Category Archives: Editing

How to Write Your Best Book Now

This is part one in a 6-part, totally free master class on everything you need to know to write "your best book now," with apologies to Joel Osteen and Thomas Nelson.


Part 1: The manuscript

You have 6 jobs before your manuscript is ready for professional editing, and then submission to an editor. 

Job #1: Start by reading (preferably memorizing) The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. 

Next, pick up Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and the accompanying workbook and work through the exercises there. If you're writing nonfiction, you still need narrative techniques, so consider reading Maass' book anyway, or Zinsser’s On Writing is a good one too.

Other greats include Stein On Writing, Stephen King's On Writing, and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. But my new favorite is Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit which details the macro and micro elements of getting the words and phrasing and style right, but it's for writers who have already gotten a good portion of their million crappy words out of the way already.

I also recommend fiction writers give Self-Editing for Fiction Writers a read for the basic elements to be aware of.

Also, anything by Orson Scott Card, James Scott Bell, Sol Stein, and Arthur Plotnik, feel free to supplement your reading with any or all of them. Card’s book on character development is excellent. Characters and ViewpointAnd there’s always the incomparable Max Perkins, generally regarded to be the greatest editor ever.

Writers must first read, read, read. Aspire to read above your comprehension level. And find the redeeming qualities of that beneath you. Read Books & Culture. Read PW. Read poetry. Follow what your favorite writers do and who they follow, watch their interviews on B&N and learn what they did. There's so much available now. Go to Ted.com and watch the videos that interest you. JK Rowling’s Harvard address on failure is excellent.

Immerse yourself in the writing world of working writers. Read their blogs, check out their advice and links.

#2: Here's a very important piece of advice I stole from Bernard Cornwell: read your top 3 books and study them. How simple is that? But I'd add, use a book like Susan Bell's and/or Maass' to focus on the important elements and break them down chapter by chapter. Use your favorite writing books as guides and you'll learn more than you ever would at a writers conference about the actual tools and skills of working writers.

Pay attention to the way the sentences sound, the way the chapters work, how you’re drawn in, what’s said and not said. Consider metaphor and symbolism. What elements are your favorite? What parts do you like least? Keep a writing journal and mark your progress, then go over it at the end of the week and synthesize what you've learned.

#3 Figure out your writing system. Try different things until you get it. No one is able to tell you how you work best and you may change, so stay at it. I write best starting at the end and working backwards. I often start with the final image and write that last sentence and work back from there. It's taken me an embarrassing amount of time and effort to realize (and accept) this. You will no doubt work differently. You might want to consider using organizing software. Scrivener is a great one for Mac users.

As Ray Bradbury said, you must write 1 million crappy words before you're any good. So don’t worry, be crappy.

#4 Figure out if you’re writing in the right area, targeting the right reader by asking those close to you what they see as your unique gifts, abilities, and bent. And objective friend can save you much time if they're willing to be honest. Buy them lunch or dinner.

#5 Figure out if you are able to devote the needed time to this. There’s a time of life issue. Much prayer and consideration is required before you set out to write, let alone publish (we'll get that that in a couple weeks). Myself, I can’t do much more than write an hour a day right now b/c I can’t take the time away from my life to travel & commit
to publicity work.

Know where you are and prepare accordingly. Exercise in the meantime and commit to the work.

#6 Finally, get hard, trustworthy critiques from qualified writers. This is so essential. You have no idea how you need this until you've received it, but take it from me, there's nothing more important than the insights of a seasoned writer or editor on your work. Nothing. 

This may be tough to find as you’re starting out, but strive for it and you will find people you can connect with through conferences and online groups like ACFW and CWG. You don't need people writing what you write necessarily, but you do need people as committed to the craft, and who are devoted to encouraging and shepherding your talent. 

My hope is that this will be that kind of group very soon, so if that's you, hang tight and leave a comment. We'll be hooking people up very shortly for you to grow with.


And tune in next time for Part 2: The Proposal.

Reality Check #7: Silence Isn’t Golden

Let’s face it. Some publishing realities contribute to low quality books too.

Start with money. We’ve got to sell books. But that creates a conflict of interest for Christians; the goals of business are diametrically opposed to God’s. No mission statements say “show us the money.” It’s just implied. Which means we’ll publish books we may not fully agree with in order to “give them what they want.” Some think it’s just the way it is.

Following the “give them what they want” philosophy is an obvious question. What books are those, exactly? Some say low quality, controversial books with familiar ideas in them. They certainly don’t want to read classics. They don’t want books that require a lot of effort, even if they might like them more if they gave them a try. No. Fluffy books, tune-out books, reads as disposable as candy wrappers.

Which brings us to the nutrition-to-candy ratio. With disposable books, surely nutrition and excellence are low on the list. If it’s for CBA, slip some God in there and we’re good. We don’t need artsy-fartsy stuff gumming up the works.

Maybe this blog is a complete waste of bytes.

The problem with all this is that books aren’t candy. Of course, we want them to be as popular as Pop Rocks, but what’s the cost to the reader? Quality does matter. In fact, it matters at least as much as message. Maybe more. When it comes to our creations representing the Creator, what carries the message to the reader? The vehicle of our craft? What if the Bible wasn’t excellent? What if God didn’t care? What if we didn’t build our church well and it came crashing down on our heads? If God doesn’t care, maybe we’re wasting our time here.

Why would I trade my good reputation to discuss these problems in CBA? I don’t want to be known as the guy who hates CBA. Talking about this on a public blog isn’t my idea of fun. It doesn’t facilitate working in the industry. Silently contributing to the mountain of books makes a whole lot more sense. But I think our books need to better reflect our master. Whether or not “literary” books sell, we need books that don’t contribute to the idea that faith is like a candy wrapper we can use whenever and however we like. I’m so happy there are editors and authors doing good work out there. But there’s still a lot of padding on the shelves, shoddy product produced too quickly without respect of our task and its eternal significance. And yes, it’s worse in the general market, but that’s not the point.

Can I suggest why this matters? Silence about the problems pays implicit concessions to them. Professional distance shouldn’t excuse us from bowing to market pressures. Christian publishers are cashing in on successes so regularly it’s become expected. We don’t even question anymore. Sales assumptions about nutrition-to-candy ratio dictate what books get published. There are accepted business practices that propagate a low standard. And we all are complicit in our silence.

Confession: I’m guilty too. I’ve compromised. I’m not clean and tidy either. I’m not sure if anyone in my shoes can be completely. And that’s a topic for another post. But we don’t need an overhaul of CBA. All I’m asking for is some dialogue, an open discussion to try to balance some of these realities. Let’s stand together and have some accountability. Let’s discuss the problems and not hide behind false decency or prissy professionalism. Maybe I don’t get to be thought of as classy for saying this, but I can’t worry about that. Let’s deal with our book-buying and publishing decisions and not take the bait of publishers hoping we’ll buy the next installment of candy. The silence contributes more to less-than-excellent books than anything. There are some closed doors that need opening. We should probably let them stay closed, but doggone it, you just can’t stop progress.

Okay, so that little term “nutrition-to-candy ratio” needs some unpacking. Come on back.

Interview with Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner is an incredibly talented, relatively new writer who crafts intriguing stories of depth and spiritual insight. She also does it incredibly fast. Blazing fast by some standards. She has been nominated for many awards, won several, and recently took issue with a comment I made in response to Athol Dickson’s post at Charis Connection about the pace of publishing. I just don’t happen to think quality fiction can be written much faster than she does it.

Is Susan skimping on quality? Does she need a tongue-lashing by Bret Lott to get her act together? I decided to ask this acclaimed CBA fiction writer to answer some questions in the center column.

MS: Susan, thanks for being here, in the center column of the computer where you can’t see the faces I’m making at you for disagreeing with me.
SM: Indeed, you can’t see faces, which might explain why you suppose I disagree with you when I was simply posing a question. Blogs don’t allow us the advantage of tone, timbre, facial expression, and body language. My issue-taking (and I make it a point never to take things that do not belong to me) was really more soul-searching and using your blog to do it. The issue was raised: Can writers produce anything of depth and quality in a compressed time frame wherein they publish a book two or three times a year? I posted my dilemma. I write fast. Not because my contract demands it but because that is the speed of the words that spill out of my head. Where do I fall then in the speed=mediocrity equation? Is there an equation? I don’t disagree. I question.

I stand corrected. I mean uncorrected. I’m the one who’s always saying we need to discuss rather than disagree. Stop taking my lines. But come on. How many full drafts do you go through before submitting to your ed?
I write one draft. Only one. Every morning I read what I wrote the day before (usually ten to 12 pages), make edits, clarifications, improvements. Typically no more than an hour. Then I write the next chapter. I’m usually done by the time the kids come home. There are times when a key scene takes two days. When I’m one third through the book, I take a day to read. And then again when I’m halfway done. By then, I know the characters and can write the rest just reading the previous day’s work.

Well, I’m glad that works for you. Have you experimented with other methods, like just writing all the way through?
SM: Well, see, writing for me has never been an experiment. It is art. And no, I’m not trying to elevate myself to some lofty position above the uncultured masses. It’s just what it is for me. It’s not a science that begs to be studied or proven via experimentation. I didn’t come by this way of writing by experimentation; it just seemed to be the best way for me to tell a story.

How do you feel you’ve improved in your writing?
I think I pinpoint story weaknesses more quickly—pet phrases, stilted dialogue, unrealistic characterizations, trite descriptions. This is mainly because I’ve a great editor who has given me an eye for these weaknesses; he saw them in my first manuscript and was kind enough to throw down the penalty flags. The mechanics haven’t changed much. The day’s quota is the same, and I still outline and research ahead of time. I still edit as I go.

How much do you outline. What’s your method and how did you come by it?
SM: It depends on the story, really. Every book I write has a map, if you will, of where I intend to go. When I write a mystery and I have to have red herrings here and there and enough truth-hinting so that the ending rings true, I craft a sentence outline for each scene or chapter. In the book I am working on now (chick lit with heavy concentration on the “lit”), I am using index cards, each of which has a scene I want to weave into the story somehow, somewhere. I know how each story will end, what’s at stake and how the characters will grow and change. I came by this method because I needed it. I’ve never felt the pull to write something that I’ve not thought out first.

When you get rewrite suggestions back, is it a lot?
I’ve heard some get pages and pages of rewrites. Mine have always been manageable, with perhaps six to ten instances per book where I need to rewrite a paragraph to make something clearer or drive the plot better. I don’t know if this is the “just right” amount. But I trust my editor. I don’t get the impression that my manuscripts aren’t being scrutinized at every level.

Why do you edit as you go?

If I make an unexpected plot change I want to make sure what I’ve already written will mesh and I don’t want to hunt for those plot discrepancies when I’m polishing. I don’t make sweeping edits as I write (that would curdle my creativity) but I usually don’t have to. The outline keeps major surprises from messing with the flow.

Do you use Stephen King’s “drawer” technique to gain objectivity?
I do the drawer thing but it’s usually only a couple weeks. I go fourteen days, which isn’t six weeks, but were I to wait longer I fear I would lose some of the passion for that particular story’s key elements. I don’t want to lose my connection to the characters and their plight.

How long do you let your story and characters gestate before putting them down? Do you have a technique for developing plot and character?
I always have story ideas tumbling around inside my head. I concocted my current book a year ago while I was writing something else. I’ve been contemplating her and her dilemma for many months and haven’t written more than one paragraph for the proposal. But I’ve spent a year with this woman, in my head. I know who she is, what she wants, and why she struggles to have it. My technique is pretty straightforward: familiarity sums it up. I plot, I interview characters, I study the setting, I try out lines of dialogue —whatever I can to get to know the people, place, and problem so that I’m writing from a point of knowledge, not conjecture.

Bingo. I think you’ve answered why the outline becomes less critical with experience. You know, like when you’re a seasoned explorer, instead of a map you can just sniff the wind. Do you think there’s a significant difference between seat-of-the-pants writers and outliners?
My take is the outliner and the seater-of-the-pantser have more in common than most know. The Outliner does her supposing up front; the SOPer does it while she writes.

I feel like beginners who are “SOPers” tend to be “SLOPers.”
I would imagine the Outliner has less editing to do when the project is finished. But one is no more desirable than the other. Both require the skill of a convincing storyteller.

Are you in a crit group for feedback?
At one point I had a crit partner, but it was an unfair pairing. She was a crock pot writer and I’m a “convection oven” writer. I would produce four chapters in the time she produced one. No one sees my work as it’s being written, not that I don’t let anyone; that’s just how it is. A few times I have sent the first few chapters to my editor’s assistant and that was very helpful. My agent reads the finished product before I send it and so does my mother and a friend from church. My mom, by the way, doesn’t read a lot of CBA lit, mostly literary-quality ABA bestsellers, so I tend to value her opinion a little higher than anyone else’s.

Ooh. You went and stepped in it now. Are you saying you value her opinion more because ABA literary fiction is of higher quality?
ABA literary fiction is boxless. In the CBA, we—by the very nature of being a subgroup—have a box. It’s not a bad box or a good box, it’s just a confining space and there hasn’t been a whole lot of literary fiction popping out of it. And that’s what I like to read. That’s what I aspire to write like. I think the CBA is predominantly (please read predominantly, not only) filled with talented writers of popular fiction, many of whom write to the very edges of those confining walls. But my guess is not very many of us have the skill to produce what could be a classic fifty years from now. Yes, I’d say the quality of ABA literary fiction is higher, and yes, the ABA writers I’ve enjoyed probably wrote their best work in an elongated time frame, not a short one. My writing probably doesn’t compare with theirs. But I’m not totally convinced I could write to the same level if I had two years between books instead of six months. I don’t know if any writer can produce something truly stellar simply and only because they massaged it for two years. You have to have the ability to tell a great story. You either have it or you don’t.

Hmm. Good point. We may need to define this “quality” word some more. I’ll do some digging into Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which may help. Maybe we can develop a sort of quorum with a few more writers and see what sort of consensus we can get on this tricky word.

Thank you for your quality and time here. Personally, I think your books are ABA literary-quality—in a CBA commercial package. I’ve never read a book of yours where I don’t want to spend more time with the characters and their world.
You’re very welcome and too kind. That’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about my stories. Thanks for the group, too. You give us isolated communicators a great place to socialize, discuss and debate.

New Mail!

Re: Welcome Letter from Your Coach

Dear writer:

Thanks for sending in your manuscript and welcome to training camp. For the next few weeks, I’ll be your coach. You may have had many coaches before, but I want you to focus on those who helped you improve. What did they do that was special? My goal is to increase your chances of getting a hit every time at bat: get more line drives, more RBIs, and ultimately, more homeruns. Ideally, you’ll be hitting homeruns every time at bat. Of course, the practical implication of that is a bit of work. And trust. That’s where I hope to start.

One of the key things I’d like to start with is to help point out where you’ve got some blind spots. Those are costing you strikes or fouls. Every time you incorrectly assess a pitch, you’re ending up with some things you don’t want. You can’t see them on your own; that’s why they call them blind spots. And that’s why you need to keep an open mind. From my experience and my position on the field, I can see things you’re not able. I’m genuinely excited to try to help you improve your average, so be assured I’m committed to never steering you wrong.

Ultimately, what I want to do for you is help you understand the psychology of pitchers to help you predict what to look for. Pitchers look for your weaknesses. They try to exploit those to embarrass you in front of your fans. If you go out unprepared, that pitcher will see you as though you’re standing in front of him naked. Most of them are born naturally evil at it. I’ll show you how to make it harder for him to exploit, without over-compensating or relying on tricks. I’ll give you the real tools to use in staring down any new challenger.

And that’s just the beginning. Once you internalize my advice, you won’t have to fear any pitch thrown at you. You’ll be able to choose whether you want a single or a triple, whether to drop it on a grasshopper in far left field, or shoot a spinner off between first and second any time you like.

Now you should know that sometimes my advice may mean giving up one or more of your pet expressions. Those cherished little rituals, characteristics, mannerisms you’ve developed and nurtured that define your style and voice, many of them are actually hindering what you’re there to do—which is hit the ball. All those little embellishments distract you and everyone else from what’s underneath it all: a great hitter. So you may have to choose whether you want to be known for your flourishes or for your ability to crack that ball over the fence time and time again. I believe you can go far. But first you’ve got to decide what you want.

Now sure, I’m not omnipotent. I can’t see everything. But I’ve helped raise many a batter’s average, and every one of them has left with a greater power to accomplish their goals. I may not get a lot of thank you cards, but my hitters are a powerful force out there, consistently spanking the unfortunate pitchers who throw for them.

So do you trust me? Frankly, you’d be right to chew on that. Plenty of coaches have lost their drive, and some batters rightly believe they’ve been done a disservice by a bad coach. Some batters spread their ignorance, believing they’ll get further without a coach “manipulating their style” or “twisting their stance.” Even seasoned batters have been casting doubt on the value of coaches recently, though the idea likely stems from the same faulty “natural talent” thinking that coddles bad batting records. You may have heard about “the adulterating effects” of batting help which supposedly aims to correct the rawness of an batter’s talent. But a good coach is a good coach, the same as a good agent or a good financial advisor or a good personal trainer: they’ve got specialized knowledge you don’t. And as available tools in your tool chest, I may be the best you’ve got.

Anyway, that’s enough for now. I’m looking forward to spending time getting to know you and sharing what I know to help you navigate this new book. Don’t worry about the physics and rules concerning the methods of hitting or any of that yet. We’ll get to all that if and when the time comes. Just leave the coaching to me. Until then, keep your eye on the ball.

Great having you aboard!

Your Coach

Book editing

The comment was made by a coworker today that for all the evidence her title indicates to the contrary, she spends very little time actually editing books. It was a sentiment I’ve heard countless times at conferences and lunches with other editors I know: most of our job is spent on things other than actually editing. I know why that is, but I don’t really know at the same time. It’s a strange little fact that I find many writers don’t quite understand when they talk about their editor or what he or she actually does for them.

My morning today was spent writing a proposal, typing up a memo for an internal department concerning a legal matter, handing off a pile of manuscripts to be declined to the assistant, checking on a conference call I’m supposed to be involved in later in the week, and getting a report about the likelihood of Dr. Dobson shooting the remainer of the video segments needed before we can be finished with the accompanying curriculum. Most Monday mornings are worse with meetings and phone calls as everyone tries to get a handle on the most pressing projects of the week by making countless phone calls to all their usual contacts. Throw in morning devotions, and you’ve got a fairly busy morning.

My point here isn’t to complain or to air my intimates. I’m just trying to show a few of the things that take up the day besides actually editing. “Project management” is a more accurate title for it, but still farily unhelpful in really telling what it is book editors do. And it isn’t easy to quantify even for us. So many days slip by where you wonder, What in the world did I do today? It helps to be able to go down a list, so sometimes I’ll write out everything I can remember just to get an idea of what to tell the boss in our staff meeting, but even that can be a mystery. Everything gets chalked up to “R&D.”

But what’s really interesting about the average work week is how many different books, ours and others, will happen across your desk or computer screen in a given day. I’d estimate it can reach about 200-300, especially if you’re researching catalogs for new projects. “Big deal,” you might say. “I go through that many on amazon all the time.” You probably do. But do you know how much the publishers made on them, the editors personal relationship with them, the life situations of the authors who wrote them? This is an essential part of the job too, where editing and agenting intersect and where I often feel incapacitated and out of my element among all those details. I’m a macro guy, if you couldn’t tell. An author’s birthday is just not going to get a red light in my brain.

Thank God for Christmas cards so I can remember all the people I worked with this year. I think someone should write a Christmas carol about that tradition, of writing the business Christmas cards and trying to recall all the details about that person and your working relationship. It’s definitely a part of the season that goes unmentioned. I just wonder why…