Monday, July 1, 2013

Finishing a Book: Ditch the Ego, Act on the Criticism, Pick the Hills to Die On

Philip White

Well, I’ve done it, and I’m pretty pleased with myself. I finally finished the remaining three chapters of my next book. Well, kinda. In fact, what I really did was send the rest of the first draft to the two generous souls who are reviewing my manuscript.

Now for the fun part. And by fun, I mean death-to-the-ego-and-all-my-hopes-and-dreams. Unfortunately for me, some editors just want to watch the world burn.

You see, soon enough my inbox will light up with e-mails, containing page after page of edit afflicted prose. And with each new comment, redline and question, I will die a little. Or at least my ego will.

In a perfect, pain-free world, writers could just churn out a bunch of words, revise them ourselves and then fling them out to the unsuspecting public. Oh, wait, we can. I keep forgetting about self-publishing.

But alas, those of us who go the traditional route of talking an academic or trade press into publishing our portable monuments to how smart we think we are, are resigned to several months of editorial torture that we willingly brought upon ourselves.

Here are a few tips to get you through the process:

Accept That You’re Too Close

The trouble with you editing, re-editing, and re-re-editing your manuscript is that you’re wed to it. You breathe it. It wakes you up at odd times of the night, then scolds you for forgetting to put your tablet/notepad & pen beside the bed, you clot. No matter how objective you think you’re being, believe me, you’re not. That’s why you asked those poor saps to read it through with a wary eye and a warning finger before you subjected your editor to the horrors of a hundred thousand unbalanced, repeated, bloated words.

Don’t Take It Personally

What an awful subhead. Sorry. But it’s true – when your reviewers, editor and copy editor are poking holes in your work, they’re not doing it because they hate you, because you’re a talentless hack, or because they want you to refrain from ever inflicting so much as another syllable upon the world. Think about it. They’re trying to take your manuscript and HELP you refine it into a great book. Let them do it.

Pick a Hill to Die On (or 2)

At the risk of contradicting and invalidating my previous point, there are a couple of sections in your book that are special. Trouble is, only you know why. Your editor has likely left a line of five question marks with some nice squiggly lines alongside the paragraphs in question, and when you see them, here of all places, you want to take your MacBook and launch it out the window. Then run downstairs and go all Office Space on it, just in case. This will cost you at least a grand for the computer, plus another few hundred for the window, so don’t do that. But do choose a couple of these areas and cling onto them like you’re defending your hilltop castle from a horde of murderous invaders.

Pace Yourself

Assuming your reviewers and later, your editor, have kindly blessed you with a few weeks to respond to their comments and edits, please take your bloody time. It’s tempting to put in those too-expensive noise cancelling earbuds, down a few double espressos and rattle through the entire manuscript in a red-eyed, heart-hurting weekend. Why do that to yourself? (says the hypocrite who did exactly that with his last book). Last time I checked, the fastest man alive can only go at top speed for 9.58 seconds. Take the time you’ve been given and, if you feel you need it, ask for a couple of extra days. You’ve put in hundreds, nay, thousands of hours into research, writing, oral history interviews, fact-checking and all the rest, so why not close this thing out properly? You’ll regret it later if you rush, right about the time that some miserable reviewer with horns, a goatee and nothing but bitterness in their heart faults you for that silly mistake on page 353.

Good night, and good luck.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

Thanks so much for this. I keep reminding my students that part of research is character-building--being humble and listening to others and being okay with not being the last word on the subject. Part of why it is important for a teacher-scholar such as myself to publish with an academic press is exactly what you've said. It forces me through this (very painful) process. Thanks for sharing this.

Randall said...

I think you're right about the how difficult edits can be. Got some of my own recently and had to reverse the Beach Boys lyric "hang on to your ego."

Philip White said...

Thanks for your comments, Lisa and Randall. The ego is becoming an ever more sensitive beast, I believe. Even in the case of this blog post, I was bummed for a couple of days to not have had any comments. Oh, woe is me! It's the Facebook mentality: "Like" me. Notice me. Make me feel special.
Quite sad really. If it wasn't for the convenience of setting up interviews on FB and promoting my books, I would quit it right now.

Regarding the editing process, I think that to improve at anything, you can never think you've 'made it.' The people I admire who are dedicated to continued excellence - surfer Laird Hamilton, writers such as Lynne Olson and Matthew Pearl, etc., are constantly looking for ways to get better. Good to know that somebody's passing this lesson on to students. Ok, end of 1,500 word comment.

Meg said...

Hi Phil
Being asked? told? to change something you feel deeply about is like someone criticizing your baby! Rejection is even worse. Difficult, then, not to fall into a pit of angst, with a black dog on your shoulder.

Ignoring the Facebook thing - this is a Facebook free zone - you should maybe remind yourself that you have many readers, it is just they are all out on the beach with Laird right now!