You only have to look at the Acknowledgements at the end of a novel to see that there are usually a lot of people to thank. Spouses, children, friends, teachers, agents and of course – editors. They can be a powerful force, changing the direction of a book and taking it from good to great. Think of Max Perkins for example, literary editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe – a fascinating story set to hit our screens next year in the American-British feature Genius with Colin Firth in the title role. Who was the real genius, we are invited to ask – author or editor?
Sadly, most of us don’t have a Genius of Max Perkin’s calibre in our pocket. We don’t have someone who will politely but firmly curb our enthusiasm; who has the guts to tell us that the novel isn’t finished at all, not by a long way; that the hard work has only just begun. Writing a novel is such a life-dominating, time-consuming enterprise, there’s a huge temptation to whack it off as soon as we reach the last page. Done and Dusted. Phew. We’re still in love at this point, we haven’t yet seen the flaws and failings. We might have a vague inkling that it’s not perfect; that it might need a bit of work, but that’s what Editors are for, isn’t it? Yes, but will they want to work with you?
Of course, there are still some fantastic, dare I say “genius” editors working in traditional publishing houses, but they are very busy working with their established authors. A new book by a debut writer has got to be fully formed and almost ready to go – if it’s not, it’ll never make it out of the Slush Pile in the first place. So there’s no point in sending something you think’s got potential but know needs editorial help. You’re unlikely to get it here.
If you already have an agent who is committed to working with you on the development of your career, you could be in luck. When I was represented by the AP Watt agency, Caradoc King helped me enormously, particularly with my novel Selina Penaluna. The book went through various incarnations and Caradoc read every one, giving me insightful comments along the way. When the book was ready, he had no trouble placing it with Random House and then I got to work with the fantastic editor Kelly Hurst. But not all agents have that editorial skillset. Some are better with a contract in their hand, or at negotiating a deal. And if you don’t already have an agent, then I’m afraid – as with publishers – your book needs to be in very good shape before they’ll agree to represent you. It stands to reason: an agent earns nothing until they sell your book so they have to be certain that their time and energy is going to be a sound investment.
THE ROAD TO MADNESS
The trouble with hawking an unready novel around lots of agents and/or publishers, is that you’re in danger of driving yourself mad. If they reject it, they’re unlikely to ask you to re-submit with a subsequent draft. They might, but it’s unlikely. You usually have to move on to someone else. A couple of years ago I sent the first draft of a novel to an agent who rejected it, recommending I made some fundamental changes to the concept and story. I obediently made these adjustments, sent it to another agent and was told exactly the opposite. In fact, the first agent should have read the second draft and the second agent the first. AAAARGH! The truth of the matter was that the novel wasn’t working in either version but at the time I became very confused. So it’s important to be careful about chopping and changing to please people who’ve already said no. By the end of a year you could have ten different versions of the book and be hiding in the attic with a bag on your head.
So let’s put Publishers and Agents aside for a moment. And indeed, some very successful authors have done precisely that. You still need an editor. Every self-publishing guru will tell you to invest in one and not just for typos and grammatical errors. There are plenty of professional resources available and I recommend reading Joanna Penn’s blog on Editing. It’s packed with detailed advice, together with contact details of freelance editors and an idea of prices. Doing the job properly isn’t cheap, it could cost you a couple of thousand pounds and that’s just for one detailed critique and proof-reading. Can you afford it? Do you want to afford it?
“DO THE MATH”
Say you commit £1500- £2000 to the editing: if you put your e-book on Amazon at £1.99 and go for the 70% royalty deal, you will receive £1.39 per copy downloaded. So you’ve got to sell well over a thousand copies to break even, and that’s without factoring in the money you’ve probably spent on the book jacket design and maybe some marketing. Yes, yes, I know a few self-published authors have sold over a million copies, so maybe I’m being over-pessimistic here. It’s just worth thinking about. Are you doing this as a business venture or for the love of it? What if it only sells a few copies to friends and family? Does it matter if you lose money? At least you’ve written something that was properly edited and is of a quality you’re proud of. What might you spend on a holiday? Or going on a writing course? Now there’s an idea. Maybe going on a course would help.
The “best” Creative Writing M.A. is offered by the University of East Anglia. It’s incredibly difficult to get onto; they have hundreds and hundreds of applications including some by writers who have already been published. If you manage to get accepted you’re a real talent and your novel was probably going to get published anyway. It will cost you several thousand pounds but you’ll learn stuff, you’ll make great industry contacts and probably end up with a top agent and a publishing deal. Oh and a Masters Degree. Some amazing, prize-winning novelists have come out of UEA. If you’re deeply serious about being a proper novelist, it’s worth a punt. There are plenty of other Creative Writing M.A.s of course – I’d be interested to hear comments from anyone who’s taken this route to see if they feel it was worth it.
If you just fancy a week in beautiful countryside communing with other writers, it’s hard to beat the Arvon Foundation. They offer a wide variety of courses and have resident experts to guide you along the way. There are all manner of other short courses you can go on – from writing retreats to long weekends; you can write Romantic Fiction in Tuscany and Crime in the South or France. I expect they are of varying quality, but you might get some useful feedback on your work and at least make some new friends.
But maybe you simply haven’t got that kind of cash to invest. Maybe you daren’t take the financial risk. That’s perfectly understandable: you need money to make money and we’re not all entrepreneurs. But you still need an Editor. Or at least feedback from someone who isn’t your mum.
Here are some ideas for getting help. Join a local Writing Group. You might have to shop around a bit before you find one that suits. Writers share their work, offer critiques and discuss elements of the writing process. Particularly look for groups led by experienced authors. If a local group doesn’t exist, start one. Or join one that meets online.
Approach a Book Group to see if they would be interested in reading your draft and discussing it at their next meeting. There are some very intelligent readers out there with informed opinions and they might be really interested to be involved in such a project. You could give them specific questions that you’d like them to consider and if there’s a consistent message coming through that could be extremely useful. Remember you can send the manuscript directly to people’s Kindles via email so you don’t have to do loads of photocopying. Put all the chapters into one file and make sure it’s single spaced, then it will look very similar to a published e-book.
Or create an online Reading Group through social media. There’s a huge community out there writing, reading, reviewing, wanting to communicate and keen to help. The self-publishing community seems to be one of the most transparent and generous out there – there is lots of free advice about editing your own work.
BE YOUR OWN GENIUS
Because ultimately, we have to be our own Genius. We have to learn to take criticism, assess its value to us, and make decisions about whether we’re going to implement suggestions. I’ve suffered from listening too much to other people as well as not listening enough. It’s very hard to strike the right balance and easy to lose sight of your original vision. Not everyone is a good critic – sometimes they try to make you write the novel they’d like to write – and that’s a danger always to be avoided.
I’m currently editing To You The Stars by Wendy Cartwright and thoroughly enjoying the process (see my earlier Indie Publishing Experiment Blogs). Wendy sent me the first draft months ago; I read it twice and made lots of notes. We met and talked it through for hours. Wendy didn’t agree with everything I said but fortunately, a lot of it made sense to her. Now we’re working chapter by chapter, sending the script back and forth, back and forth. When we reach the end I’ll read it through in one chunk again, and we’ll probably do more work. Then we’re going to ask a few trusted readers to give us some feedback, because by then I’m going to be too close to it too. We’ll take those thoughts on board for another rewrite. And eventually, hopefully, we will have polished it up to a shine. One day, Wendy Cartwright will decide for herself that her novel is ready. Then Amazon, here we come!