By Irene Watson
A few years ago, I interviewed a self-published author whose novel was poorly written; not only was it filled with typos and grammatical errors, but it read like a plot summary. In the interview, I could not help but ask him about his writing process, and I was not surprised by his answer. He basically said that he believed writing was a form of inspiration; he would just write whatever came to him at that moment, putting down words on the page and doing little revision so he would not ruin the “inspired” words.
I’ve also heard of authors who talk about “wells” of inspiration; however, I daresay this author’s well water was stagnant and putrid. I can’t imagine who else would have thought his book was good since I counted six typos just on the first page. Unfortunately, while many fine books have been self-published by good authors, today it is so easy to publish a book that everyone thinks he or she can write one. In many of these cases, it’s the author’s first attempt at writing a book, and he gets little feedback from others about the work before he publishes it, or if he does get feedback, he asks for it from family members and friends who are either not qualified to judge the book or simply too kind to tell the author the book isn’t very good. Even in cases when such authors do receive criticism, they often ignore it. I remember one accomplished author telling me about her experience with an author who asked her to write a testimonial for the book. This author wrote the testimonial, but she also wrote up a long list of comments and corrections for suggested revisions. The response she received from the author was that the book was already done; her thought was, “Yes, it is already done in more ways than one.”
What is involved with bringing a book from that inspired rough draft to finished product? A lot of hard work, time, and energy. Anyone who can whip out a book in a few weeks or months either is an established author with many books to his or her credit, or simply isn’t aware of what it takes to create a quality product. The great eighteenth century poet Alexander Pope recommended that people keep their piece seven years before they publish it-in other words, write it, revise it, put it in a drawer for seven years, then bring it out and look at it again-you’ll be surprised to discover it’s not as good as you once thought, and you might now have new and exciting ideas for how to make it better.
Most of us won’t take Pope’s advice to wait seven years to publish our writing, but it never hurts after writing that first draft to take a break from it for a few days, weeks, or months, so we can go back to it with fresh eyes. Another word for rewriting is revision, which is actually very revealing about the writing process; I’m not the first to point out that the word “revision” can be broken into “re-vision,” meaning “re-seeing”-seeing your writing again for the first time.
Here are a few suggestions for revision that should help you take that “inspired” piece and turn it into a quality piece of writing.
If writing fiction, ask yourself whether the point of view you’re using is the correct one. What if, instead of writing in third person, you told the story from the villain’s point of view, or from a minor character’s point of view? How would that change the story or make it stronger?
Does the introduction/first chapter grab the reader? How could you make it more suspenseful so people will want to keep reading more? Starting in the middle of the action often will make a stronger opening than describing the setting and all the characters.
If writing fiction, what is at stake for the main character? What is her biggest problem in life? What is it he needs in order to achieve his goal? What pain does she feel and what will she do to try to end that pain? Too often in self-published novels, the book is about the characters and just tells a story of their lives without having any real overarching plot that gives the reader a reason to keep reading from a burning desire to find out what will happen next and how everything will turn out.
Outline the story with the basic elements of plot. Where is the beginning? What parts count as rising action? Where is the climax? What will count as falling action? What is the resolution? Your climax should be about 90 percent of the way into the story, close to the end. Adjust everything to fit that format. Once the climax happens, readers are basically satisfied and don’t want a lot of follow-up about what happened to all the characters-keep it short and to the point, one short final chapter.
If writing nonfiction, you should still think about the plot. You might be writing a history book, in which case, you can build the tension up to a key event; for example, if you’re writing about the San Francisco earthquake, build tension up to the moment of the earthquake and fire. Is the earthquake the climax of the story, or does the climax occur when rescue efforts have ended and the number of the living and the dead is known? If providing information on a topic, do the same-build up to the most significant part of the information; for example, you can’t be an architect until you understand the basics of making blueprints, or the basics of construction and carpentry. Think of your nonfiction book as a teaching tool where your reader may know nothing about the topic so you start with the basics and build toward the most important part or piece of knowledge or insight; when the reader is finished, he should feel like an expert, or at least highly knowledgeable on the topic.
Once you feel your manuscript is as good as you can make it, and I doubt that will happen before you’ve gone through and revised it at least three or four times, you are ready to receive feedback from other readers. Find a variety of people to respond to your work, including authors who are more talented or successful than you, people who simply like to read the kind of book you have written, and people you trust to give you their honest opinions. Then steel yourself to be prepared for honest feedback. Take what seems legitimate and helpful and leave the rest. If one person is insistent about you changing something that the other readers didn’t point out, you may want to ignore it, depending on the person and what is suggested.
Revise and revise again, incorporating suggestions and corrections until you believe your book is as polished as possible.
Read through the book looking for errors, typos, editing issues, and wordiness such as sentences that begin “There are” and excessive uses of “that” or prepositional phrases such as “the people of the city” that could be tightened to read “the city’s residents.”
Find a good editor to go through the manuscript-he or she will find issues you didn’t, ranging from plot and organization to typos and grammatical errors.
After the book is edited and laid out, read through it carefully once again. Any changes at this point should be minor but you would be surprised by how a pdf or a printed book will make you spot issues you didn’t see in your Word document.
Finally, celebrate a job well done. Writing and revising a book is hard work, but it will all feel worthwhile once your readers start to tell you how much they enjoyed reading it.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find [http://www.readerviews.com/]reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides [http://readerviews.com/services_about.html]author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.
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