Revising Leah

January 18, 2009

Using “Find” to Proofread

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:07 pm
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Proofreading, though crucial to good writing, can sometimes be a tedious process. Fortunately, word processors have a function that can help a writer perform very precise proofreading searches. The “Find” (or “Find & Replace” in OpenOffice) function allows you to search for a specific word or phrase in a document. I spent a couple hours yesterday doing searches for some common typos that I, and many other writers, tend to make: its/it’s, lose/loose, affect/effect, etc. I would type, for example, “effect” into the Find box and the program would take me to each and every instance of that word in the text. Then, it was up to me to read the sentence and make sure I’m using the word correctly. I’m happy to report that most of these searches turned up very few errors.

I also used Find to check my use of the word “seemed”. I already knew that I use that word quite a lot in my novel. It appears often because although the narrative is third person, it is a third person narration which privileges Leah’s perspective. Since she isn’t very experienced socially, she often has to guess at the motives and reasons behind other people’s behavior. For example, I need to use “seemed” in a sentence like this one:

David stayed on the other side of the class and seemed to have forgotten about his group.

Leah can’t enter David’s mind. She doesn’t know why the boy does a lot of the things that he does. So much remains a mystery to her, so I need to use that word “seemed.”

But I discovered that about 20% of the appearances of the word “seemed” were not necessary. For example, I might have written something like,

She looked out the window, and it seemed dark outside.

Well, it’s either dark or it isn’t. “Seemed” would be completely inappropriate in this instance. Find allowed me to inspect each and every appearance of that word in the novel without having to read the entire novel straight through.

January 14, 2009

A Dream Deferred (and Deleted)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 4:03 pm
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At the beginning of chapter fourteen, I had a paragraph-length description of a dream that Leah experiences a couple days after her school’s Homecoming Dance. The dream has long been a source of indecision for me because I always thought that the dream I described here was more than a little cheesy. In previous revision cycles, I considered cutting it from the story, but I chose instead to compromise: I left it in but tried to sweep the cheesiness out of the scene. I think I did a pretty good job.

But yesterday, when I was reading the passage again, it occurred to me that it might conflict with the scene at the end of chapter thirteen. At the end of chapter thirteen, in one of my favorite moments in the novel, Leah unhappily accepts the fact that she isn’t going to the Homecoming Dance with David or anyone else.

Apparently, in previous revision cycles I must have always taken a break from reading once I finished chapter thirteen, because this time, when I read the dream sequence at the start of chapter fourteen just seconds after reading the end of chapter fourteen, it suddenly occurred to me that the dream sequence completely contradicts and undermines the emotional impact of that final scene in chapter thirteen. I have never noticed this until now, and it alarmed me when I realized what I had done.

It’s too late for me to cut the plan for a dream sequence out of chapter fourteen since it is woven tightly into the start of chapter fourteen. I’d have to completely rewrite the first couple of pages of the chapter.

So what I’ve decided to do here is replace the Leah’s dream with another dream. It was the setting of the dream (a formal dance that was like something out of Cinderella) that caused the trouble. I changed the setting of the dream but not what made the dream so appealing to Leah: it was about she and David spending time together, alone — and talking to each other.

I think that has solved the problem, and it’s a lucky thing I caught it. The transitions between chapters has been something that I’ve been worried about. Because I can’t read the whole novel in one sitting, I have to stop some time. A new chapter is always a logical place to take a break, but taking a break disrupts the flow of reading, and when I stop I risk missing a transition problem like this one.

January 13, 2009

The Final Edits

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 5:23 pm
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As I read through the proof copy of the novel, making the final set of changes and edits, I find myself reading through the book rapidly — I’ve been reading at least fifty pages a day. That’s good, because it means I’m finding few mistakes. Each sentence and each idea is flowing smoothly into the next. When I feel tripped up, when I have to stop and re-read a sentence or a paragraph, that’s usually an occasion to fix something, but I haven’t experienced very many of those moments.

The biggest change that I’ve made to the text so far is to delete an entire paragraph from chapter two. The paragraph just seemed superfluous, and when I read the passage without the paragraph, it sounds better.

But most of the edits that I’ve made have been little changes. As I thought I might, I have found some lines of dialogue that aren’t punctuated just right. Many of the edits, though, have been the usual word choice errors that always plague me. For example, in chapter six, I wrote this sentence:

Instead, her eyes darted to each of the boys’ laughing faces, and then they took a quick glance out the window at her table on the patio.

The problem here is the pronoun “they”. It isn’t clear what its antecedent is. It is supposed to refer to “her eyes,” but given this sentence construction, it appears to refer to “the boys”. I fixed this problem simply by changing “they” to “she”.

I’ve also found a couple of continuity errors. In chapter ten, I write,

David handed the piece of paper to Heather and said, as he sat down . . .

but then a few lines later, I write,

“And they lived in Egypt,” David laughed as he sat down.

So here I have a character performing the incredible act of sitting down twice in the same desk. That’s gotta break some law of physics or another! In this case, I decided that the first time David sat down was sufficient, and deleted his second occasion of sitting.

I don’t expect that I’ll ever be able to change every single thing that I might want to fix, but I know that every correction I make brings the novel just a little bit closer to a state of perfection. Overall, though, I’ve been quite happy with the book.

January 8, 2009

Twiddling My Thumbs

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 1:33 pm
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Earlier this week, I got the message that the proof copy for Leah had shipped, so right now I’m just waiting for it to arrive. If I’m lucky, it will come by Saturday. I’m anxious to hold the book in my hands and see the revised story “in the flesh” instead of just on a computer screen.

As I wait, I’m trying to plan my strategy for what will be the final round of editing. Obviously, the first concern that I’ll have will be to check the cover and the formatting of the text. On the cover, I’ll be looking to see that the pictures and text are all lined up where they should be, and I’ll especially be looking to see how bad the pixellation is on the back cover. I expect some pixellation, but the question will be how obvious is it? If it’s really obvious, I’ll either have to blur the image a little more or I’ll have to design something different. Yesterday, I got inspired after thinking about my use of quotes on the front page of my new website, and I think I might be able to come up with a better design.

But the real editing work will be with the text of the novel. I’m going to try, as hard as I can, not to make too many unnecessary edits. I know that if I give myself freedom to do whatever I want I’ll be rewriting sentences and replacing some words with other words til the cows come home. But I really just want to limit myself to fixing errors.

One kind of error that I know I commit has to do with my dialogue. I tend to commit two common errors in my dialogue: I misplace or omit capital letters, or I insert periods where commas should go (or vice-versa). For example, I might accidentally write a line of dialogue like this:

“Yes, he was lost,” Joe said, “He didn’t know where to go.”

or like this:

“I liked the movie,” she said, “it was really good.”

So after I’ve read a chapter with dialogue in it, I’m going to revisit each line of dialogue and make sure I haven’t left any typos in my text. Little things like that probably won’t be noticed by someone reading my book for the first time, but they’ll bug the heck out of me if I see them in the final product.

Beyond those concerns, I’ll just have to stay on the alert for surprises. I won’t be too worried if I catch a lot of little errors in this final read-through. It’s a fact that reading a hard copy of text is a very different physiological and psychological experience than reading it on the screen, and since this is the first time that I’ll be reading a hard copy of the entire revised text, it’s possible that I’ve missed a few things in my previous revision cycles.

December 26, 2008

Publishing Through Lulu: Preparations, Part 1

In this final series of posts for Revising Leah, I’m going to document and comment upon how I am publishing my novel through Lulu. If you’ve ever wondered whether self-publishing is right for you, I hope you’ll follow along and learn out what it’s all about.

Lulu.com, and services like it, have become a force for the democratization of publishing. Now, anyone with a story to tell can publish one’s work. With this freedom, however, comes great responsibility. While it’s true that publishing through Lulu is easy and relatively inexpensive, if you want to do it right — if you want to produce a book that you can be proud of, that will sell — then there is a lot of work that you must do.

Revise and Edit! (Have you learned nothing from this blog?)

Obviously, the most important preparation involves carefully revising, editing, and proofreading your text so that you don’t give your readers the impression that you are barely literate. Even if the book you publish is for your eyes only, you don’t want it to be littered with errors and passages that you wish you had revised. If you do want your book to be read by others, then certainly you want it to look as professional as possible. If this means “beta testing” your manuscript with other readers or hiring an editor, then do it. Moriah Jovan had a nice rant on this subject over at Publishing Renaissance recently.

I’ve been working on my novel since April (and, of course, I have documented that process in this blog). My manuscript has reached a point where I am satisfied with it. I’m able to read through a chapter without seeing anything that needs to be changed or corrected. When I receive the galley proofs next month, I’ll probably find a few last minute errors that I ought to fix, but for now, I feel like the book is ready to go.

Formatting

So once the manuscript is the best it can be, it’s ready to be formatted. This may not sound like a big deal, but this is a step that you can expect will take a few days, at least.

The first step: page size and orientation. Lulu allows for several different possibilities for the size of a book, but the usual size for a novel published through Lulu is 9″x6″ — that’s a little bit larger than most novels published, but it’s not freakishly large or anything; it’s still easy to carry and hold in your hands and read.

You’ll need to format the pages so that they mirror each other. In other words, you have to imagine that page 1 of the novel will be on the right, page 2 on the left, page 3 on the right, etc. This can easily be set up within your word processor, usually in the same dialogue box that you used to set up the size of the page.

Lulu has specific requirements for the size of the margins. Basically, you’re setting up a half inch all around except for the inner margin (where the pages join at the book’s spine) which is a 3/4 inch margin.

Pretty easy so far? Well, now things get interesting. The next choice you have to make is the font style and size. Unless you are doing something wacky, you’ll probably want to stick to a size 12 or 13 font. The font style is up to you, though. Lulu has a list of font styles that they prefer you use, but it is possible to use others. I like to use Garamond because I think it looks really nice when the book is printed, but this is a subjective choice. There will be a lot more of these kinds of subjective choices as the process goes on. It can seem a little overwhelming, but this is what I like about self-publishing: the opportunity to direct all of the little details of the publishing process. I find it very satisfying. Satisfying, ultimately, but not always easy. . .

The Ninth Circle of Formatting Hell: Page Numbers

Nothing will frustrate you more than wrestling with the page numbers. Although I like to use OpenOffice for most of my word processing needs, the biggest beef that I have with the program is that it makes formatting up page numbers very, very difficult. In Microsoft’s Word, the process isĀ  much more simpler — in fact, it is so much easier that when I need to insert page numbers I often just open the file in Word, do my business there, and save it.

Depending on where you want the page numbers to go (top or bottom of the page), you might need to format breaks between the chapters. (I found this page online which helped explain how to do this in Word.) The purpose of creating a break between chapters is that it allows you to format the page numbers so that, if you choose, the page number won’t appear on the first page of the chapter. Depending on what the first page of each chapter looks like, you might not want the page number in the same place as the other numbers on the other pages. For example, if all of the page numbers for the rest of the text are in the top corners, maybe you want the page number on the first page of each chapter at the bottom of the page. Personally, I prefer not to include the page number on the first page of each chapter, but that’s just me. Whatever you decide to do, establishing formatting breaks between chapters makes this process easier.

At the same time that you are setting up the page numbers, you have to make a decision about whether you want your name and/or the title of your novel at the top of each page. And here is where you can literally do whatever you want. When I was setting up my page numbers, I sought inspiration and guidance by browsing through a dozen different books by as many different publishers. Almost every book had set up its page numbers and top margin material differently. Some put the numbers near the outer margin, some put them near the inner margin. Some books put the page number at the top of the page, others put the numbers on the bottom. Some books only used the title of the book, others used only the author’s name, others used the chapter title, others had a combination of some of these. Some books centered the material, others placed it near the page numbers. Apparently the only rule with page numbers and margin material is that there are no rules. You can do whatever you want.

So this has been a glimpse at some of the work you have to do when preparing the manuscript for Lulu’s publishing process. I thought you might want an example of what I’ve done, so take a look at this file:

Chapter One

It’s the first chapter of my novel, formatted more or less the way it will look when it is published. Look at my font, my spacing, the page numbers and headings, the first page of the chapter, etc. Again, you don’t have to format your manuscript exactly as I have formatted mine, but hopefully it will reinforce the idea that your text should look clean, neat, and organized — in other words, professional.

Next time: Preparing the title page and the book cover.

October 8, 2008

Fixing Chapter Fourteen

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:18 pm
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The last of the three chapters to undergo “surgery” is chapter fourteen.

When I imagine the overall structure of the novel, I imagine the story organized into three distinct stages, or “acts”. The first act encompasses chapters one through eight. The second act includes chapters eight through nineteen, and the third act consists of the rest of the novel. Chapters eight and nineteen serve, in part, as transitional chapters helping to guide the story from one phase to the next.

So what does this have to do with chapter fourteen, which is set squarely in the middle of the second act? Well, the problem that I saw in chapter fourteen, in addition to the stilted narration, was that it felt too much like a transitional chapter. It’s very short, and it does serve as a bridge between the Homecoming weekend and Leah’s trip to David’s house, but transitioning shouldn’t feel like the primary function of the chapter. There are a couple of important plot points that the chapter needs to cover, too.

So what I’ve tried to do with this chapter is make it feel more like part of the story and less like an instrument for progressing the plot. It’s not easy, and after working on the chapter for a couple of days, I’m not sure I’ve been successful in fixing the problem. One lingering trouble spot is a short conversation between Leah and her history project partners. I think it’s this conversation more than anything else in the chapter which feels “too transitional”. And yet it’s important that I leave it in. If I tried to reduce the conversation to a narrative paragraph then that would only make it worse. The conversation frames the transition in an at least a somewhat interesting story. It’s tough; I’m sure I’ll return to this chapter again before I finish the book.

Another element of chapter fourteen that has troubled me comes at the beginning of the chapter when I describe a dream that Leah has. I’ve gone back and forth with this dream. Some days I want to delete it from the novel completely, other days I want to leave it in. It doesn’t take up a lot of space — it’s only a paragraph long — and it does offer some insight into Leah’s state of mind at this point in the story, which is reinforced later in the chapter. On the other hand, the dream, as it appeared in the 1996 draft of the novel, was really cheesy. Over the summer, I cut a lot of the cheese out of my description of the dream, but it still has a reputation, for me, as a rather silly and embarrassing moment in the novel.

September 22, 2008

How I Learned to Write a Novel

I’ve always been of the opinion that writing is a skill. Nobody is born a great writer. Some writers might be more creative than others, but the act of turning that creative vision into good writing is a skill that, I think, just about anyone can learn. Since no one starts out knowing how to write, a potential novelist, then, must undergo a sort of “apprenticeship,” a period of training in which he or she learns how to write a novel. Looking back on my own life, I realize now that it took me two separate phases of training before I could write a complete novel that is ready for possible publication.

The first phase of my training occurred during my teenage years. At that age, people have an abundance of creativity and energy. Everything seems possible, and it’s fun to experiment. During this period of my life I learned, by trial and error, how to draft a novel — how to transform the stories in my imagination into words on a page. I was extremely prolific, sometimes churning out two or three 200-page long manuscripts in a single year, not to mention all of the short stories and poems I was writing (today, that level of output astounds me; I cannot work at that pace anymore). Because I had so many ideas for stories, I didn’t worry about revising and editing my work; in fact, I don’t think that the idea of revising my work ever crossed my mind. As far as I was concerned, every manuscript I produced was “finished,” and as soon as I completed one novel, I simply moved on to the next story. A lot of people, when they decide they want to be an author, make that decision having never actually composed a novel-length piece of writing. They don’t really know what they’re getting into or how much work writing can be, and I think that is why so many would-be novelists fail: the size and scope of the project simply overwhelms them. The most important lesson that I learned in those early years is that writing is a very long, slow process, and patience is the ultimate virtue when it comes to writing.

I consider the first draft of Leah to mark the end of this first stage of my writing education. By the time that I composed the first draft of Leah, I had reached a point where I was confident that I could take any complex story that formed in my imagination and transfer that story onto paper. However, when I made the decision to try to publish Leah back in 1995-6, what I didn’t yet understand was that inventing a story and completing a draft is only the first half of the writing process.

And that’s why the 1996 draft of Leah was a failure. And by “failure” I don’t mean “commercial failure” — although, since it was self-published, it certainly was that. Rather, I mean the novel was a failure because the quality of the writing and the execution of the story didn’t live up to my own expectations. Although I did a little revising, what was published was essentially still a rough draft. It was truly awful, and I’m embarrassed that it was ever published. What I didn’t know at the time was that I still needed to learn how to revise and edit my work.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that second phase of my training began when I started teaching. I was an English major in college, and so today I teach writing. In my short career, I have graded literally tens of thousands of pages of students’ writing. I’ve seen it all: from very bad, almost illegible writing to writing that might be even better than what I can produce. Reading and correcting so much writing provided me the chance to learn just what revising is and why it is so important.

What I’ve learned in these last several years is that revising is just as important as drafting, just as important as the initial idea that inspires one to write. I’ve learned that the revising process takes a very long time — even longer than drafting process, and, in a sense, it never really ends. There’s no such thing as a “finished” manuscript; there’s always something that you can do to improve it. And I’ve learned that while the revising process takes a long time and can sometimes feel tedious, it can also be just as creatively fulfilling and exciting as producing that first draft of a story. When you set up an exchange of dialogue just right, when you find the perfect word to describe a character’s mood, or when you phrase that opening sentence in the best possible way — that is writing!

As I browse the Internet, visiting writers’ blogs or reading websites that deal with creative writing and publishing, I often see writers seeking an editor to help them prepare their novels for publication, and I see entrepreneurial editors eager to offer their editing skills — for a fee, of course. Certainly, letting an objective party read and edit one’s work can be very useful, but it’s not a substitute for the revising process. It is still up to the would-be author to do the majority of the revising. When I read a student’s essay, I can offer suggestions for improvement and point out places where corrections ought to be made, but ultimately, it is up to the student herself to make those changes — and to go beyond the suggestions that I make.

Do you agree? Disagree? What’s your take on revising? How did you learn to write a novel?

September 15, 2008

What Is Your Word Count?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 4:05 pm
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Lately, I’ve made a point to visit some of the other WordPress blogs about writing, especially those blogs which, like mine, are chronicling writers’ work as they create their own novels. They’re interesting to read; I like writing about my own writing process, and I find I like reading about others’ writing processes too.

One thing that I’ve noticed in most people’s blogs is that they make a big deal about their word count, and some folks even have word count goals for their projects — not only an overall goal but also daily writing goals.

When I started writing during my teenage years, I didn’t use a word processor. I wrote everything out by hand, and when you write that way, counting words just isn’t an option unless you have a whole lot of time to kill. So I counted pages, and, in my mind, 200 pages was the minimum page requirement for a novel. That continues to be my mindset today; I think more in terms of pages than words. Frequent visitors to this blog will find that I refer to my page count more often than my word count.

Right now, for the record, Leah is 231 pages long (or about 83,500 words). Claiming that the text is “X” number of pages, I guess, doesn’t really mean much to readers of this blog. The question becomes, “What constitutes a ‘page’?” For example, altering the font size, the font style, the page margins, or the line spacing can all affect the page count, so what does it mean when I say “231 pages”? The answer is that I have formatted the document file in exactly the same way that I formatted The Spring when I published it — the same font style, same page size, everything. Again, for the record, here are my specs:

  • Garamond font, size 12
  • 34 lines of text on each page
  • Fixed line spacing set at .22″ between lines
  • Approximately 370 words per page
  • Pages set at 9″ tall X 6″ wide
  • Half-inch margins for the top, bottom and outer margins. Three-quarter inch margins for the inner margin.

So Leah’s 231 page count is perfectly comparable to The Spring’s 263 pages, and 231 pages is how long the book would be if I published it today.

But whether I’m going by pages or total words, I believe that an obsession with one’s word or page count can have a detrimental effect on one’s writing. I try not to worry about how physically long my story is. I believe that what’s most important is that the story is as long as it needs to be. A novel that is 1000 pages long is not necessarily a better novel than one that is 150 pages long. Since I began this revising project 5 months ago, I’ve cut at least 30 pages of material from my novel, not because I’m trying to meet a specific page goal, but because I didn’t need those 30 pages. The material that I cut was superfluous, repetitive, or it contradicted other elements in the story. When I’m finished, the story will be however long it needs to be, not a word more or a word less.

I’m sure not everyone shares my point of view. If you are writing a novel and counting your words as you go, does it really help you to know how long your story is, or do you think it puts undo pressure on you as a writer to reach a certain overall word count?

July 5, 2008

Milestone

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:26 pm
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I have finished the first phase of this revising project.

To summarize: I’ve spent the last two months revising Leah, a young adult novel that I first published back in 1996. I was never quite satisfied with that edition of the novel, and I promised myself I would revisit and revise it someday. So far, I’ve been reading through the book, chapter by chapter, working on some of the “big picture” elements: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, the structure of the novel and the chapters, long passages of narration that I wasn’t happy with, etc. I’ve made a lot of changes, including the deletion of almost thirty pages of text. The result so far has been a leaner, tighter story that is already much, much better than the 1996 draft.

So does this mean I’m almost finished? Not at all. I still have a lot of work to do, but from this point forward, the nature of my work changes from a mix of revising and rewriting to something that more closely resembles editing and proofreading. Open the file to any page and you’ll find a spelling error, a missing words, or a punctuation problem that needs to be fixed. I’m also going to be focusing much more on the details of both the story and the text. I don’t always make the right word choices when I write, so I’ll be paying more attention to that. I also plan to add a lot more detail and description to some of the chapters that need it.

I’ll be starting the next phase of this project soon, but for now, I’m going to set the novel aside and take a few days off to recharge so that I can approach the text with fresh eyes. When I start again, I’ll be starting at page one and reading through the whole novel once more. The hard work doesn’t end yet, but I’m happy with my progress so far.

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