I’ve spent the last decade or so saying that I want to do a regular “anatomy of a book” thing for this so often neglected blog. I think the biggest obstacle is that guiding a book through the long pre-publication process is often mind-numbing and obsessed with the tiny little things that would drive normal people insane. Luckily, as a publisher, I’m already insane, so don’t worry about me. It’s you, the reader, I fear for. I imagine getting to part 27 of “Anatomy of a Book” – cover design debates, round 17. Is that font that looks exactly like the last 12 fonts better because of some small thing people will only register on a subliminal level?
I figured I’d use my own book We All Scream: The Fall of the Gifford’s Ice Cream Dynasty as the subject of an anatomy of the book blog series. Here I could talk as an author and not worry about the publishing aspect so much. The book will be released by Stillhouse Press in February of 2017 so all those niggling little publisher problems are theirs to worry about. Ho-ho-ho.
But being an author is still about being involved in the minutia of book stuff. In January I wrote a short little blog post about finding the voice of the book as I entered into the final revision phase. Writing is revision, I said then, so that’s what I want to talk about today, after five months of a grueling, exciting, and rewarding development edit.
We All Scream took me about four years to write (though, in reality, I’ve been trying to write it for about thirty years). I started out in 2012 with a clear idea of what my family was all about and, the more I researched and journeyed on my own path of healing, the more I discovered that my family was much more than what I thought it was about. The memoir saw a sea-change about four times – as in I scraped about 80% of it and started over. Again and again. In the final book, I discuss some of the blank trails that trapped me for so many years.
By the end of 2015, the memoir was close to 400 pages and it was a mash-up of all the terrible things my family did to me and all the terrible things I did to get away from my family. Thanks to the guiding hand of Stillhouse, what you’ll see in 2017 is now a much slimmer (under 270 pages) story of painful discovery as I pick apart the dark motivations that have eclipsed three generations of my family and everyone who foolishly tried to capitalize off of my family’s nostalgia.
Lots of professionals say that “writing is revision,” but that’s easier said than done. Revising your own work is a bit of a slippery slope. In writing and in life, I’ve always had trouble identifying my audience. When you’re deep in the revision of your own work, it’s even worse. You tweak and you fiddle and you rewrite and you mull over everything. You lie awake at 3am and watch the ceiling fan spin round and round and you think about the order of paragraphs, how characters are presented, how to better arrive at the point. But it’s hard to really get a grip (for me, at least) on who I’m writing for. I don’t know the audience – and may never completely understand who that audience is. So am I just writing for me? Because, if so, then it’s just a diary entry and I should quit.
In my case, I had a cheat. I can guess the audience – people who remember Gifford’s – and use that to form a central question that needs answered: “What the hell happened?”
But, then, I don’t actually know. No one does. All the key players are dead, and all their actions in life were a maze of lies and well-funded (and hidden) criminal acts. So then I lose the thread again. Is the book about my journey? If so, then I still have to keep the audience in mind as I go on that journey. We’ll take all the steps together and when we get to the end we can look back at how we got there. That means fewer side-trips. That means focus and editing. That means I ended up slashing 100,000 words. And that’s the sort of revision a writer can’t do alone.
Some writers do the beta-reader thing, but I never trusted that. I have trust issues anyway, as you’ll soon discover in We All Scream. My parents raised me not to trust anyone and to assume that everyone is lying to me. If a person says one thing, then they mean the opposite. So the whole beta-reader thing is lost on me. I want a professional on board. I’ve always considered editors to be high, holy positions. Book doctors. As in, these are trained people who think and react a certain way. It goes beyond the beta-reader’s “I don’t get why so and so did such and such” and moves into the tyrannical and terrifying realm of a page of red ink screaming at you to tighten up and clearly state whatever shit you’re trying to state or get rid of it.
This is important because you do have to yell at writers sometimes. Writers fall into the trap where they’ll think something is a work of staggering genius and, if you don’t agree, then maybe they’ll kidnap your dog and hold it hostage until you do agree. For example, three pages of We All Scream was wasted detailing the intricacies of the plot to the Doctor Who episode “Genesis of the Daleks.” I thought it was brilliant and tied the whole damn book together, but my editor pulled out a can of mace and let me have it till those pages were trimmed down to a paragraph.
And, my god, the book instantly became about a thousand times better.
Editing is a strange thing. Most people think of copyediting – the dull and dreary line-by line fixers. The people who must sit there, hour after hour, day after day, and wonder why the hell there are so many damned writers out there who simply can’t friggin’ write! I know they’ll look at my book and go to bed every night wondering if I advanced beyond fourth grade English.
A dying breed of editing these days, though, is the development editor. Those are the people who weigh in and tell you to cut those 50 pages about your shoe fetish because it has nothing to do with…anything, really. They’re the reality checkers. The people who hit you on the wrist and tell you to revise, reorder, re-edit, rewrite. They’re what every writer needs – a professional beta reader who punches you in the stomach when you’re being an idiot and tells you exactly how to proceed. At SFWP, I roll the development editor position into the copy editor position. This is because I’m cheap. Stillhouse, however, just gave me a straight-up, old school development editor. He was the best thing that ever happened to my writing. An unmanageable, monstrous, and boring book in my hands was transformed, in his hands, into a book I can actually take pride in…despite the despicable subject matter. A development editor is like having a personal fitness trainer for your book. And if you try to do it yourself, you’ll rupture a disc or something. Trust me.
Finding a good development editor, though, might be a tall order. This is something indie presses should champion, because it’s also painful for an author to do it unless there’s a contract in hand. The end result is a better book that sells, so it’s in everyone’s interest if small presses do step up to the plate and offer this as part of the pre-production service. Let’s see if we can start that revolution.