On Publishing What? A Cautionary Tale

I finally submitted my novel to a fee-based publisher four months after my mother died.  The fees  were to cover editing, printing, marketing materials, distribution and several bound copies of the books as well as distribution. My manuscript was “approved for publication” after three months of waiting for initial “content” editing. I was thrilled.

It took several more weeks before I received a detailed scrub of my first chapter.  A “developmental” editing was required to ready the book for publishing. Huh? My education on levels of publishing houses and editorial phases had begun. For a mere eight thousand dollars, the editor would help me shape up the book for the market.   Was this the same editor who had done did the “content” editing? A person to whom I had been denied access to during the four-month setup process.

The editorial status had been communicated to me by a new recruit, who was not the same  editor who had executed the actual scrubbing of my first chapter. I was informed that the editor’s thorough examination of my first ten pages had revealed adequate writing, but demonstrated “structural problems.” She (the scrub editor)  got that out of 10 pages into a 400 page novel. I questioned that I needed “developmental” editing for a novel. What exactly would she be developing, without any knowledge of the story arc or its intention?

I had the rudimentary structure of story. It was no page turner, but had a decent beginning, middle and end. In all the writing classes and master’s program classes I had taken no one had ever mentioned “developmental” editing to me. Plenty of people had read the book and it had passed my dissertation committee.

The term “developmental” editing was not a foreign one, though. I had spent 25 years writing user guides for computing systems, business proposals fifty to one hundred pages in length, education programs and curricula for several training programs, and led a variety of task forces on creating healthy publishing projects for internal or external publishing.

Developmental editing referred to the technical breakdown of the writing pieces from executive summary to detailed specifications. It was the breakdown of the project so that many  writers could be assigned to work on different pieces of the project. This experiential definition did not equate to my understanding of “the novel.”

Then I did what I always do when faced with overwhelming ignorance. I started reading books on editing, from first draft to final novel, on how to breakdown the editing process, on how to create that final work. Some of the books were written by fiction writers who turn over the editing process to others. Some of those books gave advice in breaking down writing projects as if they were of engineering projects. More than a few advised against the writer editing her own work.

After six months of applying different approaches to my work, the story was even more fractured than the “approved” version I had submitted to the publisher. I abandoned the choppy technical process, deciding to go back to storytelling at a future date, quit the work at once, and languished in a state of separation anxiety from my dream of being a “published author.”

I gave up creative writing and turned to my faithful old journal and its tacit commands for me to speak the truth, be open, and accept everything.

I then thoroughly doused myself in Netflix and Acorn binges. After years of media  drought, I allowed myself to be inundated with stories, any stories, good stories, active stories, suspenseful stories, and imaginative stories.

The dried-out well was filling with story again. My love for writing– moving the pen across the page–began to flourish. Untold tales rose up, old characters embraced me once more: Tess, Steve, Charles, Clarke, Moira, Kate, and so many others. Gloriously, I was now tempering a new respect for all the work I had accomplished and discovering new-found hope for situations and problems yet to come.

This year I am revisiting my unpublished novel with a fresh eye and heightened imagination. Still under contract with the publisher,  I plan to finish the book this year. Stories pop up daily begging for attention, Mother’s oral stories of her family and childhood, Father’s stories of his wild youth in San Francisco and the Sonoma valley ranch.

My imagination swathes these people and places into stories of intrigue, secret longings, and nefarious adventures.Thankfully, I have a small group of diverse writers who help me attack the “developmental  editing” week by week.

Keep your writing dream alive. First and foremost, write for yourself.

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2 Comments

Filed under Getting It Out

2 responses to “On Publishing What? A Cautionary Tale

  1. I’d file this in my “Stephen King” horror story folder. Seriously.
    First, when the “editor” came back and suggested nothing wrong with the manuscript that $8,000 couldn’t fix (for starters) I’d run, hide, and post wards all round myself. For the same reason I never volunteer for a “free” spinal exam by a chiropractor.
    Second, when the “developmental editor” determined after ten pages that the manuscript needs the equivalent of a total overhaul and rebuild of a type that only an expert (herself) can provide, that’s my clue to dig my hide-out hole deeper and cover it with a thicker lid.
    An author’s desire to be published is exceeded only by the avarice and greed of those who offer their services for a fee.
    Truthfully, the maximum burden I’ve ever known to be imposed on an author whose work is recognized by a reputable publishing house is the heavy lift of a rewrite based on an editor’s notes. Nowhere have I heard of them “volunteering” to rewrite it for an author, for a fee.
    Personally, I’d let it cool down for awhile; then pick it up, draft an outline from its current structure, and then review that outline for coherence and pacing. I’d lay a jaundiced eye on that outline to see if the story gets told in a reasonably direct way. Using that as a guide, I’d grab my hatchet, my machete, and a big red pen and I’d begin hacking away the deadwood; grafting in new passages to smooth the flow; and then I’d call that my new “first draft.”
    Then after a short cool-down, I’d go in again and do the inevitable clean-up to remove passive phrases, dead words, clichés, and other excrescences that inevitably creeps in upon us all.
    Fire the publisher, burn the ‘how-to’ books, trash the guides, and resolve to tell it in your own words, with your own pacing, developing your own style. That’s the most expensive, and the most rewarding investment you’ll ever make. Expensive? Yes, time and effort, blood, tears, and lots of rewrites. But it’s gonna be yours, and nobody else can do it as well as you, in your own way.
    (My favorite writing tool is Scrivener. It lets me outline, move chunks around, save all the revised bits & pieces, and it never loses a word. I can mangle a plot in six different directions and pull it all back into something useful.)

  2. Interesting takes on the publishing process. Thanks for your interest.

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