Yesterday, on the way home from a memorial service for my high school English Teacher, I returned to revisions on the inside of my head.
It was better than traffic. (I’m a passenger; I don’t have a driver’s license.)
I realize that I have forgotten an iteration of revising that very first book for publication.
When Veronica made her offer for the first book of the Book of the Sundered series, I was ecstatic. This meant the book I’d written was publishable, right? I’d finally gotten it right!
What it meant was a long contract and a lack of guilt when she asked me for revisions – because now that they had made an offer on the book, she didn’t feel guilty about asking for work that might lead nowhere on my part.
She now had Into the Dark Lands on her desk, and it would be the first book published. However, while she had no issues now with characterization, she had some with a particular absence of something in text. This book was, btw, short for me 525 manuscript pages.
What she wanted me to add – and to think about going forward – was actual, physical description. Because there was none.
She said, “Michelle, you must be one of those readers that skims over – or skips – descriptive passages in books.” This was not entirely untrue. “But that’s one way of reading a book, and not all readers are you.”
(She also once said to me, when we were at a convention together and I had picked up a book, had read the beginning, and had flipped to the end, “MICHELLE. Don’t you think if you were meant to read that FIRST it would be called Chapter One?”)
“Readers choose what the skim, if they skim. All readers have their own interests and their own way of reading. So you are now going to go back to the book to add all the bits you, as a reader, would normally skip.”
“But – but what do you mean? There’s description here. Look – ”
“Yes, you’ve described a table.”
“Because the table is – ”
“I want the rest of the room, Michelle.”
(There was more, but this is the one that I actually remember.)
I started as a poet, and all objects that are described have, hmmm, purpose, texture. And also, I pointed out to her that the characters in any of these scenes would not really notice where they were because to them it was common place; it was something they saw all the time, and it was a tight viewpoint. It wasn’t an argument, per se. She said, “I have faith in you” (this is like “it’s not that bad” in certain situations).
So… I had to go back to the book. It was difficult, because, hmm.
I think when we start writing, the advice we’re often given is: write what you love. I would say, write the stories that speak most strongly to you. I had done that — I started the first book in the series in 1988. My first published novel was published in 1991.
But there’s an interiority to writing what is most important to me when writing. And obviously, publication is not just writing for myself. I understood that — I mean, it’s completely the point, right? — but obviously I had not really thought through what that meant across all writing fronts.
So for me, this was a huge stretch. I approached it by shifting what the viewpoint saw. If I needed to describe a building, I had the character start with an activity that would force them to notice it — like, say, cleaning or sweeping or juggling heavy objects while trying to walk across a crowded room.
Description — to me, and also the description I don’t skip — tells you a lot about character, because what a person notices, what draws their eye, what they think about it, tells you a lot about who they are.
It would be years before I could actually describe something without the need for that interior viewpoint. When they tell you that writing makes you better at writing, this is partly what they mean.
Earlier in a comment I spoke about the flexibility of multiple viewpoints; I talked about choosing a character who could – and did – notice everything, every element of a room, every hair out of place on any of its occupants, if I needed to fully describe a room. Some writers do not do this because that’s not how they perceive space and the various objects in it.
We all come to the writing table with strengths and weaknesses. We all come with things that we’re stellar at and things that we’re terrible at. The specific things will vary by writer, and the goal is to increase our competence in the weak areas while somehow maintaining the strong ones.
So: There I was, with a book that had no physical description. I added over ten thousand words — but I added it by reframing scenes. I started at the beginning and tried to “look” at it with figurative eyes.
This is called scene-blocking, I later discovered. In a stage play, the scene blocking is the backdrops, the props, the things that switch before the actors walk back on stage. Or on stage at all. They’re the visual markers that indicate a scene change, a change of venue, etc. Thinking of my novel as a stage play was very helpful in determining what was required. Or what I thought would be required.
Had I don’t this before? Well, no. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that it was missing. What I wrote was the people, with the significant and possibly metaphorical elements/objects I required.
It’s hard to write things that you generally don’t read. They are part of the novel — but, not perhaps in as visceral a way. So this was one of the “things you must do when writing a book” that did not come easily to me.
But, necessary work, regardless. My editor accepted the revisions and additions.
The only review that I received for that book noted the “complete lack of physical description”, after I’d added over 10k words. T_T.
It was something I tried to keep in mind going forward.
There will always be revisions to any book you submit. Even if they buy the book that you submitted, there will be editorial concerns and possible changes.
So: you submit a book. Your agent will probably ask for some changes. You make those changes. The agent takes it out and with luck finds an editor who feels strongly enough that s/he wants to buy it. Then the editor will have some changes. When you’ve made those to the best of your ability, there will be line-editing — which is pretty much what it sounds like.
And then copy-editing, where in theory people find the mismatched bits or the errors that you didn’t see in all the previous passes. Like, say, ears for eyes. You should get to review the copy-edit, so you can argue with the changes if you feel they’re not helpful.
At that point, it is sent to production, and you will next see first pass page proofs, which are the last thing you will see of your book until it’s published. You proof-read those, trying to catch the mistakes that were made that you’d missed every other time. At that point, you are not supposed to heavily rewrite your book.
And then you have a book.
If you are self-publishing, the agent part is irrelevant. But you will or should hire an editor, and the editorial process is similar. And copy-editing. And proof-reading. (And you will need to find a cover, to write cover copy, to write retailer copy, and to put it into the retail stream.)
None of this happens in a week; it’s a process.