Going Pro Versus Going It Alone

Adventures in editing.

As I begin editing Breaking Bread, I can’t help but think about how I fumbled through the process with Book One: Three Empty Frames. As a first time, unpublished author, I didn’t feel I had the luxury of hiring a professional editor. Professional editing can get expensive. Depending on the length of your document and the level of editing you choose, it can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars. And though I knew an editor could take a good manuscript and make it great, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t so naive as to think I could do this alone. I had to get objective feedback before I published the book. Sure I loved the story, the couple of friends I let read it were enthusiastic about it too. But kind words from a few people close to me were not going to be enough. I needed beta readers: non-professional readers who will carefully read your manuscript with an eye to finding plot holes, disruptions in continuity, grammar and spelling mistakes and possibly highlighting aspects of the story that might be unbelievable.

When choosing beta readers, make sure they aren’t just going to tell you what you want to hear because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. You NEED constructive criticism. That’s why your mom and dad, husband or wife, or beloved aunt are not the best choices. So what now? Are you in a book club? Ask your group to beta read for you. How about an online writer’s group? Other writers are usually willing to help you out. Ask your blogging friends here on WordPress to read for you. Just be sure to choose people who will give you an honest opinion and some thoughtful feedback. Make sure to attach a copyright warning to anything you send out, too.

And for heaven’s sake don’t be thin skinned! Take the feedback and learn from it.

At the time I had completed Three Empty Frames, I belonged to a book club and asked some of the other members to read for me. Even though the group has since broken up, I can still count on the same folks to read my unpublished work. I also recruited my friend Brett, who is an English teacher to read it. I know I said don’t ask your friends, however, I know the teacher in him won’t let me put a foot wrong. If you have kids in school, perhaps you could approach their English teachers for help. But maybe wait until summer…

These days, I do use a professional editor. Formerly of Simon and Schuster in New York, my editor Kevin (now good friend) quit the rat race and works for himself. Often, he comes over with his wife and baby and hangs out with me in the pool. I ply him with beer and pick his brain. I have him cleaning up my first two books, the ones I published without professional help. Why do that? Because when I publish Breaking Bread, one of the older books might be part of a deal to market the new novel. I want it to be the best it can possibly be. The point in telling you all of this is that in handing Kevin my older work, his feedback assured me that I and my beta team had done a good job. The manuscript was ‘very clean’ in his words.

So for you first time writers, if you are meticulous with your process, AND if you find people with sharp eyes to spot your mistakes, give you good insights, and offer constructive criticism, you may be able to forgo the services of a professional editor.

What happens next…

The first draft of Breaking Bread is done. Finally… Now begins the re-reading, re-writing, editing, correcting and proof reading part of novel writing. Why list all those tasks separately? Don’t they all fall under the umbrella of editing? Yes, but… Mind you, this is my own process –it’s nothing official. Most of what I do to write and edit a piece is entirely instinctual. Occasionally, there is an academic name for it and if I am lucky, my approach is valid!

Re-reading: It’s just what it says. I read the whole thing through non-stop to see how it sounds/feels as a complete work. I read it the way a reader who purchased a copy would read it. This shows up sections that drag, over-explain, or alternatively, move too quickly and need to be expanded upon. I don’t usually make changes at this stage, but I make notes on what to do.

Re-writing: Now I make the adjustments based on my notes. There will inevitably be parts that need major overhauling. Besides the parts that are awkward, boring, or somehow don’t make sense with the flow of the narrative, sometimes you simply change your mind. As was the case in this novel, I changed my mind about the villain. I dropped some clues along the way that need to be swept out of the story. (Actually I have a really horrifying alternate ending that I might share with you at some point. And no it was never the mom… it was Caitlyn). I also am taking into consideration some of the feedback I received here on my blog. As many of you expressed, the idea of a sister doing such terrible things is just unbelievable. I softened that aspect of the story accordingly. (My alternative was even worse… now you really want to hear it, don’t you?)

Editing: After sections have been rewritten, there is an extreme likelihood of error. What I mean is, you may have started with scenario A, rewritten it as scenario B and forgotten to change all or parts of a conversation, for example. Your rewrites will have an impact on later sections of the story and they will need to be altered accordingly. The timeline might be a bit off. A different character might have to speak words you intended for another, and so forth. So this is like rewriting redux but not as exhaustive.

Correcting: This is another re-read but this time out loud. (Actually I do that on all the previous trips through, but….) I read the book as if I were recording it for audio-book. This shows up awkward sentence structure and repetitive sounds. Sometimes, things look great on paper but when you read them aloud they sound terrible. I’ve crafted what I thought were lovely paragraphs describing a scene that when read aloud sounded pompous and overblown. Here’s the chance to fix those before you hit publish. Finally, I check that dialogue is natural sounding and not stiff or too formal.

Proof reading: At this stage you are checking for correct punctuation, grammar and spelling. And yes of course, the spell checker on your word processing program has been doing that all along, however… it cannot tell you when a correctly spelled word is being used the wrong way: it’s as opposed to its, their, they’re and there, from versus than, a/an, etc. I know there are programs out there that are designed to do that and frankly, I don’t trust them enough not to have a look for myself. I check all my proper names to make sure I’ve spelled them consistently.

After all this, I may read one final time. I have set the limit on my self-editing process at five times. Sometimes you just have to walk away. The next step is to pass off the manuscript to beta readers – people who will read and give not just praise but constructive criticism so that you can make changes based on their honest feedback. I have greatly appreciated all of your wonderful input on the story this time around. You are my alpha readers – reading the raw first draft as I wrote it, and for that I am very thankful. Nevertheless, my team of betas is standing by for further analysis. When they have finished, and given me their opinions, I will make further modifications and then it goes onto my professional editor for a final analysis before prepping it to publish. Whew….

Now… what to do next?

Validation

“No one forces you to ply the trade you follow. But if you do choose it, then acquit yourself to the best of your ability. And above all, you should not think of writing as a way of earning your living. If you do, your work will smell of poverty. It will be colored by your weakness and be as thin as your hunger. There are other trades which you can take up… Our opinion of you will not be any poorer, and since you will be sparing us acres of boredom, we may even think the better of you.” – Essay on Novels, The Marquis de Sade

On the face of it, that statement seems rather bleak, doesn’t it? Don’t all of us writers dream of being able to write full time, rather than fitting it in around our already busy schedules? That is certainly my ultimate goal. However, that’s not quite what the Marquis is getting at…

Writing has its peaks and valleys, soaring heights and bottomless pits. If you’ve been writing for a while, you know what that feels like. Sometimes the Muse chatters, the words flow and you scribble furiously to get it all down or tap violently on the keyboard as the story unfurls before you. It’s your best work. It’s brilliant, in fact. You read and re-read, carefully editing and correcting your errors. Then you deliver it into the world, whether it be to your blog, as a self published book on Amazon or within a query letter to an agent. You eagerly await a response.

And nothing….

You get a few likes on your blog, maybe some vague praise in the comments. “Nice work.” “Great post.” Your book languishes, sales are weak, nonexistent even. The agents are silent, or worse, dismissive… “Thank you, but your work isn’t a good fit for me. Good luck in your journey…”

It takes some spine and some determination to keep your head above water in the flood tide that is the vast ocean of writing and publishing these days.

Here is where the Marquis’ advice applies. Even if the Marquis and his notorious behavior puts you off, in many he ways his unwavering determination to follow his nature holds for us a lesson. (For some biographical details on de Sade, see The Passionate Philosopher, by Mr Cake). Maintain your artistic vision and integrity. Do not pander to popular trends among current best selling books. The world does not need another 50 Shades of anything, for example. (The irony of using that as an example in a post quoting the father of sadism is not lost on me.) Don’t lose sight of the reasons you began to write in the first place. No one should choose to write or compose solely to make a living. Rather, you must write out of love. You must write because the words would burn you from the inside if you didn’t let them out. That is the stuff we want to read.

Nevertheless, we all want to be appreciated, have readers enjoy what we write. But it is a rare thing to achieve overnight success. Yet we have all come to expect instant gratification. With so much information at our fingertips, we are confused and discouraged if we can’t have ‘it’ right this very moment. Aspiring authors need to have a long view. To continue the ‘head above water’ analogy – it’s like swimming the English Channel rather than doing a lap in a pool. There will be times when it feels like those distant shores are no closer. You may stop and tread water for a while to catch your breath. You need strong steady strokes to keep going. Slowly but surely progress is made. And if you’re lucky, you have lots of friends and family in the support boat to cheer you on.

Don’t let your desire for validation derail your dreams. Whatever you write, for whomever you write, on whatever medium you write, remember that you love to write. And that alone makes it worth it.

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Photo via English Channel Swim . com