Whew! It’s been kind of crazy around here the last few days, which is why I’m late getting up this week’s installment in the Young Writers series.
Last week we talked about the different kinds of publishing, and the pros and cons of getting your book to readers via traditional publishing, boutique publishing, and self-publishing. You can reference that post here. And feel free to go back and look at the prior week’s entries as well.
This week we’re going to talk about outside advice, because frankly, it’s kind of a mine field.
If you read my post about self-editing you know that I’m a big believer in having an outside editor. Self-editing is meant to be a preliminary step on your way to the having someone else read and critique your work, not the end of the revision process.
But hiring an editor (or asking a friend, if you must go that route), can be tricky. For both of you.
Many times we ask someone to read our work, not with the desire to truly get better, but with the desire for an ego stroke, for someone to tell us our work is awesome except for that typo on page 23. We SAY we want outside criticism, but do we mean it? It’s a question each writer has to ask and answer themselves. And the truth is, if you don’t mean it, you really have no business asking someone else for feedback. It takes A LOT of time and effort to read for someone, and even more time and effort to give constructive feedback. If you’re looking for an ego stroke, you’re wasting everyone’s time (and your money, if you’re paying someone to edit for you). Your reader/editor will spend hours reading and compiling notes to help you make the book better, and you will spend days or weeks or months waiting for said notes. If you ignore everything they say anyway, what’s the point?
You might as well just ask your mom to read for you (providing she’s not a mom like me, who will tell you if it needs a lot of work, whether you like it or not).
Something I hear fairly often from people who hire me to edit for them is, “I like the book fine the way it is. Just give me feedback on the little stuff. I don’t want to change anything big.”
Here’s me when people say that; ………….
Don’t you truly want your book to be the best it can be? If so, you have to be willing to look at the whole picture, because as an experience for the reader, a book is the sum of it’s parts. True story. Do you think the reader is more concerned with a typo than with pacing so slow they can’t finish the book? Or with cliched character development? Or plot holes so big you can drive a semi through them?
I don’t know about you, but when I read a book, those are the things that make or break it. They are the things that make a reader think, “This is so boring” or “Oh, my god… I can’t finish this,” even if they don’t know why.
If you love your book the way it is and aren’t willing to consider feedback about the big and small issues, my advice is to skip the time and money of hiring an editor (and save said editor a lot of frustration) and just run with the book as is.
But I don’t advise it.
On the other side is your editor/reader/friend. I love editor/reader/friends. I’ve been fortunate to have some truly gifted ones, and it’s not an overstatement to say that they have shaped and improved my writing in HUGE ways, and often very, very quickly. In my opinion, nothing makes you better like a tough-love editor who really knows what they’re doing.
And therein lies the rub.
Not everyone who will read for you knows what they’re doing. Some will be willing to read because you’re a friend or relative. Some are readers themselves. But none of those things necessarily qualify someone to shape your project.
It is very, very important that you hire someone (or ask someone) to read/edit for you who has a solid knowledge of craft.
Let me just take a moment to let that sink in.
Ready? Now listen, I understand that not everyone can hire an editor, especially if you’re in high school or college and money is tight, you may HAVE to rely on a friend or peer. But choose your readers carefully anyway. Make sure the friends or peers you ask to read for you have discerning taste in literature, or at the very least, have YOUR taste in literature. If you’ve written a book you would compare to Twilight, don’t ask your best friend to read for you when her favorite book is The Sun Also Rises. And if you’ve written another The Sun Also Rises, you probably shouldn’t ask the friend whose all-time favorite book is Twilight.
Once you’ve chosen someone to read for you, be honest about the type of feedback you’re willing to consider. Honestly, I don’t like editing for writers who aren’t interested in ALL feedback, because my mind automatically processes all the things that need work, and it’s almost impossible to turn parts of that off while leaving other parts on. This is why I prefer working on developmental edits to copyedits — people who hire me for copyedits sometimes get more than they bargained for.
But if you genuinely DON’T WANT developmental feedback, be honest about that up front so your reader doesn’t spend a lot of time putting together notes that you intend to discard anyway.
After your reader is finished and gives you his/her notes, take some time to process everything before you start defending your work. This will be harder than you imagine it to be. Your instinct will likely be to explain all the reasons you did what you did, even though it didn’t work for the reader/editor, or to go into long-winded descriptions of what you were trying to do.
Operative word here? Trying.
If your reader/editor says it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work for them, and it may very well not work for others. If you want to have a discussion about what you were trying to do in the context of how you missed the mark and what you can do to ACTUALLY make your point, that’s okay. Sometimes it’s very helpful to brainstorm possible fixes with someone who has read your work.
But here is where you need to check yourself before you wreck yourself; Do you REALLY want to have the discussion to come up with ways to fix the problem? Or is that just a way to justify a discussion in which you defend the work as it is?
It’s an important distinction.
I’ve sold ten book and six novellas now, and I STILL have to fight a knee-jerk reaction against editorial notes. I read through my Ed Letter and think, “That’s not true. I say X right here” and “It’s OBVIOUS she’s scared because of X reason.” It’s a perfectly natural reaction to criticism against something to which you’ve given your heart and soul.
But I’ve learned to let the feedback simmer for a bit. There have been very, very few times in the span of my professional writing career when I’ve started out thinking the editor was wrong and still believed they were wrong three days later. Usually the cycle post-editorial letter goes like this;
Annoyance > Disbelief > Anger > Reflection > Inspiration
I start out annoyed that my editor thinks my project has big problems, move onto denial that they are right, slide into anger that they would dare think all this stuff is wrong, ease into reflection about the truth of their feedback, and then become inspired as ideas begin coming to make the book better.
I’ve learned to save a detailed response to editorial notes for after I’ve hit the Reflection phase. Instead, my initial email response is something like; Thanks so much for your feedback! I’ll give all this some thought and get back to you with any questions.
And the truth is, edits are still terrifying after all these years. I liken it to pulling apart a giant puzzle and hoping you can make all the pieces fit back together again in a way that makes sense. There’s always a little part of me that wonders if I can really do it. But being scared isn’t a valid reason for NOT doing something that will make your book — and your writing — better. In fact (life lesson alert!), I’d say that’s true of everything in life.
What if you’re not sure about the suggested changes? What if they just don’t FEEL right in your writerly bones?
Well, ultimately the decision to change something or not to change it lies with you. Just make sure your desire to leave things as they are is TRULY rooted in the belief that the story is best served that way rather than ego or unwillingness to do the work. Questioning your editor’s credentials now is a little too convenient. You hired them/asked them to read for you because you thought they were the best person for the job (and if you didn’t, you SHOULD, see notes above). What has changed? Are they not the best person for the job because they had criticism for your work?
Hire the best person for the job, then really listen to what they have to say. That’s kind of the point, right? Because you want to be BETTER. In fact you want to get better with every book. I’m still learning, and it’s my favorite part of the process. You don’t WANT to be writing the same kind of book ten years from now that you’re writing now. You want them to get better and better and better.
The only way to make that happen is to read and write, listen and learn, and most of all, be willing to set your ego aside.
A quick checklist about the editing process;
1. Self-edit as much as possible before handing your project to someone else.
2. Choose someone who is somehow qualified to give you the best possible advice, then commit to listening to said advice.
3. Be clear about what you’re hoping to accomplish with your revision.
4. Take some time to process your editor/reader’s notes with an open mind before jumping to defend the way you’ve already done things.
5. Enter with an open mind into any project discussion with your editor/reader.
6. Be willing to do the hard work to make your book the best it can be.
Next week we’ll be covering How Do I Sell My Book? (A Step-by-Step Walk Through the Process). Hope to “see” you there!