Polishing the Gem

Jewel 1by Gayle Bartos-Pool

Introduction

 

Ask a writer what is the hardest part about writing and he or she will probably say either editing or marketing. Fortunately, all the large publishing companies and small houses have scads of editors who love to help you edit your work into the next blockbuster novel and there are hundreds of staff publicists who will market your book to all the bookstores…

NEWS FLASH. That first paragraph was 99 percent fiction, my writer friends. First, there are only a handful of large publishing companies left. Many publishing companies have either downsized or closed. And small publishers are hanging on by their fingernails. As you undoubtedly guessed, some horrible plague has hit the country and people have lost the ability (or desire) to read. (Sorry, the plague part is fiction, too. But the lack of readers is becoming truer and truer. That’s a reality. But I have heard rumors that there might be a comeback in readership because young people are getting bored with their iPads and SmartPhones and other computer gadgets and have returned to reading. Let’s hope that’s true.)

Pencil 1As for scads of editors available to help you whip your novel into shape if you do land a publisher, that privilege goes to the top five percent of the authors under contract to those last few publishing houses in existence. The other ninety-five percent and basically all the writers with smaller houses are usually asked to furnish a finished manuscript with every typo fixed and every misspelled word corrected. And don’t forget, you will have to make sure you have used the correct punctuation. If you’re lucky enough to find a small or medium size publisher who will glance at your work and run an editing pencil over it, lucky you.

I have read big-name authors’ works and books by those a little further down the food chain that had numerous errors in them. I wasn’t looking for errors; they were just that noticeable. Many editors either have left the business or have been terminated because publishers don’t have the money to pay them anymore. (Perhaps that is because the price of hardback books has gone up, but the sales of books has gone down due to lack of readers and the profit margin is dwindling.) Or perhaps they don’t see the advantage in putting out a better product. For the life of me, I can’t understand putting out an inferior product and hoping nobody notices.

As for a marketing staff to get your books into bookstores and libraries, publishers have a limited budget to push your book into large chain bookstores… if you can find a brick and mortar bookstore anywhere. Many of the smaller bookstores in my area which is Southern California (That’s Los Angeles.), have closed. But the big name publishers have a game plan. They will put your book in their catalog and try to sell it to those retailers who take books, but only for a short period of time. That means three-four, maybe six months. Then the publisher takes it off their list and they go on to the next handful of writers they have signed and they try to sell their books.

The window of opportunity is very short. And once it’s over, and unless your book grabs the attention of the media or a film company or you hit the Ten Most Wanted list and you become a household name, your book fades away.

If this sounds depressing… It is. But that doesn’t mean you should turn out an inferior product because the chance of selling it to a publisher is small and why bother? Of course you want to bother. It’s your baby and you want to turn out the best product you possibly can even if you do all the work.

red-pen
Hand with Red Pen Proofreading a Manuscript

So let’s discuss the first job I mentioned: Editing. Remember, in a gem there are many facets you need to polish. I’ll cover Marketing in a separate blog post.

Whether you are self-published or you are with an established publishing firm, you have to do that editing yourself, or at least most of it. Then, if you’re lucky, you will have writer-friends who will help you with your book. Or maybe you know an English professor from the local college who will do you a favor. Maybe you will have to slip her a few bucks to do the work, but it will get done. At least the roughest areas will be polished. But without a line editor or continuity editor or a person who knows what sounds good and what sells, you will still have a diamond-in-the-rough.

So how much editing is necessary? How high is up? I don’t mean to be sarcastic, just realistic. If you write on a computer, do your first draft even if it takes you years. Yes, years. Usually first time writers take two, five, even ten years to write their first book. It gets easier after the first one.

Whether you write a chapter and then go back over it and over it ad nauseam, and then another chapter and another, or write out the entire thing, warts and all, in one fell swoop, you now have a first draft. It’s the big wad of clay that you need to shape or the rough rock that you have to file and polish in order to get to the gem inside.

Let’s take this section by section.

 

Jewel 2Polishing the Gem

Part One: Know Your Characters

 

Something I do while writing every book or short story is keep a List of Characters that tells me their name and a short description of who they are and the role they play in the story. This helps me remember that the antiques dealer is named Lloyd Fowler and not Raymond Fowler. (I just caught this mistake while editing my most recent publication, but that’s why I keep a character sheet.)

When I go through the first editing phase, I refer to that list to make sure I have everybody’s name right. It gives me the opportunity to check and make sure I don’t have two people with the same last name. (I did this in the latest book, too. I changed one of those names.)

The Character List also shows me if I have too many characters with the same letter beginning their name. I might have a Kari and a Kirby, but they are minor characters and they don’t interact, so I left them as is. But I don’t want a Maisie, Margaret, Minnie, and Marvin showing up at the same time and place. It’s too confusing. There is an Alphabet at the bottom of the Character List. I circle the first letter of the name they most often go by so I don’t have too many names beginning with the same letter.

Invariably an errant name will slip past you while writing that first draft, but hopefully you will catch the error when you begin the editing process. That’s why you keep the Character List with you and update it in case you change a name along the way.

PeopleThere is another reason why this Character List is so important. Say you write a book and it takes off and you want to write a sequel or a trilogy or a series. How are you going to remember all the people your main characters met in book one if you don’t have a list of Who’s Who? And you need to have a similar list for each subsequent book.

Along with the Character List, I highly recommend writing a brief biography for each of your main characters, especially your principle character. This not only lets you chronicle the character’s hair color, age, height and weight, but it also records character traits, education, and job history.

 

Parts Two & Three – Keeping Track of Time & Line by Line – will be coming up in another few weeks.

Author: gbpool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (writing as G.B. Pool) writes two detective series: the Gin Caulfield P.I. series (Media Justice, Hedge Bet & Damning Evidence) and The Johnny Casino Casebook Series. She also penned a series of spy novels, The SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. She has a collection of short stories in From Light To DARK, as well as novels: Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Enchanted: The Ring, The Rose, and The Rapier, The Santa Claus Singer, and three delightful holiday storied, Bearnard’s Christmas, The Santa Claus Machine, and Every Castle Needs a Dragon. Also published: CAVERNS and Second Chance. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” (The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook is available.) “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.

14 thoughts on “Polishing the Gem”

    1. Paul, I figure that if I don’t take the time to do the editing, I’m the one to blame. Not that we can ever be perfect, but we can try to be better. The readers will appreciate it, too.

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    1. I have discovered lots of things that I do and many that I hadn’t been doing but do now after I started teaching the class on The Anatomy of a Short Story. Researching that class and the subsequent workbook, I learned there are ways to improve what we love to do.

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  1. Excellent post, Gayle, about editing, the industry, characters… wow! I keep a character list, too, for each series and story I write, and it definitely helps.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Linda, I have learned a lot ever since we started our blog. My posts have shown me stuff I didn’t know I knew. I am still learning myself.

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  2. Thanks, Gayle, for a full bag of tricks from you, as usual. You always gift us with great advice. Editing is indeed crucial. For two of my biographies the publishers’ young editors needed training. Paying a professional editor is often pretty expensive but, unless you have one as a friend who loves to read anything you write, it is a boon. On the other hand some editors are unable to be objective and like to insert some of their own changes just for the heck of it, it seems. In any event, thanks for the post, well needed..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill, I would be “spitting nails” if an editor added her own two cents, but I know it happens. But if we do the best we can, maybe they won’t chance screwing things up by adding what wasn’t needed.

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  3. You probably remember reading a first draft of Family Matters and pointing out that everyone and his brother’s name began with an M. Amazing how fond we get of certain letters. As always, great information, whether new or a reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have certain letters I always use. C is one of them M pops up a lot, too. I change some of them. It’s better for the reader.

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  4. Have read your post several times, there’s a lot there!

    Love the phrase and the concept, “Polishing the Gem!” Excellent information and advice, in that you are very good at capsulizing and pointing out the items important to writing an enjoyable (for the reader) novel. And your post is perfect for me, in that I’m polishing a “gem”(one can hope) and in it I’ve mentioned characters from earlier books, so at the end have just yesterday completed a kind of order-of-appearance index for the reader to be included. One of the reasons I like my Kindle, is I can make a note at character’s names to reference later on in the book I’m reading. In the “olden” days used scraps of paper, then post it notes… Like your on the mark comments on the publishing world–things have and are changing–and not stopping.

    Wonderful to hear reading an actual book is returning in favor–yeah!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mad, Alice Zogg would put a character list in her books so the reader could keep track of who was who. She gave a brief description like “the scientist” or “the ex-wife.” She didn’t put “the bad guy” so the reader had to read the story to find out who did it, but the list was a nice idea. And in an on-going saga the character list is a good idea.

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  5. Another great post, Gayle. I’m looking forward to Part 2. I’m doing some gem-polishing at the moment and researching editors. They’ve become quite pricey in just the past year or so. I had an editor who made significant (and wrong) changes without consulting me and without using the tracking feature. Thankfully it was a short story and I was able to quickly recover the correct parts, while keeping the good changes she made. Writing can be an adventure!

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    1. You aren’t the first to mention an editor who changes things. Not a good practice. They should at least tell you what they changed so you can accept or reject the change. If they want to write, let them do their own thing, not on somebody else’s work.

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