The scoop on editing with Amazon Publishing

“What was it like working with Amazon Publishing?” “Did it bother you to lose control?” “Is it still the same story?” 

These are some of the questions I’ve received since my novel Go Away Home was acquired by Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. Since the editing process is complete, this is a good time to report on how it went.

When I published Go Away Home last July, it was as good as I could make it. I’d hired a professional for cover design, copyediting and proof reading. I felt good about my debut effort.

Editing to make it shine.

Editing to make it shine.

Even so, when Jodi Warshaw, senior acquisition editor at Lake Union Publishing approached me, she talked about how another round of editing could make my story really shine.

I was not offended by the implication that the novel didn’t already shine. It attracted her attention, that was good enough for me. In fact, I was excited to to see what new eyes and additional professional editors would suggest. From my perspective, good can always be better. Warsaw assured me I’d be involved every step of the way and I was. Here’s how it worked.

Developmental Edit: “Trim” is such a gentle word. Much kinder, much easier to hear than “Cut,” “Slash” “Eviscerate.” My developmental editor Amara Holstein suggested “trimming” so often I found myself laughing. She suggested changes that tightened the writing in ways I’d never imagined possible. She challenged me when characters acted out of character, when I over-explained, when I didn’t give readers enough credit.

Amara and I spoke on the phone before she began her work. After she sent her comments to me, she remained available by phone and email to clarify, respond to my probes, and react to approaches I took in rewriting sections. She was encouraging, helpful, professional. I learned a ton that made this novel better and will improve my future writing.

Copyedit: While not near as intense or time-consuming as the developmental edit, the copyedit was equally valuable. Where the developmental edit looked at the big picture, my copy editor Kirsten Colton delved into details. Colloquial word use. Consistency of use. Transitions in and out of flashbacks. Use of em dashes. She discovered several words that were out of historical context – some by only a couple of years – words I never thought to question. This was a tad embarrassing since I thought I’d been so careful about being historically accurate. Again the importance of another set of eyes.

An amusing thing happened in the copyedit: where Amara trimmed with vigor, Kirsten encouraged fleshing out – more historical detail, more character description. Their suggestions were not inconsistent, simply focused on different things. Reviewers who mentioned wanting more historical detail will be happy with these additions.

Proofreading: This is the step of the process I’m most clear about since I’ve done proofreading myself as a magazine editor. A set of eyes looking at copy with a magnifying glass. Is everything absolutely perfect – spelling, grammar, punctuation, page layout.

Each of the editors had plenty to say, and I seldom disagreed with their suggestions. The editing process was not easy. At each stage, I had two weeks to make changes, write, re-write and return the manuscript for the next phase. I believe it was worth every minute of effort.

I was impressed with the team of editors that worked with me to ready Go Away Home for re-launch in July. Going in, I thought I would get push back from the developmental and copy editors on changes I made or didn’t make based on their comments. Quite the contrary. When I asked Warshaw if this was common, she said: “We want the author to be in favor of all changes and don’t want to change their vision or voice.” Errors excepted, of course.

The whole process made me think of a dedicated effort to get in shape physically. Trainers look at the big picture and what you want to accomplish. They recommend exercises to strengthen here, reduce there, tighten, trim. The person getting in shape is involved every step of the way and must do hard work to recognize the benefit. When you stick at it in the gym, you come out a better you.

Having been through the entire editing process, Go Away Home is stronger, tighter, a little shorter here, a little longer there. Is it the same story? Yes, only now it shines a little more.

A “Marriage” of Fact and Fiction – Giveaway

Many authors write a memoir first and then turn to fiction, as I did. While those first works of fiction often have some basis in real people and events, the outcome is largely fictional as the author molds the story line, characters, and events to achieve the best dramatic arc.

Susan Weidener’s new novel A Portrait of Love and Honor is a unique combination of fact and fiction because it’s based on her late-husband’s unpublished memoir. To celebrate the launch, Susan is giving away a copy of her new novel to readers of this blog. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment.

I had the pleasure of meeting Susan in Tucson this spring where she writes and leads memoir workshops. Here is her story.

A “Marriage” of Fact and Fiction

By Susan G. Weidener

A Portrait of Love and Honor, cover I first made the decision to publish my late husband John M. Cavalieri’s memoir in 2013. As I looked out the kitchen window at a dreary gray Pennsylvania morning, I thought of John’s story. While he had tried to get it published before his death in 1994, it was rejected by traditional publishers. I always felt it both compelling and beautifully written. It seemed a waste to let it gather dust in the back of my closet.

I went upstairs and took Life with Honor from a carton with John’s West Point memorabilia; his yearbook, and the black and white photographs of him and fellow cadets. . . the track team for company G-1 where John was captain . . . John in full dress uniform. I read late into the morning. John was again in the room with me.

A thought took shape. What if I created a fictionalized love story to “embrace” John’s memoir of West Point? I visualized Jay Scioli (John’s pen name) meeting a 40-something divorced editor and author, Ava Stuart. Jay admires Ava’s writing and at a book signing approaches her about editing his memoir. As they work on it, they discover that indefinable chemistry and connection of two people searching for meaning and love in a life often marred with disillusionment and adversity. Thus, A Portrait of Love and Honor emerged over a two-year period of writing and rewriting.

Although I am a journalist and memoirist, fiction was no stranger to me. Between my sophomore and junior years in college, I wrote a historical romance set in the Court of King Charles II. After college, I worked on a contemporary novel – a thinly veiled memoir about a young woman who falls in love with the wrong guy and then travels solo across England, France and Holland searching for stories in her quest to become a writer.

***

Susan & John Cavalieri

Susan & John Cavalieri

John wrote his memoir in 1991 and 1992. In 1994, three weeks after his 47th birthday, he died of colorectal cancer. Upon rereading his story, I felt important questions remained unanswered.  So I had to imagine what “Jay” might say in relation to his parents and their expectations . . . and his own desire to remain at the United States Military Academy at West Point against all odds.

I excerpted portions of the memoir, choosing those sections I felt most dramatic. I tried to intensify John’s experience at the Academy with more detailed writing and descriptions of the Hudson River Valley, the Academy during bleak winters, and more vivid character descriptions of the cadets who served as the centerpiece to his story.

Thus, a marriage of fact and fiction: a novel based on a true story.

***

My years as a journalist also taught me the importance of accuracy. I researched and double-checked what John wrote about West Point – how many graduates of the Class of 1966 died in Vietnam; the history, abuses and abolishment of the Fourth Class System – a form of hazing of plebes; who gave the commencement address for the Class of 1971. It helped, of course, that John and I had visited the Academy many times when we were married and talked often of his years there. My husband is buried in the Catholic cemetery overlooking the Hudson River at USMA. I have been back just once in 20 years to visit his gravesite. I plan another trip to the Academy this spring.

***

The setting of my novel is drawn from landscapes I most love: Chester County, Pennsylvania, where I live, and Tucson, Arizona, where I have been coming in winters to write and reflect. John and I never traveled to Tucson so the scenes between Jay and Ava that take place there are pure fiction.

Moving from memoir to fiction offered me a creative expression and vision for my husband’s story. I felt it showcased John’s memoir, making it more appealing to today’s readers. It also offered me the opportunity to craft a dramatic story . . . and while drawn from my own life with John, the story of two people destined to meet took on a life of its own.

Things I have learned:

  • Write with imagination, heart and soul
  • Do your research
  • Create dramatic characters whose lives ring true
  • Add conflict throughout the story
  • Avoid excessive back story
  • Create realistic dialogue
  • Keep the story moving
  • Be creative and have a vision for your novel

***

**Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a *free copy* of A Portrait of Love and Honor. The winner may choose either paperback or ebook. The drawing will be held on May 15, 2015.

Susan hosts the Women’s Writing Circle, a welcoming and encouraging site for writers. I encourage you to check out her blog and all of her books. You can get your copy of A Portrait of Love and Honor  NOW on Amazon in paperback or on Kindle, and at Barnes & Noble.

Susan Weidener

Susan Weidener

Author Bio: Susan G. Weidener is the author of two memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat, a memoir of love, loss and dating again, and the sequel to that, Morning at Wellington Square. A former reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Susan has interviewed a host of interesting people from all walks of life, including Guy Lombardo, Bob Hope, Leonard Nimoy and Mary Pipher. Susan earned a BA in Literature from American University and a master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania. An editor, writing coach and teacher of writing workshops, Susan founded the Women’s Writing Circle, a support and critique group for writers in suburban Philadelphia. She lives in Chester Springs, PA.

Her website is: www.susanweidener.com

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A different kind of book review – Deeply Odd

Memoirs and historical fiction are my normal reading choices. But every so often, I enjoy trying something different. Recently I caught a Dean Koontz interview on the CBS Sunday Morning show. Though I’d seen his books on bookstore and library shelves, I’d never cracked one open. A recent road trip gave me plenty of listening time, so I chose Deeply Odd, from Koontz’s Odd Thomas series.Deeply-Odd-MM

If you haven’t read any of the books, here’s the premise: Odd Thomas is a young man who can see and talk to dead people. He uses this skill to combat evil in the living world. In the process, he helps these dead people, including such luminaries as Elvis Presley and Alfred Hitchcock, resolve whatever earthly issues they have so they can pass on.

As a reader, I found the story a real page turner – or since I was on the road – a miles burner. As a writer, I was blown away by Koontz’s skill.  So here, in a book review of a different type – are some of the techniques I noticed in Deeply Odd and Brother Odd, another book from the series.

Complex, vivid, characterization
Koontz develops fascinating characters who are revealed through physical and personality descriptions, which are reinforced throughout the book. Odd Thomas, for instance, frequently describes himself as: “only a fry cook, currently unemployed.” This self-deprecating description is reinforced by Odd’s dialogue. For instance, Odd uses polite formality when he addresses others. He addresses others as, “ma’am” and “sir.” Every time, even if someone asks him to use their first name.

Attention to details of clothing and place
Koontz pays great attention to how people look, what they’re doing, and the physical surroundings. He dribbles this information in over time so the reader isn’t tempted to skip over paragraphs bogged down in description.

Here’s how Odd describes a policeman:

  • “In the side mirror, the man who got out of the patrol car looked like Hercules’ bigger brother, a guy who at every breakfast with his dozen eggs and pound of ham drank a steaming cup of steroids.”

A few paragraphs later, Odd adds:

  • “A massive cop loomed at my window blocking the morning sun as effectively as an eclipse. He bent down and looked into the car, mouth puckered in a frown, grey eyes squinted as if the Mercedes were an aquarium and I was the strangest fish that he had ever seen. He was a handsome bull, I’ll give him that, even though his head was as big as a butcher’s block.”

The writing is fresh and unexpected. Never cliched. With each paragraph, Koontz paints people and scenes so vividly, I grinned as I listened.

Interweaving physical traits with character traits
The physical traits Koontz chooses for a character have purpose and come into play both in how the person acts and also how Odd Thomas is affected by those traits.

Here’s Sister Angela, a nun with periwinkle-colored eyes:

  • “With the power of her personality, Sister Angela can compel you to meet her eyes. Perhaps a few strong-willed people are able to look away from her stare after she has locked on to their eyes, but I’m not one of them. By the time I told her all about bodachs, I felt pickled in periwinkle.”

Vivid back story in tantalizing bits:
Koontz shares back story in tiny snippets that are woven in with powerful effect. In his first description of Sister Angela, he says:

  • “Her eyes are the same merry blue as the periwinkles on the Royal Doulton china that my mother owed, pieces of which Mom, from time to time, threw at the walls or at me.”

Wow. Didn’t see that coming. Now I know Odd had a problematic relationship with his mother, and I’m not likely to forget.

Fixing time and place
A lot happens in each Odd Thomas novel but often in a very short period of time. In the course of a chapter, only a few minutes may pass. It would be easy for readers to get disoriented, but Koontz makes sure readers stay with him.

  • “From the time I had unlocked the bronze door with my universal key until I entered this room, not even two minutes had passed.”

These are a few of the writing gems I took away from reading two of Koontz’s novels. Is Koontz writing great literary fiction? No. Is he writing novels based on great characters and solid plot lines using original language? You bet.

As a reader, it’s a delight to try out a new author and come away a fan. As a writer, it’s inspiring to find an author who models writing techniques I aspire to use as well. I now count myself a Koontz fan, both as a reader and as a writer.

What about you? What new authors have you found that surprised and delighted you?

Going deep inside – Perspective 3

Carlsbad Caverns - "Curtains"

These “drapery” formations evoke a whale’s mouth.

Recently, I’ve considered perspective from high up in a hot air balloon and up close at Cadillac Ranch. I also had a chance to go deep with a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

I’ve been in caves before, but always in the company of others. I toured the massive spaces of Carlsbad Caverns on my own.

I walked to the Big Room (rather than take the elevator) via the Natural Entrance Trail, a steep descent of 1 1/4 mile that takes approximately an hour. I’d never been so deep under the earth’s surface. What would it smell like? Feel like? Sound like? Would I be afraid to be nearly 800 feet under the earth’s surface?

Carlsbad Caverns - Stelagtites

Stalactites connect to stalagmites and eventually form pillars.

With conscious dawdling, I let other visitors overtake and pass me on the trail, leaving me to soak in the experience alone.

The trail was dimly lit and impressive formations enjoyed greater lighting, but there were points where the space was darker. I found those places, stood still, closed my eyes and waited, exploring sensory input as it reached me.

Underground, no traffic, wind, or animal sounds penetrate. Would I be able to hear anything? I stilled the noise in my head and waited. Eventually, there it was, the sound of a water drop plinking into a pool. Not often, not regularly, but there.

Eyes closed, I soaked in total blackness. No street lights, no car lights, no sun, no moon. Impenetrable black. After a few minutes, still turned toward the darkest place in the cave, I opened my eyes. I could barely make out the black pool where the water drops fell. That was with the faintest trail light bleeding in. I wonder what else there was in the darkest places my eyes could not reach?

"Popcorn" created fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

“Popcorn” forms fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

Temperatures in the cave are a constant 56 degrees year around. At one point, I turned to look back up the trail and felt a breeze against my face. As I considered why they might be ventilating the cave, I happened upon a trail sign. As it turns out I’d come upon the one spot in the cave where a natural draft from the surface finds its way deep underground. I chuckled.

After an hour and a quarter on the trail, when I finally reached the Big Room, I had a passing thought that I’d seen all I needed to see. Could there really be enough to hold my interest? Oh, my, yes. The name ‘Big Room’ understates the treasures of a cavern the size of six football fields – a cavern large enough to house Notre Dame Cathedral.

Carlsbad Caverns - Pillars

Pillars as tall as Notre Dame Cathedral reached the top of the Big Room.

Walking the trails that wound through the Big Room took another hour. Along the way, I saw formations that were whimsical, naughty, majestic. reminiscent of Broadway shows and Biblical stories.

Rather than fear, I felt awe. These caves have been forming for hundreds of thousands of years. Some of the formations are still growing. Long before people existed. Long after people are gone. These caverns were, are, and will be.

Touring Carlsbad Caverns reminded me of the work memoir writers do as we dig deep in the experiences of our lives and try to make sense of it all. Memoir writers who do the hard work go into the dark places and discover unexpected treasures. The experience may make them laugh or cry. It may be irreverent or holy. But in doing so, the writer learns some of the truth of her life. With luck, she then writes a story that conveys that truth to the reader.