As a writer, the part of the creative process I like least (after publicity) is proofreading. I realize going through multiple layers of editing is necessary, but the nuclear reactor of energy that drives me to write for eight hours a day for four weeks straight does not take kindly to the constant pruning and polishing required when revising a text.
To me it seems being asked to drive an exotic sports car (a Lamborghini, if you’ve got a spare one in your garage) for a week, with two days spent setting speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats and the remaining five puttering around town to get groceries or go to Target. The first part is fun, but the latter seems like a waste of time and energy.
In writing, however, the best part comes not in the initial creation, but in the refinement. I was very fortunate for Running to have an editor who is good at her job and wanted my work to be the best it could be. It didn’t hurt that she has a great sense of humor to boot.
This time around I also secured a proofreader who has an eye for detail and caught things that were missed in previous rounds of editing. They all were small mistakes, but they added up to the work being less than what it could be. In the process, I have learned to love the end result of editing, so I am willing to work through the monotony of it.
Besides, it’s worth it to avoid the really tragic (and possibly wildly inappropriate) mistakes that can occur when you’re not careful.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I saw the film Authors Anonymous. As budding authors ourselves, we weren’t sure if the story was cute, fascinating or just plain sad (I voted for sad). If you’re a writer, this is one of those “inside baseball” type movies you totally will understand. If you aren’t a writer, you might not get why we put ourselves through all this torture.
Don’t worry — I often wonder that myself.
For those of us who haven’t yet established a beachhead in the land of literary success, the challenge is that our writing careers tend to bob among the waves of a very large and seemingly solitary ocean. We sometimes find fellow travelers who are treading water in the same seas and share with them hopeful tales of those who have reached the shore and are exploring this wondrous land of opportunity (When you’re a not-yet-successful writer, you tend to spend weekend mornings coming up with over-extended metaphors while waiting to hear back from editors, agents or your friends on social media).
Recently, I had a solid lead on getting a dust jacket blurb from a highly successful author in my genre. Having laid the ground work over several months, I shipped out a copy of my work with eager anticipation.
The author, a very kind and gracious soul whose writing I absolutely adore, was so generous in declining to endorse my work that I felt uplifted by the rejection. He spoke of his own struggles in getting published and how he took these early challenges as an admonition to improve his craft. In closing, he said the following: “I implore you to look beyond the one story, and strive forward towards greatness. Our community needs writers like you.”
Some might reasonably argue that he was trying to let me down gently, knowing that it's bad form to be mean to under-performing kid in class.
But instead of being cynical, I decided to take his counsel at face value. So I sent portions of two manuscripts to contacts who might be able to help me out and spent the next Saturday starting the arduous process of looking for agents in preparation for when the next edit of my manuscript is complete.
In my home office I have a file with at least 50 rejection letters in it. On the bookshelf about a foot and a half away sits my first novel. Am I willing to go through the cycle of eagerness, hope and rejection all over again for the possibility of publishing the sequel to the manuscript that took 15 years to get into print?
Being a child of the 80s, I am, at heart, a space buff. I poured over my kids’ science magazine detailing the Space Shuttle's specifications. I was devastated when Challenger exploded in 1986 and Columbia did as well in 2003. Then when Atlantis landed for the final time in July 2011, I was saddened we had lost something as a country. Our collective drive to discover, I suppose.
Although the Apollo 13 failed lunar mission took place before I was born, I watched with fascination many years later the Ron Howard film of the same name. I knew from history that the crew lived, but I was riveted to the screen as astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise scrambled to cannibalize their supplies in order to limp back safely to earth. They realized they had to give up on their dream so they could live to fly another day.
As a writer, I have discovered that the writing, pitching, publication and sales of each book seem almost as complex as a space mission. There are so many items on the checklist and if any of them go wrong, the entire project can crash and burn. For full-time writers, such failure might mean less food on the dinner table. Thankfully, that’s not the case with me.
On a recent book project, I realized I had to jettison my plans and disassemble the component parts. The manuscript, which was written as much from my heart as my imagination, was good but not good enough. I was passionate about the tale, but those I trust broke the news to me it wasn’t as well crafted as I thought. After the first person told me this, I dug in my heels and refused to listen to the sage advice for months on end. It took some deep reflection, insight received at a recent writers conference and the counsel of another close adviser before I knew for sure the project needed to be shelved.
Now, all is not lost. Parts of the book may find their way into future projects. They will need to be re-tooled to be sure, but like Lovell, Swigert and Haise, I am not willing to lose sight of the greater mission. Being a writer has never been just a passing fancy for me, so I won't end my career because of one shipwreck. I’m taking what I can from the experience and moving on.
One of the space-related groups I was part of as a teen had the following motto: ad astra per ardua (to the stars, with effort).
With a little effort, I am hoping to soar to reach my own stars.
Now that I have finished writing the core of my latest manuscript, the time has come for the editing process. Several friends are reviewing the work to offer their critiques and then 2–3 rounds of editing will occur. While this step may sound boring, and a few years ago I would have agreed, I have come to enjoy the editing process.
The most important reason editing is necessary is to improve the quality of the work. When I write, I do so quickly, performing scant editing along the way. Some days I feel like a 5-year-old trying to paint a house. I probably used the right color, but you can be sure there are several spots that need to be redone before I show my work off to others. Similarly, to get the best manuscript possible takes time and, quite often, the insight of others. In addition to removing the grammatical and typographical errors, I want to cut out extemporaneous verbiage and rework tired phrases. My question is not “Did I say it well?” but “Is this the best way to say what I have to say?” Obviously, these queries often elicit radically different responses.
Roman poet Marcus Fabius Quintilianus spoke to this issue in AD 65 when he said: “Prune what is turgid, elevate what is commonplace, arrange what is disorderly, introduce rhythm where the language is harsh, modify where it is too absolute.”
One of the hidden benefits of the editing process is it reminds me I am not as good a writer as I imagine myself to be. Revising a work again and again is an exercise in humility. Your initial thoughts may have been sounded good in your head, and seemed fine upon early review, but when you look at a work again and again you learn how much you have to grow, as a writer and a person. You have nightmares about mistakes infesting your work like termites in an old attic. Not surprisingly, Quintilianus had something to say about this as well.
“The best method of correction is to put aside for a time what we have written, so that when we come to it again it may have an aspect of novelty, as of being another man’s work; in this way we may preserve ourselves from regarding our writings with the affection we lavish upon a newborn child.”
I suppose there is another similarity between writing and newborns – both need to be changed from time to time to keep them fresh.
While I may be a Southern California native, I am not, nor have I ever been, the stereotypical surfer dude. Some experiments at boogie boarding in my adolescent years is as close as I came to riding the waves. I would like to blame my flawed eyesight for this, but I suspect I also was never good at reading the signs.
Now I am trying to ride the waves again, metaphorically speaking. As a writer, I enjoyed some early success with my first book, but then there was a lull in the waves, as it were. Sales dropped off and I was left with the question of how to make them rise again. But one thing I have come to learn about the world of publishing is that it is more like a water park or swimming pool—you have to make your own waves.
So here I go with my latest attempt at boosting interest, and sales. I am distributing copies of the book strategically and the next big wave is coming: a bargain basement sale on the electronic version of Chasing Deception. While I don’t expect sales in the tens of thousands, I am learning this is a step-by-step process. We’ll see how far this wave carries me before I plan my next move. I also have two other writing projects in the works, giving me a chance to get better at making, and riding, those waves.
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.