Okay, so you had a great idea for a book, wrote a thousand words a day for three months, and are now clutching a manuscript proudly to your breast. Of course what you really want to be holding is a book, complete with a beautiful cover, a scanning label pegged to 16.95, and a sassy picture of yourself, beaming off the back page. You know publication is only a click away. The world can be yours in a handful of weeks for nothing more than a few hundred dollars. Your hand shakes as you reach to hit “send.”
Instead, you STOP!
Oh yeah, Maybe I should check it for spelling.
Of the three quarters of a million books that are self-published each year, most are flat-out horrifyingly unreadable, full of half-baked ideas, plots that don’t work, themes that aren’t realized, and sentences geniuses can’t comprehend. I ask self-published authors at book signings all the time: “What was your motivation for self publishing your book?” The most frequent response: “Because I couldn’t wait to see it in print.”
We all want the world (or at least our parents) to be proud. Kids can slap anything together and garner cheers. But even cheerleaders become demanding over time. Real pride flows when the things we produce are truly wonderful.
Repeat after me . . . THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR EDITING!
That’s not a bad thing. That’s the way it should be. Movies aren’t made during filming. They’re made during editing when all the bits and pieces becomes product that works.
So let’s talk about editing. There are generally two types: Developmental and Line. Developmental editing involves looking at the big picture to figure out what’s working and what isn’t. What chunks can be cut out? What needs to be added? What happens near the end that needs to be moved forward and vice versa? When should this detail be revealed, and when should that? Who are the characters and are their motivations clear? What’s logical and what isn’t? What’s truth and what’s unintended crap? Etcetera, etcetera. All the big stuff.
Line editing comes after Developmental editing and centers on ensuring the musicality of the read. Does every line flow logically from the line before? Have all the glunky sentences been reworked for fluid readability? Are sentence structure, grammar, and spelling tweaked to the highest standards? Is every word chosen the best that can be found, sentence by sentence, for illuminating characters and ideas? Line editing is the little stuff. We refer to it as “little” because it addresses itsy bitsy words rather than GIGANTIC CONCEPTS, but it’s no less important. Remember: God is in the details.
Where do we find editors and how much do they cost?
Everyone’s an editor! . . . especially on the developmental side. You’ve been told to avoid letting your friends read your book because all they do is tell you how much they like it. The way around that is to tell friends up front: “I don’t want to know what you like about the book.” (They’re going to tell you anyway.) “What I do want to know are all the things you don’t like, what bothers you, what doesn’t work, and what you’d like to see changed. End by saying: “I have thick skin. BE RUTHLESS!” To all those people who think friends will only be kind . . . I can’t begin to tell you how ruthless my friends are! But you have to tell them at the beginning that that’s what you want. They’ll then be a great help in guiding the development of your book.
But what if I don’t have thick skin? GET OVER IT!
Compliments distract. Criticism is your friend. Embrace it, repeating from the moment you wake each day: “Criticism is a gift. I want lots of gifts today. Every criticism brings me closer to my dreams.” Remember, you asked for criticism from your friends. They’re not trying to hurt you. Criticizing is their attempt to give you what you want. Like any feedback we’re handed in life, we use what’s valuable and slough the rest. In the end, we make our own decisions. Some criticisms are not useful. Others miss the mark when readers fail to realize our intent. But even those that we think miss the mark demand to be addressed as opportunities for improvement. Why did a reader misunderstand? Did the setup not work? Was the sentence constructed in a way that few could understand? Every time one of my “readers” raises an issue, I assume a million others would question the same thing. Readers are never wrong. In fact they’re always right. When my kids were in high school, I asked them to hand out copies of my drafts to their friends, telling them to “BE RUTHLESS.” They were. And they were right every time. Often, they didn’t know why something bothered them. But in their gift of telling me that it did, they gave me the chance to figure out why. I usually could. Something didn’t work. I’d figure it out and change it. Then it would.
My next layer of editors (after friends and friends of friends), are local editors (of newspapers, textbooks, anything with words . . .), other writers, and voracious readers of books like mine. I tell them simply: “BE RUTHLESS.” In a gentle sort of way, they always are. When they give you their feedback, be sure to buy lunch.
Once all the comments are in and I make the developmental changes, I turn to REAL EDITORS—meaning ones I have to pay. They range in price from a lot to too much. But you get what you pay for. Aim as high as you can, tightening your belt in other places. Some editors charge a flat fee. Others charge by the word, which you can convert to a flat fee if you know multiplication. Most do a developmental review for one fee—then negotiate a second fee to re-review after you make your changes. That can be a second round of developmental editing—to check what you’ve done and comment some more, or it can be a first round of line editing.
I used four editors, which I know is obsessive, but I had the cash and viewed each as one full year of graduate school in English. My first was referred to me by my instructor at the University of Iowa. She was a graduate student of his. Great start! My next was the wife of an author I’d contacted to compliment him on a book he’d just published. He mentioned that his editor was his wife and that she was “great!” I signed her up; it turned out she was. The third was the editor of a friend of mine, Randy Shilts, who wrote the award-winning book And the Band Played On. Overnight I was working with an editor from New York, Michael Denneny, from whom I learned far more. Finally I was referred by a rejecting agent to Richard Marek, another top editor who became a mentor and friend. So in answer to the question: “Where do you find editors?” Network!
With all four editors, not once did the word “ruthless” have to be said. Paid professionals are hired to provide nothing less.
All four worked almost exclusively on developmental issues. I hired a line editor as well and quickly let him go, realizing he didn’t have a clue about sentence musicality. In the end, I did the polishing, confident in knowing the story was sound.
Looking ahead, I wouldn’t dream of writing another book without the help of my readers and editors. If you take issue with that or anything else in this blog, feel free to edit it anyway you see fit. And of course . . . BE RUTHLESS!