Notes from the Writing Trenches: Revising My First Novel

By Anna Brady Marcus

As a first time novelist, for years and years my main goal was to get to the end of my first draft. When I wrote the last sentence on page 420 of my novel “After Alice” (working title), I felt euphoric. I bragged about it on Facebook, and slapped myself on the back. I thought it would just take a month or two for me to polish up my manuscript and start sending it out to agents and editors. This time next year I’ll be closing on my publishing deal, I told myself privately.

I laugh at my naïveté now, and I hesitate to tell you, dear reader, of how quickly I fell from my precipice. First, perhaps out of shear exhaustion, or perhaps from fear of hating what I had written, it took me a good two months to even open my manuscript again. Many people say you need to take a break between the writing phase and the revising phase, and for me it was a major process to retool my brain and take stock of what I’d done before I felt ready to read my book with fresh eyes.

At the advice of an agent I met, I bought “The Last Draft,” a book on the revision process by Sandra Scofield. She is a big proponent of reading and revising on physical paper, so I printed out a hard copy of my manuscript, single-sided, double spaced, on three-hole punched paper. When I picked it up from Staples it weighed about fifteen pounds and barely fit inside the carton! Seeing my manuscript in a huge stack like this made me proud of all the work I’d done, mixed with a double portion of dread. How many pages would I have to cut to get this to a manageable size?

I bought a thick binder to contain the sprawling script, and armed with multicolored highlighters and many sticky notes, I sat down and read my novel cover-to-cover. To my relief, the bones of the book I thought I had written were there, but there were many passages that needed major work – plot inconsistencies, dead ends, unnecessary characters and scenes, and far too many clichés. I really didn’t know where or how to begin to fix it all.

Luckily I had already signed up for a writing class with Julie Chibbaro, and she leant me a book called “The 90-day Rewrite” by Alan Watt. This book breaks down the rewrite process day-by-day into bite-size chunks filled with encouragement, psychological advice, and short exercises to help a writer get a handle on their manuscript. I immediately latched onto the title of this book. Only ninety days! There was hope! I made schedules for myself based on Watt’s process, which follows the general narrative arc of a novel. In week one I would make my new outline, in week two I would cover the dilemma and inciting incident, and so on and so forth. I could practically see the end of the revision already!

Well dear reader, it became clear within a few days that I would not complete my rewrite in ninety days. It took me a couple of weeks just to finish the preparation exercises in the book. I had to redo my forecasted schedule every month, continually pushing out the final date of completion. Nevertheless I plodded on, at my own pace, and I started to actually enjoy the rewrite process. I was honing my craft, smoothing out the plot points, and finding more juiciness in the characters. Slowly, I was peeling away the chaotic layers I’d laid down in the first draft and finding the pulsing heart of my story. I rewrote whole chapters, rearranged the scenes, changed one of my protagonists’ names, and cut out several minor characters. Finally this summer, a year and a half after starting my rewrite, I got to the end of the second draft! This time I didn’t bother to post anything on Facebook about it. I still have lots of work to do. I’m rewriting large chunks of my second protagonists’ chapters, and then I need to check my antagonists and make sure they are truly living up to their menacing potential. When that is done, I will give my manuscript to a few beta readers, and then I’ll have more changes to make based on their feedback. After that, I’ll need to hire a copy editor and get it all proofread and clean before I start to send it out to agents and editors.

I won’t lie and say that it’s been fun and easy. It’s been a real slog to rewrite my novel, but in the process I’ve become much more invested in my work. These characters are like my family now. I owe it to them to get their story right. Writing a novel isn’t about acquiring fame for me, it is about saying what I need to say, listening to the small voice inside me, and exploring the questions that have nagged me all of my life. Ninety days or 548 days, what difference does it really make how long the rewrite takes? I’m not going to give up now, if anything, I’m more optimistic than ever that what I’ve written is powerful and it will be shared with the world, when it is good and ready.

Burning Questions about Book Publishing: What does an editor do all day?

by Ruta Rimas

Book editors. Writers imagine them as elusive, mysterious creatures who hold in their hands the power to make writers’ dreams of publication come true (and also crush those dreams into oblivion).

Editor? Or Sasquatch? Both are equally mysterious.

Is it true?

As an editor myself, I’d like to dispel some of those myths and misconceptions about the daily work of a book editor right away.

  • Editors read all day at work.

Sadly, this is a big, terrible lie. Editors read on the train, after work, on the weekends, sometimes in bed before falling asleep. Very little reading happens at the office.

  • Editors love to reject manuscripts.

Passing on a project is actually the hardest part of the job. It doesn’t feel good to tell someone who bravely poured their heart onto the page that you aren’t interested in pursuing their work—even with a buffer (the writer’s agent) in place.

  • Editors hole-up in their offices, talking to nary a soul, while scribbling giant red x’s across manuscripts, laughing maniacally as they tear apart the books they’ve acquired.

Mostly untrue. But I can’t say I don’t find joy in slicing and dicing…

So what is it that a book editor does if they aren’t reading and/or destroying the hopes and dreams of writers all day?

It helps to think of an editor as a project manager. An editor is the point-person and in-house voice for the books on their list, whether those books are freshly acquired or a few years old. Publishing houses work years in advance, so right now, I’m working on projects that go on sale in the summer and fall of 2020, for example. At any given moment, I have my hands on 15-25 books, in varying stages of publication development.

Accurate depiction of the paper stack in my office.

That is, I may be hobbling together editorial notes for a novel that is 18 months out from publication or I may be reviewing copyedits for a novel that publishes in a year or rewriting back cover copy for a repackaged (meaning, new cover design) paperback edition or offering feedback to an artist on interior sketches of a picture book. All in the same day!

Throughout the book’s life in the publishing house, an editor presents it at various sales, marketing, design, and editorial meetings and is the primary liaison between departments throughout each stage of project development, as well as with agents, illustrators, and authors, and other industry professionals.

Contrary to popular belief, many book editors are not quiet, reserved, bookish recluses. They are highly social, sales-oriented people who are great at public speaking. They have to be, as they are required to talk about their projects in public on a frequent basis.

A typical day as an editor doesn’t exist, but there is one thing an editor can always count on: meetings (sales meetings, production meetings, cover design meetings, agent meetings, author meetings, marketing and publicity meetings). In between meetings, editors are generally putting out fires that are lit after a book has been developmentally edited and is already in its latter stages. Some of those fires include issues/questions about:

  • Marketing/publicity (some books have bigger budgets than others and part of an editor’s job is explaining those decisions to agents and authors and also brainstorming how to enact a grassroots effort).
  • Incorrect metadata feeding to online retailers (most publishers function with automated digital sweeps of metadata like book covers, descriptive copy, author names and bios, etc., and sometimes old data gets picked up).
  • Coordinating materials like advanced readers copies (ARCs) for delivery to conferences and festivals and figuring out a plan if those materials won’t be ready on time.
  • Talking through cover design/editorial notes/digital ideas with authors.
  • And more.

New and unusual questions, scenarios, situations, problems pop up ALL the time. It’s never a dull moment in editorial.

Reading Like a Copy Editor

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I write poems and short stories for fun (except when it’s completely frustrating), but I copyedit the work of others for (a little) profit. Usually when I tell someone what I do for a living, the first question I get is, “What exactly does a copy editor do?” followed by, “how are you different than just, you know, a regular editor?”

My response is that I don’t help the author revise the rough drafts of the book, when characters, plot, and structure are still being formed and shaped. By the time I start working on a project, the editor has already done that, and the manuscript is (hopefully) in good shape. But it still needs a fine-tuning, and that’s where I come in. Not only do I check spelling and grammar, but I watch for consistency, logic, and flow: Wait, on page 3 she was “Catharine” but now on page 23 she’s “Catherine”—which one is it? Or, did this king really rule from 1350 to 1580? Ah, nope, that should be 1380. Better make a note to check that throughout. Looks like this author is really fond of the word “ambiguous”—this is the fourth time she’s used it in this chapter. I’ll suggest she use “unclear” here instead.

What kind of person makes a good copy editor? Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House, offers his opinion in his new book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style:

“Copyediting is a knack. It requires a good ear for how language sounds and a good eye for how it manifests itself on the page; it demands an ability to listen to what writers are attempting to do and, hopefully and helpfully, the means to augment it…I do think it’s a craft whose knowledge can only be built on some mysterious predisposition. (The one thing I know that most copy editors have in common is that they were all early readers and spent much of their childhoods with their noses pressed into books.)”

Dreyer’s insightful description suggests how my copy editor and writer sides interact and, I hope, support one another. I’ve been focusing on writing poetry for the last year—and more than any other genre, poetry demands an attention to the sound of language in the ear, and the look and layout of language on the page. (Plus, I was definitely a young bookworm.)

But what do I not do when I copyedit? Well, I don’t scold authors for split infinitives. I don’t have a heart attack if a writer starts a sentence with the word “And.” My job is not to force a writer to align with unbreakable rules. It’s about supporting and strengthening the author’s own voice, through judicious application of grammatical guidelines and common sense.

Although, I’m with Mr. Dreyer on the serial (or Oxford) comma, when he notes that only “godless savages” do not use it.

George Saunders: Under Pressure

By Flora Stadler

UPDATE: When I received George Sauders’ response to my question, I reached out again to ask him if he could tell me about a new pressure-relief method he’d learned for his novel. I didn’t expect to hear back, so I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t. But then a holiday miracle happened and he responded! Scroll down to his original response and see what else he had to say. 

In a piece for The Guardian last year, author George Saunders described the obsessive grind of his writing process: “My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I’ve been a Saunders fan-girl ever since I read his short story collection, In Persuasion Nation. So when his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, came out, I was excited to walk around inside a novel-sized version of his brain.

In that same Guardian article, Saunders wrote about his transition to novel-writing, which he thought would require lots of hidden meanings and more complicated plans than his short stories. He eventually realized that wasn’t the case.

But I could see his point. The two kinds of writing seem to exercise different muscles. A short story is a sprint through an idea, but to hold onto that idea for hundreds of pages can feel like a marathon. If a short story is the work of a quick mind, a novel is an expression of its stamina. So when I somehow got George Saunders to agree to sprint through a question with me, I asked:

Was there something in the writing process for Lincoln in the Bardo that your previous work hadn’t prepared you for? And if so, how did you overcome it (if you feel you did)?

“I suppose it was the earnestness of the narration. In my stories (and because of the contemporary voice I use) I can narrate serious stuff with a constant option to toggle momentarily over into the comic. This functions as a sort of pressure relief valve. The subject matter of this book (the 19th century death of a child and his father’s grief) complicated that — I found myself needing to do longer stretches of narrative the purpose of which was not overtly comedic. So this was a good thing—it taught me other ways to do that pressure-relief work.

Essentially what happened was that, by bearing down on what ‘the comic’ meant, I found out that it is more than just ‘being funny’ but can also include ‘paying closer attention to what you’ve already said.’ In this case, there was a moment when, in the midst of some earnest expositional stuff, I recalled: ‘Hey, that one ghost — you’ve said he has a huge and permanent erection. And that other one — he’s supposed to have thousands of eyes and ears.’ So then, without any change of tone, just by ‘recalling’ those things and writing them calmly into the text, the tone shifted — it wasn’t ‘funny’ exactly, but it wasn’t boring historical exposition, either.”

George Saunders is a professor, author and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and everywhere. His writing has won countless awards, including the National Magazine Award for fiction (1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004), a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, the PEN/Malamud Award in 2013, and most recently, the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo. His many books can be purchased or ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.