This is how it goes. The plot thickens and the characters unravel, nights are spent over the computer pounding out the words, the final page is written at last, a spell check is done and with relief, the novel is sent to a publisher! Sounds familiar? It should be, judging by the works now being churned out by many e-book sites. Unfortunately, this approach also accounts for the less than favorable, and deserved, image many readers have of e-books and self-published books. To paraphrase a famous physicist – why is it so? The answer is both simple and complex.
The simple one is that e-book publishers release books in order to generate revenue, offering an outlet to writers who would otherwise never get published by the mainstream. As a writer, I know all about trying to get published by the mainstream. I have a stack of rejection slips to prove it. The other obvious corollary to that, many e-book publishers either don’t want to or don’t have the editing staff necessary to properly edit every submission. Authors these days must learn to be their own editor. This brings me to the complex part of ‘why is it so’.
Getting published is hard. As an author, you may be thinking along these lines:
My book is finally finished. I am ecstatic and look at my accomplishment with undisguised pride. Of course, it will be a best seller when compared to some of the stuff on bookstore shelves. If that crap can make it, mine certainly will, and I’m sending this out to everyone in the phone book.
After a dozen rejections from traditional publishers, your spirit is somewhat crushed and the e-book market suddenly starts to look very attractive – especially after your masterpiece is picked up for release by an e-book site with only a minimal effort. You’re jumping up and down: I am now a PUBLISHED AUTHOR! I’ve made it!
Or have you? The e-book publisher has posted your life’s work on the Web, so you must have made it, right? Hold that thought and let’s look at it coldly from the e-book publisher’s side.
A business survives by generating revenue that will provide a profit. This is done by selling something. The more you can sell, the bigger the profit, hopefully. Simple enough? With that in mind, it is easy to see why some e-book publishers release trash books. From the available pool, some will sell to generate that profit. And there is a lot of profit, but that’s another story. The fact that this is a shortsighted marketing policy at best has been amply demonstrated by the demise of many of e-book sites. What about the more reputable ones? Like good paper publishers, e-book publishers must build a reputation for quality releases, and that means rejecting most submissions. Even so, there is a lot of rubbish that still manages to slip through the cracks. What authors forget is that every publisher is there to service his own interests, not the author’s. We merely exist to provide them with the means to achieve their objectives. If this is not clear, just check your royalty percentage. Okay, it is a bit more involved than that – a symbiotic relationship – but publishers hold most of the aces. So, what has that got to do with anything?
I will not discuss the decision process an e-book publisher uses to release or reject a work. What I will talk about is the role authors play in perpetuating the negative image of e-books through a misguided impression that having an e-book released means they are now writers! What did I say happens once that spell check is done? Nothing! Before that freshly finished manuscript is submitted, what should happen is a rigorous and methodical editing process. It was pointed out to me once by a past publisher that most authors couldn’t edit their way out of a brown paper bag. Lamentably, ample evidence attests to the truth of that statement. This practice must be followed even more rigorously if you are self-publishing!
As an editor and reviewer, I have come across some awful stuff. E-book publishers must wear some of the blame for allowing less than adequate material to be released. This compromise in quality invariably leads to an erosion of their reputation and courts eventual demise. But as authors, we get what we deserve. Dazzled by our own creations, we do not question, check, correct, rewrite and edit before we submit. Why not? You are saying to yourself: My book is my child – it’s perfect! Who would dare suggest it has an imperfection – or two, or stacks. Stand up, but wait until I get my brass knuckles. The blunt reality is that most authors do not treat the writing process as a professional exercise like any other business project – such as building a doghouse.
You wouldn’t leave a doghouse with holes in its roof, would you? Unfortunately, some books look very much like that leaky roof. And that is what I mean about being professional. You would never build a leaky doghouse, so how come authors are happy to write leaky novels? It is not hard to figure, really – emotion! Such an insidious word. Instead of treating that manuscript like a new roof, checking for leaks, authors get so emotionally wrapped up in their creation that they cannot see the holes, then wonder why the thing gets bad reviews and never sells. Plenty of times I told myself: Besides, what do the reviewers know! Their aim in life is just to knock someone down because they can’t write themselves, right? It’s all subjective, right?
I’m afraid not. True, the content may be subjective, but that crafted piece of writing certainly is not. Just as you would use a right tile or shingle, the author’s materials are words and his tools are rules of grammar, and the output should be subject to the same scrutiny. When that shingle is cracked, you throw it out. But when that word or sentence doesn’t fit, most authors lovingly cradle it, burying it in the hope that it won’t be noticed. They would rather give a pint of blood than cut that word, sentence or paragraph.
There are stacks of books on do-it-yourself editing, and I am not about to repeat their maxims – or maybe just one or two – but do get one. Some authors like to display their literary erudition. Others hope that the damned sentence just makes sense! It is not true what the bard said, that once the pen moves, it never returns, or some such stuff like that. There are several editing techniques an author should consider during and after writing.
- Edit as you write each piece.
- Ongoing re-editing what you have already written.
- Print out chapters and edit with a pen. You will be amazed what you have missed.
- When the manuscript is done, edit on the computer, then print it all out and re-edit. Do this at least twice!
Another great editing technique is for the author is to read his work aloud. It will immediately highlight major sentence construction clangors. What may look passable on the computer screen could sound dreadful or nonsensical when said aloud. Speaking aloud something you’ve written is like seeing it through another reader’s eyes; it separates you from the piece, tricks your mind into not showing you what you imagine is there, but instead what you actually wrote. Why does it work? Interpreting the world through your eyes utilizes specific parts of your brain. By simply reading your manuscript, you inject meaning to words not there because as the author, you are preempting! When reading aloud, a different part of the brain comes into play, avoiding assumptions you made visually. Try it, you’ll be amazed.
Editing is not just spell checking or running a grammar checker – of dubious value at best as some grammar checkers work on questionable assumptions. Editing is like checking that roof for leaks before you let the dog in. In the same way, words, sentences and paragraphs must be checked for leaks. Editing does not cramp style, but enhances it through using technically correct grammar, sentence construction, narrative and vibrant dialogue. Check your English primer for that. Without editing that manuscript the reader will be left stumbling through a rocky field of obstructions that will eventually defeat any attempt at actually reading the story, leading to abandonment and disgusted rejection. Of course, if that novel sucks purely as a matter of personal taste, no amount of editing will save it. Can’t avoid that one and you can’t please everyone.
So, how the hell do you go about pruning your creation? Easy – divorce the emotion out of it. Think of the process as chipping a piece of wood until the desired shape is produced, sanded and polished. The chipping may feel like taking off pieces of your own flesh, but stick a bandage on it. Save that brilliant sentence or paragraph in a slush file, it might come in handy somewhere, sometime – or not. Take a book that you have read more than once and ask yourself why it draws you to read it again and again. Then look at your own work and ask yourself the same question – honestly! Would you read the thing again and again? If that question cannot be asked and answered objectively, you are kidding yourself that you are a writer. If you cannot edit that work coldly and professionally, it will only add to that e-book trash pile.
The problem is, writers tend to be more closely wedded to the words they write than their spouses. Every word in a novel or short story must carry itself. There can be no free rides. That flowery language and exuberant use of adjectives may be fine when whispering into a girl’s ear, but in writing, less is better. I am not suggesting there is no place for adjectives or wonderful narrative, but it must be in context and to the point. That is where the author’s skill comes in, and is developed over time, taking up long, lonely hours, overcoming frustrations and mental blocks.
One thing I would never recommend you do is give your novel to a close friend or family member to review or edit. Because of your relationship to them, they will never provide a brutally honest and objective assessment, which is something you need. And how do you get such an assessment? Simple, you send the manuscript to a good editor. And how do you find a good editor? Well, that’s another story down the line. Remember, unless you are prepared to adopt a professional approach to every aspect of your writing, don’t bother getting into the business; you will only be deluding yourself that you are a writer.
Happy editing…or not.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Stefan Vucak is an award-winning author of the sci-fi Shadow Gods series of books. His contemporary political thriller Cry of Eagles has won the coveted 2011 Readers Favorite silver medal award.
What do you think of Stefan’s points about editing? Do you have anything to add? Feedback is always appreciated.