Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Professional vs Amateur Editing

Control.  One of the pluses of self-publishing is that you have very close to total control of the whole publishing process for your book.  It's also one of the biggest minuses.  No one can be good at everything, and so I think one of the key things the self-publisher needs to learn is the limits of their own ability, in all the areas required for successful publication.  If you're open and receptive, then you can go a long way to addressing the gaps in your own skills, provided you can find people who can fill in those gaps for you, and you take their advice.

If you don't take heed of their advice, people will stop giving it: you'll find their support or interest rapidly waning.  Of course, sometimes you should do what you think is best, even if this runs counter to the advice you've received – so how do you decide when to trust your advisors, and when to trust your own instincts?  The approach I took boiled down to understanding: if on some point of disagreement, I was sure I understood the advice and the reasoning behind it, yet also properly understood the rationale and consequences of my own opinion, then I'd go with whichever option made the most sense.  In areas where I knew my skills were weaker than my advisors, or knew that my understanding was poor, then I would simply follow their advice (while also doing my best to understand the reasoning behind it, to improve myself in that area).

So, professional editing.

I'm an extremely good proof-reader4, and I'm also good at picking up continuity errors, errors in flows and rhythms, awkwardness in dialogue, and many other aspects of writing.  So although the accepted wisdom is to get a professional editor, I thought I could go it alone.

Let me tell you a little story..

I'd put my whole book through the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, chapter by chapter, a few years earlier, and received lots of valuable feedback that improved the story (and my writing skills) over the year or so that that took.  I can heartily recommend the site, the team, and the community.  They're wonderful.

And life went on, and the years rolled by, and I'd find time to work a little more on it, polishing and so on, while thinking I should finish it off and send it into that great slush pile in the sky to see if anyone was interested.  One day though, I looked up and noticed that the publishing landscape had changed so much that it looked like I was in a whole new country: one in which self-publishing was really perfectly viable.  And after a couple of life-changing events, I found myself with both the time and the opportunity to seriously try the self-publishing route.  I knew there'd be a lot to learn, so I started studying, and sharing what I learned on this blog: about the various self-publishing platforms, and the writing tools, and the marketing tools, and the publishing tools.  And then one day in my Twitter feed, I noticed a mention of a professional editing group that offered to review and critique the first few thousand words of your manuscript, for free.  If they think a manuscript (MS) has potential, they'll send you a quote for their services for the whole MS.

“Well,” I thought, “it's as perfect as I can make it – I've been polishing it for years – so why not submit my work, just as a final sanity check?  I doubt they'll have much to say.”

Famous last words.

But it turned out to be a brilliant decision on my part (and dead lucky, too).  Because the advice contained in the detailed review – both the overall, “big picture” comments as well as the nitty-gritty line-by-line notes – was full of wisdom, frankly.  (The group I found and used are http://www.theditors.com/, and Dave handled my case.)  Just the advice from that initial critique was invaluable to me.  So I was pretty certain I'd get similar value from having the whole MS given the same careful review.

So, what did I get for my money?

A critique that spanned every level: proof-reading, line-by-line details, character-level stuff, plot thoughts, POV consistency, time-skipping, as well as emotional angles, psychological angles, and the biggie: the suggestion that there were two, maybe three books here, not just one.  What Dave basically saw, and pushed me to see, was that the characters and the 1st half (or maybe 1st third) of the story was sufficiently engaging that he (and other readers) would welcome more of it.  (This is the part where the main character is growing up: the story starts when she's just four.)

The big question, and the big problem, was: of course I had written the novel with a big climax at the end. There's a big change near the middle, certainly, but would it be enough to make a satisfying experience if the book ended there?  The answer, fundamentally, was “No” – but the potential was there.

So I decided I'd try as hard as I could to invent something extra to make that first part strong enough to stand on its own.

Two books, not one?

The disheartening thing about the whole affair for me, was that it was eerily similar to what I had realised myself, back in 1999 or 2000: that the whole second half of the book back then had plenty of action and story: but no plot!  (Even so, it was one of the ten finalists in the 1998 George Turner contest, so it wasn't all bad.)  After that epiphany, I cut the book in half, eventually dreamed up a plot that fully satisfied me; and then worked to develop and write the plot, weaving it seamlessly through the novel.  I think it took me about ten years to do that, in the little bits and pieces of spare time and energy that I had available.

I really couldn't face another ten year hiatus.  So I further decided I'd limit my time: I'd give myself just one month to work out a fully satisfying addition, otherwise I'd leave it as a single book.

Tough challenge.  I think this was the toughest creative challenge I've ever faced.  Part of the reason for the tough deadline was my understanding of some of my own weaknesses: I'm quite prone to tinkering endlessly, and worse still, after solving the hardest part of a problem, prone to losing interest in finishing the task.

Strangely, I felt I owed it to Leeth (my main character) to finally and properly bring her to life: I felt I'd be failing her if I didn't finish the book and get it published.

Dave and I discussed various ideas for a new plot element: he had good ideas, but I realised that most of them couldn't work (for me), because they didn't fit into the world or the future I had roughly sketched out for the books ahead.  (I hadn't shared any of the 22,000 words of additional background material I had with Dave, so he couldn't know.)  In the end, I was on my own for this part, though some aspects of the ideas we discussed certainly helped.

The spark.  The key moment was discovering a note I'd made back in about 1998.  I only stumbled over it after realising that Dave couldn't solve my problem for me, because I had all this extra context he'd never seen.  And while looking through that, and re-reading it (for the first time in over ten years), I saw this throw-away line about something which had happened deep in the background, which had a whole lot of scary resonance to it: an idea I could pursue one day...

Today was that day.

The note was just twelve words long, but I saw that it contained the essence of the threat from which everything would flow.  The more I thought about it, the better the idea worked: it fitted in seamlessly, it would trigger all sort of neat incidents (given the characters involved), and it even led to a powerful climax at the midpoint – all while actually reinforcing and strengthening the plot for the second half.  I think it took me about ten days – out of my allotted month – to reach that epiphany.

The process. So then I sat and thought, and made a list of the extra scenes I'd need to write to develop that plot: there were 22.  I kicked the ideas around a little with Dave and a friend of mine who is familiar with the book (hi, Jon!), and their refinements and suggestions strengthened it further.  The 22 scenes grew just a little (to 25, or 27 depending on how you counted), and that seemed feasible.  I thought each scene would probably average out to one or two thousand words.  So, with some indispensable tools for the big plotting and writing work involved in the Book Split:

Writing sprint.  I set to work.  I worked hard.  I worked very hard.  Fortunately, I had a whole world that I'd already worked out, and understood deeply. Especially the characters. Basically, I just imagined the characters in the appropriate scenes, and then just wrote down what they said and did.  The tiny pad meant I could do my writing or plotting anywhere at all; and I don't think you can beat pencil and paper for that mode of writing.  It's also completely distraction free.  Maybe two thirds of the scenes I first drafted that way (the tougher and trickier scenes); at other times, I'd just sit at the PC and write.  That was where LibreOffice and Workrave shone.  Anyway, I tweeted my results at the end of each day as I worked, and felt very satisfied: although I didn't complete the first drafts in the five days I'd hoped (yeah, right!), I did complete them in 9 days, and found I'd written 39,000 words.  Some of the scenes, I found myself crying as I wrote them; one or two, laughing.  One of them still cracks me up when I think of it.  They felt right; they felt good.

They all went into the file (Book-1-Split.odt) which held my outline of the work.  So, next, I switched from that task to Dave's detailed line-by-line comments in the MS (which I received on Aug 4th), addressing them each in turn.  I took a day off today (saw a movie, visited a friend, wrote this blog item), but apart from that I've been working hard.  Some of the problems Dave has pointed out are easy to fix; some harder.  E.g. I spent three hours yesterday fixing the problems he saw in just two pages (doing so also required me to write a thousand words), but after that, I managed 25 pages in five hours.  I seem to be managing 20-25 pages per day, and there are 180 pages in total.  (As of yesterday, I was on p109 of the 180 pages; though p109 in the old MS is now p175 in the new.)

Finding a good editor – step 1.  So that was the process for the creative parts, and the tough parts.  But how do you find an editor?  There are predators out there: people who will encourage you to pay them, to edit your work, ostensibly to do the job that Dave did so well, but who really are just leading people on.  I think the first thing you need to do, is to hone your writing skills and practice them enough so that what you've written is genuinely good.  Because anyone can self-publish, the quality of self-published work varies enormously.  An editor can only tell you how to improve your work: they can't make the improvements for you (I suppose, that's what a ghostwriter would do).  So: get other people to review it and critique it.  Listen well: take criticism and use it.  Build up your skills.  When other writers think your work is okay, and you've done the best job you can, at that point a good and honest editor can help you.  If you try to use an editor before that point, it'll be an expensive way to be taught how to write.

Finding a good editor – step 2.  Okay, so given that your work is of a basically sound standard, how do you find a good and reliable editor?  Obviously I can recommend Dave and his team – but they can't support the entire self-publishing industry on their own!  I think the same method that works for all aspects of the self-publishing “industry” applies here too: rely on word of mouth.  “thEditors” let you actually try them out, so you can decide for yourself: the “mouth” you're relying on is your own!  I'd suggest, though, asking other writers whose work you like, what they do.  That's how I found my cover designer (yay, Mirella!) – which will be the subject of another blog in the next few weeks, I'd say.

Self-publishing.  This whole experience has crystallised in my mind how the self-publishing industry works, and how it has the strong potential to out-perform the traditional publishing industry.  I'll write about that soon, too, I think.  Basically, we're not alone: there are other people with the talents needed to support the lonely writer working in her garret, and the new digital world and social media provide the tools to put all those various people in contact.  It lets you find the people you need to find, and to collaborate with them, and to pay them or to be paid in turn for your work.  The same thing applies for the readers, too.  I'm enormously excited by what I see ahead.

It's been hugely challenging, enjoyable, tough, and satisfying.  I have high hopes my readers will enjoy it as much as I did in writing it, and feel I've done Leeth proud.  And none of it would have happened (I would never have “learned” about all this new exciting stuff that had happened while she was growing up), if Dave had not pushed me to flesh out what he saw as almost a complete book in its own right, in the first half.

So, Dave, I think I'll finish this blog simply by saying: thank you; thank you deeply.

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