The Big Picture

Some days you wonder if the process of preparing your first manuscript for publication ever ends. There are days when countless hours of hard work seem to not progress your plans or move your goals any closer.  It is at such points that it is easy to become frustrated and want to stop trying, to cease the endless cycles of edits and corrections, and walk away from whole project.

It is fair to say I have put a lot of effort into improving my skill as a writer, and that I have made tremendous progress over the last few years.  But the last meeting of the Magic City Writers’ Group also made it abundantly clear that even with extensive corrections, rewrites, additions, POV shifts, and so on, that my manuscript is still not at an acceptable level.

My writing is mediocre and often boring, my most important characters are problematic, my opening paragraph makes people not want to read further, and those few readers willing to plow on past the first chapter will likely stop reading before reaching the point where the various characters and plot threads come together because they don’t feel invested in those characters or the unfolding plot.

Compound this feedback, and the ensuing work required to address these problems, with my efforts to rebuild my author website from the ground up and it is enough to make me feel like I’m starting over from scratch.

Step Back

It is at times like these that it is important to step back, take a deep breath, and look at the big picture.

Yes, my writing skills are still well below that of good professional writers.

But it is also true that I am currently better than the vast majority of amateur writers, which is the category I still belong to. The reason I spent months interviewing professional editors is because I knew intellectually I wasn’t ready to compete with professional authors. All the reader review demonstrated is that my belief in my writing skills is significantly greater than my actual skills.

This information hasn’t altered my decision to move onto working with professional editors, but it does impact the types of professional edits I must consider.

Currently I am waiting on the results of a professional manuscript assessment, a high-level review of my manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses.  After that assessment I have to decide whether to next pursue a developmental edit, a line edit, or copy edit.

Uh…What’s the Difference Between These?

Without going into excessive detail, a developmental edit focuses on plot, structure of the manuscript, and character development; a line edit focuses on flow, logic of what happens within the plot, and tone of each characters voice; and a copyedit is a nitpicking pain-in-the-ass looking for grammar errors, misspellings, continuity problems, and logic lapses.

Basically a developmental edit is performed early in the life of a manuscript, a line edit is performed once the story and characters are well-formed, and a copyedit is done to wring out any remaining problems prior to typesetting a manuscript for publication.  After typesetting is performed, a proofread is performed to catch any errors that crept in during the final stages of preparing for publication.

The Decisions Before Me

Prior to the reader feedback I was thinking I could skip the developmental edit and move on to either a line edit or a copyedit. In fact, prior to making specific queries about the material, I ask the group which edit they would recommend I pursue next; two members recommended I go straight to a copyedit, while the other person believed a line edit would be of benefit.

But when I asked specific questions about how much each person read, where they stopped reading, why they stopped, and elicited feedback on what exactly they liked and disliked about the manuscript, it became clear  that what prevented them from enjoying the work were problems with character development and plot structure.

In other words, the types of problems that require a developmental edit to correct.

In addition, the group made clear their continued (and even enthusiastic) dislike of my opening paragraph. While I personally believe the current opening serves as a solid anchor for the series, I cannot continue to ignore repeated warnings about the obstacle it poses to potential readers. I must seriously consider replacing the series’ opening with something more gripping. There are several possibilities that have occurred to me, and some of these alternate openings might allow me to address some character and structural issues that continue to plague the manuscript.

Currently I am leaning toward an opening like:

My fate is sealed, Damon Roth scribbled in a large leather bound tome at the top of a crisp white page, the flawless marks left by his quill belying the speed with which he wrote. My apotheosis is inevitable, offering Earth its last hope for salvation. But I have at long last deduced the cost I must bear for daring to become the God Among Men. Knowing now what must befall me, I would turn aside if I could. But great endeavors, once begun, have a life of their own. They grow and feed, claiming more and more from you. The task becomes the master. Worse yet are labors that cannot remain buried, that demand to be exhumed. The beginning becomes the end, creating a new beginning. I am trapped in a web of my own devising, caught in a cycle that can never end. No matter my choices I am damned, and the most I can hope for myself is that my evil deeds will not be all I am remembered for.

Limitations

With regards to my current manuscript, I believe I have reached the limits of what the writers group can offer me as constructive feedback. I could continue to make changes and ask their opinion, but that would be of little value. Their feedback would be far more valuable on the next book in the series, the one I need to start writing in the not too distant future.  I have written many scenes that will be in the second book. A product of my participation over the last two years in NaNoWriMo which I can expand on and restructure until I have an acceptable first draft.

I will be receiving the professional manuscript assessment in about a month, at which time I can make my final decision about whether or not to pursue a developmental edit next or move onto a line edit.  At the moment I believe a developmental edit is called for.

Performing a developmental edit and making the changes required by that process, on top of the already planned line and copy edits, will likely push my publication date into 2014.  This is not a total negative, as that gives me extra time to master the intricacies of self-publishing, overhaul my website, plan my book launch, work on the second novel, establish my presence on various social media sites, and so forth.

The bigger questions are the ones nagging me in the back of my brain. It is clear, despite my innate passion to tell stories, that I am not an innately gifted writer. The progress I have made so far has derived more from hard work at developing crucial skills than from natural talent. Stubborn persistence has proven sufficient to turn what once was a truly terrible manuscript into one that is now mediocre.

But is that same persistence enough to turn the current mediocre manuscript into something exceptional? Are my problems with writing compelling prose part of the normal learning curve all writers must go through? Or are they reflections of my own limitations as a writer?  Am I at a plateau that I can move beyond with the aid of professional editors? Or do I lack some some critical element from the mix of skills required to produce great writing?

The only way to answer these questions is to keep trying, keep working daily, and hope that the final published novel was worth all the effort.

The Big Picture, Part 1: The Point and Purpose

As I have mentioned previously, writing these posts helps me refine the ideas behind my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men.   They force me to express my nebulous thoughts in concrete sentences.    To take the vague and make it specific.

The protagonist of Gods Among Men is Damon Roth. Recently I had an epiphany where I saw behind Damon’s tactics, which I had instinctively settled on long ago, and grasped his strategy in a clear manner.  I glimpsed into the devious mind of a character I had created and truly understood him for perhaps the first time.  I saw how he treated the world as a chessboard, and people as pieces moving on that board.   The reasons behind his actions became clear to me, and I appreciated the elegant brutality of his solutions to problems. 

This knowledge allowed me to write a clear, concise summary of the fundamental story.  I tried to write down Damon’s strategy and tactics in a similar manner, but found myself balked by my mythology.  I discovered that to understand “why” Damon acts as he does requires understanding:

  1. The world he lives in
  2. The nature of the threat he is responding to
  3. His ideas for addressing that threat
  4. The reasons some oppose him and others support him.
  5. How he plans to eliminate those who oppose him
  6. How he plans to reward those who support him
  7. Why he sees himself as a threat to his own plans, and his solution to that problem.

That is a tall order.  A single post, or even a single day’s work, is insufficient to write something that covers all of that.  To explain Damon’s strategy and tactics I must first explain the big picture in a way I have never done before.  It requires spelling out information that hitherto resides solely in my mind.  Plot points which I intend to incorporate into my story as needed. 

The finished story is the ultimate, and definitive, explanation for all of this.  But a summary of what I intend the story to contain, written so it is clear to the average person, is a reasonable goal.  In fact, such a summary is necessary if I hope to someday be published. 

Which brings us to the point and purpose of this series of posts, which I am calling The Big Picture.  In this series I will explore the history and mythology that forms the setting for Gods Among Men. I shall explain how the world transitioned from the way it once was to how it is now; and why that is important.  I will reveal enough of the back-story of central characters, along with their motivations, so that their goals are put into context.  I will explain the threat that Damon is responding to, along with his solution to the threat. Finally I will reveal Damon’s byzantine plot and what he hopes to achieve.   I shall reveal the cost he must pay for his plans succeed.

This is not to suggest I am going to post on this subject exclusively.  Merely that I will return to it regularly for some time to come.  It is, after all, a subject dear to my heart.  Plus, I don’t want the vagaries of memory and the demon of time to steal my current clarity of thought.