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Monday, March 25, 2013

Asking The Right Questions

I’m writing my fourth manuscript, and I have completed my first act on page 70. But I’m making the same mistakes as I have in previous manuscripts. It’s easy to do. I’ll tell you how and why so you avoid doing the same thing.

Backstory: After not selling my second manuscript, I decided to write the third manuscript with a critique group, thinking that I’d get feedback early on to make the revision process less painful. Did it help? No, in fact, it made the revision process worse. The reason? Critique groups usually operate by evaluating no more than two chapters at a time rotating among members. The process went on for far too long, and because the writers were reading in finite clumps of script, they couldn’t see the overall picture to catch developmental problems until the last chapters—if then since some forgot the details of the script by the time we got to the end—almost two years later.

What I received from the critique group was mainly line editing. The experience was one that I will never put myself through again. In fact, I’m the only member of the critique group left as the other four dropped out of the SinC Guppies writing group.

I fault myself. Due to not selling my second manuscript, my confidence faltered. Relying on the critique group didn’t work. This time, I’ve decided to write the first draft, refine it, and then put it out for review in its entirety. But I’ve been making the same processing mistakes on my own.

The Mistake: When I read through my completed first act, I realized that I had abbreviated the words “private investigator” by first typing it PI and then later as P.I. I’ve seen it written in novels both ways, and I think it is more correct to have the periods after the letters, but all of those periods make readers cranky. So from a publishing perspective, I’m not sure how editors handle that problem. The point being, that I went into my script with the find and replace edit and messed up my 70 pages. Instead of doing what I asked, it took every word that had a “p” and an “i” together and made them “P.I.” so now “pick’ is and “pineapple” is P.I.neapple. Yes, after my careful wordsmithing and editing, it went through and made a mess. Find and replace evidently ignores capital letters. But, during the correction process, I realized that I had overused the word “picks” or “picks up” in the script so I started word editing.  

When I was a child, my father and grandfather would ask, “Have you asked any good questions today?” I used the find and replace example above to show how inappropriate that type of editing is at this stage of my manuscript, and how it led to further problems. That’s the mistake I made.

I’m losing my perspective—getting lost in the forest of words without seeing their content. When I saw that I’d abbreviated “private investigator” in two ways, I immediately hit the editing button. What should I have done? Ignore it because those types of edits aren’t important at this stage of my WIP. The question of word editing distracted me from asking the right questions.  

The Solution: What I should have been evaluating my script for is concept and content by asking questions such as—Have I

·      Hooked the reader
·      Given the reader enough information to intrigue them or have I confused them by not giving them enough information
·      Is my unique situation too narrow or will it appeal because of its quirkiness
·      Because of backstory, which I will reveal eventually, will my main character be likeable even if she puts up with too much malarkey from her significant other and his daughter or will readers find her frustrating
·      Are the cases from the past and the present too similar at least at the onset that readers will become disenchanted by the coincidence?

At this point I must stop until I have answered those questions. Because if I answer “no” to any of the above questions, it will change how I write the second act. If I must provide the reader with more information in the first act, my second-act investigation won’t have to “discover” those facts. Proceeding further without answering those questions will only result in major revisions, which stopped me from finishing my last manuscript, a result that I don’t want for this WIP.

I’ve decided to hire an editor to help me answer those questions before I continue. Getting another’s perspective, a professional’s, will help me answer those questions. This type of editing is called content or developmental review, which some editors specialize in providing while others do line editing, which concentrates on grammar—only appropriate after the WIP is complete and polished.

I need another set of eyes to monitor the big picture so that I can work on the details. This seems like a plotting problem, but it isn’t really. I know the backstory and how my character becomes involved. I know how and what she will find resulting from her investigation. I know how the book ends, who is guilty and how that leaves my main character. What I need to know is if I am presenting the story to the reader in the best possible way.

I’d rather get a professional evaluation now then have to revise later. Perhaps I’ve become revision phobic because of my last WIP, but to me this script is worth the effort.

Have you ever hired a developmental editor? Did you get good advice?


Jim Jackson said...

Global search and replace can be a real monster. My publisher accidentally used it on the final (ended up being not quite final) proof when we changed the name of a character from Frank to Albert to accommodate a character name bought at a charity sale.

Had this been Gone With the Wind, Brett would have been saying to Scarlet, “Albertly, my dear. I don’t give a poop.”

I did use a developmental editor partway through the revision process of Bad Policy. I knew my writing was in pretty good shape, but I had nagging feelings that the plot arc had some problems. She provided clarity to my concerns and brought up a few additional issues I had not recognized.

I was pleased with the results, although I still had several revisions before I reached the final manuscript.

~ Jim

E. B. Davis said...

Thanks for being candid, Jim. At times, I feel dense or overwhelmed. I have a good idea, know how to plot it, but it is the subtleties and tone that I'm unsure of. Glad to know someone else went to an editor.

In business, the best advice is to find the best specialists because you can't do it all. Choosing the right people is the hardest, but most important part.

Having made the decision to get advice from an expert, I think I've chosen well.

Gloria Alden said...

You are making me think about getting an editor for the third book in my series still only in first draft. I am lucky enough to have a very good critique group, but because they only read a chapter or two at a time, maybe an overall review of the book would be good, too. After, of course, I do numerous revisions.

As for the search and replace on Word, it created a problem for me, too, on my final line by line read through of my 2nd book. I had spelled one name different a few times and thought using that would solve the problem. Not so. It only made it worse even totally deleting the name sometimes.

Karen D. said...

I haven't hired a developmental editor (or any other,yet) so can't speak to that but I have done a lot of find and replace.

Next time make sure you click on the MORE button at the bottom of the initial Find/replace box. That opens up more fields where you can specify 'matching case', 'whole words' etc. Also, in the case of PI or P.I., be sure to enter a space before and after it in the Find field so it won't dig into other words for the letters.

E. B. Davis said...

If you have any uncertainties about your next book, Gloria, I'd hire someone. Second books tend to be weaker than first books because writers put so much time and effort into getting published, or publishing as in your case, that the next book pales by comparison. Sorry you had find and replace problems too.

E. B. Davis said...

Oh Karen--you are so smart. Of course I forgot the spacing! Duh! Thanks for the tip.

LD Masterson said...

Our Guppy crit group has wrestled with the same problem, trying to work with two chapters at a time and not being able to see the overall story.

You missed an important question, one you should always ask before using find and replace - Have I just made a backup copy?

E. B. Davis said...

Oh, LD, been there, done that. Not only do I have a backup copy, I have two, both on external harddrives. Don't ever lose your HOA's financial data, it costs a lot!

Yes, I'm not sure if critique groups work for novels. I think that for short stories, they're terrific. Perhaps we should suggest Beta groups instead. Only those with completed first drafts need apple.

Jim Jackson said...

I have a different perspective on critique groups for novels, having put three novels through them.

I think the key is that they work on a weekly schedule and trade 4-5,000 words per person per week. A 90,000-word novel takes less than a half year.

Doing it this way takes a chunk of each writer's time each week, but it has worked well for me. You'll still need beta readers to catch inconsistencies that are missed over a multiple-month stretch, but I'd be willing to do it again with the right partners.

However, you should have multiple projects so as one is going through review you are writing the next (or a series of short stories, or whatever).

~ Jim

E. B. Davis said...

How many writers are in the group, Jim? These are all rough drafts, but finished rough drafts, right? How long have you kept the critique group going? Through all three novels?