Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The ABCs of Book Writing: R is for REVISING . . .

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. . . which means REWRITING.

Completing the first draft of a novel or nonfiction book is a notable achievement. Many aspiring writers don't get this far, and when you join the ranks of those that do, you may understandably experience a satisfying feeling of completion. Of course, you will probably do some subsequent revising, a little pleasurable tweaking and tinkering. Revising has a nice ring to it—revised edition or revised draft each carries a strong connotation of improved. The trouble is that revising, if it is to be productive, typically requires careful scrutiny, sometimes painful rethinking, and resultant changing of the first draft—in other words, rewriting.

The contemplation and task of rewriting can be daunting and unpleasant to many novice, and even some seasoned, authors. It is natural to wonder whether the creative process has to be this uncomfortable. Is rewriting really so crucial?

Why rewrite?

In his well-known best seller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey advises beginning with the end in mind. This means not just having a goal but establishing the right goal. When they start out, many writers' goal is to have written. They look forward to the day when their words are in print and their faces on book jackets. They imagine the signings, book reviews, public appearances, and interviews. In fact, it's okay to fantasize about your first interview with some notable media personality—as long as the fantasy remains separate from the true goal. Rather than wanting to have written, you want to be the kind of writer who produces quality work—whether that means the finest literary novel, clearest how-to guide, or most romantic Harlequin romance. When being a quality writer is your goal, then what you must do becomes clear: you learn, write, refine your craft, write some more, rewrite, and (if need be) rewrite again . . . The interviews and signings will follow in their time.

How do I get over my dislike of rewriting?

I know of no quick tip or easy formula that will help you come to like rewriting. Probably, in the beginning, everyone hates it. I know I did. But now that I am an experienced re-writer, I prefer rewriting to writing. The reason is that writing turns your ideas into tangible form, which can be exciting; but rewriting is what will ultimately allow your ideas to reach others. To rewrite, is to write better and to communicate as effectively as possible—that, to my mind, is the real excitement.

Writers write. Writers rewrite.
The more you rewrite, the more you will find it a rewarding
effort, and the better your writing will become.
I reached this point through practice, because someone made me rewrite, or because I knew I had to do it. Somewhere in the midst of grumpily undertaking what seemed to be an unavoidable and distasteful chore, I came to tolerate rewriting, and then to like it. The only way I know to become comfortable with rewriting—even grow to enjoy it—echoes the advice I gave previously in this series: JUST write—writers write. They also rewrite.

So if I must rewrite, how exactly do I go about it?

Different kinds of books and authors require varying kinds and levels of rewriting. Generally speaking, seasoned writers rewrite in order to improve basic grammar and spelling; to ensure correct and effective word choice; to adjust pacing and sustain forward momentum; and to re-position words, sentences, and/or paragraphs for any or all of greater clarity, flow, logic, credibility, impact, and drama.

Additionally, a good deal of productive rewriting is a process of deleting or paring down that might include any or all of the following surgical procedures:

* liposuction of flabby writing. (See "O is for OW . . . Overwriting")
* removal of repetitious words or ideas
* amputation of excess adverbs and adjectives
* excision of any or all of extraneous characters, unnecessary points of view, inner monologues, circular arguments, logical gaps or fallacies, and clumsy transitions

How do I know when to stop rewriting?

Rewriting may run to several drafts
Some writers will speak of a feeling in the heart or gut that tells
them they are done with rewriting.
I have no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of when you should stop rewriting; neither do I know of any quantitative measure to determine how much rewriting is enough. But, from experience, I have learned to recognize  qualitative, intuitive signals that tell me this book is done.

Some writers say things like, I know it in my heart or I feel it in my gut. For me, I first realize that I have to rewrite when my satisfaction at having written a first draft is marred by a growing sense of uneasiness. This sense usually resolves into the odd new idea or way of thinking about some or all of what I have written. This leads to an irresistible urge to revisit the manuscript, at which point the rewriting begins, and continues. . . . I know when to stop when that sense of uneasiness is no longer with me—and, not least of all, when I can again sleep through an entire night. You, too, will develop your own way of knowing.

Is there anyone who does not have to rewrite?

Perhaps the blockbuster greats, like Stephen King or John Grisham, don't have to rewrite—if necessary, their publishers will get someone to do it for them. If you are a natural-born literary genius, then maybe you don't need to rewrite, though I doubt it. If you are unparalleled at planning your book before even starting to write, then this could reduce the amount of necessary rewriting, but I again doubt that you could successfully avoid it altogether.

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White similarly remark that "few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try." If the history of literature, judgement of experts past and present, and requirements of today's mainstream publishers are any indication, then most writers of most kinds of books should, and do, rewrite as a matter of course.

Writing is rewriting

Ernest Hemingway has been so often quoted on the subject of rewriting that a spirit of originality makes me reluctant to follow in the wake of so many and to repeat what he said in A Moveable Feast. On the other hand, he was Hemingway, and I can do no better than to join the ranks of those who have quoted a master writer's characteristically succinct take on the creative process: “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”

Up next . . . "S is for SCENE"

Monday, January 29, 2018

The ABCs of Book Writing: Q is for QUERY (letter) . . .

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. . . and when to start QUERYING.

As most authors know, the usual first approach to agents and publishers is via a query letter. It's a given that the stronger your query, the better are the chances of sparking interest in your book project. Less widely known are the optimal times for drafting and for sending your query letter, as well as the most effective content to include in it.

When to draft your query

It is never too soon to write the first draft of your query letter. Drafting your query at the beginning or early in the writing of your project will help you focus on the most original and marketable aspects of your manuscript. This is turn can lead to insights on how to best structure your book. If, as the writing proceeds, you get new ideas, you can always revise your draft query to reflect any new ideas that emerge as the writing proceeds.

If, however, you did not write a draft query early in your project, and left it to the middle or the end, this is not a serious problem. More crucial are knowing when, or when not, to query initially and how to ensure the effectiveness of the query letter's content.

When to start querying

The point at which it is reasonable to start querying, and to expect some positive results, varies according to the category of your book. Here are the basic guidelines:


Novel. Any novel of any genre must be completed before querying. For practical purposes, in most cases a completed manuscript will not be a first draft but a well-revised later version, possibly also edited or assessed by a professional editor.

Short stories and short story collections. Unless specified otherwise, for anthologies, journals, and the like, individual stories should be completed and as polished as possible. Unless you are an established and well-known fiction author, short story collections should also be completed.


Creative nonfiction. Unless you are established and well-known in your genre, memoirs, popular histories, biographies, and other creative nonfiction should be completed before querying.

True story and poetry collections. Unless you have an established reputation, collections must be completed before querying.

General commercial nonfiction and niche-market nonfiction. This category includes self-help and how-to books of various kinds, as well as assorted textbooks, manuals, and guides. When you have a publication track record in your field, or have otherwise established your expertise (through workshops, talk circuits, and webinars, for example), you may be able to secure a book contract on the strength of a detailed proposal and written samples. The minimum sample requirement is typically an introduction and first chapter. But the required minimum may vary according to publisher and genre.

If you have expertise in a field but do not have standard credentials, then it is unlikely that anyone will give you a contract based on a partial manuscript. Your best chance is to wait until you have a completed, polished manuscript that is publication ready. This minimizes risk to the potential publisher and will increase the odds that some acquiring editor just might take a chance on you.

When never to send a query

Never waste your own or others' time by sending out queries when you are an unknown writer with a great idea (you think) and little or nothing written down. In the book trade, ideas and titles cannot be copyrighted and therefore do not hold commercial value or interest for agents and publishers. The value rests in the tangible expression of the idea: book, collection, story, essay, or poem.

Length and content of an effective query letter

Queries may vary by author, genre, and particular manuscript, but in all cases, a basic effective query letter should be no longer than two single-spaced pages; one page is best. Your query letter should include the following content:

Opening “hook.” This is a paragraph of one to three sentences that introduces the book as concisely and compellingly as possible. In some instances, framing this introduction as an open-ended question, or question and answer, may work well. Some agents like the formula of "blank meets blank in . . ." Example: The Walking Dead meets The Hunger Games in this post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller.

Short description of the book, a.k.a synopsis. The synopsis embedded in a query should be brief: 100 to 250 words that clearly convey the overall subject/theme/story line/characters/problem/resolution/purpose of the book.

Marketing information. Summarize any or all of the following, as relevant to your particular book: the most important statistics/facts/information about the book’s topicality; its main targeted readership; its secondary readership, if any; the current works that it compares to or would be in competition with; how it differs from the competition or will fill a gap in the market; whether the book is part of a series or will have a sequel; what your next book will be about and how it will relate to this one.

Brief author bio. Focus on prior publications, if any, and what qualifications—education and/or professional credentials and/or research interests and/or life experience—make you particularly suited to write this book.

Summarizing paragraph. This is an optional paragraph to include any crucial information you have not managed to convey in preceding paragraphs: for example, availability of complete manuscript and/or sample chapters and/or full proposal; genre or subgenre; and total actual or projected word count of the completed manuscript.

A few final tips

Do make it clear that your manuscript is completed. This can be a selling point even if you have the kind of nonfiction project that does not necessarily require completion. A bird in the hand . . . is how agents and publishers think.

Don't ever assume that almost meeting completion or other requirements (such as word count) is good enough because agents and publishers will make an exception for you. They won't.

Do articulate what is different about your manuscript; specify how it offers something beyond the current competition in your genre.

Don't say your manuscript is unique: this raises the skeptical hackles of agents, acquiring editors, publishers, and their marketing personnel. Remember the prior blog post N is for NEW . . . and its message that little if anything is entirely new or unique.

Do use email or snail mail according to the stated preferences of agents and publishers. Consult the submissions pages of their websites and, to the letter, follow the guidelines given.

Don't, unless specifically invited to do so, query agents, publishers, or their acquiring editors by telephone.

You're a writer, so write.

Up next . . . "R is for REVISING"

Monday, October 23, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: P is for PUNCTUATION . . .

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. . . a few POINTERS.

Most writers know what to do with the period, question mark, and exclamation point—the punctuation that typically signals sentence endings. The most prevalent internal sentence punctuation, the comma, is not as well understood. In my work as an editor, I notice widespread misuse or absence of commas, as well as uncertainty about how and when to deploy less familiar punctuation marks such as the semicolon and em dash.

Increasing their punctuation know-how is an effective, but often overlooked, way for writers to enhance the ease and impact of their writing. What follows is not an exhaustive course in punctuation, but a few quick pointers about the uses and versatility of common punctuation marks in English-language writing.

End-of-sentence punctuation: period, exclamation point, question mark


—a period to conclude a statement:

Nothing could be more simple.

—a question mark to end with an inquiry or, occasionally, a note of irony or disbelief:

What time did you arrive? What did you do next?

You did what?

—an exclamation point to end with an emphatic flourish:

I could not believe my eyes!

Note: Be sparing with exclamation points. Using too many of them depletes their emphatic power: It's true! I mean it! Really!

Other end-of-sentence punctuation


—an em dash for speech or thought interrupted:

"But you said you would—"
"I changed my mind," she snapped, disliking his accusatory tone.

ellipsis points to indicate ongoing action or voice trailing off in dialogue:

The ships sailed in and out of the harbor. . . .

"But I was so sure it would all work out. . . ." He had to lean in close to hear the last part of what she said.

Internal sentence punctuation: the comma

Insert a comma

—to signal a pause:

When he was a boy, his family home did not have electricity.
Possibly, the whole plan was a mistake.
At certain times, there is no need to apologize.

Note: In examples like the three above, the comma is often optional, according to the writer's ear and need for emphasis. If in doubt, retain the comma to ensure clarity. In many instances, using an optional comma will add a subtle note of emphasis to the statement. Compare the second and third examples above to these:

Possibly the whole plan was a mistake.
At certain times there is no need to apologize.

Also use a comma

—to offset added descriptive or explanatory content:

The salesman, whose smile looked pasted onto his face, approached with a determined step.

—to list items in a series:

She was warmly dressed in a coat, hat, scarf, and pair of fleece-lined boots.

Note: The final comma in the series is optional, but most stylists recommend its inclusion.

—to separate the main parts of compound and/or complex sentences:

Simple sentence, no comma: Mary walked away.
Compound: Mary turned her back on him, and then she walked away.
Complex: Because she had nothing more to say to him, Mary walked away.
Complex/compound: Because she had nothing more to say, Mary turned her back on him, and then she walked away.

Other internal sentence punctuation


—a semicolon when ideas are closely connected, and making two sentences would create choppiness:

One cat was white; the other was orange. (Instead of: One cat was white. The other was orange.)

Note: As a rule, in this kind of construction, avoid inserting a comma and creating a run-on sentence (a.k.a. comma fault or comma splice)—as in: One cat was white, the other was orange. For further discussion of the run-on sentence and its fixes, see "E is for EMAIL".

In other kinds of sentences, insert—

—a colon to introduce a list, or to augment or complete preceding information:

The clock ticked . . .
Example of ellipsis points used for deliberate effect
The room contained four items of furniture: a bed, nightstand, floor lamp, and rocking chair.

Jane looked at her watch and saw that she had two choices: she could grab a bite now or go hungry until dinnertime.

ellipsis points to indicate omissions from quoted material, or to suggest ongoing action and/or time passing:

"When a species . . . increases inordinately . . . , epidemics . . . often ensue."

The clock ticked . . . ticked . . .
ticked . . . and finally struck midnight.

—two em dashes to offset parenthetical information, or to emphasize added content:

French impressionists—for example, Monet and Degas—brought a new vision to painting.

My best option—or so I thought at the time—was to keep my mouth shut.

Note: The first sentence in the above pair might also use parentheses: French impressionists (for example, Monet and Degas) brought a new vision to painting. Many contemporary stylists favor em dashes over parentheses because the former are more elegant or emphatic in many sentence constructions.

In the second sentence, replacing the em dashes with commas would be acceptable, but the use of em dashes creates greater emphasis and/or drama.

And speaking of enhanced effect, instead of a comma try using—

—a single em dash to add drama to a sentence:

He suddenly got an idea—a brilliant idea that would solve all his problems.

Note: An em dash can be typed as two hyphens (--), but do not use single hyphens in place of em dashes or any other sentence punctuation. Hyphens are for use in compound words and to attach some prefixes and suffixes: kilowatt-hour, mass-produced, co-op, anti-inflammatory, university-wide—to cite just a few well-chosen, high-quality examples of hyphenated words.

Learning more about punctuation

The pointers and examples given above are introductory and do not include all forms of punctuation or every usage for the punctuation discussed. For more information about punctuation marks and specialized usages, consult chapter 6 of The Chicago Manual of Style, available in the reference sections of most public libraries. For online information, start at

It can take years of writing, editing, and consulting style manuals to become a punctuation expert. But mastering the basics and following punctuation best practice, even at an elementary level, will help ensure clarity and empower your writing.

Up next . . . "Q is for QUERY"

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: O is for OW . . .

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. . . OVERWRITING, that is.

When I edit a book manuscript, I use sidebar comments to explain the reason for many of the changes that I make. Some of these comments include abbreviations to designate frequently recurring issues. My favorite abbreviation of this sort is OW. Not only does it stand for overwriting, but it also expresses a common reader reaction to bloated language. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White parody the painful effect of "overblown" writing: "Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating."

What is overwriting?

Generally speaking, to overwrite is to write in a contrived, elaborate, and wordy style. Overwritten prose may include any or all of the following lapses, occurring separately or in combination:

—unnecessary adverbs

—excessive and/or redundant adjectives

—obscure and/or overly elevated language

—indiscriminate use of qualifiers (little, very, rather, pretty)

—unnecessarily long sentences

—mixed metaphors and similes: comparisons using dubious logic and contradictory or incompatible imagery

Examples of how to reduce overwriting 

In each example below, the reduced version is a representative way to correct the overwritten passage. Other possibilities for reduction are numerous, and rewrites will vary according to the individual writer's style and objectives.


Overwritten: "I hate studying," she said angrily and shut the textbook loudly.

Reduced: "I hate studying," she said and slammed the textbook shut.


Overwritten: A great, huge, overgrown red setter lumbered toward us.

Reduced: An overgrown red setter lumbered toward us.

Overwritten: Weary, and with slow, leaden steps, he plodded onward, dragging himself along the long, endless path.

Reduced: Weary, he plodded along the endless path.


Overwritten: She was in no small way gratified that both her visual acuity and auditory capability were of a functionality vastly superior to that of the pedestrian throng that constituted virtually all the rest of humanity.

Reduced: She was proud that her eyesight and hearing were far above average.


"The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then." (From Strunk and White; boldface added.) 

Reduced: "The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do . . . better, we should all be . . . watchful of this rule, for it is an . . . important one, and we are . . . sure to violate it now and then."

Long sentences


Overwritten: While she couldn't help feeling uneasy, she made an effort to ignore the prickling at the back of her neck, because it could just be heat rash, she told herself in an attempt to stay calm, but she really didn't believe this, as her heart rate was accelerating.

Reduced:  She made an effort to ignore the uneasiness prickling at the back of her neck. It could just be heat rash, she told herself, but her accelerating heart rate said otherwise.

Mixed metaphors and similes

Overwritten: Bracing himself like a boxer about to enter the ring, he took a deep breath and then plunged into the poisonously freezing river, which flowed with the ferocity of molten lava from a newly erupted volcano.

Reduced: He took a deep breath and plunged into the freezing river.

Note: The comparisons in the first sentence are dysfunctional, mixing logically unrelated, and thus incompatible, imagery of sport (boxing), toxicity (poisonously), and a natural phenomenon (freezing); the sentence then contradicts the image of freezing cold water by introducing an image of heat (molten lava).

Example of overwriting & editorial reduction

Keep it simple

Avoid overwriting by practicing the necessary restraint to streamline your prose. Without entirely compromising your personal style and vision, lean toward a minimalist approach to writing:

—Reduce or eliminate adverbs; use strong verbs instead.

—Resist introducing extraneous adjectives.

—Use language judiciously, with an eye to transparency.

—Avoid qualifiers; use only those that add to meaning or effect.

—Vary sentence lengths; divide overly long sentences into digestible portions.

—Scrutinize your metaphors for logic, consistency, and appropriateness; when in doubt, opt for a straightforward action statement.

In all matters of style, aim for brevity, directness, and clarity. As Strunk and White advise, "guard against wordiness," self-edit early drafts, and "delete the excess." Less is usually more.

Up next . . . "P is for PUNCTUATION"

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: N is for NEW . . .

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. . . and, er, NOTHING NEW.

Back in the day when I was a full-time book author, my New York agent enjoyed regaling me with her book-trade "street smarts." Among her favorite and most often repeated aphorisms was this one: There's nothing new under the sun. At the time I regarded this notion with a good deal of skepticism. Personally, I was full of bright ideas that I was pretty sure were brand-new. Certainly I had thought them up on my own without knowingly copying anyone else. But as my years in the book trade mounted, and came to include editing and consulting as well as writing, I began to see what my agent had meant.

What's "new" in nonfiction

In expository nonfiction, a bright idea newly conceived might shed fresh light on related ideas that came before. This can certainly be original and creative but not necessarily brand-new. Forms of creative nonfiction—memoir, biography, popular history, and other kinds of true narrative—have a long history and relative uniformity of structure. Such works are typically organized chronologically, thematically, or by a combination of chronology and theme. Any newness comes from the author's distinctive style and possibly subject matter that is little known or explored from a fresh perspective.

What's "new" in fiction

In fiction, three main kinds of conflict—separately or in combination—drive all stories:

1. Character vs. self (as in, for example, identity confusion, obsession, self-deception, and destructive goals or behaviors)

2. Character vs. character(s) (as evidenced in, for example, jealousy, betrayals, and rivalries of all kinds from office politics to threats of bodily harm to fights to the death)

3. Character vs. major force(s) (for example nature, technology, or apocalypse)

Given that conflict must be present in any functional story, and that there are only three basic kinds of conflict in fiction, it stands to reason that entirely original plots are accordingly limited. Writers, critics, and scholars of literature have long argued about exactly how many distinct plots constitute the entire history of fiction. Widely defended numbers are three, six, seven, twenty, and thirty-six. For more information see, among many other such discussions, the Guardian article ". . . how many basic plots are there in all stories ever written?"

A plausible case can be made for any of the commonly proposed numbers of plots. What this boils down to is that the much-hailed "stunningly original" blockbuster and "creative tour de force" are not completely new but, rather, offer new twists on old plots.

The creative challenge of nothing new

Way back in history, when the literary world was young, entirely new ideas must have been more readily conceivable than they are in our time. If indeed my agent was right, and there is now little or nothing that is truly, totally new, then writers must contend with a notable irony: in this age of sound bites, short attention spans, and constant information flow, a taste for the new is arguably more widely prevalent and insatiable than ever before.

Daisy, the Helping You Get Published mascot

Today's creative challenge is constantly to reinvent what was once brand new, and which must appear to be new all over again. Strategies for recreating the new include the following:

—developing fresh perspectives
—cultivating stylistic distinctiveness
—discovering underexplored subject matter
—concocting new plot twists
—devising compelling hooks

As literary history continues to unfold, new rarely, if at all, means brand-new. The imperative now is ongoing reinvention in writing, and innovation in the marketing of books.

Up next . . . "O is for OW . . . OVERWRITING, that is"

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: INTERMISSION

Blog series intermission till July
The series "The ABCs of Book Writing" is half done, with A to M completed last week. The series will resume in July as "Book Writing ABCs, with "N is for NEW." During this intermission period, go to https://www.facebook.com/HelpingYouGetPublished.FreelanceEditing/ for announcements and other posts on book writing and publishing.

For an overview of infographics and other visuals illustrating book writing from A to M, go to:

Pinterest Overview of A to M