An intriguing plot for a metaphysical novel is unfolding in your head, or you have reams of channeled material that will save the planet from a black hole. Now what? Its your job to get all that down on paper so that the rest of us can enjoy it.
Ghostwriters in the sky
Suppose you have neither the time nor the skill to write. Can you still put out your own book? Of course! Hire a ghostwriter (I love that phrase). For a few thousand dollars, a professional will write your book for you. A good ghost (as theyre called) can match your personal style. I once told a client, "I can write like you would write if you could write."
A big question is whether the ghost gets any credit. It depends on what you both agree. Anonymous ghosts tend to get higher fees because they receive none of the credit that would ordinarily give them professional recognition. In that case, only your name goes on the title page. Otherwise, it reads, say, "Fred Smith with John Brown."
Word processing or that old Selectric?
Nowadays, computer-based word processing is essential; otherwise youll be paying someone else to retype your manuscript or scan it into a word processor. Either way, additional typos are guaranteed. One author who used the "old-fashioned method" had to pay me $1,500 to get her manuscript scanned and proofed. Nowadays, you can buy a powerful computer for that. And make sure it is a computer rather than a specialized word processing machine. They cant talk to real computers, so youre still stuck.
Mac or PC? It really doesnt matter, since nowadays they can talk to each other via programs such as Microsoft® Word.
Style: you cant define it but you know it when you see it
The style of a nonfiction piece will probably reflect you. If youre a scientist writing about new science for other scientists, it will be a technical piece, illustrated, and indexed. But if youre writing a New Age romance or adventure, you can choose your style. However, once youve decided on a style, keep to it. You can use short, clipped sentences to create tension in an adventure story, or flowing "purple prose" to build atmosphere in a romance.
Remember that you are a movie projector and you must recreate your images in the readers heads. If they cant "see the movie," youve failed in the art of storytelling. Brief descriptions of people, places, events are essential not pages and pages, but enough to create a picture.
Dialogue is critical real things that real people would say. Speak the dialogue aloud to see how it sounds. People take breaths between sentences, or sometimes within sentences, so use an ellipsis (
, not three periods) to signify pauses. Use an m-dash ( , not two hyphens) when someone is suddenly interrupted.
Show, dont tell
These are the three most important words in the novelists vocabulary. Lets see why. This is telling:
St. Germain appeared to me the other night and told me that something was going to happen and I should act from love. Suddenly, this hideous thing appeared in the room.
This is showing:
Bravely, the single candle held the evening shadows at bay. But suddenly, the candle sputtered out and the shadows seized the room. Starting from a glowing ball of light, St. Germain materialized before me. Shimmering with his own light, his deep, booming voice greeted me, "Beloved, it is I, St. Germain. You are about to face a difficult situation. Act from love rather than fear."
"Whats going to happen?" I asked, querulously, my heart pounding in anticipation.
"It is not for me to say, beloved, other than to tell you that what will soon occur is not what it seems."
At that instant, the heavy oak door crashed open, ripped off its hinges. I gasped as two red eyes glared at me like hot coals from very depths of hell. The smell of putrefaction was worse than the rotting, maggot-ridden meat Id found in the abandoned refrigerator. My blood chilled as the thing slithered toward me
See the difference? Yes, its longer, but who wants the brief, sanitized version?
Who said that?
The passage above was written in the voice of first-person narrator. This allows you to describe your memories, thoughts, and emotions, but you cant describe anything not involving you, or the emotions or thoughts of anyone else. A common alternative is third-person omniscient in which you can describe anything and everything:
At that instant, the heavy oak door crashed open, ripped off its hinges. Jane gasped as two eyes glared at her like hot coals from the very depths of hell. Her face contorted at the smell of putrefaction, worse than the rotting, maggot-ridden meat shed found in the abandoned refrigerator. Her blood chilled as the thing slithered toward her. In the hills behind the house, a wolf pack whimpered, cringing at the energy of ultimate evil emanating from the house.
We all sat through interminable English classes learning the rules of punctuation. If youre one of millions of Americans whove forgotten all about commas, colons, hyphens, quotes, and parentheses, buy a book to refresh your memory. Few things damn a good manuscript like poor punctuation. Publishers take a dim view of a writer that has not mastered even the basics of the craft. But then, thats what editors are for, right?
Editors: saints or demons?
For most authors, working with editors is like having a root canal: necessary but agonizing. In all my years, I have yet to meet a writer whose work does not need editing, contrary to what most of those writers believed and told me at great length and with great passion.
There are three main kinds of edit. The first developmental editing rarely happens. Ideally, an author sits down with an editor and they outline the book, starting with testing the main theme and partitioning the material into chapters.
Next, the author prepares the first draft and revises it a few times. After all, iteration is the basis of success. Then, the manuscript goes to a content editor, who ensures that the book flows smoothly, the dialogue works, the characters behave in keeping with their personalities, and that the book "takes the reader to the movies." Finally, a line editor gets to work on the grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Of course, a good editor can perform all three functions.
Because, almost by definition, authors have major egos, any criticism of the authors work is a knife through the heart, and shouting matches are all too common. But thats the nature of creativity. The editor is the "readers advocate," whose primary job is to ensure that readers get the best possible book for their money, and that the author looks as good in print as possible. Behind every great writer is an even greater editor an unsung hero.
Problems can arise if an in-house editor has to toe the publishers line in rewriting your book, and you dont like the outcome. Take it up with the publisher, but if theyve already paid you an advance, youre on shaky ground.
Working with publishers
If you plan to ship your manuscript off to publishers, its essential to follow the submission guidelines: double-spaced, twelve-point, ragged right margins, etc. If you deviate even slightly from the standard format, your manuscript is landfill. No joke! Get a book that specifies the format and follow it; otherwise, youre wasting a lot of trees.
Without an agent, most first-time authors are in a minefield without a map. But finding a good agent is as difficult as finding a publisher. Briefly, the rules are: "No money up front. Fifteen percent on the back end. No reading fees. No submission fees. No guarantees."
Next time, well talk about book layout and design, fonts, points, and more.
Tony Stubbs is a freelance writer, editor, publishing consultant, and desktop publisher living in Southern California. He is also the author of An Ascension Handbook. He can be reached at (909) 672-6115 or <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
This is the second in a six-part series on getting your book published, written by Tony Stubbs exclusively for The New Times. Please send SASE for any reprints desired.