I need it yesterday

Hello, readers —

All right, I’ll confess it: my recent hiatus was not merely so you all would have time to get your entries in for the Holiday Tables contest — the deadline of which, incidentally, has been extended to Epiphany, January 6. A wise soul pointed out to me yesterday that all of us would be garnering rich material on holiday-table interactions in the weeks to come, and I would hate to miss any of that. See my last blog for contest details.

No, my break was for another reason: I was abruptly greeted week before last with an incredibly short revision deadline from my editor. When I say incredible, I don’t mean unusual so much as improbable to be able to meet: from Thursday afternoon to Monday night.

Would I frighten you too much if I told you such a short turn-around time is not atypical?
Manhattanite attitudes toward time (punctuated thus: wait-wait-wait-I NEED IT TODAY!-wait-wait-wait-REVISE THIS BY TOMORROW-wait-wait…), combined with the fact that it takes pretty darned long to edit a manuscript, dictate that we West Coast authors are continually FedExing things across the country. (In my case, at the publisher’s expense, thank goodness.) When I see an e-mail from my editor, I automatically break out the vitamin pills. I know it’s going to be a long night.

It would be easier to e-mail chapters, of course, but the aforementioned Manhattanites tend to be working with such outdated hardware and software that transferred files don’t translate between my system and theirs. This, too, is common: ask any PNW-based established writer who works on a Mac, and you’ll get a diatribe about how her agent and/or editor can’t open any of her attachments. We’re spoiled in the PNW, you know — even non-geeks tend to know computer geeks at least casually, so we can get answers to our computer questions fairly easily.

Not so the average NYC agency or publishing house. Would you believe me if I told you that neither my agency — a major one, with more than a hundred clients — nor my publisher — also fairly large and well-to-do — employs a computer expert?

It’s hard to imagine a company of that size in say, Seattle or Portland doing without a resident computer guy, isn’t it? The sad fact is, half the publishing industry is running Windows 98 on ten-year-old PCs — and have so little computer savvy that they insist that a book’s manuscript should be one long document. (That crash you just heard was everyone at Microsoft fainting at the very thought.) As an up-to-date Mac user who knows that 350-page documents tend to be a mite unwieldy — and thus like to crash like the Hindenburg — I can only shake my head and insist upon working in paper.

Then, too, when you send something as an attachment, it is too tempting not to proof it in hard copy before you send it, which can be disastrous. Admit it — you probably have in the past tried to edit e-mailed documents right on screen, when you were in a hurry. An odd illusion most of us have, that reading on screen is faster: actually, the typical reader reads 25% MORE SLOWLY on screen than on paper. And 79% of on-screen readers scan the page, instead of reading word-for-word, as one must to do an adequate proofreading job. A mistake that looks minimal on screen, such as a repeated word, can look truly unprofessional on the page.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: proof your work in HARD COPY before you send it to professionals.

Obviously, it’s flattering the first time an editor at a real, live publishing house — or a real, living agent — asks for ultra-quick revisions. “Hey!” the author thinks, aglow with joy, “they’re super-eager to read my work! They want to rush it out the door!”

Ah, the fantasies one can construct…

Actually, the swift turnaround request from an agent is often indicative of eagerness, but from an editor, it often is not. What the last-minute rush (usually, I am sad to report, followed by weeks or months of “Oh, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet”) generally means is that the editor requesting it has pushed his side of the work until the last minute — and thus has placed you in the procrastinator’s last-minute frantic shuffle. This tendency is so common in the publishing industry that it will do you no good to complain about it, except to other authors. Sorry.

I should pause to distinguish between the last-minute editorial request for changes and what newly-signed authors often PERCEIVE to be a rush request. The latter is primarily a function of the well-justified frustration most of us feel while trying to break into the biz and the fact that agents and editors have been very good at training conference-going writers (not to mention the ones professional enough to read writers’ publications) that they are roughly as busy as the angel responsible for protecting the hides of two-year-olds worldwide. We fear to encroach upon their valuable time, so when an agent or editor asks for a change or two, many throw ourselves into the task as though the world will end if we don’t finish the revision within the week.

I have learned over the years, both from my experience and my editing clients’, to ASK up front for a deadline. This request invariably surprises agents and editors — who tend to think of writers as inveterate procrastinators; their ways are much more comprehensible if you recognize that — and makes the author look comparatively good. Not to mention the not insignificant advantage of letting the author know whether the revision is expected sometime this week or sometime this year.

In the publishing world, both are distinct possibilities.

You may not always be given a deadline when you ask, but at least you won’t be left to wallow in the dread fear that you should have overnighted the revision yesterday, and it will open the possibility of haggling for more time. Since most new writers (and actually, most established ones) have day jobs, asking for a solid deadline is important, so it is possible to save up vacation and sick days for use during deadline crunch. A good way to budget your time with a long-term deadline is to set a personal deadline two weeks or a month before the actual deadline, and plan accordingly.

If you finish before your agreed-upon deadline, great — nothing makes an author look better than being able to turn in a manuscript BEFORE a deadline. When my agent was negotiating the contract for my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK), she asked me how quickly I thought I could finish the manuscript, so we could specify a delivery date in the contract. Prudently, I added two weeks to my estimate, since publishing houses are serious about those delivery deadlines. When I turned in the manuscript two weeks early — in other words, precisely on my personal deadline date — my editor and publisher nearly fell over from surprise.

When the genuine last-minute request does hit you, there is little you can do but hold on for the ride. Unfortunately for the author, having to be en garde constantly for the possibility of a last-minute revision request means superlative organization UP TO that point. The better you know your manuscript, the less time such revisions will take.

Think about your current manuscript: if you were asked to change a secondary plotline, or remove a minor character, how long would it take you to track down each relevant page? If you have to scroll or leaf through, it can be quite time-consuming; for how long most writers pore over their own work, it is surprising how few have read it back to front often enough to know to a certainty what falls where. If you’re in a hurry, knowing only vaguely when a contested character does or does not appear will slow you down — and increase the probability that you’ll miss a spot.

So I say it once again: you should be reading your own work on a regular basis, in hard copy. If you have a very complicated plot or a great many characters, it isn’t a bad idea to maintain a sequential list of scenes, listing who is in which. Yes, this is a lot of work, but such a well-kept list can save you literally weeks at revision time, if you need to change a character or significant plot point.

Fortunately for me, I happen to know my manuscript superlatively well, so I could put my finger on precisely the individual sentence or paragraph that needed to be moved without delay. That was not an intimacy with the text that sprang up overnight, my friends, but one born of weeks and months of going over the text, again and again. Every so often, I would print out what I had and read it straight through, like a finished book. (This is less paper-wasteful than it sounds, when you save a one-sided draft and print the next draft on the flip side. I’m notorious for raiding office recycling bins to forage for draft paper.) Even though sections have moved around, I grew to have an almost instinctive feel for what fit where. Frankly, a four-day revision would not have been possible without that level of advance knowledge.

A word to the wise, my friends. Keep up the good work.

– Anne Mini

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