This piece is, strictly speaking, aimed at authors eschewing the traditional publishing path and facing up to the parts that traditional publishing was supposed to add to your book or story, but sometimes didn’t.
Naturally, this piece is done without the benefit of an editor (I can’t afford it, and I don’t get paid for this) or even without the compensations I suggest. I don’t have time for them, if you want to read this today. It will be full of errors. Deal.
No matter what they tell you, the best training for writing novels is more writing. It’s no different in that sense from long distance running or long distance swimming.
Notice that I chose the long form of all three…
I don’t think any new writer ever starts without doubt about his basic skill in this profession (please think of it as that. It’s not a hobby, or catharsis. Not if you want to write enough good books. Hobbyists produce occasional books or stories, some very good, some good, mostly bad or average. Writing is no different to any other field in this respect, much as publishers might try to kid you otherwise. Hobbyists are cheap, unlike hobbits who are expensive and hairy footed.)
I take that back. No potentially competent writer starts without doubt. (I still have lots. If you would like some, I can spare it.) If you know that you are Heaven’s gift to the world of literature… you probably are. To modern literary fiction. And no amount of lack of sales despite the huge volume of marketing and display can change this. But if you are (or have the potential to become) the sort of story teller that many people love and remember the stories told by, and moreover part with money to read, you question yourself. Your direction, your skill.
And this, of course is the first stage of editing. Doubt.
If you have no doubt, you’ll never accept any editing, not from yourself or anyone else.
Of course where so many of us fall is that doubt overwhelms. Common sense, and self-confidence never get a look in.
But what if I really am rubbish? What if I am taking the wrong direction entirely? Surely the answer is that I need guidance, and that guidance is therefore beyond price.
(Sigh). There IS no wrong direction.
Repeat after me. There is no wrong direction in Independent Publishing. You want to write first person piano-dwarf sadomasochist erotica set in Weimar Germany, or a treatise on anti-Zorasteran tactics? It’s a big world and sooner or later the internet is going to put you in touch with others of like mind or interest. If you want to be popular and read by millions… well that’s a different matter. Don’t ask traditional editors, because they’re trying to pick (at the very worst) bestsellers, and based on the results they have a 99.9% failure rate. It’s something we (editors and the rest of us) lack the tools for, or the training for. All they have is instinct or the following the herd – and a lot of books to choose from. They can put you in the top 10%, but that’s still a lot of failing books for every great seller. An editor-for-hire is even less likely to be telling you that really, dwarf erotica, especially with pianos, is a limited market. And hell, I might be wrong. If it is bizarre or funny or even politically correct enough, millions of copies might get sold. (I spend a fair amount of time sneering at the ‘politically correct’ because I personally despise the unthinking mindless following of prescribed rules, many of which fail the most cursory extension of logic, but there seem to be a lot of people who like it and obey it slavishly. It might work for you.).
What there is, and you should worry about, is technique. Much though I disapprove of it, being nearly as gifted as Shakespeare at original usage of letters, spelling is a non-negotiable. Fortunately a spill-chucker can do the worst, although it does require you to know the difference between a beech, a beach, and a lady dog. The reason spelling is important is the same reason you need elementary grammar. (And I mean elementary. It will not matter to most of your audience if you decide to boldly go where no infinitive has been split before. Or, if you have sentence fragments.) Look, the grammar-grundies, who naturally love to emphasise their importance, forget the purpose of regular grammar and spelling. It is to make reading easier. That’s all. If your audience doesn’t know if they are an audience – “you’re audience” or whether they’re your readers – “your audience”, then they pause reading to think about it. And this really, truly, is a case of hesitate and they are lost. The purpose of grammar is to make communication between the writer and reader better. The grammar needs to be fairly consistent, and enhance your clarity. Anything else is pure vanity. It’s pretty, may make you look clever, but it’s not going to lose you thousands of readers if you split an infinitive. Grammar-grundies are relatively rare, along with dwarf-piano erotica fans. Most people read for the story.
The important parts of other techniques — and there are books full of them — are largely about not confusing the reader, and very often by following an accepted convention. People are used to them, so they work (which is what writers like Jeanette Winterson miss when they re-invent the wheel in sf). First, second, third person, omniscient POV. How change point of view. Tenses, correct capitalization, commas and quotes, not to mention ellipses… This is stuff you should have learned at school, and seriously, if you’re paying an editor rather than trying to learn them, you need a second job, and deserve to pay through the nose for it. Get a few books, study your favorite authors… and then work on picking up those communication issues.
The first, single most effective way you can do this…
………..Is to leave it be for a reasonable time.
Yes, really. Stories need to ferment. Well, it’s either ferment or get some distance from you, or you from them. I find immediate self-editing much, much less effective than hitting a story again after three months. That’s the period that works for small brains like mine. You may find weeks or years work better for you.
Secondly, if you really care, and can’t pay someone else to struggle… start at the back. Read each sentence, from the end of your manuscript. If you actually read the words backwards aloud, at double speed, it will tell you that Elvis is Satan and living in Poughkeepsie, but, while I am sure this is very valuable to you, reading the sentences the normal way around, but out of context lets you pick up many errors, in logic, and communication, plain old missing words and typos.
The next step is to get other readers involved. Unless you have a dedicated fan club… try trading favors. I’ll read yours, you read mine. And try getting at least three first readers. Five is better. Me, I always do odd numbers, and after applying logic, personal bias, and then looking things up (in that order) I still have doubts about a point… I go with the majority. Your system may differ.
At this point, if you can afford it, it’s worth getting someone who copy edits for a living to quote. The manuscript ought fairly clean and quick to do, and if their rates are based on time needed and suppressing the gag reflex, it ought to have helped a lot… and you will have learned a lot, which passing steps one and two and going straight to commerce won’t do (or will do much more slowly). If not, I’d advise repeat steps one and two.
Odds are your final product will be cleaner than most traditionally published stories, and the next piece you write will be better.
So: any tricks or ideas you have to achieve clean manuscripts?
Oh to pay for the sand in the arena – you might have a look in at my website, where SAVE THE DRAGONS is available – which has never seen a traditional editorial process, although some wonderfully talented people have edited it Or at one of the shorts
– edited as above, because the short will never make enough money to pay an editor.