Things I’ve learned (#2)

With NaNoWriMo 2013 looming ever closer I’m taking the opportunity to jot down my thoughts on the year gone by, in which I wrote and published my novel The Floors. Self-indulgence aside I hope some of these discussions prove useful to anyone thinking of giving self-publishing a whirl, or, at the very least, raise a titter along the way.

In my last post I vowed not to hamstring my next book with a release date. In this post I’ll discuss:

Professional edits: why you’ll need one, and their pros and cons

One could argue the recent revolution in self-publishing has presented, to paraphrase Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times.

The best of times: in short, the shackles are off.

Yes, writers rejoice! No longer do they need to endlessly court agents and publishers! No longer do they need to clumsily alter uncool characters, or shoehorn their story into a different, more popular genre! No longer do they need to strip every shred of personality from their prose to fit the house style. They can finally write their story their way, dammit! Et cetera, et cetera, yada-yada-yada.

Readers rejoice too! They can better explore fiction outside the homogenous pool of sure-things and bandwagon-jumping drek spoonfed them by lazy publishers! They want improbably-libidinous vampires bedding anything that moves during the inevitable zombie apocalypse? They got it! They want to read Cthulhu bedding everything that moves during… er… the inevitable zombie apocalypse? Well, whatever floats their boat. And, look, the prices are dirt cheap! Everyone wins, right? Right? Hmm.

The worst of times: in short, the shackles are off.

No matter what you think about those lofty guardians of letters and words, when quality assurance is transferred from publisher to writer there’s an increased risk of inferior work resulting from it. Yes, some writers can squat down and curl 2000 words of award-winning prose before breakfast. Bully for them. Most everyone else will need a second, third, fourth pair of eyes over their work – self-publishers doubly so.

Why? Well, for every wannabe writer you hear bemoaning how insanely difficult it is to break into the publishing world you can hear another reader bemoaning the shitty quality of a self-published book they’ve picked up. When that happens you know immediately that the writer has not treated the reader with the respect they deserve.

Few writers go out of their way to write a bad book, granted, but at the same time it is down to any author to make sure their work is clean of errors and a bloody good read to boot. It is not enough for the writer to shelter a poor grasp of English beneath their surefire bestselling idea – it simply undermines writing standards and literacy levels. Likewise it is not enough to eloquently describe in florid, painstaking detail the soul-crushingly boring lives of their flaccid characters – it serves only to shorten attention spans further.

When gauging quality, however, most writers will be a poor judge of their work. Commercial writers have their editors to keep their prose in check. If wannabes wish to be taken seriously, by agents and publishers or by the audience they hope to grow themselves, they’ll need a professional opinion too. They need someone to say where a story isn’t working. They need to know where sentences, paragraphs, or entire plots are flagging. They need to know when a typo, a homonym, or just a flat-out wrong word has slipped into the text. This is tough to do when emotionally invested in the work.

When writing The Floors I was determined to seek opinion from fellow horror fiction fans and a professional. I wanted to know how well the story fared in a cold read, and received valuable feedback from my test readers as a result. At the same time I wanted to know how well the story fared from someone who lives, works, eats, shits and breathes sci-fi, fantasy and horror fiction, and so I hired the editing services of a well-respected agent.

Having come out the other end of a professional edit I feel a little more qualified to discuss the experience, warts and all, so here goes.

1) A professional edit is costly
I mentioned the cost of mine in an earlier post. If you are serious about your work then you will see this cost as an investment. You are, after all, writing something to sell, be it to an agent, a publisher or direct to the reader. It pays to be professional.
Before you reach for your chequebook, however, know that not every investment succeeds. Some fail, and spectacularly so. Therefore, like all investments, you should only risk what you can afford to lose. If you and your family are going to go hungry while you chase your writerly dream it’s time to reassess your priorities.

2) A friend or loved one won’t cut it as an editor
You may not want to shell out for a pro edit, particularly if you don’t fancy your odds of success. Fair enough. You may have in mind a friend or loved one who has a solid grasp of the English language. Don’t go there. Hell, you may even know someone who works in the publishing industry. Still don’t go there. Why? Because that person is less likely to give you both barrels when you need it most in case they hurt your feelings. If you must do it on the cheap seek out an independent critique from a local writer’s group or from somewhere like Absolute Write, but be aware that sometimes your peers will pick holes in something just for the sake of doing so.

3) Establish early on what you can expect from an edit
So you decide to invest in an edit. Good for you. Before stumping up any cash, however, establish exactly what it is you are paying for. A good, professional editor will detail what he or she will do for you. Some will simply go through your manuscript, line by line, editing anything iffy they come across and emailing back the edited manuscript. Others will also add notes and explanations of what they have done. Some may even give you an appraisal of your work. I was fortunate enough to see several helpful notes and criticisms made throughout the manuscript following a line-edit of The Floors. It was an added bonus that gave me a real sense of how the story was panning out, and something I really appreciated, even when some of those comments really stung, which leads me to…

4) Do not anticipate sugar-coated criticism…
Put simply, you want to know where your story stinks before your readers do. It is at this point you would see a little less honesty from that friend or loved one I mentioned earlier. You need an impartial eye, someone who isn’t there to spare your feelings.
My editor warned me in advance that some of the opinions he’d expressed were a bit on the strong side. He wasn’t joking, and yet, however much his comments stung, they were a useful barometer of how he was feeling at various points throughout the story. For example, when The Floors tap-danced a couple of miles over the line of decency I knew from his comments that I would need to rein in the story’s excesses – especially as my bad guy was becoming so vile that readers would want to skip ahead.
No matter how annoyed you may feel, you must take any criticism on the chin and use it to improve your work. Don’t moan about being misunderstood, blah, blah, blah. Your story didn’t connect as well as you’d hoped. Improve it, otherwise you may find far harsher criticism when your book attracts online reviews!

5) …but do expect new, precious insights into your work
My edit wasn’t all bad news. Far from it. There were chapters in The Floors where I felt the writing had really flowed, or where I had done my best to grip the reader and get those pages turning, and I was delighted to see only a handful of words edited during these parts. There were also notes highlighting when I was doing something well, but perhaps not doing it often or early enough.
As my manuscript had been edited with “Track Changes” switched on it was clear to see those words that had clogged up a sentence, or those unnecessary sentences that had slowed up the story. Despite my best efforts to keep the story zipping along it was interesting to see those writerly tics that had nevertheless remained: words like “however”, “had”, “that” and “nevertheless”, which can often be removed from a sentence with no harm done.
On top of these were some really helpful pointers on things I would never have picked up on. For example, The Floors is told in restricted third-person, or “over the shoulder” mode, if you will, and I was criticised for occasional lapses in POV (point of view). For example, in the prologue, I had originally carried on the narrative a little after Clive dies beneath the gun turrets – something the character couldn’t possibly experience given he’s suddenly been shot to bits and all that. (A quick section break inserted and – boom – it’s fixed.)

6) A professional edit is not “The End”
Don’t be tempted to think that an edited manuscript marks your finished copy. Far from it. If your editor has offered criticism of your work then you’d be a fool not to act upon it. You owe it to your readers, after all. And even if your manuscript is returned with nary a criticism in sight you need to take into account one crucial, indisputable fact, namely…

7) Your editor is a human being
As hard as that may seem, it’s true. You are dealing with someone who sometimes makes mistakes. We all make them. If we didn’t make mistakes then you wouldn’t need an editor in the first place and we’d all shit gold for kicks and piss the finest wines. Even if you’re facing the millionth readthrough of a manuscript you are thoroughly sick of reading, read it you must. You may find your editor has introduced errors of their own while attempting to iron out yours. You may also find an error of yours that slipped under the radar. (I found half a dozen when rereading The Floors.)
I would also stress the above point should you feel a need to express dissatisfaction at the edit, or if the thing is taking longer than expected to complete. Remember, your editor is probably a one-man/woman operation and shit happens. People get ill. Life gets in the way. Before you go off half-cocked, step back and see the bigger picture. And if that release date you put on your book a year in advance is getting too close for comfort then more fool you! 😉

8) You don’t have to agree with everything your editor says
I certainly didn’t, but, as I was always going to publish The Floors myself, I could wield more creative control and take more risks than a commercial author. If the book falls flat on its arse, then it’s on me. If you are gunning for a sweet publishing deal, however, then you’d probably be better advised digesting a lot more of what your editor says. You can still disagree – it’s still your book and one person’s opinion of it – but you might scupper your book’s chances of making the grade if you don’t heed the warning signs.

So there you have it. A monster post on pro edits. I hope some of that made sense! Having put The Floors through a professional edit I can honestly say the experience has been a positive one. The insights John Jarrold provided me will be valuable for my future projects.

Have my sales covered the cost? No, or at least not yet. 😉 But then I’m comfortable with Lucian’s folly. As long as I know my stories are the best I can make them, and, crucially, that they don’t take the piss out of the reader, then I’ll continue to be happy.

Right, that’s plenty ’nuff blathering for a while! I’ll be at the World Fantasy Convention next weekend, so, with luck, I’ll have a whole bunch of holiday snaps with which to bore… er… delight you! (In the meantime you may see a small promotional post here for the shindig.)

Thanks for reading. Do drop by again!

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