Category Archives: Writing a book

Blogging about the process of writing my first book.

The Yin and Yang of Writing

This entry comes from off the coast of Italy on what is actually a dark and stormy night. I’m posting this entry using a BlackBerry Z10 so the editing is a bit tricky. I’ll do my best.

I’ve been thinking about the nature of the writing process in terms of Yin and Yang.

The Yang of writing is the fun part of the process. It’s the creative, generative, searching for substance part of the act of writing that places demands on writer. It’s the out there, upfront energy that emerges from inspiration. It is the Yang element that results in the first draft.

The Yin of the process is that of editing. The writer take his or her draft from a stage of a work of a less substantial form to one that is more dense with greater substance. By carefully shaping the syntax, grammar and word choice the work takes on a more substanti
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Touchstones – An essential for achieving unity in writing

Once upon a time I was a teacher. Sorry for starting this like a Fairy Tale, but I have been retired for more than six and a half years and it all seems like a life that existed in a place long ago and far away. It’s interesting how when you least expect it, a few neurons trigger and you recall something very important. In my case it was the idea of using touchstones to preserve unity. Touchstones were very important to me as a teacher. As a teacher it was the unity of the subject matter I was concerned about, not just the content. The same thing applies to writing.  Another word for touchstone might be theme, but they are not exactly the same. When you carry a touchstone around, it is an object that brings you back to your center.

When I taught Senior High School Biology (I did so when there was still a Grade 13 in Ontario, so the content was equivalent to Freshman Biology at a college) I always had a few key touchstones that I would refer to as I taught through the year. I did that persistently so that my students could follow the flow of the lessons, and at the same time see the unifying elements among the different themes of Biology presented to them. It was a very successful teaching technique. So the other day, when those neurons fired for no particular reason and connected to the memory of my successful teaching technique, I saw it as a good way to approach the rewrite of my manuscript. Thank goodness for neurophysiologic phenomena.

Instead of picking some touchstones at random or through some approximation of what might work, I reread the comments of my DE (developmental editor) and reviewed all the discussion I have had with my editorial consultant, cleared my head of all preconceptions, and low and behold, there they were right in front of me all the time. My writing and thinking are heavily influenced be Eastern philosophies. In fact, my touchstones were deeply influenced by  Taoist and Zen Buddhist concepts related to “emptiness” and “Yin”Yang”. No big surprise really when I thought about it. Suddenly, the reorganization of content required by the DE just lined up the right way, and I was off to the races so to speak.

The expression “off to the races” might be a bit of an exaggeration, because the rewrite still needed a lot of work. With my touchstone securely in my mental pocket the work was moving in the right direction. There is no doubt that I was inspired to write by the essence of these philosophies, but even I had to look, read, think, and analyze to bring them to the surface. It is a “Chicken and Egg” sort of thing. The inspiration for the content arises from the philosophy, but the philosophy (the source of my touchstones) is partially obscured by the content. I not only had to look at my writing through the eyes of the reader, but I had to look at it through the eyes of a reader completely new to the content. I had to look at my readers as I looked at my new students who were new to the content of the course.

With more experience, I believe that I could have discovered my touchstones sooner in the creative process. Perhaps with a great deal of experience, the touchstones would have been there for me from the start of the project. The only thing I know for sure, at least for me, is that I need touchstones to write with power and coherence.

I don’t know how many posts I can produce over the next few weeks because I am off to Europe. My only avenue for communication is my trusty Blackberry Z10. I have been practicing writing longer and longer texts on the device, so I think I might be able to pull off a few posts. We shall see what I can do with my pocket-sized office. Have WiFi, will write.

Until the next time . . .

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The Struggle Goes On

This post will go down on record as the first and last multi-day post I will ever write.

(August 24, 2013) Re-writing is even more difficult than writing the first draft. One would think that wouldn’t be the case, but it is. The difficulty in reorganizing the manuscript lies in reorganizing the content according to a suggested revised table of contents. There are three dimensions to the task; the first is to find all the information scattered through the manuscript that applies to the new suggested sections, and second is to sequence the information, and the third is to smooth the transitions from paragraph to paragraph.

The reorganized TOC suggested by the developmental editor makes sense, but it is only a skeleton to hang the meat of the body of my work. As I write, I continue to struggle with reading my text as an outsider, although that is becoming easier with time. As I work,  I ask myself if it is possible to overwork and overwrite a text? I suspect that is true, but lack the experience to know if that is what I am doing. When is enough going to be enough?

I’m writing this on a train traveling from Montreal to Toronto, after a few excellent days in celebration of my birthday. The whole trip was my wife’s gift to me. As time marches on, the experiences of the visit are now a part of the repertoire of my experience. I’m going to sit back and enjoy the trip home and some recollections of the last few days for a few hours before I return to completing this post.

(August 29, 2013) I’ve been back from Montreal for a few days, but have been out of communication with the internet. Whatever you do, do not download the beta version of Windows 8.1. It has taken this long to get back to an original form of Windows 8 that was working just fine. Sometimes one just has to fight that nerdy urge that comes up from time to time.

When I left off I was pondering the idea of overworking one’s rewrite (and perhaps one’s self) to death. I still don’t think I have the answer, but I have some ideas. When one prepares a first draft manuscript, some specific ideas drive the process. When an editor suggests a revision of the sequence of content, it becomes problematic. The flow of the whole work dictated the flow of whole sections of the book. Back references to earlier ideas and foreshadowing of ideas to come are now completely out of register. As I began the rewrite task, a sense of being overwhelmed descended like a black cloud. The suggested revision of the TOC pushed me in the correct direction, but it left a great deal to my imagination.

The original introduction was geared to the original sequence, so an entirely rewritten intro is going to be required if I include one. It is likely the last part of the book to be written since one needs to know the full extent of a revised manuscript before an introduction can be prepared.  I decided to approach the rewrite as  if there will be no official introduction, since I am not writing anything so formal that an introduction is likely to be required. Once this idea guided my work two important things happened; first I was able to start writing a revision in earnest, and second, clarity and simplicity guided my writing in an effort to overcome the need for an introduction. The whole task seems less daunting than it did at first.

Next post . . . Flow In non-fiction writing . . . until next time

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Could’ve – Should’ve – Would’ve

Life is full of should’ve, would’ve and could’ve moments. The problem is not that they exist, but what one’s response is to those situations.  What did you learn from the situation? What are you going to do about it? If you say “fagetaboutit”, then you missed the point of the opening few lines of this post even before you read them. While “polishing” the content of the second part of my manuscript rewrite, I had a “should’ve done” moment. I was losing track of my ideas as the word count increased once again. At 5000 words, there was a distinct danger of either repeating myself or missing out important content. NOT GOOD!

The rewrite was progressing well until the end of the second section when the path already travelled started to fad from sight. I needed to resolve this issue post-haste or risk losing valuable time. It would be a tragedy (the no-fiction sort), if my rewrite was no better than my first draft.

Even though I had an outline to begin with, a system of keeping track of where my writing was going was needed. When I revisited the initial outline drafted at the beginning of the project, the reason my first draft wandered around idea-wise and included some repetition of material was due to the vagary of the initial outline. In fact, I was more of a web diagram than an outline. All the ideas were there but there was no structure or sequence included in the planning, a major oversight indeed. I just “flew by the seat of my pants” as I wrote according to the logic in my head. Clearly a less than adequate approach.

The other problem with my initial outline was not the outline at all. The problem was with me. It is easy to deviate from the plan as one gets wrapped up in an idea or explanation. Since the author knows were he or she is going, it is easy to get back on track. The reader has an entirely different problem, since they have been led astray and are not likely to return to the path the author is following with ease. They might even put the book down in frustration. I can deal with a reader putting my book down for any number of reasons, but frustration is not one of them.

The “should’ve done” moment for me was understanding that once one generates an outline, it needs to be followed carefully.  The outline should stand up to the same scrutiny as the text itself. Questions like:

Does the content of a part of the book lead to the next?

Is all the content listed in the outline necessary or is some of it redundant.

Will the content engage or disengage the reader?

etc. etc. etc…….need to be asked.

The outline in question is a prospective outline. Once the first draft is completed it “could’ve been” carefully checked against the prospective outline for its scope, content and sequence. Better yet, the first draft “should’ve been crosschecked with the outline after each section was completed. If that had been done in the first place, the rewrite “would’ve been” less of a task than it has become.

The next type or outline is a “retrospective outline“. I am generating one of those after each section of the book is rewritten. Think of this form of outline as a type of homework assignment requiring one to outline a text. The purpose of a retrospective outline is two-fold. First, it serves as a quality check on the content. Second, it serves as a way to keep careful track of the content of the rewrite as it unfolds. It is a kind of final checklist for the writer.

Once the rewrite is complete it will go back to the publisher for a content edit. There will be a blog about what that entails when my project reaches that stage.

I plan to write about the idea of taking too much owner ship of one’s ideas and not enough ownership of the content in my next blog. Until next time . . .

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What to inlude, what to cut, and what comes next?

I tried writing this post on a Blackberry Z10. It is possible, but only when no other technology is available. I’m back to the tactile keyboard for now.

I just finished a copy-edit (to the best of my ability and with the help of grammarly.com) on the fist completed sect of my rewrite. As I stated in a previous post, my intention is to follow the suggestions of the developmental editor closely. If material is considered superfluous, it is cut. Whenever the editor suggests that an idea needs more support or requires clarification it is done. The most time-consuming aspects of the rewrite process is keeping the content sequenced correctly and copy editing.

One has to give serious thought about how to begin a section of the book and what needs to be included. I’m discovering that some of the supporting content suggested by the editor, actually shows up in sections of the book other than the one I am working on at the moment. I looked back on my planning sheets prior to writing and discovered that many of my problems resulted from deviating from the plan and not asking myself the correct questions.  Reflecting on those planning sheets suggests a different approach might have been useful.

The next time I generate a plan for writing a work of non-fiction, I will include the following processes:

1. Establish a content development line, analogous to a plot development line in a novel.

2. Each time an idea or topic is included on the development line, the following questions should be posed:

a. Is this the next logical idea or topic that should appear in the book?

b. What do I need to know to write about this topic or express the idea?

c. What do I want the reader to understand from what is written?

d. What information or clarification do I need to provide to the reader?

e. Have I considered my audience as I am writing a section?

f, Am I leading my reader painlessly from paragraph to paragraph and sub-section to sub-section?

g. Have I included all that is necessary and cut out all that is superfluous?

3. Keep referring back to my plan and keep track of where I am.

4. Be consistent in following my plan, but don’t be married to it.

I think this checklist of questions would have been useful in the preparation of my first draft. If anyone reading this blog has a comment on the list of guiding questions provided, or anything they would like to add, please comment.

Until the next post . . .

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Serching for my voice – a major search and rescue mission

My Voice as a Writer

Writing comes naturally to some, and writing  may also be fun

But when you are new at it and may have to stew a bit, writing can make someone glum.

My voice is somewhere in here for sure, but buried so deep, I hope I don’t bore

My words and ideas in sentences and paragraphs galore, require a map and a guided tour.

As my fingers fly across the keys, and my words spill onto the screen with ease

The voice in my head is clear as can be, but emerges in the text, muted not free.

Will I ever find my voice?

I began the task of rewriting that which I have already written. As I read my words, the only voice I heard, was that of a boring lecturer. I seem to have been writing without the presence of an audience in mind. I seemed to be writing to hear my self write, like someone who talks to hear themselves talk. Perhaps I am being a bit hard on myself, but we are often our most severe critic.

To find your voice as a writer, I think you have to know yourself. What makes you an interesting person to talk with? What makes you an interesting person to listen to? I have often been told that I am a good speaker, and indeed I find it easy to speak on a subject in a clear and orderly manner. As a speaker I have a voice (not just the physical voice) that holds the listeners attention and can at times even be humorous.

All my communication skills seem to break down when I write, except perhaps when I blog. Blogging is more like speaking to my audience. I find it interesting that speaking to an unknown, unseen, and indeterminate audience is easier than writing text to be read by an audience I have defined. The developmental edit and editor’s comments have pointed the way that may actually lead to developing a voice as a writer. Editorial direction is forcing me to clarify ideas that are vague, to elaborate on material that is thin, to cluster ideas and concepts that belong together, to sequence my content more carefully and finally to cut out the fat.

My voice is trapped amidst the debris of extraneous words, repetitive ideas, redundant material and the vagaries of many weakly formed sentences and paragraphs. My voice is somewhere here in the regions of great writing that are entrapped in regions of poor prose. I feel like I am on a search and rescue mission looking for the survivors of a disaster with the hope of restoring them to a state of health and wellness. I follow the advice of Rene Descartes with vigour as I figuratively remove all the strong sections of writing and put them back into the piece in the most orderly way possible. In the process, I plan to let those same qualities that make me a strong speaker, allow the strong voice of the writer to shine.

More on struggling with a rewrite in my next post. Until then . . .

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First things first – Writing a preface

I have been thoroughly wrapped up in working on my rewrite since my last post. It is time I competed the post about writing a preface. My original preface, as I stated, was not a preface at all. It was more like an introductory section listing some details about the contents of the book. The feedback from the developmental edit directed me to prepare a preface based on some very specific content. I was to include:

1. WHY I decided to write my book.

2. WHAT was my motivation and what I was compelled to write about

3. WHO was my target audience

4. WHY should anyone read my book

5.HOW would the reader benefit from reading my book

6. HOW do I establish my credibility with the reader

The editors suggestions read more like an assignment in Journalism 101, than my original concept of a preface. These suggestions were directed at my project, a work of non-fiction. The preface of a work of fiction was very different from the preface of a non-fiction book in my experience as a reader. However, the more I considered the essence of a preface, the more a preface in a non-fiction work and that for a work of fiction seemed to serve a similar purpose. A preface seemed to be more about the art of advertising, than the art of journalism.

I began to examine my own behaviours as I searched for a book to read. There were four aspects of a book that always catch my attention; the title, the preface, a bit of the first chapter and headings in the table of contents.

(Nota bene: All these four elements are important. The title and the cover need to attract the potential reader initially. The printed elements need to keep them interested and hopefully motivated to purchase the book. Therre is no way to predict which of these elements a perspective reader will examine first, save the title.)

Now that I had a concept of a preface, I set about to write a very good one. I had to include all the elements listed above, and in addition, it had to be a “hook” for the potential reader. It had to give them a reason to look at the table of contents, and perhaps read a few lines of the first chapter. There had to be some drama in the language, and the words on the page needed to draw the reader into the book. Every book I have purchased (new or used or as an e-book), and every book I have borrowed from a library or a friend, grabbed me at some emotional level.

I like to use quotes from various poems as I write. Poetry is so full of powerful ideas and emotional expression in an exquisitely compressed state, that by selecting the correct quote, you can set up the reader for your content in very few words. I try to use material from the pubic domain as much as possible and try to select a few lines that evoke the sentiments and ideas I plan to write about.  Sometimes I use quotes from the notably well known poet or from a section of prose from a strong author if it seems appropriate to my purposes. Once again, I try to confine myself to public domain materials. Using quotation, has always been a trademark of my writing, even in the content of material handed out to the students I taught or as a prelude to a lesson at the black (or white) board.

One of the benefits of working with a strong e-publishing organization is the editorial and consultative support that is provided. After completing my revised preface, I was able to confer with my editorial consultant and get confirmation that I was on the right track. Now, as I approach the bulk of the manuscripts, I wondered how much had to be simply rewritten and how much new material I needed to produce. I decided to use my preface as a guiding spirit for the rewrite. If I could capture the emotional draw of the preface in the content, my chances of producing a salable book were good. The preface as written, also defined those all critical WHO, WHAT, and HOW questions posed by the developmental editor. What ever followed the preface had to flow from its spirit.

I had one other important decision to make before I tackled the approximately 50,000 words of my manuscript. I had to decide on my voice and what writing style would best express it. I plan to reflect on finding my VOICE and deciding on a WRITING style in my next post. Until then…..

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Developmental edit recieved – dealing with the fallout

As I write these posts, my goal is to inform the reader about the nature of a developmental edit and communicate the scope and range of my reactions and responses.  I want to relate the experience of a newbie writer going through the process of developing a manuscript to its full potential as accurately as possible. Six days ago, I received the result of my developmental editor’s review of the manuscript, and it was certainly an eye opener. I spent about eleven months producing a manuscript that essentially has to be taken apart and reassembled, and requires a fair amount of rewriting and rethinking .  Before beginning my narrative on the developmental edit, it was necessary to carefully review the comments and suggestions of the editor.

Initial reactions to the editors comments and suggestions ranged from discomfort to relief. The discomfiture comes from thinking about how much more work lies ahead before a manuscript becomes a book and a writer becomes an author. The relief comes from the quality of the editors comments and suggestions. I received a thorough editing effort, full of clearly presented well documented suggestions to guide me as I rewrite and restructure my work. The editor took time to carefully describe and explain what had to be done. The main issues to be addressed are logical sequencing of content , clarification of ideas, ensuring language is used to its full advantage, ensuring that words and formats are used consistently throughout the manuscript and ensuring that ideas were fully supported and documented. The results of the edit were fair, thorough and made sense, and a bit daunting.

My writing tools were rusty from disuse, to say the least. My knowledge of English, its grammar, syntax, rules for punctuation, and ideas about writing styles came from one freshman English course and whatever information about writing remained from high school many years ago  (the mid-1960’s). Until now, anything that I wrote was directed toward a specific audience or to fulfill the requirements of a specific assignment.  This was a first effort at writing for individuals who are not obliged to read anything I write. If I want to attract a readership, I need to get down to work.

In addition to all the structural and qualitative information provided by the editor, there was another important idea conveyed within the edit related to the task ahead. My job was to rewrite and restructure the manuscript into a thoroughly reader friendly and unambiguous written work . The first order of business was to rewrite, or more accurately, write the preface. The original preface for the manuscript submitted was not a preface at all, just my idea of what a preface should contain. I had done nothing to inform a reader about why the book was written and for whom it was written. I had done nothing to engage the reader in my writing or with the content to come. I spent five of the last six days writing a preface that I can use. The next post focuses on my efforts to produce that preface. Until then . . .

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Writing – It’s All Trivium To Me

One’s concept of the meaning of a word, and its actual meaning are often at odds. The full meaning of the word diction provided one of those surprising contrasts. Griggs and Webster (the Guide and Handbook for Writing previously mentioned ) defines proper diction in writing as using the correct words, in the correct manner, at the correct time. Here are two simpler definitions available on the internet.

dic·tion
(dkshn)

n.

1. Choice and use of words in speech or writing.

2. Degree of clarity and distinctness of pronunciation in speech or singing; enunciation.

The second of the two definitions reflected my original understanding of the word, but the primary definition reflects the content in Griggs and Webster. I decided to find out some more about the origins of diction as an essential component of the writer’s craft before further reflection on its importance. The history of education provides the answers.

The heart and soul of DICTION was born when the “seven liberal arts” were born. They were organized into two groups, the Trivium and the Quadrivium. These two groups of subjects formed the backbone of classical education from ancient Greek civilization until the 19th century. Diction is grounded in the Trivium which covers the disciplines of grammar, logic and rhetoric. The rules of grammar govern the structure of writing, logic governs the sense of writing and rhetoric governs the persuasiveness of writing. There is nothing trivial about the Trivium. If one has an interest in history, particularly the history of education,  he or she should investigate the Quadrivium as well, which is the basis for the natural sciences.

The rhetorical skills of a writer are essential to success in his or her trade . A writer of fiction is just as interested in persuading a reader to become engrossed in their stories as the writer of non-fiction is in informing a reader, and driving greater interest in the topic of his or her book. As the pen is mightier than the sword, it is also like a double edged sword. The power of the sword is released through the cut and thrust of a swordsman. The power of a word is released through the writer’s choice for its meaning and its placement in a sentence. If the sentence is to exert its full force within a paragraph, then the words that comprise it must exert their full force within it. A skilled writer, like a skilled swordsman, triumphs through their ability to use of the weapons at hand.

The Trivium governs sound writing. This is my mantra as I write and rewrite. The logical organization and sequence of ideas supporting the thesis of a written work are the first order of business. The words come next in importance as they are arrayed one by one to form the sentences in a paragraph to act as instruments of information and persuasion. Each sentence is written according to the rules of grammar and the dictates of a good style manual. Finally the copy edit and polish is applied to the work, and another written gem is ready for the reader.

A postscript: This post was delayed by an exciting event, the receipt of my developmental edit results. I’ll be writing some preliminary comments about the editorial process to date in my next post. Until then . . .

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In Anticipation of the Results of a Developmental Edit

A few weeks have passed since submitting my work for phase one of a manuscript development process, a so called developmental edit. Pre-development responses from four different readers of the manuscript highlighted similar issues.

* points are often well made and supported by adequate research

* the writing is dense with ideas, perhaps too dense

* the prose is too cerebral at times

* the reader needs to be captivated rather than captured by the content

* the work as a whole has a slight disjointed quality about it that caused these readers to lose the thread of the writing from time to time

* thoughts and ideas are expressed which relate to the theme of the book but may not contribute to the sense of it

* some small sections of content are replicated or redundant

* the text does not engage the reader at all times

* many titles and subtitles do not engage the reader and need to be redone

* text formatting conventions and styles are not consistent throughout the text

* two of the four readers providing preliminary assessment of the work, pointed out a need for careful and consistent application of grammatical and punctuation rules

There were a few other comments, but this list on its own suggests that there is much yet to do.

I expect the results of the developmental edit to be much more than a list of deficiencies. The results of the edit will vary depending on the editor. A developmental editor does not usually engage in rewriting any of the text, else their work becomes more like that of a ghost writer. While one shouldn’t expect any rewriting of content to result from the developmental edit, suggestions on how to best express an idea, accompanied by concrete examples are certainly expected. In addition, it is reasonable to expect:

* suggestions related to sequencing ideas

* suggestions and examples related to transitioning from one section of the manuscript to the next, or even one paragraph to the next, are given

* suggestions related to the superfluity of some content

* suggestions related to style and word choice

* suggestions as to redundancies and repetitions in the work

* suggestions related to areas of the text that require enhanced clarity and expanded content or both

* suggestions related to consistency of expression related to certain ideas in the text

* suggestions related to refining the manuscript to the target audience

The usefulness of results from this stage of the editing process depends on the editor selected for the task by the publisher. I, as an author, have no input over who is selected and no contact with the individual providing the edit. If all goes well, the feedback received will be more substantive (more like a substantive edit) in nature. I already have the broad strokes from an editorial evaluation provided by the publisher that brought me the stage of engaging in the developmental process. I am supposed to be able to work through the rewriting process with the support of a consultant who is also a developmental editor in his own right. I will report on the quality of the first phase of the editing process as soon as I receive the edited manuscript, and keep you appraised of the support received to get the manuscript ready for the next two phases of the development process; the content edit and the quality edit.

Only time will tell how much more work needs to be done and how much real support is provided. More about substantive editing in the next post…….

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