Tag Archives: manuscript

Move Beyond “Potential”: Make Your Indie Book Shine

Move Beyond “Potential”: Make Your Indie Book Shine

yellow background with a line drawing of a person inside a huge T shirt that reads "potential"

Does your book have a shape or only potential? CC image “potential” courtesy of yukky.u on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I wince a little inside when I hear someone describe a self-published book as having “potential.” At the same time, I feel a small piece of acknowledgment—because not every author sticks with the project through the final, frustrating revisions that would make the book truly excellent.

In my work, I’m privileged to read a lot of books. Design elements aside, the one element that bugs me about many indie books is the short shrift given to the editorial process. If you’re a reader of this blog, you’ll have heard me say this before: EVERY good author works with an editor; no one comes out of the gate with a first draft that is as beautiful as what you see in the finished work. If [insert name of your favorite author] needs to go through revisions and editing, don’t you think you should give it a try?

When you self-publish, you get to call the shots. That’s both the blessing and the curse of the model. I love that authors get creative control with independent publishing. Unfortunately, some authors use this control to veto work that would be good for their book. So, how do you know when your book might need more work? Below are a few clues.

Clues your book needs more editorial work

1. Have you finished writing your manuscript, and then gone back and re-read the whole thing, from beginning to end?

You haven’t? What are you waiting for?

I promise you, your story has logical gaps, discontinuities, and/or repetitions. If you haven’t re-read your entire manuscript, you are making a huge mistake, period.

2. Do you have title/subtitle ideas?

While you’re working on a first draft, it’s perfectly natural to have only a working title for your book—you might call it “My book.” You’re figuring things out. However, beyond the first draft, you should be getting other ideas. If you don’t, this is a sign you probably need to work more on your manuscript. Writing and revising will provide ideas.

3. Have you read your last chapter as often as your first?

Writers have a tendency to spend a lot of time with Chapter One. And the beginning of your book is important. But, newsflash: so is the end of your book. The end is what your readers will remember—assuming they read all the way through. If you haven’t paid attention to the end of your book, you’re not ready to publish.

4. Have you read your “middle” more than once?

Some of you are now thinking, “OK, this now makes EVERY part of the book an ‘important part.’” Yes, yes it does. Did you see #1 above?

Those readers who get to the end? They have to make it through the middle of the book. The reason I call out the middle by name is that writers give it even less attention than book endings, and by far less than beginnings. For this reason, it’s earned the name “muddy middle” in the writing world. Your book can get flabby around the middle—just like we can. Have you spent time working it out?

5. Did you make any big changes in your story/topic while writing was in progress?

I guarantee you will want a complete re-read of your manuscript, if you have. Skip this step, and you’ll hand your editor—or, so help us, your designer—a hot mess.

6. Are you clear on your audience?

If you can’t picture one specific person (not your mother) reading your book, stop and take a minute. You should not—I repeat should NOT—publish without this knowledge.

7. Are you sick of reading your manuscript, or only sick of writing it?

I get it. First drafts are hard. Most of us don’t want to look at the darn thing anymore, after we finish what we think is “The End.” That’s not the same as reading your manuscript a lot. By this I mean, you’ve taken a break after you reached The End; you’ve read either a hard copy or you’ve refrained from beginning to edit as you read; and you’ve done #1 more than once.

Being done writing is not the same as being done revising. You better be sick of revising before you publish.

8. Your editor hesitates AT ALL when you ask whether your book is ready for the next phase.

MAJOR red flag.

9. Your designer asks you, “Has this been edited?”

See number 8.

10. The people who read your manuscript say, “It’s promising.”

Ugh! This is like saying something is “interesting.” It means it’s not finished and they don’t know how to tell you.

The bottom line

If you at all wonder whether your book needs additional work, chances are yes, it does. Even after many revisions. This is your opportunity to ask an expert for their assessment.

Be careful to not let your enthusiasm and impatience for getting the wretched project out of your hair lead you to pull the plug too early on writing and editing. I love seeing manuscripts with potential. But published books should achieve that potential. Get out of the B leagues—do the work.

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The End Makes the Best Beginning

The End Makes the Best Beginning

boy crossing race finish line with his arms in the air to celebrate

The End! CC image “Mike to Mike Half Marathon” courtesy of Fort Bragg on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Most of your readers will start reading your book at the beginning. That doesn’t mean you should start writing there.

The beginnings of books are notoriously tough to pin down. So much rides on those first pages, even the first sentences. Continue reading

Creating a Book Outline—a Flexible Structure that Works for You

Creating a Book Outline—a Flexible Structure that Works for You

closeup of outline or mind map diagram

CC image “mind map” courtesy of madstreetz on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Little divides writers as much as whether they should write a book outline or not. These two big categories are the pantsers, and the planners.

The planners, as you might expect, begin with a plan. They decide what they are going to write about, in what order the story should unfold, the main points they want to hit, and they typically create a detailed outline. Then, they write according to this plan.

Pantsers discover the story and the book as they go. Though they typically start out with an idea of what they want—the beginning and ending are common anchors—they don’t know, as they begin, how they’re going to get to the end. They “fly by the seat of their pants.”

Planners think of pantsers as disorganized and chaotic, and pantsers think of planners as rigid and unimaginative. Both these assessments are true and false in equal measure. Continue reading

You may need to stop writing to finish your book

You may need to stop writing to finish your book

(or: a counterintuitive way to succeed)

road work ahead sign plus relax people, I think we'll be OK

A good motto. CC image “Relax” courtesy of Martha Soukup on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Introspection is frowned upon by our goal-oriented, fast-paced, and productivity-minded culture.

We all want to know how to get things done. We want to know how to get them done better, in less time, and with a bigger impact. Doing doing doing.

This is especially true during the end-of-year holidays. Wouldn’t a few worker elves be great?

Unfortunately, completing a book doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes, we need to stop writing and literally spend time staring into space, or playing. What better time to remember how to stop and take a breath than during what is meant to be a restful and celebratory time of year?

The writing habit

If you’ve been on my blog before, you’ve read about the single best way to write your book, which is to write (see: “pretending you don’t need to work on your book every day”).

Write every day. Make writing a habit.

You’ve read this before and now you’re wondering why I’m telling you to stop.

Writing sometimes means doing things that don’t look exactly like the activity we all know as writing, and it sometimes means letting go of being “productive.”

Writing is a creative act

Writing may feel like a business item or a job to you, but a part of it is always a creative exercise. Because of this, truths about creativity apply, even when you write a book about dog-training or how to grow a business.

One of these truths is: sometimes you have to do nothing for a while, to get something done.

Tell me whether you’ve had the following experience: you have a looming deadline. For days, you struggle with the final tasks and doubt you’ll ever meet the deadline. There’s one especially thorny issue you can’t figure out. After putting in a fourteen-hour day (or what feels like it), you give up in disgust and leave. You go home and vent to one of your friends or your significant other. A few more days go by while you play ostrich with your deadline. Instead of working on it, you clean the house, organize your desk, and buy greeting cards for your second cousins once removed in Singapore whom you haven’t seen since you were eight years old.

The next day, you realize you know the answer to the problem, and nothing has ever been so easy.

This is how writing often works.

The secret is that when you stop focusing on being productive, and let your mind wander, you’re more receptive to solutions that sit outside your current line of thinking.

Stop being productive

You might find yourself in front of the computer, producing nothing, and growling under your breath from frustration. If this happens while are you trying to get into a writing habit (see link above), I recommend you power through. Your best plan of action is to sit there for the appointed time, and suffer. Eventually, you’ll be writing.

If this happens in the middle of a productive stretch and after you’ve made writing a habit, I recommend that you take a break.

Step away from the computer, and do something else—preferably an activity that lets part of your brain roam free. Good activities include going for a walk, doing the laundry, sweeping, mowing the lawn, playing with the pet or the grandkids…you get the idea. Bad activities include complicated work of any kind, or watching TV/Netflix.

Do not try to be “productive” during this time. You’ve already thought a lot about your writing. Now let your subconscious have room to breathe. You could be surprised with the results.

The bottom line

There’s something about endings that makes us a little crazy. The end of the year, end of the quarter, end of the month… At this time of year, when it seems like all our schedules are blowing up and absolutely every known errand in the universe needs to be done before December 25th or 31st, STOP.

If you haven’t started your writing habit yet, this time of year is a tough place to start.

If you’ve got a good writing habit going, it will survive the next few weeks.

The more you force the issue, the less joy you’ll have in the process of writing, in the idea of your book—and more importantly, in your life and in whatever holidays you celebrate. It may be you need to stop writing now, in order to finish your book later.

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I’d love to hear how you might cultivate your writing habit with a spirit of rest, this season. Leave me a comment below, or drop me a line. Then enjoy the break!

Top 3 Ways You Sabotage Your Book

The Top 3 Ways You Sabotage Your Book

pencil broken in the middle

CC image frustration courtesy of Eric on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

How many of you get up in the morning thinking of new ways you can sabotage your book?

What about when you meet your friends for a cup of coffee or a drink—do you discuss how you can make sure your book will never see the light of day?

Or, no. I bet it’s more like this: you revel in how easy the writing life is and how much you enjoy sitting in front of a blank page on a regular basis with the task of creating something interesting, entertaining, informative, inspiring, or just plain coherent. Yes, that’s it.

What’s that, you say? That’s not you at all? Then how can you explain the following bad habits you get into? Yes, I’m looking at you, kid. If you’ve ever thought about writing a book, this is you.

You may not realize how you are sabotaging your book

After all, you have great intentions. You want to write the best, most interesting, highest-grossing, greatest business-building, fanbase-to-rival-J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter kind of book. And yet, and yet…

Some acts of sabotage are blatant (hours spent on Facebook or cleaning your toilet—every day). Some are more subtle. The top three ways that you sabotage your book are:

  1. Expecting perfection.
  2. Talking too much about your book.
  3. Pretending you don’t need to work on it every day.

Expecting perfection for every word you write

First drafts suck. There’s no way around it. Sure, you may have a great paragraph here and there, maybe even a stretch of three or four. But the draft itself has glaring flaws. Flaws so neon-bright that you need sunglasses for the simple act of looking at your manuscript. You stare at those flaws the way kids look at Christmas toy displays in shop windows: endless, motionless fascination, alternating with tantrums.

This is the best way to never finish your book.

A first draft is a FIRST DRAFT. When you compare your first draft to the published works of [insert your favorite bestseller/author millionaire here], you are comparing fig leaves to the Empire State Building. Stop. The Empire State Building looked like a hot mess when they first started building it—a hole in the ground, for goodness’ sake.

Accept the process and realize that you are starting with a hole in the ground, but that every day, as you build it, it’ll get better. Accept your book for what it is—a work in progress.

Talking too much about your book (and not writing it)

I can already hear the protests. “But we were told we should start marketing it before we finish writing!” “But I want to get my friends’ advice/support!” “But I’m so excited about it and want to share!”

Yes, I understand you. And yes, you should be talking about your book—in the right way.

Fiction writers may be more familiar with this warning than nonfiction writers. After all, craft books galore warn about this, including On Writing (yes, I’m talking about Stephen King again; there’s a reason). The more often you talk about your book, and the more specific detail you cover, with more people, repeatedly, the more you dissipate your creative energy and drain out the inherent drive you have to write that book. The more you talk about it, the less need you will feel to put it down on paper. You’ve already done part of what a book does: share your information and your passion with others. Stop this madness.

Nonfiction writers can also fall into this trap. You talk about your book and all your useful information diverts into informational one-on-ones, speech prep, and asides. Where, in fact, is your book?

You don’t need to be sworn to secrecy about your book. Let your colleagues know you’re writing it, and ask for advice. But keep it short—make it a teaser trailer. Don’t spill the beans on the complete plot. Those great ideas you keep having—write them down. Save them for the manuscript.

Pretending you don’t need to work on your book every day*

Trust me, the more breaks you take while writing, the harder it will be for you to write. That lost time is more than just the week you decided to binge-watch full seasons of The Walking Dead or livestream the heavyweight bout (and all the undercards). You lose more time than what you see on your calendar when you take breaks from your book. Each break means that much more time getting back up to speed on what in the heck you were doing before you stopped writing.

In some way, you need to work on your book every day. Keep it top of mind. Put together an outline. Brainstorm examples or case studies or character back story. Spend a day recording your thoughts verbally instead of writing them down, or record yourself reading parts of an earlier chapter, and listen to how it sounds. Make notes.

You want your readers to pay careful attention, don’t you? Well, so should you.

*It is good and healthy to take one day off every week. I even accept “every day” as Monday-Friday. But don’t skip more than a weekend’s worth of time with your book.

The bottom line

Are you guilty of any of these sabotaging traps? My bet is you are. If you need to, write them on a sticky note and paste wherever you work on your book. Yes, you can do multiple stickies. Stop the sabotage, and write that book.

Repetition vs Reiteration

Repetition vs Reiteration:
Show your reader what’s important without boring them to death

rows of empty white folding chairs

CC image Harvard Graduation courtesy of Andrew Malone on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

How many of you can remember specific information after hearing or reading it only once? How about if I asked you about that information again next week? Next month? Two years from now?

A select few people on earth may have perfect total recall, but most of us don’t. We remember information from hearing or reading about it multiple times. This is the principle behind regular rotation on a radio playlist, behind advertising, and the power behind an article that goes viral on the internet.

The same principle goes for your book. Chances are, you need to spell out a lot more information than you think, and you have more opportunities to highlight plot points than you realize. The key to achieving this is to understand the difference between repetition and reiteration. Continue reading

Where do you begin? The Foreword, the Preface, and the Introduction

Where do you begin? The Foreword, the Preface, and the Introduction

Where do we start a book? To quote the King in Alice in Wonderland, “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

If only it were so simple.

Fiction needs to consider the prologue. Nonfiction books have introductions often, prefaces sometimes, and occasionally forewords. Do we know how to use them well? An introduction, preface, and foreword serve different purposes, although we tend to mix them up. Below are some tips to help you separate these three beginnings, and suggestions for how, or whether, you want to use them.

The Foreword

The most important distinguishing feature of the foreword is that it should be written by someone other than the author.

I’ve seen authors writing introductions or prefaces and calling them forewords. The foreword is not for you, dear author. The foreword is an opportunity for you—a marketing opportunity.

Your foreword plays in much the same space as your back cover copy: it helps you sell the book. Contributors to forewords are experts in the field your book is about, or authors of similar books. A foreword adds credibility to your book by offering a stamp of approval that other people will recognize: bookstores as well as individual consumers. You are after the name recognition and esteem of your contributor.

Because someone else writes your foreword, and they should have read your book before they do so, you need to complete your manuscript and send them an advance reader copy. This means you must be done with your book and budget extra time to incorporate a foreword.

The Preface

Think of the preface as an envelope. The preface is about the book itself—not the contents of the book.

This is your opportunity to talk about why you wrote this book. What brought you here? What are you trying to achieve? You may use this space to establish your credentials—indicate your experience in a topic or the professional expertise that makes you well-suited to talk about it. Often, authors muddle this together with the material in the introduction. They are best kept separate. Give your book a clean start and make it easy for your readers, who need to know what part of the story kicks off when.

What you include here should NOT appear in your introduction, and vice versa—avoid duplication.

The Introduction

Most familiar to us, the introduction is also for the author. If the preface is the envelope, the introduction is a cover letter to the manuscript: you get to explain how to use the contents of the book itself.

The introduction can be simple. You introduce the topic of the book, and leave it at that. You can also use the introduction to set up the themes you are planning to address, establish any definitions or methodology you use, or point out the structure of your book and any exercises or resources you include and how the reader may want to use them. What you do NOT want to do is repeat content that already appears in your preface.

Although an introduction appears at the front of the book (after the foreword and preface, if they are also included), you should write this content last, after you have completed your manuscript. You need to know what your book is about in total, and how it ends, to write a good introduction.

The Bottom Line

Your book structure should be clear, and so should the way you use your foreword, preface, and introduction (if you choose to include them). Although none of these are required components of your manuscript, each of them can add value or interest to your book. Remember to use them for their distinct purposes: they exist to guide the reader where you want them to go.

Be clear. Don’t knock your reader around with three or four beginnings to your book and ask them to sort it all out themselves.

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This post is adapted from an article published in the September 2016 CIPA Signature, the newsletter of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association.

Working with an Editor

Working with an Editor

black and white closeup of dice

Working with an editor can feel like a dangerous roll of the dice… but fear not! CC image “noir” courtesy of Steve Johnson on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

A lot of my clients have questions about what this working relationship looks like. If you haven’t worked with an editor before, you might find the process mysterious and strange. We’re not mysterious and strange, really. At least, not all of us.

The main points for you to consider as you get ready to work with an editor are:

  • What you want done
  • When you want it done
  • What your prospective editor does and is good at
  • Your editor’s style

Continue reading

Copyediting: What does it actually mean?

Copyediting–Don’t Let Your Manuscript Leave Home Without It

view of open book from top spine

CC image Light Reading courtesy of Martin on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This post is the second in a series about different editorial services. Click here for Developmental/Content editing. Coming months will cover proofreading, and the manuscript critique.

In the post, “Am I ready for an editor?” I pointed out that editing is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Different types of editing have specific goals. One of the most confounding types of editing is the copyedit.

What a copyedit does

As the word “editing” in the name implies, copyediting deals with content. It is all about one major theme: CONSISTENCY. Copyediting focuses on consistent language and presentation, and therefore comes after any developmental editing or big-picture revisions to the manuscript.

The copyedit exists to ensure that the work is strong and clear from a technical point of view. English gives us many choices we often don’t think about, but copyediting does. Conventions govern the use of hyphenation, the spelling out of number words, serial commas, and more. Copyediting looks at the following:

  • Readability
  • Word choice and repetition
  • Language coherence and organization
  • Transitions
  • Acceptable character/narrative arc
  • Front and back matter
  • Spelling, punctuation, and grammar
  • Style and formatting
    • Chapter and section headings and breaks
    • Capitalization, hyphenation, abbreviation, use of proper names
    • Paragraph indentation, spacing, and margins
    • Font, font size
    • Captions, tables, graphics, bulleted lists
  • Citations, references, and more

There are levels of copyediting. The spectrum moves from less to greater intervention (a “light” versus a “heavy” copyedit). Copyediting begins with grammar and overall cohesion, and becomes more detailed the heavier the copyedit gets.

Style and formatting choices, although not “verbal,” play a big part in how your book conveys meaning to your audience. Page breaks and a chapter headings let your readers know they are moving to a new set of ideas, occurrences, geography, or time. Headings and subheadings let readers know how ideas are linked. Although these considerations are often overlooked when doing content review, they are a big part of the copyedit.

Are you ready for a copyedit?

When you have a manuscript that has completed at least one full draft, you are ready to consider a copyedit. If you are still playing with narrative structure, or if your manuscript is incomplete, you are not ready for this type of review. This is because a copyedit needs the whole manuscript to be able to see and impose consistency.

When you want to make sure the paragraphs, sentences, and style choices play nice together, you are ready for a copyedit. You want the manuscript to flow cohesively, and be consistent in tone, word choice, character details, and formatting. You are happy with the overall flow of the manuscript and are not planning on moving any big chunks around.

Do the manuscript format, choice of language, headers, and other visual cues guide the reader, or confuse them? And if they confuse, how can we correct this? These are the big questions of the copyedit.

What happens in a copyedit

Your editor will confirm with you which style guide they are using to review your manuscript. Typically, in non-academic book publishing, the Chicago Manual of Style will apply, unless you or your editor decide otherwise.

Your editor will review the work in total, marking up any changes so they conform to the chosen style, appropriate grammar, and spelling. Additionally, your editor may leave comments or questions on the manuscript, particularly if there are any items which are unclear (phrasing or organization). For this reason, you may go through a second round of copyediting to verify your choices.

Usually, you will have the choice to accept or reject changes. Be cautious about rejecting them. Be sure you know why. Always explain your decision to your editor.

The bottom line

Because it considers the total internal consistency of your manuscript, the copyedit must happen after any developmental or content work has taken place.

A copyedit is one of the most important things you can do for your manuscript, no matter what genre or style you are writing in. You might have made some big changes during the developmental edit or during your own revision. The copyedit reviews the entire manuscript from top to bottom to make sure it’s in good shape.

A good copyedit can make the difference between a work whose impact is “ho-hum” and a text that sizzles. When done well, the average reader may not notice it’s there, but everyone notices when it’s missing.