The manuscript: Round III

And the manuscript is back again. Five months after I received his comments on my first draft, and three months after I sent him my second draft, my editor at Riverhead has now sent me his comments for the third (and perhaps final?) draft.

They’re very good comments, once again. We’re now trying to figure out two things:

  1. How to make the tone consistent throughout the entire 100,000-word story. Right now, as my editor puts it, the book reads “overly serious in some passages, too informal in others.”
  2. How explicit to make the “moral” of each chapter. Not enough, and you sacrifice oomph and clarity. Too much, and you dumb down the story or make it corny and banal.

Both are points that all writers struggle with, I stipulate.

Number 1, in particular, is interesting: In my day job at The Economist, I write short articles in a single day at a time, and always in the same tone and voice. But my book was written over many, many days, and I felt different on each one (and was using my personal voice). Some days, I had my tongue in my cheek; others, I was doing deep thinking.

You see that on this blog, of course. Its tone has changed a lot over the 17 months or so that I’ve been writing it, and each post has its own mood. On a blog, that’s allowed, and even fun.

My book, however, should not be like that. It should have variety, but one steady and reassuring voice. As it turns out, that’s surprisingly hard to achieve.

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29 thoughts on “The manuscript: Round III

  1. I like how you’re so open about this stuff, sharing the comments and corrections, etc. The number 1 is interesting. Possibly it’s not something to come at directly, eg, by looking at the tone itself. Possibly it lies in going back to the questions you may have had at the beginning, like:

    “what is it I want my readers to do/think/feel as a result of having read this chapter/book?”

    “who did I want to be when writing this book?”

    “what was it that turned me on about this topic and that I felt moved to share with others?”

    “how did I want my book reviewed and discussed? what words/phrases would I be thrilled to read in a review?” …

    … or whatever were the questions you had in the beginning. SGx

    • Those are good questions. The trouble is: I was asking myself different questions at different stages of the process.

      That said, you might not even notice the tone changes. They’re arguably quite subtle.

  2. One would think that a little variety in tone and style over the course of 100,000 words is desirable rather than to be avoided. That’s why in musical performances, uptempo tunes and ballads usually alternate. Had you written the entire book in a consistent tone, your editor would probably complain that it “all sounds the same.” Granted, I have no experience with editors, but I guess they always have to find something to gripe about, or else they’d feel they’re not doing their job; so then the poor scribe is damned if he does this and damned if he does the opposite.

    • I think you mean tempo/rhythm. Yes, that should vary. Otherwise readers snooze off.

      But changes in tone are more like, in music, changing from Reggae to Baroque to Hiphop in one piece. That would cause whiplash in the audience.

    • I don’t have much journalism experience, but last year I was assigned to write a piece on a Haitian “hip-hop” violinist who does precisely that, namely mix it all up in the same piece. Classical, hip-hop, chamber stuff, the works. His debut album was aptly titled “etudes4violin&electronix.” To my knowledge, no physical trauma has been reported among his audience so far.

    • In that case, I will keep an open mind while doing the third draft.

      I can picture the Book Review now: “To my knowledge, no physical trauma has been reported among Mr Kluth’s audience so far.”

  3. I agree with your editor. The tone must be consistent, so your reader will trust the journey together.

    Tone, I tell my students, is diction + content. It really is that simple. When your parent is ticked off that you are home after curfew, there is a tone and a message.

    Go back to stories that worked. Stories that integrate history and modernity.
    The tone of a book on success and failure, despite the human stories you are using with their ups/downs, should be scientific with compassion.

    That’s my take on the third manuscript.
    Wish I could read it myself.

    • “Scientific with compassion.” I hadn’t thought of it that way. I will contemplate that.

      Where I (inadvertently) caused tone changes: humor, cheekiness, informality. Some chapters more, others less. That’s because some were drafted two years ago, others three months ago. Had Proust kept a blog with Mr Crotchety as a reader/commenter, he would have run into the same problem.

    • As usual, you are gracious, not only in your sharing the story of book writing and publishing, but also with your reaction to comments. My comment above is dumb. As if I know what the editor had to say!

      Scientific with compassion is also silly. What did I mean?

      Since you are weaving history in with human stories of success and failure, taking a purely scientific approach would certainly yield a dry read.

      I am not sure what I meant.

      Can I be excused?

    • You are not excused! There is nothing silly about “scientific with compassion”. In fact, it’s a rather good idea.

      If there is a problem with it, it is that it overpromises: the reader might expect a all-loose-ends-tied-up, logical, scientific formula to come out of the journey, allowing him to embark on success as he might make iron filings align by sweeping a magnet across them the way his science book told him.

      I’ve never tried to choose an adjective for my tone in the book until now, but if I had to, it would be “modern mythological”. This is actually something that my editor said: “It reads like myth.”

      The trouble is–and you in particular will be alive to this problem–my humor occasionally wants out, and if it’s not been out for the past ten or twenty pages, it might cause temporary cognitive dissonance.

      Speaking of which, I’ve (for the time being) dropped Wolf Hall and am relaxing with the Aeneid instead. That’s like comfort food for me. Go figure.

    • Thank you. I feel better already.

      Regarding the Aeneid. My final paper ( I am awaiting the grade…) compared the unbridled passions of Antigone (the woman) and Dido.

      I spent an inordinate number of hours reading The Passion of the Queen. The topic isn’t a mindbender, I know, but collapsing it into the assigned 3 pages (!!) was.

      I used the chariot from Phaedrus in the opening and took liberties, creatively. I will probably be dinged for that, but what the hey…or what the hay.

      John Hale’s book about the Athenian navy arrived yesterday. I have my oars in the water. My trireme’s name is Alcibiades III.

    • Well, I look forward to a post about Antigone and Dido. You’re far, far more immersed in these texts than I am. I would’t dream of initiating an opinion, but I dare say I’ll respond to one. 😉

  4. I can’t even imagine attempting to keep a consistent tone through 100,000 words. Granted I haven’t written any long form fiction since high school so I am really out of practice.

    Good luck with the manuscript, I enjoy following the twists and turns.

  5. An author’s feeling different at various times throughout writing a full-length book, so that these changes of mood keep altering the book’s voice, is something I’d never before thought of, but of course it makes absolute sense.

    You could conceivably have been a slightly different person after you had finished the last sentence than you had been before you wrote the first. So, were you to begin writing your book over again, would you write it differently?

    “………dumb down the story or make it corny and banal……..

    If you did do this, it might increase your book’s sales, thereby putting more money in your and your publishers’ pockets, because, as has famously been said, no-one ever lost a cent underestimating the intelligence of the general public.

    • Ahem. How do I say this?

      That issue has … come up. Mind you, my editor wants a classy book, a great book, just as I do. But, yes, we are aiming at a readership that will go beyond the connoisseurs, starting with you, that populate the Hannibal Blog. 😉

    • “Aiming at a readership that will go beyond the connoisseurs…”

      So between “overly serious” and “too informal”, will that entail leaning towards “moderately informal”?

    • I suppose.

      Basically: I want it to be an easy read that makes you think (perhaps long after you put the book down) but does not demand effort.

      I don’t want to take liberties or be gimmicky with an overly chatty voice, because I find those annoying. But I want to break with the formality of The Economist’s voice that I’m so used to writing in.

  6. No doubt your publisher’s purpose is to sell as many copies of your book as possible. To do this he has to identify the market and then compare what you say with those potential readers’ tastes or requirements.

    Since you wish your readers to understand you and also to sell your book, your object and that of your publisher differ only in degree of emphasis. Thus a wise author listens to his publisher.

    Yet he will not compromise his art or his integrity. You have done neither on this blog. You have attracted so many with the depth and breadth of your learning, unsullied by arrogance or conceit. There is a pervading kindness and tolerance.

    Your general thread could not be a harder one: to share with the ordinary reader the richness of your insights into the human condition. You succeed here, and I am better informed and happier for chancing upon you.

  7. dear andreas,

    i scour the web for a good “read”. again i say i am lucky to have stumbled upon your site. and your followers show such great insight and beauty in their comments @ Voice “to share with the ordinary reader the richness of your insights into the human condition” is indeed a lofty goal.

    forgive my tangent thinking, with luck you might connect the dots… is it possible that the editors remarks refer to “writing with a clear unique and constant voice”?

    here comes the tangent thought… both vonnegut (slaughter house five) and kundera’s (unbearable lightness of being) write about perspective and the human condition using Nietzsche’s philosophical concept of “the eternal recurrence”. yet though their insights into the human condition are remarkably similar, the detail tone and voice are entirely unique. not one sentence of kundera could be mistaken for vonnegut, yet both books deal with the same underlying “idea”and retain the subtly you seek.

    i am not a writer, but i enjoy a timeless read. please excuse any grammatical mistakes.

    • Wow. I have read all three in my time (Nietzsche, Kundera and Vonnegut) and have never thought about putting them together as you did.

      Come to think of it, you probably have a point.

      Certainly, regarding their voices: Each of the three could never be mistaken for any of the others.

      I suppose that’s what a compelling and “good” literary voice is: Years later, when you (the reader) have forgotten all the details, the voice still comes back and reminds you of how you felt when you were reading. I, for instance, am now remembering Slaughterhouse 5, which I read, oh, more than two decades ago. So it goes.

    • andreas,

      thanks for the reply.

      i wondered if you might think i was stretching it a bit that i compare your first novel to such great authors 🙂

      i do not recall the strict definition if “uber-man” but perhaps mentors would fit better in this case. why not strive for greatness? as for your “idea” being written about, i was attempting to say both novels referenced/ share the theme of “the eternal recurrence” yet because of their unique voice we honor them separately.

      how close are you to the finish line?

      BTW – i think the title on the blog perhaps should revert to “eyes”? since we make use our mind not our eye-sight to create “thoughts deep and small”? i enjoy the metaphor more than the literal.

    • Good for you to catch the eye(s). Let me think about that.

      “how close are you to the finish line?” – I wish I knew. I’m learning a lot about the book industry in this process, and one thing I’m learning is that it is in a separate space-time universe. I’ve basically finished the manusript–I can write a third draft in a few weeks. From that point on, a whole lot of other things that have nothing to do with me, the author, have to take place. Catalogues are drawn up for book stores, marketing people get involved, etc.

      What I do hope to get soon is a publication date from my publisher, and a title. I’ll be trumpeting and tromboning it here on the blog. 😉

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