SO YOU'VE WRITTEN A BOOK.
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SO YOU'VE WRITTEN A BOOK. NOW WHAT?
This mini-book was written to help others on the journey of writing to learn and get ahead of some of the pitfalls that are on the horizon. As we pick up our pens and begin writing, we usually just think of the story we have in mind and figure that when the story is written we’ve been successful. That may partly be true. As I note later on, some day you will be able to say, “I did it,” and feel that surge of success - completion. But as the book title says, then what? And, how do I get there in the first place? What am I facing as I begin this process?
I wrote this from my experiences over almost fifteen years of writing my first three books and publishing and marketing them. It’s not “expert” material; it’s just what I’ve learned. When I started, I had no idea what it was all about. But, I thought I did. Then I came to the realization that this authoring business was a lot more than I realized. So I’ve learned things over the years and I simply want to share them with you.
This mini-book is written from my viewpoint as an author, a writer. However, the basic principles in it are adaptable to others doing creative work; poets, musicians, artists, filmmakers, even those building widgets. If you are doing something other than writing, then simply adjust the ideas and principles in here to your own work. Principles such as Write the very best book you possibly can or How are you going to get someone to actually look with interest at YOUR work are just as valid for someone painting a landscape or building a new mousetrap as someone writing a novel.
So, I hope this will be of value to you. As you read it, if you have any comments, suggestions or ideas, I’d love to hear from you. Write me at JimMagwood@aol.com and/or visit the website at JimMagwood.org.
Best wishes to all of you and
Keep On Writing.
So You’ve Written a Book. Now What?
I’ve written a book—a suspense novel. What do you mean, So What? Big Deal!? Well, it was a big deal to me. I’m famous now, right? I’m a real live author. Okay, my name isn’t Grisham, or Clancy, but I’m pretty close, aren’t I? Once you’ve written a book, the world sits up and cheers, right? You get famous? Rich? Well, something?
However, probably the main thing you get after you’ve written your life’s work is depressed and discouraged. Here you’ve spent all this time—years even—creating your “baby,” and the big question becomes, Now What?There’s all those pages sitting there. Just sitting there. They’re supposed to be on library shelves, coming out of bookstores in fancy wrappers, lying beside easy-chairs everywhere—and they’re just sitting there. Now what?
I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood and read everything from newspapers, Reader's Digest and National Geographic, to mysteries and autobiographies. One day a book just popped into my mind and, lo and behold, a novel (SANCTION) was born. But, as I’m sure you are all aware, that was just the beginning of a long process that ended up, years later, with a real novel being published. Years of writing, then throwing the papers across the room, then trying to find some more to write about, then just about burning the whole thing, then… Sound familiar?
I believe most of us have stories to tell: from our own lives and experiences; from things we've seen and heard; from dreams and ideas that just pop in on dark nights and lazy afternoons. Probably nothing starts a story quite as well as actually being awake when the storm hits and the lightning is flashing or on a quiet morning with a cup of coffee while taking the time to simply see life around us.
Writing takes the courage to put ourselves down on paper where others can criticize and poke fun. It also takes the desire to reach and inspire others with word pictures; pictures that will enable them to see beyond the moment, to go beyond their own space, and to dream. Sometimes, the only thing that keeps us going on the project is that this story, this work of art, is coming from our heart and it simply has to come out and be laid gently, lovingly, even tearfully, on paper where at least we can see it. But, we’ve kept at it and it’s now sitting there, and the question again is, Now what?
I’m not the expert on writing books. I managed to get the first seven written (SANCTION, THE LESSER EVIL, COP, NIGHTMARE, JACOB, ONLY THE WATCHMEN WEEP and THEREFORE I AM) and, with the help of some great people, have gotten them published. Maybe someone will actually buy them some day. Maybe not. But, what I want to do now is just put my thoughts down here on paper—my experiences over the past fifteen years of writing and publishing and marketing—for those of you who’ve perhaps started this journey yourself and who might be wondering just what’s facing you. How are you going to take this brain-child of yours and get it into the hands of people you know will love it and benefit from it as much as you have? What are you going to experience along this journey and how will you get through the experience with your heart and mind and soul still intact?
So, perhaps the first questions become, How do I write this thing? Is what I’ve written even readable, any good? How can I make this something that readers will accept and enjoy? And, I believe the answer to that question is pretty simplistic:
Write the very best book you possibly can.
Write the very best book you possibly can.
Yeah, I know. Pretty simple. Don’t we all do just that? Write the very best…? But, do we?
Eventually you’re going to want to put this creation into the hands of an agent or editor, a publisher, a printer, and have it become a real book. But, what does it really look and sound like as it is right now? Have you actually read your own creation, from front to back, like a real book? Is it really the best you can do?
You’ve built a new birdhouse, but when you hang it in the tree and a bird lands on it, it flips over and scares the bird half to death. You’ve baked the perfect pie for the contest, but when the judge (or your family) tastes it, you see a certain look on their face of… Well, it didn’t look very…happy? Maybe you should have actually tested (tasted?) your creation before you applied for the patent or sent it to Good Housekeeping?
It’s the same with your book. When you finally write The End on the last page, you can rightfully sit back and take a break. Be proud. Caress it lovingly as it sits on the table. Just look at it for a day or a month, and think, I did it. I actually finished. However, despite the time and agony that’s gone into bringing the child to birth, the real struggle now begins.
When you suddenly discover that there’s a child going to appear in a few months, you know you’re going to go through some struggles and pain getting to the end. But, when that child is finally born, the pain is not over. It definitely is not. Now you’re going to discover that there are years and years of stuff that you’re going to have to go through to get this child from its beginnings to the time when you can nudge it out the door with some confidence that it will survive. It’s the same with your book.
After you’ve spent a little time recuperating from the birth of your baby, it’s time to pick up your pencil again (I know! I know!) and start:
This is the time you will pick up your manuscript (as the publishers will now call it) and tear it apart and re-do it. (Screams of agony are heard wafting through the ether.) But, it’s either you do it or they will. And it’s going to be hard enough getting a new work into a publisher’s hands even if it’s perfect, so your job now is to make it the absolutely best manuscript you possibly can—so that it will be looked at.
Publishers literally have thousands of manuscripts cross their desks—maybe even dozens and hundreds daily. Why are they going to look at yours? Did you know there are upward of 300,000 titles published each year now? That’s almost 30,000 titles per month. Did you also know that almost half of the population does not read any books at all? This despite the fact that in a general size bookstore there are anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 books on display and books are now in grocery stores, car washes and gas stations, on the Internet and in major book “stores” such as WalMart.com. Consumers will spend multiple billions of dollars purchasing books each year, yet the chances of any one book being purchased, especially a new one from a new author, are less than 3 out of 10,000.
This is the kind of competition you’re going up against, so are you prepared?
A publisher has fifty manuscripts come across his desk today. He sees one that is scruffy, on plain white paper, smudged, and with two typos and mis-spellings in the first paragraph. The one right under that has a soft, colored cover with the title in huge letters and a sub-title that seems to say this is an exciting story. It’s well typed in a font that is easily read and is on a soft, beige paper. Which one do you think he’s going to even begin to look at? Sorry. Facts of life in the book publishing world.
As he begin reeding, he find a dry story with looooong, rambeling, paragrahs, words mis-speled, and gramer, and punctation, that keeps him wundering what it meens, rather thn alowing him too simply reed the story. How long would you continue to read a story consisting of sentences like the last one? Yet, this is often the first introduction they have to our new works.
So, the first thing you are going to do (NOT a suggestion) is to get comfortable with a couple of red pencils at hand with all the time in the world available and READ your own manuscript. Brutally. Viciously. And from the printed page, not the computer screen.
Reading from the computer is all right for drafting your work and for quick proofing, but it does not allow you to view your work as a manuscript—a book. It’s usually too cramped. You don’t see a whole page at once. It has to keep moving for you to continue. You have to keep pushing buttons or pushing around a mouse to keep things going. And it doesn’t hold and feel like a book. Once you’ve actually finished the writing and have done some basic proofing and editing (spell and grammar checking), you need to invest in a ream of half-decent paper and print out the entire manuscript, preferably in “book format.”
I learned that the hard way and had corrections to make that at first I just did not catch. To me, book format is converting the normal “portrait” style printed page to a horizontal, or “landscape” view, then making it into two columns per page, and printing it out so when you hold it to read, it looks and feels like a book.
One more point that is a must before we go any further with this. If you’ve written your work by pen or pencil or have used an actual typewriter, is there any way you can get the whole thing converted to a computer and a decent word processing program? You’re going to want to go through your manuscript a number of times making corrections and changes, and on a computer this is simply not a problem. A manually written or typed manuscript is going to be a major negative from the very beginning because you already know how much work it’s going to take to make the corrections and do all the re-writing.
Borrow a computer, use the one at the library, have a friend enter it into a computer for you. Anything—but please, get it into an electronic format that will keep you from being afraid to work on it. With a computer, you can make a copy to start with and make all your changes initially on the copy. Save the original for your peace of mind. Even if you have to pay someone to “compute” your manuscript for you, it will be worth it's weight in gold when you have to start turning your manuscript into a book. If you have it in a computer and on a decent word processing program like Word or WordPerfect, when you want or need to check the spelling and grammar you just push a button and sit back to let it do its thing. And any changes or corrections you need to make are done in a nano-second and your whole manuscript is “fixed” without grief.
Please—get it on a computer. You won’t regret it.
At the end of Part 2, we were discussing Self-Editing, so let’s recap for a moment, then continue.
You were going to first, without a doubt, get your work onto a computer so you can zip back and forth without fear, making all the changes and corrections necessary. You will run the work through the computer spell and grammar checker a few times to make sure all the very obvious errors are removed. Then you are going to print out the entire work in “book format” (landscape view with two columns per page) so it looks, feels and reads like a book. Look back at Part 2 if you need to catch up on the Why for this.
Now, you sit down with the nasty red pencils and start tearing your work to pieces. And, if you want to make this the very best manuscript you can, with the idea of getting it printed in some format for friends, relatives and readers to enjoy, this has to be a brutal, vicious process.
This pile of paper you’re holding is your child, your baby, your work of love and heart and dreams. But you simply have to remember, in everything you do from now on, the phrase, “the very best you can make it.”You can’t be kind; you can’t be forgiving; you can’t be lax or sloppy. Because your publisher and your reading public will not be. They are going to see mis-spellings, poorly edited text, sentences that don’t work, book covers that are sloppy or have poor colors, and everything else that is a detraction—and they’re going to toss the work of your life into the No!pile and find something else.
You can keep that from happening. It’s called “the very best you can make it.”
Read Your Manuscript
The first step: Read all the way through your manuscript as if it was already a book using your red pencils to just make marks reminding you where to come back to. Don’t take the time to make all the corrections at this time, just mark them. Try to read through your book to get the “flow” of the work.
Does it read well? Do the sentences make sense? Is it dry, dull and boring? Does a paragraph or chapter start out exciting but end strained and dull? Do you see words and sentences that just don’t make sense? Do you change a character’s name from the first appearance to another? (I did this from Chapter 12 to Chapter 18 and back again in Chapter 46 and never realized it until the book was just about ready to go to print. Don’t ask!)
This first time through is just for you to get the feel of how the story flows and where there are obvious, major errors. You want to read straight through, without a lot of stops, just marking things with a big “X” or “?” or a simple word or phrase that will help you remember what the problem is. “Bad;” “re-do;” “dull;” “too long;” “confusing.” Short words and phrases like this will be reminders for you but will allow you to keep on reading without losing the flow of the work.
What’s the “flow?” Ask yourself, Does the story go where I want it? Does it wander and twist too much? Do the conversations make sense? Do your main characters stand out like they should or do they never really take the places in the story you wanted for them? Are you comfortable reading the story or is it a strain sometimes to follow what’s going on? (I started out trying to write with several international individuals in the story and had them speaking in a very correct, international manner, words and sentences that turned out to simply be hard to read, so I changed a lot of that back to much easier words and sentences.) When you get to the end of the story, do you look back and say, Yes! or do you feel that it just didn’t get there?
When you’ve finished a chapter, put the book down for a moment and think about how it felt. (It will be hard to re-read your 300-page book several times, but you MUST.) Was it dull or was it exciting? Did your point come through or did it feel kind of flat? Write your thoughts in a few words at the chapter end to remind you of how you felt about what you’ve read. If you have any question about how the story flows, read it out loud.
When we speak, we don’t usually say, “Hello, Mr. Smith. Is it not a beautiful day? For what reason are you pointing that shotgun at my midsection?” We would probably say, “Hi, Smitty. Nice day, huh? What’s with the gun?” When we read our text out loud, those kinds of differences will stand out. We hear much different than we read, so if there’s any question, read it out loud.
Now if you want your sentences to read like I noted, that’s fine, but do make sure they’re that way for a reason, not just because that’s the way they came out. Remember that someone is going to be trying to read your book, and if it’s too hard to follow, it will be dropped. (Pick up one of your old psychology textbooks and compare it to a James Patterson novel. Or, compare an old British who-done-it to a modern, fast-moving courtroom mystery. The old who-done-its are wonderful, but most people today are reading Grisham, not Agatha.)
I’ve read many novels where almost every time a character is mentioned, he is “John Jones,” over and over. “And when John Jones came into the room, John Jones caused a stir.” If you’ve already introduced the character, try to shorten every further mention of him. “John Jones” can become “John,” “Jones,” “he,” “him,” and so on. Again remember, we don’t usually speak that way, so why do we write that way?
Punctuation and Grammar
So, how many commas are enough? When do they become distracting? How do you make a break in someone’s conversation—with then a follow-on comment? Or how about someone’s conversation becoming interrupted… and then someone else jumping in? When do you capitalize titles, such as President Reagan, versus talking about the president? When do we use a versus an with attached words such as house or hour? Do you know there are actually rules of good English usage that should be followed—and do you know where you can find them?
There are major sources of these rules available to us as downloads through the Internet or as books we can get from our libraries or purchase from bookstores (or on-line.) Probably the classic used in most of the publishing industry is the Chicago Manual of Style (the latest edition), available at www.chicagomanualofstyle.org. You can get this in both book format and as a CD from places like Amazon.com, and you can subscribe to an on-line edition direct from the publisher. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (again, the latest edition), available in stores and at www.merriamwebster.com, should be on all of our desks as we write, or on our computers from an add-on CD. An old classic is Fowler’s Modern English Usage, available through bookstores and libraries, for those who want to really dig into the reasons why to use certain words or not (draft versus draught; the incorrect and over-use of very to describe the degree of things.) Also be sure you have a decent thesaurus at hand so you look up different words to use instead of using the same adjectives, etc., over and over.
There are many other “manuals of style” available and most of them have value. The point is, though, that there are proper ways of writing that have helped authors put out works that are thoroughly readable and that help keep our readers from becoming confused—and there are manuscripts that have had great potential but which have died before birth because of language and styles that have simply turned off both publishers and readers. (This, for instance, was a very long sentence that likely should have been broken for easier reading.) You’ve worked for years writing your dream novel and you don’t want it to be rejected simply because of words, phrases, punctuation and grammar that someone responsible for producing your book didn’t like.
This is NOT to say you cannot write the way you like. If you want to write with no capital letters like e e cummings, or if you want to write page-long sentences held together by intricate punctuation, that is certainly your right. If it’s your own style, then it is yours. However, will you be prepared when people challenge your work and/or it doesn’t sell because they don’t like the style and you don’t yet have the reading public that is waiting for your next creation no matter the style? If you are writing with at least some idea in mind of getting your work published and into the hands of some readers somewhere, then there are things that are going to help in that endeavor and things that are going to hurt. Having a style that is readable, and punctuation and grammar that helps rather than hinders, is going to go a long way to helping your work get published.
Remember what is generally a maxim in the publishing industry: Publishers are in business to make money and if they see a manuscript they think will be hard to sell to the public, it won’t get past their desk. Yes, there are some agents and publishers out there who will actually help you get your dream birthed, even though it may not meet their own preferences. Even on a first book. (If you find one, let me know.) But they are few and far between. Be sure your manuscript makes a GREAT first impression by being the very best you can make it.
Back to the point. No matter what you write or what your style, you owe it to yourself to make it “the very best you can make it.” Two ways to make that happen: 1) do spell and grammar checking several times, and 2) read your manuscript like a book with an unmerciful red pencil. And again. And again. Find those errors and distractions at your own desk before you even consider letting an agent or publisher get a shot at it. Make the changes. Re-write. Do it again. After you’ve gone through the manuscript marking the obvious errors, get to the computer (remember, you did get it into a computer, right?) and record all the fixes and changes there.
By the way, do you have the auto-save feature on your computer locked on (mine saves every thirty seconds), and do you manually save your work regularly? Do you regularly (like daily) save your work to a removable storage device that you can keep separate from your computer? You can buy plug-in, USB external hard-drives now, with 320 gigs of storage, for less than $100. What will happen if you are merrily going on, writing, correcting, proofing and fixing, and the computer decides to turn blue in the face and turn your work into irrecoverable garbage? Believe me, you will be looking for the hemlock. Your life will be ruined. SAVE YOUR WORK!!! (I just pushed my ‘save’ button.)
Now that you’ve made the first round of major changes and fixes, take a break. Put down the red pencils and turn off the computer and go away for a while. A day. A week. Clear your mind and think of something else. (Baskin-Robbins is calling!) You want to get your mind away from the changes you’ve just made and get back to thinking about your manuscript as a new work again. Let your mind and heart get away from the thought that you’ve just destroyed your work of years and begin thinking, “You know, I’ve got a wonderful manuscript just sitting there waiting for me to read it.” And it is. It’s still your baby, your creation—it’s just better now.
After you’ve given yourself some time away, it’s time for the next stage. Sit down with your manuscript in a comfortable place, with some different colored pencils, and do it again. Bright green pencils, or blue or purple; something that will contrast with your first go-through in red, and do it all again. (I know: I hear the screams from here. But believe me. I did it at least four times and found major changes each time. It will get better and better. And the pain will end.) In fact (and I know the cost of paper, etc.), print out your corrected, edited manuscript again so you have a fresh copy and do your re-read from that. It will be easier and you’ll have a better chance of making it “the very best you can make it.”
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