Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How Other People Edited My Novel

I spent over ten years writing my novel. There was a lot of self-editing that happened during those ten years. From tweaking sentences to throwing out chapters and even whole drafts, I edited pretty constantly as I went along. I edited based on my own opinions, and based on suggestions from my critique group. I edited when Susannah told me on an early draft, "No, this isn't right. You haven't got it yet."

But in this post I'm going to talk about the editing that happened between the point that I slammed my hand down beside my laptop and shrieked "DONE" and the point that my editor at St. Martin's said, "Good job, we can move on to line edits." The major, conceptual edits that came from my agent, my editor, and my beta readers.

Lots of people have asked me how much influence my agent and editor had on my book, and if that bothered or upset me. The answer is that they had a lot of influence, and all of it was good in the end, and none of it ultimately bothered me. There were changes that made me hesitate, and some that I thought might be impossible. I had decided that I was not going to be some sort of annoying prima donna. I told myself that I was going to be a good girl and not argue, and that I would take every suggestion and try and make it work in the book. There was only one suggestion that I could not find a way to do. All the rest of them made the book better, I strongly feel. So when I look at the book I don't see my darling book underneath the mean changes and ugly edits forced on me by other people. I see a book that's so much better than it was a year ago, I hardly recognize it.

So what was the last year like, in edits? Here's how it went:

At the end of July, I finished my novel. I sent it to several friends, some of whom are writers. The friends who are writers had some feedback -- some suggestions for pretty deep structural changes. My novel was built in three big chunks, and they felt that the sections should be mixed up more. One friend passed it on to a friend who is an agent. The agent agreed with the structural changes and had some other suggestions too. We did not sign a contract, or get married to each other as author/agent, but I really like her and wanted to try these changes for her, especially since they were agreed on by the other writerish friend types. Thus began revision #1. I blew up the major sections of the book, and started shaking out the pieces.

Revision #1 ended on November 17 when I had made all the changes discussed. I sent the revised book off the the beautiful agent, hoping she would love me and want to marry me in a literary way.

Here is a real, true fact for you: Very little happens in publishing over the winter holidays. Very little happens in any industry.

On January 21, the beautiful agent told me she liked my revisions and on January 25, she sent me a contract and we were literarily entwined. By the first week of February, and the book appeared to be done, only six short months after I had proclaimed it done.

This piece of paper was stuck to my refrigerator during the months of February and March, and it shows the notes I made during phone calls with my agent -- scenes to be written or revised. I would march around my house during the calls, writing notes onto this paper. Some of the notes are in scrawled onto the paper in big scratchy CRAYON. This is proof that I am mentally unstable, or that I have a seven year old daughter and I had a crayon handy. If you click on it, it takes you to a bigger version.

Unfortunately at this point I had a major idea, an idea which sort of demanded that it be not only included in the book but included into almost every part of the book. This tiresome, obnoxious idea of mine endeared itself to the beautiful agent, and increasingly endeared itself to me, although I wrote several emails to various people shouting that it was impossible and ridiculous to even consider doing it. Email evidence shows that I resisted putting it in until March 22. Eventually, with the help of a mathematician (real) and a crowbar (metaphorical), I incorporated this idea. In doing so, I turned up a few more things that needed revisions. An additional scene here, a tweak there, a shift of emotional content over here, and it was done by April 2. Done, done, done, never to be edited again. Completely finished.

Beautiful agent wrote the pitch letter (It's like Eat, Pray, Love, but in SPACE!!!) and compiled a list of editors. On April 26, she started pitching it, and in a couple of weeks we had a deal. And an editor. You may notice that the word "edit" is prominently featured in the title "editor." Unsurprisingly, my adorable editor had a list of things she wanted tweaked and twirled in the book. One character was to have a much larger role. One subplot was to get a much more complete treatment. We talked about the edits on the phone, and I pondered and toiled over them in the manuscript. Here's a screen shot of the notes I took on our phone call. You can see a checklist I added later, when I had boiled down our conversation into discreet tasks.

The checklist helped, but it was not until we were sitting around a table at lunch in New York, that is adorable editor, beautiful agent and I were sitting around this table (the tallest people in the room, it is to be believed) that adorable editor came up with a very specific, tangible idea that really lit up the whole problem and got me excited to get into the manuscript and tear it up a bit.

I finished my revisions on July 9. A week or so later, adorable editor wrote back that she liked them. And that's where we are at this moment.

The next step is to get her line edits and start working on those. I'm hoping to get an astronaut to read the manuscript and give me some input on the space scenes. But I have the strong feeling that the book is in its final shape in terms of the scenes and characters, the plots and ideas. Many hands have touched it and changed it. I feel like every suggestion, whether to change something, to add something, or to take something out, was essentially the same message: This isn't working. Writers should never ignore a reader who is telling them "this isn't working." Even if I didn't know how to fix it, or how to implement the change, and even if I felt strongly that it shouldn't be changed, I really tried to address every single issue and respond to every suggestion. From my early readers in my critique group down to my editor at St. Martin's, I valued all the input I got.

No novel falls perfectly from a writer's head. Mine has maybe been through more changes and permutations than most. But when the cover goes on and the pages get numbered and the release date finally comes, there aren't going to be any more chances to fix it. This is my chance to make the book as perfect as possible, and I'm taking every opportunity I get.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Do Robots Make Better Astronauts?

This article by Dr. Cynthia Phillips @ SETI asks whether robots are better suited for space travel, and whether humans are ready to handle the fact that these tireless explorers might take "our place" on Mars. Here's an excerpt:

"On a purely scientific level, there is very little in our current solar system exploration program that can't be done just as effectively by a robot as by an astronaut. Robots excel at the tedious work of taking similar pictures or analyzing similar rocks over and over and over again, without complaint (usually!) or a need for life support systems. Robots don't need food or water, they can withstand much more damaging radiation, and, perhaps most importantly, they don't need to come home at the end of the mission. Simply put, a one-way trip requires only half the fuel of a round trip voyage, and even though you'd likely get plenty of volunteer astronauts signing up for a one-way trip to Mars, it's unlikely that our current moral and ethical code would allow us to send such a mission."

Fascinating questions. What would Maxon say? Full article here: robots in space.

Monday, July 4, 2011

How I Got My Agent

I do not have a good story. Or, rather, I do have a good story. It's in my novel. It's about a bald lady and her astronaut husband, and a meteor and a news anchorman and Burma and people dying alone in ravines and will power and robots. But I do not have a good agent-getting story. My agent story is probably going to be frustrating to read, if you're trying to get an agent. However, I do have a lesson at the end of it. One minor bit of advice that might help.

I spent ten years writing my novel. I threw out thousands and thousands of words. I started over two times. It was hard. In my mind, the novel became stranger and stranger, more and more itself. While I was writing for an audience, I did not firmly believe that it would find one. The book was more of a compulsion than a goal-oriented project. I did desperately want it to be published, but I did not think about that as much as I did getting to the end of the book, getting the characters through it, getting it all down and out of me.

During this time, while I was working away on my novel, I also became a mother and spent the decade also parenting and homeschooling two kids. Time was scarce. I did not have a lot of room to network, go to workshops, etc. I barely had time to drag myself to my critique group. However, I managed to do several things in this period of time that really helped me when I had a finished manuscript to sell.

1. Friends. I have friends who are writers. Not just writer friends, not just network friends, but mom friends, wine friends, holy crap this is awful friends, holy crap this is true elation friends, real friends. My two oldest friends are both writers. I try my very best not to feel competitive with them, and I worked very hard during the last ten years to not feel left behind by them, as they both achieved a lot of professional success and I did not. I had my moments of self loathing and doubt, but I always want my friends to succeed. It's a true fact that success often happens in clusters. When everyone around you seems to be "making it" and you are "failing utterly" you can comfort yourself by the fact that by planting yourself in a successful cluster, you're helping yourself.

Writers should not be afraid to be good friends with other writers. There are no angels of publishing sitting on high, looking down at your group of friends and deciding which lucky, golden, sparkly one to pick for success, leaving the others to sink into the mire of ruin. For every one of you that makes it, all of your chances improve. The other thing is that ultimately, they are the only ones that understand. They are the only ones that will tell you when you're fucking up, and will really genuinely be happy for you when you win.

2. Networking. Everyone tells you to network all the time. You're supposed to network your ass off. Just ask the internet. Google "The importance of networking" and you will find a lot of confirmations that it's highly important. The problem is how to network, especially if you're not already in the publishing industry or the writing world. You can make friends, yes, as I discussed up the page. And that counts. You can also send hopeful emails to people saying "Hello, I'd like to network with you." They might even send back an email that says "I would love to network with you. Let's network." However, the next step is tricky. You could easily get stuck looking at the person like, hey, do you like me? Check one: __yes __no.

The best way to network yourself into the writing world is to find a way to interact with writers, editors, agents, and other publishing types in some practical way. Before you're asking for help, before you have any need of help, you just happen to be around for some reason. You're a book designer. You're a reviewer. You're a manuscript consultant. You're a publicist. You're a party planner. You're a web site coder. You're a gadget scriptor. Something like that.

My dark plan to network while I was working on my novel was to create a writing contest for children. This project was an intersection of my homeschooling and my writing -- a happy coincidence. With a partner, another homeschooler, we set up many categories, found sponsors, and then began recruiting readers and judges from... the publishing industry. I emailed writers I have never met, agents I wouldn't have thought to pitch to, editors, illustrators, etc. Many of them ignored me, many said no thanks, but the crazy thing is that many said yes.

In the process of putting the contest together, I had a reason to talk to everyone I know, and ask them if they knew anyone in publishing. For the children, of course. Not to promote my own book, which didn't even exist at that point. It was no surprise: people knew people. I collected email addresses. I communicated, as charmingly as I could. There were exchanges back and forth. So, should you put together a writing contest for children? Maybe not. But if you can think of a way to interact with book people in a practical way that allows you to talk about, plan, and execute some arrangement that doesn't involve your novel, it will make it a lot easier, when your novel comes into the picture.

So what is my agent getting story? Here you go:

I wrote a book. I passed it to my friend, a writer. She passed it to her friend, an agent. I happened to have met this agent back when she was an editor (she was a friend's editor) and I also happened to have emailed back and forth with her as she was a judge for the children's writing contest. She liked the manuscript, and after some revision, we signed a contract.

In some ways my story can be reduced to, "It's who you know." In that way, it's a frustrating tale. However, even "It's who you know" ultimately comes down to "It's what you do." And there's always something that you can do about it. Eventually there's something you do in order to know who you know, and that's what you have to figure out.