“The Annotated Version.”

You sometimes see annotated versions of favorite books, old classics, or even graphic novels.  There’s the original text on the page, and in the “sidebar” of the page, there are all kinds of interesting things about what you’re reading.

When I write a new book, the very first draft is annotated.

A while ago when I was starting out at writing for publication, I decided to do a critique of someone’s work on an online writer’s website (Litopia.com).  I don’t do this very often–I’m no Newbery winner myself, and I get nervous picking at somebody else’s stuff.  I started out by looking at other people’s critiques on the website, which were almost always Microsoft Word documents.  I noticed that many of them had comments in a sidebar pointing to specific phrases.  I thought this looked very useful, but I had no idea Word did things like this.  I’d updated to newer versions of Word over the years, but most of the time I was still basically using it as a fancy typewriter with spectacularly easy correction features.  So I figured out how it worked (“comments” under the “Review” tab), and did my critique in that format.

Later I realized how useful this would be in my writing, particularly in my draft manuscripts.  I’ve used it ever since, along with many other Word features I discovered over time.

I’m now up to almost 65,000 words in my third book.  It doesn’t look anything like a final submission version should.

The manuscript is single-spaced, to get more words on my screen at a time.  I have spaces between paragraphs, and two spaces after periods, which makes navigation easier for me.

To the right, there’s a sidebar crammed with annotations.  Dates a scene is taking place.  Background information on a particular word, location, or character.  Photos of objects, maps, phases of the moon, you name it.  Where I got an idea.  Why a change was made.  If it’s information or research related to what I’m doing, I pop it into a “review comment” pointed at the sentence or word in question, and put it there for my reference.

Headers in a red font flag scenes for easy flipping back and forth through the manuscript.  I use the “yellow highlighter” feature to mark text I want to look at later or that has some other significance. Anything that helps me with plotting, continuity, character consistency, and avoiding silly mistakes (wasn’t the last sequence in this scene at night instead of noon?  Did this guy just take his hat off twice?)

If I make a lot of changes, enough for a new draft, the annotations all come along into the next draft.  Then I get to use Word’s “compare” function, also under the “Review” tab.  This function takes an old draft and a new one, and generates a third document that shows, in detail, the exact differences between them.

Other computer tools are useful too.  Computer-generated calendars show me sunrise and sunset, moonrise, and other things about the location I’m using on a particular date.  All of my stories have a timeline based on a real year and real dates.  The specific year almost never shows up in the final version, and the dates aren’t usually mentioned either, but I know what they are and that I don’t have time conflicts.

Another Word document has the actual timeline of the story, the details for which these calendars are mostly a visual aid. I’m still developing this, but it’s essential to keep close track of time. Some parts of the timeline are just marked off in days. I’ve had action sequences involving parallel plot lines where the timeline is marked off in minutes. I use Mapquest and other programs to find out distances between places, and how long it takes to drive from one place to another.

Google Earth’s “street view” lets me “travel” to a location where I can look around and actually get a feel for where I am and what the scenery looks like. Not like being there, but the next best thing.

And then there’s my writing diary, another Word document.  A day-to-day account of what I was thinking about on a particular day.  What scenes I wrote, or mistakes I found.  What brilliant idea came to mind while I was in the shower.  And of course, how many words I got done that day. Some of this commentary will end up in the annotations, too.

That word count also shows up on an Excel spreadsheet, where I can put down how many words I got done on a particular day and get an automatic tally of how many more words there are than the last time I sat down to write.  The spreadsheet also displays the guilt-generating gaps of days where I produced no words at all. Or those “major revision” days where the added word count for the day is actually a negative number!

Naturally, when the time comes to submit my work, I generate a shiny new version of the manuscript that’s “clean” and formatted correctly.  Future changes (if any) get made to both versions at the same time.

I don’t know how I’d be able to write without a computer.  When I think of some of my favorite authors working on typewriters, or even longhand, I am actually awestruck.

I’m old enough to remember when the correcting Selectric typewriter came out, and how much easier it made things for me.  It’s only natural I believe that today is an Age of Miracles for writers.

Of course, the real miracle is getting published.

Agent feedback: rare and valuable

I’ve been sending out queries for my second book, a middle-grade fantasy called Roger Mantis.

I’ve gotten a bunch of rejections so far.  Usually these are very polite form rejections, or worse, no responses at all.  But today a rejection came back that was different.  The agent wrote a letter that actually explained why she didn’t think the book would work for her.  I’ll quote from the letter:

The length of Roger Mantis was a major determining factor of this decision. These days middle grade novels must meet a minimum of 40,000 words for a publisher to consider accepting them. At 28,000 words, your submission is just not long enough for middle grade, which means it will be tough to find representation. Perhaps you mean it to be for younger children? Regardless, I strongly encourage you to work with an editor to find places where you can expand and flesh-out the story. It would be worth spending the time on revision to ensure that you’ve done everything you can to make your manuscript the best it can be before you submit it again.

As you look to revising and expanding your work, I suggest that you get your hands on a copy of Tracey E. Dils’ book You Can Write Children’s Books. In it, she explains the middle grade market and gives tips to writing for young readers that might help you add length and depth to your story.

Anybody who has been in this business knows that an agent who actually takes the time to personally respond to a cold query (and add valuable critical comments!) is a rare thing indeed, and in my case highly-appreciated.

I do wish I’d gotten this important feedback before I clocked in 48 other rejections, but now that I know about the length issue maybe I can expand the story and have a better shot next time around.  Who knows…maybe some of those agents will be willing to take another look. Anyway, I’m putting this query round on hold for now.

To the agent who took the extra time to help me out?  Thanks!