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Matt's Occasional Writing Blog

Top Five Most Annoying Platitudes

I'm middle-aged. Which means I'm probably prone to complain about things a little more than I used to.  I'm also a writer, which means I'm a little bit sensitive to how language gets used. So indulge my grumping for a moment, because I expect many of you may share this sentiment.

 

There are some really annoying platitudes that have gotten bandied about lately. I'm not talking about a trendy word (such as "like," which the current crop of teenagers invoke to a degree that would make Shaggy Rogers blush). I mean the phrases of the zeitgeist that I keep running into. They're terrible. Banal. Useless. Here are the five that irk me the most.

 

1. "It is what it is." I don't know of any more pretentious sentiment than "it is what it is." On its own terms, the sentence is redundant meaninglessness. Like saying A = A. You could just stop with "It is." But of course that's not what's meant by this little piece of modern witticism. A person only invokes "it is what it is" when he or she wants to convey understanding of something that is unfortunate or difficult without, you know, necessarily understanding it. It's pretend profundity. Try turning it around by asking, "well, what exactly is it?" They'll curl up like a turtle because they don't really know and have nothing to say.

 

2. "I'll fight you on this." Here's another bit of LARPing parlance that I've been hearing more and more frequently. It's always expressed with feigned earnestness, usually by a person who's never actually thrown or taken a punch. What it really means is that the topic or point of view or opinion under discussion is one that actually instills some kind of feeling on the part of the speaker, and he or she is unlikely to change their mind about it. That's it. They don't actually want to get into a rumble. Which is what's so grating about "I'll fight you on this" because, growing up, "I'll fight you" were three words that usually preceded an actual fight. Again, turn this around on the speaker and say, "Okay, there's a boxing gym down the road. Meet you in twenty minutes." 

 

3. "You do you." This is of a piece with "It is what it is," but salted with a little more insult. I suppose it's the modern equivalent of the old Southern expression, "Well, bless your heart" (which was never really meant as a blessing). Anyway, I don't like it.

 

4. "Follow your truth." I'm not going to get into metaphysics versus linguistics; I'm not going to hash through Arisotlean versus post-modern or emotivist worldviews. Here's the thing, though. For most people, "truth" carries an objective component to it. It's supposed to express an accepted point of (potentially) mutual understanding. But the animating sentiment underlying "Follow your truth" is idiosyncrasy. It's literally a call to celebrate a subjective ontology. Which is all well and good. But let's keep words expressing objective commonality apart from words of individual possession. Because "your truth" carries about as much meaning as "my universe." 

 

5. "It takes a village." This is a fine old African proverb that got turned into a book title that, in turn, became an overused piece of triteness to trot out whenever someone scolds someone else's kid. It's a lovely sentiment but, much like Orff's O Fortuna, it just got overplayed.

 

Okay, that's it for the rant. Feel free to add any I may have missed. I promise, I won't "fight you" over it.

 

- Matt

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Light Blogging

Haven't been as dutiful as I should on the blog-front. An out-of-town conference followed by an unexpected (but fortunately brief) illness set me back a bit.

 

But by way of a quick update: I've finally finished the self-edits to the second book of the Yonder & Far series. Tentatively entitled, The Tarot Tale, it's a fun story that melds the political intrigues of Yonder's realm with the political intrigues of the 1800 election.

 

Now that I've (finally) finished and sent that manuscript off, I've decided to return to a novel I started poking at about 10 years ago. It's more contemporary and set in Florida, but it's definitely got a weird/speculative vibe to it. It ran into a wall at about the 1/3 point, and over the years I kinda half-heartedly tried to slog it along, but it just wasn't writing. Now I think I've finally figured out a good middle act that gets around the blockage (by which I mean, I'm basically re-writing what I've started). But I'm excited to be working on it.

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Research & Writing

"Sure is a lot of stuff out there on the internets."

Because I write in a vein of historical fiction, I sometimes get asked about research. Usually, the question is along the line of how deep do you have to delve into historical research when you write a novel in this genre.

 

For me, the honest answer is "enough not to look dumb." 

 

There are a lot of historical fiction writers who could probably pass themselves off as historians. They comb through original sources, translate documents, do all the things real historians do. And sometimes that comes off great--Patrick O'Brian, for example, was absolutely fastidious when it came to the mechanics of navigating and fighting naval ships in the Age of Sail. But he was also a heck of a story-teller. Being the latter, to my mind, is more important than the former. Because I've also read a fair amount of historical fiction and fantasy where it's obvious the author relished his or her research a bit too much and felt compelled to machinate each and every granular detail of what they uncovered into their story. Those can be tedious books to read.

 

So for me, when I come to a plot point or a setting that relies on history, I Google around a bit to get the lay of the land. Then I try to find one or two credible authorities to provide the foundation for the background that I need. Those might be books. Sometimes they're academic papers (for Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock, I read through a UMass graduate student's thesis that, for some reason, was published online, to gain some understanding of African-American society in 1800 Massachusetts). Often times, these jaunts of research will yield an idea that I end up using (in the Lost Lock, I happened across a piece about the undeclared French War in the late 18th Century, which ended up getting a prominent feature in the book). But because I have a limited amount of time to invest between research and writing, I try to limit these forays. Again, I only want to get to the point where I can confidently say, "I don't think I'll look dumb if I write this." 

 

The Yonder & Far manuscript I just finished, tentatively entitled The Tarot Tale, has two areas that required me to hit the books. The first was the presidential election of 1800. For those who don't recall their high school history class, that was the one that was (mostly) between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And if you think recent U.S. elections were heated, do a little dive into what went on in 1800! Now, this is a topic of incredible complexity (in particular because at the time, each of the States had different methods of choosing their presidential electors). There was no way I was ever going to master it--but I'm not writing a book of history. I'm writing a historical fantasy that has the election of 1800 as a background feature. So, in order not to luck dumb, I hit a couple of books: the late, great David McCullough's biography on John Adams and A Magnificent Catastrophe by Edward J. Larson. Between the two books, I gleaned enough to fill out a suitable setting for my characters to get into all sorts of adventures. 

 

The second area I needed to gain some insight into was Tarot reading. As the name of the title implies, Tarot features heavily in this story. Now, here was a topic I knew nothing about. And so I ended up taking a little bit of historical license with it. But for a good reason. Historically speaking, people have been using cards for divination for hundreds of years. But what most people recognize as Tarot reading really didn't have a significant following until after around 1910 with the publication of the Waite-Smith Tarot deck of cards (of which, the 10 of Wands is pictured above). There is a metric ton of information available online and in books on these "modern" cards--it didn't take me long to feel like I knew enough for my fortune-telling character to provide insightful readings. But there wasn't nearly as much out there on the older decks that were in use in 1800 (plus, to be honest, the cards weren't nearly so vibrant and dynamic as the Waite-Smith deck). In order to resonate more with readers, my story relies upon the Waite-Smith deck even though the events are set in 1800. But by taking a little time to learn this new topic, I hopefully will make up for that little license.

 

The balance between in depth historical research and story-telling is a balance different historical fiction writers strike in different places. What are your favorite areas of historical fiction and how do your favorite writers tackle history?

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The End (of the First of Many Drafts)

There is nothing more satisfying--or unnerving--than typing "THE END" at the conclusion of a 100k-word manuscript. Satisfying because it represents the culmination of months and months of grinding through a story. Unnerving because the next step is months more of grinding through self-editing the story. It's a tiresome slog that comes around (for me, at least) about once a year, much like taxes. But it's part of the process.

 

But I'll focus on the good news. I've just finished the rough first draft of the second book in my Yonder & Far series. Tentatively entitled, "The Tarot Tale," this installment picks up where "The Lost Lock" left off. Mr. Yonder and Captain Far are off on a new caper. Lots of action, lots of twists and turns, sprinkled with a good deal of weird U.S. history surrounding the election of 1800, and, as the title suggests, there's more than a bit of the occult woven throughout. It was a blast to write (much like the first). I'm very pleased with how it came out.

 

But first there are plot holes to fill, characters to trim, dialogue to tighten, arcs to round out... I'll hold off a month at least before I dive back into it (if you want to know why, take a listen to my interview on the Mythbehaving podcast). If all goes well, though, by the autumn, I should have something to present to my publisher. Hopefully, they'll like it as much as I do.

 

Have a safe and happy summer,

 

Matt

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Happy Birthday, America!

Baby Back Ribs a la Lucas

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! In a country which has the freedom of speech as its "first right," it's not suprising that the good ole' U.S. of A has generated a rich bounty of writing since its founding. So in the spirit of the Fourth, here are my four favorite American books, by Americans, for or about America:

 

 

1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: the ultimate story of overcoming and triumph, one of Douglass' autobiographies, and one of the best ever written. There are passages that are absolutely haunting, despite the span of years.

 

2. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Franklin is a fascinating figure. You would think the autobiography of this polymath would be stuffed full of sweeping ideas or profound witticisms. There's a little bit of that scattered throughout, but its focus is mostly on his personal aspirations, plans (he always had them--and he recounts them all, successes as well as failures), reflections, and even some grudges he held. Honestly, Douglass' and Franklin's autobiographies could stand as bookends of American writing.

 

3. John Adams, by David McCullough: sweeping, insightful, layered with detail (but not overtly academic), this is a masterfully done biography that sheds much light on an overshadowed man.

 

4. The poetry of Emily Dickinson: I've never cared for poetry, to be honest. But my late mother was an enormous fan of Dickinson (she even wrote a book about her poetry), and, perhaps for that reason, I have a soft spot for this death-obsessed New Englander. Intermixed with all the metaphysics she wrestles with are sweeping, natural reflections, New England sensibilities, and religion, all of which, I think, put her finger on the pulse of America in the mid Nineteenth Century.

 

What's some of your favorite American writing?

 

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The Zen of Bowling (which kinda-sorta has something to do with writing)

This guy is in his nirvana. 

Most folks have had an occasion to attend a work-related seminar or course. They can be ... hit and miss. To keep things fresh, some instructors will try to weave their personal hobbies into their teaching. I've seen it quite a few times. "How axe throwing made me a better orthopaedic surgeon." "Crochet tips for the airplane mechanic." "Karate's lessons for civil lawsuit mediators." (One of these is actually real). Don't get me wrong. Hobbies are great. Everyone needs a hobby. But why this compulsion to machinate one's favorite past-time into teaching about one's work?

 

The answer, I think, is that most folks like to share the things that bring them joy. And since for most folks work can sometimes (oftentimes? most times? invariably?) be a drudge, perhaps it's only natural to want to try to air-drop a little outside happiness into it. 

 

In this post, I'm going to take that inclination one step further--and mix one fun hobby with another.

 

I like to bowl. Ever since I was 5 and my father would take me to the church league on Friday nights (staying up until midnight, granny-shooting 6 lbs chipped up alley balls, getting four quarters for the arcade--what's not to like?). I actually took a bowling class at FSU. I've kept up with it, on and off, over the years. Right now, I'm bowling between 140-150 on average. That's after bowling about once a week, week in and week out, for the past year and a half. And in that time, I have twice hit what had been a lifelong goal: breaking 200 (this last time, I hit it right on the nose; if I hadn't whiffed on picking up the ten pin on 2 consecutive frames, I could have pushed it over 220). Anyhow, hitting that benchmark twice got me to thinking about writing.

 

Twice I've had the privilege of publishing a novel with a press. Each offer felt like I had hit a milestone; each experience was richly rewarding. But there was a LOT of failure (gutter balls, if you will) along the way. Draft manuscripts that went nowhere, scenes that fell flat, characters who never came to life, prose that made me wince.

 

The thing is, that still happens, tiny successes notwithstanding. Like in bowling, I still make plenty of misses in my rough drafts. But here's the other thing: those misses aren't as bad as they used to be. If I miss the ten pin a little high, well, that's better than cleaning out the gutter. I need to tweak something, not change my whole approach. So, too, with writing. The problems I catch in editing a finished ms (and there's always ample plenty of them) may require a great deal of work, but they don't require a rewrite of the whole manuscript. That's improvement. And improvement leads to bigger and better milestones. More 200 games, fewer missed spares.

 

Here's hoping you make all your spares. 

 

Happy writing,

 

Matt

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My Three Faves of Fae

My upcoming release, Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock, revolves around the fae (fairies, fair folk, wee folk, fey ... you get the idea). Not the spritely little brogue-tongued critters that Arthur Conan Doyle chased after. No, the fae in Yonder & Far are more akin to their more ancient conceptions: incomprehensible and dangerous beings who move among humans in mysterious ways. As a genre, fantasy has borrowed heavily from the accumulated store of folk tales, poems, epics, and stories of the fae. The Yonder & Far series is no exception.

 

So I thought I'd list my three favorite novels that feature the fae.  

 

#3 Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist: Growing up, I happened across this book in a bookcase in our house. Underneath the seemingly generic title is a dark and compelling story that I finished in a week. Ever since, I've been on the lookout for river stones that have had their middles worn through (which I've had no more luck finding than a four-leafed clover).

 

#2 The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly: Dark but heartful, I very much enjoyed this tightly paced novel.

 

#1 Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susann Clarke: 782 pages of historical fantasy delight--and at the end, I wanted more. The premise is simple enough: 2 gentlemen usher in the return of real magic in England at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. But that magic is, in many ways, tied to the fae, who are as wild as they are wicked. The book is infused with richly imagined scholarship, including more than a hundred footnotes to the prose (some readers found them discursive, but I loved them). In many respects, Yonder & Far is something of an American tip-of-the-hat to Ms. Clarke's imagining of what would happen if the fae became tangled up in our history.

 

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EDITING--Part II (Working with an Editor)

"Embrace your editor. Give them a big ole hug..."

I've been incredibly fortunate to have worked with some great editors on my books. One of whom has graciously agreed to join me in this post for an interview (because what better way is there to talk about what editors do than to talk to an editor?) So please welcome Mr. RobRoy McCandless, author and editor at Ellysian Press! 

 

Rob (who writes under the name "R.A. McCandless") was one of the first editors to work through my forthcoming historical fantasy novel, Yonder & Far. Rob is a consummate professional, an all-around great guy, and has quite an impressive bio, as you can see ....

 

R.A. McCandless has been a writer both professionally and creatively for over two decades. He was born under a wandering star that led to a degree in Communication and English with a focus on creative writing. He's the author of the steampunk THE CLOCKWORK DETECTIVE, winner of the 2020 IPPY bronze medal and BENEATH A FEARFUL MOON, the urban fantasy series TEARS OF HEAVEN, HELL BECOMES HER, and COMPANY OF THE DAMNED. His shorts have appeared in IN SHAMBLES with Kevin J. Anderson, HOLES, NINE HEROES, and GEARS, GADGETS AND STEAM. He continues to research and write historical and genre fiction, battle sprinklers, and play with his three boys.

 

In this interview, Rob reflects upon writing, explains the magic and mystery behind the editing process, and makes me laugh. Enjoy!

 

***

 

Matt: Tell me a little about your writing journey. How did you become an author and then an editor? What inspires you to write and what keeps you inspired when editing others' writing?

 

Rob: I was born under a wandering star, which led me on a convoluted path all over the western United States and eventually I landed in California. I was always reading, but also enthralled with the sights, the history, the people, and the experiences. As I turned those pages, and explored those other worlds, I wondered, "What if?" What if I could turn left in Rivendell, away from the view of Frodo and Bilbo, and see what the Elves were doing in a different direction? What if I could ride with Allanon on one of his quests that were only hinted at? What if I could carry a history of Pern to Lessa, or warn Ned Stark?

 

It's that excitement and journey of "what if" that intrigues me the most. You can play in other people's sandboxes, which is a lot of fun. You can also build your own and see what shape the world will take. It's a really magical time we live in, when a quick spell of WiFi will grant you access to a near endless supply of stories of daring heroes, nights of sorcery, and days of adventure.

 

That's the driving force behind what I read, what I write, and how I edit. I'm still in the process of finding my own author's voice, although I think I've done a good job of learning and growing as I've progressed. I'm very much interested in helping other authors find their voice, and seeing that voice heard.

 

Matt: Talk a little bit about your editing process at Ellysian Press. What happens "behind the curtain," so to speak, as a manuscript is transformed into a book?

 

Rob: First, we find the right wand that we'll wave over the manuscript. Wands are fairly important, but some people stop there.  Not Ellysian. We carefully match specially harvested pixie dust with each wand to ensure the greatest magic that will morph the manuscript into a wonderful book!

 

Altogether, it's lots of effort, working directly with the author to balance between their voice and what a reader will expect or have trouble with. We signed authors because they bring something special to the table, and they have a story to tell.  It's very important that during the process, that story and that voice remain intact. Some publishing houses aren't as respectful of their authors, and that's never good for the industry.

 

The important part is working with the author, making suggestions and corrections but having them ultimately responsible for the edits. They are, after all, the talent, and that's exactly what we're trying to showcase to our readers.

 

Matt: What are some common pitfalls newer authors sometimes fall into? Conversely, what do you think makes a story stand out?

 

Rob: For myself, it was thinking that I was only telling the story for me, and that my view of the world was the only one that mattered. That's fine if I was keeping the book for myself, only sharing with friends and family, with no intent for pure strangers to ever pick it up.  My good friend, mentor, and editor once told me that if a reader doesn't understand, that's the writer's fault. That's a tough pill for some authors to swallow, but it's true. If you're going to be published, and push your work out for others to read, then the story needs to be understandable. Anything that breaks a reader out of your world is bad, no matter how much you love it, or how much you want to logic and handwave it away. Sometimes, that takes a lot of extra work to smooth out the rough patches.

 

By contrast, stories that stand out to me aren't necessarily ones with an wholly new, original premise. That's not necessarily a hard thing to do, but to sustain that premise, and make it interesting, can be really tricky. It's great that you've come up with a society of 16 different genders. That is certainly interesting. But how will your reader relate to all, or any, of that, if that's the whole of your story? What I want, as a publisher, is a good story well told. For a good, recent example, check out Amazon's "Reacher" series. Nothing new here whatsoever. But it's a solid story, well told, that is enjoyable. That doesn't mean we're looking for a paint-by-numbers carbon copy of what's already been done. The lesson of "Reacher" is an interesting character and a solid plot are good recipe for success.  If you're a talented writer, with a good head for dialogue, and some fun plot-turns, that's when the hook is set and you're reeling me in!

 

Matt: Do you ever find that your editing work shapes your writing, or vice versa?

 

Rob: The worst that being an editor has done to me is that it impacts my pleasure reading. As I'm reading, I'll start to edit lines, and I have to make myself stop. It's a super annoying habit, and it's tough to let go of. I recommend a few good slaps to the cheeks, or a couple shots of whisky. Not good whisky either. Try the stuff that can also be used to remove varnish.

 

For myself, it's not the process of editing that impacts my writing, but the reading/experiencing of other people's works. You give 100 writers the same simple story to write, and you'll get 100 completely different versions. That's what really gets to me. The turn of a phrase, flipping of a trope, or the use of a character in an unexpected way. I LOVE that stuff.

 

Matt: What do you see down the road for you as a writer, as an editor, and for Ellysian Press?

 

Rob: Nothing but excitement. We've signed some incredibly talented authors, including yourself (Matt Lucas), and their works are amazing. I've been very privileged to read their early drafts and provide assistance through the editing process. Fantastical worlds of magic mixed with science, amazing journeys from sailing ships on the high seas to spaceships in the depths of the stars. There's so much good stuff coming down that I'm fair to bursting with all of it.

 

Matt: What are some tips for writers to make the editing process successful?

 

Rob: Embrace your editor. Give them a big ole hug and view them as your best friend in the whole world when it comes to your book. An editor's job isn't to steal your voice or make your life miserable—those are just perks. Instead, what any good editor wants is a collaborative process with their author, discussing elements, looking for all the places where a rough manuscript can be fine-tuned into a full-bore race engine of entertainment. Any editor wants the same—the writer's success. If you grasp that, throw your arms around them and just lean into the process, you'll find that the entire thing works so much better.

 

***

 

Many thanks to Rob for taking time out of his busy schedule. To learn more about his work, check out:

 

www.ramccandless.com

 

and

 

www.amazon.com/R-A-McCandless/e/B00H58AJU6

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EDITING—Part I (Self-editing)

There's a metric ton of information out there about "the process" for writing a novel. Lots of approaches, lots of ways to stay motivated, lots of sometimes competing suggestions. Some people swear by outlines; others declaim that only the muse-in-the-moment will lead you to a completed novel. I've finished four novels and a novella (and a handful of short stories)--by no means do I consider myself an expert or especially knowledgeable, but I've picked up a couple of things along the way. For what it's worth, I would consider myself about 85% a discovery writer ("pantser") and 15% an outliner ("plotter"). Which is basically the inverse of what I was when I finished my first novel. Whatever process one uses to get to "The End," and however that process may evolve over time, there are two constants: (1) you've got to keep your butt in a chair and write words in order to write a book; and (2) you're going to have to go back and edit those words--a lot. 

 

I'm going to focus on the second constant. 

 

Editing is where you confront the hard reality that not every line you spun was literary brilliance. In fact, if you approach it honestly, you'll probably be embarrassed at how bad some of what you wrote really is (I've lost count of the number of times I've gone over a line I wrote and wondered, "what does that even mean?"). That's the point of the process. Because I work with a publisher, I'm going to break my editing process down into two parts. This first part focuses on how I approach self-editing. I'll post a second part that addresses how one works with an editor later.

 

Depending on who you ask, there are three--or four, five, six, or seven--levels of editing. The precise taxonomy of the editing process can get a little wonky, but for purposes of self-editing a work of fiction, I'll keep it simple and make it three: (1) Structural Editing; (2) Line Editing; and (3) Proofreading. Each is done separately and in order.

 

First, in structural editing, I'm looking at the "big picture"--are there plot holes? Are character arcs progressing? Is the conflict clear? Is the pacing good? Are characters acting "honestly" and organically given who they are? Because I am more of a discovery writer, this part of the process keeps me busiest. As I go back over a manuscript, it will be littered with highlighted notes for me to change things earlier in the story based on things I discovered later. A scene that was originally written with three undead knights attacking the protaganist might work better with one annoying, wise-cracking ghost. Often, this is where my 110K words gets trimmed down to 95k. Because one of the shortcomings of discovery writing is that you don't always see a dead-end until after you've written it, I'll end up with scenes or exposition that ends up cluttering the story. So, for me, there's always a good amount of deletion going on in this stage.

 

With line editing, as the name implies, I am focused more on each line and paragraph--are there too many dialogue tags? Is there a better way to phrase this description? Have I used the same word three times in the same paragraph? I'll often read aloud as I do this to make sure everything "sounds" right. 

 

Last of all comes proofreading. This is what your seventh grade English teacher kept dinging your homework for. Misspelled words. Superfluous commas. Run-on sentences. Inexplicably changed names. Think of it as quality control for all the little rules and conventions that, if you break them, you'll yank your reader right out of your story. To some extent, I'll often do some proofreading while I'm line editing. But it's important to do a final pass-through the entire manuscript (don't try to just spot-check it--trust me).

 

Each of these editing levels is imperative if you're going to turn a rough draft manuscript into a book. What makes this particularly challenging in the self-editing process is, well, that you have to do it all yourself. Which means, first, you have to tamp down your gushing joy at having completed a novel that will surely sell millions of copies. And, second, once you've curbed that enthusiasm, once you're relegated yourself to weeks of further work on your "completed" story, you have to try to pretend you didn't write the words and lines you'll be carving up into pieces. It's tough. Like I said, it's my least favorite part of the process.

 

There's one thing I've learned, though. There really is no better self-editing tool than time. For me it's about three to four weeks. After I've finished a novel, I celebrate with the family, say "congratulations" to myself--and then I set it aside. During that time, I try to write something else, clear my head of the story, get into something totally different for a while. Once about a month has gone by, only then, can I go back and read that manuscript with a fresh set of eyes--eyes that won't gloss over problems or proofreading errors.

 

It's certainly not the most glamorous aspect of the writing process, but it's vital. Far more enjoyable is the process of working with an editor--which I'll get to in my next post.

 

- Matt

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