Category Archives: writing life

The Hero’s 2 Journeys–that’s right, TWO.

I happened upon a great audiobook entitled, The Hero’s 2 Journeys by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler on iTunes. (Also available on CD and DVD.)  Renowned screenwriter/teachers Hauge and Vogler deliver a lively presentation examining both the inner and outer journey of the protagonist, referencing popular movies along the way. (They use Shrek as one of their go-to examples, which I love.) It’s based upon Joseph Campbell’s famous Hero’s Journey but, oh, so much more. First, they cover the outer journey—the essential structural principles driving every successful plot; and then they take you step-by-step through the protagonist’s all-important inner journey, distinguishing between his identity and true essence. When the two “journeys” are melded together, it’s guaranteed to take your story to the next level. (Well, they don’t actually offer a guarantee.) Geared mainly toward scriptwriters but novelists will benefit heaps of knowledge as well since the basic recipe is the same. You’ll feel like you’re right there in Hollywood with the rest of the attendees, who undoubtedly paid a huge fee to get into this sold-out event (not to mention dealing with L.A. gridlock) but you get to listen to it at your convenience via your iPod, iPad, or iWhatever—and for a reasonable price. It’s a goldmine of information, maybe a bit too formulaic, but ridiculously insightful and with plenty of solid takeaways. A must have for any fiction writer!

Copyediting: What to Expect

After you’ve taken your manuscript through two or three rounds of initial edits with your editor, it will be passed along to a copyeditor, who examines each line of text with a fine-toothed comb. When you receive your manuscript back from them—coffee-stained and curling at the edges—it will be peppered with proofreader symbols along with corrections on typos, spacing, wording, grammar, that type of thing, written in one color (usually red pencil); and directions specifically for the typesetter about  font, design elements, etc. in another color (probably green). There will also be a slew of sticky-notes attached to the pages with questions for you regarding every detail of your manuscript imaginable. Daunting as it may seem, this is a good thing. We want to get it right, and these folks are the eagle-eye, nitpickers we need to zero in on the minutia we may have glossed over. You’ll get specific queries, such as: “Gyp is derived from the word gypsy and can be seen as a derogatory. Change to cheat?” “Kleenex is a TM and they insist on using Kleenex-brand-tissues. Substitute tissues instead?” “The ice cream is still  rock solid after a night in a powerless freezer? Revise or OK?” “They’ll also point out copyrighted material in your text—things like poems and song lyrics. For instance, I had just assumed that the song “Happy Birthday” was in the public domain, meaning, free. Wrong! You can only quote so many lines from it before your publisher would have to pay royalties. Who knew? There are ways to fudge it, though. Just use bits and pieces of the song—or substitute a few lyrics with “dum-dee-dums,” that sort of thing. Your publisher’s Legal Department will most likely be the final judge. 

For your changes, you’ll be asked to use a different color pencil from the copyeditor’s marks (I chose purple) and to write directly onto the manuscript. (Don’t even think about using an ink pen!) If you agree with a suggested change, you simply leave it as marked; if you disagree, you mark a dotted line under the words you want to keep and write STET in the margin, which means “let stand.” Now is also the best time to make your last major changes, adding or deleting copy, because after your book is typeset it gets difficult and expensive for the publisher to do so. This can take skill on your part. You have to use neat, teeny-tiny handwriting (or I should say hand-printing) to fit between the lines of text, and it must be done with the utmost of clarity. If I’m changing more than a word or two, I like to work out that specific section on my computer screen first and then transfer it into the manuscript, to avoid over-erasing and—heaven forbid!—holes in the paper. You’ll be advised, when adding more than a just few sentences, to type out the new text on a separate piece of paper, then clip it to the page. Heed this advice. 

Now, what about all those proofreader’s marks? I think it’s wise to have a list of them handy as you’re working through your edits to interpret what all the hieroglyphics mean—those little squiggles, symbols, carets, and lines. Most of these are intended for the typesetter, but you should be able to decipher them yourself so you can incorporate them when marking your changes. Little, Brown had provided me with an instructional booklet entitled “From Manuscript to Printed Book” which included a glossary of proofreader marks, but Walker/Bloomsbury didn’t. They’re easy enough to find online, though. Merriam-Webster’s site has a good one:

You’ll usually have a pretty short period of time in which to complete your copy edits and return them to your publisher—I had less than a week. So, it’s essential to work fast and work smart. Keep a pencil sharpener handy (the sharper the pencil point, the easier it is to write clearly in limited space). Resist the urge to work outdoors. If a thunderstorm or a mighty wind comes along, you could be in a heap of trouble—tons of work went into copyediting these pages and there’s no computer backup. As a safety net, I like to take notes on all the major changes I’ve made to the manuscript just in case there are follow-up questions. (And there are always follow-up questions.) This is an exciting time. After you’ve completed the copy editing process, your manuscript will be sent off to the typesetter. This means the galleys are right around the corner!

So, your editorial letter has arrived…now what?

Zippity-doo-dah! I’ve just completed Round Two of my edits for MADhattan Mystery and I owe myself a ridiculously decadent reward. Let’s see…there’s this $1,000 chocolate sundae topped with edible gold at a restaurant called Serendipity. But, no. I have to pay the rent.

Anyway, now that I have a minute to blog again, I thought I’d compare and share the two different approaches I took to my first two rounds of edits. The first I had several months to deliver; the second—just two weeks. Let’s visualize…


* The editorial letter arrives along with my annotated manuscript. I’m excited, exhilarated, and completely overwhelmed. I read the letter at least three times in a row and let it all wash over me without indulging in my immediate reactions. These can run the gamut from “Wow, what a brilliant idea!” to “You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding?” (Warning: initial reactions can be completely misleading.)

* With all this new info marinating my brain, I go to Staples and buy an assortment of colorful sticky tabs, extra-long rubber bands for securing loose manuscripts, and a funky little composition notebook. (Warning: totally unnecessary stuff like paperclips in the shape of treble clefs should probably be avoided while in this overenthusiastic state.)

* I read through my entire manuscript, identifying every page that has a handwritten remark from my editor with a pink sticky tab; and pages where I have new ideas or solutions with a blue sticky tab. I make corresponding notes in my notebook for easy referral and record all my ideas, no matter how wacky—I know they can turn out to be valuable later on. (Warning: Every “Ha!” from your editor will elicit a twinge of joy; every “Too abrupt” will bring a pang of deep disappointment.)

* I re-read the editorial letter for about the tenth time.

* I’m thinking it’d make sense to tackle all the small changes first, and then move onto the weightier stuff. But then again, if I end up cutting an entire section filled with the small changes, I’ve wasted a bunch of time. It’s a toss up. I ultimately decide on big stuff first.

* I re-read the editorial letter for the umpteenth time. (Warning: Even if a particular suggestion still seems questionable, give it a shot anyway and try to make it work. Amazing things can happen. Trust your gut—but trust your editor, too.)

* I start from the beginning of the novel and implement all the changes into the electronic version on my computer. As I’m working, new insights pop into my head, spunkier dialogue, etc. Little gifts! Some can immediately be added; others need more contemplating, so I’m constantly keeping notes.

* When I think I’ve got it in tip-top shape, I print out the entire manuscript. Yep, things really DO look different on actual paper than on a computer screen. Then I do a final read-through to see if all the changes I’ve made work as a whole; if they’re integrated smoothly—not lumpy and bumpy. I have my notebook handy and more sticky tabs just in case, but what I’m really striving for at this point is real-time reading speed. It should all play out like a movie. (Warning: You WILL stop a zillion times anyway and find a zillion more mistakes.)

* I make the final-final changes and send the revised novel off to my editor wondering, “Why the heck is it ten pages longer after I’d trimmed so much?” (Warning: You will immediately think of at least FIVE new ideas as soon as you press “send”. Write them all down in your funky little notebook for the next round of edits.)


* All of the above but with a few minor changes. I skip the trip to Staples. Instead of taking handwritten notes in a notebook, I type them into my computer instead. Much faster. This time I tackle the small stuff first, ’cause there are less major adjustments. And instead of printing out the entire manuscript, I do the final read-through on the computer screen, making changes as I go along.

* While waiting for the next round of edits, I dream of ridiculous things like $1,000 sundaes…and wonder what I’m going to do with all these treble-clef-shaped paperclips.

The In-Your-Face Calendar

There are so many story facts to juggle when writing a novel, it’s mind boggling! And they have a tendency to change a lot, so keeping track of them all is key. One way I avoid inconsistencies in my timeline is to keep an active CALENDAR indicating which chapters fall on which days and the major events that take place. I plaster it onto the door right next to my desk for quick reference and create separate little sheets for each day so that when facts change, I can simply replace one little sheet of paper instead of having to make a whole new calendar. This saves a lot of grief during the revision process, believe me! Lines like “Remember our fishing trip last Tuesday?” or “I can’t believe school starts in three days” or “The wedding is this Sunday, the ninth,” though accurate in your first draft, might get completely changed and rearranged by, say, version number five. Somehow in the writing process (for a thousand different reasons) the fishing trip was switched to a Wednesday, school starts in five days, not three, and the wedding was moved to the 12th. Keeping a calendar on your computer is also a good idea, especially if you do a lot of laptop-writing-on-the-go, but when writing at home, opt for a giant, handy-dandy calendar a glance away to prevent fits of hair-pulling frustration.

Calendars are also great holiday reminders, of course. Everyone remembers the biggies like Thanksgiving and Christmas, but what about the forgettables like Groundhog Day, say, or Flag Day? I managed to work in Friday, the 13th and Father’s Day into the storyline of the novel I’m currently working on, which might’ve been completely overlooked had it not been for the almighty calendar. Now, don’t get me started on moon phases…

Here’s a link to a great website where you can print out calendars and size them to your liking. A whiteboard calendar would probably work well, too, but it could get messy—or accidentally erased—and it’s not free.

Your Day Job and Why Not to Hate It

Sometimes my job-job gets me down. (“Job-job” meaning the job you have to have in order to survive, as opposed to the work you’d rather be doing, namely, your latest writing venture. Duh.) In my case, the job-job is transcription—you know, listening to sound files of interviews, speeches, focus groups, etc., and converting them into hardcopy via computer keyboard. I’m lucky enough to do it only part-time and to work out of my apartment, which makes it a heck of a lot more palatable, but still… Like I said, having to devote so many hours to it can occasionally give me the gloomy-dooms.

Recently, I had a little power surge when it occurred to me that if it weren’t for my job-job, I may not have become a writer at all. I remember one day when I was working in the office of our company on East 42nd Street… [CUE FLASHBACK MUSIC AND WAVY SCREEN] I was doing a transcription for a regular client called the Trumpet Club. I don’t know if they still exist. They used to do radio broadcasts of children’s book authors reading from their published works for classrooms. Some of it was fantastic, awe-inspiring stuff, but some of it was—well, honestly, I remember thinking, “Ugh. I think I can do better than that.” I was so overcome with this personal challenge that I began composing a poem on the way home from work that very day. “The Monster Inside Me” I think I’d called it. Anyway, that poem turned out to be the catalyst for many other poems, articles and short stories that would see the golden light of publication in several magazines—which led to a few writing classes—which led to a great critique group—which led to two published middle-grade novels and another one on the way. Thanks, Trumpet Club!

To this day, I’m always jotting things down as I transcribe for use in my writing. Interesting words, names, places, phrases, facts, expressions, dialects… In fact, the inspiration for my third novel came entirely from a transcription job I was working on in which there was a discussion about something called the “whispering gallery” in Grand Central Station. I had never even heard of it at the time, but it’s an unmarked area just outside the Oyster Bar Restaurant where a whisper in one corner can be heard clear as day in the opposite corner. (Very cool. Something to do with the curved ceilings.) I immediately thought, “What a great concept for a novel! What if someone who wasn’t aware of this phenomenon happened to be standing in the corner plotting out a crime with his cohort—and it was accidentally overheard by an innocent bystander?” That little nugget of a thought turned into my middle-grade novel, Boondoggle, which was recently acquired by Walker Books.

I know, I know—inspiration can come from anywhere, not only yelchy job-jobs. But if you happen to be stuck in one (and you probably are) do keep your eyes and ears open and your notepad ready. You can get more out of it than just a paycheck.