Editing & Rewriting

So You Want to Publish a Book (Post 1): Is Your Book Ready to be Published?

Over the last two months, a couple people have asked me the same thing:  “I wrote a book.  Now what do I do?”  To answer each person separately would take a lot of time, and given that I was in the process of moving, I didn’t have time to sit down and write a series of blog posts to address this question.

Today, I’ll start the series.  That way when I get this question again, I can provide people with a series of links to help address the issue.  This is intended for people who have never published a book.

ID 37475863 © Iqoncept | Dreamstime.com

ID 37475863 © Iqoncept | Dreamstime.com

The first thing you need to consider is this: is your book ready to be published?

Self-publishing and even traditional publishing isn’t what it once was.  Regardless of the way you choose to  publish, you need to have a product that is worth publishing.  The bar has been raised on what you can publish.  With writers fine tuning their skills and taking editing seriously, you need to make sure your book is on par with theirs.

If you want to land a book deal with a publishing house, you will need a polished version to hand in to the acquisitions editor.  If you want to publish it yourself, the savvy self-published authors are seeking to have their books compete with the publishers, meaning they want their books to look like it came from a publishing house.  This is about putting a professional step forward.

So before you decide to publish, you need to consider two main things: editing and the storytelling craft.

So don’t skimp on the edits.

This doesn’t mean you spend years editing.  That’s too long.  But I would say a month or two of working through edits is minimum.  You don’t want to make the process so long you never get anything published, but you also don’t want to rush through it.  The best technique is to pace yourself.  I edit 1-2 chapters a day.  That way my mind is fresh when I get to it, and I don’t have time to get exhausted.  I also use a system of checks and balances where I have two to three others go over my book.  After taking in all the edits and making all the changes, I recommend a final read through.

I know in this instant gratification world we live in where things are usually given to us as soon as we want it, it’s easy to get impatient and want the book up today.  But taking the extra time to edit will be worth it.

Do you have a compelling story?

This is a harder one to pin down and explain since the definition of what makes for a compelling read varies from person to person.  But let’s just put it this way: are you so engrossed in your own book you get lost in it?  Or do you find yourself skimming?  If you’re skimming, chances are those parts are slowing your book down.  A compelling story is one in which you want to read everything.  It doesn’t have fillers that get glossed over.

The average reader will forgive an occasional typo, but they won’t forgive a story that bores them.

***

Until you have the two things above settled, you can’t move forward.  But for the sake of this blog, we’ll say you have a compelling and properly edited story.   That would bring me to my next post which I’ll put up next week.  In it, I’ll discuss whether finding a publisher or self-publishing is the best fit for you because there is no one-size-fits-all approach in this business.

 

Categories: Editing & Rewriting, General Writing | Tags: | 9 Comments

Avoiding the Info-Dump

I graduated from college back in May after a very busy senior year, during which I was fortunate enough to not only do a senior thesis, but to do a novel that I really wanted to write as a senior thesis and get excellent feedback from my advisor and a fellow senior. Around April my advisor, a creative writing professor with quite a few books published, my second reader, a favorite teacher of mine who was as much a nerd and an even bigger science-fiction enthusiast than I am, and I met for my thesis discussion, where we’d go over the progress of my novel and where I would go for the third draft once I got around to that.

While they generally liked my story, which is titled Rose, they had a number of very good suggestions on ways to make it better. One of the suggestions, and something that I hadn’t even considered, was that a lot of the information received about my antagonist came in three big bursts over the course of the story. They suggested that maybe I should space out when such information was given, and maybe vary my sources. In fact, they pointed out that one character seemed to be there only just to dole out information about the antagonist. He didn’t really serve any purpose beyond that.

This stunned me. And you know what else? I realized they were right. I was doing a lot of info-dumping in this story, and that it was actually working against the story I was trying to tell. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to avoid info-dumping in this and future stories, and I thought I’d share some of those tips with you.

But first, what exactly is an info-dump? It’s when a huge amount of information is deposited in a single place. In fiction, it’s like exposition, only it’s too much exposition. Think of it like this: if any of you watch Once Upon a Time, you know that flashbacks are a big part of the show and that the writers take care to reveal new facts over time, peeling away layers so that there’s always a bit of mystery left in the characters you think you know very well. Now imagine in one episode they took all the backstory of a single character and reveal it all at once? That’s so much information, it’d make for a five-hundred page biography! And all in the course of forty-two minutes. You’d be overwhelmed. That there is an info-dump, and it’s something writers should take pains to avoid.

So how do you avoid the info-dump?

The key is to space out the information you reveal. Don’t reveal everything about a character, a place, or an object all at once. Instead make sure it happens gradually, over a long period of time, and between reveals make sure there’s time for the characters to do other stuff and for the reader to focus their attention on other aspects of the story. After all, between flashbacks on Once Upon a Time, there’s still evil witches or monsters or manipulative adolescents to deal with.

Another good tip is to make the information come from multiple sources. Look at Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. How do we find out about him, who he is, where he came from and what he did? Well, we find all that out over time, but we also find out about him from many different sources. We first learn his name and the night he disappeared from Hagrid in the first book. We later find out what happened to him after his defeat from the villain himself at the book’s climax. In the second book we find out about his life as Tom Riddle and a hint at his political views from the piece of his soul in the diary, in the fourth book we find out how he came back to power when he tells it to his followers, in the fifth book we find out about the prophecy from Dumbledore, and our information is completed when we find about him from the flashbacks Dumbledore provides us in the sixth book.

But how do you decide when information is to be revealed? Well, that’s for you as the author to decide, but info should come when it fits or works for the story. Back to Harry Potter for a second. There’s obviously a lot of information about the Wizarding World. So much, that not all of it was revealed in the books and JK Rowling is still giving out snippets of information to us through a variety of sources. Wisely, she only gave out information when it was relevant. Would it have really have helped us, the reader, to know about goblins’ attitudes towards wizards keeping their works in the first book? It would’ve been interesting to know, but it wouldn’t have mattered much to the story at that point. And while we wondered if Hogwarts was the only school for magic in the world, the existence of other schools was only revealed in Book 4 because other schools were a big part of the story. In a similar, you should only reveal information when it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially in terms of characters, is we should already feel we know and have an opinion about someone or something before the information is revealed. In one of my favorite anime, Code Geass, we get to know one of the main characters early on, not through the info given to us about his past, but by his personality and actions. We get to know that he is kind, selfless, and will gladly put his life on the line for others, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. It isn’t until halfway through the first season that we find out the incident in his childhood that made him this way, but by that time we already have a very positive and sympathetic view of this character and the info reveal does surprise us, but doesn’t color our opinion of the character as much as it would’ve if we’d learned that piece of information at the very beginning of the series.

Another great example is Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. Early on we don’t know much about Annie besides what she chooses to reveal, and we can’t even rely on that. Why should we? She’s nuts! She’s violent, obsessive, and can switch from sweet to scary at the drop of a hat. By the time we find her scrapbook later in the book, we already know her and how we feel about her. The info in the scrapbook is certainly revealing, but it only adds to our dislike of the character. It isn’t what we base that dislike on.

There’s more I could say about avoiding info-dumps, but that’s a very long article to write. Let’s just finish it by saying that learning to avoid giving out way too much information is something we earn through time and practice. With experience, great tips, and a good bunch of people around you, we learn how to do it while still telling the excellent stories we want to tell.

All that and more will certainly help me when I get around to the next draft of Rose. I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out when all is said and done!

What tips do you have for avoiding info-dumps? How have they worked out for you?

Categories: Editing & Rewriting, General Writing, storytelling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tips for Working with Beta Readers

Photo by Jo Naylor

I’ve been posting on promotion lately, but I want to switch gears for a moment to a post I’ve had rough drafted for a year concerning beta readers.

What’s a beta reader? Basically, it’s your guinea pig. A beta reader is someone who “beta’s” – tests – your book. They read through an early copy and tell you what things you should change, what things they like, and what things confused them. Depending on your arrangement they may also edit.

Ruth and Janet did a very good post/video on what to look for in a Beta Reader, but as an author who also does beta reading, there are things betas are looking for in authors.

1. “Do you have time to…”

If you’re lucky, you have those regular reliable betas who are always happy to read for you. But that doesn’t mean you should just drop it in their lap, or expect them to “know” that the beta is coming up because you mentioned it in a facebook status. Before you send a file, or even have a file ready to send, it’s a good idea to ask if they “will have time”.  I try to ask my beta readers a month or two in advance, and then again two weeks before I plan to send the file. This might annoy them (see #10) but it’s what I prefer from authors, so…

2. Deadlines

When you give a beta reader a deadline make sure this is REALLY your deadline. Don’t say, for instance, “I need this back by the end of the month” and then, two weeks until the end, start to panic because they haven’t got it finished early. When someone gives me a deadline I use the date to juggle my other projects around it – meaning I DO NOT do it early. Other betas may be the kind to finish in advance, but, to be safe, If you need it two weeks earlier,  give your beta reader that deadline.

3. “How far are you? Do you like it?” 

As an author I know the nail biting fear while waiting on your book to come back from the betas, but as a beta I have to say “Enough with the questions. Just stop.” When I send you back my notes, comments, and corrections I will answer all of those questions, and I’d bet so will your beta readers. Please, please, please don’t harass them. You’re likely to annoy them  and that can leave you beta-less.

4. Be specific with what you want.

Do you want your beta to edit or just make comments? As a beta I have discovered that nothing makes an author madder than unsolicited editing advice, which left me on the fence about whether to do any editing – or even suggest “maybe this needs edited” – for a long time. Your beta reader might be in the same place, so if you want/don’t want honest editing let them know. Something as simple as “All I really need is to know whether this flows/makes sense/is gripping. I have someone else editing”, then the beta knows not to do it. Conversely you can say “Do what you want: comments, editing, whatever makes you happy” for a no pressure “ok” on editorial suggestions.

5. Make sure your betas are a good fit for your book.

Just because your beta readers loved your last book, doesn’t mean they’ll like this one, especially if you switch genres or styles. Make sure you communicate to your betas what they’re going to be reading, even if you think you’re simpatico and they already *know*. Otherwise you’re likely to end up with tear stained emails from betas who hate, hate, hate your new book and everything about it. And no matter what we like to pretend, that’s a blow to the ego.

6. “How did you feel about ___?”

If there’s a part of the book you think needs attention, or that you’re not sure about, ask the beta readers in advance. Sometimes they didn’t pay especial attention to the scene you’re worried about (you could think of that as “it didn’t stick out to them, so nothing to worry about.”), and they may have to re-read it in order to answer your questions. As an author I have been guilty of this after the books come back from other betas, I run to the others and say “Did you think X was boring/too long/unbelievable/etc.” There’s nothing wrong with discussing things, but make sure your beta is open to it. Some do beta reading for a lot of authors and – especially if they’re doing yours free – may not have time for long discussions. In other words, consider whether they have the time to deal with your author quibbles before you dump them all out in an email.

7. “Wait – Here’s a new version!”

As an author I understand editing the book – even rewriting it – while it’s out to your beta readers. As it comes back from reader after reader, we tweak this, redo that, change this, and sometimes it’s barely the same manuscript we first handed out. The desire is to send this new, better – so, so much better – version to your betas who aren’t done yet and say “Hey, this is better. I’ve changed it. If you don’t read this one, all the comments you’re going to make may not pertain anymore.” But what you’re also saying is, “All the comments you already made don’t pertain anymore. Surprise!” That’s not to say you might not have betas who don’t mind this – or who *want* the newest version – but I’d suggest being cautious and at the very least offering, not demanding or just cold sending the newest version. And speaking of new versions…

8. “Don’t bother finishing it. I’ve changed my mind.”

As an author I understand this. Maybe it needs a new ending. Maybe it needs totally re-written. Maybe a beta pointed out a huge, huge timeline error that ruins the whole thing (heh-heh, Yeah, that’s happened to me) but when an author says “don’t bother to finish” some betas may feel like “Why did I bother to start?” I know you had good intentions at heart, no point in your beta wasting their time finishing up a story with notes you don’t need, or want, but at the same time it can come off as dismissive – “thanks for starting but I don’t really care anymore”. Your beta readers may be different.

9. “I’ve re-written it thanks to all your suggestions. Here’s the whole book back. Please read it again.”

As I’ve mentioned, many beta readers do beta for multiple authors, or are authors themselves. Though they may love your book, there’s a good chance they don’t have time to read the whole thing again. If you really think they do, you can always ask them, but don’t just cold mail them the newest file with a list of instructions and a new deadline, unless you already have an understanding. (Even with an understanding it’s still nice to ask, which brings me to my most important point.)

10. Do unto others.

Do any of these things irritate your beta readers? If they did, would they tell you? I’m pretty sure most of my beta readers are too polite to say I’m driving them nuts, and I know I am, so in the end the best thing you can do is treat your beta readers the way you’d want to be treated. Don’t set impossible deadlines. Ask them to pay special attention ahead of time. Make sure they know how much you value them, their time, and their contributions and make sure to thank them in either the acknowledgements or dedication of your book. Oh, and a free copy doesn’t hurt either. Which leads to my very last point.

A Bonus Tip:

Don’t demand reviews.

Even if you offer your betas a free copy, don’t expect – or ask for – reviews. Remember the version they read was in progress, and they may not have time to read your corrected version. Or they may not like to write reviews. Or they may not feel comfortable doing it. (I had a beta who refused to review anything she beta read because she felt it was wrong since she had “had a hand” in the book). If your betas do review, thank them, but don’t expect it.

Do you use beta readers? if so, what tips do you have to keep the relationship running smoothly?

Categories: Editing & Rewriting

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