I got to thinking about this the other day after I talked to a freelance editor about working on my book. These days everybody says you need to hire an editor to fix up your book before you send it to agents and publishers. Critique groups are good, but you need to hire a pro to look at the whole book to help you shape it, cut the fat and find the “narrative arc.” Or so they say.
Years ago, an editor helped me with one of my previous books, and it was good. So I thought I’d try it again.
But here’s the problem. The editor I talked to charges $100 an hour. She thinks it would take 10 to 20 hours to do the job, which is only to look at the big picture, not to do any actual editing on syntax and sentences. That’s $1,000 to $2,000, for those who can’t do math without their calculators. I’m sure she’d do a great job, but that’s a lot of money. Her rates are on the high side. Others might charge less, but it’s still quite an investment. Check out this chart from the Editorial Freelancers Association.
My previous editor was expensive, $700, I think, but she did everything, from the big picture to the typos. If she edited the kind of book I’m working on now, I’d try her again.
It used to be that editors at publishing houses took your shapeless but promising manuscript and helped you rewrite it until it was perfect. That’s what happened with my book Stories Grandma Never Told, published by Heyday Books a few years back. The editor helped me make it much better, and I didn’t have to pay for the privilege. In fact, they paid me. Now, apparently editors at larger publishing houses don’t so much edit the books as advocate for them with the marketing folks.
So does this mean that unless you can afford to spend thousands on editing, you’re never going to get into a major publishing house? I pray to God it’s not true.
The cost of editing might explain why so many less-than-stellar books are self-published these days. And why we see so many typos in our books. Most of us think our books are fine after we finish our own revisions. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t, but I can’t believe we have to spend so much money to find out. Let’s go back to the critique group idea. Maybe we could trade manuscripts with each other to get the big picture view. You read my book, I’ll read yours, and we’ll compare notes.
I started out to write about the cost of being a writer. Editing is certainly not the only cost. Let me take a peek at my expense charts. The main expenses:
- Postage to mail my published books at $2.72 apiece via media mail. As for submissions, I rarely submit anything by snail mail these days so that cost has gone down considerably, but then there are . . .
- Submission fees. Not every publication charges a fee to submit, but more and more of them do, even ones that only pay in copies. It may be only $3 or $5, but it adds up, especially when I’m also paying . . .
- Contest entry fees. These keep getting higher. Most are $15 or more. I have seen book competitions with $40 fees.
- Internet-related fees. You’ve got to keep the Wi-Fi going, and it isn’t free. You may pay for a website or domain name (I have several). WordPress charges $18 for those domain names and that’s not even a premium account.
- Office supplies and office equipment, including computer gear, tablets and phones.
- Business cards, brochures and other printed matter.
- Professional memberships at $30 to $300 a year.
- Books and other publications (you don’t want to know how much I spend on this)
- Education: University degrees, conferences, workshops, etc. are not cheap.
You can keep your writing low budget, but not as much as in the days when all you needed was a pencil and some paper, envelopes and postage stamps. You can refuse to submit to contests with entry fees or publications that charge submission fees. You can skip the domain names and paid websites. You can get all of your reading material at the library or buy only used books. You can trade critiques with friends. But alas, being a writer is not free. Neither is anything else, however, whether you’re an artist, a quilter, a gardener or a golfer. If you love it, you find a way to pay for it.
I’ll figure out what to do about the book. Meanwhile, it didn’t cost me anything to put these words on the screen, and it doesn’t cost you anything to read them. Isn’t that wonderful?
Let’s go write.
The old stereotype shows writers sitting alone in their garrets writing for hours, avoiding people while the bills and the trash pile up—and maybe the empty whiskey bottles, too. But is that really where it’s at? I don’t even have a garret.
I ask this because it came up at our board meeting for Writers on the Edge, which puts on the Nye Beach Writers Series in Newport Oregon. We are running out of volunteers. Even though writers and fans claim to love what we do, nobody seems to want to commit to working on the team that makes it happen.
In wondering why it’s so hard to get volunteers, some of the board speculated that it’s because writers are lone wolves. But are they? Writers are always asking me as president of WOE where they can hang out with other writers. They want to chat, they want critiques, they want to just set their laptops side by side and work. They need that extra push of someone caring whether or not they write to make them put words on the page. Some want classes, many want deadlines.
I read online recently about a group of women that meet to submit their work. Side by side with their laptops, they pound out their manuscripts, queries, and cover letters. Every time someone hits send, they all celebrate. This is similar to the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) write-ins that happen all over the country in November. I have not attended these. I prefer to write in silence. Also, I speak my words as I type them, which would no doubt drive the others crazy. But if you would like to write with other writers, you don’t have to wait until November. Invite somebody for a writing date.
I prefer to produce my rough drafts and do major edits alone, but I don’t like to be alone all the time. I enjoy the company of other writers, and I love the extra push from workshops and write-ins where everybody’s writing at once. Over the years, critique groups have been very helpful. Several of the most successful writers I know, including Chuck Palahniuk, Cheryl Strayed, Chelsea Cain and Lidia Yuknavitch, are part of a Thursday night writers group in Portland, Oregon that meets regularly for no-holds-barred critiques. I have no doubt that their association has helped them write better and get published sooner.
You may or may not like writing with other people around. I did it for years as a newspaper reporter and editor, so I know it’s totally possible to write elbow to elbow with other writers writing, phones ringing, police radios squawking, and people coming in and out. When you’re facing a deadline, you just do it. Now, I enjoy the peace and quiet, but I can write and have written anywhere.
I’m shy about reaching out to other people, but I do think we need other people once we hack out our early drafts. At some point, we need someone else to look at what we have written and tell us what works and what doesn’t. When we get stuck, they can help us find a way out. We also need someone to tell us it’s worth doing and urge us to keep going, especially when we’re getting nothing but rejections.
And when it comes to submitting our work, dealing with queries, cover letters, and sharing market information, it really helps to have friends to talk to, even if it’s only on Facebook.
The connections we can make with other writers are pure gold. Through my activities with California Writers, Willamette Writers and Writers on the Edge, I have met big-name writers, editors and publishers. I mean, they know who I am and what I write. They can help me with my career. If nothing else, they make me feel as if I am a real writer and my big success is just around the corner.
So are writers really loners? Not any more than the rest of the population. Have you noticed how many of us are on Facebook, Twitter and other social media? Quite a few writers I know prefer to write in coffee shops and other public places. You do have to put those words on the screen by yourself, but when you’re done, back away from the computer and find another human being to talk to. It’s healthy.
And if you live on the Central Oregon Coast, we sure could use your help with the Nye Beach Writers series. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are we loners? Are you? I welcome your comments. The comment link is at the top of the page just below the “tags.”
Now let’s go write.
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.
Last week when I wrote about how to tell when your novel is done, I mentioned my critique group and their reactions to my manuscript. You may have noticed other authors talking about their groups or thanking them on the acknowledgements pages of their published books. And you may be thinking: I don’t have a group, I have no idea how to get one, and it’s lonely out here.
I hear you. Good critique groups are not easy to find, especially if you live out in the boonies like I do. If you happen to be in a college creative writing program or taking a workshop, you might have a chance to critique each other’s work, but that’s only a temporary fix, and these might not even be the people you want to have reading your work. The ideal critique group is long-lasting, local, and small enough that every writer gets the attention he or she needs, but big enough to offer varied opinions. The members share a similar level of skill and experience, and they understand what you’re trying to do with your writing. They stick to a regular schedule and a consistent process that works.
How do you find such a group? That’s where networking comes in. Most writers would rather just write. Too bad. There are many steps between the writer and reading world, and you need other people to get there. Here’s what you do:
* Join a local or regional writing organization. Here in Oregon, I belong to Willamette Writers and Writers on the Edge. We also have Oregon Writers Colony. In California, I belonged to the California Writers Club, which has branches all over the state. Most states have their own writing organizations. A quick Internet search will surely find you a group. You can find a great list of genre-specific groups at http://www.writersrelief.com/writers-associations-organizations.
* Go to writing events. Look for readings, open mics, workshops and conferences where you can meet other writers.
* Get involved. Join the board, volunteer, offer to bring cookies, read your work at the open mic, talk to people. Writers are inherently shy, but if you get yourself an official job to do, it’s a lot easier to meet people.
* Ask people about critique groups. Do they know of one that could use another member? Would they like to start one with you? If there’s a newsletter, submit a notice that you’re looking for a critique group. Our group was born one night before a Willamette Writers program when three of us were having dinner together and discovered we were all looking for a critique group. We set a date, started meeting, added a couple more members, and have been meeting every other Tuesday since then. When I lived in California, I was invited by a fellow member of California Writer’s Club to join her group.
Not every group succeeds. You may need to try different combinations of people. It helps if you’re all working on similar types of writing. In my group, we’re all doing novels or memoirs right now. Another group I know does nothing but poetry. And you need to set up a process. Where and when will you meet? Will you read passages out loud or distribute copies before the meeting? Our group sends up to 10 pages by email a few days before the meeting so members arrive having already read and marked up their copies. We go clockwise around the table giving our comments while the author listens and takes notes. We talk about what works and what doesn’t and about where the story is going. We discuss issues like flashbacks, point of view and plot. It’s painful when a friend says, “No, this section doesn’t work,” but it makes our work much stronger in the long run.
It’s not essential to meet in person. You can exchange critiques around the world by computer, adding comments and corrections with the “track changes” function in Word. You could even meet via Skype or Google Hangout. You can also join existing online critique sites such as the Critique Circle, where you earn critiques for your work by commenting on other members’ work. I belonged for a long time, and it was helpful. But there’s something about meeting face to face, working through the pages of your work together, that really does make it stronger.
We writers would like to think we don’t need anyone else. But we do. We cannot be objective about our own work, and we will never see it as a reader sees it. We need a critique group.
But of course there’s nothing to critique until you write it.
So now go write.
It was the fifth total revision—I think. I got to the end of my novel, sat back with a sigh, then posted on Facebook that I was finished, ready to share that book with the world. My friends congratulated me. But my critique group was still about 50 pages from the end, and I hadn’t heard their comments yet. We met Tuesday. Bill and Theresa liked it, but wanted a few minor changes. “Tough Shit Dorothy” hated it. HATED it. No, you can’t have your protagonist do that. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The story ends here, not there.
But I was done, wasn’t I? Maybe not. Critiques spread out around my computer, I went into the file and tweaked some things. Better. Maybe now it was done. But my friends’ comments had gotten into my head. Doubts crowded in. Do I need this section at all? Should I cut this? Expand this? Does my main character suffer enough? Dagnabbit, I just sent out my first queries on this book. I’m ready to move on to another project, but maybe I’m not really done. I got so flummoxed I set it aside and went for a walk in the rain.
When you bake a cake, it’s easy to tell when it’s done. If it’s not fully cooked, it will be wet inside, but if it’s ready, you can poke it with a toothpick, and the toothpick comes out clean. You can press it with the tip of your finger, and it bounces back. You could cook it another minute or two, but it might burn, and nobody likes a burnt cake.
So how do you get your book to that place between soggy in the middle and burnt, to where the toothpick comes out clean? I have no magic answers, but I have learned a few things in the course of publishing six other books.
* No book is ready on the first draft. No matter how good a writer you are or how inspired you feel while writing it, you have to go back and revise. Everyone makes mistakes. With a book the length of a novel, you’re bound to find inconsistencies, places where you’ve said too much or too little, and things that need to change in view of discoveries you made along the way. Details and names may have changed. One of my characters is on her fourth name.
* After a while, we authors can’t see our own mistakes. We’ve got to have someone else look at it. We need other people, writers, editors or wise readers–not your spouse or your mother–who can come to the book with clear minds and who don’t know what we’re trying to say, only what we have said.
* If you’re not sure about something, mark it and come back later. Go for a walk, then look at it again. When you cut a section of your book, save it in another file, just in case you change your mind.
* Writing novels is not a race. You do not have to finish in a month or even a year. Perhaps you drafted a book in 30 days during NaNoWriMo. Bravo. Now take at least twice that much time to revise it. No one can say exactly how many revisions it will take. Revise until it’s no longer soggy in the middle and stop before it gets burnt.
* Sometimes it helps to stop reading fiction by other authors while you revise your own. That way, your story is the only story in your head.
* If you self-publish, you need an editor. Yes, even you.
* Even if a traditional publishing house buys your book, you need to revise and proofread like crazy. Today’s publishers spend less time on editing and proofreading than they used to. Any error in the manuscript is likely to show up in the published book. Be prepared to do some more revising for the agent and editor before the book is finally published.
So is my novel done yet? Almost. I woke up this morning knowing that what I have written is good. The house smells like sugar and vanilla, so we’re getting close. I can’t wait to frost it and serve it up.
Now go write.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. While the other comments on this section of my novel-in-progress had been filled with compliments, this reader hated what I had written. No goals, no point, desultory, she said. (I had to look that word up later. It means sluggish, pointless, marked by a lack of progress). The heroine is too whiny, she said, and the problems aren’t bad enough to care.
Seriously? But the others thought it was great. I thought it was great. We’re two-thirds of the way through the book. It’s too late to change anything. Isn’t it?
It’s a good thing we have a rule that the person whose work is being critiqued must remain silent. You can’t argue or defend your work. You just listen.
The tough critic handed me my pages covered with notes. My first reaction was: she’s crazy. She doesn’t understand what I’m doing. She’s just being mean. She’s been to too many workshops.
The next day, when I spread the critiques across my desk, opened the file on my computer and got ready to revise, I discovered that the harsh critique was the one I used the most. All those compliments and smiley faces felt good, but they didn’t give me anything to work with. The penciled criticisms scrawled all over the margins offered something to think about. Taking them one at a time, I saw what my friend was trying to tell me. I made some changes, not as many as she wanted, but I did make changes, and I think the story is stronger for them.
There will be more crushing critiques before this novel is done. They will hurt. They will make me mad. They will force me to tear into sections of the book I thought were finished. But better now than when it’s in the hands of a publisher. Better now than not at all, leaving me to hear it from unhappy readers and reviewers.
Critiques are hard, but they’re necessary. We absolutely cannot view our own work the way the reader will. It’s sort of like the physical therapy I’m having on my injured elbow these days. It hurts. I dread these sessions. But I know I have to go through the pain to make my elbow strong and fully functional. And I need to go through the pain of having someone else read my book and tell me what they don’t like or don’t understand so I can fix it and make it the best book it can be.
When I was in grad school, my mentor used to give me manuscripts so marked up with his comments that I couldn’t see my own words. I cursed and cried and threatened to quit. Every time. But I had to do the rewrite. I wanted my MFA degree. So I got to work, and it made my writing stronger.
So how do you handle a tough critique? You nod, take notes and put it away. Let it simmer. Let the initial pain subside. Cuss a little. Cry if you need to. Then take the comments one at a time and consider them. If one person in a group says something negative that nobody else agrees with, maybe they’re wrong. If only one person finds a passage confusing, maybe they’re idiots. You’re welcome to ignore their comments. It’s your story. But maybe there’s some wisdom to what they’re saying. Maybe it is a little confusing. Maybe that character is a bit whiny and self-centered. Maybe that clever dialogue is not moving the plot along. Maybe it is desultory. But now you have a chance to reconsider what you wrote. You have a chance to fix it. Now you can thank your friend for making you a better writer.
Finding the right people to critique your work isn’t easy. I have been in other groups that weren’t nearly as helpful. You need to have similar skills and goals. A year ago this month, I was having dinner with two friends before a meeting of our local Willamette Writers chapter. We discovered we were all looking for a critique group. We looked at each other and said, hey, let’s form our own. We started meeting every other Tuesday at the library. We soon added another friend. Our critiques are tough, a lot like my physical therapy sessions. I come out needing a drink. But at every meeting they save me from my mistakes, mistakes I would never have seen on my own.
If you’re writing articles, you probably won’t have time for critiques, but in creative writing, it’s essential to have someone else read your work. You can’t see your own words the way a reader will.
You can’t critique what isn’t written.
So now go write.
The book I’m reading right now demonstrates everything novelists should NOT do. How I wish we were reading this in my critique group so we could help the author make it better. But it’s too late. She has already published it. I’m not going to even hint at the name of the author or the title of her book. I had read another of her books previously, and it had some of the same problems, but they weren’t so blatant.
If this book is so bad, why am I still reading it? Well, I kind of want to know what’s going to happen. Also, after the heavy books I’ve read recently, it’s easy on the brain.
What is the author doing wrong? Sigh. So many things that Theresa, Angelique, Bill, “Tough Shit” Dorothy and I would tear apart in our group.
Let’s start with the little things. When you’re writing dialogue, and the next line is someone else speaking or doing something, you start a new paragraph. Always. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten tripped up in this book, thinking one character is doing or saying something and it turns out to be the other.
You need to spell everything right and use correct grammar. That should be obvious, but I have found errors in almost every book I have read lately.
We have more than little nits to pick here. We have big bugaboos.
First, the characters. They are all cliches, people I have seen in countless books and movies before. We’ve got two brothers, one good, one evil, an Irish maid who is all “sure and begorra,” and young women who are prissy and helpless to the point I want to slap them. Yes, this takes place in the 1800s, but still, when our lead character bursts into tears or gets faint at a harsh word or the sight of a bare leg, Lord have mercy. I want to see real people who are so distinct I feel as if I know them. These people are just cardboard cutouts to me.
Our lead characters are not supposed to be helpless victims. I can’t get behind a woman who gets the vapors all the time and makes stupid decisions, ones that she wouldn’t make if she had a speck of common sense. We need heroes with some guts.
We also need to be realistic. People rarely meet and decide two weeks later that they’re ready to get married. The process of falling in love and being sure you want to be together for life takes longer; it’s more complicated than a few walks through the garden exchanging pleasantries.
Second, the author’s research appears shallow and obvious. I can just see how she looked up the era’s popular songs and books and plopped them into her story. Then she read a piece on a major event occurring at that time and happened to have her characters involved. You CAN use real events. It can be very effective, but here, it’s just obviously stuck in. Immerse yourself in your setting so thoroughly that the writing becomes natural and your readers feel as if they’re really there without having to force the connection.
Third, the book suffers from inconsistencies. If you say A at the beginning of the chapter, you need to stick with A or guide us into B. If your heroine was outside talking to someone a second ago, how can she be inside cooking dinner now unless you take us there? The readers can’t see what’s in your head unless you write it out for them.
Years ago, at a conference where I gave a talk on print-on-demand publishing, a famous agent told me he believes that authors who rush to self-publish their work often fail to do the last big revision, to give it the final polish that would come via the editor when you work with a traditional publishing house. It’s almost there, he said. If only they would give it a little more time. I think he’s right in many cases.
If you are going to publish your own work, that’s fine. I’ve done it several times. But hire a professional editor or at least run it through a critique group that can help you see the problems that you can’t see by yourself. Don’t hurry into print without being sure it’s as good as you can possibly make it. Don’t make the reader roll her eyes as she reads words that aren’t quite ready for prime time.