Thursday, January 3, 2013

A primer on editing

So notes are starting to come in from my editors, and even just glancing at a few of the comments, I realize that I have tended to lose the voice of my narrator, mixing a bit too much of the Ninja Librarian into Big Al's narrative voice (for those of you who have read the books and might wonder).  This set me to thinking about why, no matter how good we are at grammar and syntax and even writing nice sentences (and I am at least decent at all of those, though I have to work harder at the latter), we need someone else to edit our works.

I commented a couple of weeks ago on revisions and how they make me feel (not so happy), but now I want to talk about how important feedback and editorial input is on all levels.  As I see it, there are two or three, or maybe more, "levels" of editing.  I'm going to discuss them in reverse order of application.

1.  Proofreading.  This is the last thing you do before you print the book, the polish that puts a shine on it.  And while the author needs to do it a few times, ultimately someone else should, because you will NEVER see every error you made (nor will someone else, but two heads are better than one).  This is the search for every little typo, a word that got left behind from an edit, or a bit of punctuation misplaced.

2.   Line Edits.  This covers spelling and grammar, but goes deeper, and comes after the story is complete and revised.  Line edits look for style and usage and tone (what my editor is catching me on right now).  By the time you get to line edits, your story should be solid, just in need of polish.  Again, you can't do this alone.

3.  Revision.  Actually, revisions, in the plural, because you'll need to do this repeatedly.  This is the big stuff.  Getting the plot straight, figuring out scenes that work and don't work, spotting dialog that doesn't ring true (to the characters or to any human beings), and so on.  This one you do first yourself, then pass off to someone else, as a general rule.  That's why I said it's plural.  I speak from my own experience here, and maybe some authors get there faster than I do (almost certainly.  As I've mentioned before, I embrace Anne Lamott's doctrine of crappy first drafts), but in general I write a draft, re-read it and create an outline, rearrange scenes and replace the ones that don't work, then do it again.  THEN I can pass it to someone else to read to tell me if it hangs together, if the plot elements are convincing, and so on.  At this stage, your reader may tell you if in some places your writing is rough and spelling took a vacation, but that's not the primary concern, because you are still messing things up there.

In my view, these are the three big stages, and while the author has to do each one herself, each stage also needs an outsider.  For the independent author, this can present a problem, although every author is on her own for #3, at the least--you shouldn't be showing an agent a MS until you are well past the revision stage, and probably through a first round of line edits.  I'd do a major proofing, too, even though you know you will have to do that again after making changes suggested by your agent or editor, should you be so lucky.

But what can the independent author do?  Buying these services costs money, and most of us don't have a lot of that to spare--especially not if we want to get our book out of the red and into the black sometime in the next decade.  So here's what I do.

#3.  I start with friends who just like to read my stories.  They don't have to be great at critiques, but must be willing to tell me if something doesn't work for them.  I've heard these referred to as Beta Readers, but if so it's Microsoft-style: let the users figure out the problems with the rough draft.  I also find that putting a MS away for a few week, months or years allows me to read it with a fresh eye and see most of the issues myself, before I inflict it on anyone else.  This works better, of course, if you are not in a hurry.  I think it's best if a writer is not in a hurry.  If you aren't working under a deadline, be willing to wait if you need to.  If you are working under a deadline. . . well, I haven't been there, but I think I'd rather miss the deadline than publish anything less than my best.

#2.  Take a good look at your friends.  Do any of them write?  Are you part of a writers' group?  Agree to exchange editing services.  I have a couple of friends with whom I've been doing this for years.  It may mean you have to be patient.  If you aren't paying, it's not nice to be pushy about schedules.  Make sure the people you pick (I like two, in part because one may flake at any time) are good writers and can spot the stuff that needs work.

#1.  Sometimes I send my MS back to my line editors.  But this level of proofing can also be done by someone who isn't a writer but has a sharp eye and an excellent grasp of grammar and structure (so not exactly a non-writer, either).  If a friend agrees to do this, you owe that friend a lot of cookies.  Of course, when your MS comes back from this, and you are making the fixes suggested, a) be very careful you don't introduce new errors, and b) give it another going-over yourself before you say you are done.

Give all these people much credit and oodles of thanks on the Acknowledgments page.  

And when you are done, and your book is as perfect as perfect. . . someone will find an error on page 37.  Give a sickly grin, correct it in your file, and--if you are using a POD service--upload the corrected MS so that from here out, it will be correct.

Then get back to work on the new project.

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