I love my job, and most of the people I work with. I own my own writing and editing business. I primarily work with self-published authors on their manuscripts as well as students on various academic projects, depending on the time of year. What always gets me about the majority of the writers I work with, however, is they usually fall into the same traps.
To be a writer means you have to have a thick skin (more like armor). I think writers who try to find agents, or query magazines or publishers understand that rejection is a part of being a writer. Most writers I know receive hundreds of rejections before they hear that magical “yes.” This either breaks us or hardens our resolve. (I feel strange saying this, because I have never submitted a darn thing, but I know this is the way of it and I am prepared for it. I am preparing my book proposal and query to send out to agents as I write this.)
Many self-published authors that I work with have no interest in traditional publishing, or simply do not want to wait, share the profits, etc. There are many reasons to self-publish, especially as the industry changes and many people are doing just that. Some go on to be very successful, others moderately so and others may not even sell 100 books. From my experiences, the writers who are most aware of these expectations are the most successful. These expectations also apply to writers who go the traditional route (though I think a lot of writers who go the traditional route are already aware or groomed to be aware of many of these to some extent).
1. It is all right to dream big (and encouraged) so long as you stay grounded.
There is a fine line between hoping for something and expecting it (at least subconsciously). Dream big. Every writer wants to be the exception, the writer who earns six figures and ends up on every bestseller list with their very first book and every book thereafter. Fantastic, just don’t expect it.
Don’t limit yourself with thinking like “my book won’t do better than x” because you are creating a ceiling for your book. Instead think about, “my book will probably sell x, so what can I do to double that figure?” Be realistic in how much you will sell initially and then strategize on how you can sell more. Once you double your expected initial sales, you should set a new goal. Why not double your current sales within six months? How will you accomplish this? You will find once you are published that writing your manuscript was relatively easy compared to selling it, both to a publisher and to readers once it is published. Be smart so that you can be the exception.
2. Your book is a business, stop looking at it as art or expression.
The personal attachments that writers have with their manuscripts and the pride in their art can hurt them when it comes time to publish their book. During the creation phase it is about art and expression and sharing a story with the world at large. This is great and you shouldn’t change this. But when it comes to editing, revising and rewriting your manuscript a writer needs to shift from their artistic viewpoints to those concerning numbers. The book needs to sell because a writer’s success, career and next book are all affected (and sometimes dependent) on how well their previous publications sold.
Then there is the simple fact that if the book is not selling, people are not reading it. Writers may write for themselves initially, but if they are seeking publication or publish a book themselves, it needs to be for an audience. Why publish something that no one will read?
Some writers have a hard time transitioning from one outlook to another, but it is crucial. The most successful writers I know are the ones who look at their career as a brand and each book as a product. Some have business experience, but that isn’t necessary so long as they have the drive and perspective they need to succeed. They do not necessarily do this while they are writing, but as soon as they finish the first draft of a manuscript they make the shift. And because they do, they sell!
3. Know what to do with critique and be more than open to revising and rewriting.
Most writers are too attached to their work to be objective (see my post “Why You Cannot Afford To Be Your Manuscript’s Single Parent”). This is why you need critique more than you need an agent referral or fantastic copyeditor. What works and what doesn’t, what is the significant parts of the manuscript and what parts are unnecessary (in fiction I call this fictive fat). You need to be open to major changes, manuscript overhaul, rewriting and omitting parts that you love. (That doesn’t mean you can never use what you cut. Heck, with the manuscript I am polishing, I had enough for three books. A third was scrapped, and another third I intend to use for a second book with a different focus.)
You must be open enough to listen to the reasoning behind the suggested changes, but that does not mean you should automatically make every single change suggested. People can disagree. For example, the first and second person who went through my book disagreed on about a third of what to cut and what to expand on. When I had a strong inclination on the section involved I was the tiebreaker. For the rest, the third person who is currently going through it will be the tiebreaker. If you get feedback from multiple sources, you will get conflicting feedback at times. Trust your gut or seek a tiebreaker.
Finally, there are two things that suggested changes should not alter. The first is your voice. Unless, your writing is terrible from both technical and stylistic standpoints, your voice should remain intact. You can refine your voice and your voice may evolve over a period of time, but the reader should always be able to pick out your book from the rest in a pile. Mastering voice is one of the most important thing in terms of craft for fiction and many nonfiction writers (the exception being encyclopedias and other strictly reference materials).
The second thing is your vision. Unless your vision itself is under fire, it should remain the same at its core. This may mean a different approach to bringing out your vision, but what you want your book to do, its intended effect on readers and the message or motivation for telling this story should remain authentic to what it was originally. If not, you are actually working on a different book. That is not to say that every vision is publishable or if a vision isn’t working now that it will never work, but it is something that should be not only maintained, but nurtured.
I always tell clients, current and potential, that my job as an editor is to enhance their book, not change it. My goal is to bring out their voice and to help them present their vision and story the best way possible. For me, every project I take on is a labor of love. It may be their baby, but I am the godparent.
4. Own the final proof of your book; do not equate an editor to Godly status.
It never ceases to amaze me when someone takes their edited document, accepts all changes and doesn’t give it a second glance before turning it in or submitting it. Luckily for me, most of my clients do not do this. It wouldn’t work out that well for them because I make comments in the margins about context and content. I have worked on nonfiction manuscripts ranging from various medical specialties such as neurosurgery to building a computer to the lesser known history of the Catholic Church (as in before 1200 A.D.). I can spot grammar, but when it comes to specific terminology I do not always know it all. I would love to say that I do, but you cannot be an expert at everything. There are also times when a sentence is constructed awkwardly and I do not know what the writer is trying to convey so a comment may look something like “Awkward construction, unclear. If you mean A change this to C and if you mean B change this to D.” Accepting track changes will not take care of these issues.
When I work on someone else’s manuscript I go through it three times (at least). One of the reasons I do this is my first go-through is all about the obvious: the obvious mistakes as well as how characters come across, dialogue that isn’t working, buildup and pace. My first go-through is focused on this because I feel that after you go through a manuscript once, your ability to pinpoint what is needed and give your most valuable feedback in terms of certain content concerns has been compromised. The second go-through is where I get technical, catch everything I missed that was less obvious including how to say something better, even if it isn’t technically wrong, as well as marketing and reader demographics. For example, “This remark is great when targeting demographic A” or “I know what you are trying to say, but be careful with this. You’re on the cusp of alienating a lot of demographic B.”
Still, there is my least favorite admission, but one I always put out there. I am human. Three times may not be enough or my eyes may be in a rhythm with a person’s story that I miss something. It happens rarely, and I can think of less than ten times after working with several hundred clients. They are always the stupid things, like a missing letter or something that the writer actually picks up on once they go through the edited manuscript. Again, this happens rarely, but to say that I have never missed a single thing would be a lie. Any editor who guarantees that he or she will catch every single thing in your manuscript should be approached cautiously (and with pepper spray!) because they are either inexperienced and egocentric or downright lying. Absolutes don’t work. I do not like to use ‘never’ and ‘always’ for these reasons (and I rarely do).
Your manuscript is first and foremost a reflection on you. Be vigilant about what you are putting out there and when you have an editor go through it and say the manuscript is ready to go, go through it again yourself!
5. There will be an error in your published book.
This goes back to my previous point, and is not an absolute, but expect it so you don’t have a meltdown once you see your book in print. I say this because a great deal of books from large publishing houses have one or two mistakes. These are the same books that are on bestseller lists and featured in national publications. (I get a lot of my ‘must read soon’ books from the book review section in People Magazine, please don’t judge.) If these authors had an agent (and potentially a gatekeeper for said agent), an editor, a copyeditor or editorial intern, and many other people in the editing and marketing departments go through the book and not find that one mistake in 400+ pages then what makes you think your book is immune? (Yes, these are real examples from Random House and Simon & Schuster, two of the six sisters. I think this is all that needs to be said.)
Remember from before, your editor is human. One mistake in 400+ pages speaks to quality of editing, as in the editor did a great job. Most ‘writer polished’ manuscripts I look at have at least twenty errors on a single page. Using this number that means that the editor missed one out of 8,000 mistakes. That is good work.
I know that these first five tips are mostly about what a writer needs to know before their book is published, but there are five more traps that writers fall into right after their book is published. I will post those tomorrow, which includes how to make your book sell, realities once your book is out in the world and following up your success (you are going to be the exception, right?) with a second book.
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Make sure to check back tomorrow for the final five traps writers can fall into and how to avoid them!