, 2009 Comments off

– by Bev Vincent

The acquiring editor is the person most writers—and, perhaps, readers—are familiar with, at least in general. We submit stories to them, they accept (or reject) our work, and changes to the overall flow, structure, and content of the material originates with them. I think of them as conceptual or big-picture editors. A while back I wrote about what a good editor can do for a writer.

This month I would like to introduce you to copy editors, the unsung heroes of the publishing process. After the editor and the author have ironed out the major issues with a project, the manuscript then goes before the sharp eyes of the copy editor.

The first thing she does is to build a style sheet for the project to guarantee continuity from the first page to the last. The publishing house probably has a style manual that it uses as its Bible, but there will inevitably be things that aren’t addressed by the style manual, so the copy editor makes a decision about how such things will be handled, adds rules to the style sheet, and sweeps through the manuscript to make sure the rules are obeyed. How will times be represented: a.m. or AM? What numbers will use digits and which ones will be spelled out? Will essay titles in the text be italicized or put in quotes. Will certain words be hyphenated or represented as compound words? Will the serial comma be used? These are just some of the decisions the copy editor makes and enforces.

The copy editor also flags grammatical errors and catches errors in fact. She looks for overused terms or duplication of words in close proximity. In a work of fiction, a good copy editor will make sure that Jane, who has blue eyes on page 17, doesn’t turn into Jean with green eyes on page 317. In a non-fiction work, she will notice that an author has referred to a publisher as Everett House throughout when, in fact, the company is Everest House. The copy editor makes sure that trademarked names are correctly spelled. She catches vague references and ambiguities.

When I was working on The Road to the Dark Tower with Penguin several years ago, once the hardcopy manuscript went to the copy editor, it was “locked.” All subsequent changes were made on that printed version of the manuscript. The copy editor sent the manuscript back to the author with her notes in the margins and the author addressed the comments and suggestions in the margins using a different color of ink. For complicated or lengthy changes, the author could insert pages into the manuscript, but that version was sacrosanct. I often wondered what would happen if it were lost in transit. To be honest, I was surprised that a major publisher still did all that work in pen on paper—it meant that someone had to sort out the stets from the deles, interpret the handwritten insertions, and key them into the electronic master. It all worked out in the long run, but it seemed like an unnecessary step in the electronic era.

For my current project, the copyediting phase was done electronically. I received a version of my Word manuscript by e-mail with changes tracked and notes inserted where clarification was required. The style sheet came as a separate attachment. I went through the manuscript, again with changes tracked, and responded to comments and questions with my own comments and responses, accepted certain changes, rejected others—providing my reasons for doing so—and reworded passages that required clarification.

Copyeditors, in my experience, seem to be deferential people. They know that it isn’t their job to rewrite what the author has created, only to improve it. Often, alterations that were made to my manuscript were accompanied by queries that asked, “Change okay?”

After the author addresses the changes,the first pass of the book’s layout can be created. This is the point where proofreaders come into play—and the author is to be counted among this group. That’s the point I’m at with my current project. The first pass is on its way to me as I write, and I will have a week to go through it. In general, all I would need to do is proofread, but since this is a profusely illustrated book, I’ll also be seeing proposed design elements for the first time, and I’ll have to write captions. It’s been a fascinating project to work on, let me tell you.

I have the utmost respect and undying gratitude for the copy editor who caught all my silly mistakes and will make the finished product (and me) look better.

Book packagers

February 17th, 2009 Comments off

– Bev Vincent

 

packageRecently, a representative of a book packager contacted me with a proposal for a project they wanted me to consider. 

Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. That’s the sound of my brakes squealing across the pavement. Book packagers? What’s that? Sounds kind of dodgy. Some sort of scam, mayhaps? 

Before committing to anything—or indeed, even responding to the unsolicited e-mail—I had to educate myself on what this book-packaging thing was all about. Book packagers are exactly like publishers. They produce books. They have researchers and editors and marketers and foreign rights departments, and all the other things that you might expect a publisher to have. They have artists and illustrators, book designers, the whole nine yards. They even have their own organization: The American Book Producers Association. 

What they do is bring together all these creative people to assemble a “package,” which is just another word for a book. This book idea either originates with another publisher—perhaps even one of the big, famous, New York publishers—or the proposal is shopped around. That’s right—the book packager also acts as a literary agent for the project. 

Why do they exist? Because publishers don’t always have all the resources necessary to produce labor-intensive books—ones that have a lot of photographs or illustrations, require a lot of research or involve the acquisition of rights and licensing. That’s the stock-in-trade for a book packager. The volumes they produce would look right at home on your coffee table. Big, lavish volumes with photographs. Every page illustrated and intricately designed. Book packagers (also known as independent book producers) make complicated books easy for a publisher to publish. 

As was the case with the project I was offered, another publisher often comes up with a concept, perhaps prepares an outline or some guidelines, and then hires the book packager to produce the finished volume. 

So, what’s the deal? As with any other publishing relationship, the sky is the limit. It’s difficult to generalize. The conventional wisdom is that the writer’s end of the deal with a book packager is much like “work for hire.” That means, you get a flat fee for your words—which, after all, are just part of the package—no royalties. And, sometimes, not even name credit on the book or a transfer of copyright to the book packager. It’s like being a ghostwriter. Those terms may be deal breakers for some people. 

However, everything is negotiable, and not all deals are the same. The book packager in this instance offered both royalties and name credit. Though the boilerplate contract stipulated a transfer of copyright, my agent successfully negotiated copyright in my name. During negotiations, he told me he enjoyed working on this deal because it was a different type of contract from the usual ones he was used to seeing. Different kinds of clauses and concerns. 

There was something else to consider—though I will get a royalty on every copy sold, the royalty is based on the sale price to the publisher who initiated the project, not on the cover price. That’s not the way things normally work—it’s more like the terms of a normal contract for “deeply discounted” copies, except in this case, every copy is deeply discounted. 

On the other side of the equation, though, the books are sold to the publisher on a no-return basis. I will get a royalty for every copy printed. None of that nasty “reserve against returns” that appears on typical royalty statements—money held back by the publisher in anticipation of a certain percentage of returned books from stores. 

There’s another dimension to this project: I’m essentially a servant to two masters. I have an editor I’m working with at the book packagers, and another editor downstream with the publisher who solicited the project whose name I don’t even know. It is possible that I will “finalize” the manuscript with one editor only to find out that more work will be required at the behest of the second editor. So far, the second editor has been agreeable with everything we’ve done, but it’s something to keep in mind should you find yourself considering a deal with a book packager. 

Things tend to move very fast in the world of packaging. The editor first contacted me at the end of November 2008. After a few rounds of discussion, both by e-mail and phone, I was intrigued enough to get my agent involved. He went off and did his thing with them while I prepared a detailed outline for the project, which I submitted in early January. 

After the outline was approved, I got straight to work. Because of the accelerated timeframe, I had 1/3 and 2/3 point deliverable deadlines—both to keep me on track and to provide the photo researchers with material to work from. 

The editor has been a delight to work with, as enthusiastic about the project as I am and very supportive of the work I’ve done to date. Exactly the kind of environment every writer hopes to have while working on a book. 

Now, less than three months after the initial contact, I have an executed contract and a completed manuscript. Because these books are so lavishly illustrated, the word count tends to be fairly low. In this case, 20-30,000 words was the contracted text. 

In parallel, the photo researcher and documents experts have been gathering material for the book. I don’t have any involvement in that, though I have been able to facilitate access to certain materials. The book will be published this fall—about a year after initial contact. It’s hard to match that in “mainstream” publishing. 

So, that’s what I’ve been up to during 2009 to date. I had the first draft finished at the end of January and I spent the first couple of weeks of February revising and polishing the manuscript and I turned it in last week—two weeks early. 

The advance is probably more than I would get for a first novel from a paperback house and for much less work—and there’s the possibility of further revenue if the book is popular, or if side deals are executed for subsidiary rights. All in all, a very pleasant process. Especially in this economic climate, and with the fairly dire state of affairs in publishing, it was a welcome surprise to have something like this drop into my lap.

And, at the end of the year, I’m going to have copies of this beautiful book in stores across the country. Guess what all my friends and family are getting for Christmas this year?

 

 

Too Many Words

January 17th, 2009 1 comment

– Bev Vincent

There’s a scene in Amadeus where Mozart has just finished playing one of his new compositions for Emperor Joseph II. After a few generalities (“ingenious,” “quality work”), the Emperor concludes (at the prompting of Mozart’s nemesis Salieri), “There are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

The movie version of Mozart, who has the benefit of a good script to feed him a comeback, retorts, “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

Several years ago I wrote a short story for a themed anthology. Although the editor expressed an early inclination toward accepting my story, the anthology (it may surprise you to hear) failed to materialize. I submitted the story to a few markets in the aftermath of that implosion, but never reread it or paid much attention to it. One editor, bless his soul, took the time to write a lengthy critique, almost two full pages. He saw a lot of good in the story, but felt that it needed major work. I filed the story and the critique away without taking further action.

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to a broadly themed anthology. For some reason, that story came to mind. However, when I perused the invitation and brought up the story document, I saw a problem. The guidelines specified “no more than 4000 words” and the story’s word count was 6200. Ah, well, I thought. I’ll just have to write something new.

A day or so later, I was struck out of the blue by a question. Why was the story so long? That’s a pretty beefy tale and the plot, as I remembered it, wasn’t all that complex or involved. The entire story takes place over the span of an hour or so. I brought up the document again, wondering if I might be able to trim it back a little. That seemed a tad optimistic—after all, 2200 words represented 35% of the story’s total length. If I could just get it back to 5000 words or so, I rationalized, maybe the editor would consider it despite its length. (We all know that guidelines are meant for everyone else, never for us!)

I didn’t get very far into the text before realizing that there was a lot of extraneous material. The tale barely got started before I was sidetracked by a lengthy “essay” about the nature of the protagonist. All very valuable insight for me as the writer, but overkill in terms of the story. It was so bad that at the end of that diversion I had a space break to remind me it was time to get back to the plot.

Instead of a scalpel, I wielded a machete. The floor around my computer became littered with excised text. Adjectives, sentences, paragraphs, huge swaths of pages all went. Some of the writing was very precious. I remember writing those gleaming passages, but with several years of distance I found I was able to trim them with only slight twinges of regret.

By the end of my first pass, I was down to 4600 words. Well, then, I thought. Close, but no cigar. I told myself, “Self, it’s going to be very difficult to trim much more than that.”

Two days later, I took another whack at it, after rereading the critique from the helpful editor who had had enough faith in the core concept of the story to send me such detailed notes. As of this writing, I’m only halfway through the second revision, and the word count is at 3600. I’m sure that more will be cut before I tackle the next phase, which will be a procedure akin to plastic surgery to repair the grievous wounds I’ve inflicted on the prose. My machete left gashes and gaping holes. Coarse sutures are holding paragraphs together. My scalpel will come into play to trim, shape and mold, to remove the scars and join the text back together seamlessly, I hope.

Okay, I think I’ve stretched the medical metaphor as far as it will go. When I’m finished with the story, it will probably have crept back up a little, perhaps verging on 4000 words again, but whatever I add (post-op, so to speak) will be subtleties and nuance that give the story depth and—I hope—impact. No more blather.

Is there a take-home message? So often I’m not sure when I start writing one of these essays. It’s a vignette from my writing life. Take from it what you will. I had this lumbering story occupying my hard drive that was so bloated (too many words) that I couldn’t find many places to send it. With a little distance, I saw the skinnier, zippier, edgier story hiding inside and I hope that I’m managing to tease it out.

The Doldrums

November 17th, 2008 7 comments

–by Bev Vincent

Whenever the subject of writer’s block comes up, I usually say that I don’t believe there’s any such thing. The answer to writer’s block is, quite simply, to write. Write something. Book reviews, essays, blog entries, anything.

However, I do believe there is such a thing as Writer’s Doldrums. The original Doldrums are regions in the oceans near the equator where the prevailing winds are calm. Sailors who ended up in the Doldrums could find themselves becalmed for days or weeks. They were also known as the “horse latitudes,” because mariners often ditched any livestock that might compete for dwindling food supplies aboard the stranded ships.

I’ve been in the doldrums for the better part of two months now. It’s not that I haven’t been able to write—I’ve completed an essay or two, several book reviews, and at least one short story. However, my output has dwindled compared to my norm.

Hurricane Ike was where it all began, ironically, since hurricanes originate in the Doldrums. For the better part of a week, our world was upended. We had no electricity or telephones for days. The place where I work was closed. We cooked meals outdoors on our gas stove and waited in long lines to get gasoline. Communicating with anyone proved difficult. We found creative ways to fill our waking hours, and retired when the sun went down rather than mess around with candles or gas lanterns. We listened to the news on the radio and marveled at the destruction.

Once the power returned, we gradually returned to our normal routines, except everything had been knocked off kilter. The wounds from that storm are still visible in the region. The root system of a massive tree that was unearthed in a neighbor’s yard remains visible. Office buildings downtown still have boarded up windows.

The election and the economic cataclysm have contributed to my listlessness. A medical situation involving a family member also turned things upside down for a while. It’s hard to concentrate on fiction amidst such turmoil.

Except for the days during the Ike aftermath when we had no power, I’ve dutifully gotten up each morning at the usual time when I do most of my writing, gone to the computer, and found numerous other things to do to occupy the time besides writing. I let two anthology deadlines slip past without getting anything together to submit to them, metaphorical horses tossed overboard. I didn’t miss any real deadlines—anything I was supposed to do, I did—but I wasted a lot of hours, too. Since my window for writing each day is comparatively small, it doesn’t take much of a distraction to have it whittled away to nothing.

I’ve been working on a new novel but, since it’s predecessor has been in limbo for a while because of my agent’s schedule, I couldn’t get myself motivated to tackle it with much enthusiasm. I’ve managed to write the first three chapters, but I’ve spent more time pushing those words around than in adding anything new to them. The plus side is that those three chapters are in pretty good shape but, given the amount of time I’ve spent on the manuscript, there should be more.

Last Saturday, I went to the Mystery Writers of America Southwest Chapter monthly luncheon, where the guest speaker was David Morrell. I’ve met him on a few occasions in the past, including sharing a table with him at the Stoker banquet a few years ago, and at NECON. His writing seminar at the Stoker weekend in L.A. was both inspirational and motivational, and his writing book—reissued with new material recently as The Successful Novelist—is also worthwhile reading for any practicing writer. I figured that if anything could put a little wind in my sails, it would be a pep talk from David Morrell.

I was right. Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t come home from that luncheon and add more to the novel manuscript, or write a new short story, or outline the great novel. But I feel reinvigorated and ready to get to work on a number of projects. I have a short story under consideration for an anthology where an editor asked me to reconsider the ending. He didn’t give me any specific guidance, just an option to give it another shot. Given the theme of David’s talk this weekend—writing the books and stories we were meant to write based on the dominant emotions governing our lives that we need to come to terms with—I have a new appreciation for what that story is really about, and a new way to tackle the ending. After a suppertime discussion with my wife about another short story I’ve been ruminating over for several days now, the big picture concept fell into place, and I’m champing at the bit to start on it. And I’m looking forward to retackling my most recent novel, once I hear back from my agent with his report, hopefully in the next week or so.

I’m not completely out of the Doldrums, but I feel the winds stirring and they’re pushing me in the right direction. I don’t think I’m going to have to toss any more horses overboard. I’m going to do my best to take advantage of the trade winds while they’re being supportive.