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"