Friday, September 10, 2010

The Yawp and Ugh of Substantive Editing

Teeth and Bones Editing Contest:
How to enter: Comment on the Novel Matters blog anytime between Monday, September 6th, and Friday September 17th. At the bottom of your comment type TABEC (short for Teeth and Bones Editing Contest). Only comments with these letters at the bottom will be eligible to win (we understand that not all our readers are interested in this level of editing, but would still want to be free to comment and discuss editing - that's the reason we require interested people to please use the TABEC letters at the bottom of their comments)You many enter as many times as you like over the two weeks. Each comment counts as an entry (but don't forget to type TABEC at the bottom of each comment).
Winner: One winner will be announced on Friday, September 17th at 5:00 PM pacific time.The prize: A teeth and bones edit of your first chapter and synopsis by Bonnie Grove. The edit will be on the substantive level (the overall concepts, characters, and themes, etc. of the novel). It will be Bonnie's teeth on the bones of your manuscript.
The winner will work one on one with Bonnie Grove via e-mail. The winner will consent to having the first paragraph of the work posted on Novel Matters in a before and after comparison. This means the winner will agree to have the first paragraph of your WIP appear on the blog, first as it was originally written, then in its edited form. 

Awhile back, Kathleen Popa reminded us of the glory of Yawp – Walt Witman’s name for the primal seat of deep human truth present in every person. Her post nudged us to remember that exposing the primal yawp; this deeply experiential humanity is fiction’s goal. Yet, as we chip out our stories and arrange them on the page, we often meet not a yawp, but an ugh of failure. The brilliant images that will not flow from mind to fingers without transforming into clich√© somewhere near the wrist. The aching metaphor that tangos in the imagination but flaps like a fish on dry dock when it meets the page.  Yet we press on. We must keep writing the story – it’s fire in our bones. As Ray Bradbury tells us, we throw up in the morning, and clean up at noon.

And when noon arrives, we meet with another type of primal noise making; the editing variety. Somewhere on the pages, in the midst of our vomited yawps and ughs, there is a glorious, original, shining story. If only we can find it. Cue the editor.

Authors need editors because authors most often jump to the second level of editing,
the line edit without first working on the comprehensive level. The level of editing that, as The Editorial Department tells us, focuses on: matters of story and content, including plot, pacing, story structure, characterization, dialogue, and anything specific to the target genre or age group. (Yikes!)
Author line edits are helpful to the process, but without comprehensive editing (also called substantive) line editing can be an act of polishing poop to a high sheen. Sure, it isn’t always a poop polishing exercise, but because authors lose perspective with their own work – are you willing to take the chance? Nicci Jordan Hubert is an extraordinary editor I’ve had the joy to work with. On her
blog, she explains the three categories of projects she works on.

As an editor, I typically encounter three categories of projects. One: The overhaul. In this scenario, a book is well-intentioned, but in need of serious renovations. When I am hired for a project like this, it’s [time] to pick up a hammer and nails and help build the house. Sometimes I even have to do some demolishing [. . .]
Two: The Make it Work. In this case--the least desirable of the three--my job is to simply make sure the book isn’t horrible, but also, to not cause too much work on the part of the author. In other words: the author is typically either famous enough that s/he doesn’t want to put in the work, or the project isn’t considered worth fussing over.  
But then, there’s the glorious third category: The Fine Tune.  In this scenario, the book, in its original form, is already very good. My job is simply to be a confidant, a sounding board, and a brainstorm partner for the author. I get to help the author find ways to make a great book EXCELLENT.  
If you visit the link to Nicci’s site, you’ll notice that she aligns my work with the third category – the fine tune. So, ask me if I got slammed in editing. Go ahead, ask. The answer is: Big time. By the time Nicci finished putting me and my novel Talking to the Dead through our paces, I’d re-written my fingers to the nub. Ugh. But without those edits, without Nicci coming in and saying, “Bonnie, these scenes sound like preaching.” And, “Bon, the ending is flat.” And "B - what's up with this character who isn't doing anything important?" I would have never tapped my Yawp. I needed my editor to help me dig in deeper and truly sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.
Large level editing doesn’t necessarily equate to bad writing. It may be painful to hear that your novel needs a new ending, or that sixteen scenes need a complete rewrite because you have to drop a character and combine his workload with an existing character’s which means you have to go track that character’s entire arch. But. That doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a writer. It doesn’t mean your story can’t achieve its potential.

Uber publisher and hands on editor Amy Einhorn tells the remarkable story of how she
acquired her imprint's second big hit book after The Help.   
Originally I rejected it. It had a different title, the main character didn’t appear until page 150. I knew by page 90 that I was going to reject it because the storyline was a mess, but I loved the writing so I read the entire thing. Editors never read entire manuscripts if we know we’re going to reject them – we simply don’t have the time. 
So then I wrote a rather lengthy rejection letter saying she’s a wonderful writer but the story’s a mess and I thought that was it. On to the next thing. But I couldn’t get the story – mess and all – out of my head. So a month later I called the agent, who hadn’t sold it (again, messy story), talked to the author on the phone to make sure she’d be on board with my editorial changes, and bought it – and then sent her a 17 page editorial letter. We ended up doing four major revises on the book – it’s completely different than when I first bought it. And I’m so glad I persevered. It’s a wonderful, wonderful novel.
Any author who has received an editorial letter from an editor knows that 17 pages of notes are enough to induce a three-week Valium jag. It is ugh to the nth degree. 17 pages is a crazy amount of work. It’s starting back at the starting line. It’s feeling like a complete failure. But together, the editor who believed in the author’s Yawp, and the author who trusted the editor’s skill, produced a novel that has not only sold very well, but has become a favorite of many women around the country. Anyone know the title?

The contest we are running on Novel Matters isn’t a true substantive edit because I won’t be reading your entire manuscript. But the things I’ll be suggesting to the author will be on the deep cutting substantive level. The winner will feel teeth on bone – and will be challenged to either cry out an ugh, or allow the rise of the powerful Yawp to transform the story into the unique, meaningful novel it was always meant to be. 

Tell us about your editing experiences - what works for you? What doesn't? How have you dealt with large scale changes? Or, if you haven't done this step yet, how do you think you will approach them when the time comes? Remember, you can enter the Teeth and Bones Editing Contest as many times as you like - but be sure you use the abbreviation TABEC on each comment so I can keep track!


Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I had to make some pretty large-scale changes on my first novel, a YA that I wrote when I was 23. I had the beginning critiqued at Mt Hermon a coupla years ago, and rewrote the beginning. As a result of that conference I landed an agent, who requested I rewrite the ending.

The book then made the rounds, made it to committee several times, and kept getting knocked back at the last.

Then an editor who'd hung onto the ms for a while sent one of those long, detailed rejection letters explaining why she thought the book would work better in single POV instead of multiple. I balked (it wasn't a contract offer after all), my agent sweet-talked, I came around and spent the next 6 months rewriting from the ground up during my toddler's nap-times.

Much oucho. But greatly worthwhile (something, of course, I could only appreciate having actually done it.)

Still don't know whether that hard work will pay off or not. I'm back in the waiting zone. Getting good at it. And cringing at the thought of going through the same process with Novel No.2, which is bigger, messier and uglier.

"Yawp!" she squeaked.


Megan Sayer said...

I work as a freelance structural editor. Not on any large scale - I'm really only getting started - but I thoroughly love the process. There's something incredibly satisfying about helping someone reach their potential, find their dream.

I kind of fell into the role, one of those "Oh you're a writer? I'm writing a book, could you read over it for me?" experiences with a friend from church. I read over her first draft and made some suggestions, but struggled to get through the same convoluted story again when it came to reading the second draft.

I didn't finish draft 2. In the end we sat at my kitchen table and opened a bottle of wine while I gently recommended she scrapped the lot and rewrote completely. A few hours later she left with a three-act structure written in dot points on a piece of scrap A4. It's a night I'll never forget.

Her book's been wildly successful; she now speaks to groups all over the country and has won a couple of really big awards. I'm so proud! She calls me her "midwife", and that's what if feels like, like I've helped her give birth to her baby, now I'm watching this "baby" grow up.

She's now my biggest champion. I only pray that I'll be as gracious as she was when it's my book on the table.

BTW, Karen, well done! I'm super-impressed with your achievements so far...especially the big rewrite during nap time! Hope there's a big pay-off for you real soon.


Terri Tiffany said...

I first had to deal with my emotions. Telling myself that a thorough edit--requiring a zillion rewrites didn't mean I am a horrid writer. But that was a huge battle. (still there somedays) thank you for writing this post. You actually made my day because I am about to do more rewrites. Ugh!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Don't mind me as I smile insanely big.

I handle it beautifully, jumping up and down knowing I'll need to grit my teeth and dig in until every fiber of my being hurts. I thank God for the crappy work I've produced b/c it will only get better. Okay, I'm just havin' fun with you.

I like to get my hands dirty and if that means major be it.

All for honoring the characters and their story.

Started Let the Great World Spin--am loving it.

(will have to hide my prologue if I win, but here goes)


~ Wendy

Marian said...

I love a novel full of experiential humanity. Then why am I trying to write a contemporary Christian novel in which the naked Noah truth is eliminated with a Sunday School teacher blush?


Jan Cline said...

I haven't been through a substantive edit on a full MS, but I like seeing any changes bring my MS to life. It's amazing to me that there are so many choices available to us to twist and turn words and sentences. The posibilities are endless and each has their own way of perception. This contest is a great way to gain some knowledge...from you all and the comments too.
Blessings, Jan

MandyB said...

I have spent the last eight months learning how to edit. I found it harder to do than to write the story. For me it has been a steep learning curve and I know once a 'real' editor looks at the work I will be re-working it all again. Nothing comes easy - if it is worthwhile - and that's what's keeping me going.

Bonnie Grove said...

Karen: You've been through the gauntlet! Is it novel #2 you would submit to me if you win? Yawp away, dear girl.

Megan: Ah, yes, I know that question. What an amazing story about that hanging on, digging in relationship that can happen in publishing. Well done!

Terri: The emotional response always bites me in the butt. I'm astonished how emotional I can get - even when I understand and agree with the changes suggested. Jumps me every time, but I learned fast how to handle them privately and quickly (and not on the phone with my editor!)

Wendy: Welcome to the dark side. ;)

Marian: You ask an astonishing question. An excellent question. It's one I needed to ask myself in my writing. And the answer surprised me and set my feet on a very different path than the one I had started out on. I hope you find the answers to that question.

Jan: Excellent point. There is always a creative way to express a thought, action, moral, or ideal. Thanks for that!

Mandy: Yep, it's a steep learning curve! The good news is, you're not alone on the climb.

Tina said...

Such a good post. Editing really is very important. One thing I am hoping to do on future books is to edit more before I turn them in. Why not take our time and get things as close to perfect as we can? And I'm also looking for a critique partner, which one of these days I will find. For now, I'm blessed to have good friends who will read my work for me, and my mom. Yes, my mom, as well as my SIL, are wonderful editors.

Marcia said...

Reading this blog has opened a whole new world to me. I shiver with anticipation... and apprehension.

As far as experiencing editing, I think I'm like a horse that's only been bridle broken--as opposed to one that's been saddled and ridden on a regular basis.

In my early years of writing I belonged to a critique group, which was like the blind leading the blind. We were a mutual admiration soceity, but at least we encouraged each other.

The articles, advertising, short stories, etc. that I sent out in the years that followed were either written on assignment or if free-lanced, accepted/rejected. A few came back with scattered comments.

More recently, a writer friend critiqued my WIP, but then became too busy to return my mss. Her most valuable advice to me was that my hero was far too sensitive for a man. I agreed and did a lot of re-writing because of that insight.

Lately, my I've edited myself through reading books on writing, such as "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by Browne & King, and half a dozen others. But even though I've edited myself until I'm blue in the face, I know I have blind spots. Especially after reading the blogs/comments on here.

Here's my question: For those of us who don't win the contest, what are the next steps we can take toward getting fully edited? Perhaps this question has already been answered in part, but would it be possible to summarize or enlarge upon the subject?




Ellen Staley said...

I can see that I have a steep learning curve ahead of me concerning surviving professional editing. I marvel at the range of emotions reflected here in the comments and wonder where I will fall, especially when I am asked to pare away the dead wood in my story, wood that appears so green right now because I'm too close to notice the shriveled leaves.

Hope that Yawp is at my source because all I can anticipate right now is Ugh. And yet, I really look forward to finishing my first write (on my first novel) so I can begin revisions.


Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

"But together, the editor who believed in the author’s Yawp, and the author who trusted the editor’s skill, produced a novel that has not only sold very well, but has become a favorite of many women around the country. Anyone know the title?"

That would be THE POSTMISTRESS by Sarah Blake.

Beautiful writing. Read it months ago and still don't know how I feel about the ending. The good books always leave you wondering...

Anonymous said...

This "yawp" is exactly what I've been trying to reach with my "uggh" novel. Besides the timeline being a mess, I've lost the characterization somewhere in the writing, the very character-centered stuff I really want to have in my story?


Anonymous said...

Poop-polishing! I was rolling on the floor with that one. Sounds like something only I'd waste time on. lol.

Hope to have something other than poop to polish, soon!

Anonymous said...

I have just cut an entire 12 page prologue, and rewritten the first chapter to include the information that I had fluffed up in the prologue. Now the first chapter is much stronger, and readers who skip prologues will be immediately drawn in. Painful, but glorious. TABEC

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Yes, Bonnie, it'd be novel #2 that I'd be offering up to be shredded this time. :)

Megan, your editing work sounds amazing and very rewarding. Thanks for the well wishes. You've achieved a heck of a lot yourself!

And Terri, I too can relate to the emotions in all this. I heard it said once that a lot of writers think they want critique, but what they're really after is validation. (Marcia - your mutual admiration society, for instance! That made me chuckle).

Is it just me? - or do other writers nurture a private fantasy that instead of critique, they'll hear, "Wow, this swept me away with its brilliance - how bout I introduce you to my publisher?" LOL!

Ok, just being really transparent... but don't worry, God's been beating that thinking out of me over the past four years or so. And I have to say, despite craving affirmation as much as the next needy writer, it's the painful critique that has helped me to grow.

Marcia said...

Karen, I appreciate your transparency in mentioning the need for approval. Of course we all want to write something grand and impressive! Why purposefully write something mediocre?

The fear of mediocrity used to paralyze me--and still does from time to time. I'd rather not write anything at all than write something ho-hum.

My goal is always to produce words that affect the reader deeply... words that lead her to cry out with desperation for God.

Yet even this "holy longing" can be full of pride.

I'm starting to realize that only God has the power to make people long for Him. My part is to fully cooperate with His Spirit. And if after I've given my all, it's still not that great, well...

He didn't do so bad with those five loaves and two fish, did He?

Grace to all who struggle with perfection,



Megan Sayer said...

Wow, this competition has made me really focus on my synopsis for the first time, which has been such a blessing. Suddenly the whole story has clicked together in a new way, the themes are becoming more apparent, and it's a lot stronger. Thankyou God, thankyou Bonnie!

Unfortunately, it means that most of what I've written so far is now BACKSTORY. I don't even KNOW how to write good backstory! There's so much of it that's crucial to the understanding of the characters and the revelation of the ending, and I have NO IDEA how I'm meant to reveal it all in a "show-don't-tell", keep the story moving fashion. Oh well, guess I'll figure it out soon enough. Back to the drawing board.

Anyway, just wanted to share it with people who understand. I so sympathise now with all you re-writers.


Lori Benton said...

I once cut a 325,000 word novel down to 128,000. It was largely a line edit, and required very little structural change to the story. Yep. It was that overwritten. I haven't had to do a substantive edit yet. I hope I'll be as brave and determined about it, when the time comes, as I was in getting that word count down.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I have decided that my heart is too raw right now to have my baby eaten. I do look forward to a future entry and even a win in the great lottery of editing!
However, my brother who died in August imagined himself a bit of a writer and I wondered (very abstractly) whether you would accept my submission of his work. I had to ask my other siblings' permission first and then I had to read the manuscript. Then I was going to ask your permission....
The only reservation from the siblings thus far is my brother's touch of copyright paranoia. I said I would ask the experts: How does one secure copyright in electronic media? (securely so that even a paranoid hermit would be satisfied LOL)
I have read about 12 000 words of perhaps 500 000. Thus far it is very engaging back writing and no actual action. His friends promise me it is very exciting...the way he described it.
Entry into your lottery aside, any advise on editing posthumous material?

Nichole Osborn said...

I have demolished my WIP 2 times now. I THINK I'm happy with it this time. Now for the rebuild. Oh and I'm sure a bit of "poop polishing" (that just made me laugh) :0D

Lynn Dean said...

When a publisher requested a full copy of my first ms I thought, "It can't be this easy." I was right. Good thing I expected it to be a much longer process!

The story made it through several levels before being rejected, so it was hard to be too disappointed. I set it aside and started another. When the same editor contacted me a year later to request that I resubmit, I was very hopeful. By that time one other publisher and an agent had also invited me to submit. But when the first publisher rejected the story for the second time, I froze.

The rejection was so gracious and helpful that it was impossible to feel devastated. On the contrary, the editor went out of her way to list what she felt were the strong points of the story and suggested a rather short list of issues they would like to see addressed. If I felt led to correct those few things, she said she'd like to see it a third time. I'm new at this, but that seemed like a very encouraging sort of rejection.

I trust this editor's opinion and can see the reasoning behind every change she requested. I froze, though, because I the story was already as good as I knew how to make it when I sent it in. To make it better, I would need to grow in my writing skills. The editor suggested that I hire someone to help with a substantive edit, but I really didn't know where to turn. There are many excellent freelance editors, but the majority seem to focus on romance. My story is historical fiction. Different pacing. Different voice. I didn't know if that would require a different touch. So many questions! And then there's the question of "how do you know when you've done enough?"

So I have torn sections of the story apart and put them back together more times than I can count, but I'm still not sure it's "there"--still not sure I've adequately addressed the parts that needed to be fixed.



Regina Jennings said...

I haven't benefited from that level of critiquing yet. I've had a paid 20 page critique that was a great starting point. I love online critique groups but they focus on the mechanics. Not a lot of help on the plot and themes when you only submit a chapter a week.


Ruth Ann Dell said...

Hi- my WIP is a tangled mass of threads in desperate need of a substantive edit to make it to gel.