Feedback YOU can use to edit your manuscript

Before I get to the meat of this post, some good news: I’m almost done* with my last round of revisions. That’s right, my LAST* round!

I don’t want to say my manuscript will be complete by the end of the month, because we all know I never meet my self-imposed deadlines. I’m giving myself no deadline — I repeat, NO DEADLINE — for this last revision. But it’s moving even faster than I expected, probably because I love revising. Love it, love it, LOVE IT! Everything’s there, and all I have to do is make it better.

Anyhow. What’d you come here for? Oh yes, feedback YOU can use. The five awesome people who read my book had great suggestions for improvement, and as I’ve implemented their advice, I’ve realized that these ideas might help YOU, too. This constructive criticism is general enough and important enough that it could probably apply to your manuscript. So as you’re editing, keep these suggestions in mind.

Here’s what my readers suggested:

Add more ME. More reflection, more introspection. More analysis rather than simple reporting, as we’d say in the news biz. This was my favorite feedback, because I think I’d held back on this without even realizing it. Yes, I put lots of my own ideas and reflection in the manuscript — that’s what a memoir is about — but I needed someone to tell me that it worked. I worried the reader wouldn’t care or would get bored if I related too many things to my own life. But my guinea pig readers said — unanimously — that these were their favorite parts of the book. So I’m adding more! More of those embarrassing moments we all love to read about but hate to reveal. More me.

Make sure the tone of the beginning of the book matches the rest. This sounds obvious, but it’s something I struggled with for a while, letting my voice shine in the first two chapters. Why? Because I was trying too hard. Because I know how important the beginning of the book is to hook the reader, the agent, the publisher. As a result, the tone of my first two chapters didn’t match the rest of the book. It wasn’t as funny or as conversational. It needed more of what I wrote about above: more me.

Strengthen your themes. The first section of my book jumps around a lot in terms of location, since I’m backpacking through a lot of countries. One way to make it feel more linear is to strengthen my themes, to tie it all together with my “follow your dream”‘ mantra. So I’m beefing that up.

Set up your triumphs. There are a few scenes in the manuscript where I overcome something big. (Hey, if I give you all the details, you won’t buy the book!) My readers loved these parts. But if the scenes were set up better, they said, they’d be even more powerful. How do I do that? Again, it comes back to the more me suggestion. The better the reader feels like they know me, they more they’ll understand and relate to those triumphs.

Make sure your dialogue is conversational. Some of my dialogue, particularly at the beginning of the book, sounded like I was trying too hard to convey information. Fixing this gave me a chance to nix some unnecessary dialogue tags, too, which is so therapeutic.

Cut the boring parts. I’ve said this before, so it’s not new to me. Cutting and trimming makes every manuscript better! And yet, there were a few parts I had left in because I wasn’t sure whether to take them out. Turns out if you think you think a certain part might be choppable (yes, I’m inventing the word “choppable” here), it probably is.

Hopefully these suggestions will help you as much as they’ve helped me!

*Last round until I seek out a literary agent. Done as in the best I can make it. We all know an agent and publisher will probably want me to revise more.

Word count update

I don’t usually post word counts, but several friends have asked recently how long my book will be.

I just finished revising (and cutting) Parts I and II, and together they’re nearly 70,000 words. That’s 224 manuscript pages, double-spaced in Microsoft Word, Times New Roman font.

Ideally, I’d like the manuscript to come in at 85,000 words. (Why? Because to be published, my book needs to be about the same length as most travel memoirs already on store shelves.) More realistically, I’ll keep it under 90,000.

That means Part III has gotta be a shortie. It is shorter than the first two sections, but this updated word count will inspire me to cut even more.


All I want for Christmas…

… is to finish revising!

Between now and the New Year, I’ve got a lot going on. Not only will I be spending time with family and friends, next week also is the last week before my self-imposed revision deadline. That’s right: by January 1, I’m hoping to finish revising my book.

So rather than blog during the last week of December — when few of you will read blogs anyhow — I’m going to focus on my book. That means no posts until 2010.

See you then! And for now… HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Why you should reveal embarrassing details in memoir

Now that I’m revising my travel memoir, I spend a lot of time looking at scenes and paragraphs that make me uncomfortable and asking myself: should I really include this?

That’s because in my first draft, I included everything. I included details that were embarrassing, that I wouldn’t even want my mother to read. I was able to do this because no one was going to read them. It was my only first draft.

But now I’m preparing to share my manuscript with five fabulous friends who have offered to serve as guinea pig readers. Now, if I leave those embarrassing pieces where they are, other people will read them.

And so I’m having a little bit of a panic attack. Every once in a while, I’ll send a paragraph to my best friend from journalism school or my critique partner and ask, “Are you sure I should include this? The reader is not going to think I’m totally lame? You’re absolutely positive you’re laughing with me and not at me?”

This morning, in response to one of my e-mail panics, critique partner Peggy wrote this response. Another reason why she’s awesome:

I know that revealing something so personal makes you uncomfortable, but small things like that help make the reader LIKE you even more. They don’t want to read about a superwoman, they want someone real, with flaws and quirks. That is one of the first things you learn when writing fiction, to give your main character a flaw. Nothing too horrible, of course, but why do you think Hugo gave Quasimodo a hump?

Good for you to be willing to be open. You will be happy you did.

I know she’s right. Nothing that I’m writing about is “too horrible.” When you read the book, you might even pass over those parts without realizing they were embarrassing for me to reveal. But to me, exposing my personal feelings and habits is horrifying. Scary. So scary, in fact, that I vow not to think about it for the rest of the day after I finish this blog post.

But I will tell you this: I have not removed a single embarrassing paragraph. Not one. Why? Because they make the book interesting, and as Peggy pointed out, they’ll help the reader like me.

You’d better not laugh at me when you read this book.

A new deadline

Now that I’ve finished a draft of my book, I need a new deadline.

Or maybe I should call it a goal. Deadlines, in my mind, aren’t flexible, which is both a blessing and a curse. Missing deadlines makes me feel guilty — I am a journalist, after all — and I rarely meet the self-imposed deadlines I’ve set for writing this memoir. Since this is my first book, I never know how long writing a scene or a chapter or a section will take me, and each one tends to take longer than I guess.

Which brings me back to my original point. I need a deadline for revision. When should I expect to be done?

I’d prefer to set a goal that’s too soon rather than too late. And there’s a date that’s coming up I can’t pass up: January 1. The first day of 2010! That gives me four weeks, which seems reasonable considering I’m already partway through this process because I edited and revised as I wrote the first draft.

Of course, finishing this revision isn’t the end of the road. Once I’m happy with the book, I plan to hand it over to a few friends, writer and editor types, who have offered to read it from beginning to end. Based on their suggestions, I’ll revise again.

And then, my friends, the book will be done.

UPDATE: As a few readers pointed out in the comments, I mean done as in ready to submit to literary agents. If that pans out, I’ll have more revisions ahead of me.

Cutting mercilessly — and enjoying it

You know what’s amazing? Suddenly, now that I’m officially in the revision stage, it feels good to cut words, scenes, even entire chapters from my book.

Months ago, I lamented doing away with pieces of this travel memoir I had worked hard to create. But now that I’ve declared it my task to cut everything that’s unnecessary, doing so feels… freeing.

Maybe it’s because I know these cuts are improving my book. Or because these revisions represent a light at the end of the tunnel. Whatever the reason, I’m enjoying it!

Anybody else enjoying cutting and trimming?

This is cause for celebration…

I finished a draft of my book!

That’s right, I’ve written through the entire manuscript. It feels like a huge accomplishment. I’m ready to move onto the next stage: revision.

Actually, I’m already well into the revision process. I’ve edited 16 of my 33 chapters. At least one critique partner has read through them, and I’ve made changes based on their suggestions.

I realize this goes against conventional wisdom about writing an entire draft before revising. But revising along the way worked for me. And one of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far about writing a book is that I have to do what works for me, even if it doesn’t follow conventional wisdom.

What do I hope to accomplish during my revision stage?

Cut & Trim. My manuscript comes in at about 100,000 words. I want to get it down to 85,000 – 90,000, a length that will appeal to literary agents and publishing houses. That means I’ll be tossing out chapters and scenes I spent time and energy writing. But cutting is about more than losing words. Tightening my manuscript, getting rid of scenes I don’t really need, will improve the story.

Decide on a beginning. Several of my readers made a similar suggestion about the beginning of my book, that I may want to start differently. I’m going to give it a whirl and see whether that works better.

Consider the chapters all together. I’ve edited half my chapters, so I believe each works separately. But once I finish revising the rest of my pieces, it’ll be time to look at all thirty or so chapters together and see how they work as one unit.

Improve transitions. Several chapters could transition more smoothly. I’ll examine the beginnings and endings of each chapter, making changes where necessary, to make sure chapter breaks are seamless.

Reconsider all embarrassing scenes. During my first draft, I revealed everything about myself that would make the story interesting, knowing I could always delete those embarrassing scenes later. Now it’s time to decide whether I really want to include each one in the book. Am I comfortable with letting readers know all these personal details? In many ways, those embarrassing tidbits are what make my memoir interesting.

What do you focus on during your revision process?

Should you hire an editor for your manuscript?

As I inch closer to finishing a draft of my travel memoir, I’ve been thinking about whether I should eventually hire an editor.

Some first-time authors do so to make their work its very best before submitting to a literary agent. A few published authors have suggested I hire someone because sometimes literary agents and editors at publishing houses don’t spent a lot of time editing. Of course, plenty of them put lots of effort into editing manuscripts. But since I don’t know yet who I’ll be working with, I don’t have a clue how much they’ll edit my book.

The truth is, everybody could benefit from an independent editor, so long as you hire a good one. Don’t tell me you already know how to write, so you don’t need an editor. Even the best writers need editors! After working at a newspaper, I’m a big believer in not getting attached to your work — or at least the way you’ve worded it — and letting editors help you improve each piece. That’s how we get better, with fresh eyes and feedback.

But hiring an editor costs money — here’s a list of rates from the Editorial Freelancers Association — and since I left my day job a year and a half ago, I’m all about saving pennies. So instead of asking myself whether I want an extra editor, I’m asking myself whether I need one.

In some ways, I think a quality critique group can stand in for an initial editor, especially if the writer is looking for content, development and thematic suggestions. I’ve worked with a small group for months, and they’ve critiqued about a quarter of my chapters. But at some point, I’ll need someone to read my entire manuscript from start to finish, making sure it works as a unit. That’s a lot of work for my critique partners, even if I offer my services in return.

So. Should you hire an editor? Check out posts by literary agent Nathan Bransford and blogger Editorial Ass on the topic. And if you do decide to hire one, heed this advice by editor Alan Rinzler about what to look for in a freelance editor.

What do y’all think? Is it worth hiring an independent editor? What should writers consider when heming and hawing over this one?