Between last night and this afternoon alone, I spent close to six hours composing barely two pages of my own work that I’d been trying to get a handle on for the preceding several days. That may sound maddening (sometimes it is) but I also consider this particular experience successful.
In general, I spend way more time editing work already written, my own included, than writing new work. In the past six months I have edited one full-length work of fiction, at last count three times, and still need to do another round before it goes to press. I also edit technical documents and government proposals, which I do love as well as rely on for income.
For me, all of this has been part of my path to publication. One thing I’ve found is that it can be extremely difficult to edit one’s own work. There are some terrific books out there that help with the self-editing process. Two of my favorites are Don’t Sabotage Your Submission and Manuscript Makeover. Why do I keep buying books about something I do professionally? Because there are three types of editors (at least) needed to make a novel shine.
The first is a copy editor. Now laugh if you will, but it will be difficult to get a publisher to consider your work if your manuscript has even minor punctuation or grammar issues. A trained professional at a major publishing house or literary agency probably won’t take the time to read the incredible content you’ve created if you’ve formatted it incorrectly, use lots of commas where you shouldn’t, or forget where to place a period. These editors will put down your work if they think it would require too much effort on their part. Why not, when they probably have dozens of other good manuscripts sitting on their desks with as good or better content as yours that require less editing? I know this from experience. When I was hiring editors, I routinely rejected resumes if they had even a single typo.
Another type of editor is one who works on the craft of writing. This editor can tell you what is cliché, where your plot lines have holes, when your characters behave out of character, and when your dialogue sounds fake or stilted. Writing a novel-length work is essentially juggling a lot of details, so a huge task that falls to both types of editors is catching factual and timeline errors, inconsistencies from chapter to chapter, instances of “telling” more than “showing,” switching points of view in the middle of a scene, or when believability collides with credibility.
Lastly, when you get that golden ticket and a New York publisher is examining your masterpiece, you will have someone who edits your work mainly for content. (And when they are done, and after you make corrections, the entire piece will again go to a copy editor to be perfected). Now, by the time this content editor talks to you, you’ve spent so long working on the piece that you can’t clearly see the forest for the trees. So you'll rely on these editors to make your work sing off the pages. They can revise a sentence to cut out words, make it more concise, and the story will fairly leap into life for the reader. Sometimes they rearrange paragraphs or suggest you cut scenes that lag—or beef them up. But, the work needs to be in near-perfect shape for it to get to this point.
How is a writer to cope? Most of us are not trained to wear all these hats, certainly not in addition to the creative one that we wore to write the book to begin with! My advice is to find a really good writing partner. I was involved with critique groups for years, and benefited tremendously from the ones that worked. What’s worked even better for me has been finding someone who could complement my own editorial skills and swap blocks of time going over each other’s work in minute detail.
Now, I can look back on five years of writing and realize how difficult it is to be the writer who wears all four hats. If you can do it, that’s great. It took me years to figure out that I couldn’t, despite being a professional editor.
Every step I take, every change I make, brings me one step closer in the publishing process. It is a long and winding road, but I’m glad I’m on it and I’m glad that you all are here watching us as the Wicked team heads down it. It doesn’t seem as dark and scary anymore, just long.
On an unrelated note, I wanted to share this great post from one of my new favorite authors who recently took on the genre vs. literary debate, a topic close to the surface for our Wicked group: