I am mortified that I have ever let people read my first drafts. I have subjected this horror on my friends, my parents and even my wife.
Nobody wants to read the raw thoughts that come out of my brain. Nobody should have to sift through over 200,000 words that really should have been 120,000 (or maybe even 80,000). Nobody should be thrown down all the blind alleys, long dragging passages, spelling errors, grammar errors and just crappy phraseology of initial prose.
This is why you need an editor.
In a recent intelligence squared debate on Amazon and self-publishing, two statements by the debaters struck me:
- Self-published authors write more than one book a year, often churning them out.
- Writers don’t think they need editors.
My wife will tell you the second one at least seems true a lot of the time. Working on the same novel for more than seven years tends to beat a little of that stubbornness out of you, however. As a treat (or a joke, or a punishment) I’m planning to read the first draft of Surreality after I publish the final just to see what’s changed. Already I can tell you whatever thin notion I had that editing wasn’t necessary should fly away after that.
I understand the desire to churn out books. It can seem like the best way to get your name out there. And truthfully some of the most successful books haven’t been that well written or edited, but so are the vast majority of obscure, never-read books. And everyone seems to want to write series, or trilogies, to the point that some self-published authors break what probably was a mid to longer length book into smaller chunks.
But I don’t think anyone wants to write a bad book. Believe me, I understand what it is like to have a dozen book ideas in your head and the worry that you’ll never have time to get them all out. It’s a self feeding beast. The more you write, the more you want to write. And that is great and you totally should write as much as you possibly can, whenever you can.
But if you want people to read it, you need an editor and you need to cut stuff. Maybe 20% of your original draft will survive to the final, and it’s likely that won’t be the best 20%. The best ideas you’re going to have are going to be 5-10 revisions in.
You should not choose the self-publishing route because you want to skip the wait of traditional publishing. You should do it because it fits better with the kind of story you want to tell, or the price you want to sell your book, or because you’re an enterprising type. Maybe you can work with several books in the pipeline and produce finished books every three months, but for those books to be any good they need time to mature and to be refined.
Here are some more thoughts in no particular order:
- Get an editor, not just a proof-reader. You can pay someone to fix your grammar, and spell check your book, but that isn’t really a lot better than Word’s built-in functions unless the person understands your work and what works and what doesn’t. Try to find someone you can have a conversation with to fix the text. You may still need a proofer at the end, but the prose needs more than just a quick correct.
- Learn to draw big red ‘X’s through what’s not working. Make it something you want to do, something that gives you a little shot of dopamine every time you cross out a word, or a sentence or a paragraph that isn’t working. The spine of your story and your characters will still be there, just without the clutter. It’s really okay.
- You can design your own cover if you want, but avoid the “self-published” cover look. This can have a lot to do with chosen fonts, size of title, and where the text is on the images (it’s subtle but detectable). Try looking at the covers of books published in your genre in the past couple of years and look for design elements you like.
- Don’t let writing a bad book get you down too much. Rejection, whether it’s from a literary agent or from a reader, is pretty much part of the game no matter how good or bad you are. Take the advice that makes sense to you and apply it. Throw the rest out.
- Keep writing. Publish when ready, not when done.
- Do what feels right to you, but be willing to change it when new data arises. You should not be the same kind of writer you were five years ago, or will be five years from now.
- Try getting something traditionally published, even if it’s just a short story. Understand the thing you are rejecting before writing it off forever. It’s cliche, but you never know until you try, no matter what anyone in the blogosphere might say.
- Define what success looks like to you. (Hint: It will almost never be something like 1 million copies sold or fame and fortune). Up that goal a little with each book, but be happy when you meet goals.
What have you learned from self-publishing or reading self-published authors?