Sunday, March 31, 2013

One In, One Out

The Crown Tower on the left on it's way back to the publisher as The Rose and Thorn, on the right, arrives.

In March I received the final layout proofs for The Crown Tower. It arrived from Orbit in a soft manila colored envelope. I spent the last two weeks reading through it and making last minute corrections—in pencil. Not sure why, but Orbit insists I use pencil.

I’m not even certain why I’m sent a hard copy of the manuscript. I remember when I first started with Orbit I was asked if it was okay to do digital editing. I wasn’t certain what that meant. Digital editing? Was this some sort of high tech gadgetry that only huge publishers could afford? I imagined that a computer would digitally scan each page and automatically fix all the typos and grammar errors that a simple word processor couldn’t handle.

Not at all certain what they were speaking about, I asked. Digital editing was done via the Internet using Word and such advanced techniques as track changes and comments. This baffled me because I assumed that was the only way anyone would edit a manuscript. So I had to ask, what was my alternative?

A stack of printed pages mailed to me, and a pen.

I almost laughed. Seriously? Why would you even ask? Does anyone edit that way? Orbit’s response was—yes. Apparently a great many insist on it.

I still find this odd, but okay.

So last week I curled up on my bed with my stack of papers, my pencil and pencil sharpener, and thumb-licked my way through the first novel. Not a bad read, I thought. Just as I was packaging that up to send out, The Rose and The Thorn, arrived, which is good because I needed something new to read and really wanted to find out what happened to poor Royce and Hadrian.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Editing can polish a good manuscript into a piece of fine art. It can also shred a fine manuscript into a mess only fit for lining an undiscerning gerbil’s cage. Being able to tell the difference comes from confidence born out of the experience of writing and discovering what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately the responsibility falls to the writer, but how can a novice author be expected to know when to stay with what they have written or take the advice of the self-professed gurus of literature?  

In the broadest sense, editing comes in two forms: structural, which concentrates on the story, and copy editing, which is meant to clean up grammar errors and make awkward sentences flow better.  For my novel Hollow World, I recently placed a small ad on the job board of the American Copy Editor’s Society. I specifically mentioned a need for copy editing, as Betsy Mitchell is doing my structural edits.

Ask most authors and they’ll tell you that copyeditors are gifts of the gods. People who save you from embarrassment and make you look better than you are. The general rule is to always listen to your editors, and I would agree with that, if you’re certain you have a good one.

The copyeditors that I worked with at Orbit are phenomenal. Their level of detail, not only at finding stupid little typos, but at watching the larger picture and finding inconsistencies, or outright errors in the story is amazing. These are the people who check the spelling of every made up word. Check the timeline, check the time of day, check to make certain the same speech pattern is used with the same character. You don’t have to tell them that Bob always substitutes yeh, for yes, or that Karen avoids any kind of contraction—they discover this on their own and look for breaks in the patterns. They learn your style, then make it better. When they find a problem they very politely highlight and ask: “David had a red tie on in the previous scene, now he has a burgundy tie, is this correct?” 

Mostly copyeditors ferret out mistakes in language changing:

The soldier sheathed his weapon and extended a hand to help the courier to his feet, his face downcast.


His face downcast, the soldier sheathed his weapon and extended a hand to help the courier to his feet

To better show whose face is downcast. To get rid of those pesky dangling participles they would change:

Drawing back the curtain, the morning sun flashed through gaps in the leafy wall of trees lining the road.


As Arista drew back the curtain, the morning sun flashed through gaps in the leafy wall of trees lining the road.

Or how about:

Lord Valin was an elderly knight with a bushy white beard known for his valor and courage, but never for his strategic skills.


Lord Valin, an elderly knight with a bushy white beard, was known for his courage, but not for his strategic skills.

Because of the misplaced modifier and because valor and courage are redundant.

My editor even knew that I have a pet peeve with any sentence that contains more than one “had” in a row, as in: …when everyone else had had the good sense to get out of the way. At such times the double hads would be highlighted and the comment in the margin would be: “Reword to avoid “had had”?

Such corrections are phenomenal, but not all editors are created equal and aspiring writers planning on self-publishing, or those aiming to have their books professionally edited in order to get an agent, need to be very careful. Some freelance editors (that I’ve found in multiple searches over the years) are actually aspiring authors believing they can help improve your work. 

It’s easy to tell the difference. Copyeditors do things like look for repeated words, improperly used homonyms, and that pesky participle. Any problem bigger than this and they merely highlight, and politely comment on in very brief terms as in the aforementioned: Reword to avoid “had had”?

Well-intentioned aspiring writers do things like taking this sentence:

He’d be an alcoholic if he had to look people in the eye the way she was.

And changing it to:

If he had to look people in the eye and dispense such news, he’d surely become deathly depressed, and he’d probably develop an addiction to alcohol or even heroin.

Or better yet, changing:

His mind refused to go there, wasn’t ready to, and remained focused on the sink and the dispensers.


His ears almost refused to hear what she’d said, His mind simply wasn’t ready to accommodate her words.

And yes the capital on “His” was a typo the would-be copywriter actually inserted into the manuscript sample I sent out.

These and many more changes were accompanied by the note:

Suggestions for improvement:

Try to avoid so many negative sentence constructions. Rewrite them. Instead of “I’m not going out,” say “I’m staying home.”

Try to use the word “even” less often.

Contractions are OK in informal writing, but keep them under control.

Take advantage of opportunities for literary devices such as stronger verbs, alliteration and the old rule of “show, don’t tell.” (I sneaked in words foreshadowing the possibility of death: cryptic, cadaverous, deathly. If I pushed too far, you can always change it back to your original version.)

You might devote more attention to the rhythm of your writing. You can practice little things like parallel structure, choosing just the right-sounding word and listening as if you were publishing mainly to an audio-book audience.

The fact is I agree with most everything in this note, but I’ve also discovered that while many people know the basic rules of writing, few are capable of actually applying them properly. I suppose it is kind of like riding a bicycle. You could watch others and learn a great deal about what to do and what not to. You could get a PhD in the study of physics, but all of that won’t make it possible to hop on a bike for the first time and ride it like an expert. (I have to admit I found the last sentence particularly entertaining given that Theft of Swords is up for an Audie award.)

What bothered me the most about this would-be editor’s submission was the level of confidence with which the editor presented the changes, and I realized that a novice writer might be persuaded to destroy a perfectly good manuscript to appease a less talented, less skilled, “editor” because of the adage that authors need to trust their editors. Writers tend to be a self-conscious lot, and it’s easier for many to accept that they aren’t as good as they had hoped rather than think individuals who earn their meals fixing manuscripts are idiots. 

And if you’re still wondering if the “editor” was really that bad, consider that the whole point of hiring a copyeditor is not for structural advice at all, but merely to clean up the grammar, punctuation, and typos, but this “editor” changed the following sentence:

He also expected his mind to focus on all the things he’d never done, the words he said or ones he hadn’t.


He also anticipated his left un would focus on all the things he’d left undone, the words he’d neglected to say, or the ones he’d said but wished he hadn’t. 

A copy editor that inserts typos is probably not one you want on your project.

If you’re an aspiring novelist, and looking for copyediting, get a sample—send a few pages of your work for them to demonstrate their capabilities—and then look to see what kind of changes come back. If they’re correcting objectively verifiable mistakes (unintentional misuse of the English language) you’re on the right track. If, however, the editor has it in mind to educate you on how to write “better”, or merely are trying to rewrite your work to better suit themselves, explain that you are looking for a detail-oriented copyeditor, and their failure to read the ad correctly is indication enough that they aren’t what you’re looking for.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Hollow World

Cover art by Marc Simonetti

Wait till you see this. You think we're sleeping in Dusseldorf? You think we're taking a nap in Cologne? No, we're working at night. Each night, a new dial, a new knob, a diode.
–The Muppet Movie

I’ve heard authors describe their books as if they were children, especially when asked which one is their favorite. And like children, some are planned, and others…well…they just arrive by accident. Last summer I had a fling that resulted in an unexpected novel.

I had just finished writing the drafts for The Crown Tower (due out August 6th), and The Rose and the Thorn (due out September 17th). It was summer. I was taking a break. After kicking out two novels over the winter I thought I deserved a little rest. Then the flirtation began. As usual my wife started it.

She drew my attention to a proposed anthology to help talented, aspiring writers from SFFWorld get some notice by mixing their stories with anchor authors such as myself, Hugh Howey, and Tristis Ward. All I had to do was write a short piece about the end of the world. It had been a long time since I wrote science fiction and I’d filed all sorts of ideas away in notes, on napkins, in storage files on my computer marked “Very Old.” I sorted through them and rediscovered something that had always interested me: the idea a person’s perception forms their view of the world and two people can see the same thing but in very different ways. I played with this concept a bit in Riyria giving Royce and Hadrian opposing perspectives. I’ve always been amazed how some people see Royce as realistic, but Hadrian as completely unbelievable, while other readers view them exactly the opposite. Never do the readers appear to realize they are reflecting their own views by their choice. When I conceived the short story, I decided to take this idea up a notch.

If a person were to travel forward in time and see the future, what would matter more: what the future really was, or how the person from the past perceived it? Could someone find paradise and think it a hellish future and vice versa? I played with this idea, and wrote the short story Greener Grass. Turned out the anthology was supposed to be stories about the end of the world. Oops. I realized I needed to write a new short and ended up writing another story called Burning Alexandria that was a tribute to Ray Bradbury who’d just died.

Greener Grass had been a blast to write, and all this science fiction work left me with a desire to do something bigger, especially since Greener Grass wasn’t going in the anthology. There was a much larger story underneath that short and I found myself flirting with it, day dreaming about it, buying it presents in the form of notebooks.

Everything reminded me of the plot or the characters. News stories, articles, conversations. I found myself saying, “That’s a lot like a story I’m thinking of writing,” or “I’ve actually been exploring that idea.” Before long I was scribbling page after page of notes building a world, characters, and problems.

But I was supposed to be on vacation, so I held off. That fall, I had scheduled myself to begin a new fantasy series and I was supposed to be working on that, only this story just kept growing. By mid-July I couldn’t help myself. It was stupid. Everyone sees me as a fantasy author. No one was going to be interested in a science fiction novel, but I just couldn’t help myself—I was in love with this story. I threw caution to the wind and on July 15th I started writing—Hollow World.

Those that read Greener Grass had a number of comments centered around the point that the main character wasn’t likeable. He really wasn’t intended to be all warm and cuddly, but I listened to this feedback and knew that while readers could put up with Dan Sturges for the length of a short story, they wouldn’t take him for a whole novel. That’s when Ellis Rogers was born—a much more likeable guy.

Ellis who’s a 58 year old ex-auto factory worker lives in Detroit, Michigan. Some might think Ellis’s life has been awful, others might see it as pretty good. Again it will depend on who you are and your experiences and expectations. This idea amplifies as the tale moves forward.

Science fiction has been called a “literature of ideas.” And being a story about the future I couldn’t help but add my own take on how technology affects society. But while I was fascinated by these premises, I couldn’t get away from the fact that I like fun books. The reality is, I don’t really write fantasy or science fiction—not as a style. Those are merely categories that say more about the clothes the characters wear, than the story. I wanted this novel—like any other I write—to be exciting, fast-paced, and with characters readers care about. I’ve read a lot of great science fiction that made me think about the world, but few ever made me care about the characters. So in many respects Hollow World reads more like a murder mystery, a thriller, and a fantasy adventure, but at its heart is something of an old school science fiction tale.

My obsession with Hollow World continued through the fall even as I had to repeatedly stop working on it to go over edits on the new Riyria books, and I estimate that I wrote the whole thing in about six weeks. I gave it to my wife who was very skeptical about the whole project. She doesn’t really like science fiction and my descriptions of the story made her sneer like she smelled something awful.

She read. I waited.

The next day I was greeted with hugs and kisses and a request for a Hollow World sequel. That’s when I knew I had something special.

Off went the manuscript to my agent and my editor at Orbit, as well as to my most trusted beta readers. Responses were very positive. My agent loved the book, but while my editor also felt the book was great, she had a problem. Outside of Space Operas (a sort of fantasy set in space) no one was buying science fiction anymore. So Orbit passed on the book.

Other professionals cited the same thoughts. Good book. Great story. Won’t sell.

This just pissed Robin off. My job is to write the books, but my wife has taken it upon herself to sell them, and the idea that she couldn’t make a success out of Hollow World was something of a personal challenge.

Years ago I had written a book entitled A Burden to the Earth, which I thought was the best writing I’d ever done—and it may well be—but the book was rejected out of hand because it wasn’t sellable. The frustration from this caused me to give up writing for twelve years. I’m not doing that again.

So today I’m announcing that I will be self-publishing Hollow World—but I want to do it right.

Too often self-published authors are ridiculed for sloppy craftsmanship: errors, typos, poor layout, bad grammar, awful cover art. This scrutiny comes from the simple fact that many self-pubbers do skimp on these aspects of their books. I won’t be doing that.

Having been traditionally published, I’ve seen the process of how the big houses use freelance talent to produce books. There’s no obstacle that prevents any author from hiring the same professionals New York uses—except the cost. Hiring great editors and cover artists isn’t cheap.
Which brings me to the point of this post.

My wife, being the genius that she is, came up with the idea of running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of this book. I’m hoping to reach the stated goal of $3000 in order to pay for the skills of Betsy Mitchell, the long time editor-in-chief at Del Rey who has worked on the manuscripts of authors like Michael Chabon and Terry Brooks, and the talent of Marc Simonetti, the amazing artist who’s provided cover art for folks like George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and the covers of the French translation of the Riyria Revelations. The money will also go to paying for high quality copyeditors, known to authors everywhere as the miracle workers of the literary world.

What is a Kickstarter? In this context, it’s basically the same as an advance paid to the author for a book they are writing, only instead of it coming from a publisher, it comes from the readers. And instead of the money going into my pocket, it’s going to pay the production costs. You pay in advance for the book so I have the money to produce it, and when it’s done you get the book. For contractual reasons (which are explained in more detail on the kickstarter page) I can’t self-publish anything between April 6, 2013 and January 17, 2014. So the official release of Hollow World will be January 20, 2014.  But…the kickstarter will end on April 5th so those orders can sneak in under the deadline. I expect that Betsy and the copy editors will be able to work their magic such that the book will be finished in June or July, so anyone who buys during the kickstarter can get Hollow World 6 – 7 months before everyone else.

If more money is raised beyond the initial goal, then I’ll end up getting an advance, just as if it had been bought by Orbit and those who contributed will get some additional bonuses as well. For instance, posters of the cover art, and other things that I’m still thinking about.

So what began as a summer love has—nine months later—resulted in a spring baby shower for my unexpected return to self-publishing. So stop by the kickstarter and remember a good college education costs a lot these days.

Hollow World: a novel by Michael J. Sullivan -- Kicktraq Mini