Give Your Manuscript Time to Simmer

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Good writing is like good pasta sauce. The ingredients in a good sauce are simple enough — tomatoes, garlic, onion, basil, oregano, salt, pepper — yet the range and breadth of flavors that can be created with these seven ingredients are enough to fill an entire section of the grocery store.

What all good sauces have in common, and good books too, is that they were allowed to simmer so that the flavors could meld. If you are hoping for a positive end result, one thing you can’t do, whether in writing or in cooking, is hurry.

Generally speaking, both fiction and nonfiction require some level of research. Although the demands for these two genres are different, good research is nonetheless important for the satisfaction of your readers.

During the writing process, you may be tempted to insert your newfound knowledge without much synthesis. This can become a major stumbling block for your readers. Why? When you don’t allow yourself time to process the information you have gathered, you are likely to abruptly switch between the technical aspects of the research and your natural writing style.

Further, readers may find themselves distracted by the digressions into historical or technical background. Whereas you, the author, may have intended to create a richer description of a person, place, or thing, the result may leave readers wondering what this detail has to do with the rest of the story.

This problem occurs in every kind of writing. As the author, you have to make sure your thoughts are flowing clearly from one to the next and that your inclusion of research improves the reading experience rather than hurting it. With multiple revisions over several weeks, there will be no obvious patchwork, no raw spices.

Researching while you write is a contributing factor to this problem, and it can easily lead to the worst gaffe that can come from hurrying your writing: plagiarism. With so much material online, it is too easy to simply copy and paste someone else’s words and pass them off as your own. Avoid the temptation by allowing yourself time to fully understand what you have learned before you attempt to use it.

But it’s not just research that needs this simmering time. The manuscript as a whole needs a chance to meld. If it took you a long time to get all of the pieces together — many writers report spending five years or more writing their books — once you type “The End” you may want to jump into editing. Hold on! Give that work of yours some room, come back to it when you can read it from beginning to end, and fix any glitches.

Now, it has been suggested to me that setting a project aside for a time to give yourself a fresh perspective may be a luxury that some writers don’t have. Publishers have schedules and they expect their authors to adhere to them. Others might look to some of the prolific best-selling authors, the ones who put out multiple books a year, for examples of when this rule does not apply. Here are my thoughts on those caveats.

First, if your publisher is asking for a book in a faster timeline than you can manage and still write a good book, you need to:

  1. take that into consideration the next time you negotiate a contract, and
  2. ask for an extension.

Although I always encourage my authors to meet their deadlines, I have to also admit that a good 50% of the books I have edited over the past 17 years have been behind schedule at some point. So, if you need more time in order to make a great product, ask for it. You won’t be the first author to miss a deadline.

And second, if you aren’t James Patterson, then you shouldn’t expect to produce books the way he does. Many of the top-producing best-selling authors have ghostwriters. You will also notice that the quality of the books tends to suffer over time. Plots are formulaic, story lines digress, and you wonder if the editor was sleeping on the job. It’s clear the author’s name recognition is what sells these books.

Although you have a slim chance of reaching fame and fortune churning out book after book, if you have to sacrifice the quality of your writing in order to do it, and thereby risk your reputation, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

I offer you one more reason to take your time while you write. Traditional publishing houses do not spend as much time or money on editing as they used to. The large presses only accept books that are in tip-top shape (unless you’re James Patterson). Smaller presses may accept your work but offer little in the way of editing assistance. In both cases, that means it’s up to you to deliver a manuscript that is very nearly publication ready. That only happens when you take your time. (Self-publishers keep their own schedules; no excuses for rushing when you’re the publisher!)

Of course, this is all coming from a woman who quit her job as an in-house editor because, as a member of the quality control team, she was unhappy with the quality of books the house was producing. I work for myself now. That means I control the quality of my writing and editing and I can take pride in whatever comes out of my office. It’s a good feeling, one that I believe every author should aspire to.

Like this blog? Find more insights and advice in Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available from POP Editorial Services LLC, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and other fine retailers.

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The P Word: Why Plagiarism Is a Sin

All through high school and college English classes, I heard the P word at least once a semester. It was scandalous, a sin in fact. The one commandment of writing, I learned, is “Thou shalt not plagiarize.” As a teenager I had difficulty grasping the concept, but the more I wrote, the more I understood: if you didn’t write it, then don’t pass it off as your own — and changing a word here or there is not enough. This has grown into a passion of mine as an editor.

One small aspect of a copyeditor’s job is to highlight for the author certain material that may require permission (another scary P word). Generally this comes up when an author has chosen to excerpt some material from another source. Although the appropriate credit has been given, the excerpt is long enough or involved enough to warrant asking permission of the copyright holder to use his or her work. Now, there are a lot of ins and outs to permissions, and it’s understandable that even experienced authors get confused as to what requires permission and what doesn’t. I allow no such excuse for plagiarism.

Why so harsh? Because unlike permissions and copyrights, plagiarism isn’t a fuzzy gray area of law. It is a simple yes or no question: did you write this or not? I have seen plagiarism too many times by grown men and women, and what I have realized is, the sole motivation behind it is laziness. In books and articles, the self-published and those professionally done, I have discovered entire paragraphs — sometimes three or four paragraphs in a row — that were taken directly from another source, with no mention of the other source anywhere in the document. What kills me is, the author doesn’t seem to recognize that he or she has a particular voice or style of writing; when I come across something that a third person has written, it is usually pretty obvious.

Call me cynical, but I have come to believe these authors do it because they think they won’t get caught. I told one perpetrator, who was surprised when I called such a problem to her attention, “All I have to do is copy a sentence from your document into a search engine and I can find where you took it from.” Her response? An incredulous “Really?” Yes, really. Just as easily as you were able to copy and paste the material from Wikipedia into your manuscript, I am able to do a reverse search and find the source you stole from. And how embarrassing it is for all of us when I have to say, I’m sorry, this is plagiarism and you must rewrite it or cut it from your book.

On occasion it is possible this is just a simple mistake. However, more often, I have found multiple sections in a single manuscript that were pulled directly from another source. (Wikipedia is definitely a favorite, but not the only one.) What does this say to me? That the author didn’t actually want to write the book. He or she wanted to have a book published with his or her name emblazoned on the front, yes, but this person did not want to do the work needed to actually accomplish that goal. And that, to me, is sinful.

It all comes down to a question of integrity — the integrity of you, the author, and the integrity of the text you are excerpting. If you don’t know the rules, educate yourself before you begin the great undertaking of writing a book. If you do know the rules, follow them. It’s not that hard. It’s certainly easier to do it right the first time, and then you don’t have to try to explain yourself to your editor when she finds out what you’ve been doing behind closed doors.