A Quick Note

The Leeth Dossier is a sci-fi/fantasy series about an unusual girl, set in our world about 50 years from now: and 25 years after magic unexpectedly returns. It opens with the book Wild Thing (2015), and continues with Harsh Lessons (2016), Shadow Hunt (2017); then (untitled) (2017/18?), Lost Girl (2018/19?)....
Find Wild Thing with Google

Friday, 23 September 2016

Professional editing (my experience in working with thEditors.com)

(image used with permission.)

Of all the advice given to independent authors, the top two things are probably "Get a professional cover design", and "Pay for a professional editor". Of these, the latter is I think the more important, though it's also the more expensive. A good cover is needed for someone to pause and consider your book, but in the end it's what's inside that really counts.

So it begs questions like:

  • How do you find an editor?
  • How much does an edit cost?
  • How do you find a good editor?"
and many more.

What is editing?    There are different kinds of editing, and therefore different kinds of editors, with varying costs that depend on two things: the type of editing, and the amount of work involved. A short answer is possible, though, by being suitably vague: and that's to say "thousands of Australian dollars". The difference between a professional's work, and that of a skilled amateur, is exactly what you would expect from any other field. It's better. A professional editor working in their area of expertise will not just see problems in your writing clearly, but they'll be able to explain why it's a problem. An amateur may be able to sense that there is some problem, but very likely to be less sure of why. An amateur might say "I liked this chapter" (or not) — which is all well and good, but gives you little help to tackle the issue. A professional should give you much more: the whys, the hows, possible solutions, and so on.

Let's talk about cost first, since it's perhaps the easiest to deal with, and high on the list of authors' concerns. Especially true for indie authors, since the cost of the editing is not hidden inside the package of a deal with a traditional publisher.

Is it worth the money?    Definitely, yes. From my own experience, I can state a personal and unqualified "Yes". And sensitised to the topic by my own experience, I then started picking up strong confirmation from successful authors in general. Read between the lines of the "Acknowledgements" section that prefaces most books, for the thanks given by the author to their editor. (Often, you don't need to read between the lines.) Or attend talks by writers: often, they'll very clearly state just how much credit they owe to their editors. I seem to recall one saying something along the lines "It's almost a dirty little secret: just how much your editor helps you to write the best book you can." I suspect that if you've read a book from an author you loved, and been underwhelmed by them with another of their books, to the point of wondering "How could that author have written that book?", the answer may be "Different editor."

Anyway, back to the topic of cost, you should think of it this way: you're going to be paying a professional to read your work, and to spend time thinking about what can be improved, what isn't working, what to do about it, and to write all that down so you can address all the issues (and perhaps, opportunities). If you're lucky, the editor may include some ideas that you'll kick yourself for not having spotted yourself. Or which simply make you go "Wow, great idea, yes!" and make you want to dive back to the keyboard, or pencil and paper. Another positive thing to consider, when weighing the cost, is that a lot of this is under your control: the clearer your writing, the more things you get right, the less work the editor will have.

Length.    Obviously, the length of the work will affect the cost. A moderate length book is something like 80,000 — 100,000 words. A long book is something like 120k — 150k words. A very long book is 160k — 200k words. And so on. The more words you've written the more time it takes to read them and critique them. I'd also say, the more chance there is for things to go off the rails, and require large portions to be cut. So bear that in mind when thinking about the cost of an editor, and the time you will need to spend on writing the best book you can.

Polishing.    Another point worth making about the cost, is polishing. The more time you can spend improving your work:

  1. the better it will be,
  2. the less work will be required from the editor,
  3. and the lower the cost will be.
So by getting Alpha readers, Beta readers, reviews and critiques of sections by other writers, by spending time learning about POV, POV shifts, passive voice, making characters come alive, "voice", how to write dialogue, pacing, plot vs story, flow, rhythm, punctuation, spelling, (etc., etc.), the stronger your writing will be, the more polished it will be, and again, the less work will be required from an editor. More than that, if you're at such an early point in your mastering of the craft of writing that your editor would have to teach you how to do many of those things, then you're at too early a stage to be paying for an editor. It won't end happily. But you can expect to learn some of those things from your editor: I know I did! As well, the editor will be able to discuss the readers' expectations with you.

So, regarding the cost: think of how many hours and weeks of work you're buying, and then divide the total cost to get a rough idea of how much you're paying the editor per hour. That should help you get a perspective on how much you're "really" paying for.

Finding an editor. So let's consider the question "How do you find a good editor (for your book)?"

As this article is already probably too long, I'll be lazy and just focus on my own experience, rather than trying to give a complete answer. But here's a token effort:

There's a little survey of how different writers approach editing, at: http://www.lexirad.com/income-covers-and-editing-more-fascinating-data-about-indie-authors/, and Ellis Shuman writes about how he found his editor here: Ellis Shuman: How I Found My Editor, while Emily Suess added a Self-Publishing Services Directory to her blog (though that has since become private <shrug>). An internet search will probably turn up the Editorial Freelancers Association website (www.the-efa.org/). It's also worth a Google search of Editors and Predators: you'll find some informative stuff.

My own experience? I found thEditors through Twitter. Early in my learning about self-publishing, I learned of the importance of authors being involved in social media (to the right degree), and joined Twitter, while trying to work out what it was and what I was supposed to do with it. I still think it's a good way to "curate the internet" — i.e. to learn of useful stuff for you. By Following other authors and people involved in publishing I encountered an ad for thEditors. Their offer was great: you sent them the first few thousand words of your novel, and they'd critique it for free, and indicate whether your manuscript would be a good fit for them.

Now, (don't laugh!), at this point I was just in what I thought was the final stages for self-publishing my novel. I'd put a lot of work into it over the years since its first draft, and it had even been a finalist in a contest. Since then, I'd found some big flaws, and made major improvements, and I'd just spent two more months (since being made redundant at the end of March, 2015), working intensely to learn about self-publishing and to improve the MS ready for publication on Amazon. I thought it was good to go, and that getting an opinion would be something along the lines of (I said, don't laugh!), "This is fine, you don't need our help — go for it."

(Of course, I also read the testimonials on their web site. To me, they seemed genuine: not faked-up or paid-for.)

What I got back, within two weeks!, was a lengthy email, basically encouraging but also with some suggestions for several big issues that needed addressing, and which was full of insightful comments. To me, it was a reality check: I had to agree with at least 95% of what he'd written; he definitely seemed to "get" my book, and even if I did nothing else, I definitely needed to go away and address all the issues he'd pointed out. He was also interested in working with me further on it, and asked a few questions (like: how long was it?)

What to do?

So, we started discussing it, by email.

Now, a good friend, who'd been patiently encouraging and prodding me over a twenty year period (I kid you not) to finish the book and publish it somehow — including reading it and critiquing it in detail — reacted at first with an "Are you sure this isn't just a lure? Do they just want your money? I think you could publish it as-is. You've been polishing it for years."

But my answer was that, 1) all the points they'd made seemed both correct and insightful, to me, and 2) I felt, from all our emails as we'd discussed it, that they were honest, and were not just stringing me along. So I showed my friend a print out of a couple of the emails, and remember Jon reading it and then looking up to me and saying "You're right. He knows what he's talking about. This is good advice. I hadn't seen these things."

And so I decided to go ahead, and spend the money. And then, I thought back to a comment in one of Dave's emails, that said something like "You'll see what I mean from the in-line comments in the document," which I had assumed at the time meant "… after you pay me the money and we get seriously to work." And thinking about it again, I mused, "You know, that really doesn't match my feelings about how thEditors operate. I don't suppose by any chance I overlooked an attachment, in one of the emails…?"

Uh.

Why, yes. Yes, I had. In that very first lengthy email from Dave, so full of good advice, in fact! There was a Word document attached, and just as he'd said, it had much more detail, including line-by-line comments. And the advice there — well, like his email, only more so. So, by this point it was blindingly clear that I'd have to be stupid to decide to go it on my own.

Kinds of editors.

I'm speaking of my experience with thEditors, who provided me with a line by line structural edit and also numerous developmental suggestions (while also pointing out typos spotted along the way). Their critique identified plenty of sentences that needed attention, and suggested fixes. Much of this focussed on my wordiness, some about over-use of adjectives and adverbs, some was to point out repetition; often it was just advice to shorten: pointing out that if you boil it down and concentrate your writing, the passage will usually have more impact. (I suppose the extreme example of this is poetry.) In my mind, it's what I think of as "the Cameron Edwards principle": if something can be said with fewer words, that's probably the right way to say it. (Based on an insight from a very smart young engineer I worked with, while our team was reviewing an important but lengthy patent we were drafting.) A pity I don't follow Cameron's (and Dave's) advice more, I hear you say! But I'm working on it.

Other kinds of editing range from this level, down to the level of detail of copy editing (proofreading?): identifying typos, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, and simple continuity errors. Have a look at, e.g., http://www.editors.ca/hire/definitions.html or wordcafeblog: Editing workshop 2: what are the different types of editing/ for some definitions.

Rough diamonds.   Anyway, what Dave provided was, metaphorically, taking an uncut gemstone, and cutting and polishing it. Or, perhaps more accurately, advising me where to cut and polish. That included cutting off some lumps of gemstone, removing clumps of clay, and also turning it to present a different angle. All with the purpose of producing something that was already there, but in some sense covered. I don't think the metaphor stretches as far as a sculptor cutting away the stone to reveal the Venus de Milo — or in my case, maybe some kind of fish, is it? — hidden inside (that's probably more the work of a ghost-writer). I'm sure the boundary between what the editor does and what the author does varies, across people, across time, and even across the pages within a single book.

Note though that I qualified that by saying, "working in their area of expertise". If you search on the internet, you can read some tales — from traditionally published authors — of bad experiences with editors. You'll find lots of horror stories of awful and even wrong advice from professional editors who, basically, just didn't "get" what the author was doing. My impression is that it mostly happens when the book the editor has been assigned to is one they wouldn't choose to read themselves, and they're trying to change the book into something they would want to read, even if that means it's no longer the book the author is trying to write. Or it happens when the personalities of the author and editor clash horribly.

In TP (traditional publishing), the balance of power lies with the publishing company and editor: unless the author agrees to make the changes the editor requires, the book will not be published. That, I'm sure, can be anguishing — and sometimes destructive and wrong, for the book. On the other hand, in SP (self-publishing or indie publishing), the balance of power lies with the author. "Terrific!" you exclaim — until you realise that the author is typically blind to the problems in their own work, which means there will be some awful works published because the SP author ignored the advice of their editor….

Working with an editor

So, what was it like, working with thEditors? The short answer is "great!", but a longer answer is probably helpful.

At this point, my MS was 150k words: after a lot of effort, I'd managed to cut it from 169k to 150k. And, mind you, this was ten years after realising that in the version of the MS that had been one of ten finalists in the inaugural George Turner contest, I'd realised that the whole second half of the novel had plenty of story and action — but not much in the way of plot. So I'd chopped it in half, and then added a grand new plot element and carefully wove that through the 1st half. Which grew the MS back past it's original length.

Why do I mention that? Well, along with the thousands of in-line comments, there were a three big issues that Dave identified (opening his email with "So don't have a heart attack ... but"):

  1. Too much POV shifting. Far too much.
  2. One long arc needed a major rewrite
  3. The book probably needed splitting into three; or maybe just two.

I should also add that Dave gave me some feedback (points 1 and 3, above) that I could think about while he was completing his critique. That was really helpful.

Anyway, we discussed, at length, the pros and cons of splitting the MS into two, or three, books: what would have to be done, including ideas for new plot elements and various structural changes. In the end we came to agree that splitting it in two was the way to go.

So I tackled the big issues first, but while working through the line-by-line comments, addressing each in turn. For those where I thought a question remained, I'd add a comment to reply to Dave's; for those where I thought no questions remained, I'd delete Dave's comments.

And then, when I'd addressed all the comments, and all the issues, and after some more discussion with Dave by email, I now had a new MS that had been 1) chopped in half to 70k words, and 2) grown back to 115k words (from memory). It seemed obvious to me that there was enough new material, that a 2nd round of editing would be sensible. I discussed it with Dave, we discussed the cost, considering that he was already familiar with much of it, and we agreed on a cost and I sent it back.

Once again, Dave critiqued it thoroughly, and had more good suggestions, mainly for the new material. So once again I worked through the critique, in the same way as before, and at the end the MS had grown back to about 130k words. So, again we discussed the idea of a final, 3rd critique, and I sent it off.

I had set myself a publication date of 11th December, as that would be the anniversary of my wife's death, to whom the book was dedicated, but the date was looming very close. I got Dave's critique back close to that date, but there were still some issues that he'd identified, and so on the last day, we started working across a 10-hour timezone gap, with me saying "Well, as long as I publish on 11th Dec US time, I can tell myself I published on that date." Alas, Dave and I both came to the conclusion at about the same late hour, that I was dreaming, and could not meet my self-imposed deadline.

So we both collapsed, in separate countries, and I worked through the remaining issues, publishing in Amazon's KDP program on I think Dec 17th. Reassuring myself that Stella would have wanted it done right, more than on time. Especially having watched me working on it for over twenty years!

Schedules. This is probably a good point to comment on schedules.

Having worked for decades for a company that was owned by the Japanese, I've learned that meeting high quality standards is not enough: you also have to meet deadlines; and perhaps more especially, it important to avoid giving unwelcome surprises to the people you're working with.

I was careful to let Dave know my plans, and to work as hard as needed to me the deadlines I'd set. Most of these were optimistic (I think Dave may have thought me crazy), but I had all my time available to spend on this, so I worked as hard as I could, and managed to meet my deadlines, more or less. I also sent him a concise progress report as the deadlines approached, so he could see for himself how I was tracking, and use his own expertise to sense whether I was getting into difficulties or not. I think this was helpful to him.

We were also both pretty flexible to changes, and discussed and re-planned things a few times, especially for the 2nd and 3rd critiques.

Now, if anyone takes a look at the revision history for Wild Thing, or the (too?) detailed lists of changes that I've made available on the website here, you will no doubt think I was stupid to say that I would handle the proof-reading myself. I think I'm very good at that, but it's hard to get it right, yourself. Dave could have provided that service too, but I felt that I could handle it myself. Admittedly, more than two thirds of those changes are me retroactively polishing the text at the sentence level, but fully a third are either typos, grammatical, continuity or other errors. I'm indebted to Louise Harris for picking up the largest slab of problems after several rounds of my own self-correction, and getting it to a professional level of quality. No doubt a few more typos still lurk, waiting to be corrected as the years pass.

Book 2. I won't go into details for Book 2, other than to say it was eerily similar to what happened for Book 1 — even down to the advice to split it in half again! The big problem which Dave had identified, at the very start of my work on book 2 (working from Dave's original critique of the MS before I'd split it), was that it was going to be too long. We had discussed a pacing problem in what would be book 2, and I had proposed that instead of cutting some chapters, I add a chapter or two (a "Mean Girls" story arc), to break up the slow patch and fix the pacing. Unfortunately, this grew into a rather major story arc of 50-60 pages, and suddenly the book was heading towards 600 pages long. In addition, when Dave saw the revised MS for Book 2, he pointed out that I had missed an opportunity for a very satisfying denouement and natural ending, at about the mid-point.

So, yeah: split again! And I have to credit Dave with the idea for Marcie, Superman, and the message of hope. And for making things go badly for Marcie, at the end. Which I saw the sense of, and tried to produce. At which point, Leeth refused to co-operate, or perhaps I should say, refused to give up, and the rather more dramatic and shocking ending came about.

So, right now I'm quietly working to piece things back together now that Leeth threw a major spanner in the works, and I'm in discussion with Dave about the re-planning for Book 3, and scheduling the critique of it when I'm ready.

Working with, and disagreeing with, your editor.

When I talked to other writers, about my experience in working with thEditors, one thing I observed is that I agree with somewhere between 90%-95% of Dave's comments and suggestions. This is, apparently, highly unusual. One would expect more disagreement than that. I attribute this to two things. The biggest one being that Dave and I are on the same wavelength — he "gets" what I'm doing, and understands the characters, despite their oddities (indeed, I hope, their uniqueness). Sci fi and fantasy is one of the genres he understands and enjoys. (Other members of their team have other areas of special expertise.)

The second thing I suppose is that I'm quite open to criticism and feedback. Again, decades of working with groups of people as smart as and smarter than me, reviewing and critiquing each other's work to improve it, provided me with a deep appreciation for the whole review and critiquing process. I respect Dave's opinion; and he respects mine.

Going back to an earlier point, about the author being the boss, that's something Dave always highlights. Basic grammar aside, he never says "you must do this", but rather "I think", or "how about?". (Well, perhaps with one exception. I have a mental image of Dave tearing his hair out after the 24th POV shift between four characters interleaving through one particular chapter. At that point Dave had some frank observations for me. :-)

I learned that I'm unusually comfortable with POV shifts. If you don't believe me, here's what the POV situation looked like, in the MS which will soon have evolved into three books. It looks a mess, eh? And yes: that graph is saying there were 24 POV shifts (orange diamonds) in the 21-page-long Chapter 44 (blue squares):

You'll be pleased to learn that Chapters 44-46 (an upcoming arc in Shadow Hunt), has had the POV shifts removed. I've learned my lesson: POV continuity trumps temporal continuity.

Okay, but, what do you do when you can't agree?   This didn't happen much, largely because I followed advice from other writers, and a dash of common sense, and didn't just "agree to disagree", but instead kept discussing until we each understood what the other person's point of view was. Mostly, that meant that we did in the end reach agreement.

Who's queen?   Incidentally, I think the "power relationship" between an indie author and an editor can be far healthier — if you let it — than is often the case in traditional publishing. The tricky part is knowing when to go with your heart, your gut instinct, over the advice of your editor — the expert you're paying for their insights. Dave and I always talked things through (by email, or in-comments), until we both understood the other's perspective. For my part, I tried to err on the side of taking Dave's advice. (Though, yes, I know: I still need to learn to cut more.)

In a handful of instances, I simply did what Dave recommended. And in another handful of instances, where I cared strongly, I went ahead and did what I thought was right. One of the errors this lead to, was that some sections of Wild Thing are too slow: more should have been cut to improve the pace in some sections. And Dave always thought I was taking a huge risk on the sexual and abuse side of things: which I have to agree with; but I think they're such a key element for what's unfolding, that I couldn't soften those as far as he would have liked. And indeed, I think it's why some reviewers have found this aspect of the book(s) repellent. But I think that's a fair point of view, too: what happens is disturbing, and even horrifying. But it's an integral part of my vision, and of Leeth's journey. Probably if I had followed his advice to the letter in this area I'd have fewer reviewers complaining, but I think the story wouldn't have been what I wanted. It would not be as raw and visceral. Certainly the upward climb, for Leeth, would have been shorter and simpler. But sometimes you have to take risks. And the result, I hope, is a book that the reader will either love or hate. And I'm okay with that.

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So with all that said (at too great length, no doubt!), Dave was happy for me to ask him a few questions….

A quick interview with Dave Taylor, Editor-in-chief of www.thEditors.com:

What was your background — how did you develop your skills and understanding, to become an editor? Was it a straight path, or a convoluted one?

Dave: As an author myself I used to do a lot of beta reading for people. What I was saying seemed to strike a chord. When I no longer had time for it, one of the authors offered to pay me to read and comment on their book. That got me thinking.

I attended a few courses and along with another editor (who has since moved on) I began offering my services part-time. It gathered momentum over time, mainly through recommendations, until I was able to do it full-time.

What types of writing, or perhaps genres, do thEditors prefer to focus on?

Dave: We're willing to look at all genres, but our favourites are probably science fiction and fantasy.

How do you decide whether to work with someone on their manuscript?

Dave:

  1. Do I like it?

  2. Do I think I can help make it better?

  3. Is the author friendly and easy to work with?

When you and an author disagree, how do you try to resolve the disagreement? What kinds of things do you feel get in the way of getting to the bottom of differences of opinion?

Dave: I always like to say the author is the boss. I will state my case and discuss it with you as much as you wish, but I won't fight you over it. Nobody knows your book as well as you, and if you disagree the last word is yours.

What advice do you have for indie authors?

Dave:

1. Pay for a good cover designer.

2. Pay for a good editor (I would say that, but it's true).

3. Produce many books or a series of books.

What advice do you have for indie authors who can't afford the services of a professional editor?

Dave: I think one of the most important things you can do is read. Read as much as you can, especially in your genre. You can't expect to write good books if you don't read any. Also, no matter what, you will really have to get somebody competent to proofread it.

What things can authors do, to make your job easier?

Dave: Keep in regular contact and stick to agreed schedules. Oh, and write great books!

What's been the most difficult thing for you, working with me — what should I myself aim to improve? :-)

Dave: Occasionally setting very tight deadlines!!

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And I think that's a nice point on which to end this too-long blog post!

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