Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Editing 101

So, you have your pen, paper, laptop, printer, and, well, I don't know, beret, Tweed jacket, and French smokes, and you want to write your masterpiece. There are certain realities that you'll have to face right off the start as a writer, that are sobering. That's not to say it's not a worthwhile practice, or that I haven't had endless joy out of writing, but it's like having a kid without being told about how much money it costs for diapers.

First (and I'm speaking of novel writing in particular here), publishing is really, really, really .... really tough. You have to be prepared to cut the crap out of whatever you've just put on paper, and do it with the utmost efficiency to get to what you want to say. Writing a novel can take years, and you have to maintain a solid vision throughout. Even if you make it to a polished final draft that you think is untouchable, there will always be someone who can poke holes in it. There is always editing to be done. In fact, when Thomas Edison said that genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration, he could easily have been talking about writing and not inventing. Beyond the initial idea, getting that first thought on paper, most of writing IS editing. They are literally one in the same. It is in drafting and re-drafting the same thing that was first written, working it over into a coherent and entertaining whole. You would think, then, that the greatest skill a writer could develop would be editing. Most amateur writers completely neglect this, and their writing suffers.

I was lucky enough in first year at Concordia to pick up a little book called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. (and E. B. White). It served me very well, and I believe it is essential to read it and understand it before writing in the English language. One could say that with the internet our rules have changed, but I believe it is as essential now as it was when it was first conceived.

Elements of Style

To sharpen my skills, I've been giving pointers to other writers on Booksie, and I'm finding the same common mistakes that I found in creative writing class in 1994. Most, if not all, of these mistakes are a one way ticket to a rejection form letter.

Even the works that are requested and read by agents and publishers, and ultimately rejected, are polished. The reason they are not published is seldom that they had typos or used the wrong tense, or switched between first and third person. No, those manuscripts are often weeded out before samples are even requested. (If there are mistakes in your query letter, they won't request a sample.) The ones rejected after sending a sample are often nearly as good as what you would read in the bookstore, just not right for that agent or publisher. Publishers and agents are concerned more with saleability.

Keep in mind when working toward submission, that writers have a tendency to overestimate their work. The  great ones underestimate. Any writer is well served by a healthy dose of humility, with a side of frequent bouts of thinking your writing sucks, followed by a burning desire to make it right. Until it's gramatically and structurally perfect, don't submit it to anyone but an editor. If you can find one.

After the editing comes the submission. If you are serious about your work, and think it is worth publishing, you don't just send it off everywhere and hope for the best. You send out query letters. If your query letter catches some interest, and agents or publishers request chapters, only then do you send what they request. If there are submission guidelines, follow them. Don't try to change the font sizes or types, or the margins to make it 'look' smaller or larger, just send them what they want. I can't explain any better about the query letter than QueryShark. Look it up, it's worth the read, and it will show you what not to do.

So even then, once you've written the work, edited the crap out of it, and submitted a stellar query letter, met with agents, and they've got you an offer from a publisher, or you've gone to the publisher directly, (and this is ignoring self-publishing options, and online sales and all the soup that publishing is today) ... lets say you get an offer for an advance. Keep this in mind. Seven out of ten novels don't earn their advance back. That's the reality. Publishers want to know that you'll be writing for the rest of your life, that you're going to keep cranking out novels that people want to read. They are usually investing that first advance in your career, so if you're not looking at it as a lifestyle, often without much reward, and you want to open yourself up to criticism, then don't do it. You have to write out of love. If you don't love writing, don't do it.

That said, if you have a work that you want general tips on, or even a shirtsleeves-rolled gutting, e-mail me at deocil at hotmail, and I will try to find the time to cut the crap out of .... er ... help you out with it. I will be taking excerpts to show others how to edit, also, and so there's a good chance I will use it to anonymously give examples to that end, but not maliciously. Don't submit if you don't want brutal honesty, and likewise if you don't want to see it later as an example.

I will be blunt, and it might not be pretty. You've been warned.

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