making it work

How do you make it work?

Think of Project Runway — the TV reality show where designers are given a challenge for each show, an ungodly short deadline, a very tight budget (usually), competitive working conditions, an experienced adviser (Tim Gunn, who intones ‘make it work’ several times each show), and the ultimate opportunity to be completely humiliated in front of prestigious judges and a national audience.

It’s the writing world in microcosm.

When you’re under deadline, you don’t always have the luxury of having the time to set the manuscript down for a while (a week, a month, etc.) and then come back to it fresh, able to re-read and make sure that you’ve nailed down the vision you had for the story. It’s a simple truth–good writing is often in the polishing, the editing, the rewriting. There is a scary balance to maintain: trying to improve with each book and yet, get the next book out on a schedule that’s probably a lot tighter than what you had for the first book, when you were writing in the hope of selling. To  make matters more difficult, each book is different, (well, it should be), so the lessons learned on the first book aren’t necessarily going to completely cover everything you need to know for the second and so on.

All of the little decisions add up to the final result, and some of the wrong turns can be corrected with experience or objectivity.

A friend of mine (a very talented writer in her own right) wrote to me recently after I’d finished the second book and asked me if there was a point when it felt easier than "gee, there’s this whole alphabet thing, and it makes letters and wow, words." Does experience solve everything?

Unfortunately, no. I think I learned more on the second book than on the previous one and probably half of the other things I wrote, all put together. I have so much more to learn. But there are a few things I try to do when completing a project to double-check the work and make sure it’s as polished as I can make it, in spite of the pressure. So when the stress is high, when there are expectations (both self-imposed and inherent in the publishing process), what do you do to double-check your efforts, to try to turn in the best project possible? What are some of your tricks or tips?

Here are some (very) random items on my checklist:

One of the last things I’ll do with a manuscript, when I have the time, is work backward; this helps me cull extra verbiage, and makes sure that I’m not "reading into" the sentences more than what’s there because I’m reading out-of-order. (This is difficult to do, I’ll admit, but extremely effective when I force myself.) I’ll also break the manuscript down by acts, once it’s done, and check the turning points to see if the pacing works. Another thing I’ll check on is to make sure that every secondary character had a reason to be in the story: did they affect the outcome? did they matter? If not, they don’t need to be in there.

What’s on your checklist? How do you "make it work?" (I’d love to see anything you do project-wise, and if you’re not a writer, how you help mitigate the stress of deadlines in your own line of work.)

14 thoughts on “making it work

  1. billie

    I do a number editing “passes” that focus on one specific thing. I read through for pacing and rhythm one pass, for consistency and time/other errors in another. I read through following the separate “threads” – making sure everything is pulled through the entire novel, and also that they weave together.


    It’s easier for me to get outside the “whole thing” and see more objectively if I’m looking at one issue and focusing in on just that.

    It takes a lot of read-throughs, but I can do them quickly and I’ve found I don’t get bogged down like I do if I don’t have one single focus.

  2. pari

    Toni,This is a welcome subject right now since I’m writing one book and editing another. Thank you.

    I read the book several times — and polish each time through — always looking for something different.

    This is also where a good critique group comes in very handy. After the draft is done, it’s nice to test with completely unsympathetic eyes. The folks I have in the group now are all published and each one has a different take; they’re very specific and that helps me see if my writing is working or not.

  3. toni mcgee causey

    Billie, I admire that single focus–I try to do that, but it’s difficult. I’ll end up making notes to myself on what togo back and re-read for and then by the time I’m half-way through, there are too many notes.

    Alex, I wish I could do that for the whole book. How long does that take you? Do you make notes as you go if you see something or is it such that by the time you’re reading out loud, you’ve pretty much caught everything anyway and you don’t get bogged down?

    Pari, I agree about feedback–I have a set group whom I trust. They each tend to read with a different focus (which we’ve discovered over the years) and have no hesitancy in telling me the truth if something isn’t working. Thank God for them. I don’t think my publisher could pry it out of my cold, dead hands if they weren’t reading through at some point in the process.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’m not sure how long it takes me… I don’t do it all in one day, for sure! I’ve often done it in early stages, a chapter at a time as I go along.

    Or if I do it in a later stage, it’s really just for polishing and you can catch pretty much everything as you go along.

    If you don’t have time now to do the whole book, just read the problematic chapters aloud.

  5. JT Ellison

    Nice topic, Toni!

    I do a draft to get the story down, an edit, then print it out and edit a hard copy, read through once more for errors, send it to my three independent readers, all of whom have different focuses, make their changes, read through again, then print it out, walk away from the computer and read it like it’s a book. THEN I submit to my editor for her changes. I don’t use any tricks outside of making sure it’s something I’d want to read if I picked it up at the airport.

    My critique groups sees almost half of the story and really gets me going in the right direction from the start.

    At one point this year, I was doing 4 books at once. The KY Anthology and all three of my Taylor books. That was an insanity I don’t care to repeat. Now that I’ve got one in the chute, it will be a constant writing one, editing one and promoting one scenario, but that’s cake compared to what I went through earlier in the year. You remember THOSE phone calls, Toni? My hair has grown back in, thanks. ; )

  6. pari

    I’ve got to respond to Victor’s comment. Before I got published, I wrote two full manuscripts that never sold. Then I wrote 100 pages in another one. It bored me — even in the writing — and I realized some projects are better left unfinished.

    I’ve kept those first two manuscripts. I shredded the partial.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Oh, JT, I definitely remember those (and the hair looks great, by the way). Four things at once means I would have been carted away by the men in the little white coats.

    Alex, I don’t know why I hadn’t really tried a chapter at a time out loud through the process–that was always one of those “when I get done” sort of things, and then I get tired of the sound of my voice (or forget and switch back to silent before I realize what I’ve done.) I’ll try that.

    Victor, I think that’s key–if I catch myself skimming something when re-reading it, odds are it’s because I’m bored with it and that’s the part I work on.

    Pari, I’ve shredded a couple as well. (Isometimes wonder why I even went as far as I did with them… self delusion? Wishful thinking?)

  8. Louise Ure

    Like Pari, I reread multiple times with a different objective in each reading: pacing, characterization, strength of language, etc.

    But I wish I could learn more from book to book. I keep making the same mistakes and finding the same roadblocks every time.

  9. Allison Brennan

    Toni, I edit as I go simply because of time–I’ll review what I wrote the day before and clean it up. When I’m done, I do one major revision–it’s mostly for pacing, character consistency, etc. The big stuff. Then I get editor revisions and that’s sometimes extensive, sometimes minor. Ironically, the books I edit more on my own tend to need more revisions after my editor reads it, than books I don’t spend as much time editing on my own. Go figure–I think I tend to second guess myself too much.

    And I ALWAYS read my book out loud. Usually in the copy edit stage where I can easily cull words and rework awkward sentences. And I’ll read dialogue again in the page proofs. In FEAR NO EVIL I had very little time for editing and revisions, but I read the entire book out loud in three days when I got the page proofs.

    I’m with Elaine–if I tried to read backwards, I’d go insane. Some people already worry about me.

  10. Elaine Flinn

    Glad you decided to save your comments, Toni. They don’t call me Evi E for nuttin’. 🙂

    As for Allison, I think I’ve already told you all that she’s not human. But my lips are zipped – more I cannot say.


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