Writers Chatting: Chapter 10

We have a thoughtful guest post this week and as a reminder, I’m open for more guest posts on your experiences with writing, publishing and marketing.

Today will be another perspective on self-publishing – finding an editor:

Hello everyone. My name is Andrew Durkin, and I am an editor for a Portland-based self-publisher, Inkwater Press. Like many people involved in publishing, I am also an author. My non-fiction book, Decomposition, was published by Pantheon Books in 2014. I am currently finishing my first novel, a middle-grade fantasy. (Although “currently finishing” is a phrase I have been using for the last five years.)

Balloon Juice has been a regular source of sanity for me since back in the Bush era, and I wanted to start by thanking you all for that. I was of course thrilled to see the emergence of a writer-focused sub-group over the last year or so. Every time I noticed the discussion turn to self-publishing and editing, I got the itch to speak up. Finally I contacted TaMara to let her know I’d be willing to write something for the group, if she thought that would be useful. She did, so I am. Thanks, TaMara, for the forum!

I realize the writers here come from a range of experiences and backgrounds, but I’ll try to make this valuable to everyone in some way. (As usual, I’m sure the really good stuff will emerge in the comments.)

* * * * *

Find the best editor you can.

Once you are ready for editing, how do you find the best editor you can? If you are self-publishing, this may be easier said than done. One of the benefits of traditional publishing is that larger publishing houses often have not just one, but several different kinds of editors in-house to look at your work—a traditionally published manuscript might be seen by a developmental editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader, for instance. Smaller publishers may have just one editor on staff. Self-publishers often don’t have any editors at all—in which case you may need to turn to local or national editing organizations or a freelance site like Upwork to find someone qualified. If you are looking for an editor-for-hire, ask for a free “sample edit,” so you can get a sense of how they will approach your work.

Beyond a sample edit, how do you know if someone is qualified to edit your manuscript? In a way, this is one of the benefits of self-publishing—you get to shop around for someone who fits your needs, rather than having someone assigned to you. If you’re in this position, I recommend first finding an editor you like as a human being. In a way, the editor/author relationship is as personal as it is professional—since writing is a form of self-expression, your editor is getting a kind of window into your soul. You don’t have to be best friends with her, but you want her to be someone you can trust, or at least have a basic chemistry with. I recommend approaching a prospective editor as you would a prospective physician. Interview her, and take notes. Ask to see work she has done in the past. Ask to see testimonials.

More importantly, find someone who is experienced, and whose experience is relevant to your work. This is why a well-meaning friend is not usually a good person to edit your work. An editor is so much more than just another reader! In addition to constantly dealing with the technical minutiae of text, good editors have a nuts-and-bolts understanding of what distinguishes “amateur” and “professional” manuscripts, and how those are manifested in different genres. This is where a good editor will really add value to your manuscript; we all love self-publishing as a concept, but we want your manuscript to compete with traditionally published books.

If this talk of “professional” and “amateur” feels off-putting to your artistic vision, remember that writing is really about communication—trying to bridge the gap from one mind to another. Although language is dynamic (and sometimes even volatile), it also relies on certain norms. When editors (or designers or marketers) talk about “professionalizing” your manuscript, all we are trying to do is bring those norms to bear so that your manuscript can truly find its readers.

 

Get the most out of the editor/author relationship.

When you’ve made your manuscript as good as can be, and found a simpatico editor, how do you get the most out of the editor/author relationship?

Writing is in many ways a kind of collaboration. Stereotypically, we have a sense of the author as a lonely individual, feverishly typing the great American novel in a dark garret somewhere. But all the great American novels (and the great novels from elsewhere as well) are products of interaction between an author, editor, designer, marketer, publisher, and so on. Writing is, counterintuitively, a social enterprise.

If you’re just starting out as a writer, that idea can take some getting used to. When it comes to editing, my recommendation is to find the balance that works for you: always be open to suggestions made in good faith, while cultivating a deeper understanding of your own identity as a writer. In other words, don’t sabotage your manuscript by refusing to listen to professional advice—but don’t be afraid to push back. Good editors will understand that different authors have different voices, and will always want to do what is best for the book.

As in any relationship, communication is key. This is an amazing time to be writing, given the technology! By using the track changes and comments features in Word, an editor and author can really drill down to problem areas in a manuscript, without ever having to meet in person, or try to decipher each other’s handwriting. Take advantage of these tools. And follow up on your editor’s questions or comments in a thorough and timely way.

* * * * *

So that’s it, in a nutshell: “Things I have learned as a professional editor.” Editing, of course, is not all there is to publishing—design and marketing are also crucial. Marketing is hard, but if you’re self-publishing, you can do it if you have the time and energy and a basic comfort level with digital communication. Design (in my opinion) should be left to the professionals. But the larger point is that even the best design and marketing can’t (usually) save a poorly written book. Within the publishing sequence, editing is really the foundation upon which the rest of your success as an author will be built.

So take the time to do it right!

Thanks, and happy writing to all.

Thanks Andrew! Let’s keep the conversation going, how is your writing going? How did National Writing Month work out for those who participated?

47 replies
  1. 1
    Tom Levenson says:

    In case anyone got whiplash, I just pulled my post below to run in an hour or two. No reason to clog up the digital freeway!

  2. 2
    CarolDuhart2 says:

    Relieved, Tom.

  3. 3

    @Tom Levenson: Oh,that was nice…though the non-writers probably wouldn’t mind a place to land. :-)

  4. 4
    stinger says:

    @Tom Levenson: Nice metaphor, “digital freeway”. Although I think we all know the internet is a series of tubes.

  5. 5
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    Thanks for the post and thanks to Andrew.

    What is that painting used above?

    Has anyone tried self-editing only prior to self-publishing? Clearly, it’s not recommended, but I am curious.

    Has anyone had an editor who was destructive to the process, perhaps through “phoning it in” or some other reason?

    I can see how my questions would appear anti-editor. Candidly, prior to self-publishing, I grew so disheartened from reading too many “an editor speaks candidly to writers” articles. They’re all just soooo busy, and writers are soooo fragile, etc.

  6. 6

    Thanks for your insight, Andrew.

    I expect revision requests from my editor any day now. In the meantime, I’ve revised a different manuscript and have it out with a writer friend for beta reader feedback. She and I read and enjoy the same kind of book so she says she’ll let me know where my ms works and doesn’t work for her with that in mind.

  7. 7

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    Has anyone tried self-editing only prior to self-publishing? Clearly, it’s not recommended, but I am curious.

    That is a great question and it made me realize that I’ve never published without feedback of some sort. Not my fiction, not my scholarly articles and books, not even my Tolkien fanfic. I’ll be interested to see how the answer to that works out for other people.

  8. 8
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @Dorothy A. Winsor (formerly Iowa Old Lady):

    Well, we’ve probably all seen stuff on-line that needed a better look-over (covfefe, anyone?).

  9. 9
    RSA says:

    I’ve been attending a local writing group meet-up over the past couple of months, and it’s been fun. Not that I do very much writing, but I’m doing some now (fiction, that is). The best thing, I think, is discovering where my weaknesses are as a writer and getting tips on how to improve.

    @Dorothy A. Winsor (formerly Iowa Old Lady):

    I’ve never published without feedback of some sort.

    Same here, whether scholarly writing or otherwise. (Leaving aside ephemeral blogs.)

  10. 10
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    Trump’s new autobiography title just released: Covfefe, Tea or Me? — The Zany Misadventures of a Mad-cap Scamp and His Wacky Kids.

  11. 11
    Obvious Russian Troll says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): If you have good beta readers, you might be able to get away without an editor. Some people are also better at editing themselves than others are.

    As far as the destructive editor goes, I have talked to and read interviews with writers who were not a good match for their editor. If the editor doesn’t get your manuscript, or is trying too hard to push it in what they see as a commercially viable direction, then you’re going to have problems. On the other hand, there are a lot of writers who should be listening to their editors more than they actually are.

  12. 12

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): OK, I take it back. I do tweet or post here without even rereading my own typing. And it shows!

  13. 13
    grumpy realist says:

    Based on my experience reading the published material via Amazon Kindle, it looks like the first hurdle for many amateur writers is to accept that they need an editor at all…(and yes, I’ve acted as an editor, both for fiction and non-fiction material. I’ve also been an author, so have seen the process from both sides.)

    As the saying goes–“kill your darlings”. Be ruthless in re-writing. It may be a great scene, but does it advance the action/pace?
    If even a good a writer as Melissa Scott can chop out a very well-written chapter of one of her “Point of…” books because she felt it dragged down the pace, what’s holding you back?

    Good books on how to write well:

    Writing Down the Bones (forgot the author)

    It’s a Mystery To Me (Michael Kurland) –how to write (surprise!) a mystery book, but applicable elsewhere. Very good.

    Creating the Heavens (Melissa Scott)–the author is known for her intricate world-building in SF novels.

    Also take a look at the Appendices in Kelly Greenwood’s Miss Fisher series (set in 1920s Australia). In one of them she points out the trick in writing historical fiction is to make yourself a complete expert in the location and time that your book is placed–and then…not using everything you know. (The “falling into the “let me show off all I know!” trap.)

    Good books to study for pacing/editing (and lack thereof)

    Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time” books. I only have read two of them, but both are works of art. I particularly like “At Lady Molly’s”. Deliberately simple and meandering, but watch how Powell moves between direct quoting and condensed action. Particularly interesting is how he is able to jump days or weeks ahead without an obvious break in continuity (or even starting a new paragraph.)

    R. Austin Freeman’s Thorndyke mysteries (1900s onwards). Freeman is notorious for his “lack of drama”, but his pacing is very very even. Also study him for how he manages atmosphere in very few sentences.

    John Bellairs “The Face in the Frost”. This is an obscure gem–Bellairs writes in such a way that you will have the hair standing up on the back of your neck while breaking out in a belly laugh. How DOES he do that?

    Terry Pratchett. (Obvious). Read “The Shepherd’s Crown” (his last book) or “Steam” and contrast them with his earlier productions. PTerry would write his novels and then keep re-writing and editing them, adding bits and polishing, polishing, polishing. He had just managed to finish the first draft of “The Shepherd’s Crown” before his death, so it’s interesting to see “the intermediate product”, as it were.

    Happy writing, everyone!

  14. 14

    I have a question for Andrew. How long do you spend editing a novel of, say, 80K words? I ask because it looks to me like an enormously time consuming task.

  15. 15
    germy says:

    I was proud, the last piece I sold, when I saw the editor’s changes. She changed just one word in the first paragraph, and then the rest of the piece was untouched. Two people there told me they’d never seen a manuscript that needed no editing.

    I told them my first full time job forty years ago was proofreader. After that I did editorial work for two decades. I am fussy enough as a writer to obsess over every word, sentence and paragraph.*

    I’ve been writing since before I was a teenager. When I was in the third grade I was a tiny Spalding Gray. We’d be assigned essays, and the teacher would have me go up in front of the class and read my stuff. It was my first experience with getting laughter from an audience.

    I developed an instinct for rhythm and pacing. And very early, I developed the habit of writing by ear. I still speak every paragraph out loud to myself, and cut what doesn’t flow.

    *(not in my posts here, though. When I comment on Balloon-Juice I tend to type quickly and then post, which explains why I’m less “beloved” and more “baffling” here).

  16. 16
    germy says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Writing Down the Bones (forgot the author)

    Natalie Goldberg. I remember buying her book back in the ’80s, and I still remember her description of her writing hand to a bunch of young students. She said it was strong enough to punch through a wall.

    What I found most valuable from her was how you should write and write even in the most “inhospitable” (noisy, busy, chaotic) conditions. Too many beginning authors fool themselves into believing they need perfect quiet and privacy and endless free time to create anything.

  17. 17
    Shell says:

    Tsk, tsk. All this information and no credit given to the illustrator whose pic opens this posting?

  18. 18
    germy says:

    @Shell: I like the cat in that illustration.

    “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.”
    – Jean Cocteau

  19. 19
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    @germy:

    You make the point I was ultimately referring to in my above comment.
    I’ve been an editor of two professional newsletters and taught composition and lit for 13 years. Can I see the flaws in my own work better than someone else might? I’d like to think I would catch most content issues and 98% of grammar/formatting. Maybe I’m deceiving myself.

  20. 20

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): Actually Andrew addressed that point and I thought I would save it for another thread if I thought someone might benefit from it. So stay tuned…

  21. 21

    @Shell: If I had it, I’d have given it. And feel free to go away if that’s your only contribution to the topic at hand

  22. 22
  23. 23
    germy says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    Has anyone had an editor who was destructive to the process, perhaps through “phoning it in” or some other reason?

    I had one editor who I lost confidence in, and fortunately his publication ceased to be before he could mangle my piece.

    He was an intelligent, educated fellow with a tin ear. And he spelled “tongue” like this: “Tounge”
    (He wanted to change a title I’d selected for an essay, and emailed me that he though his version “rolled easier off the tounge”)

    I was fortunate enough to sell the piece a few years later to someone who liked my title just fine.

  24. 24
    germy says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    Maybe I’m deceiving myself.

    No, but it helps to put the manuscript down and let it sit for a month or so (or longer if you’re comfortable doing that). Helps you see it with fresh eyes.

  25. 25

    @germy: It helps even more if the fresh eyes are somebody else’s.

    As for me, I think everybody in this thread has heard that I finished my big draft of my current novel. So that’s great. Want to chop about 20% off it, which probably won’t actually be that difficult, at least not the first 10 or 15%. Excited to get back to work on that–I’ll be starting the editing process on Christmas! Otherwise, focusing on my comic for now.

  26. 26
    stinger says:

    Thanks to TaMara and Andrew; interesting topic.

  27. 27
    Mnemosyne says:

    @germy:

    What I found most valuable from her was how you should write and write even in the most “inhospitable” (noisy, busy, chaotic) conditions. Too many beginning authors fool themselves into believing they need perfect quiet and privacy and endless free time to create anything.

    The two authors whose keynote speeches I was able to see at the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference a couple of months ago were Heather Graham (aka Heather Graham Pozzessere) and Neal Shusterman, and they both talked about how they’re able to write almost anywhere. Graham had 5 kids and would write on top of the dryer in the laundry room because it was the only place she was guaranteed to be left alone. Shusterman does his first draft by hand in part because it allows him to write literally anywhere, including a bumpy plane ride and the Sistine Chapel.

  28. 28
  29. 29
    Mnemosyne says:

    @schrodingers_cat:

    It was great! I was able to score tickets in the 4th row (though a bit off to the side) so I was close enough to see the actors spit when they sang. ;-) My knee is very unhappy with me today because it was impossible to keep it elevated and really hard to keep it reasonably straight, but it was worth it. We got to see the entire touring cast with no substitutes (we had a substitute Lafayette/Jefferson when G and I saw it).

    The theater took my crutches away for the duration of the show, which was a little weird, but the usher came to check on me at intermission and make sure I didn’t need to get up. My seatmate turned out to have done the same thing to her knee (though she at least has a skiing story about it), so we had a short chat about knee injuries and knee surgery.

    And I was able to fend off the impending migraine with Excedrin before I left the house and ibuprofen a couple of hours later, plus I used my asthma inhaler since my migraines are so often asthma-related.

  30. 30
    Joyce H says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    Has anyone tried self-editing only prior to self-publishing? Clearly, it’s not recommended, but I am curious.

    I edit all my own stuff. Write, edit, proof, format and publish. An editor would probably improve things, but I just can’t really afford it. My books get decent reviews, without excessive complaints. My sister does a final proof and also does my covers.

    Here’s my author page, if you want to go read the samples, see what you think.

    A reminder that if you know folks who like Regency but don’t like ebooks, my first Regency, A Feather To Fly With, is now available in paperback.

    And as an apology for that act of shameless self-promotion, here’s a picture of my dog in a Santa hat

    (Fingers crossed that I did the links right…)

  31. 31
    Ruckus says:

    @germy:
    You’d never know by what I write here that I was taught how to edit my work in technical writing at my last job, by the managing editor of a monthly glossy. But a before and after would convince you. I have to do as you say, re-read every word, as if I’d never seen them before. My excuse is my dyslexia, but I’m not sure that is the real problem. What works for me doing this is to set the work aside for a day or two at least and then read it like I’ve never seen it before. It takes time and effort to learn this but it can be done. I’ve noticed that a lot of the writers here put manuscripts away for a time period, say one to two months and then go through it. That’s the same trick, and for longer, more involved work that longer time may be necessary.

  32. 32
    thruppence says:

    @TaMara (HFG): Some quick image search shows the artist goes by Lukeuehara – Wider crops of the image show it signed “Luke” in the lower right corner…

  33. 33
    ET says:

    @germy: I only wite blog posts at work, but I find putting them aside and coming back to them very helpful. I am not a natural writer but 7 years of blog posts have definitely improved my writing.

  34. 34
    opiejeanne says:

    @germy: Aw, Germy, you are beloved here by me.

    Where can I read some of your stuff?

  35. 35
    Johannes says:

    @Joyce H: My hat is off to you. I was lucky in that a good friend was able to edit me with the necessary ruthlessness despite our friendship. She was steeped in Victorian literature (and clothing—my descriptions of women’s dresses were greatly strengthened as a result). Karen was a real partner in turning the third draft into an actual book.

  36. 36

    I’ve worked with five professional editors at various points writing my books. Someone told me early on that the cleaner the manuscript going in, the better the edit that comes out. There’s just so far even the best editor can improve your work.

    In that spirit, I’ve been using a program ProWritingAid to pre-edit my stuff. It doesn’t do anything automatic, merely highlights issues that you decide what to do about. Its tools cover lot of ground: grammar, cliches, readability and consistency are only a few. But what I find invaluable is the module for what they call “Echoes” –
    repeated words in close proximity. It’s something that I just can’t see, but which can give the reader that vague sense of something being not quite well written.

    ProWritingAid has some technical issues with my Mac, annoying but not deal breakers. I suspect it works much better on the PC. I still don’t know what I’d do without it.

  37. 37
    Facebones says:

    I’m going to plug my publisher, Red Adept Publishing. They offer editing services at competitive rates. My editor, Alyssa Hall, was fantastic. Find them at redadeptediting.com

  38. 38
    opiejeanne says:

    My husband and my youngest kid are reading my first draft. It’s nice of them but I will need to find someone else to read it before long.
    I’m about 2/3 finished with the initial writing and will probably work on it during the Seahawks game this evening. I did that last week and it was an excellent distraction from the horrors of the game.

  39. 39
    No One You Know says:

    I’m finally writing an historical fiction piece–am now 22,000 words in. The fact-based research will never be “all done” as research never really ends, but I did horoscopes and personas for all the major players, found a fantastic movie set in the period and close by, so I could see how lands feels and how characters relate to it. I am starting to stitch together vignettes based on available facts, and doing smaller bridge pieces to showcase personality.

    Ultimately I want to submit the manuscript professionally. I know that’s a hard path, but my goal is to meet “good enough” to sell. I’ll never really believe I’m for real if I don’t do that. I’m prepared for a hell of a lot of rejection slips.

    I liked Writing Down the Bones And also Thanks, but this isn’t for us. Ursula LeGuin’s Dancing at the Edge of the World did more for me than Steering the Craft.

    And it makes me gainfully unemployed–an identity I’m slowly getting used to.

  40. 40
    Thursday says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while):

    I just published a novel in a very niche genre a little over a month ago. For editing, all I was able to get was two beta readers. Even then, they only read the first half of the novel (which is what I had complete when I reached out to them).

    Of those two, I got lucky and one of them actually has professional editing experience. So I was at least getting solid advice and fixes from the bits she read. Not as thoroughly as if I’d paid her, or someone else, but that was simply not within the budget.

    The results?

    I had several reviews note the lack of editing, specifically how bad it was in the first half.

    The problem is, I’m not really sure how to take it. The few clarifications I got pointed at problems with tenses changing, but they also seemed to have not understood the viewpoint involved. The book is told first person, from a future perspective – basically the main character explaining the story to someone many years later. If you don’t understand that, then a lot of the tense changes really will make no sense to you, nor will the few asides they add which are intended as admittedly heavy-handed foreshadowing. And the problem is that, even if the problem is just from the reader not understanding the perspective, and not with the English employed, that still means I failed to get the idea across to some readers.

    Ahem. Sorry about that. This has kinda been heavy in my thoughts lately.

    So it kinda worked and didn’t work for me. I was called out for lack of editing in reviews, but they specifically hated the stuff that had been most edited by a good source, so it’s hard to know what to take from that. If that’s confusing to you, it’s equally confusing to me.

  41. 41

    Hi everyone–and thanks again TaMara for posting this! Today, as it happens, is my birthday, so I won’t be around a computer much. But I will certainly check in to read this thread tomorrow, and offer any necessary follow-up . . .

    Happy writing, all!

  42. 42
    Paula says:

    Hi everyone!

    Couple thoughts fwiw.

    I think its a huge mistake for people to show other people (beta readers, friends, family, editors) first drafts and expect any feedback of value to emerge. To me the most important purpose of a first draft is to get a beginning, middle, and end down on paper (or in pixels). It’s to prove to yourself you had enough/created enough content to complete a story that stretches across however many words you were shooting for. It’s an accomplishment in and of itself. But it’s not ready to be evaluated.

    After you complete the first draft you can step back for whatever period of time works for you and when you come back to it, you need to determine what you must modify “structurally”. Do you need to move scenes around? Do you need to write bridge scenes to get you from here to there? Do you need to add a character(s) to resolve some issue or remove/combine characters that don’t really serve the story/plot?

    Do you need to finalize some research? Do you need to add payoffs to storylines?

    Where are your plot holes and how can you fix them?

    Do your best to solve those kinds of problems, moving, adding, subtracting to get your story in order, with structural problems solved.

    THEN get to work on the writing itself by first cutting the entire work by 10%. If you have 100,000 words you need to cut 10,000 words. Its arbitrary but its really, really helpful because when you look at your manuscript with that goal you will begin noticing all those extra words and you will start tightening. You will also notice your lapses into passive voice which always need extra words and you’ll shift to active voice. You will also start asking yourself if you really need all that backstory or can you summarize a lot of it? Or just cut it? Or turn it into dialogue?

    AFTER you’ve cut it by 10% you’ll have a story that moves better, is easier to read, is crisper, etc. THEN you can go over it again and start really shining up the prose – better similes and metaphors, more creative descriptions. You can make a point of finding words you tend to use repeatedly and replace them. You can improve dialogue. Etc. You can add 10,000 words in new scenes etc., but they’ll be better words.

    And of course you need to do a final copy edit to look for spelling errors, grammar errors, etc.

    Then you can ask beta readers to read your novel and provide feedback. At that point you’re not expecting someone to trawl through your incomplete, mal-structured, passive-voiced, overly-wordy, repetitive first draft. (Which is not a knock on your first draft — which was an achievement! But its a FIRST DRAFT.) Depending on their feedback you may or may not make adjustments.

    Only then should you have an editor look at it.

    To give beta readers and/or editors first drafts is a way of shifting responsibility for your story to them. It’s asking them to fix problems YOU should fix.

  43. 43

    I self-edited my dystopian sci-fi novel THE SEED OF CRONUS (set during an American theocracy) on Amazon for Kindle. I gave the thing four editorial passes and found new errors each time — I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still a few typos lurking.

    Balloon Juicers may be interested to note that the “crazification factor” features in the plot.

  44. 44
    NMgal says:

    @Paula: Great comment, thanks for taking the time. The only caveat I would pose is that first-time writers of long narrative may not have the wherewithal to do what you recommend. Many are the eager writers with a draft that they recognize as lacking but without the experience, specific education, or training to have any clue how to improve it. I definitely co-sign the proposition that nobody should be circulating a first draft, but a second somewhat better draft is often all the new writer can muster before needing someone to give them general feedback and specific critiques. It usually takes writing experience to be able to detach sufficiently from the process and inhabiting the story to actually catch one’s own plot holes, voice issues, out-of-character actions, pacing problems, yadda yadda.

  45. 45
    Paula says:

    @NMgal:

    Thanks and agreed! Although the problem for new writers is then finding/figuring out who’s feedback is actually helpful or valid. Worse still is when they get conflicting feedback and don’t know who to believe. And I’d encourage writers to TRY figuring things out themselves before seeking outside help. They’ll learn that way. There’s tons of good advice out there – look for advice that resonates with you. There’s many approaches that can yield good results. But if you’ve done everything you think you can and still have a problem then the next thing to do is seek help judiciously. Don’t ask for help from people who don’t read much or aren’t, basically at least, reasonable writers themselves. Just coz they love you doesn’t mean they have anything practical to offer. And don’t go to people who seem destructive rather than constructive. The writers groups that specialize in ripping people’s work to shreds makes my blood run cold.

    I wish I’d kept the link (I didn’t) but a few years ago I read a piece about what to expect from your beta readers. The main thrust was that you should try to get feedback about the “reading experience” — did the story move along for them? Did it make sense? Did they get confused anywhere? Did the ending feel right? Don’t, it advised, expect advice on how to fix anything — that’s your job. Just try to determine if there’s any genuine problems. Some things are subjective of course – you can accept or reject. But if 3 people tell you they didn’t understand “x” it needs fixing.

    Also, I realized that my stuff about “structure” probably applies more to pantsers like me, than to plotters.

  46. 46

    A great discussion—thanks, everyone! A few things I wanted to mention:

    I second the book recommendations, and add to the list Stephen King’s On Writing.

    Digital technology provides some powerful editorial tools, many of which are free, or at least cheaper than a human editor. I don’t recommend these as replacements for a human editor, but at the very least they can get you thinking about aspects of your writing you might be blind to—especially when it comes to things like repetition, passive constructions, unnecessary exposition, pacing, and etc. (FWIW, I have been playing around with Autocrit lately—fun and challenging!)

    The exchange between @Paula and @NMgal (re: when to solicit feedback) is great. As @TaMara (HFG) mentioned, there was another section of my post that dealt with this subject a bit, and it may go up at another time. For now I’ll say that if you are craving feedback at the early stage of a project, there are useful ways to seek it. I too hate when critique groups take a “tear-it-to-shreds” approach, and I agree that circulating a full first draft is a way of inviting heartache. But I have been in critique groups where a member submits an outline, or a chapter, or even just the notes of an idea, contextualizing it as a work-very-much-in-progress, and asks for / receives feedback appropriate to that stage of writing. It takes a certain chemistry and trust, but it can happen.

    @Dorothy A. Winsor (formerly Iowa Old Lady): “I have a question for Andrew. How long do you spend editing a novel of, say, 80K words? I ask because it looks to me like an enormously time-consuming task.” It is! That’s a hard question to answer, though, because there are so many variables. Every manuscript is different, even when the word count is the same. Generally, the author and I pass the manuscript back and forth three times, or until we’re both happy. That can take a while, especially when authors are slow to follow up . . . I’ve had manuscripts that take up to six months before they are ready for design. More typical is about two or three months.

    @Obvious Russian Troll: “If the editor doesn’t get your manuscript, or is trying too hard to push it in what they see as a commercially viable direction, then you’re going to have problems. On the other hand, there are a lot of writers who should be listening to their editors more than they actually are.” Wise words. In grad school, there was a running joke about how your dissertation committee’s negative criticism would be directly proportional to the extent to which your work didn’t resemble theirs. Unfortunately, that phenomenon (critiquing from within a limited, personal lens) happens with editors too. Speaking to the general “you” of all authors here: it’s really important to find someone who can see your work on its own terms. But once you do, go into the process with an open mind. Editing is not an exact science, but think of it this way: a good editor wants your work to succeed. One of the perks of working with an author-subsidized publisher is that our authors get to make the final decision on every suggested change—but I always tell my authors to carefully consider each and every suggestion before deciding, because none of them were made glibly.

    Thanks again.

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    Paula says:

    @Andrew Durkin: Look forward to your other post(s)!

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