Tag Archives: critique

Print Design and Novel Openings: New Services for Writers

I’m pleased to announce two new services.

PROFESSIONAL PRINT DESIGN & FORMATTING

Starting with your doc or rtf file, I’ll work with you to professionally design and format your manuscript to realize your vision and make your book look the very best it can in the reader’s hands.

While it’s perfectly possible for an author to format their own book for print in MS Word, Scrivener, or other software, there are many areas in which a lack of experience and specialized knowledge will result in a product that looks just average; at worst, the book may end up looking amateurish or even unreadable.

Formatting for print is as much art as it is science. There are many decisions to be made, all of which will impact both the price and appearance of the finished book. Factors such as optimized interior margins, adjusting tracking and other parameters to eliminate widows and orphans, optimum leading, font selection and sizing for chapter titles, body text, page headers and footers, numeration, the choice and use of glyphs for page separators, determining ideal page count and how that impacts price, etc., are all things that strongly affect the finished result.

Drawing on my experience over several years and many book designs, I will design your book using Adobe’s InDesign software—the gold standard for book and magazine layout—and deliver your final file in PDF/X-1a:2001, the format preferred by Ingram, Amazon CreateSpace, and printers everywhere. Initial discussions, professional advice, and three rounds of representative sample pages (usually an entire chapter) are included in my fee. In addition to advising on design, I can also help you decide on front- and backmatter, copyright notices, acknowledgments, ToCs, dedications, and the like.

My fees for an average length novel (80,000-130,000 words) typically range between $300 and $400 depending on wordcount. Books which include several images or require unusual treatment may cost more. To get a firm quotation on your project, simply contact me and we’ll take it from there. I’m of course happy provide a sample of my work.

NOVEL OPENING ANALYSIS 1

Everyone knows that the opening pages of any work are critical. Given a reasonable baseline of quality, most readers will be generous, allowing the author perhaps a few dozen pages before deciding whether the book is for them or not. The reader opening  a book wants to enjoy the work and starts off on the author’s side. Still, small early mistakes can and will often make a reader put the book aside, perhaps for good.

First (aka slush) readers working for agents and publishers are another matter entirely: they’re actively looking for reasons to reject a manuscript so they can find the few diamonds in the mountain of coal that is the slush pile. Having compiled several anthologies and taken hundreds of story and novel submissions myself, I can assure you that any experienced first reader or editor can tell within a few paragraphs, and often just two or three sentences, whether the story is worth their time. The percentage pass rate of queries and submissions is typically in the very low single digits at best.

As an author who also lives on the other side of the editor’s desk, I can help analyze issues and glitches in those critical opening pages to ensure that your reader is hooked through your opening pages. This opening assessment service is similar to my Single Edit Solution (see Services page), but tailored specifically to making the beginning of your novel work.

My fee for this service is $125 for the first 5,000 words (approximately 20 double-spaced manuscript pages). I use Word’s native inline comments and Track Changes tools to mark up your pages; in addition you will receive a written “macro” giving an overview of the opening’s strengths and weaknesses. Simply contact me if this service is of interest to you.

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1 Please note that all writing critique is subjective, and other readers may feel differently. Do not use this service if you’re not comfortable with honest, constructive feedback. Use of this service does not imply or offer any guarantee of future acceptance or sales.

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Questioning Critique

It’s been said that a writer fluctuates between believing they’re the best writer in the world and the worst writer in the world—and in some cases, that they hold both views at the same time.

The point is well-made. When the creative faculty is fully engaged and the characters on the page writhe and pulse with life, the writer is in heaven; but when the inbuilt editor that any good writer possesses kicks in, or the work runs aground on any of a myriad possible shoals, the writer is convinced his work is crap.

Writers work in isolation. They’re very close to their work. And a piece of fiction is a dynamic, interdependent, sometimes fantastically complex web of forces and relationships. It’s therefore vital, as the work approaches its final completion, for the writer to get outside feedback.

Over the last dozen years I’ve participated in or mentored several critique groups, as well as founding one (“Written in Blood”) several of whose members are now widely published and have even won major awards. I firmly believe in the now standard writer’s group critique process.

And yet I’ve begun to see its limitations. Bear with me as I approach my point obliquely.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my dislike of the way the publishing industry, steered as it is by suits and the pressing imperatives of the market, is increasingly adopting the Hollywood approach, where everyone gets input on the final result. I personally know of several authors whose book was turned down by a publisher because the marketing department had issues with it (sometimes just because it didn’t fit a clear category) despite the fact that the editorial team were unanimous in approving and wanting to acquire it.

My point is that when we try to second-guess, we can always, always find issues; and in addressing those issues, we end up making so many changes that we can suck all the life and uniqueness out of a work. Today, a book is first critiqued, often multiple times, before going to the author’s agent, who often initiates a whole new round of revisions; and then the same occurs at the publishing house. This in my view is why so many genre books today seem generic, formulaic, and about as exciting as the kind of art that hangs in bank lobbies and Comfort Inn rooms.

I’m beginning to think that the word “critique” itself is problematic (the etymology goes back to the Greek word, krites, a judge) and tends to slant the process towards fault-finding; “evaluation” may ultimately be closer to what a writer needs, but I’m probably splitting hairs.

Let me be clear: I do believe writers should seek critique and feedback**, and am not for one instant devaluing the formal writers’ critique group. But as we grow as writers, we need to be really sure that the type and direction of critique we’re receiving is keeping pace with our skills, and that our beta readers “get” our work and our intent. Writers need to be very aware that it’s easy to critique anything to death. Tangents and irrelevancies creep in as the well-meaning critiquer casts around to address anything which may raise a question. In this fishing process, things may be caught which materially and subtly contribute to the flavour and uniqueness of the story; and in their doubt, the writer, once alerted, removes or alters the item, and in the process diminishes the final work, bringing it closer to the ordinary.

As an example of this, imagine a Gothic, claustrophobic tale set in a remote castle. In the process of critique, one or more readers may feel that they want to know more about the world outside. What’s going on there? Why doesn’t anyone in the castle go down to the village for supplies? Where do they get their water? And so on. These questions may be fair and even relevant, but there’s every danger that an insecure writer, in attempting to address them to please some theoretical contingent of readers, begins to put in sentences or scenes or infodumps which degrade the atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia and consequently lessen the power of the work.

Even more of a minefield is the advice frequently given in critique about adverbs, flashbacks, show don’t tell, etc.; while all the standard writing advice is founded on solid principles, it takes true maturity to understand its limits; and likewise to know how and when to break the rules.

The point of critique isn’t to make the story or book attain some theoretical ideal of perfection (ideals which are usually based on writerly dogma and oversimplified writing “rules” than anything else); the point is to end up with a publishable piece of fiction which readers will enjoy and which communicates the creator’s vision in as unalloyed a form as possible. The mature writer needs to have the self-confidence and feel sufficiently secure to say, “no: enough”.

Perhaps this is why most pro authors, or even those who are multiply published, seem to move on from formal critique groups and instead pass their manuscripts on to a very small, handpicked circle of other mature authors for beta reading, people who they know will “get” exactly what they’re striving for, and what the reader wants, rather than taking more of a scattergun approach to finding fault in the manuscript. The line may be a fine one, but it is, in my experience, very real.

To my mind, the best beta readers and editors will understand the distinction between on the one hand fully respecting the author’s intent, direction, vision, and style, and on the other, obsessing over some cookie-cutter notion of what the market wants and what constitutes good writing. The focus needs to be on two things only: what the writer intends, and what matters to readers. Nothing else.

And that’s all it ever was about.

What do you think?

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**In fact, I offer manuscript evaluation/critique and copyediting services for writers—see main menu bar above

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