Monday, February 6, 2012

What I Have Learned as an Indie Author – Part 1: Editing

A writer trying to do his own editing, or make his own book cover, is like a person trying represent themselves (pro se) in court. I practiced law for ten years, and there are very few things lawyers and judges hate more than a pro se litigant. They don’t know the rules of court, they don’t know procedure, and they sure as hell don’t know the law. Their filings are garbage, and they often don’t understand the real issues in their own cases. They think they do, but they don’t. 

The same is true of an indie writer trying to do it all himself. Indie authors are on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, if you are not schooled in writing, then your work is (believe me) of poor quality, unless you hire an editor. 

You also need a good book cover. It’s cliché, but people judge a book by its cover. You need one that will grab the attention of your target audience, and get those people to look at your book. It’s got to be easy to see online in a small image. These things all cost money. A lot of money.

If you want to be successful as an indie author, the content of your book needs to be perfect. Not the best darn work you can do (that might have been good enough for your mother) but no typos, proper grammar, spelling and punctuation, and proper usage. This can only be accomplished with professional help. 

There are two levels of this: one is a very detailed analysis of your story. Whether it makes sense, where the holes are, and whether it has the elements of a story. The other is a line edit/proofread where, if you have command of the story, typos, grammar, and improper usage will be corrected.

Being able to put together a story, particularly of novel length, is very difficult. That even comes in two parts. You need to be able to construct the story with a beginning, middle and end, and you need to be able to write it so it is interesting and makes sense. For the structure, I recommend a book called The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition, by Christopher Volger. There is also a nice set of videos on YouTube that give it to you in a nutshell. But nothing beats reading the book.

As to the writing part, I suggest Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. 

Even if you consider yourself to be well-versed in the use of the language, you need to have an editor in order to achieve the quality you need. I have a master’s degree in business and a law degree, and think that I have a decent command of grammar, punctuation, style, and usage (I can’t spell, and I know it). But what I produce is riddled with errors. Even what I published had errors. That’s how I know what I’m talking about.

Even if you have a perfect understanding of the elements of writing, you will never, ever, in a million years, catch all the typos and other errors in your own work. You at least need a proofreader.

For example, I had a sentence that was supposed to be “Then Roland got out of the car.” I typed “the” instead of “then.” I can’t tell you how many times I read that and missed it. My wife caught it. (I later realized that I didn’t need the “then,” so I deleted it, anyway). As an experiment, I tried some of the big fancy grammar checkers on the market, to see whether they would catch that. None of them did. None.

When I uploaded the file for CreateSpace, I had read through it, and my wife had read through it. I thought it was in pretty darn good shape. Then I got the proof of the book. We read it again. There were a myriad of errors. Little errors, generally, but still errors. Then I did something different. I listened to the whole book as the computer read it through, following along, making edits as it went. Again, numerous little errors. A missing letter, here–a period where there should have been a comma there. 

The astute reader will say “but you didn’t use an editor.” No, I didn’t. And I probably won’t, and here’s why: I used an editor for another novel, and learned a lot from that. My problem is not grammar and punctuation, so much, as it is being able to spot small typos. So, it must be proofread by more than one person, and it is very helpful to listen to it and follow along.

I paid three grand to have an editor review my first novel (and continue to work with me, and it ain’t done, yet) for not only grammar and punctuation, but for story arc, believability, and such. Tons and tons of work. And that editor took me to school. No kid gloves, no gratuitous praise, just plain hard “I don’t buy it,” or “this isn’t funny,” or big red Xs through page after page, or saying that my main character was a sociopath and an alcoholic, and she didn’t like him (which gave me pause, because I patterned him after myself. All right, good to know.) 

I learned a lot from her, to the extent that I feel I can put together the story, and write it cleanly. But proofreading is still a problem. An it is very difficult to get anyone to do it for the mere joy of reading my masterpiece.

So, I think it’s important to lay out the cash at least once for a good, thorough crash course on English and writing. There are millions of people online who do that. My editor is here. And if you intend to write more than one book, the payback (i.e., the length of time it takes you to get the money back on your investment) is then spread over several books.

So, do yourself and your readers a favor. Learn the craft, and get a professional to help you edit and proofread your book. Then all you'll need to do is put your ass in a chair and type words on paper. All there is to it.


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