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From Moodling to Manuscript: The Revision Process

I’m starting 2016 off strong! I’ve just completed and sent off the first round of revisions under official DAW Editorial guidance (as opposed to Connor’s editorial-agent guidance). Those edits are the reason I haven’t been blogging here much through the fall — I could never quite justify to myself writing a blog post when I knew I needed to be working on the novel!

If you follow a lot of writers on social media, you’ve probably seen them discussing revisions, most of which tend to boil down to the following sentiment:

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Personally, I actually enjoy revising, as I’ve discussed before. It’s like a puzzle. But it can be frustrating, in part because it’s sometimes harder to track progress. It’s often charted in hours, as word count alone doesn’t really matter. You can think of it in terms of pages or chapters revised, but then you get to a point where something you change at one point means a change to four other chapters, so now those go from “done” to “undone”… and that can make progress feel a bit murky.

So! I thought I might share a little light on the process. Of course every writer’s revision experience is going to be different, but this is what mine looked like:

  1. Phone call with The Editor: A giddy thing! Much like my first phone call with my agent Connor, much of this conversation was just about the book in general — what the things were that had appealed to her about it (like me and Connor, she has a background in classics!), the characters and the world, things she had questions about, things she’d like to see expanded or explicated a bit better. One of the big things we discussed was about narrowing down the focus a bit.
  2. Editorial letter: I’m convinced at least part of the purpose of the letter is that editors know debut authors are too giddy upon that first call to retain many details later on. Sarah’s letter to me touched on all the major topics we’d covered in the call (at least to the best of my dizzied recollection), but went into a lot more detail, particularly when it came to the character notes she wanted me to try and emphasize. Some things were smaller aspects of my major characters — fleshing out threats and desires, finding places where a single line or paragraph might add valuable information — and some were about larger things for smaller characters — giving motivation enough to make villains and supporting cast alike fully-realized humans in their own right. There were also notes on pacing, which actually spurred my largest edits.
  3. Re-read the manuscript: I actually hadn’t touched Aven in quite some time, since we were out on sub for ten months before it sold. I did the first read-through in PDF, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to start changing things as I went. I just needed to re-familiarize myself with the story as it stood! I’m so glad I took this time, because it reminded me just how much I love these characters — and how excited I am for other people to get to meet them.
  4. Re-read again, making margin notes: I moved back to Scrivener for this. The Inspector feature is brilliant for things like this. I used the notecard to summarize what was already there, and then the notes section to jot down ideas on what could be moved, added, deleted, or changed in order to get the editorial notes working for me.
  5. Moodle: “So you see, imagination needs moodling, – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” – Brenda Ueland. I subscribe to the profitability of moodling, bu it’s also a thing to be careful of, because I also subscribe to another quote: ““Planning to write is not writing. Thinking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Researching to write, outlining to write….none of this is writing. Writing is writing.” – Robert Jolles. I find car rides an ideal time for moodling. It’s not time I could spend doing much else besides being in my brain. I’ve found many plot points and turns of phrase while winding my way around Afton Mountain.
  6. Major changes: The front quarter of the book needed more reconstruction than the rest of it — rather like knocking down a wall to create an open-concept in one part of a house, but only needing to spruce up the paint and add a little new furniture in the rest. I tackled the biggest challenges first. This sometimes meant having to keep more than one editorial note in my head at a time, but it also meant that I wasn’t wasting time writing things that I would just end up undoing later on.
  7. More moodling: This was the stage, honestly, that took the most time. After I finished the main restructuring, I needed time to sort out a solid plan on how to attack the rest. I did a lot of opening up the Scrivener document, looking at scenes and the editorial letter side-by-side, and just thinking. Sometimes I would take a single note and scroll through, looking for ideal points to address it. Other times I’d wallow in a single chapter. I was, slowly, formulating a plan of attack.
  8. Going in deep: And once I’ve got that plan, I can work swiftly. I dove back in, armed both with my Inspector commentary and some handwritten notes, and worked through start-to-finish. Well, nearly start-to-finish. There’s still often a lot of back and forth as I need to work through consistency errors, avoid repetitions, etc.
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  9. Final read-through in hard copy: I always do this before sending a full manuscript off for anyone else to read, to reduce potential embarrassments. It also helps me make sure I haven’t missed any opportunities to take a note — I had the print-out of the notes with me as I did this read-through. Mostly, though, these were down to line edits. There were only a few places where I wanted to add a line or a paragraph; the rest was adjusting typos and finding small inserts and deletions. My habit is to mark the corner of each page that I alter, to make it easier to go through during the next step…
  10. Assimilate changes into manuscript: Back to the Scrivener doc! Merging all of my handwritten line edits back into the main manuscript doesn’t actually take all that long, I found. This is also where I do a search-and-replace of some of my most pernicious filler words. (Everyone has them; mine are “rather” and “somewhat”).
  11. Send it off!: Export, create a separate document with the tracked changes (a bit of a trick in of itself when you’re coming out of Scrivener into a .docx, but I’ve figured out how to do it in Word 2013!), glancce to make sure no formatting’s gone wonky, and then — off it went, to Sarah and Connor!

So! That’s been my process since mid-September. And now… I wait! There’ll be much more to do, I’m sure, once Sarah’s had at the fresh meat. 😉

General

Shaping Shakespeare for Performance: An Academic Publication

Today, I’m pleased to announce the publication from the other side of my life — the world of Shakespeare academia!

At the American Shakespeare Center, we’ve just finished up our 8th Blackfriars Conference, a biennial congregation of hundreds of scholars, practitioners, and students from across the world. From each conference, a panel selects a group of papers for publication. My 2013 paper, “‘Why do you thus exclaim?’: Emotionally-Inflected Punctuation in Editorial Practice and in Performance”, was selected for the collection from the 7th conference — and the hard copy is now in my hot little hands!

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The title is a fancy of way of saying I care a lot about punctuation marks. More than a normal person should. Editors often change them from the original quartos and folios for the benefit of a reader, but that can become prescriptive in performance. When I pull text for workshops, I’m often heard at my desk, hollering at editors for putting in scurrilous exclamation points (by far the largest punctuative offender). The paper explores a few examples and suggests that digital texts may be better positioned to offer students and actors multiple options, rather than dictating one editorial choice over another.

Shaping Shakespeare for Performance: The Bear Stage, edited by Catherine Loomis and Sid Ray and published by Farleigh Dickinson University Press, is available for purchase!

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One yes at a time: in which our heroine becomes, officially, a novelist

And now, some words that I have been waiting to say since I was eleven years old:

I am going to be a published novelist.

I have a book deal.

the Deal

Actually, I have a three-book deal. Aven has been sold to DAW Books and will be appearing on shelves in 2017.

I cannot give enough thanks and praise to my agent Connor, who took a chance on this project two years ago, shepherded me through several rounds of edits, and spent pretty much all of 2015 pushing it on sub. It’s been wonderful working with him on every stage so far, and I can’t wait for the next phase. ❤

I’m also thrilled to be working now with Sarah Guan, my editor at DAW. My spare moments have already been filled with tackling the first round of notes she’s given me so that I can polish Aven up into a tighter, leaner, brighter-burning book.

It’s been a few weeks since I found out, and honestly, I’m still having trouble believing it sometimes — but seeing that notice from Publishers Marketplace sure helps! When I got the call from Connor, he had to repeat himself three times before my fuzzed brain was able to comprehend what he was saying. It’s true what they say about that call — for someone who’s dreamed of this and worked for this for so long, it’s a life-changing moment, but something so big and so hoped-for turns out to actually be a little hard to wrap your head around.

I also want to say this by way of encouragement to other writers: Aven started life in 2011 as a Nano project. It was a way of rededicating myself to fiction writing after grad school and the first year of my day job had taken me utterly away from it in favor of academic writing. But I pinned myself down and committed to the project. I wrote, I revised, I did that some more. When I thought I had something good, I took a chance and pitched to a couple of agents at a con in 2012 — and then realised I still had a lot of work to do. I revised for another five months. I spent 10 months querying before Connor took me on in October of 2013. And then I revised some more. And then we went on sub. And then we decided to revise some more. And then it went on sub again. We had some disappointments along the road, and I’d been — as readers of this blog will know — working on some other projects so that I’d have something else ready if Aven had to go on the shelf. I’d been preparing myself for that; I had resigned myself to the probability, so I can quite honestly say that this success came when I absolutely least expected it.

My point in this is: Yeah, it’s easy to get discouraged when you see how easy success seems for other writers. Of course, it never is, for anyone, but it can certainly look like that on social media — the writer who gets an offer from the first agent they query, the project that gets snapped up by a major publisher after being on sub for a week. When you’re in whatever trenches you’re in — drafting, revising, querying, subbing — it can seem impossible that you’ll ever get to share in that joy that others are celebrating.

But all it takes is one “yes”. Well. One yes at a time. A series of one yeses. One agent to say yes. One editor to say yes to the agent. One publisher to say yes to their editor.

The most important one, though? Is the very first yes — when you decide you’ve got a story to tell and dedicate yourself to telling it.

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Creative Idealism vs Risk Aversion

Or, how the Great Recession damaged, and continues to damage, artistically-inclined Millennials.

To have a lifestyle that allows you to put creative endeavors front and center, to prioritize art above other concerns, you need one of two things: a safety net or the willingness to fly without one. And most of my generation doesn’t have either. We don’t have security, but we’ve become risk-averse in the extreme, unwilling to sacrifice what little we have scraped together. We’ve seen what happens when you take risks, when you don’t plan well enough, or when you put your faith in the wrong institutions. As students, we trusted that education and dedication would get us where we wanted to go. “Self-determination” was the buzzword of my high school, as though being capable and wanting a thing enough were sufficient in this world.

I know so many Millennials in similar straits to mine — mostly in theatre, some in writing, some involved with music or visual arts. The ones who are more sensible than I am wised up in college and went into computer science or medicine instead (higher debts, but higher chance of paying them off, too). The ones who are braver than I am, who do strike out and try to live entirely on their art, generally have to accept a pretty low quality of life in order to do so, or else they have to sacrifice a lot of independence. And the trade-off for the rest of us, struggling to achieve some sort of satisfactory balance, is less than stellar. “Selling out” for job security doesn’t bring the boons it once did. It’s still a survival game. Entry level jobs now require years of experience, tenure tracks have disappeared, and employers of all stripes are likely to hire the candidate who will ask for the least rather than who’s best for the job. We may have our heads above water, but that’s not the same thing as success. And we have to tread pretty hard just to stay there. For all of that, we’re told to be grateful — and the sad part is, most of us are. We know our situations could be worse. The lesson we learned from the recession was that we are never safe. Financial security is elusive to the point of being mythological. Even for those of us who are successful, or who have had familial or spousal safety nets to fall back on, I think that fear still lurks for anyone that’s even a little self-aware: This could all evaporate, and then what would I do? That’s what keeps us in this limbo. As I told a friend earlier today, I feel like it’s hamstrung our generation.

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So what does this have to do with writing, specifically?

All aspiring authors, I think, dream of being the one to land that mega-advance that allows you to set aside mundane concerns and retire to a charming nook to pen the next work of genius — then of having sales numbers so spectacular that financial survival is never a problem again. We’re not stupid. We know the reality is nothing like that. But it’s still the stuff of our daydreams.

I won’t pretend to have intimate knowledge the inner workings of the publishing industry — I’m not there yet. I’m closer and better-informed than I was a year ago, but until I am a published author, what I’ve got to go on is still speculative and observational. That said: Writing is one of the few careers in the world where you can put in thousands of hours of work, never knowing if you’re going to get paid for it or not. (Though similar ideas certainly prevail elsewhere in the arts — that you should do it for the love, be grateful just to “express yourself”, and not expect compensation for your sweat and blood and time). And even if you do get paid for it, that seems to endow less security now than it used to. I’ve read various studies and observations from individuals in the industry, tracking the decline of advances from publishing houses over the past decade.  That makes it harder for writers to justify the hours and energy it takes to create. For my peers, that means the hours scraped out of lives already dominated by multiple jobs and energy already brought to its breaking point by financial stress.

Something of a sidebar: This doesn’t entirely derive from but does relate to the ongoing dispute between Amazon, Hachette, and others. It isn’t all Amazon’s fault, and it isn’t all Hachette’s. I’m not on either side here — I’m on the side, as I must be, of authors, particularly the new and unproved, who are hurt most by the fight and the conditions that created it. Advances and royalties have been declining since before they started feuding, for a wide variety of reasons — but this particular drama encapsulates a lot of the problem. The distributor, apparently under the impression that manufacturing costs account for most of the expense of creating a book, want more money out of e-books, arguing that lower overhead for the publisher should mean more profit for them. (This is, of course, never minding that most of the expense is not in the physical object but in the labor behind it from the writer, agent, editor, graphic designer, proofreader, typesetter, marketer, etc). When distributors take a bigger slice of the pie, there’s less left for publishers to give to authors. This leads to smaller advances. I suspect it also contributes to those advances being harder to earn back, royalties-wise — thus making it challenging for writers to see continued revenue. And then all of that tangles together with how much a publisher can afford to and will choose to spend on marketing and publicity, without which even great books will flounder into obscurity.

Taken all together, there seem to be a lot more impediments to making a sustainable career as an author than there used to be. As several analysts have pointed out, this ultimately discourages a lot of writers, or at least delays them from being able to seek publication, since writing has to be crammed into the hours not spent just trying to get by — and the creative world is weaker for that. As Evan Hughes pointed out on Slate back in May, “Diet Coke has a set formula of ingredients, so the actual beverage is not going to get worse if Walmart drives a hard bargain. That’s not necessarily the case with books, each of which is a unique product. If publishers make less money on every book, they are going to pay people less to write and edit them, and talented people will decide to do something else with their time.” This crux is particularly damning for writers of my generation who have learned to be risk-averse.

And yet — I am, essentially, an optimist. That impossible daydream tantalized and provokes me, so I continue to create and I continue to hope. I will wear myself ragged balancing my cost of living with my artistic drive. If I’m to be honest here, it’s at least as much cussed stubbornness and pride as it is idealism. I refuse to let conditions beat me down. I refuse to let the gray mists of discouragement swallow me up. I will be as tough and resilient as this course demands.

It’s exhausting. But I’ll keep going.

This was heavy. Here’s a playlist that I use to keep my spirits up: