Accepting a free-lance editor’s offer for a free edit of two chapters of my practice manuscript – the first chapter and one from two-thirds through the book – Editor A returned to me six pages of comments. First, she said, the chapters were not yet ready to be edited: there were too many fundamentals missing to be worth it.
She was very nice in what she said and how she said it, but I’ll sum it up: the story was disjointed, overblown, wandering, with too many adjectives, adverbs, and descriptive details. The second chapter revealed flat characters, little cohesion of plot, lack of action, and too much lecturing by one of the characters. I had also used repetitious descriptors that killed the pace of the story.
If I had felt like an amateur before, I now felt like a third grader.
I swallowed my pride, corrected as best as I could, and sent it to Editor B. He came back with the same general comment – the chapters were not ready to be edited – and he gave me seven additional pages of critique.
How could I have written so poorly? I had published six novels that had received praise and I was on a deliberate quest to improve. What happened?
After considerable introspection, and with better articulation five years removed, I think that my heart, my head, and my hands had gotten out of alignment. I was so emotionally involved with this kidnapped boy and his house, and then the main character and how I blended him with the historical backstory, that my heart ruled everything. I was anxious to see the story unfold, I was presuming that my reader would be gripped by the story as much as I was, and I got in a hurry to finish.
In essence, my heart ruled my head and my head let my hand write whatever got me to the next page. Whenever I reviewed what I had written, my eyes saw what I had meant to write, not what I had actually written; I saw what was in my head and not what was on the paper.
I also needed to back off my ego. Writers for centuries have developed successful structures for novels, while human psychology has recognized what pleases people about stories and tales and poems. Most how-to-write books follow these guidelines, emphasizing the structure, the character arc, the hero model, and other things that produce workable and effective characters and stories. Okay, so I didn’t exactly pay attention or take them seriously. In writing my story, I used ways of telling the story that I thought were innovative and creative, and I was obviously wrong. Stepping back from the pages, I could see the confusion I had created and my failure to adhere to the simplicity that readers like. I needed to stop reading how-to-write books and how-to-write-books books and start embracing the training that those books offered instead of feeling like I knew better.
Editor C, by the way, never returned any comments.
I rewrote the manuscript with a more humble approach, cut about 10,000 unnecessary words, and reworked the plot and action. I accepted that the manuscript was still likely not ready for a line-by-line edit, so I hired Editor B to do an editorial edit, which meant making a similar critique for the whole work. That level of edit allowed him to go through the whole story without making detailed corrections. His fee for doing this was $1800.
What he returned to me was not what I expected. He stepped through the whole manuscript, line-by-line, and showed me what I was doing right or wrong, what was weak or strong, and what other choices existed for accomplishing what I was trying to accomplish. He covered plot, pace, structure, characters, drama, transitions, summaries, monologues, flashbacks, description, grammar, long sentences, short sentences, active versus passive verbs, how to create tension and then resolve it, how to capture the reader, how to delight the reader, how to satisfy the reader, and more.
In other words, he gave me a Master’s class on novel writing.
The significant thing is that he did it with my words, my sentences, my paragraphs, my story, my characters, my settings, my descriptions. All of his illustrations used what I had actually written. Never in my writing experience had anyone ever given me the detailed truth about my writing; never had I had so powerful a lens through which to see the material I had created. Friends and family had never been that honest, could not possibly have been that honest, and certainly would never have been able to comment with a background of skill and experience like Editor B.
Editor B was a professional craftsman giving me lessons about the craft of writing novels and that was my conversion to valuing editors. Forever after, my viewpoint is that every writer needs a professional editor to critique their work. Period. Pay the money.
This was the last sentence of his critique: “… and yet once again, you have written a really good book. Revised as required and edited and your book will be really quite excellent.”
I spent three months (with time out for Christmas) revising and rewriting, and was thrilled to see how my story “grew up” as I incorporated his suggestions. I revised the plot, decreased the number of characters, shifted priorities with my characters, strengthened the connection between the kidnapped boy and the present day main character, redid the climax and final scenes, and more. It was finally beginning to read like the fiction novels I bought from bookstores. I resubmitted the manuscript to him and he did a final line-by-line edit, where he did smooth out the words and sentences and made corrections. His fee was $2000 for that pass.
I was delighted with the result: the novel now flowed. It read better, was more understandable, had genuine drama and resolution, and I read it as if I was hearing it for the first time. It had better words, the sentences were direct and simple, and the paragraphs carried the reader along with no sidetracks, no confusion, and no unnecessary thoughts. The chapters were well-placed, the scenes fell in the right sequence, and the transitions were smooth. I’m sure it’s not perfect but it was good enough. It was time to quit.
I’d spent around $4500 for the whole process and could not afford more. I did my own proofreading, got help from family and friends to create the cover, did my own formatting for a 5x9 paperback, and bought my ISBN and barcode. I used Createspace to handle the printing of the book.
It’s called SMOKE DREAMS and it’s available only on Amazon.
That officially concluded my year of learning. I’ll summarize what I learned in the next couple of posts.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.