I can’t wait to start reading my friend’s first novel. I happily empty my wallet to buy an autographed copy. I inhale the new book smell and flip through all those pages looking forward to what I expect to be a wonderful experience. I brew a cup of tea, settle into my comfortable chair with the dog at my side and turn to Chapter One.
That’s when I realize the writing is bad. Really bad. By page three, I still don’t know what’s going on. My critique group would tear it to pieces. Bill would say he doesn’t get it. Dorothy would cross out most of the pages, saying it’s not interesting, it doesn’t go anywhere. I’d ask for scenes, for specifics, and for dialogue that sounds the way people really talk. I would note the many grammatical errors, the mismatched modifiers and the typos. We would send the author back to his computer to start over.
But it’s already a published book. It’s going out into the world as is. Book-signings, publication parties and readings have been scheduled. It’s too late. Where was the editor? How could he or she let this book go out into the world this way?
Another author sends his book to me via Kindle, asking for a review. By the end, I’m so frustrated I’d throw it across the room, except I don’t want to break my Kindle. It has bad characters and bad dialogue. It raises questions that are never answered. I vow to never read another book by this author.
The next one, also an e-book, has good content, but the writing and the typos make it painful to read.
I turn to an old classic for some literary relief. I have two more new books to read and review, but I can’t stand it anymore.
You know what makes me even more nuts? These authors get their friends to offer five-star reviews that make them sound like Pulitzer Prize winners. I read them and think: Did they read the same book that I read? Do readers just not know the difference anymore?
These books are self-published. They give self-publishing a bad name. After a while, even though I have self-published some of my own books, I check the copyright page, see that a book is self-published and don’t want to read it.
The problem is two-fold. First, everybody needs an editor. No matter how good a writer you are, you can’t see your own mistakes. You can’t back away from the story and see the big picture. Your brain is programmed to see what you want it to see. Start with a critique group. It hurts to have people point out your writing flaws, but it helps so much in improving your writing, so get your work critiqued before you publish it. Run it by some non-writer readers, too. See if they react the way you hope they will, laughing at the funny parts, loving the characters, getting wrapped up in the story. If they don’t, you need work on it some more.
Before you self-publish a book, get it professionally edited. It can cost quite a lot—over a thousand dollars in some cases—but it can make the difference between a well-written book and one that needs work. As I read recently in a brilliant article by Russell Blake called “How to Sell Loads of Books,” “If you’re too cheap or too broke to pay an editor, barter something of value to get someone qualified to do it, or (gasp, here’s an idea) save some money so you can do it right. Skip these steps and you won’t sell much, if anything. Or if you do, it won’t last very long, because word will spread, and then you’re dead.”
Of course, not everyone who calls herself an editor is a good one. Ask for recommendations from writer friends, get referrals from the acknowledgements of books you admire, or check the Editorial Freelancers Association.
The second problem, a deeper and more difficult one, is that people are putting out books when they haven’t laid the groundwork for a writing career. It’s like some guy who wants to be an electrician expecting to rewire the White House without having taken any classes or served an apprenticeship. Good writers spend years working on their craft. They take classes and workshops, earn degrees, read the works of the masters, and write reams of prose or poetry that never gets published. Like pianists practicing their scales, they practice their craft and never stop learning. They don’t dash out 60,000 raw words and start designing the cover. They spend years revising and polishing.
Yes, with today’s technology, anyone can write a book and publish it. You can do everything yourself or pay one of the many companies offering to give birth to your book—no matter how bad it is or how unready it is for publication. Years ago, I talked to Donald Maas, agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, about print-on-demand publishing. With POD, all the rage at the turn of this century, companies like iUniverse and Xlibris would publish your books but not print them until orders came in. They offered marketing help for extra fees but no editing. What you sent them was what got published. Now with e-books and Amazon’s CreateSpace program, you can put out your books for free. There’s nothing wrong with that if they’re truly ready for publication.
Maas said most self-published authors don’t take the time for that last much-needed rewrite. There are a lot of good reasons writers avoid the big publishing conglomerates these days. The competition is fierce, and it can take years for a book to be published, but for God’s sake, don’t jump into print (or cyberprint) until your book is the best it can possibly be. Don’t make me want to throw it across the room.
And if you haven’t developed your craft or gotten your book edited, please don’t ask me to review it. No matter how pretty the cover is or how much I want to say good things, if I see problems with your book, I’m going to tell the truth. You have to earn your stars from me.
Now go write.
So you’ve decided to publish your own book. Excellent choice. You will have control over every aspect of the project, from writing to sales, and you will see your book in print within months instead of the year or more it can take with a traditional publisher. Now, roll up your sleeves; you’ve got a lot of work to do.
The most important thing is to write the best book you can. That means writing and rewriting until it’s ready, no matter how long it takes. There’s no point in worrying about cover art or advertising if you don’t have a good book to sell.
Aside from writing the book, the next most important thing is good editing. You may think you can edit your book yourself. You may even be a professional editor. I am, but I still hired an editor to look at Childless by Marriage before I published it. With her input, I wound up doing a major rewrite, but she also gave me the confidence to know this book was worth publishing.
No writer can see her own work the way other people perceive it. We’re too close to it. A good editor can see the book as a whole, noting things that are missing or that don’t fit, marking bad transitions, thoughts that are not complete, places where our egos cloud our writing, etc. She can also find our typos, misspellings and grammar gaffes. You think you can do this yourself, but you can’t. It’s like a doctor trying to cure himself or a lawyer representing himself in court.
I found my editor through a book she had written about writing. When I discovered she did editing, I hired her. It wasn’t cheap—approximately $1,200–but it was worth it. We worked both online and on paper. She sent me my book marked up with corrections and also sent a long detailed letter with her suggestions and corrections, just the way an editor in a publishing house does.
If you Google “book editors,” you’ll find dozens of listings, but anyone can call himself an editor. Check with professional writing and publishing organizations in your area. Look in the acknowledgements of books you admire. Use your social networks, such as Facebook, to get recommendations. Before you commit to working with someone, check their credentials. What is their training? What else have they edited? Most reputable editors will do a sample section so you can both decide whether you want to work together. If they balk at this, move on.
Here’s a great article by C.S. Lakin, “4 Ways to Find the Right Freelance Editor.” Read it and follow directions.
There are other ways to get editing help that don’t cost money. Many writers I know trust their work to writing groups in which they critique each other’s work. The trick is to find a group with the necessary skills and knowledge of the genre in which you’re writing, but this can work very well. One can find critique groups online as well as in person.
If your work contains specialized jargon or sections in another language, you may want to ask experts to help you make sure you get it right. With my novel Azorean Dreams, for example, I asked several Portuguese speakers, including a professor of the language, to check my Portuguese dialogue. Good thing they did. My rudimentary Portuguese contained a lot of errors.
We all have doubts about our writing. Even if we have published a dozen other books, we worry about whether the new one is any good. Your editor can help you make sure that it is.
What comes after editing? Find out in next week’s post.