Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Few Meandering Thoughts

I read a bit over four hundred manuscript pages today.

That's not a particularly large number for me. I can double that number in a single day if I'm really cooking. I've never yet hit that magical thousand-page mark, but it has been within reach plenty of times.

Four hundred pages is a good, steady pace on a day when I don't have a lot of production or scheduling or other balls in the air. Four hundred pages is 30 or so short partials with synopses and cover letters. Or one full novel. Or a couple of long novellas. No editing, just reading.

Four hundred pages barely puts a dent in my inbox. Four thousand pages, now that might be noticeable. Forty thousand might get me caught up, for the moment. But four hundred? Bah.

How many pages of raw work would you all say you read over the course of a year? Count your pages. Your critique partner's pages. Classmates, online groups, any pages that are not finished, published pages. Do you get above ten thousand? I'm not trying to be all "my dad's bigger than your dad" here, but I do want to illustrate a point.

There were some comments made behind the scenes recently to the effect that Alicia and I are hypersensitive to very fine nuances in prose. Thank you. I assume it was intended to be a compliment because, after all, it means I'm good at my job.

When you read as much as we do, and when so many of those pages are raw pages which we are charged with fixing, it becomes almost automatic to notice certain things. Verb density. Sentence structures. Word choices that undercut or enhance or lie like dead fish on the page. Experience teaches us that if we spot these things in the first few lines of a text, we'll find them all over the manuscript.

And, to be truthful, you don't even have to look hard to spot these things, both the good and the bad. A trained eye sees them as quickly and easily as a hot pink Hummer parked in a driveway.

Of course, we also want to evaluate your characters and plot and conflicts. But, you know, we usually have to read more than three lines to do that. And the problem is, as we're reading enough to get to the point where we can make some judgments about your characters and plots and conflicts, we have to read through the hot pink Hummers. And the banana yellow Cadillacs. And the flawless silver Bentleys with upholstery that smells like money.

The funny thing about doing all these openings here on the blog is that I've become very conscious of how quickly my eye absorbs things from the page. When I'm writing a post about an opening, breaking it down for you all, I feel like I'm dropping down to a very slow pace so that I can record the impressions and judgments which are typically formed instantaneously.

In other words, I don't pick up a fresh submission and read the first page with any conscious intent of decoding the sentences. It just happens. It's almost intuitive.

Do I read a submission the same way I write about openings here? Yes and no. Yes, because these posts are representative of the things I notice. And no, because I don't stop reading to consciously think, "Oh, great use of comparative language there!" Or, "Aw, gee, too bad about the present participles." I just read until I reach the point where I may stop reading because I've read enough.

This is also why I usually have two sections in every post about openings, the first impressions and the fine breakdown. I want to give the experience both ways, the fast way where we read all at once and form judgments, and the precise way where our minds are in the background ticking off points as we go. Alicia's presentation is different, but you know, we're doing basically the same thing.

I don't know if it's at all useful to explain this, but maybe it will add some perspective.



Dara Edmondson said...

I'm floored at how much you get through in a day! I've busted my butt reading one 400 page MS in a day. No way could I do that every day or ever beat that.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I know what you mean; when I was still copy editing, I'd be marking things unconsciously. The Tour Manager had to stop reading the newspaper for awhile; without realizing it, I was marking it up!

Ian said...

You astound me!

And for what it's worth, I've learned a tremendous amount so far from you and Alicia, and it's already reflecting in how I write my drafts. It's not so much a conscious decision (I'm not thinking What Would Theresa And Alicia Do?), but I'm becoming more aware of my own trends that require later repair and I'm fixing them in the initial draft.

Thanks so much, and don't stop blogging! It's like free school!


makoiyi said...

What this blog has done for me is to show me how the 'other side' looks at our work. Having been a member of OWW for several years I automatically 'crit' writing. Any writing. I can't help it. So for me a novel has to really stand out before I can get into it and see the story.

Even so, with my own work I am often too close to it. I 'hear' the words in my head so I miss stuff like run-on sentences and commas, that I can easily see in others' work.

I had a terrible English education. I wondered at one point if I'd merely day dreamed my way through it, but, no, I remember being taught what a noun and verb were etc but never how to actually put them together into a sentence. We were taught, where you take a breath you place a comma, and that was it. I didn't know what a preposition was let alone a dangling paticiple.

So I'm a very, er, 'organic' writer. I write as I hear, which isn't always right. I've been told I can write by agents and editors but I need to lift that writing one further notch, I think, anyway. And it is in the mechanics, of that I am positive.

So this site has been wonderful for me. Seeing how you break down 'stuff' lets me absorb it more than any how-to book on grammar.

Four hundred pages a day? Hmms. I think the horses would be kicking at their stalls if I attempted to do that. Probably about half that with novel reading, reviewing, and my own writing. My eyes are prickling at the thought.

Thanks, guys!

Sue (http://www.livejournal.com/)

Dave Shaw said...

Theresa, I appreciate everything that you and Alicia are trying to do for us on this blog, and like Ian, I'm seeing an effect on my writing as a result of your posts. I'm thinking it's a positive effect; hopefully my crit partners and, more importantly, my future agent and editors will agree. Thank you!

And for my customary silly comment, does this mean that on days when you read 200 pages or less we get to call you a slacker? Kidding! ;-)

Edittorrent said...

Dave, I'm a lazy, lazy girl. If there's a shortcut, I'm all over it!

Sue, it sounds like they taught you generative grammar, and I'm guessing you were in school mostly after 1980, which is when the generative grammar fad really took hold.

And thank you all for your very kind words. I wasn't fishing for compliments -- something happened behind the scenes that made me want to explain that most of our "picking" is sort of automatic or even unconscious. It's just a result of reading so much raw work, I think.


makoiyi said...

Ah well, you both deserve the compliments. *G*. Question: Because it is something I am incredibly sensitive about (grammar and punctuation) how much does that influence you when passing on a project? It has to, of course, but if something isn't too bad but the story is phenomenal, would you still go for it?

That's a difficult question to answer, I realise, because it has to be individual per story, but I guess there has to be a point where you say - too much work to edit versus, right, with just a bit of editing I can make this sparkle.

Sue (http://www.livejournal.com/)

Edittorrent said...

Susan, that's a good question, and I'm not completely sure how to answer it. The truth is that revisions (big picture changes) are a lot of work for you and less for me, and line edits (sentence level changes) are a lot of work for me and less for you.

There is a tipping point where a manuscript becomes too much work for me, but I'm just not sure I can explain where that tipping point is set. Let me mull over it and see if I can come up with anything useful.


Genella deGrey said...

I *know* I day dreamed my way through English in HS (yes, in the 80's) but to top that off, I was a victim of a school system in CA. Ugh.
Reality says there's no one to blame but myself-- Still, too bad there weren't many Starbucks' around to keep me awake in class!

CatherineBerlin said...

I could only read more than 400 pages per day if someone hid my pencils (my version of the RED PEN).