Yesterday’s post at Mad Genius Club* (Yes, Dave, that was amazingly concise when I can’t say things in less than five pages) as well as Bill Quick ’s on the roughly same subject – that the establishment is trying to convince ebooks will be the death of all books (what they think we can do about it, even if it were true, is beyond me. They do know, right, that tech can’t be put back in the bottle?) – has led me to think about editing, copy-editing and proofreading.
Why has it led me to think about that?
Because Dave’s comments turned to the art of editing and because of Bill’s exchange with a commenter on his blog who said the country is awash in talent that simply didn’t fit the old model. Bill said that no. He’s read slush, and most of it is painfully bad.
He’s right of course. And so is the commenter.
Which brings me to the first point of this post. Writing is an art, true. Writing is also a craft. The country might be awash in art – it is not awash in craft. It will never be because craft is work and not everyone who is artistically gifted is willing to work at it. Or even has any clue in which direction to work. This is sort of like saying the country is awash in people with talent for sculpture. It might be true, but it doesn’t mean that every barn and every garage shelters the equivalent of Michael Angelo’s David.
This is the point at which, usually, my colleagues start running in circles like their head is on fire and yelling “oh, no, my precious gems will be lost in showers of sh*t” and “readers will never wade through slush.” These might be true for some people. I have heard some readers will no longer buy independent works at 99c because they assume it will be raw slush. It’s not true for me, though, and probably not for a lot of other people, because a) I’m cheap. b) I will read three paragraphs and if the writer is not competent enough to draw me in, I set it aside. And this happens as mucht o independent books as to well-published ones.
No, what worries me about every beginner being able to publish himself is not that my gems will get lost in the muck. There’s word of mouth. And there’s other considerations. I’ve made a post about it here: http://accordingtohoyt.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=918&action=edit. The establishment (or even one of us when we read slush) cull for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with quality. Like “does it fit the publisher?” Or “will it sell enough to justify investment?” And independent publishing has the potential to free up a lot of talent that otherwise would have no outlet.
What worries me and has worried me since I heard a self-published author read five years ago, is more the Michael Angelos who will be lost because they had no clue how to learn or that their sculpture wasn’t perfect and – having shown it to the public – it didn’t do well.
Both as a once-upon-a-time clueless writer and as reader, I don’t like to see that talent wasted.
This was brought home by reading for a contest. I’ve done this over the years for contests ranging from sf to mystery to romance. Not a single entry in a contest was publishable as was, though several of the people I judged and encouraged (hi Connie!) have gone on to be published. And though this is hard to judge, I’d say 90% of the writers are more talented than I am.
What they lack is craft.
Now, this is the point at which my colleagues start running around in circles, screaming “without editing we’re lost, lost, lost.” Okay, all I can say is that these colleagues either came into the field much earlier than I did, or they’re G-d’s little precious snow flakes.
I didn’t even know what in heaven’s name they were talking about when they threw these hissy fits. Because, look, most of the contest entries – most of slush too – is grammatically correct and properly spelled. The exceptions, like the mention of a copulant face (they meant corpulent, and yes, that would be wrong too) on the first line, were easily fixable.
And then I read Heinlein’s bio by Patterson, and about how Campbell worked with him, sometimes sending things back for rewrite three or four times. All you have to do is read Heinlein’s short stories of the time in sequence to see Campbell taking him from a raw beginner to a master.
Children, if this has happened to anyone in my generation, it wasn’t to those of us who were thrown into the mid list to sink or swim. And I doubt it happened to very many people for one reason: there weren’t enough editors. Oh, one additional reason: the editor who can do this is rare. When you have fewer editors the chances of one of these are… zero.
I came in the hard way, by getting rejected so much any sane person would have walked away. In between, I read how to books, most of which are of course useless and a few of which are invaluable. At some point I started getting nuggets of editorial wisdom (not always from editors) which did help. Like my first agent told me to forget about coincidences as plotting devices. Toni Weisskopf at Baen told me I had to get past the “there’s a secret to be discovered” plot. (This was true and false. It’s a type of plot, and a type I like, so all my books have a “mystery” in them. But I had a tendency to try to play keep away with all knowledge and that was wrong, wrong, wrong.) But mostly I learned on my own.
The thing is, I learned because I wanted to get published. Will self-published authors do that, or just give up? I don’t know. I do know that I would love to find an editor like Campbell. And that I feel bad for newbies who are paying for “editing” and getting proof reading.
This is not a scam. It’s just what most people understand for “editing.” It’s what most writers’ groups obsess about. It’s what most first readers THINK they’re supposed to do.
I don’t know where this comes from. Perhaps it is because proofing is hard and fast and we all learn it in school. Editing, OTOH is an art as well as a science, and it requires not only that one be a voracious reader, but that one be a voracious reader who can extrapolate why things work and why things don’t.
Most writers who came in the hard way and had to edit themselves into success can do it.
Whether they WILL do it is something else. (I can do it, and do it for my mentees and my kids. I also hate it with a passion. Yes, this is why I’m the world’s worst mentor, and if you send me something to read, you have to KEEP on me, or I’ll forget it.)
Again – most of what I’ve seen in contests and slush could be salvaged with expert editing and a few rewrites. And none of it had anything to do with proofing. Proofing is easy. Any monkey can do it, editing is very difficult and you need a good match between writer and editor, or it will only get worse.
So, a quick, handy guide:
Editing – if you are a beginner writer and you can get good editing, you should definitely do so. How do you get good editing? Oh, search me. Here is what you should shop for: someone who has experience making books marketable. Here is what you should beware of: someone whose experience making books marketable has been thoroughly directed to making them fit the old model. That might no longer apply and it might be counterproductive.*
One of the best editors I’ve had, I paid to copy-edit/proofread, and was shocked he was also tightening my sentences, pointing out where the plot went weird, and tweaking scenes.
What was shocking about this, is that he’s GOOD at it. Though perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised, since he’s a voracious reader, an introspective one, and has worked as a non-fiction editor for years. (Yes, that helps, because he’s used to making things sound clear.) He’s also the Seneschal of Snark, but you take the bitter with the sweet.
So, editing involves telling you when your plot gets incoherent within a chapter. It involves telling you things like “if your character is allergic to oak trees, why does she live in an oak forest?” For a very gifted editor, it might mean also telling you how to fix it without ditching the whole plot “she’s under a geas that makes her cleave to the oaks.”
To figure out what editing IS you should go out and buy Self Editing for Fiction Writers. It will at least point you in the direction of what editing is and isn’t, and maybe even get you to edit yourself into publication.
Chances you’ll be your own Campbell are minimal, but miracles do happen.
Copy Editing – copy editing is something completely different from editing. Yes, I know it says editing in the title. Note it also says “copy.” Copy means the story has been accepted and is being prepared for publication. In old newspaper parlance, articles are “copy.”
One of the reasons that writers groups and first readers harping on the copy edit drives me nuts is that in most traditional publishing this is done, anyway. So, unless it’s really, really, really in your face distracting, you shouldn’t bother, because it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen by people who are trained to do it and who know “house style.” (For instance, most houses use FAR fewer commas than are strictly indicated in grammar manuals. Some houses – I’m looking at you Berkley! – try to remove the subjunctive. Etc.) There’s a good chance what you’re doing to the book is going cause more trouble in the long run and browbeating the author in the process.
Proofing – I view this as a different stage from copy editting, though feel free to consider it the same. Proofing is that last, last, just before print stage you go through to make sure your search-replace didn’t get funny, and that you didn’t enter a word wrong after copyedit.
All works, whether indy or traditional should have all three stages – Editing, copy editing and proofing. For years now, the traditional have only had the last two, but the publishers kept out those that needed heavy editing. Now, that’s each author’s responsibility. And figuring out what editing means is a good beginning.
*A bad editor is worse than no editor. Actually where I see this the most is where writers’ groups or first readers think they’re editors and the writer is too green to know better. The reason first readers come in bunches is that the writer is supposed to FILTER the comments. For instance, if less than three first readers have a problem with a scene (for a group of say ten first readers) you ignore it. No matter how vehement the first reader was. I am currently editing a friend’s book which has been glopped into an utter mess by integrating in explanations for everything someone failed to get. So, in case you need to know this, first readers are ALSO not editors. They are useful, but only if corroborated.