A coffee shop: the writer’s office. It’s almost a cliche, but there is some truth to it, and for good reason.
I bought my first house a few years ago. It’s a well-maintained home in a quiet residential area with a quaint little office overlooking the street, which makes it an ideal place for an editor to live. I’m grateful that the previous owner took such good care of this house, and for the most part few things have gone wrong.
Of those few mishaps, most were things we could fix ourselves. The latch on the front gate shifts out of position now and then, but it's nothing I can't fix in a few minutes with a wrench. The deck needed a new coat of all-weather stain, and even though the job led to sweat, sunburn, and sore muscles, it was doable in one day. We've installed a new dishwasher, a new washer-dryer unit, and a new element in the stove. We even did out own vinyl flooring.
But then there are the major problems. Late last year, we became aware of a leak in the bathroom. On heading down into the crawl space under the shower (we have a dugout basement and the shower hovers over an expanse of dirt ) it turned out a bracket on the pipe draining the shower to the sewer was wide open. Water was pouring out onto the now-mud. We called in a plumber and, on inspection, it turned out that was just the beginning of our troubles. The pipes behind the shower were also leaky and had caused considerable rot in the wall and the bathroom floor, which in turn was making the toilet slowly sink through the floor.
That was when we reached our limitations for homeowner repairs. We lucked out finding a handyman who not only provides excellent service at a competitive price, but he also likes to teach homeowners how to do further repairs. So he came in and told us what to tear out for him (saving us money by not having to pay him to do it), then he fixed everything, he put some things back in place (like a new wall and a new floor), but then to save us more money, instructed us on how to put down vinyl flooring rather than having him do it. As a result, not only do I now have the bathroom put back together again, I know much more about how this house is constructed, and I’m also experienced at laying vinyl plank flooring.
Self-editing vs. hiring an editor: knowing your limitations
Many authors feel they can edit their books themselves. To a certain extent, they can. This process is called self-editing.
Self-editing a book is like doing the basic repairs on a house. You can fix tense and POV and verb agreement issues. You can fix plot holes and pacing and dialogue. You can tighten sentences, cut your word count down by 10% (a pretty standard recommendation across the board), make great scenes awesome, make weak scenes great, improve sensory details...I could go on and on.
There's no limit to what you can do with self-editing, and the more experienced you are, the more you can apply your skills to self-editing to make your editor's/editors' job(s) less tedious.
However, no matter how good you are at self-editing, you are the equivalent of one hand clapping. Why is this?
No matter how detached we try to be, as writers, we are prone to seeing what we want to see, not what a reader will see. So, while we can self-edit and perfect our book until there's not a thing more we can find wrong with it, this will be limited to our sense of how we react to our own book. Where this becomes a real problem is in scenes or elements of our book we feel are exceptional, which might actually be lackluster and problematic — sometimes even having the opposite effect on readers.
That scene you can't stop laughing at? You might not realize there's a problem until your editor gets back to you on it and tells you it's self-indulgent and eclipsing the gravity of the mood. The kick-ass climax that had you buzzing while you wrote it and which you can't stop playing over and over in your head because it's so awesome? Your editor might be the one who has to break it to you that the scene doesn't even fit in your book, that as a whole it's not consistent with the promises you set up in your opening. It has to go, or if not, it has to change to line up with the expected payoffs.
Now, you might learn to identify these things, but it can be a two-edged sword. We could have definitely tried to rip our floor up, replace the rotted sub-floor, cut away rotten boards, replace a toilet, do the plumbing, learn how to do drywall and paint our own wall...but all that time we could have been busy living our lives and working while someone with the refined skill set would do the job right, efficiently, and quickly.
Likewise, a writer can consult a dozen craft and editing books and try to be objective and become their own editor, but all that time they could be busy writing more drafts; the revision to follow when they work with an editor will take them eons further than if they did it all themselves, and for a fraction of the time in.
But, like we did with out major home repair, through self-editing, a writer can pick up many of the pieces through learning from working with their editor(s) over time. The greatest skill is developing detachment and learning to identify your blind spots.
In my own self-editing, I have become as cynical as the King Solomon of Ecclesiastes. In fact, this last week I just wrote the plot climax of A Thousand Roads and I thought I pulled off something amazing, I was pretty sure, but I kept a healthy skepticism because I knew that, while that ending definitely paid off for me, I have deluded myself all too often in past; off the pages went to my editor and I heard back from her a few days later — indeed, I did rock that scene, but there were some issues, nothing that couldn't be fixed, but it wasn't the perfect Hollywood production I saw it as in my mind; essentially, my instinct was correct that the scene was working, but because of the emotional intensity of being in the middle of it, living it as only an author can, I'm prone to being blinded to other things that, without being addressed, will hinder the reader's experience.
I applied this feedback and already the chapter is taking on a dimension of payoff it wouldn't have without that professional input, and light-years faster than were I to kick my way there through self-editing alone.
Self-editing to death: how to avoid circular revision
The floor in my detached garage is badly cracked and starting to sink. I need to fix the problem and I know that means fixing the concrete floor, perhaps by laying down fresh concrete. However, I happened to show it to the same handyman who fixed our bathroom, and with his professional expertise and his emotional distance (as it’s not his house), he was able to point out the painful truth. The garage was poorly constructed and is very slowly falling down and is irreparable. It might be a good decade before it actually needs to be demolished, but due to faulty construction, the fix is not at all easy. In fact, it's a waste of money unless we're willing to re-pour the foundation and build a new one from scratch.
I came across a similar situation in a novel I wrote several years ago — my first one. As most first novels go, there was something major wrong with it, but I didn't know what. When I was in the midst of writing and revising again and again and again, I was rapidly identifying and repairing all of the little things that were wrong with it, and it was improving a lot with each revision. I even worked with an editor and he pushed me through further revisions, inspiring me to dig deeper. I even cut two of the characters who I really liked when he helped me understand they didn't serve the plot, but still, it just wasn't working. We got up to an eighth draft, and I pushed into a ninth and I was determined that this time I was going to figure out what that deep problem was.
What I had run into was a case of circular revision. Eventually, I had to put it down and walk away.
Several years passed and I wrote several more novels, and always that novel was lurking somewhere beneath the surface of my mind. Gone, but not forgotten, as it is with stories we create, no matter how we go about producing them.
What I found was that over the time that passed, I gained emotional and creative distance that's allowed me to appreciate that book on a deeper, conceptual level. Most importantly, I'd grown so much as a writer and developed my self-editing skills to the level where recently, riding the wave of some caffeinated inspiration, I was able to map out an outline for what a new draft would look like. But like the handyman with the garage, this isn't a plan to "fix" the older story; rather, it's a plan to write something completely new, using the the viable parts of the plot ideas and the same overall concept. Basically, when the time comes for me to pick this one up and redraft it, I'll be making a new novel that works; a new draft vs. a mere revision.
The key lesson for me has been that self-editing is a skill that helps us improve our edge as writers so that our time with an editor, or with revision and redrafting, will be more efficient. But, just as critical to the art of self-editing, is the wisdom to know when self-editing is killing your story, and that it's okay — in fact, it's good for you and your health and growth as a writer! — to walk away for a bit and write something else.
Putting it all together: always write, always self-edit, always revise; develop your own sequence
With writing, we can’t always take five years away from a project and rewrite from scratch. We need to write, polish, publish, repeat. We have to put out books for our readers. We need to build our career.
I've always liked the wine bottling anecdote to describe an effective writing routine. Some bottles of wine can spend years in the cellar before they are sold. But the vineyard produces grapes every season. Grapes are pressed with care. Yeast is added and fermentation begins. Sugar converts to alcohol, then when the desired amount of dryness or sweetness is reached clarification begins. Wine is racked, then it's bottled and the wine maker can decide if it should be bottled for sale or aged. Some wines must age, while others are good to drink right away. But the wine maker makes lots of wine so that every harvest, there's wine to sell, even if some of the finer wines must spend years aging until they are finally corked and ready.
Likewise, a writer must write. Draft daily (as most do), your necessary output. This is your grape harvest. Eventually, you'll reach the end of a given manuscript, and the draft is done. You can self-edit, work with an editor, and decide, depending on the needs or considerations of that given book, if it's ready to publish, or if it's not ready and you need perspective. This is your choice of if the wine needs aging or not.
If your given draft needs more time, put it away, but if you have the habit of drafting every day (my habit is to spend 2 hours drafting every day, no matter what), then this means if your given draft is put away then you have no choice but to write something else. (You will probably find, as I did, that what comes out of this conundrum is a very very good realization about just how much wider your storytelling universe is than one simple book.)
Eventually, this is going to add up. Most likely you might write different things. As a rule, never write something unless you really want to be writing it. But always be writing something, and try to write something different after you finish any given draft and its relevant revisions.
This is your sequence as a writer — think of it as the equivalent of a to-read pile, except as a writer, it's your to-write pile. The point, though, is that you will continually be writing and self-editing and revising, and, for many of these drafts, you will be publishing and making money and building your readership, and your career.
In all this, you will come back to your older drafts. When you have the right perspective on those, you'll know it and you'll write that new draft with the expert skill you've gained because in all the time that's passed, you've kept on writing, and self-editing, and revising.
Self-editing might not be a means to an end, but, used with these other principles, it can serve to add an edge that lets any writer push their drafting power upward in steady quantum leaps.
Probably the most common editing clients I work with are romance writers. Romance is a very competitive genre, one that requires several releases per year, preferably monthly, to stay competitive and to maintain a readership.
Romance authors, understandably, crank out a huge number of books and can’t spend too much time on any one book, for fear of getting behind and perhaps losing readership. These authors have to quickly perfect their plotting, writing, and revising skills so that their writing is pretty solid from the first draft. (Side note: if you want an interesting read of just how romance writers do this, check out The Five Day Novel by Scott King.)
Readers of the romance genre tend to devour books — with some of them reading as much as a book a day. Granted, some of these are shorter books, so it is easier to read one, cover to cover, in a day. Readers therefore demand much higher turnaround of their favorite authors, meaning romance writers have to be more resourceful, but with skill that comes with writing many novels, great romance writers can turn around books quickly and effectively, because they know how to create the most important thing: a love plot that is worth rooting for and relentless conflict that has you reading on in suspense hoping your protagonist and love interest will get together in the end.
Readers of science fiction and fantasy, on the other hand, are much more interested in the nuances of plotting, world-building, and prose. These readers often, but not always, take more time with their reading than a romance reader does. They aren't in a rush to get through and will often stop to enjoy the view. Due to the nature of these genres, readers want to be immersed in new worlds, filled with fantastic technology and strange beings. They also prefer their books to be longer, especially in fantasy, so time spent on world-building and added layers of plotting is a must.
Thus, authors of science fiction and fantasy know the risk is much higher that they won't engage their audience if they don't go to the extra lengths their readers expect on every book. Science fiction and fantasy readers tend to be okay with waiting for your next book if they know it’s going to deliver on all the extra layers of amazing storytelling they expect. Even George RR Martin's fans, who have waited now nearly 6 years for the 6th book in his Song of Ice and Fire series, despite some frustration you hear about from fans, know that when the book comes out it's going to be stellar because he's demonstrated with the painstaking time he invests in his work that it translates to a book executed with mastery.
And somewhere in between all that is the broad vista of YA, NA, paranormal fantasy, urban fantasy, action, thriller, adventure, horror, and many of the genres where readers can't get enough of their favorite authors' series and the expectation is at least 1-2 books / year, where there is a lot more interest in plot and payoff and the standards are higher, but not so high that you need to make every book a masterpiece. (If there is anyone in the world capable of writing 1-2 masterpieces per year, please let me know because I'd like to study more of their methods!)
Am I ready to publish?
The main point I'm making above is that knowing if your book is ready to publish requires knowing your audience, and that means knowing your genre well. Usually (rarely not), the genre you will devote most of your time to writing in is also a genre you love to read. How else can you know what's going to excite your readers? (I'm not taking into account the exceptions, such as someone who might write a weight loss book based on their strategy to lose 200 pounds; or a fiction writer who had a profound life experience and turned that into a book that captured the hearts of millions.) When asking yourself if you’re ready to publish, you have to consider what your potential readers will think of your book.
It's important to know that, while editing can give your story an edge and prepare it for publication, it can only go so far if your story is not ready for publication; and only you can address that through strategic revisions, possible reworkings, continued education on craft and storytelling techniques, immersion in fiction to expand your awareness of the standards your readers will have (especially outstanding books in the genre you write in), and most importantly, a willingness to be relentless about finishing what you set out to do. When you submit your work, either to your agent, or to an editing team, your part of the work must be done so that the editing process can work effectively.
I write epic fantasy. I’ve been working on my novel, A Thousand Roads, for a few years now. I’ve had a few beta readers who have gone through earlier drafts of the book. I've even hired editors to work on some drafts (including my present one). The draft I'm finishing is hanging together pretty good and there's lots of improvements; in fact, I would be so bold as to say the book is moving into the territory of being very good. But I am also an avid reader of the epic fantasy genre and I know what I'm striving for in this book. I am a fan of exactly the "species" of books my book is striving to be like, and when I work on this book I know what I want this book to be, and this means the potential I'm aiming for is nowhere near tapped yet and I have a long way to go. I'm not discouraged at all because I understand, this being the genre I'm in love with, it just goes with the turf. It's part of the process, and many epic fantasy writers will fail (either through continued rejections, or indifferent readers should they self-publish) because they compromise the I need to get published instinct for I want to do this right.
But that's my set of criterion. You as a writer most likely know your genre, and as a reader and fan of your genre, you know what it is you want in your book. You also know your process and methods that help you create that book, and it's important to trust those instincts.
The important takeaway above all is that the process of channeling your inner ideal reader is a sure criterion for helping you understand if the book you're trying to complete is actually done or not, provided you belong in that group. Why is this? Because if you are a fan of a specific subgroup of book types that have sold well, then you are one of a large group of people who have read those books and want more. You are writing your book because you are creating more for that group of readers, and you, being one of them, know exactly what you'd want in a book, were you to pick it up off the shelves and read it.
The power of channeling your inner ideal reader
Are you ready to publish? Simply ask yourself if the novel you're about to send out into the world is the kind of novel you, as your own reader, would want to read. Is there anything lacking? Are you left wanting? Address that, and ask this same question, and repeat until there is nothing to do. Depending on your genre, this might be a quick process, spending an extra few days with your manuscript and booking those days off work; it might be years' long and seventeen drafts which will later win you a Hugo award (you deserve it if you stick it out that long).
Either way, know your reader, and write for your readers, because you are also that reader, and you know when your work is ready.
I'll admit that I don't read nearly as much as I wish I could. Since I write all weekend and during the week I’m immersed in editing projects, I often find that my brain wants anything but words by the end of the day. It is for this reason that I always turn down requests to beta read or to read anything that isn't the one thing I am compelled to commit to.
However, I do make a point of reading. In fact, time to read is as fundamental to my day routine as taking a shower or brushing my teeth. While I've experimented with best times to make this happen, at the very least I read for half an hour before I go to sleep, even if it means going to bed half an hour later.
I don’t read fast, though this is by choice. I know of many who can read fast but they admit they don't take everything in. One friend who I know is a fast reader once told me he reads fast and notes where exciting things are so he can come back to them later. I can definitely relate to reading this way -- I do it all the time for non-fiction articles or research (especially online), but not for fiction or books I've chosen to read in their entirety.
When it comes to reading a book for my dedicated reading time, I don't feel I'm adequately experiencing the book unless I'm truly reading it, and that means reading at a speed that allows me to be immersed in every single thing that's happening, live-time.
I don't press 3x-play when I watch a 1-hour TV show so that I can get through it in 20 minutes, and likewise, I don't rush through reading.
Should every writer read?
For writers, reading is an act of professional development. By reading, we are studying what our contemporaries are doing or what the greats who have gone before us have done. Even if we pick up a particularly bad book, we receive an education in what not to do.
It's also wise to read beyond the genre you write in. While there's great value in studying authors in your genre, being limited to specific genres is a sure way to risk putting blinkers on. For example, though I write epic fantasy and, as you'll see if you study my Goodreads shelf, I've read more fantasy books than any other genre, I read a lot of non-fiction, science fiction, and general fiction. I keep lists of books to help me remember titles I hear of, but when it comes to deciding what to read next, I believe in the power of intuition: in fact, many times I have experienced the phenomenon of how the exact book I need just ends up in my hands at the right time.
There is something meditative to reading. It's not just about professional development, but broadening your mind as a human being. In fact, this is the more important part for storytellers, in my opinion, because while it's great to analyze fiction and fiction techniques for inspiration in your own storytelling, this is just the surface layer of what can be gleaned from being open to the far deeper layers of meaning and inner transformation that reading can bring about for us.
Beware the urge to jump ship (otherwise known as managing your influences)
There is also a real danger to reading if you are a writer, and it's this danger that often is the background excuse for those writers who claim they must not read lest they get influenced. I am no stranger to this one.
In fact, I have a fresh anecdote to share. This last weekend I nearly gave up on A Thousand Roads. This was due in part to reading Stephen King's On Writing and realizing, as I immersed myself in his early life stories, how, after discovering Tolkien at the age of 13 I all but forgot about my previous love for horror stories -- one which goes back to the age of 6 when I'd sneak to my friend's place after school and watch horror movies.
In fact, I had my first story published when I was 11. It was called The Shack, a horror story about a boy whose brother turns into a monster and hunts down his family after a possessed egg from some other dimension takes him captive. I'd submitted it for a school contest and came in second place, which meant I didn't win the 1st place prize of getting published by one of the local presses. However, the principal liked the story so much that, unbeknownst to me at the time, she went home and typed it all up, then had it printed and bound. A few mornings later, we were called into the library and she took out this little book and read it to everyone in place of regular story time, much to my shock (and embarrassment).
I still have this story and, as I read about Stephen King's childhood and found many parallels with my own imaginative early years, I fished out this little book and read it again.
Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. Reconnecting to this abandoned path made me doubt what I'm doing now. When the weekend came and it was time to work on A Thousand Roads I wanted to write something else, saw my plan to stay the course and learn how to finish a book as misguided. Heck, I could use a break, work on something fresh and different.
Without realizing it at the time, my free creative space was being influenced by what I was reading.
You might relate to this as a writer if you've ever gone through this vacillating story idea effect. I don't know about you, but I find this usually happens after I see something I absolutely love where I can just tell the author is brilliant and has found true gold to share. Usually, not long after this experience, a new story idea appears, and it doesn't take long to trace the derivative lines.
How to read and be open without be swayed
There's nothing wrong with being inspired and influenced. The key, in my opinion, is discerning the difference between knee-jerk inspiration and inner inspiration that is as strong -- and slow and inevitable -- as the shifting of tectonic plates.
In the case of A Thousand Roads, the knee-jerk response passed when I relied on the much deeper muscle of my years'-long discipline to come back to the same story and discover it in its pure form. Interestingly, after persevering and having an amazing writing weekend wherein I got more fully invested in the potential of the story, I arrived at the part of King's On Writing where he talked about Carrie and how he'd nearly abandoned that book but his wife's persistence pushed him on to write a story that he was convinced wasn't worth it. He pushed on and learned about the importance of going the extra mile, of going on even when he felt like he was "shoveling shit from a sitting position" (love that line).
Much like what we choose to read, we must choose what to write. If we read 20 books at once and bounce back and forth, our experience of any one book is going to be hampered, and no doubt a book we might have gotten a lot out of we might not even finish. Likewise, if we are fickle in which books we choose to write, we lose the opportunity to bring into realization a story that is our pure, unique vision.
Reading and writing are a symbiosis, provided out mind is rooted in our own vision
I'm learning every time I resist the knee-jerk influencing urge to trust the larger-scale call of the work I'm invested in, the work of my own unique vision.
As I mentioned last week, I saw the Fifty Shades Darker movie this week. What a fantastic movie! I'm not speaking as a critic, but as a storyteller going in and appreciating the unique vision of someone else whose heart and passion shines through in the story. Going into that movie and experiencing some of the brilliantly captured scenes and emotional moments presented me with a dichotomy, but I chose the right path.
The wrong path is to get inspired by what the movie does and then go and immediately try and recreate that in my own fiction. Jumping into such left-brain analysis closes me to truly receiving the lesson of those deeper levels of the story. It's kind of like having a conversation with someone and, instead of listening to them and empathizing, wandering off into thoughts about the plans for the rest of the day.
The right path is much like empathic listening in a conversation, and it made my experience of the movie wondering, and spared me conflict in my storytelling life afterward, because I found myself truly appreciating how one of my contemporaries brought out the gold in her story and how she made her unique vision shine. It inspired me not to copy her, but to listen and learn and appreciate, and try to cultivate that same passion in what is my unique yarn which only I can tell.
I live in the very wintry city of Winnipeg, and this winter has been particularly snowy. In the five weeks spanning December and the start of January, this city had five blizzards, accumulating as much snow as typically falls in a year in this city.
And it’s still snowing.
If weather predictions are correct, we are in for a very snowy February, as there is a major winter storm pattern headed our way.
As you might imagine, shoveling the sidewalk and driveway is becoming more and more laborious with each snowfall. While I try to see each jaunt as an opportunity for exercise, I find myself now wondering if this winter will ever end.
Writing is a lot like winter in Winnipeg.
Sometimes a project feels like it will never end. No matter how much you chip away at it, no matter how many hours you set aside to write, that same deep exhaustion settles in and writers (myself included) sit back and contemplate giving up. Maybe motivation and energy will come to me if I just put it aside for few months.
Imagine if I treated snow shoveling that way. It would pile higher and higher with every winter storm, until it would become so overwhelming, I’d just give up. Snow would reach knee-height (or higher, given how this winter is going) and I’d do my best to ignore this problem that confronts me every day when I leave my house, until I can no longer open my door.
That’s the risk we run when we put our books aside for lack of motivation, or when we give into the many other pressures that might tell us the great writing idea we really want to be investing our time in just isn't worth our while. The feeling of neglect, that we're really not doing what we should be doing with our life, will only get worse with every passing week.
What about the case of setting aside one project to write something else? That's an entirely different topic (because sometimes it has merit, especially if the project you're working on is something you'd rather not be working on), but for the sake of this argument, let's focus on the project you are truly passionate about, the book(s) you really want to write. Maybe you're not even writing it now and, like the recalcitrant shoveler, you're realizing just how dissatisfied you are by not writing what you're truly passionate about.
Bust the myth of the creative muse: you are your muse, and you call the shots.
Many writers believe they are at the whims of their creativity, often citing their "creative muse" as the source of whether they can write or not. I've been one of those writers myself. There is indeed validity to the fact that certain seasons of life, or certain emotional highs or internal nodes we might hit align just so and bring to the page something special that is not merely the result of mechanical novel-writing. It feels like magic. To this day, I still hold in my mind the memory of my greatest writing experience ever, an all-night adventure fueled by a French Press of coffee and discovering just how deep and alive a story can become. To this day, that is probably one of the richest chapters I've ever written (and was incentive to return to A Thousand Roads because that one chapter in the old manuscript captured just what the manuscript was, and for me, 2 years later, helped me understand what the next steps were).
But I've long since busted the myth of the creative muse. True, there have been many moments where deep intuition and a sort of magic align like constellations and bleed into my work. I can never predict when or how. I can only predict that I will continue to show up and do the work and put in a session, good or bad, trusting that the hard work— like shoveling snow to keep the paths clear— will add up.
I’ve also discovered that creativity can be forced — if I sit down and force myself to write, it gets my creative mind going, and then the creativity flows from my fingertips and onto the computer. It requires the willingness to sit with my manuscript and accept that writing time might require time spent sitting in the chair, leafing around the manuscript, thinking about the story, or reading earlier chapters or related notes I've made on promises I need to fulfill. The act then becomes not throwing words on the page, but creative problem solving. I've learned, by rejecting the myth of the creative muse, that it's possible to be proactive about harnessing creativity, and the key is this:
Knowing what to write next is not about knowing what words to write next, but about asking deep questions about what the story wants from us. The answers inform then become our guide as we write forward, an intuitive counterbalance to hone our sense of if the story is on track or not on track, a bit like rails keeping a train on course.
Concretize your process: define incremental milestones for your project.
Every time it snows, I must go outside and shovel. If I just went outside whenever I wanted, I might discover when I do go out that there are packed layers of ice or uneven patches on the sidewalk that will break my shovel.
Likewise, having a regular discipline for your project, with concrete milestones, is a sure way to turn "I want to write this book and get it published" into a certain plan. This is important, because without developing a discipline that progresses in concrete forward units, you risk descending into relativism: the dreaded novel that you've spent years on, convincing yourself it's just "not right yet", when in fact, most of this time has been spent on lateral growth that hasn't advanced the novel. You're revising and changing, without moving forward so much as moving sideways, like a ship going in whatever direction the wind blows.
I'm not saying you shouldn't spend years on a novel. I'm also not saying those years blowing in many directions didn't add rich and unique layers that will make your book great; nor am I saying that lateral growth is not also a component of forward growth. What I am saying, though, is there's a more efficient way to do it that will take less time, and be more rewarding, if you develop a concrete discipline.
For myself, I've also found it helpful to have accountability. Not only am I a book coach at Author Accelerator, I also use the services myself. Having a deadline, like needing to go out and shovel snow, for me makes the difference between spinning my perfectionist wheels and making clear-cut writing decisions that advance by one tiny, yet significant milestone my writing goals. It's helped me develop a concrete writing discipline of flipping into writing mode every weekend and putting in whatever time it takes (and that will vary depending on the specific story problems that come up) to deliver 20 pages. The process of doing this has defined for me the importance of committing every weekend to working toward a specific milestone with A Thousand Roads, and after I'm finished the second draft, I will continue to commit every weekend to further iterations through the manuscript, under a revision regime that will soon segue to pre-publication production with the editing team I have on board to help turn this manuscript into a finished book.
You don't have to write every weekend, but the idea is to define your end goal — the complete book in your readers' hands, amazing as you can make it be — then define achievable, incremental milestones that you can meet to get to that point.
And if you're snowed in and want to get back on track, maybe you need to bust out the ice-chipper and a blowtorch. Craig, our outreach manager here at Story Perfect, had a project he’d been putting off for months. I finally gave him a kick in the pants and told him to get it done. He sat down and wrote 16,500 words in one day. Talk about clearing away all the snow with sweat and fire!
Now, with that goal met, he's given himself momentum to take the next teps, and already has given it to his editor who is defining the process to publication so it can land well with readers.
I drive a 2004 Toyota Camry. It’s a good car — I got it second hand and seemed to really luck out with it. Even though Toyotas last a long time, or so I’m told, this one is doing quite well for its age.
Part of it, I believe, is that I have it regularly serviced and maintained. There’s an autobody shop around the corner from where I live, which happens to be the one that my husband and his family have used for decades. The mechanic’s name is Tony (if I were editing a book about a mechanic, I’d suggest the author change the name because Tony is a little stereotypical a name for a mechanic) and he knows my car very well.
Tony isn’t the cheapest. If I wanted cheap auto maintenance, I’d find a friend who is a mechanic, or learn to do it myself. But that's just asking for trouble (though if you know the right mechanic friend you might be as lucky as, say, the survivors in a Russian roulette game).
While Tony isn't cheap, he's honest and reliable, and never leaves me in the dark. One time, for example, I wanted him to investigate a periodic clunking that came from under my car. He told me it was about a $300 job but not critical. "When you have some spare change and want it fixed, we're happy to do that for you, but if you want to save some money it's not going to cause any harm." Another time, my husband's car wouldn't start in the winter — it turned out his plug-in cord was severed. It took fifteen minutes for Tony to replace it and he only charged for the cord, a mere $30.
Then there was the time, a few months after I bought my car, when something went seriously wrong. The engine seized on me and the car shut down, right in the middle of an intersection. Three different warning light went on that had me worried I'd bought a lemon after all. I had no choice but to get it towed to Tony's. The next day, when I got the call from him with the prognosis, he explained that it was a special part called the throttle body, and the repair was a $1200 job. It was standard for such resilient engines like those in the Toyota for the computer to kick in and shut the engine down when it detected the part needed replacing, so as not to cause further damage to the engine. Such features are a large part of why many Toyotas make it up to 700,000 km and even then refuse to die. So, I paid the extra money and did so with optimism, because of the trust I had in Tony. I knew the work was necessary and indeed, to this day, the engine has run strong.
Here's where I shift gears to writing.
When an author finishes writing a manuscript, they’re similar to someone with a car in need of repair. The author could manage a self-edit or perhaps get a well-read friend to edit it. While there is some benefit, for sure, in self-editing or having a friend look at it, there is a greater benefit in having a professional editor go over your manuscript. It’s more expensive, yes, but just like a higher price for car repairs ensure you'll get service you can trust, paying for editing can help ensure you receive a more professional and comprehensive edit than you or your friend might be able to do.
Just like the example of my $1200 engine repair, a good investment in an editor can give your story true mileage with readers and reviewers. While your investment might not earn out from book sales, it will earn out in a much more meaningful way in that the book you put out will stand strong and be something you can be proud of as an installment in your writing career.
But you don’t have to pay for everything. When it comes to editing especially, author beware is a very important motto to stick to.
What kind of editing you can't cut out
At the very least, make sure you have an edit that addresses developmental issues. This is sometimes called a substantive edit, or a content edit. Both terms imply the edit is considering the "meat" of the story — so the editor is considering the abstract level of the story itself beyond just the line-by-line correctness of the prose. (Such an edit is called a copyedit, which I'll get to next.)
The reason developmental editing is so important is because there are many stories that are published that get "edited" when in fact all that's been fixed are various typos, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and repetitive words. An editor who does a developmental edit is thinking about the story and using storytelling principles to instruct you on rewrites, and that editor will catch plot holes, inconsistencies in characterization, problems with voice or point of view (usually called POV), pacing, and narration — to name a few of the heavy hitters.
Having developmental (or substantive or content) editing done is like making sure you get your trusted mechanic to work on your engine and the parts of the car you'll likely break if you try to fix it yourself.
A developmental edit can sometimes cost a lot of money. Typically, when I do a developmental edit I average about 6 manuscript pages / hour when there are a lot of problems, and 10-15 pages / hour when it's smooth sailing. If your manuscript is 300 pages, then you do the math and you'll see it comes out to anywhere between 20-50 hours. (I want to be absolutely clear though: in my career working on more than 100 manuscripts to date, I have yet to see a manuscript that was that length and needed an hour for every six pages from front to back.)
Now, I'm going to make a very bold statement here: editors deserve to be paid as much as auto mechanics because the work they do is as complicated (maybe more complicated). Just as auto mechanics know all the basic components of a car and what needs to go where, editors are trained in all the essentials of storytelling, writing craft, and grammar, to know what in your story still needs work. Most importantly, like auto mechanics who have stripped down and put back together countless cars, editors who have earned their stripes through editing many manuscripts aren't just going to use book smarts on you.
How you can save yourself a lot of money on editing
I don’t take my car in to the shop when I’m out of windshield wiper fluid, nor do I take it in when I’ve got a burnt-out tail light. There are some tasks I can do myself, or get a good friend to help me with.
Likewise, you can save yourself a lot of money by developing an effective self-editing and revision strategy.
Let me talk a bit about that universe often feared and not well understood by most writers. Revision. I've heard it said that revision is 80% of writing a book, and though I doubted it in the beginning, I've come to understand that it's true. If you think you can bowl through a draft then rush it off to an editor, then either you're asking for a steep bill or you're so gifted you will be the object of contempt by 99% of the rest of us who say "Amen" when we hear Ernest Hemingway's proverb, "The first draft is always shit."
The problem, though, is that many writers take it to the opposite extreme and feel there is no end to revision. In reality your book is never going to be perfect. But it can be sufficiently amazing, a term I just invented which means: "Revised to the point that the reader cannot tell the difference between their version of perfect and yours."
As a writer, you're wise to develop a drafting strategy. Many writers use beta-readers or critique partners, and will plan to write at least two drafts (usually three or more). There is no magic number, because it's going to differ based on the writer and the specific project, but the idea is, with every step of revision, you want to make sure you're getting closer to the final vision you have for your book.
And when you reach that point where you're convinced this is done, then off it goes to your editor.
I hope you see that if you develop a great drafting strategy (I will be elaborating more on the art of self-editing and revision in a few weeks), you can save yourself the need for multiple rounds of editing, or a $2000 bill for a developmental edit vs. an $800 one. It's the same as saying good auto maintenance can mean your trip to the mechanic only requires you replace some O2 sensors, not that you have to repair a cracked cam shaft (the demise of the first car I owned).
What other editing you should have done if you plan to self-publish
You may be familiar with the term copyediting. Sometimes you'll see it written copy editing. Both are correct, but I use copyediting just because the term has stuck and I enjoy rebelling against the spell-checker in another case of knowing I'm right and it's wrong.
Strictly speaking, copyediting comes after developmental editing, and this should make logical sense. After you've done the incredible juggling act of cutting scene X and transplanting it in the middle of scene Y to address a cause-effect issue in your narration, or rewriting the crap out of the three paragraphs where your POV character's motives weren't clear, you're going to have a big mess to clean up. The idea is you can get your hands dirty when you're doing a developmental edit, knowing after it's all done, a new editor with a fresh set of eyes is going to come and focus on keeping everything tidy.
If the developmental editor is the same as the guy at the mechanic shop who goes in and rips your car apart and fits everything back together the right way, the copyeditor is the same as the girl (let's keep this a gender-balanced work place) at the shop who comes in after he's done and looks everything over to make sure all the plugs have been put back on the right way, maybe tightens a few bolts, and while she's at it, checks all your fluids to make sure there's no other issues before you come and drive your car back home.
Copyeditors do not focus on story, unless the element of the story is an actual error. Copyeditors, typically, focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting, logic and clarity. I want to expand on that "logic" item, because it's a loaded term. By logic, this is the part that sets a copyeditor apart from a proofreader. That word means the copyeditor is thinking logically about everything your manuscript is saying, line-by-line, and questioning if what you've written is the best way to write it.
You might sometimes find a copyeditor has cut a lot of words from your manuscript, or rearranged many of your sentences. This all comes down to that "logic and clarity" part, because many times the way you will write a sentence has made what you're trying to say confusing or otherwise difficult to grasp. "He rushed up the steps, his niece following close behind," is much clearer than, "His niece close behind, he rushed up the steps, ascending hurriedly." The first kill in that sentence is due to logic: "ascending hurriedly" is implied by "rushed up the steps." The reversal of clauses is due to clarity (and partly logic too): seeing his niece close behind him is immediately confusing: what's he doing for her to be close behind him? He rushed up the steps establishes for the reader an immediate vision of exactly what's happening, then adding his niece following close behind him allows us to add in an extra detail from an already established visual. Now it's clear, and logical.
I hope I've convinced you that copyeditors put in their share of sweat and hard work, and, like the girl in our example mechanic shop, the work they do is just as important. You wouldn't want to take your car home only to find out a loose screw on your engine came off and caused damage, nor should you as a writer want to pay for developmental editing only to find that all the juggling around you did in your rewrites confused your readers.
Last but not least: proofreading
Let's face it: editors are human. People miss things. Even the big publishers, who often have up to 30 sets of eyes on a book before it goes to print, still will miss a typo or two. Even if you're just paying a thank-you sum of money to a friend, or if you're lucky to have a group of die-hard fans who will gladly be the first readers of your book before it comes out, do not skip this step before you publish. A third (at least) set of eyes, especially after copyediting is complete, is vital. This is a chance for someone to read your book as though it's published, and make a list of outstanding typos.
If you can afford it, have a professional editor do it. The editor, unlike a friend or beta-readers, is trained in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting, and will spot more in the proofread than a reader who might not be familiar with all the rules of spelling and grammar. Your friend / beta-readers might catch the part of your manuscript where you have the,y went to the store but they might not catch the typo go to the sign in table (sign-in is the correct form since it modifies the noun table).
So there you have it. If nothing else, I hope you learned that editing, while as expensive as engine repair on your car, is just as important.
All right, your turn! Have you had any bad experiences with editors who charged too much? Who didn't give you the editing you were expecting? Are you one of those authors who sees the color red when you hear the word revision? I'd love to hear what you think about the cost (and necessity) of editing and why we can't live without it.
I don’t know what weather is like in your part of the world, but here in Winnipeg, we’re in the midst of extremely cold temperatures, and have just had four blizzards in the course of five weeks. Thus, I’ve been spending a lot of time indoors and am grateful to finally have a desk for a proper ergonomic chair in my office now. Days spent editing are often accompanied by a recording of a yule log, with a space heater keeping me warm.
The holidays have come and gone and, like a lot of people, I’ve made a few resolutions for 2017. I try to keep my resolutions achievable, but still lofty. If a resolution is easy to achieve, then it’s not a challenge. However, if a resolution is impossible to reach, then it just becomes frustrating.
One of my resolution is to keep my weekends devoted to writing time, while focusing the week days on honing my professional editing skills. I will finish writing the second draft of a novel by March with this discipline, and plan to keep the weekends free for meaningful writing projects after this. This way, while I continue to hone my professional skills as an editor, I continue to improve my skills as a writer. There is personal value in this for me, but from a professional standpoint, becoming a better writer makes me a better editor as well, because I believe that one necessary quality of a good editor is the ability to empathize with the writers I work with.
Many writers make finishing their book their resolution for a new year. While this is good, it can sometimes be a trap because it’s a goal, and not necessarily the definition of a solid process by which that goal will be attainable. So instead of saying, “I want to finish my book this year,” try exploring answers to the question, “If I want to finish my book this year, then what regular discipline will I try in order to do this?”
Be experimental! Some writers must write every day. Some writers set weekly milestones (myself included with my weekend routine). I didn’t arrive at my routine until after I tried writing every day, writing in bursts, then finally separating work weekdays from writing weekends and realizing that was just right for me.
In answering the question on HOW you are going to create a regular writing practice through which you will get your novel written, you might notice a shift away from finishing your novel. You might realize that, when you begin a regular writing discipline, you’re on your way to getting your novel done, but guess what? That’s just a milestone, a midpoint on a bigger journey.
For 2017, see if you can find the writing discipline that will not only help you finish your novel, but kickstart a writing habit that will be the cornerstone of your writing career.