Editors – Who needs them?

With the advent of Ebooks, publishing a novel is easier than it’s ever been. There is the small task of writing the novel, but once that’s done you simply need to slap on a cover and upload it to Amazon or an equivalent site. The traditional role of an editor is seemingly no longer required. Or is it?

There is a Japanese proverb that says, “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.”

I certainly found this to be the case when I wrote my novel, Wings. It took more than a year to write, although this included a period of nine months when it sat in the drawer, untouched and almost forgotten. When it was finished, I sent it to a publisher and prepared to wait.

I didn’t have to wait long.

“We like it,” replied the publisher within a week. “But it’s not of publishable standard yet. You can pitch it to other publishers if you like, but our recommendation would be to obtain a reader’s report.”

I took their advice and requested a reader’s report, which is a manuscript assessment by an accomplished editor. After six weeks, the report came back. It contained general comments about areas of weakness, as well as a specific example of where the weakness could be found in my manuscript. It was up to me to understand the comment and example and work out how to apply the feedback to the remainder of the manuscript.

The two major weaknesses were a lack of revelation of the character’s emotional response to major events and a scarcity of description about setting. They did observe that my natural writing style was lean and uncluttered, so they cautioned me against going too far with my descriptions and emotional responses. There were also some mechanical issues such as an over-reliance on “ly” adverbs and a passive writing style through the use of words such as “had”, “was” and “am”.

The reader’s report was an excellent initiative and assisted me to make the leap from “gifted amateur” to “polished professional.” The suggestions rang true and the fact that they used examples of my own writing to point out the areas for improvement helped me to grasp their suggestion and apply it to the rest of the novel. The fact that a publisher expressed interest in my work provided more than enough incentive for me to continue the process of refinement.

It took me a couple of months to rework the manuscript in accordance with the feedback. Within ten days of submitting Wings to Really Blue Books, I had an offer to publish. This was not the end of the editing process. My fantastic editor at Really Blue Books went through Wings line by line, identifying inconsistencies and weaknesses, and making numerous suggestions for improvements. None of the changes by themselves were large, but when put together, they have combined to make Wings immeasurably better than my first (and second) attempt.

In summary, professional editing help can be of great assistance in raising the standard of your novel and making it attractive to publishers. Despite the fact that Wings had been written to a high standard, the advice and feedback I have received from my editors has enabled me to raise the bar significantly. The Japanese proverb has proven true. The insights I have gained from my editors have been worth more than a thousand days diligent labour on my part, and I can now apply the learnings to my future novels. However, even with the learnings I have attained, I’ll still be looking for an editor when I’m ready to release my next book!

No Fantasy

My son is an avid Harry Potter fan. He has read each book in the series numerous times, and it seems like the first thing he does after working through all of the books is start again with ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’. He also moderates a Harry Potter fan-site with more than fifteen thousand followers. He recently asked me if I’d write a fantasy novel.

“I can’t see that happening,” I replied. “Unfortunately my imagination doesn’t work in that way.”

Although I have read and enjoyed numerous fantasy series – Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Belgariad for starters – they only constitute a small part of my reading diet. I’m not so enthused about the fantasy genre that I’d be willing to spend the time working through all the details required to create a brand new world.

In order to invest the emotional energy to complete a novel, I have found that I have to pick a subject, theme or characters about which I feel strongly and understand. I have to stay within my circle of competence – things I know – and I have to write about truth as I see it.

This doesn’t mean I can’t research things to supplement my knowledge.

However, it does mean that when I write, the core of what I’m writing has to be familiar and well understood. This applies to the subjects I cover and also the underlying themes. Sticking to what is true for me is the only way I can sit down for weeks and months on end to write tens of thousands of words.

Maybe when I’m a more experienced author, I’ll be able to write novels about anything. For the moment, I need to stick to writing what I know.

Which means, no fantasy.

700 words a day

An old joke asks, “How do you eat an elephant?”. The answer is “one mouthful at a time.”

If someone asked me, “How do you write a novel?” I’d give them a similar response. My answer would be, “700 words at a time.”

One of the most important aspects to being a writer is to write. In my case, once I have worked out the outline of my novel, I aim to contribute 700 words each and every day. Maintaining this rate over a period of a week will see around 5,000 words generated. Maintain this for ten weeks and 50,000 words will have been created. If the average novel is 50,000 to 100,000 words, this means you can have a first draft ready anywhere between ten and twenty weeks after completing a detailed plan.

Of course, writing seven days a week is not easy. Even by maintaining this rate for 5 days a week, a first draft could be completed in fifteen to thirty weeks.

700 words a day is not an impossible task, even for someone with a full time job and family responsibilities. To achieve this may require anywhere between thirty and ninety minutes a day. This could be achieved by waking up early, using your lunch break or foregoing a television show.

Of course, this approach assumes you’ve been able to develop a detailed plan and you maintain consistency in your writing. More about both of these topics later.

The other really important message is that completion of a first draft does not equate to having a novel of publishable standard. That too is a topic for another day.

For now, and assuming you do want to write a novel, think about whether you could achieve a production rate of 700 words per day.