Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

Writing a novel is very hard. There are so many ways to go wrong! This week I’ve been looking at an unpublished manuscript by a writer who is thinking of hiring me as an editor. I’m not going to mention his name, nor the name of the book, and I’ll do my best to obfuscate any revealing details about his story — but it occurred to me that some of the observations I made might be useful to other aspiring writers.

Story Focus. A novel has room for one or two subplots, but the writer does need to make sure the reader knows what the main action is. In the manuscript I’ve been looking at, each of the opening five chapters has a different lead character. The characters are in different parts of the world, and they haven’t yet met one another.

Deploying such a scattershot opening is not a smart move. Your readers will get very confused. They won’t know who to care about.

If those characters are all in physical proximity — on a battlefield, let’s say, or in different rooms of a castle — then the reader will trust that the writer will soon bring them together. But in this particular manuscript, that isn’t the case, unless “on Earth” counts as physical proximity. The things one character is doing appear to have very little to do with what another character is doing.

Meanwhile, the main action of the story seems to be happening offstage. The author has provided a few hints that suggest what may be about to happen — and providing hints can be a good technique, if the hints themselves are clear and interesting. But getting the main action onstage quickly is usually considered a good way to tell a story.

I haven’t yet asked the author to send me a plot outline. That will be the next step. I’ll also ask a few pointed questions, such as: Who is your main character? What is that character hoping to achieve? What obstacles will the character face? How will he tackle those obstacles? The answers to those questions are bound to suggest how the story should be ripped apart and glued back together in a different shape.

Details of a Scene. In the opening chapter of this manuscript, a character is doing something that may eventually turn out to be important. (I’ve only read a few chapters, so I don’t know yet.) But the chapter contains almost no visual cues about where the character is. In a room, most likely — but is it a large room or a small room? Is there a view out the window? Is the air fresh, or are there odors? Background sounds? What might the decorations on the walls tell us about this character, or about the world he lives in?

Getting your reader well-grounded in the physical scene is essential. Do not skip this step! You can’t mention every detail, nor should you try. Part of the craft of storytelling is to single out three or four details that are both colorful and meaningful, and bring them to the reader’s attention. The reader’s imagination will fill in the rest, but imagination has to have something to chew on. And you have to remember to do this in every single scene in the book.

I like to think of the process of writing a scene as being a lot like watching a movie. I stare at the wall, imagining the scene in as much detail as I can — the characters’ movements, what they’re wearing, the tone of their voices, the noises from the street, the odors from the kitchen, all of it. Watch the movie, damn it!

Standards of Manuscript Preparation. I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m going to suggest that anyone who aspires to write fiction ought to sit down and spend a few days learning about the standard ways in which punctuation, dialog tags, and capitalization are used. Yes, you can hire a copy-editor. But the copy-editor’s job should be to catch occasional slips, not to turn your hashed-up mess into publishable paragraphs. If you can’t be bothered to learn this stuff, I’ll tell you straight up: You’re not serious about your writing.

If you’re not serious about your writing, why should anybody be serious about reading what you’ve written?

When it comes to grammar and word usage, the problem is worse. A copy-editor may not be certain what you meant to say in a particular sentence, either because the sentence is structured badly or because you used a word that doesn’t mean what you think it means. As a result, fixing the sentence will require a conversation with the author, and every such conversation takes time. A copy-editor shouldn’t be doing this in any case. If your sentences are shaky, you need a line editor.

Just to pour a little more gasoline on the fire, I should point out that freelance editors are not licensed. Anybody in the world can hang out a shingle and claim to be an editor. The person you hire may not be qualified. They may introduce mistakes into your manuscript while thinking they’re fixing something. They may fail to notice significant problems, which then go uncorrected.

If  your freelance editor’s main qualification is a B.A. in English from some university, even a prestigious university, my advice would be to keep looking. You haven’t found a good editor yet. A degree in English, even with a concentration in creative writing, is nearly useless as a credential. Possibly even worse than useless.

Beta-readers are even less reliable than self-appointed editors. “My beta-readers liked it” is not a sentence that you should ever use as an excuse for not getting it right.

This is why you really do need to take responsibility for learning the skills yourself.

Taking the Long View. The author I’m working with is concerned about the cost of editing. He asked me whether I thought a developmental edit (which I suggested would be wise) would enable him to charge more for the book or sell more copies, so he could break even.

Such a question is unanswerable, of course. The market for self-published fiction is intensely overcrowded, and sales are likely based as much on the author’s marketing skills as on the quality of the book.

I suggested to the author that it’s worthwhile to take the long view. If you aspire to write more than one novel, learning some writing skills now will pay off ten or twenty years in the future, when you have five or ten books to sell. Hoping to break even on your first book — well, that would be wonderful, but there are no guarantees.

Of course, I have enough money in the bank that I don’t have to worry about it. I spent $5,000 on a developmental edit for my own four-novel series, and it was money well spent. Will I ever earn $5,000 on the series? Probably not. But that doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me in my own writing — the only thing that matters, really — is doing the very best job that I can.

If your budget is limited, you’ll face some hard choices. And that’s all the more reason to learn the skills you’ll need. A good book on how to write fiction should cost you no more than $25. You can buy ten books for a fraction of what I would charge to edit your novel. Do yourself a favor: Start by buying the books.

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