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Ensuring Your Book Is All That It Can be

Selling Your Writing In Thirteen Weeks -- Week 7

So you maggots think you're novels! So you maggots think you're novels!

This is important whether you’re going the “new, new indie” or the traditionally published route. The level to which you want your manuscript bullet-proofed might be different, but you should still have someone look over your story before sending it in.

Yes, I know, the big houses are supposed to do their own editing, checking and proofreading, just like the big newspapers are supposed to have layers and layers of fact checkers. Don’t count on it.

The quality of the editing you get is proportional to their hopes of your selling really well, which in turn is proportional to the size of your advance.

That means if your advance is under ten thousand dollars (and most advances are) you cannot expect your book to get more than a cursory look by someone who finished college last year, and whose most notable reading – let alone editing – achievement was devouring Fifty Shades of Gray at one sitting.

But the more important thing, if your advance is ten thousand or less, is that copy-editing for punctuation and typos might be the only editing you get.

And this is a problem, because no matter how good you are, how smart you are, or how carefully you researched your subject, in the middle of the book, your brain is going to do something utterly bizarre and you’re going to reverse the name of two towns; you’re going to introduce a technology that didn’t exist at the time, or you’re going to forget the color of your character’s eyes… or remember it wrong.

Now how much you spend depends on what you expect to be paid, whether you’re going indie or traditional, what your expectations are of the book and well… who you know.

It also is important that you know what you’re paying for – and what the person reading is supposed to do for you.

So, let’s take this thing in order –

You’ve finished a novel. Good for you! I suppose if it’s your first novel, I can’t prevent you from letting your mom read it. (Unless you’re like me. I give thanks daily that mom can’t speak/read English.)

That’s fine. Just don’t take it seriously. Your mom, unless your mom is a published author in that genre and notoriously mean (ask my kids) in critique, is not an appropriate judge of marketability or how publishers/the market will react to your story.

The first thing you should do is find what we call in the field “beta readers.” This comes from software, where they have beta testers. Every writer should have beta readers. Yes, I know that this can be a problem. Way back almost thirty years ago, as a young author, I had trouble finding three people who knew enough about the genre I was trying to break in and who were willing to read my book. Which was a pity because I desperately needed a reality check.

Sometimes your reality check bounces. Sometimes your reality check bounces.

That is what your beta readers are, most of all – a reality check.  Tell your beta readers not to worry about copyedits (or that’s all you get) but to concentrate on whether the story makes sense, catches them, and fits the genre.

The reality check works on two levels: first, you just spent at the very least months working on this story. You’re too close to see if it comes across as you wanted it to. If you’re a Putter-Inner like me (meaning you add things as you revise) you might have destroyed the story line and not be aware of it.

The second level is to see if your story fits the genre conventions and is not reinventing the wheel. My husband, who is more patient and a better person than I am and who reads more than I do – mostly due to having more time – often picks up free books on offer from Amazon. He then proceeds to make comments while reading, and to ask me to read the more egregious portions.

Nine out of ten of the worst offenders in books are clearly people who are reinventing the wheel. Say, someone writing science fiction as though no one has ever written an alien race before; someone writing fantasy as though no one ever wrote magic before; or someone writing romance as though they’d never met a live human being.

Every genre has certain things you don’t need to explain, because everyone gets it. No reader of science fiction, unless he’s three years old, needs a lexicon to explain “Spaceship.” (Yes, there are books with this type of lexicons.) And if you start your book with a disquisition on alien linguistics, the average science fiction reader is going to be mighty upset if there are no aliens in the rest of the book.

Betas must have two characteristics: they must be voracious readers; they must read in the genre you’re trying to write.

Both are very important because a lot of our “how a story is put together” is subconscious, as is our knowledge of genre conventions.

Unless you’re deliberately trying to hit a retro market, they should be readers of recent stuff, too. For instance, any reader of romance who only reads pre-seventies romance (me, me!) is likely to tell you that you’re writing porn if you give her something that’s targeted at today’s market.

Beta readers aren’t usually paid. That means you should have at least ten, if you want to get answers from six. Inevitably, someone’s llama will get sick and someone will have to wash her hair. Don’t be offended if you don’t hear back. Mostly it’s real life interfering. But also some people are bad at reading things when they’re told to. Let it go.

When you get the results back – supposing that all six don’t tell you “Good Lord, you think that’s a novel?” – ignore anything only one or even two readers mention. (Unless it’s something like “from chapter four on, you have duplicate cars,” which I did in one book and only one beta reader – Hi Francis! – got.) Unless three agree it’s not worth considering. Of course, if all six agree (and you’re sure they haven’t talked to each other) you definitely should consider the change.

Take your betas' background into account before accepting all their recommendations.  For instance, this beta is a fish. Take your betas' background into account before accepting all their recommendations. For instance, this beta is a fish.

Okay, so your betas should have got you past the “Ew. The scene where he eats live bunnies is going to gross out everyone.”

The book you have should be reasonably coherent, fit the genre and be at the very least an okay read. (Important at this point is not doing EVERYTHING each beta recommends. No, trust me, I’ve tried that. It’s not good.)

Now depending on how confident you are about the book, and what the problems are your betas flagged, you might need a “structural” editor.

This is only needed if all your betas came back and said something like “I fell asleep during the duel.”

Also, be careful about using this, because writing is much easier than revising. If you take your book to a structural editor, he/she might recommend stuff you simply don’t know how to do. If it’s minor things, it’s better to let them go as is. No book is perfect. If it’s something major and you’re a relatively new writer, you might consider letting the book sit and writing something else.

However, this level of edit – which we can also just call “getting it looked at by an editor” – will also check your historical facts, your technology, your lore… whatever else you need checked.

This is a very expensive step which is another reason for skipping it. (In which case make sure you have some friends who are experts in the field – technology, or lore, or whatever you use in your book -- read it.)

Good editors – of the level that the publishing houses give to best sellers – can charge a hundred dollars per ten thousand words.

For a lot of writers, either first time authors or indie, this step could easily cost you a third of your advance. (First novel advances are often only three thousand dollars.) And if you’re going indie, your income is likely to come in a trickle. A steady trickle, but a trickle nonetheless.

The other reason to skip this step, particularly if you’re new, is that you might take what the editor says as gospel. You must have enough experience to weigh their recommendations against your writing and reading experience. You should also know the person or have enough references to know if they’re throwing a fit over a pink alien it’s probably just that they hate pink anything in any book.

It is cheaper to get a book copy edited. There, the cost is around $20 per ten thousand words (though I sometimes find people willing to do it for $10. You should, under no circumstances, skip the copy-edit.)

You see nothing – absolutely nothing – pops someone out of a narrative like a malapropism. And if you’re going traditional they can and do take typos as reasons to reject. If you lose their attention, you’ve lost the sale. If you’re going indie and have too many mistakes, people will just assume you’re not very experienced and you’ll have to work twice as hard to make them believe in your world.

shutterstock_89857477 Your cat is not a disinterested editor. He's in it for the tuna!

Some things to consider before hiring a copy editor: this cannot be just a grammar/punctuation maven. In fact, often people who call themselves that are operating according to a highly idiosyncratic and restrictive grammar code. Yes, the person should know grammar and punctuation. But he or she must also work in the field you’re trying to work in. A non-fiction editor can kill a fiction book, and someone who normally edits thrillers could destroy a heroic fantasy. Before you let someone copyedit you, ask them what they’ve done before. Talk to the people they’ve edited. See how much it helped those other people – and perhaps buy a book or two and see this person’s work in action.

Also, after you get the copyedits, do not take them as gospel. There is a lot of variation, for instance in the frequency of commas. It doesn’t mean they’re right and you’re wrong. Also, read carefully. Sometimes their edits reveal you weren’t very clear to begin with. (i.e. they thought you were trying to say something completely different.)

So, those are the three – or at a minimum two – layers of scrutiny your book should go through. At a bare minimum, you should have trustworthy beta readers and a decent copy editor – whether you’re going indie or submitting to the publishers.

If you’re truly strapped for cash, find another strapped-for-cash indie who will exchange this work. If it’s a fair exchange, both of you will put in the detail work necessary to really proof someone else’s work. And both of you will benefit, with no money outlay.

But most of all, make sure you’re not hiring a copy editor and expecting an editor, or getting only punctuation and typo-correction out of your betas.

And don’t trust your mom’s critique. Or your cat’s. Your cat is just trying to get tuna.

Next up – Where To Go When Going Indie -- The various indie outlets and how they stack up.

Note – I have not forgotten I owe you a supplemental post on proposals. It was postponed and I cut back my work here at PJM because I caught the horrible flu that’s going around. I should be able to go full strength this week, though.