12 November 2012

Some of the people some of the time...

I'm occasionally asked whether I would recommend self-publishing, and usually reel off a list of pros and cons, noting that it's not an either-or decision, but an option you can take without longing for the downfall of trade publishing.  I'll point out that it's fairly easy to get the books up from a technical perspective, that there's companies which will do it for you for a flat fee if you're not great with computers, and that there's no obligation to spend any time marketing (nor, indeed, any guarantee that spending any time marketing will impact your sales significantly).

Putting your work up to be either ignored or judged is a different sort of challenge, but not unique to self-publishing.

One thing which is almost guaranteed to come along with the decision to self-publish are two words: Needs Editing.

Rather too many self-publishers type their books out and throw them up raw.  Some self-edit.  Some crowd-source or trade editing with other writers.  Some hire editors, and make sure to list those editors up front and central in the book's metadata.  Sometimes those editors will be capable and talented people, and sometimes (as apparently was the case with Amanda Hocking's hired editors) not so much.

The copy-editing side of this process - eliminating typos and grammar errors and spotting continuity issues - is relatively straightforward (though even then you will find yourself coming up against grammar myths or "spelling errors" based on British/US/Australian English differences).  But it's fairly easy to say that a book has few spelling or grammar issues.*

Developmental editing - consistency of characterisation, issues with pace, recommending changing point of view, boosting the role of a character, gender-flipping the protagonist, or even altering how the book ends to produce a satisfying and powerful reading experience - all those are a little less definitive.

A developmental editor is a highly experienced reader who can push you into seeing how to make your book even better.  In their view.

Here are two reader views of the opening of Stray.

Love love loved the beginning survivalist part! And the worldbuilding was incredible, though I think some of the humor I liked so much, as well as the characterization, got a bit lost in the last half. - Wendy Darling

I really enjoyed this book. It was slow going to get into it but I'm glad I stuck it out. The story picks up momentum almost imperceptibly and after about 100 pages becomes 'unputdownable'. -
So which editor did I get?  The one who thought that beginning survivalist part was brilliant, and wanted more like it, or the one who thought that part was dull, and fell in love with the book later on?

No book is the same from one reader to the next.  No editor can polish your book to be "perfect".  Experience and personal taste will combine to produce advice which will please some of the people some of the time, and maybe even lots of people most of the time, but never ever all of the people all of the time.

This isn't a suggestion to not use editors.  Feedback on your writing is incredibly valuable, allowing you to see the book through different eyes.  But no matter how much editing your books have gone through, you will not please all of the people all of the time, and because you're self-published you will be told that your books Need Editing.

This will be un-fun at times, and possibly the person saying that is simply not one of "your readers", far more interested in action than character development, or vice versa, but it's also useful free feedback, giving you more things to look for when your next novel is going through the editing rounds.

I'll finish this off with two quotes from Diana Wynne Jones about editing.  First a positive one:

On the good side, there are enormously high standards.  None of the editors I have worked with would have accepted much in the way of clichés.  None of them have ever let me get away with any muddle in any plot, nor with any factual inaccuracy; and though some have queried things that struck them as peculiar, they have always been delighted by originality.  This naturally has put me on my mettle.  Knowing that everything I wrote was going to be subjected to extreme and shrewd scrutiny, I take pains to get the finished manuscript right, if I can.

Then a cautionary one:

I hate being edited, because my second draft is as careful as I can get it.  I try to get it absolutely mistake-free, and absolutely as I feel the book needs to be.  Then some editor comes along and says, 'Change Chapter Eight to Chapter Five, take a huge lump out of Chapter Nine, and let's cut Chapter One altogether.'  And you think, No, I'm going to hit the ceiling any moment.  Then I call for my agent before I get my hands round this person's throat.

Editors were very majestic in the days when I first started writing.  There was one who got hold of The Ogre Downstairs, and rewrote the ending entirely in her own purple prose, which was not in the least like mine, and I decided I was going to change publishers.  'No, no, no,' said my agent.  'You mustn't do that. Carry on and see if you can manage to persuade her.'  And of course I couldn't persuade her.  And then Charmed Life: I know by the time I'd done the second draft it was absolutely perfect, it really, really was, I mean just as it is at this moment, you know.  And this woman rang me up and wrote to me and told me exactly this sort of thing: 'You must take out this chunk and that chunk and rewrite this and alter that,' and I was furious.  And I thought surely we can do something about this.  And thank God it was the days before computers.  I said, 'Send me the typescript back and I'll see what I can do.'  So she did, and I cut out the bits she told me to alter, in irregular jagged shapes, then stuck them back in exactly the same place with Sellotape, only crooked, so it looked as if I'd taken pieces out and put new pieces in.  And then I sent it back to her, and she rang up and said, 'Oh, your alterations have made such a difference.'  And I thought, 'Right! Hereafter I will take no notice of anybody who tries to edit my books.' And I don't,  I make a frightful fuss if anybody tries to, now. - Reflections on the Magic of Writing.
An editor can be a very useful person to have on your side.  But they're not a magical guarantee of perfection, and they're not unique to trade publishing.  Always listen to, then weigh and evaluate any feedback on your writing.  And don't let the 'slings and arrows' get you down.  A small press editor once told me that it simply wasn't possible for a self-published book to be as good as a trade published book, but I've yet to hear a believable argument as to why this should be.

* I've never put a book out which didn't have a typo (still waiting for someone to spot one in And All the Stars, but it's sure to come), but I'm at around 99.5% correct and aiming for better.


  1. I will fence-sit and equivocate as usual: I can see both sides. I think this is just one of those cases where a writer has to know the difference between self-confidence and delusional arrogance. And that kind of self-interrogation is nigh impossible if you're on the wrong side of the line.

    If the story is right and events build logically and there are no hanging plot threads or inexplicable character changes or appearances of the horrible expression "off of" or what have you, then it's possible that even a good editor will not have much to add. But I would argue that a good one (in my limited experience) should be challenging the writer to step their game up and make sure that the more elements of the novel - structure, pacing, theme, tone etc - are all in service of making the story as good as it can be.

    Technically I don't think you need an editor for any of this, as long as you have well-educated, literate readers who are capable of clarity in communicating where they think a problem exists. But what is absolutely essential is that the writer is capable of listening to criticism and processing it. Even if they don't agree with the specific issue cited, the fact that a problem seems to exist should provoke a second look to make sure they haven't miscommunicated or missed something.

    One purpose I think an editor can serve is to point out the motes in the author's eye and to provide the external motivation to correct them. I doubt that self-publishers with the patience and self-discipline to painstakingly root out plot errors, poor language and clunky structures are in the majority - because I suspect those qualities are rare amongst all writers (and people in general). If they serve no other purpose, editors at least provide the carrot and/or stick to get authors to finish the job properly.

    And yeah, there are no guarantees: we've all read the professionally edited books with gaping plotholes and excessive overuse of adverbs. Publishers oft protest too much. But with the low bar to entry for self-publishing, I don't think it ever hurts to reinforce the idea that the writer is not always the best judge of their own genius. There's way too much slurry out there, and the awfulness ratio is still pretty high in the self-pubbed arena.

    I'm sure I don't need to add that I think you are an exception - but I do think you're a remarkably uncommon example.

    * I think I found a typo in AAtS but I forgot to mark it, and then because I didn't spot any others I didn't bother going back to look for it.

  2. Crikey, I didn't realise I'd gone on so long. Sorry!

  3. Hi—I looked up your blog, and saw on November 12 a mention that readers so far hadn’t given you the heads up on any proofer’s glitches in And All the Stars. That gave me a great excuse to read it again, as I loved the book with much love! But my eye did trip, so . . . here I am.

    I know that there are differences between UK and US spelling and grammar, so I didn’t mark things like further/farther (in U.S. ‘further’ = degree, as in furthermore, and ‘farther’ = distance, as in “I drove farther today”) or that/which (in US, ‘which’ only comes after a comma, as in ‘The door that opened…’ or ‘The door, which opened, was . . .’. Also not marked were comma splices, as I’ve seen many of them in UK books.

    Since ebooks don’t have pages, here’s the entire line, or most of it. And I only did the first five chapters or so, in case this is just annoying and not helpful.

    Shaking, staring down at the tinted water draining away, Madeleine’s attention was caught by her feet, narrow in strappy sandals. [dangling modifier, unless M’s attention is able to shake and stare]

    Below were a profusion of jewel-toned scarves, glimmering gowns and plenty of the skinny jeans and shirtdresses he was commonly photographed in. [profusion is singular, so ‘was a profusion’]

    “I came here to paint you Tyler.” [comma after you]

    “I have a great view of the Nguyen’s retriever.” [Nguyens’]

    ‘blonde’ used as noun for boy, and then again as adjective—isn’t it blond? (Though this one gets mixed up in US, now, too)

    “I guess so long as we stay in the city centre we won’t have to worry about that,” Madeleine. “Everyone . . .” [tag missing after Madeleine]

    Noi and Madeleine rapped on doors until their knuckles were sore, and then they used the blunt end of the keys, their shouts hello becoming cursory . . . [of hello? “Hello?” ?]

    Ione at Ionescribens@gmail.com

  4. Ooh, thank you! Will schedule an update! :)


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