As is the tradition of this blog, on Tuesdays I usually feature first-time authors as part of my Debut Author Q&A series. This week, I thought perhaps I’d share my own interview on The Writer’s Dream, a public access television show taped on Long Island on which authors discuss the writing, publishing and marketing of their books. Some of you may know that I am the original moderator of this program — and still appear as such from time to time — but for this episode, which was taped in late July, I hand over the moderator seat to executive producer Linda Frank who interviews me about the road to publication for Baby Grand.
Details, details. I have been overwhelmed by the five-star ratings and glowing reviews for Baby Grand. (For a gal who spent most of last year hearing what was WRONG with her novel from traditional publishing editors, it certainly is a welcome change!) Many readers are saying they like the detailing, which helps them visualize the scenes as they are reading and makes them feel as if they are right there with the characters, in their world. Today, a reader posted the following comment (it’s actually two partial comments that I rolled into one) on the Making ‘Baby Grand’ Facebook page:
“…downloaded your book to my kindle, read your novel in 2 days…could not put it down….I want part 2!!!…My guy is an avid reader ….I gave him your novel to read…again….he could not put it down! You have got it! He said it captured him immediately and you just couldn’t wait to see what happens at each turn. I asked him one morning…”where are you in the story?”…he said “they are at the coffee shop”…and we both said….”oh, cherry pie”..lol…I mean it is the attention to detail and your ability to keep one captivated….again…best of luck…full speed ahead….will be looking forward to the next read!”
It’s important to note that many of those kinds of details were added during the revision stage of the writing process. For the most part, with the exception of those early chapters that I wrote when I was in graduate school and wanted to make as complete as possible, the first draft of Baby Grand was very skeleton-like. The bare bones of the novel. Get the plot down. Boom. And then it is in the editing that I like to say “the magic happens.” The details. Trying to describe something just the way I see it in my mind’s eye. The sights. The smells. The sounds. I try not to overwhelm the reader’s senses, but focus on what I think are the most important descriptive elements of each scene.
Do it right and it’s like a little movie is playing in the minds of your readers. And who knows? Do it really right and maybe one day that little movie will be playing at the local multiplex.
Just when you think you have nothing left — PUSH. Some of my strongest memories of writing Baby Grand involved intense bouts of self-doubt. In graduate school, where I wrote the first third of the manuscript, there was one point where I had completed Chapters 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6.
My professor asked, “Well, what about Chapter 3?”
Truth be told, Chapter 3 was scaring the hell out of me. I had planned it to be the first chapter involving the police investigation where the reader meets the detective assigned to the case. And after YEARS of watching Law & Order, I felt like I knew nothing about police investigations, and there was absolutely no way I could write a convincing scene (in fact, if there had been a way to avoid doing a police investigation at all in this novel, I would have found it).
I remember my professor’s confusion, like she didn’t know what I was talking about. “Just write it,” she said, dismissively, and went on to the next student.
That night, I went home and stared at a blank page. Just write it? I thought. I just can’t. I can’t. I can’t. And then I started typing, writing anything that came to me to get some random ideas on paper, and then going over and over that writing (which is the way I write — constant editing) until I sat there and looked at it with amazement. Gosh, it’s not terrible, after all, I thought.
More than a year later, during the revision stage of Baby Grand, it was my agent who would give me that gentle push, who questioned and probed and would say, “This doesn’t ring true” or “I think you should delve more here.” Delve more? I’d pace the living room floor in frustration, confident that there was nothing more to say on the matter. I just can’t, can’t, can’t. And then I’d sit down and try, and not only did I find out that I could, but that her instincts were right and made Baby Grand a better novel.
There are probably hundreds of additional instances during the writing and rewriting of Baby Grand when there was nobody to push me but myself. Nights spent in a dark, quiet house alone with my laptop, staring out the window at the rising sun, battling those self-doubt demons who said I couldn’t hack it, that what Baby Grand needed I couldn’t give it. During those times, I didn’t give up. I cried, of course, and said things like “I can’t do this” and “I have no talent,” but deep down I knew that I could and that I did. I found the strength and determination to push myself when I thought I had nothing left. Just when I thought, I have absolutely NO idea what to write here, I would find it somehow.
Those are probably some of the sweetest moments of writing, when you sit back and stare at the screen and think, Wow, I really COULD do this, after all. And as much as the temptation is always there to throw in the towel, I wouldn’t miss those moments for the world.
Hire a professional copy editor. Some people are surprised when I tell them that I had the manuscript for Baby Grand professionally copy edited.
“But aren’t you an editor?” they ask.
“Yep,” I say. “And as an editor I know the importance of a good copy edit.”
Copy editing, or line editing, is going through a proof or manuscript, line by line, in order to find errors (grammatical, continuity, etc.). Baby Grand just went through copy editing and, as it turns out, was relatively clean (as it should be, since I am, indeed, an editor), but the copy editor did catch quite a few formatting and grammatical (e.g., en dash vs. em dash) issues and asked astute questions with regard to plot and characterization. As I clicked through the manuscript, I kept thinking how happy I was to have had this critical eye go through the copy one last time.
Keep in mind that copy editing is a professional service. It’s not really something you can ask your friends to do for you. On the other hand, anyone can be a “beta reader,” who is also someone who reads your manuscript for errors, but that person will probably not be as meticulous or familiar with style guides as a professional. Both have their place and can be very helpful in making your manuscript the very best it can be.
Professional copy editing or proofreading rates vary per project, and copy editors may charge you by the hour or by the page. For a 300-page manuscript, you may pay something like $600 to $1,000, but, again, pricing depends on the person or company you use and the services needed. It’s probably a good idea to ask around, too, and see if any of your writer-friends can recommend a copy editor whom they found to be affordable, yet thorough. After seeing the kinds of things my copy editor found that escaped my eyes, my advice is not to skimp on the copy-editing. It’s worth every penny.
On Wednesday, I finished editing my manuscript for Baby Grand. The third edit. And hopefully the last — at least for the time being.
The book is now 330 pages and just over 93,000 words (my original draft was 277 pages).
If you would have told me on Monday that I would be finished by Wednesday, I wouldn’t have believed you. That’s because throughout this entire process, I had planned on adding a chapter at the very end of my book — a chapter that would help clear up some ambiguity. On Monday, it was time to write that chapter, and I was clueless. For the past few months, I’d written a bunch of notes, and lines, for it, things I wanted to include. But things weren’t clicking. I was writing and writing and feeling like I was going nowhere. Not a good sign for a thriller. But I thought that perhaps if I kept writing, something would come to me, and then I’d be able to zero in on it, and cut out all the rest.
I was in bed Tuesday morning, unable to sleep, and it hit me: Why not just cut the whole damn thing?
Not the content of the ending, but trim the way I was telling it. Stop blabbering on and on. Shortening it might make it more impactful.
Hmmm… I wondered if I was suggesting this, because I was being lazy. Or perhaps I’d had enough and needed a break. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my ending could be more powerful if I took elements that I really liked from my last chapter, the one that I had, and shoved them into my second to last chapter, and made that my ending.
Would it work? I gave it a try, and I think it does. For the past couple of days, I’ve been opening up the manuscript to take a peek at the ending, hoping that I would still be happy with it. And each time I read it, I am.
One of my earlier writing tips (Writing Tip #9) is to “omit unnecessary words.” That’s certainly what I did with my ending, although it took me a while, over a year, to realize I had to.
I joked on my Facebook page that all the recent Facebook changes reminded me of the editing of my novel: Things keep changing, but I’m not sure anything is getting better. But the truth is I think my novel is far better having gone through three revisions. Even though I groaned my way through all of them.
Done! Again! Yay!
Made my deadline for second-round revisions. I breezed through most of the manuscript, which, as I’ve mentioned several times in this blog, is a far cry from the first time around when I struggled on page 1 wondering why I didn’t become a mathematician.
Number of pages: 315
Number of words: 88,432
So now what do I do? Panic, of course. Develop insomnia and some horrible tic as I wait. And wait. I wonder how many of you will be so fed up with my angst in the coming months that you will lobby WordPress to discontinue my username and ban my ass from blogging.
Or maybe someone will take pity on me and offer me a publishing contract. :)
My answer to that was: But, of course! I’m a writer.
Even though 2nd-round revisions are going very smoothly for Baby Grand, and somehow I’m back on schedule after missing two days of revising, I’m continually astounded by how often doubt creeps into the picture as I work. I could write or rewrite blissfully for hours and then hit a momentary snag, and my first thought is: Who am I kidding? I can’t do this. Even though I know I can.
Perhaps, like procrastination, it’s just part of my process, but I know I’m not alone. Besides @SGibbsFiction, virtually all writers tell me they have moments of doubt — sometimes, looong moments of doubt — and often think they’re “not good enough.” Back in April, I told you about my former college professor Martha McPhee who referred to that doubt as the “shitbird” that sits on your shoulder and pecks at you all day long and whispers negativity into your ear. The key is pushing through, ignoring that damn bird or pushing him off your shoulder altogether.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting a young man by the name of Brian Gottlieb who, at the age of 17, is a crazy talented financial whiz. In chatting with him and his mom over lunch, I said to Brian, “You seem like a very confident young man.”
“Oh, yes,” Brian answered, without a hint of doubt. “I am.”
I liked Brian immediately. He was self-assured without being cocky, and when I asked him financial questions, he rattled off like a seasoned analyst. But sometimes I would ask him something non-stock-market-related for which the answer didn’t come readily, and, perplexed, he would turn to his mother for assistance, more like the 17-year-old that he was.
“See that,” I thought to myself. “Even confident people don’t always have the answers.”
Years ago, I went through a screenwriting phase. Disgusted with my descriptive prose, I bought a few books, studied the technique and was determined to be the next Richard Price. But when it came to writing the screenplay, I felt suffocated and kept getting the urge to describe, describe, describe, which made me feel even worse, since, as I mentioned, I had been disgusted with my descriptive prose.
Around this time, I was working as a journalist in the trades, and I remember going on a business trip to Cleveland and interviewing a furniture store executive who told me that if I wanted to write a screenplay that I was better off writing a novel first and then a screenplay of that novel.
At the time, I thought it seemed like a pretty dopey, roundabout way to write a screenplay.
Yesterday, as I was revising Baby Grand, I was reminded of my screenwriter aspirations. I found myself cutting out some unnecessary seques, such as “Jamie walked over and…” It reminded me of the editing of a movie, where we see folks getting out of a car and in the next scene entering an office and how we know how they got there, without having to see them push the elevator button, wait in the lobby, ride up, etc. It occurred to me that as I write my novels I see them as movies playing out in my mind, and all those little unnecessary scraps of prose are on the cutting room floor of my brain.
I do think a screenplay is in my future, and I think about that dude from Cleveland from time to time and wonder whatever became of him. He too was a writer and had just self-published a book at a time when no one was self-publishing books. Little does he know that, some fifteen years later, I would be heeding his advice.
When I finally had procrastinated enough last week and pushed myself to open the Baby Grand word document, I was worried it would be like the first round of revisions, when on the first day I spent half an hour agonizing over the first paragraph and was blown away by unhappy I was with the manuscript in general.
What a difference this time around!
On Day 1 of Revisions Round 2, I breezed quickly through the first 30 pages, changing a word here and there but mostly pleased with what I read. Thank God. Although I’m still a day behind in schedule because of an unexpected trip to Jersey, I’m chugging along and feeling more satisfied and berating myself far less. The experience of Revisions Round 2 is kind of like opening a children’s coloring book that’s already been completed and just touching things up, finding the tiny white spots you missed and filling them in. Sure, there are a few entire pages that still need to be colored here and there, but overall the majority of the work has been done and, as I read, I can admire the colorful characters that fill its pages.
Rachelle Gardner, a literary agent I follow on Twitter, recently made the following statement:
A lot of writers are setting stories in the past to avoid dealing with internet, Facebook, text msging, etc. Not good!
I laughed when I read this. Not because I shy away from technology in Baby Grand. In fact, quite the opposite. I’ve incorporated both text messaging and social networking, such as Facebook, in my story, and enjoy doing so. But since I’ve been writing Baby Grand, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve kicked myself, wondering, Why did your novel have to be contemporary? Why couldn’t you write some damn science fiction or Victorian romance instead?
The reason is that because my novel is set in contemporary times, current events can impact it. Often I feel I’m at the whim or mercy of those current events, which help form the framework of my fictional story. For example, there is this underlying worry that I had while writing Baby Grand that Facebook will disappear from the planet and I will have to rework the role that social networking plays in my book. I remember when Mark Zuckerberg was named Time’s Man of the Year, a wave of relief washed over me as I thought: Whew! A company couldn’t crumble under the Man of the Year, can it? CAN IT?!
I even discussed it with my agent. “What if Facebook implodes?” I asked her, panic-stricken.
Calm and cool, she said, “Then there will be another social networking site to take its place. Don’t worry. Things like this are a common worry for first-time authors.”
I thought, Oh, okay, good. She’s not worried. Then I won’t be. Yay.
Still, I am compelled to stay on top of current events, since I think it’s important to understand what’s going on in the news so I can know whether to ignore it or acknowledge it in the book. Remember the recent ban on drop-side cribs? That impacted Baby Grand in a tiny way and will be something I address in this go-round of revisions. Luckily, that was just an easy fix.
However, on Wednesday of this week, I read an AOL story about a U.S. manufacturer ending production of one of the main ingredients used in lethal injections. Under normal circumstances, I would probably have skimmed the story and that would have been it, but the death penalty is featured prominently in Baby Grand. I almost fell over when the writer spoke of the impact this could have on the death penalty in the U.S. and whether or not lethal injections would continue, since the Italian plant that the company wanted to switch production to is being pressured by the government not to sell the drug to the U.S. if it is to be used in executions.
Political views on capital punishment aside, this has a big impact on how my story is told. This means that I will have to stay tuned and make adjustments, alternate arrangements, additions, etc., which I don’t mind doing (in fact, there’s a part of me that loves doing, because it’s challenging), but, damn, this is stressful. Queen Victoria is looking better as a protagonist all the time. (Did she have a stutter?)
Alas, I have no plans to write any Victorian romance or science fiction. Maybe one day. (Never say never.) But right now, I’m a contemporary girl. A thriller girl. And, apparently, a literary masochist.