From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing, Part 3

Editing the Manuscript (and a mistake in my last post)



In my last post, I talked about drafting the manuscript and my typical process of going through multiple drafts. When I feel it’s ready, the next step is to send it to my editor, Lorna Lynch. Lorna has edited all three novels in the “Monastery Valley” series, always profoundly improving them. (Last week I made a mistake in describing my process: I actually don’t send the book to my “beta” or trusted readers until after it gets its first round of editing, because these folks are doing me a favor and I want the manuscript to be in as good shape as it can be out of respect for them. Not sure what I was thinking!)

The developmental edit

When the manuscript is ready, I ask Lorna to do two rounds of editing: The first round is a “developmental edit” (also called a “structural” or a “content edit”). In a developmental edit, Lorna dissects and evaluates the structure of the book:

  • the consistency of the plot and character development;
  • whether the necessary structural components are all present and whether they fall more or less where they should;
  • whether the pacing and emotional tone of each scene carries the story forward and is faithful to the overall story arc itself;
  • and how well the story accomplishes its goals.

She always sends back the manuscript full of notes and comments, along with a lengthy document providing a separate critique of the story, characters, plot, and overall structure.

As you can imagine, this leads me to yet another revision, sometimes two. For instance, for my latest novel, The Bishop Burned the Lady, (you can preorder it now at a 10% discount from the publisher–click on the title and enter promo code PREORDER2018.) , I worked through the manuscript with Lorna’s separate critique first, because it tends to be more “global,” dealing with the overall structure and arc of the story. Then I went through the marked-up manuscript and dealt with each individual change she recommended.

No one expects an author to accept every one of her editor’s suggestions, but Lorna’s have always been reasonable and clearly aimed at strengthening the story and the writing. I seldom, heck, almost never, decide to ignore her recommendations.

The Copy Edit

The second round of editing also has various names: “Copy edit” or “line edit” are most common. This is the classic edit wherein your pages come back all marked with red ink. Lorna, as most editors do now, uses Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” tool. The copy editor, rather than the big-picture focus on the arc and structure of the story and the development of the characters, focuses on individual paragraphs, sentences, words, grammar, style, usage. Not to say she may not notice something bigger that either she missed in the developmental edit or that I inadvertently messed up in my revisions after it. She even does a bit of proofreading—a third level of editing that focuses on typos, misspellings, and such gremlins that happen no matter how often the manuscript is revised or how many people searched proofread it.

I find that my revisions after the copy edit take quite a while. At this point, I’m not merely revising to address the copy edit, but I’m starting to polish the prose. That may be the wrong word choice—my prose is not meant to be “polished.” I aim for a style that is spare, consonant with life and society in a small mountain town. But while I’m working through the copy edit, I’m always on the lookout for a better verb, and more pungent image, a stronger noun.

The Proofread

Proofreading is the final edit. It usually happens just before sending the manuscript to the publisher, and more formally after publisher converts the manuscript into an electronic “proof.” (In the old days of paper manuscripts, the proof was called a “galley.”) Now, they come as PDF files, and the task is to check every letter of every word for accuracy. Some proofreaders, to prevent themselves from reading the story and possibly missing errors, start with the last sentence and work backwards, sentence by sentence. I can’t do that. Instead, I hire a proofreader.

I’ve worked with two proofreaders, each of them both marvelous and meticulous—Kim Cheeley and Lorna. I met Kim, in fact, after she borrowed a copy of Climbing the Coliseum from her local library—and promptly proofread it, marked up all its typos and misspellings (she found 51, this after I had proofed the galleys twice!), and sent me the library’s copy. (She bought them another.)Since she found numerous typos, misspellings, and errors, I vowed always to have a proofreading done by a professional.

When all is done, and the proof is approved, a release date is set by the publisher. My publisher, Black Rose Writing, set April 12 as the release date for The Bishop Burned the Lady. Watch this space or my Facebook page for news about activities around the release! You’ll be glad you did!

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about how I develop ideas for my novels. It’s not a particularly sexy method, and many authors do much the same thing. This time, let me tell you what happens to prepare the early drafts—and there are quite a few—to step out in public. Typically, I write between four and six drafts before taking the next step. I worked through seven–count ’em, seven–“first drafts” of The Bishop Burned the Lady before I felt it was ready for the next step: trusted readers.

The first draft is just that, a rough draft (very rough!). I let it sit for a couple of weeks (unless I’m really in love with it, in which case like any love, I can’t bear to stay away). Draft 2 is structural—do the inciting incident, the four plot points, the three twists, the climax all fall more or less where they should? Is the build of the story–the logic of each scene following those before it and preparing for those to come–sound and compelling? Draft 3, assuming I’m satisfied with the structural integrity and logic of the story arc, focuses on pace and timing. Does the story move well? Are there slow spots or passages during which my mind wanders from the story? Does the tension build appropriately through every scene (in some fashion)—including the scenes designed to offer some relief?

Draft 4 focuses on language and style: Are the verbs robust and the nouns able to carry the weight of the job they are doing? Are the style and language well suited to the scene? By “well suited” I mean, do they carry forward the scene’s purpose and do the words themselves reflect the dominant mood of the scene? For instance, if the scene’s purpose is to show a character facing a crucial decision on which much depends, are the words tension-loaded, heavy with implication?

Once I am satisfied (well, I’m never really satisfied), I turn to my trusted readers, also called “beta readers.” My wife, Michele, is the first one. She marks up the manuscript with her well-tuned teacher’s pencil, showing me breaks in the logic or word repetitions, confusing sentences or passages, inconsistencies either of plot or character, grammar goofs, and all sorts of other errors. So now I’m back to draft 5 or 6.

When that’s ready, I call on my other trusted readers, four or five folks who graciously read as, well, readers. They don’t offer editorial advice, but they do offer their insights into the story or the characters, criticism about passages that don’t work for them or don’t fit the flow of the story, suggestions for improving it, and overall challenges targeting how to make the manuscript stronger. Their feedback is always helpful, very often nuanced, and frequently wise. I wait until I have heard from everyone, then compile their feedback into a single document organized according to the structure of the book. Emphasizing the changes that more than one beta reader suggest, I use that document to work my way through the manuscript again, draft 6 or 7.

Finally, it is ready for editing. I’ll write about that next week.

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing

Over the next few weeks, as I approach the release date for my next novel, The Bishop Burned the Lady (now available for pre-order here at 10% off) I’m going to share some of my experiences in bringing a book from the idea stage to publication. I’ll focus these posts on the process I went through in writing The Bishop—but it is very similar to how the first two books grew.

I am always fascinated to hear from other writers how they midwife a wispy idea into a meaty draft that hangs together as a novel. My own process is not unlike many other writers. I start with an issue that intrigues me, outrages me, somehow ruffles my feathers enough to make me want to dig into it. For instance, Book I of the series, Climbing the Coliseum, arose out of my frustration about tax evasion and anti-government conspiracies, which rear their ugly heads every few years and invariably get someone killed. In Nobody’s Safe Here, the second book in the series, I toggled between wanting to explore school shootings and their underlying drivers on one hand and investigating the long-term consequences of clergy sexual abuse on the other. So I wove them together.

The Bishop Burned the Lady grew out of a story I’d heard about rural sex trafficking, specifically about how many trafficking gangs operate as businesses, but often hide behind a religious cover, pretending to be a usually secret fringe church or cult.

Once I decided this might be a big enough subject with plenty of dramatic and human emotional power, I started the asking myself “what if?” What if sheriff’s deputy Andi Pelton (a main character in the series, set in a small Montana county) was assigned to investigate a suspicious fire in the forest above the town? What if she discovers charred bones in the ashes? What if, between her visits to the fire scene—which perhaps is a murder scene—someone completely removes every clue, down to the bare earth? What if she discovers an old man living in a forest compound—with a dormitory-like building on his property—near the scene of the fire? What if she invests a lot of energy in the old hermit whom she suspects of being the leader of the sex traffickers, but it turns out she’s wrong? What if, after she’s forced to start over, she is suddenly betrayed by her co-investigator? What if she is captured by the real leader of the gang and finds herself with his knife at her throat? What if . . .?

No doubt you recognize that each “what-if” is a turning point that makes things worse for Andi. Each increases the stakes—tightens the tension—for her and for the investigation. Those turning points, once I had fine-tuned them, formed the skeleton of a plot-structure, and once I was satisfied that that skeleton could support real flesh-and-blood and blows to the human spirit and conflict galore, I was ready to start writing the first draft. That’s when it gets fun, for me.

Next, Michele, my wife and a former teacher, read it and wielded her trusty red pencil. Her critique is always invaluable at this stage, because she shows me errors and gaps I failed to see (because I was too close to the story). She points out passages that don’t work so I can either rewrite them–or send them packing. The next draft incorporates her advice–and allows me to tighten and trim the story itself. The third draft then focuses on the writing itself–making it stronger, finding more robust verbs and sharper images, sentences that sing, nouns that pop. Each draft forces me to feel the book as a whole, to satisfy myself that the pace and sequencing, the conflicts and their resolutions, the dialogs and the inner monologs are true to the story and true to the characters. And when I decide they are, it’s time for my editor to take the stage.

Next week, I’ll write about that next step: beta readers and my editor.

Is Fiction Fake News?

Writing fiction, as I do now, has allowed me to experience first hand a curious paradox: Fictitious stories are simultaneously both untrue and true. They are news of a kind, but “fake” news (to borrow an odious phrase). We’ve always known this, of course. A delightful Goodreads page of quotes about fiction confirms this. For example, Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”  Or this from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

Contrast this paradox—that the lie of fiction can discover the deeper truth of reality—with the Trumpian and Fox-News-ian blather about “fake news.” Crying “fake news” about whatever one doesn’t like to know is a lie intended to obscure the truth. In the lie of fiction, on the other hand, I try to create a world, people, events, reactions that utterly imaginary, yet truer, perhaps, than many actual, historical places, people, events, and reactions.

And readers are the judges: They know when a place or a person or something that happens rings false, even in fantasy fiction. Readers love J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin in part because their worlds are so palpably real, their characters so emotionally authentic.

And in reading successful fiction, by agreeing to accept the author’s lie, astute readers can have the life-affirming experience of opening to a deeper, broader, sharper truth—the truth of what it means to be human. Hiding the truth behind the whine of “fake news” steals from all of us the dignity of our human capacity to judge for ourselves what is true or false.

Hiding Behind the Mentally Ill

In my professional life, before I began writing novels, I was a psychologist. In the course of my work, I met hundreds of wonderful, courageous, loving, generous people. They all suffered some form of mental illness.

After each drumbeat of the tragic mass shootings in our beloved country, a chant arises from the right wing of the choir.

Like any chant, it follows its rubric carefully, meticulously. (Chants, you know, have no power if they are improvised, disorderly, undisciplined. Ask any monk, any member of any choir.) The chant goes like this:

We are outraged: This evil strikes again

 For the victims and their families, women, children, men:

We send our thoughts and prayers.


It is too soon to speak of guns,

We must honor our departed ones,

And offer them our thoughts and prayers.


The killer was mentally ill, an animal, deranged.

Not like us, not like those of us who exchange

Our thoughts and prayers.


This chant is an obscenity.

“Thoughts and prayers” are not the anti-dote to mental illness, treatment is. But what has the present administration given us regarding mental illness? A law expanding access to guns for the mentally ill!

As if to say, “We will arm your killers, and when you are dead, we will pray for you.”

Yes, outrageous. But an even deeper outrage, to me, is the way politicians hide their cowardice toward the NRA behind tough language about mentally ill persons. Their veiled (but only thinly veiled) implication is that every mentally ill person is a potential mass murderer. If “mental illness” causes mass shootings, then . . . This is not only nonsense, it is insidious, hateful nonsense. It casts a shadow on every law-abiding, loving, hard-working person who happens to suffer from a mental illness.

If I were to twist the truth in the same way about gun owners, I could write: “All mass shooters are gun owners. The problem here isn’t guns, it’s owning a gun.” (This is a variant on the NRA’s “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It just takes it one logical step further—therefore, owning a gun is the problem.) But that would be nothing else than hateful, dishonest, and cruel nonsense, equal in depravity to “guns don’t kill people, mentally ill people kill people.”

Just as millions of gun owners are lawful, decent, caring human beings and the gun owners who kill are a vanishingly small number of them, so too millions of Americans who suffer from some form of mental illness are upright, caring, and decent people and the number of mass shooters with mental illness is infinitely small. To tar all those good people in either group with the cowards’ brush—“We don’t have a gun problem here, we have a mental illness problem”—is perhaps a more hateful and fateful evil than gun violence itself.


Because it is an evil perpetrated by those who do not need to do it, who commit it to divert attention from the real causes, the real problems, the real issues that make gun violence “as American as apple pie.” It is a vast smear against millions of decent people that further divides and weakens our country.

We don’t need to “make America great again”—it is already great.

We need to make America honest again.

Why Teach the Humanities?

In the Nov. 9, 2017 issue of the New York Review of Books, author Marilynne Robinson writes an impassioned and thoughtful defense of the humanities and liberal education in general (read it here). She reminds us that liberal education—under attack from many quarters in our rapidly deteriorating intellectual climate—is “an education worthy of a free people.” As she says, “[T]he object [of political attacks on public higher education in general and the teaching the humanities in particular] is clear—to create a virtual army out of the general population who will compete successfully against whomever for whatever into an endless future, at profound cost to themselves.” Education as boot camp for robot-like workers in the perfect capitalist economy.

Then, wryly, she adds, “All this differs from military engagement in one great particular. The generals [CEOs, in this case] are always assumed to be free to abandon their armies and go over to the other side, if there is profit in it.”

The attack on the humanities arises, she contends, out of an insistent belief that public education should be oriented only to “skills training” for the competitive economy. This article of faith is in turn driven by a world view  (dare I say “religion”?) that defines competition as the only meaningful criterion of value.

In defending the humanities and liberal education, Robinson notes that “literature had been made a kind of data to illustrate, supposedly, some graceless theory that stood apart from it, and that would be shed in a year or two and replaced by something post- or neo- and in any case as gracelessly irrelevant to a work of language as whatever it displaced.” We’re all familiar with “modernism,” “post-modernism,” “constructivism,” “post-constructivism,” “neo-post-constructivism,” and on and on. Trendy—and empty—when you set those theories side by side with Hamlet, For Whom the Bell Tolls, From Here to Eternity, or Ulysses.

But she ends on a hopeful note. “And yet, the beautiful persists,” she writes, “and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.”

“. . . the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.” A call to grace in a graceless time.

“Taking a Knee”

Last weekend, we went to our grandson’s 7th grade football game. Midway through the game, after a hard tackle, he didn’t get up. His dad was a linesman, carrying the down marker; his mom was sitting beside my wife, her mother. Our breaths caught in our chests as the doctor rushed out, and knelt at the side of our grandson’s small body.

As she and the coaches were gathered round Aspen, the boys on the field were taking a knee. Sudden memory returned—when I was a boy, my football coaches trained us to take a knee when a player was down, perhaps injured. Taking a knee was a sign of respect, of concern and attention and almost of prayer.

Taking a knee, in football, symbolizes acknowledgement that an injury has occurred and that attention should be paid. We attended, watchful with worry, until Aspen stood up and we burst in applause.

And as that happened, I realized something.

Most of you, no doubt, have been aware of the controversy about the NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. What I realized is that Colin Kaepernick—and now more than a hundred NFL players, and some MLB players—are taking a knee because there has been an injury to which they want to attend, to express concern, to show respect for the injured, perhaps to have a moment of prayer:

For the injury of racial injustice and the lingering sin of white supremacy in America, the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

Basho, Wisdom, and War

This morning, after the U.S. sent bombers and fighter jets perilously close to the airspace of North Korea over the weekend, the foreign minister of that country countered with a chilling statement:

Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho – CBC News

“Donald Trump [in a Tweet in which he said that Kim Jong-Un ‘won’t be around much longer’] has declared war on us,” and added that N. Korea has a right, as any country at war has, to shoot down American planes even outside their air space.

Friends, this is horrifying.

After I read the foreign minister’s words, I glanced down at my desk where a yellowed index card has rested, hidden under scraps of other notes and desk clutter, for years. It contains a translation of a haiko by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). I picked it up and re-read it, and it brought tears to my eyes:

How fortunate the man

who sees a flash of lightning and

does not think “how brief life is.”

When I see the flashes of lightning striking out between Trump’s tweets and the madman of North Korea, I cannot help but think how brief life is. We are still bearing the burdens of the longest war of our country’s history, yet our president wishes us into another that will dwarf the agonies of Afghanistan and Iraq. And those countries have no nuclear arms (although our last Republican war-mongerer lied to us that Iraq indeed posed such a threat). We stand on the brink, once again. And again, we’re asking, Why?

How brief life is. I was a little boy during the Korean War, a teen and young adult during the Vietnam War. As a young man, I watched the invasions of Panama and Grenada and then the first Gulf war. In my middle age, it was the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How brief life is when you can count your years by their wars. And how full of rage–or cowardice– my country’s leaders seem, as they stand silent while Trump strains to unleash war—by words, and, he seems to desire, by weapons of mass destruction.

Basho was so right—how fortunate the person is who, hearing yet again the drums of war brought out and pounded, does not think how brief life is.

My ten-minute timer just notified me that my time is up. I pray that our leaders find the sanity to hear their alarms before all our time is up.

J.S. Bach, Stephen King, And Creating Suspense

At readings or book club gatherings, I’m often asked some variation on the question, “When you’re working on a book, how do you ____?” Sometimes it’s “. . . come up with your ideas?” Sometimes, it’s “. . . develop your characters?” One of the most interesting questions is, “How do you create suspense?”

The usual answer is, of course, to hint at some trouble that’s going to happen to an important character, but don’t give enough information that the reader can figure out what it’s going to be. This advice is useful to a point, but for me, at least, it’s easier said than done. When I’m writing, I know what’s going to happen, and I can get far too confident that I’ve nicely concealed it from the reader. But like Freudian slips of the tongue, unconscious slips-of-information find their way into the writing, sometimes in the form of hints that go too far, at other times not-so-subtle clues that I hadn’t meant to divulge till later.

This is why an evaluation and critique by a good editor is so important. Even before I send a manuscript off to my editor, Lorna Lynch, my wife Michele will have often read a passage and said, “You’re making it too obvious. I’ve figured it out already!” (Back to the manuscript for another re-write!)

I follow a number of writers’ craft websites, where experienced writers offer advice on the multitude of “how to do its” that comprise the writing craft. This morning I came across a fascinating video by an editor, Dave King, in which he discusses how to generate strong suspense in a novel. What’s fascinating, though, is that as he explains his points, he illustrates them by playing a segment of the monumental Fantasia and Fugue in A-Minor, by J.S. Bach.

Being an organist myself—well, having studied pipe organ for about eight years in my teens and early twenties—this music is one of my most beloved pieces by my all-time most cherished composer for pipe organ. So, it was doubly exciting to hear Dave King play the segment he played, and also to see how skillfully he used it to illustrate what Stephen King (no relation to Dave) does to create suspense in his books.

Like to hear the music and what Dave King tells us about creating suspense? It’s at the Writer Unboxed website. I promise you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll learn (or re-learn) something about good writing!

Okay, my ten-minute timer just went off, so I’m off, too. See you next week.

Thinking of the poor after Harvey, Irma, and Katia

(This post is another in my ongoing experiment with writing for only ten minutes. Period. I do allow for an additional ten minutes for proofreading. Please let me know what you think.)

My friend, Lou Kavar (whose blog at is well worth following) posted a meaningful link that reminds us that it is all well and good for governors to order evacuations in the face of hurricanes, but that the story is more complicated than that.

The article in The Guardian tells the stories of “two Hurricane Irmas.” The first descends on the wealthy citizens of Miami Beach, many of whom have second homes elsewhere and can afford to travel there, or they have houses designed to withstand hurricanes like this, with hurricane-proof windows or built-in shutters and backup generators and plenty of fuel. Their pantries are stocked with many days’ worth of food and water—these are folks who can afford to leave OR to stay.

The second Hurricane Irma descends on the inner city of Liberty Beach, a few miles north of Miami Beach, whose residents either haven’t got cars to escape in or cash for enough gas to get safely away. Those who might be able to get out often can’t afford lodging if they can’t find a public shelter. Many, the article asserts, can barely buy enough groceries for today’s meals, much less three or four days’ stock of bottled water. These folks, like the wealthy of Miami Beach only a few miles away, will also ride out the storm, not because they are safe, but because they have little choice.

Farther south, in the Caribbean, some of the islands devastated by Irma are coming to grips with the reality that their communities have, effectively, been destroyed. 95% of the buildings on St. Maartin, for instance, have been damaged or destroyed. The devastation on the island of Anguilla (where my great-grandparents once lived), was worse. Across the path of Irma, countless families are homeless.

Last week, Harvey. This week, Irma. Next week, Jose?

Katia in Mexico.

These storms do not discriminate between the wealthy and the poor. But their impact does, and because you and I contribute to the recovery effort, let’s be sure we do not. Let’s not forget.

My ten minutes is up. See you next week!