How to be your own best editor: Part I

I made the decision that I was going to self-publish my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, in the spring of 2009. Having discovered and become a faithful reader of the website, Publetariat, I was well aware that I had several tasks in front of me if I wanted to be a successful indie author. I had to decide where to publish, design a cover, set up a website, learn how to format the manuscript for  different publishing mediums, and set up a marketing plan. But most importantly, I needed to make sure that my manuscript was completely ready for publication.

Over the years, through at least 3 rewritings of my manuscript, I had gotten excellent advice from  my writers group. However, with each rewrite, I had always assumed that any lingering problems with the manuscript would somehow be taken care of when it was finally accepted for publication and went through the traditional editing process. I had no such safety net as an indie author.

Read any blog post on self-publishing, and the question of editing comes up. In fact, this seems to be at the crux of most arguments against the validity of self-publishing–that self-published work just can’t be good because it hasn’t been through the vetting of an agent and editor. See Tom Barlow’s “Six reasons that self-publishing is the scourge of the book world” http://bit.ly/ar7bBq for a typical example of this point of view.

Even strong defenders of self-publishing often suggest that indie authors should hire a professional editor before publishing their books. For example, at Publitariat, see  “Why do you need an editor?” by Heidi Thomas. http://bit.ly/Ysbzx

Yet, even if I had decided to hire a professional editor (which I didn’t) this wouldn’t preclude my responsibility for the finished product. Editors can point out errors, they can suggest changes, but ultimately, as an indie author, I needed to be my own best editor.

These are the steps I took:

I read.

American Idol has demonstrated the amazing capacity of humans for self-delusion, but I knew that no matter how tickled I was with the story I had written, it was not up to the quality of the best of the published fiction I enjoy reading. That knowledge came from a life-time of reading, cringing at badly written material and being transported by the good stuff. I knew that it would be from reading that I would hone the skills to edit my own work.

First I concentrated on reading (or rereading) books by all of my favorite mystery authors.

I have never understood the would-be novelists-and I have met a number-who tell me they are writing in a particular genre because they think it will sell, even though they don’t really like that genre. As “research” they read one or two books-usually recent best sellers (which are probably not even the best written book by those authors-since the best sellers often aren’t as good as the first lovingly crafted books that got those authors their first contracts.) They then try to model their work on those best sellers-and what they come up with is often derivative and lacking the joy that comes from a writer writing what they love to read.

I love mysteries. That’s why, when I wanted to tell a story about working women in the far west, I wrote my story as a mystery. Because of the number of mysteries I have read, I have a much finer tuned sense of what it takes to make a good mystery. So, as I reread my favorite authors, I looked specifically at what I liked about their writing. I noticed what voice they used and if they provided multiple perspectives. I noted how long the chapters were and examined the transitions from chapter to chapter. I paid attention to their secondary characters and how much physical detail was used to describe each one. I looked for the story arc, searching for the red herrings, the sub-climax, the climax, and at how the book ended. When there was something I didn’t like, the ending disappointed, or I couldn’t keep all the characters straight, or I got bored and found myself skipping ahead, I tried to figure out what had gone wrong.

I didn’t confine myself to my sub-genre (historical mysteries set in Victorian era). In fact I rather steered away from these books, because I didn’t want to find myself copying from them. Instead, by learning how to maintain a fast pace from a Dick Francis, or how to create a sense place or time from a Navada Barr or Laurie King, or how to provide sexual tension without sex from a Dorothy Sayers, I was able to apply their methods to my own original work without becoming derivative.

Next, I read or reread all the advice books I had accumulated over the years, including practical guides on grammar.

For example, Publetariat’s section on writing featured a long list of tips that I found very useful. I knew how to write, but I needed to be reminded what to look for when I was reading my own work. I also discovered some new rules. For example, sometime since I wrote the first draft of my manuscript, the standard had shifted from two to one spaces between sentences! Who knew!

Then, I read all the comments from agents, rejection letters from editors, and critiques from my writers group.

I looked for common threads (several mentioned that I had too many arguments between the protagonists). I looked for differences of opinion (one said it didn’t have enough romance, another too much). I read these comments in the light of what I had learned from all the reading I had been doing in the genre and about writing.

Finally I was ready. And, in my next post I will detail what I did to prepare my manuscript for publication as my own best editor.

(If you want to see how successful I was, check out the free excerpt of Maids of Misfortune, or better yet-buy the book!


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