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Finding a Good Editor, Talent Vs. Training, and Writing Banter

| Posted in Writing |

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A couple of weeks ago, I started answering reader questions that came in via a Facebook post. Here’s the first batch, if you’re interested: Writing Humor, Writing Quickly, and Well-Rounded Characters.

Today I’m back with another round.

Patricia asks, “I’d like you to let other Indie writers understand how important it is to have a good line/copy editor. Your books come out in a timely manner and yet are so well edited compared to many Indie authors I’ve read. How is it that you are so prolific, yet have time to get excellent editing done? Or are you just that good right off the bat?” And Liberty adds, “Tagging onto Patricia, how to go about selecting the right editor for your project(s).

Well, good is in the eye of the beholder (or reader), I suppose, but I’ve written enough now that the rough drafts usually come out pretty close to what the final book will be. I have a couple of overworked and underpaid beta readers go over the manuscripts to let me know if my characters’ names changed, or if my mystery is confusing instead of delightfully engaging, or if I’ve unintentionally offended large portions of the population. Then I send the manuscript off to my editor, Shelley Holloway, and she can usually go through a full-length novel in a week (I only get copy-editing, not developmental editing or anything major). I do need to book her in advance, since she has other clients. Because I write quickly, it can be a challenge to guess when I’ll have things ready and to book far enough in advance, but she’s always great about working me in when she can.

I think most independent authors know that having an editor is a good (crucial) idea, but it’s not inexpensive, so I understand why some authors can’t hire a professional, especially when they’re just starting out. I also think some authors rush to publish before they’re really ready, and no amount of editing can fix a fundamentally flawed book.

I’m probably lucky that self-publishing wasn’t a trendy thing when I was getting started. I joined a writing workshop, assuming that I would have to query agents, and I also assumed I would have to write a few novels before I had anything that might catch someone’s eye. Even though I never liked reading short stories, I wrote lots of them so I could submit them to magazines and anthologies, in that hope that I might sell some and that those sales would look good on a query letter. This was all good practice and taught me a lot (even if I still don’t like short stories).

I did end up selling some short stories, and I was on the verge of sending out query letters for Encrypted (EE1 was sitting on my hard drive, because agents weren’t looking for high fantasy in 2010) when I got my first Kindle and stumbled across J.A. Konrath’s blog on his success with self-publishing. This rest is history.

My rambling point is that if a writer hasn’t learned the basics, they’re not ready to find an editor or to publish. There aren’t many first novels that should ever see the light of day. But you do need feedback on first novels, so that you can learn what you’re doing well and what needs improvement. That’s where workshops, either online or locally, can be a big help. Some people prefer writing classes and conferences or learning from books, too, but it’s important to get feedback from objective parties at some point (not your family).

As far as finding the right editor goes, ask for references, and then once you pick one or two likely candidates, ask if they’ll edit a few sample pages for you (most professionals will). Look and see what changes they suggest. Do they make sense? Do you agree with them? Are they rewriting things that don’t, in your opinion, need to be rewritten? You should be able to tell after you’ve seen a few pages of their work if you’re going to mesh.

Kantami asks, “I would love to know how you manage to keep the banter between your characters so fresh, it always works well within the story and makes me laugh.”

I talked a bit about humor in the other post and the straight-man-funny-man set-up. Usually the dialogue flows out naturally for me, based on the differences in the characters. Strong personalities and interesting quirks give you a lot to work with. Usually my point-of-view characters aren’t overly eccentric, because I want the reader to connect with them, but with the side characters, you can play around more.

I try not to go overboard, because humor is subjective and because it’s possible to try too hard and have things feel forced and unnatural. Most of the time for me, it’s just the characters talking about the plot and the conflict and the strange situation I’ve put them into. If it happens to make the reader smile, great. If not, hey, we’re still moving the plot along.

Nancy asks, “The ability to write a novel is a mysterious and awesome act of creation, at least to me. How much of your ability to write such consistently good stories is pure talent, and how much is due to training and experience? What kind of writing training have you had?”

I’m old enough now to have found a measure of success in a handful of hobbies and entrepreneurial activities (still waiting to become awesome at tennis!), and that’s taught me that some people are born with more talent for X, Y, or Z than other people, but that talent alone doesn’t get you very far. If you sign up for a martial arts class, you’ll see that a lot of people who start at the same time might seem more talented–or maybe you’re the one for whom everything comes easily–but several years later, maybe one in a hundred or even one in a thousand will actually get the black belt and win trophies at competitions. Was that one person the most talented back on Day 1? Probably not. He or she was just the one that liked the sport enough to make time to do it week in and week out, without letting life get in the way for long.

For myself (let’s talk about writing instead of the way I dropped out of karate…), I mentioned the workshops I belonged to already. In addition to that, I wrote as a kid, and I wrote all through school. I drifted away from it for a while as an adult, but I came back to it and decided to get serious about completing works and finding and audience for them. From that point on, I kept chugging along. I didn’t have any meteoric success with my first book, but enough people left good reviews that I was encouraged, and I had sold enough short stories at that point, too, that I believed I was good enough. Not great, but good enough.

I believed that I could write stories that at least some people would enjoy. And I learned to play to my strengths. I suck at world building, probably because I don’t care that much about it beyond a few interesting details here and there, so I don’t spend a lot of time on it in my novels. Designing big complicated plots with cunning twists and turns? Not really my thing. Usually I confuse myself when I try to write a mystery. But humor? Yeah, I seem to have a bit of a knack for that. Characters that people care about? That seems to come naturally, maybe because I put all of my own fears and insecurities into my heroes. So, I write character-driven stories with heroes who don’t take themselves too seriously, at least not for very long at a time.

A lot of finding success is just being the person who kept going after everyone else quit. If you do some of the writing stuff well and some of the marketing stuff sort of okay, and you keep publishing books, chances are, you can get to the point where you’re doing this for a living.

Lou asks, I always find that thinking of names gives me issues when writing – how do you come up with so many original names?? …Do you plan it all or just take the Amaranthe approach of having a rough plan and playing it by ear as it develops?” 

Are you sure you want to ask this from the author who named a town Wolfhump? And who named a character Sardelle, only to later find out that this is the Gernam word for sardine?

Okay…

So, I’m fairly horrible at naming characters, towns, and novels for that matter. Character names in early stories came via digging through Latin-to-English dictionaries (Sicarius, ahem). Not that creative. Later, I adopted more of a smash-keyboard approach. These days, I tend to write down street names or surnames that I see and like, and I’ll change a couple of letters to give it some fantasy flair. (Tolemek came from Tolemac Street, which I drive by every day; I noticed it was Camelot spelled backward, so it stuck in my mind.)

If I’m fit to give advice on this topic (questionable!), that would be it. Keep a swipe file on your phone or a pad of paper you always have with you and stick names or even cool ideas for stories in it. You never know when you’ll hear something that intrigues you and want to use it.

Pantsing vs. Outlining

As for planning things, I’m guessing this refers to the plot of the novel? I started my writing life as more of a pantser (I learned fairly early on that if I knew how things ended, I could find my way there), but as I was wanting to learn to write more quickly and be able to publish more novels in a year, I realized that outlining was key in learning to write faster. As long as I know what’s going to happen in a scene, I can sit down and write 1500-2000 words in an hour. If I’m kind of finding my way through the scene, the output drops considerably. 15 minutes of planning before a writing session makes a big difference in how much I get done in a day.

These days, I usually do about a 2,000-word outline before getting started. It’s not that neat, and there aren’t any tidy numbers or bullet points; it’s mostly a big picture overview of what I think the major plot points will be. If any cool dialogue jumps into my head, I’ll write it down, but it’s usually not until I’m writing the scene that dialogue comes to mind.

I don’t stick religiously to the outline. It’s just what helps me get the story firmly in my mind. Sometimes I end up following it fairly closely, but other times, I’ll have deviated by the end of Chapter 3. Sometimes I deviate so much that I’m not even looking at the outline from Chapter 5 onward. But I’ll continue to brainstorm the next 2-3 scenes out before I write them, often the night before, but sometimes on a dog walk during the morning. I have yet to knock myself out while typing notes into my phone, but I’ll keep you updated on that…

I have a few more questions to answer, so I’ll do another batch in the future. Thanks for taking a look, all!

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Comments (11)

Love your answers! Your character shines through, too. Thanks for being you, someone who does so much to foster other writers — and who also writes entertaining stories I love to read.

You’re welcome, Gwynneth! Thanks for checking out the post!

Thanks, Lindsay. Interesting and helpful answers. I’ve put your editor’s name on my favorites to check out later. Your help got me the cover artist and formatter I love. Maybe I’ll end up with your editor, too.

I like to pimp her out. 😀

Thanks for the thoughtful answers to these great questions, Lindsay!

I’m glad to hear that you only hire a copy editor. That supports my belief that it’s possible to craft entertaining stories without loads of developmental editing. (Although to be fair, I’m sure some stories DO need developmental editing before they hit the bookstore.)

Thanks again. Keep blogging. I’ll be reading.

Developmental editing is expensive, thousands of dollars per manuscript, typically. For most indie authors, it’s going to be better to master the basics so that a lot of substantive editing isn’t needed–and to find good beta readers who can point out flaws at an early stage. My understanding from trad publishing is that agents/publishers won’t take on people any more who need a lot of work either. They want a manuscript that’s just about ready to roll.

I love how you say that it’s not talent but continuous effort that makes a writer a writer. That actually somehow makes it seem more achievable to write enjoyable fiction for an audience. 🙂

One of the things I most admire about your books is that they get better with each one. It’s really obvious that you keep learning and keep trying to improve all the time. I can never wait to see what you’re going to do next!

As for the question about editing, etc., I think it’s important not to forget that a good critique group is invaluable. It took me a long time to find a group of people who “fit” with me, but now that I’ve found them, I’ve seen my writing improve by leaps and bounds. 🙂 Sometimes there’s just no substitute for getting feedback from other authors, I guess.

Thanks for commenting, Misty! I found a couple of my long time beta readers through that workshop. I’ve definitely found it useful to trade critiques back and forth.

Hi Lindsay,

Have you found one editor in particular that you want to stick with long-term? What do you think the importance is of indie-authors creating a long-term relationship with their editors?

I’ve been with Shelley since my second novel, so that’s definitely longterm! I did try a couple of other editors before finding a good fit. If you’re doing a series, it can help to stick with the same person, since they might catch continuity errors that you missed.

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