So I started poking at the Thing With The Goblins yesterday, and realized a couple of important facts.
I’m proud of it.
People who liked Digger may like it.
It’s a novella at best.
It’s never gonna be middle grade or YA or anything like that, which is the only way that 40+K novella gets to be a normal book.
This makes it about as marketable as ringworm in the usual markets. Novellas are just not a great length to work with.
My agent loves it. She’s tried to sell it a couple of times to all kinds of different places, and there is just plain no home for it (barring that moment when I am so wildly famous that people will fight to publish anything I write, which is likely a fictional boundary.)
So, with her blessing, gonna try to self-publish it.
As I’ve said before, self-publishing is awesome at the stuff that self-publishing is awesome at. A small weird story with a small weird audience strikes me as the sort of thing that it’s likely to be awesome at…and while I grit my teeth and whimper at the work involved in Actually Doing All That Pre-Press Crap Myself…at least at the end of it, I’ll be able to talk more sensibly about the process than I do from the “Well, I had this webcomic…” front.
A few notes, before you ask!
1. No release date as yet. Believe me, you’ll know. *grin*
2. Please hold all “Does this mean we’ll see X now?!” questions until the end. I am thrilled that y’all have stories you want to see finished. That’s enormously gratifying as an author. But I have a very very very good career in trade publishing, and it’s the market I default to. And also I may get to the end of the goblin thing and go “Oh god! No! Never again!” We’ll see how hard it is to do right.
3. No, there will not be a Kickstarter. We just took a lot of money in for the Digger omnibus. I’m not asking anybody for money for anything until every single one of those books gets delivered, and that includes Santa Claus.
4. Probably 2.99, maybe 3.99. It’s a novella, after all.
5. Smashwords and Amazon.
6. It will be under a pseudonym. This is purely because “Ursula Vernon” is now known, to over a hundred thousand kids, as a children’s book author, and there’s a real tendency to just buy anything that comes out and assume it will be children’s book stuff. I’ll start censoring myself just in case, and that’s the road to a crappy book.
Plus it’s no bad thing to have a secondary name out there. It’ll be easy to find out that it’s me, it’ll be all over my various sites, it’s not a JK Rowling thing, but it’ll hopefully be a handy genre separation thing. I’m leaning toward something like “T. Kingfisher” that is so obviously a pseudonym that nobody thinks twice about it. (My buddy Mur suggests “T. Supervolcano.” The T stands for “The.” We may have been drunk.)
7. This will be e-book only. Mucking around with print volumes is more trouble than I personally can bear.
8. It will not be illustrated. I illustrate a LOT of books, and I’ll be honest, the joy is harder and harder to find. Given the chance to not illustrate something, I’m inclined to go “Oh god, yes!”
Anyway! So that’s what’s going on here. I’m excited, with a healthy dose of “Oh god, now I finally have to figure out layouts…”
(If anyone has any links to good tutorials on manuscript layout for e-book format, let me know!
My editor calls and I say, with much apologizing. “Did you get my e-mail? There’s a lot of art in this Dragonbreath—more than usual—and I might need an extension to November first.”
EDITOR: But…wait…your deadline was November 1st.
ME: It was?
ME: …oh. Well, never mind then.
EDITOR: You are the only person who asks for an extension so that they can meet their actual deadline.
(The sad truth of publishing—at least for me, and with a series this size—is that half the time you blow through the contract deadline before they’ve even signed the contract and then they set the REAL deadline and then you forget what it was because you’re working on the book before it and so there’s vague emails now and again setting new deadlines, mostly involving when the catalogs come out. This may be wildly different for people who don’t put out two books a year in a series sold three years in advance, mind you.)
Ladies and Gentlemen, marsupials of all descriptions–WE HAVE LIFT-OFF!
We got goals. We got stretch goals. We got art. We got—are you ready? Commemorative hand-forged pickaxes.
(Also foam pickaxes.)
We have video. WE HAVE A KICKSTARTER.
(And I am terrified. Utterly terrified. I have never done anything like this before. Sofawolf is running the whole thing and I’m kinda freaked out and what if it doesn’t fund and it turns out people don’t really love me and what if it does and it way overfunds and that would be awesome except we have to commission eight hundred pickaxes and the guy making them quits in disgust and I have to learn blacksmithing to fill the orders and I set myself on fire and then I’ll be horribly burned and I’ll have to wear a Phantom of the Opera mask and we still won’t have the pickaxes and the beagle will bay hysterically when he sees me and small children will run away and my career as a children’s book author will be over as a result and OH MY GOD PEOPLE PLEASE GIVE US MONEY BUT NOT SO MUCH THAT I HAVE TO LEARN BLACKSMITHING BECAUSE I THINK THAT WILL END BADLY.)
So, uh, yeah. Check it out. I think it’s cool.
(I’m scared. Hold me, internet. But not in a creepy way.)
UPDATE: Tuesday Morning
Holy crap you guys. Holy crap. We’re like 5/6ths of the way funded overnight. Dude.
I sorta feel like that E. Nesbit line—“There are two great powers on our side, the power of love and the power of mathematics. Those two are stronger than anything in the world.”
I…dude. Thank you.
Well, the title more or less says it all, but let me say it again.
We want to do an omnibus edition of Digger. You guys asked (repeatedly!) and we think it’s a great idea!
The downside (and the reason we haven’t done it already) is that hardcover omnibuseseses require a big chunk of cash up front—we’re talking a big print job here, on the order of the Bone omnibus edition, and that does not run cheap. (Plus, of course, while people keep asking, we’re talking a spendy beast here and we want to make sure there’s enough interest to justify doing it!) Plus, if we get a LOT of interest, we can do all kinds of neat extras, like color inserts and cover embossing and extra stories and giant wombat balloons in the Macy’s Day Parade!*
So, in a couple of weeks, we’ll be Kickstartering! And we will have all kinds of neat goodies for sponsors (postcards! pins! pickaxes!) and also all kinds of mildly absurd goodies for sponsors (I believe at one level, I name a tree in the yard after you and put a little plaque with your name on it…) so watch this space for more information! You’ll be the first to know!
(Also, hey, Digger got nominated for the Mythopoeic Award, which is neat, too!)
*One of these things is a bald-faced lie.
Sometimes you sit with your fingers over the keyboard, and you KNOW somebody’s gonna get mad at you.
Ideas are like potatoes. No matter how many ways you turn your idea around, looking for the best possible angle, it’s got lumps and somebody out there wanted cauliflower.
I’m gonna talk about self-publishing for a bit. And webcomics. Because, as my dear buddy Otter wrote yesterday, the parallels are so damn obvious that I feel like an idiot for not having seen it a mile off.
There are a lot of rational people on the internet. There are also a lot of zealots. And if you say anything about self-publishing that is not “Oh my god you guys, this is totally the way to fame and success!” there is a tendency for those rational voices to be drowned out in the howling for blood.
(Chuck Wendig did a post a week or so back about this, where he said, in essence, “There is no one true way. Research and make the choice that’s best for you.” Only on the internet would this be a controversial statement that people would argue with. If he’d managed to tie in breastfeeding somehow, the servers would have actually caught fire.)
Nevertheless, here I go.
Y’all remember webcomics?
Sure you do. They were comics! On the web! Usually free! People invented all kinds of ways to try to make money off them, some of which worked (merchandising) some of which didn’t work so well (pay walls) some of which worked in certain specific circumstances (ads.)
I’m sure you remember it. Every major news outlet in the world ran an article at some point saying “Oh my god, they have comics on the web now!” usually in tandem with “Oh my god, did you people know that they have comics that AREN’T FOR KIDS!?” and then people’s heads exploded. (My comic was actually mentioned in one of those articles, which happened to be in the New York Times. My mother wanted me to get their quote tattooed on my forehead.)
If you happened to be involved in the webcomic world around six or seven years ago (as I was) you saw great optimism. We cherished our great success stories—PA, Kurtz, all the people who quit their jobs. “Hey, the S*P guy said “If you want the comic on time, pay me enough to quit my job, and his fans DID!” We sneered at Marvel as a dinosaur that would die under its own crushing lack of innovation (and then cheered whenever a webcomic got a big publishing deal, because…um…people are complicated.) We told ourselves that traditional comics were scared of us. We relished the fact that newspaper comic pages were going under (even as we felt very very bad for the very nice people who had their comics in newspapers) because WE weren’t with them, and WE were the wave of the future and soon everyone would realize that it was a BOLD NEW WORLD and any webcomic could succeed and it didn’t have to be about superheroes, and we found our niches and our fans.
We told people who wanted to do comics for a living, professionally, that the best thing they could do would be to do a webcomic. That it would be advertising for their talents. That it would get their stuff out there.
About once a nanosecond, somebody showed up on a webcomics board and said “My comic’s been up for six weeks, I’m not making any money, what gives?”
And then someone would have The Talk about fan bases and advertising and taking time and quality products and getting yourself out there. And that person would either quit in disgust or they would knuckle down and do the work. We would discuss guest comics on other comics as method of advertising. We would talk about whether it was worth it to buy ads. (We would talk about whether it was worth it to sell ads, for that matter.)
We had review bloggers. They were, briefly, rock-stars, and then people rebelled about who-died-and-gave-you-the-right-to-gatekeep and fans engaged in character assassination because of What They Said About Our Charlene’s Comic What Is On The Internet and it all eventually found its own equilibrium.
We had flame wars. Oh, the memory of those flame wars is glorious. I could toast marshmallows over the embers of replies to anything Scott Kurtz ever said.
And every forum was full of signatures with big, hopeful .gifs and people ended every sentence with “CHECK OUT MY WEBCOMIC!” And we had to have The Talk about how we do not make forum posts just to plug ourselves because that is cheap.
Is this starting to sound familiar to anybody? Maybe just a tad?
It was a smaller scale. There have never been as many comics as books—probably because throughout history, fewer people have believed they could draw. But it was the same world.
This is not me slamming self-publishing. Are you kidding? I was one of those webcomics people! I have a rocket ship on my mantlepiece and an Eisner nomination and a nonexistent tattoo of the New York Times quote because of my webcomic, which quite frankly makes me one of the teeny tiny upper percentage in terms of critical recognition in a webcomic. (Seriously, I think I’m behind Girl Genius and…uh…apologizing to Howard Taylor a lot…) I am a huge raving success story about the power of putting a comic on the web with no gatekeeper and no editor and a complete inability to spell the word “separate” correctly on the first try. The day may come, if I can hack the work (and it won’t be for a long time, so don’t get excited) when I may do another webcomic, because webcomics are glorious.
It was a brave new world. It was the Wild West. It was awesome.
I should also mention that I have made, in total, probably around $20K from Digger. Spread over nine years. And for a webcomic, that’s considered pretty damn fine commercial success (and it’s worth noting that probably 90% of that is because a rockin’ little small press named Sofawolf did print versions. They did all the work, and I love them for it forever. I am frankly sort of amused that people are making a big deal out of the fact that there’s a self-published thing on this year’s Hugo ballot, because they were nominating Digger as a self-published work. I had to ask specifically that Sofawolf’s name go on the ballot with mine, because they do a damn fine job and they deserved to be there too.)
Once we settled the Wild West and put in railroads and people stopped dying of dysentery, it turned out that webcomics looked pretty much like everything else.
A couple of people made a LOT of money.
A lot of people made a little money.
Most people made almost no money.
I repeat, is this starting to sound familiar to anybody?
This is not me slamming on self-publishing. I would have self-published Digger if Sofawolf hadn’t stepped up. I have many friends who self-publish comic collections, books, all kinds of things. Many of them do very good work.
None of them are rich from it.
If the day comes when I have a book I love (and it will come) and my agent cannot sell it (too weird, wrong brand, whatever) then I will self-publish it. And I will try very hard to do good work.
And I will not get rich from it.
And that’s okay.
There are fewer webcomics now. The hyperbole has died down. People still try, and fail, and get grumpy and quit. The big names are mostly still big. It is still possible to get a decently good following and, if you work your ass off, either make a living from it or make enough to supplement your day job pretty nicely.
Is this starting to sound…oh, never mind. You get the point by now or you don’t, and you agree with me or you don’t.
But it wasn’t the road to glory and free money for everyone who could put a word bubble over a stick-figure And the secret to success WAS putting stuff out there, as it turns out—but it was also putting GOOD stuff out there, not firing a shotgun of crap at the wall and hoping something stuck. And you had to be consistent and reliable and do something special and not just try to be the next Penny Arcade/Kurtz/whatever.
And your art had to not suck and your writing REALLY had to not suck, or people ignored you. You couldn’t say “Real fans will read it and not care about your super-Nazi grammar and format issues!” because as it turned out, they wouldn’t. (I stopped reading multiple things because the comic artist would cram words right up to the edge of the word balloon and it made my eyes hurt.)
Anyone who tells you that they know the future is lying. But I’ll give you my best guess, if you want it, and it’s worth exactly what you’re paying for it. If you don’t like it, ignore it. It doesn’t actually make a difference to me, or frankly, to the future.
In a couple of years, the self-publishing hyperbole will die down. People who got excited and then disappointed by their lack of instant success will go on to the next thing. Some people will knuckle down and do the work. Some people will figure out how to make a living or to supplement their day job pretty nicely.
And a couple of people will make a LOT of money.
And a lot of people will make a little money.
And most people will make almost no money.
And the song will remain the same.
So Penguin and Random House are merging, as some of you may have heard on the various news fronts.
Now, I’m a Penguin author. The Dragonbreath books, as well as Bread Wizard and Hamster Princess, are all through Dial, which is an imprint of Penguin. I love my editor, I love my art director, I got quite a nice note from the president of Dial when I won the Hugo. They’ve been good to me.
I have, it must also be said, been good to them. Dragonbreath, as a series, has sold in the neighborhood of half a million books, and while an illustrated book costs a lot more to put out than solid text, they’re still not losing money on me.
They’ve sent out letters to the authors and agents that basically all say “In this day and age, it’s a good idea to combine forces, this will have no effect on contracts, and the various imprints will continue without interference.” Given that, and the above, it’s unlikely the merger will actually affect me much.
My big concern is if imprints get folded together and staff eliminated, which might result in my losing my editor, in which case I will wail and gnash my teeth (that’s part of what happened to Nurk, back in the day, when Harcourt-Brace got bought right as it was in the pipes.) But at the moment, they’re saying that won’t happen.
All of this is infinitely better than what could have happened if NewsCorp had actually made a successful bid (which they attempted.) I would be VERY worried then.
Obviously anything can still happen, but at the moment my concern is all the knee-jerk “But I don’t LIKE change!” rather than any specific concerns, so…we’ll see how it goes.
(As for the statement that’s been going around that this will make them more competitive in dealing with authors—as opposed to Amazon, which I expect is the real cause–I say, feh. They’ve always treated me quite well, and furthermore, my agent is a starving wolf with good hair. I’m not worried.)
So Andre Norton’s back catalog seems to be mostly out in digital form these days—really out, and not in the shady iBook editions that had me going “I kinda wonder what’s up with that.” And while I re-read The Crystal Gryphon approximately eleventy million times as a pre-teen, I had not read most of the other Witch World books. (I think I remember “Gate of the Cat” vaguely.) So I picked up a couple in the High Hallack series (that being where Crystal Gryphon fits in) and started with Year of the Unicorn, which is supposed to be the first one and which I had to actually order in paperback.
I think I might have read this before. Did not remember the entire second half, but parts of it sound really really really familiar, and furthermore, there is a long ago piece of writing (now lost, owing to the great kindness of the gods of teenage writing) that I did that sure reads as if I had just read the first half of this book and gone OH MY GOD, YES! and went and wrote something with arranged marriages and magic and werewolves.
(Tangentially, arranged marriages are catnip to a significant subsection of pre-teen girls, a fact that I have been aware of for quite some time—possibly since I was one—and yet which I hardly ever see remarked upon. My stab in the dark would be that they are the socially acceptable intersection of rape fantasies and true luuuuv and since most of us haven’t got the sense god gave an avocado at that point, it hits a whole lot of buttons. We could also make a case for It Totally Looks Like Sex But Marriage Is Involved So It’s Okay, for those of us who had Good Christian Upbringing.* Other theories actively solicited.)
Ahem. Anyway! To continue, though, what I found myself thinking reading Year of the Unicorn was “Hoo, boy, you couldn’t publish this now if you stuck a twenty between every page.”
Well, it’s been just shy of fifty years since it came out. The language shift, though, is dramatic. I can’t think of anybody writing today who sounds like that—McKillip and Nancy Springer, maybe, and I haven’t read either of them recently, so I won’t swear that it’s still similar. Early Dennis McKiernan, before he got better at filing off serial numbers.
I’m not saying it’s bad, just that it’s much more stiff and formal writing than anything I’ve seen on a shelf in a very long time. I’m no editor, so maybe there’s somebody out there wishing that they’d get this style of prose in the slush pile—or possibly there’s a thriving vein of it, and I’m wandering past it going “La la la—ooh, bunnies!” But if it’s there, I am in ignorance.
Even Brust’s Phoenix Guards doesn’t bear a significant resemblance—it’s too sly. There is no slyness here, it’s all very sincere and straightforward and there are some really marvelous set pieces (and a couple other bits where I would have gone “Oh, for god’s sake, get thee to an editor, I’ll give you two out of body experiences but now you’re just wallowing,” but we could say that about anybody’s work, and the woman’s career spanned seventy goddamn years, so it would be unkind to nitpick at a novel closer to the beginning than the end.)
Obviously tones change, languages change, what publishing wants changes. But I find it surprising, re-reading, that things changed so much since then.
(There’s also a compelling argument to be made on re-reading that by the way, the Were-Riders have enchanted a dozen women who were, arguably sold into slavery unwillingly by their male relatives and are keeping them in a weird brainwashed illusion for the purposes of gettin’ lucky, and y’all just rode off and left after proving that the Were-Riders Really Kind Of Suck As People and never stopped and said “Does anybody think that’s creepy? I kinda think that’s creepy,” but maybe that’s covered in a sequel.)
I’m curious to see whether or not Crystal Gryphon holds up. It’s still got arranged marriages and my inner pre-teen totally had a thing for Kerovan, so, y’know, we’ll find out.
*Not that I can recall actually spending one iota of time being appalled at anyone in a book having sex outside of marriage, which is why I question this one’s utility. Mind you, my soul was a glass mountain and Christianity never made it more than a few feet up the side.
So I just got off the phone from a conference call with my agent and somebody else’s agent (you know their stuff) and we discussed the possibility of various options for Dragonbreath, none of which I am going to talk about now, and would ask that y’all refrain from speculation, since I can’t say anything, and in the way of all things, even if somebody DID option it for something, odds are good I would get a nice little check and then Absolutely Nothing Would Happen, and then maybe sometime in the future someone else would be interested and if lucky, I would get a nice little check again.
Such is the dance of options.
I have been on con calls before where the subject under discussion was Digger, or was a story I hadn’t even written yet and I was basically just brainstorming for hire (none of which led to anything with that particular client, but one of which ideas became Bread Wizard, so hey, nothing is ever wasted.) Nothing has ever come of it, but hey, nothing ever comes of these things ’til it does, so you gotta keep taking the calls.
So I listen and occasionally I make an appreciative noise or ask a question.* They talk about budgets and merchandising and quote numbers that would set me up for life if anything actually happened (which it almost certainly won’t.) I make more appreciative noises, because this is sort of like telling me how high the lottery jackpot is today–yes, that IS a great deal of money, but the odds of me taking it home are nearly non-existent, so I don’t get excited.
But it comes home to me now and again that This Is Not My World.
OTHER AGENT: If you’re in front of the computer right now, you can look up this company…
ME: Helen, you’re gonna have to google that, I’m pulling weeds.
MY AGENT: (starts laughing.)
OTHER AGENT: …you’re WHAT?
ME: Pulling weeds. Uh, it’s not that I’m not taking you seriously, I swear, but I only get good reception out in front of the house, and then I’m right there and there are these weeds…
MY AGENT: (still laughing) See? Makes…total…(ahaha)…sense…
OTHER AGENT: (plaintively) …I have never had anyone say that to me on a con call before.
He seemed nice.
*Everyone is very kind and answers these questions as if they are not deeply inane or betraying a total ignorance of the industry in question. I am plagued, not by the feeling that I am asking stupid questions—I long ago stopped worrying about THAT—but by the feeling that I don’t know which questions I SHOULD be asking. My agent asks the important ones, or hires the people who then ask the important ones. This is why agents are lovely.
Enough people made vaguely interested noises in the editing process that I thought I’d talk about it a bit. It’s definitely the tedious, grim, discouraging bit of the process, but it occurs to me that you, O Prospective Author, may find it even more traumatic if nobody tells you what to expect!
First, two caveats. I’ve had…I think…twelve books edited at this point, and that’s awesome, but the vast screaming majority were Dragonbreath books, and as editing goes, that’s a walk in the park with singing and dancing and happy bunnies frolicking in the grass. Only two or three required actual serious story-construction editing, where I had to grab whole scenes and shove them somewhere else, and my editor said things like “I don’t know–this bit just isn’t working here.” In 15K, you have to get everything done RIGHT NOW, and there is not much time for subtlety. This makes them tougher to write, in some regards, but it also means that I can edit most of them in an evening. (I believe I once edited one in an hour, at about 3 AM when I couldn’t sleep.)
This is not what happens with novels. It is not what happened with Nurk, although that was certainly a very short book, and not what happened with Black Dogs and not what is happening with Bread Wizard, which is the book that lies before me, quivering, with its delicate little organ meats splayed out on the slab. (Seriously, this is kinda what it feels like. Editing is like major surgery. On both you AND the book.)
Second caveat—I would love to hear from some other authors on their experience. This is JUST what’s happened to me, and may not be universal by any stretch. You’re talking to someone who’s first book sale (Black Dogs) was less than a decade ago, and I’ve only ever been with three presses, one small, two large. I simply haven’t been around long enough to say “This, here, is universal.” So take everything with a grain of salt.
The process starts when I get a note from my editor saying “Here’s the edits!” Generally there are two documents attached, or one document and the body of the e-mail, or one document and a long phone call, or whatever. This is gonna vary from house to house and from editor to editor. One is the Broad Overview and one is your manuscript covered in red ink (although in this day and age, it is most likely a Word .doc with little comments attached to the sidebar.)
The Broad Overview usually starts out with praise. I don’t know if I’m just lucky and have very nice editors, or if they all do this so that when you open the attachment, with your heart in your mouth, going “Did they LIKE it?!” you don’t immediately burst into tears. I’ve had three different editors—four if you count the tag-team of Sofawolf on Black Dogs—and they all started by saying something nice. Bread Wizard’s praise is sufficiently effusive that I would be embarrassed to recreate it here.
Then…we get to the important bits. (I’m just going to quote this bit, and hope my editor won’t mind. She does a sterling job, and I don’t think that this is vital proprietary information.) “So, I think this is an incredible first draft, and from here I’d love to see you really dig back in and build upon this world you’ve created, to raise the stakes by helping the reader understand them better, add more emotion and heart and kids, and pick up the pace of the middle section.”
This is, you might agree, a tall order. Deciphering exactly what some of that means would be difficult in and of itself, (“heart?” What is “heart“?!) but if you have a good editor, they are absolutely clear and will talk until you both know exactly what’s expected, which is why the Broad Overview in this case goes on for six densely typed pages, and addresses each specific issue, and by the end of it, I know exactly what she’s talking about, and have been grudgingly forced to agree.
While I don’t want to add spoilers for the book, some of the issues include:
1) Needs more world-building. It’s not clear how many wizards there are, why our heroine is suddenly the last one, how rare they actually are, and what sort of consequences there are for various actions. Since it’s a fantasy world, more needs to be done so that the readers can get their bearings.
2) The villain’s motives are unclear. We need more about the relationship between villain and the ruler of the city, which ties back into the world-building. There isn’t a clear enough sense of what’s at stake.
3) The heroine is likeable, but could stand to be a little warmer—she comes off as unintentionally aloof.
4) We’re getting on the high-side of a middle-grade novel, edging into YA, and it would be nice to add more kids to the mix, insomuch as it’s possible, to help yank it back.
5) We don’t get a good sense of how the heroine’s magical powers develop as the story goes on–for all we know, she’s just as powerful at the beginning as she is at the end–and she doesn’t spend enough time on-screen experimenting with her powers. There’s room for some really spectacular failures. Let’s see ’em!
6) The middle is slow.
7) And a couple more things that are so specific that I can’t get into them without spoilers.
Let me state unequivocally that every single one of these points is both accurate and justified and if I fix them, it will make a better book. The simple fact is that if your editor doesn’t get something, the odds are good that your reader won’t get it either, and you will be left looking like either an idiot or a bad writer. I believe with every fiber of my being that my editor is right on every single point she mentions, and also the notion of how much work this is going to entail kinda makes me want to slit my wrists. I close the file for the night and go drink heavily.
But the human brain is a marvelous organ, even when slightly pickled, and by the time I open the e-mail again in the morning, I am full of ideas about how to Make This Happen. That one scullery maid can become a named character, that’s another kid in the mix, and we can shore up the saggy middle with some wild and hopefully hilarious magical experiments to make it feel like the heroine’s powers have been earned. Sort of a training montage with croissants. Yes. I can do this. I dash off a note to my editor thanking her for the edits, telling her that I think it’s doable, possibly seeking clarification on an issue or two (as needed) and mentioning a couple of my ideas to see if she agrees with them before I pour twenty man hours into fleshing out a character she wanted to cut entirely, or something equally tragic.
Then I go down to the coffee shop—“Hey, Ursula? The usual?” “You’re so good to me.” “Well, you keep funneling money through here like a Colombian drug lord…”—and settle in to my dark corner with the painting of Titania and Bottom staring over my shoulder, plug my laptop in next to the toaster oven, and call up my manuscript with edits. The screen fills up with text, and on the right-hand side, little multi-colored word bubbles indicating word changes, rogue comma executions, and comments.
There are a great many word bubbles on the first page. My heart sinks again.
This is not, I hasten to add, copy-editing. Copy-editing happens much later. There’s no point in copy-editing a manuscript if you’re going to change large swaths of it—it’ll only have to be done over again. My editor may catch the occasional typo, or swap out a word or two to help the flow (and it’s only ever a word or two—major edits on the sentence level are generally proposed on a sidebar, rather than being unilaterally applied) but major fine-toothed comb copy-edits are the last stage in the process.
(It is worth taking a moment here to say that the manuscript I hand in is not crammed with typos and punctuation errors. I write with the spell-check on, and it’s at least up to the level you’re seeing in this blog post here. I play fast and loose with grammar for effect—you may note that I’m writing in the vernacular, as ’twere—but if you can’t write at least this accurately,* without really trying, you need to practice and get that DOWN before you submit anything anywhere. The occasional typo is entirely forgivable and not that big a deal, but if the first page of your manuscript is littered with solitary lower-case i’s and there, they’re, and there have had a throw-down in the middle of the page, the slush-pile reader will be reaching for a form rejection instantly. There are people on the internet who will carelessly proclaim that the story is more important than the grammar and only industry Nazis care about spelling. You may listen to them or not, as you like, but if I open a sample page and see that, I, like the Keeper of the Slush Pile, will not turn the page)
I crack my knuckles, take a swig of my coffee, and begin to write.
Sidebar comments fall into three basic camps. One is straightforward and concerned with word-choice: “This feels too modern.” “This seems like an odd word choice here.” “It seems weird to mention this here.” One is concerned with broader details: “You say this, but then there’s never any follow up.” “How does Character X know this here?” “I love this, but I’m worried kids won’t get it–can you explain the difference?” “Shouldn’t we know this sooner?” “Please expand this more, it’s a great detail!” “Can we hear more about this?” (On Black Dogs, many moons ago, the comments often included “You said this before,” and a running tally of how often the character’s eye-color changed. It is due entirely to the heroic efforts of the book’s editor, Dale, that I repeat myself much less these days, and don’t bother nearly so much with eye-color. Even so, I found the villain’s robes changed color without me. Sigh.)
The final type of side-bar is “Ha!” or a smiley-face or “Love this!” or “Awwwww.” Judicious sprinkling of these through the manuscript is what keeps your humble author from tipping a bottle of whiskey over into the cup of coffee.
Okay, so that being said—how do you FIX matters?
Well, that’s kinda up to you. I am a one-evolving-draft writer. I would no more start writing with a blank page than I would jump off the roof with a javelina parachute. Not gonna happen. Instead, I go through the existing manuscript, start fixing all the small stuff in the sidebars, and set up a second document that’s nothing but my own notes about how to solve some of the bigger systemic issues. “Name the scullery maid. Have a homing pigeon arrive here, addressed to the heroine. Include hilarious magical experimentation in middle. Make it clear that when the army leaves town, they’re going to fight these guys here.” I also leave my editor’s Broad Overview document open in the background, so that I can go through and hit it like a checklist.
After fixing or vowing to fix each of these points, I go into the little side comment and write under it—“Fixed!” or “Will try to do that later,” or “addressed this in the previous paragraph” or “Will this work?” That way I know that I’ve dealt with the comment, and the editor knows I’ve seen it and am trying to deal with it.
I do not, it must be said, do every single thing the editor says. Ninety-five percent, yes. She’s usually right, and we’ve worked together long enough at this point that she can slice a rambling statement in half and chop out stray verbiage without having to say things like “Maybe this line is a little long.” But it takes awhile to get there with an editor. Now and again, in Dragonbreath, I will go to bat for a word choice. Sometimes I will say “No, I really really love this line.” (Not often. After a point, lines are no longer precious. There are always more of them. If you love your lines too much, become a poet.) Sometimes I will say “I think the kids are smart enough to get this.” Once I had to explain what an end-boss was. And she’s not omnipotent—she occasionally misses places where I explained something, or something was mentioned before, or whatever. But in general, her comments are spot on, and I pay attention.
There are many more word-choice comments towards the beginning of Bread Wizard. By the middle, she is apparently caught up in the story, or I’ve gotten into the groove, or something, because the only comments are broad details and occasional “HA!”
As I go through, I occasional find spots where I can wedge something. She wants the secondary character to talk about his dead sister. Okay, here’s a good spot for an extra paragraph—nothing major, we don’t want to wallow, but a quick anecdote. Okay, this is a good spot for a little of that world-building about numbers of wizards. Okay, here I can talk about the heroine’s parents. Okay, this section has some flab. I can dice out some paragraphs and replace most of a page with “The blacksmiths had the oven ready.” (Chopping is hard for everybody. As another dear editor friend once said “You always take the longest possible route to get anywhere. Fortunately, it’s usually an entertaining trip.”)
When all of this is done (and it isn’t done yet!) I slap it into an e-mail with a note that says “Tried to fix everything. Let me know if this works!” and pray that it all hangs together. The problem with skipping madly through a manuscript like this is that I cease to have any sense of how it is all connected. It becomes a dissected body, not a living organism. I trust to the editor to be able to make sense of it as a cohesive whole, because by the end of edits, I can barely remember what I did where, who I am, whether I am writing about humans or sentient chickens, etc.
After this—assuming that you have made the manuscript better and not worse—you get to do this entire thing over again, except hopefully with fewer comments, and more “Great, that works now!”
Possibly even a third time.
Then there is copy-editing. This is annoying, sometimes obnoxious, and the first time I got a paper page that had actual proof-reading marks, I freaked out and tried to hide under the bed (thankfully, Penguin does it all with Word) but it is a simple mechanical process and you are allowed to override the copy-editor when you think they’re being deliberately obtuse.
Then you are done. More or less.
And if you’re me, you go to the art director, but that’s another kettle of fish entirely, and a post for another day.
*I say nothing of well. It is possible to write very bad prose in words that are all spelled correctly and have their tenses lined up properly. I have done so myself many times.