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What If Your Story Is Unconvincing?

What if you’re halfway through your novel and it just doesn’t feel convincing? Do you scrub the project? Keep wallowing on through the muck? How do you know what’s right?

Annick posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’ve had a story theme that I’ve wanted to write as a novel for 4-5 years. My first breakthrough was discovering your Snowflake method, which really helped me to get started, define where I wanted to go, and how I was going to get there (eternally grateful)…
The trouble is, now I’m half way through my second draft, and I believe that the last half of my story isn’t convincing. I know where I want to end, and I believe that I’ve told a good story to about half way along the road, but I’m really not sure that the last few miles are ones I can write as well about as the first.
Any ideas? Should I work on different endings to see if I get a breakthrough? Should I carry on regardless and edit like a devil once I’ve got some meat on the bone? Does it mean that my main characters are flawed in some way I can’t determine? Is the first part of my story misdirected in some way?
The snowflake seems to have melted…

Randy sez: First of all, congratulations on getting through the first draft! That’s a major milestone in writing a novel. I’m delighted to hear that my pesky Snowflake method played a role in your getting there. I hear from writers all the time who’ve found it helpful, and that makes me incredibly happy.

Be aware that many, many, many novelists reach the same point you’re at, midway through editing the second draft, and suddenly get hit with a bad case of the “crappies.” As in, “Uh-oh, my novel is crappy and my story is worthless and I have no talent and probably my best career choice will be sweeping streets with a toothbrush.”

I suspect the solution to your problem is pretty simple. Let me lay it out for you in three stages:

  1. Finish this second draft you’re on. Sure, you feel a little wobbly about it right now. That’s common. It might possibly even be normal. If you’ve ever run a race over a mile distance (or 1600 meters), the third lap can be pretty rough, and that’s about where you are right now in your race to finish this book.
  2. Get a second opinion from somebody you trust. Maybe a skilled writer in your critique group who has shown herself trustworthy in the past. Maybe a good freelance editor. But you need somebody to read the whole manuscript and give you an objective viewpoint. (“Objective” here means “somebody who isn’t you.”) You may need to pay something for this, but very good friends often do it for free.
  3. Read that opinion, and then read through the whole manuscript as fast as you can, making a few quick notes on what you see, now that your eyes have been opened by a second opinion.

Once you’ve done all of the above (yes, it’s a lot of work, but professional writers work really hard), make the decision. Do you go on with the project? Do you walk away from it?

Either decision can be valid. If the story is fundamentally flawed and can’t be fixed, then walk away. If you’ve just lost all taste for the story and you can’t stomach working on it for one more second, then walk away. But if you see renewed hope for a way to make the story work, well then.

It might take you a month or two to get there, but when you do, email me privately on my Contact page to let me know how it turned out. I’ll be interested to hear what you learned and which way you decided to go.

Good luck!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

 

Those Pesky Editing Paradigms

What’s the right way to edit your novel? Or … is there a right way?

Noah posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am an amateur writer, and have no idea when to begin revisions. Should I start revising the first part of my writing part way through, or begin revision once I am finished with the whole work?

Randy sez: This is a good question, and there’s no one right answer that works for everybody.

If you’ve read my book Writing Fiction For Dummies, I have a chapter on Creative Paradigms. A Creative Paradigm is a method of getting a first draft down on paper. In my book, I mention four common Creative Paradigms:

  • Seat of the Pants
  • Edit As You Go
  • The Snowflake Method
  • Outlining

Each of these is perfectly valid, and there are best-selling novelists and award-winning novelists who use each of them. Depending on how your brain is wired, you’ll work best with one particular Creative Paradigm.

Different writers use different Editing Paradigms also. I haven’t put much time into polling writers to find out their Editing Paradigms, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn they’re as varied as the Creative Paradigms.

The “Edit As You Go” Creative Paradigm actually mixes in Creation and Editing very tightly. The author writes a bit (a page or a scene) and then edits it immediately. Sometimes this unit gets edited many times before the writer is ready to go on. But once the page is done, it’s pretty close to being final. Dean Koontz writes this way, and so do many other writers.

The important point is that whatever works for you is whatever works.

Here’s what works for me, and I gather that there are quite a few authors who work roughly this way:

I plan my novels in advance, working through my Snowflake method to create a Snowflake document that spells out at a high level how the story is going to go.

Then I write the first draft (usually quite quickly) using my Snowflake document as a guide. As I complete each quarter of the book, I revise the Snowflake document to be up to speed with the changing story. (A story is not fixed in stone, and neither is a Snowflake document).

During the first-drafting period, every day I do a quick ten-minute edit of the previous day’s work. (Usually, this is 2000 to 3000 words.) I fix any spelling and grammar errors and I tweak the wording. If there are obvious problems in the storyline, I fix them. That’s not common, because Snowflaking tends to produce stories that don’t have major structural problems.

Having done a ten-minute edit of yesterday’s work, I’m then primed to start work on the next chapter. I drill that out without doing any editing, and if I have time, I write another scene, up to my daily word-count.

This keeps me moving forward, and I never feel like I’m getting bogged down in a morass of words.

I organize my writing into folders. I have a main folder named “Books Written”.

Within that folder, I have a folder for each book, named with the original working title of the book.

Within each book folder, I have a number of organizational folders for Proposals, Research, Marketing, etc. The first draft goes into a folder named “Draft 1″.

When I’ve finished the first draft and am ready to start editing, I duplicate the entire “Draft 1″ folder and name the copy “Draft 2″. Then I never change anything in “Draft 1″ again. I work in “Draft 2″ until I’ve done a complete revision.

I generally do 5 or 6 drafts, and for each of these, there’s a separate folder. When I look at the files, they’re ordered nicely and it’s easy to see what’s the current draft. It’s the highest numbered “Draft” folder.

As I mentioned, I’ve never tried to figure out what Editing Paradigms other writers use, but this might be a good time to do it.

So authors, please leave a comment and describe your Editing Paradigm! There’s no prize here, other than the massive fame you’ll get by leaving a comment on the Advanced Fiction Writing Blog. And what more could you want than that?

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Self-Editing For Self-Published Fiction

How do you go about editing your self-published novel? Are there some steps you can take to make sure your fiction is ready to go before you push the button to upload to the online retailers?

David posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I saw your blog about knowing when your book is finished, and you seemed to gear your response towards those who are seeking to be published via the traditional route. But for those of us that are considering the self-pub route, how would you recommend we decide when our book is finished and ready for publishing?

Randy sez: Good question, David! As recently as three years ago, most professional authors felt that self-publishing didn’t make good financial success. (That was the advice I gave in my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. It was good advice at the time, but things have changed radically in three years.)

Today it can make all kinds of financial sense to self-publish a novel in e-book format, with one caveat.

A self-published novel should be just as well-written and well-edited as a traditionally-published novel.

There are actually two issues in your question, David. First, you have to decide if your level of craft is good enough to justify publishing anything yet. Second, you have to decide if the actual book you’ve written is ready to be published. Both of them have the same solution:

You need a second opinion from a qualified editor. I need to expand on this, because there are at least four major steps in editing a novel: the “macro edit”, the copy edit, the line-edit, and the proofreading.

I’m not saying that you need somebody to do the copyediting, line-editing, and proofreading. You might well be able to do these yourself. Some authors do these tasks for a living and many authors are competent to do them. (Some authors are incompetent in one of these areas, and if that’s you, then you know it and you should hire somebody to do these jobs.)

There’s one task no author is qualified to do. You can’t objectively do a “macro edit” on your own work. You’re too close to it. You are always going to see your novel subjectively. You need a qualified editor to read your novel and tell you whether the story is working–the concept, the story structure, the characters, the theme, the voice.

Here’s the procedure I’m using for a couple of novels that I’m working on which I plan to self-publish:

  1. Write the first draft.
  2. Pay a professional freelance editor to do a macro edit and produce an analysis of the story.
  3. Revise the manuscript, either following the advice of my editor or (on careful consideration) rejecting that advice.
  4. Copy edit, line-edit, and proofread the novel.
  5. Hire a graphic designer to do the cover art.
  6. Prepare the novel in the standard e-book formats. (To do this, I style the manuscript in Microsoft Word, export it to HTML, clean up Microsoft’s horrible HTML using my own custom software, and package the HTML in epub and Kindle formats using the free software Calibre.)
  7. Upload to the online retailers–Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and the Apple store. Smashwords is also a distributor and they take care of getting my work into other online retailers, such as Kobo, Diesel, etc. Note that Smashwords does its own e-book conversion direct from Microsoft Word format, which is handy and can produce quite good results but you have to create the Table of Contents manually, which is a hassle.

Most of these steps are obvious ones that anybody would take, with the exception of Step 2. Amateurs don’t get their work macro edited. Professionals do.

And where do you get this magical macro editor?

You may get good results by having a writer friend do your macro edits. Some writers are brilliant analysts and can produce an excellent report for you, detailing the issues you have in your concept, your structure, your characters, your theme, your voice, and so on. But some writers are terrible at this, so don’t trust your macro edit to just anybody.

A good macro editor doesn’t have to be a writer. She doesn’t even have to be a professional in the industry. She just needs to get your writing, know how to tell you what’s right with your fiction, and know how to tell you what’s wrong. Each of those points is important.

Your editor must get your writing. I once had a professional editor at a major publisher who didn’t get my novel. He hated it, in fact. Thought it was drivel. (Another editor at that same publisher thought it was my best stuff ever, and other editors who’ve seen it agree. But this one editor just didn’t like it.) Fortunately, the project crashed and burned and neither I nor the editor had to suffer the injustice of him editing my work.

Your editor must know how to tell you what you’re doing right. She is going to give you a report detailing all the things wrong with your novel. If she doesn’t also point out the many things right with it, then she’s going to crush your ego and possibly kill your novel. Don’t let this happen. Make it clear that you desperately need to know what’s good in your work.

Your editor must know how to explain what’s wrong. She needs to be sensitive here, but firm. She does not need to know how to fix the problem. Fixing your fiction is your job. Pointing out what needs to be fixed is your editor’s problem. She may point out that your craft simply isn’t at a publishable level yet. If so, then get a third opinion to confirm that. If your craft really isn’t there yet, then go get some more training (that’s what this web site is for) and then rewrite your novel and have your macro editor look at it again.

Every writer is different. Every editor is different. When you find an editor who gets your work and who can distinguish the good from the bad in your work, hang on to her forever, because she’ll be gold for you. If an editor fails in any of these areas, never use her again. She may be great for somebody else, but if she’s not right for you, then that’s a showstopper.

A macro edit will generally cost you. If you’re very lucky, you might have a friend who will do it for free. Typically, it’s going to cost hundreds of dollars and sometimes as much as a few thousand dollars for a high-end professional editor. You don’t always get what you pay for, so be wary here.

I don’t do macro edits myself, so please nobody ask me for my rates. When I need macro editing, I work with Meredith Efken at FictionFixitShop.com. She gets what I’m trying to do with my fiction and she knows how to tell me what’s good and what’s bad. She may or may not be the right editor for you, but there are plenty of other fish in the sea.

As I noted above, after you make revisions in response to the report of your macro editor, you still need to copy edit, line-edit, and proofread your work. These are mechanical tasks that you can do yourself or hire out. It’s up to you.

When those tasks are done, you’re ready for cover art, file conversion, and uploading.

Don’t try to make it too complicated by spending forever on the editing.

Don’t try to make it too simple by skipping the macro edit stage.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

How Do You Know When Your Novel is Finished?

When do you quit editing your novel and start marketing it? Is there a foolproof way to know when your story is done?

Tami posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,

I’m working on what I hope will be the last edit of my manuscript. My question is, how do you know when to stop editing? I read that at some point you stop making it better and just start making it different, but how do you know where that point is?

I have learned so much since beginning the story, and am still learning, so I try to incorperate that knowledge as I edit. I want to make my story the best it can be, but at this rate the editing process could go on forever. HELP!

Randy sez: This is a good question. The question is simple. The answer is complex. A lot depends on where you are in your career.

This might be a good time to read (or reread) my article, “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author!” where I spell out the various stages in the career of a pre-published writer. There are several stages after getting published that I don’t cover in this article, but it’s a good start.

If you’re a Freshman or Sophomore, then I guarantee that your novel is not done yet. Period. This is true by definition. Being a Freshman or Sophomore means that you are not yet writing publishable work. Maybe you will one day, but not yet.

However, if you’ve chewed all the sugar out of the story you’re working on, if you’re just tired of the thing, it might be a good time to lay it aside and move on to another novel. You can always come back to it later, when you’re more advanced in your career.

I have a novel on my computer that I wrote when I was a Freshman/Sophomore. I suspect that it’s actually not bad, but I never sold it and I’m sure that if I read it today, the reasons would be obvious. At the time, I had a hard time letting it go and moving on to the next book.

That novel was a necessary stepping-stone along the way to getting published. That doesn’t mean that it has to be published someday in order to earn its keep. It already earned its keep by proving to me that I could write and finish a pretty good novel.

If you’re a Junior, then you should be looking for an agent and the main thing you need for getting an agent is a good manuscript. How do you know when to go looking for an agent with that manuscript?

I would say that your manuscript is done when you don’t know how to make it any better, even after considering the helpful advice of your critique group, your spouse, your sister who reads 7000 books per year, and the 92-year-old woman in your church who tells you it’s “brilliant, honey, brilliant.”

When you can’t improve the thing any more, go looking for an agent. While you’re working on that, start writing a new manuscript, because finding an agent could take a while. A long while.

If you can’t find an agent, then that manuscript just wasn’t what you needed. Maybe the one you’re working on now will be better. (It almost certainly will be.)

If you do find an agent, he’ll tell you whether your manuscript is ready to be published. It probably isn’t. Don’t feel bad if your agent asks you to rewrite your manuscript and sends you a detailed list of things to work on. This means he cares enough about you to make you improve.

If your agent never sells your manuscript (this happens quite a lot), then it probably wasn’t ready. There is no way to make this a happy event in your life. This is always painful. Novelists have to learn to accept that not everything they write is guaranteed to sell. If this is too much for you to bear, then you should try a less risky career, such as blind-folded lion-taming.

If your agent sells your manuscript, then your editor will have a go at your manuscript. Without a doubt, she’ll find a large number of problems. Then it’ll be on you to fix them. The manuscript isn’t done until your editor says it is.

Once you’ve been published, you’re operating on a higher plane than you were before. By now, you’ve got the experience to know when a manuscript is done. If you’re normal.

There are a few sick authors who are too darned humble and believe that nothing they do is ever good enough.

There are a few other insufferably egotistical authors who think that everything they do is golden, even in the first draft.

But most published authors develop an inner sense of rightness. They know that their book will generally be ready after the third draft, or the fifth, or the thirteenth, or however many drafts it usually takes.

The simple fact is that most authors reach a plateau in the quality of their writing after a few novels. They may be constantly striving to improve. They may be actually making small steps forward. But we’re talking about one percent effects here. Small improvements.

Once you’ve reached your natural level of fiction writing, you probably aren’t ever going to make any more quantum leaps. Just my observation of how things actually work for real writers in the real world.

When you reach your natural level, you’ll know when your story is done. You won’t be able to explain it, but you’ll know. You’ll know that your novel is as good as you can make it and you’ll know who to show it to in order to take it up a notch or two.

There is just no substitute for getting other eyes to look at your manuscript. No author on the planet is qualified to be their own editor. (Yes, some of us can be our own copyeditor, line editor, or proofreader. But none of us is able to be our own macro editor. You need an emotional detachment from the manuscript that you will never have.)

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.