Friday, August 24, 2012

Editing thoughts

Had this in an interview for a newsletter.

Why is it so difficult for writers to edit their own work?
I am actually right this moment revising one of my own books for my publisher (Belle Books), and though theoretically I know what I have to do (beef up the mystery), I find it very difficult to have the distance I need to edit the book. Here are my two thoughts:
1) I wrote this book, and it all works for me. I can't "see" where there might be plot lapses or logic gaps, or where the characterization falters. If I knew that, I'd already have fixed it. And the characters live for me, so I don't notice what might seem out of character to the reader.
2) What I love about the book might not be all that important to a reader. I love the voice, and the little clever asides, and the sparkling metaphors. The reader might not be as impressed with my "darlings" as I am.
Oh, I have another reason why it's hard to edit.
3) If we write it, our minds kind of automatically correct problems. Like I changed the venue of the murder in this book, so he fell off a cliff, not out of a window. It's been very hard for me to make the changes necessary so that the cause of death is consistent. In my head, I've already fixed everything, so I have trouble noticing where I need to change details and references.
So... it's difficult for writers to edit their own work because it's hard to get the necessary distance from events and characters we've created. That's a good thing, really, because it means that we're close to our characters and our story. 
Advice for aspriring writers?
This is going to be contradictory:
Take your time,
Don't waste time.
But it's not really contradictory. Take your time learning how to write, learning how you write best, learning what your strengths and weaknesses are. Don't be in a rush to get on the publishing treadmill, because the moment you decide to start submitting, is the moment your story ceases to be yours. Let there be years when you just don't worry about what editors want or what will impress agents or what the trendy new thing in the market is. Let there be years where you just enjoy exploring your stories and your skills.
But when you are ready to publish, consider what that means. That means getting your book to readers. So be alert for signs that this path isn't going towards readers, and be ready to take another path. For example, you might have your heart set on a particular agent or editor, and keep sending that person manuscripts. 
Maybe she says, "I like your style, but I am only looking for young adult books now." Don't go off and write a YA novel just to win over this agent. That's giving this person -- who doesn't want your current story-- too much control over your life and career. I was just reading that one agent considered 10,000 queries in a year, and didn't take on a single new client. Think about that. Do you really want to change your voice, your direction, your mission, for odds like that?
Decide when to cut your losses. If you've tried the agent search for a year, and haven't gotten a nibble, change course. Try going directly to editors (most of them will look at unagented material, though most won't say that out loud :). Try meeting editors at conferences, or becoming friendly commenters on their blogs. Try submitting to contests that those editors will judge.
And if, after a year, you can't get an editor's attention, consider what your alternatives are. "Publishing" is about getting your book out to readers. Traditional publishing-- the agent selling your book to an editor at a traditional publisher-- is one very good route to that. But it's no longer the only route.
Now of course I have to say that it's very possible your book hasn't gotten an agent or editor because it's not yet good enough. And that's something to consider-- maybe you need to take the book back and make it better. However, many very good books get rejected by editors and agents (I've written a couple of those myself :). So if you're having no success with the conventional method of publication, you might need to spend some time evaluating the book as objectively as you can, or, if that's impossible, having an objective reader do that. A friend of mine recently sent me her unsold book and said frankly, "Tell me what's wrong and how to fix it, or tell me it can't be fixed." 
If objectively you decide it really will please readers, then -- perhaps while continuing to look for an agent or editor-- look into other possibilities, like small press publication or indie publishing. 
Don't waste years and years going after an agent, and then more years going after an editor. Give yourself a year or two-- whatever feels right-- to achieve that sort of success. If you don't, fold your cards and start considering other ways of improving the book and its chances to reach a reader.


Stina said...

Great advice, and so timely too for me. I'm glad self publishing wasn't big a few years ago. I was still a long way from being at the skill level needed to publish a solidly written book. Rejections forced me to study the craft more and get the proper feedback.

Michael G-G said...

Excellent advice--and now I understand why I am so good at critiquing others' work, but hapless at going after my own.

Alicia said...

Michael, I'm one of those who says, "Don't do this or that" to a critiqu-ee, and then realizes I've done the exact same thing myself. I just don't think we see ourselves plainly. Some do... and I can edit my prose pretty well. It's the plot I am "blind to"!

Stina, I see what you mean. There are, I suppose, benefits to rejection. I always felt like contests could help there too, give info about why this wasn't working.