Monday, January 26, 2009

Break Out the Thumbscrews

I'm probably one of the few people in the world who can honestly say I've read DOZENS of self-published novels. See, I'm a contract editor for one of the big print-on-demand companies, so when the self-pubbers pay for editorial services as part of their contract, they might just be hiring me. I'm not about to launch into one of those anti–self publishing rants -- I'll leave those for other people.

But I will say this: one of the things I've consistently observed about the novels I work on is poor self-editing. I can only think of one self-published novel that I felt was truly polished. The rest were clearly first or second drafts. In many cases, I can cut 10–15% of the book's word count without affecting the story at all. The rest needed the thumbscrews ...

What are the thumbscrews? This is a line-by-line thing. It's a word-by-word thing. Sure, I love first drafting as much as the next guy, but the real magic happens on the 5th or 7th draft, when you're screwing your book to the floor and cutting away every single word that is redundant or ridiculous. 

Witness the following paragraph. This is from a book I'm finishing now. Here it is, in its third-draft splendor:

They waited while the sun rose over the San Luna mountains, gradually lighting up the mist that pooled in the valley. The pace on the streets quickened as the mist first turned grey, then light pink, and finally the first shaft of sunlight shot over the mountaintop. As it did, almost everybody in the street stopped to watch the sun break and the day begin. Through some trick of light and timing, the first sun ray lanced through the mist in the valley and caused a brilliant flash, a rainbow, to shoot over Walkabout Town.

And here it is after the thumbscrews:

They waited while the sun rose over the San Luna mountains, gradually lighting up the mist that pooled in the valley. The pace on the streets quickened as the mist first turned grey, then light pink, and finally the first shaft of sunlight shot over the mountaintop. Everywhere, people in the street stopped to watch. Through some trick of light, that first sun beam lanced through the mist and caused a brilliant flash—a rainbow—to shoot over Walkabout Town.

Most of the changes are obvious ... cutting prepositional and ridiculous phrases. A "trick of timing," for example. Uh, duh, it was SUNRISE. What kind of trick is involved in that? And some are probably debatable. But my point is that, if you're lucky, you might someday find yourself defending every ... single ... word to an editor who gets paid to deal with schmoes like us. And I believe it's best to enter that conversation prepared. 

14 comments:

Mark Terry said...

Good examples, actually.

I'm someone who has probably read, mmmm, maybe dozens, of self-published books. I reviewed mysteries and some non-fiction for ForeWord Magazine when it first started up and I did that for a year or two.

ForeWord is like Publishers Weekly only it focuses entirely on small or independent presses and a number of those small or indie presses are basically self-published. So as a result, I did actually review a fair number of self-published books and generally speaking I think you can safely say, "They need work."

spyscribbler said...

Nice! I like the difference. That book seems like it will be a wonderful product, self-published or not.

Now how did you get that gig?

LurkerMonkey said...

Mark,

That must have been an interesting review deal. If I had to review some of the books I've worked on, it would be a short review: Stinks. But, like I said, there was that one book that I actually wondered why this guy self-pubbed. It wasn't perfect -- what book is? -- but it was solid and very well done.

LurkerMonkey said...

Spy,

I hope so. I have a pretty strong feeling about it, so we'll see (my favorite words). And how did I get that gig? It's actually a long story. I got hired once as a writer/editor for a big medical reference book. During that project, I hired an editorial services company that also happens to be contracted to this POD publisher. After we finished the medical reference book, I went on my merry way ... then about 6 months later, the editorial services company called me and said, "Hey, we also work with a big POD company and we need editors. Are you interested?"

Indeed I was. I've been working with them ever since.

spyscribbler said...

LOL, that's roundabout, Jon! That's really cool.

Okay, I should have asked: how can I get that gig? And how can I get qualified for that gig? (You can start with get an English degree or whatever, I don't mind. I'm going back to school for health insurance, so I may as well make it useful. It's either that or weightlifting and swimming.)

LurkerMonkey said...

Spy,

Write me at jvzile@aol.com ...

Jude Hardin said...

Nice graf, Jon. Great imagery. I have some ideas for tightening it even further if you're interested.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

Sure. Fire away ...

Jude Hardin said...

Hi Jon:

Well, the word up can go, I think.

You've used the word mist three times, so I would try to get rid of at least one of those.

Sunbeam is one word.

I try to avoid that whenever possible.

I don't think you really need light in front of pink. In fact, the word light is also repeated several times...

Here's what I came up with:

They waited. The sun rose over the San Luna mountains, gradually illuminating the misty valley, and the pace on the streets quickened as the world turned from grey to pink. Finally, a shaft of sunlight shot over the mountaintop, and everyone stopped to watch. Through some trick of light, that first sunbeam pierced the mist, and a brilliant rainbow flashed over Walkabout Town.

Just some suggestions...

LurkerMonkey said...

I think you're right about the word repetition, so I'll address that. And the word "up" can be cut, too. That's my kind of edit, alright.

One observation ... there's a difference between editing and rewriting. In your remarks, you offered very helpful editing comments (redundancy, unnecessary prepositions, etc.). But in your revision, you rewrote with new verbs, new punctuation and new imagery. Thus, there was a voice change from Jon to Jude, which of course, is a pretty major no-no for any professional editor.

I'm not saying that my version is superior, only that I wouldn't have written it that way because I didn't write it that way ...

Jude Hardin said...

Absolutely, Jon. I didn't expect you to take my version and use it. It was just an example to illustrate my points.

Erica Orloff said...

Jon:
Great point. The voice in Jude's version is totally different.

To me, good editors PULL the voice out of people. Their voice. The list of questions you just emailed me on my wip--none of them told me what to do. ALL of them caused me to turn inward. What IS my story? MY story. And what is the elusive voice I am striving for in it.

When I work with authors, I am hoping to help them refine their voice. FIND it, sometimes. My old journalism professor and I debate this very point.
E

LurkerMonkey said...

I think voice can be a tricky thing for journalists. In reality, voice is discouraged at many publications -- at least an individual voice is discouraged. Most magazines and even newspapers have an institutional voice, and your job as a journalist is to write in "their style." I've had magazine clients I stopped working for because I couldn't consistently produce their voice. I've had others where it's very natural. And then in hard news, oftentimes no one cares about voice: it's an information dump.

But this is probably a separate post :)

Zoe Winters said...

Yep, KEPT went through about 10 drafts. And I too find it kind of incredible that people think after the first draft they're done and it's time to publish it.