Manuscript revision IV: I’m running as fast as I can

Hey, good news, readers: as of today, ALL of my 2006 blogs are now available on this site! That includes the old ones from the PNWA Guest Writer series, as well as the new — and on this site, they’re sorted by topic! That’s 892 pages of bloggy goodness all ready for you, my friends. Quick, how many words is that in standard format, Times New Roman?

“Why, 223,000 words, of course,” I hear those of you who have been visiting my blog for a while say. “What else would it be?”

My heart swells with pride. See, we’ve all been learning. (And if the calculation above is mystifying you, you might want to go back and check the blogs under SUBMISSION and FORMATTING A MANUSCRIPT, to learn how the pros calculate word count.) I’m adding a few more every day, traveling back in time, so eventually, my whole magnum opus will be available here. Hooray!

Back to business. I have been writing over the last few days about how to make your submissions more compelling to agents and editors. Today, I would like to talk about running order.

Ask two-thirds of the querying writers in North America if they have considered rearranging their running orders to make their books easier to market, and they will stare at you as though you suggested including a small live piglet in their submission packets. Sure, it COULD be done, but who in his right mind would want to do such a thing? Naturally, the story needs to be told in its current order.

But know this, submitters near and far: professional readers, as a general rule, do NOT consider a submitted book’s running order inviolate. In fact, while they are reading, they frequently question the wisdom of authorial choices on the subject with wild abandon. Would the story have been more compelling told in a different order? they ask the pages in front of them. Did the narrative stop dead because of the insertion of a paragraph of background information? Is the author telling too much, or too little?

You may, in short, be asked to rearrange the whole darned thing, even if they like it.

And when I say MAY, I am perhaps understating the probability. Switching the running order of a book is one of the most common of editorial requests, right up there with “lose the feminist best friend,” “cut the gay brother,” and “does this character really have to die?” I know it is horrible to contemplate slicing up your baby and rearranging its bits for the amusement of people in New York, but in the long run, you will probably be happier if you start considering the reshuffling possibilities of your novel as early in the composition process as possible. It will help you respond more quickly — and less angrily — when the call comes.

And that will earn you a reputation as a professional writer who can take serious criticism. (As opposed to that other kind, who ends up serving 5-7 for going after her agent with a hammer after the 47th revision request.)

Oh, the stories I could tell you about editorial revision requests… but I’m fond of you people; I don’t want to induce nightmares. I shall limit myself to one. A good friend of mine — let’s call her Sheila — had her first novel bought by a major press as part of a package deal with one of her agency’s major clients (yes, Virginia, this does happen from time to time). But as the minor player in the deal, she did not have a very strong bargaining position; in fact, I strongly suspect that the first set of editorial advice that she received from the publisher was intended to make her curl up in a ball and disappear forever. It amounted to this: lose the first third of the book, beef up the familial relationships, and while you’re at it, cut the rape.

Well, naturally, Sheila called me in tears; she had been working on this book for years. I was a good person to call, as it turned out, because being an editor, I think like one: when I had read the first version, I was already thinking of the possibility of changing the running order in order to strengthen the essential plot line. So, as soon as she stopped sniffling, I told her the five rather simple changes that I thought she could make to transform the book into what the editor at the publishing house wanted.

She was absolutely silent for a full 45 seconds. “But that could WORK!”

Why was Sheila so incredulous? Because, like most novelists, she had never seriously considered the possibility of rearranging the running order of her plot. In her mind, as in so many writers’, the book WAS its running order. But novels — good ones, anyway — have a whole lot of elements; if the characters are strong, they can move in different directions. Not that a plot is a stack of Legos, precisely, that could be put together in a million different ways, but some modification is usually possible.

Well, Sheila took my advice, and rearranged the book. The editor was pleased, and the book moved closer to publication. Happy ending, right?

No — it turned out that the book’s flexibility (and Sheila’s) was even more important to its survival. Shortly after Sheila completed rewrites, her editor moved to another publishing house. (Don’t gasp too sharply; it happens all the time. My memoir’s editor was laid off three months after I delivered the manuscript.) In comes a new editor, with a brand-new set of expectations — and none too pleased to have inherited this particular book. Sheila was asked to change the running order again.

“But how is that possible?” I hear some of you cry. “Wasn’t there a contract? Weren’t there limits to how often the author could be forced to revise?”

Publishing contracts are notoriously flexible — at least, where impositions on the writer are concerned. The editor in charge of the book is the editor in charge of the book — unless she is no longer employed there. Then it’s a totally new ballgame. You know how I have been hammering on the fact that agents and editors are not a group of people with monolithic tastes? Well, nowhere is it more evident than in a situation like this.

So what could Sheila do? She revamped the book.

Just before it was scheduled to go to press — you can see this coming, can’t you? — a higher-up at the publishing house decided that the ending wasn’t happy enough. And was that interracial marriage really necessary?

All and all, Sheila changed the running order of the book four times, at the behest of different people at her publishing house. (They also changed her title, just for good measure.) And when I saw the final version of the book, it bore so little resemblance to the draft I had originally read that I, for one, have often wondered if Sheila could have her agent shop around the first version, as a totally different book.

Now, naturally, this does not happen with every novel; this many editorial turn-overs on a single book is rare. However, please note: there was a point where if Sheila hadn’t been able to think about her running order creatively, she would have lost an already-signed book deal. And that point was when the first editor first suggested changing it.

Cultivate flexibility now; you’re less likely to break in two when you really need to stretch.

And this kind of editorial request is not limited to novels, I tremble to report. In a nonfiction piece, running order is even more important than for fiction. The questions for NF are slightly different, but tend to the same end: are the planks of the argument presented in an order that makes sense, where each one builds on the one before, leading up to a convincing conclusion? Are the examples frequent and appropriate enough? Did the author slow down the argument by over-emphasizing points that could have been glossed over quickly, to move on to more important material?

And so forth. It’s important for you to know in advance that agents and editors read this way, so you won’t be shocked to find half a chapter of your manuscript marked in red link, with a barely-legible scrawl in the margin, “Move to X, three chapters back.”

At the risk of sounding like your 9th-grade English teacher, if you are in ANY doubt about the running order of your NF argument, take a blank sheet of paper and sit down with your manuscript. Read it straight through. As you make each major point in the text, write a summary sentence on the piece of paper, in order. After you finish reading, go back over that list: from the list alone, does the argument make sense?

In a fiction piece, it is significantly more difficult to ferret out problems for yourself, because after all, YOU know all of the backstory on all of your characters, right? An extra pair of eyes — in your writing group, from a trusted first reader, from a freelance editor — can be very helpful in catching logical leaps and running order problems.

However, if you are left to your own devices, try outlining the plot, just as you would for a NF argument. On a blank piece of paper, not dissimilar to the one described above, write down all of the major plot points in order. Not the subplots, mind you — just the major scenes. After you have a complete list, go back and ask yourself about each, “Why did this happen?”

If the answer is along the lines of, “Because the plot required it,” rather than for reasons of characterization, you might want to recheck the running order. Something is probably amiss. Would the plot make MORE sense if you switched Point 8 and Point 22?

Now you’re thinking like an editor.

You may also use this technique to edit for length and relevance. After you have ascertained that your plot’s order makes sense, place your list in front of you, close your eyes (best not to do this while driving or operating heavy machinery, obviously), and bring your finger down on a plot point. No peeking, now.

Cover that plot point, and read through the list again. Does the plot make sense without the listed point?

If the answer is yes, you might want to spend some time pondering whether that particular plot point is necessary — or whether your perception of what is integral to the plot is absolutely accurate. If you’ve stuck to the major plot points, the summary SHOULDN’T entirely make sense with a plank missing, should it?

Editors spend a LOT of time knocking extraneous scenes out of books. If you can save them the trouble, you’re already one step ahead of the game. Oh, and your submission will look better to them, and to agents.

Keep up the good work!

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