Sunday, 19 January 2014

Can an Author Self Edit?

The general rule among the writing community is that an author should always hire a professional editor. This rule is strictly adhered to by many successful indie authors and ignored by many unsuccessful indie authors, who have been lambasted for the appalling quality of their work. Does this then mean that the rule is concrete; set in stone? No, it does not, and I will explain why.

First of all, I will address the subject of the enormous body of poorly edited rubbish that is out there. The mistake made by these authors is not that they failed to hire a professional editor. The mistake is that they chose to publish at all. Anybody can write and I would encourage all to do so. Not everyone, however, can write well. If you want to make money from something, I think that ability is definitely a prerequisite to any such venture. As stated in previous posts, lawyers are experts in the law, doctors are experts in medicine, and a writer needs to be an expert in writing. There are no shortcuts to this. A writer should have a significantly superior grasp of style and grammar than any non-writer (most readers are not professional writers). If a writer cannot produce a piece of work that is consistent, coherent and free of problematic errors, then that writer has no business asking people to pay for their work.

This brings us back to the rule: an author should always hire a professional editor. Can this be broken? In order to answer this, we must not address the rule directly, but take a look at the reasoning behind the rule. Why should authors not self edit? I have given this a lot of thought and the answer comes down to objectivity or a lack thereof. As authors, we are too close to our work. The story is so well defined in our minds that it is very easy to see things in a read through that are simply not there. Likewise, we are not aware of our most troublesome habits, but to an objective reader they can become all too apparent and even annoying. Sometimes, annoying enough to put down the book before they have finished.

The question that we now need to ask ourselves is whether a writer can ever approach his or her work objectively. I think that they can, but it takes time. A lot of time. One cannot have it all. This can most effectively be expressed in the form of a triangle, as below.

All writers want to produce work of the highest quality. They also want to be as productive as they can be, which, of course, means sticking to tight time frames. Lastly, they do not want to have to spend too much money in achieving their goals. We are, after all, in this business to make a profit. To examine these factors more closely, I will refine the labels in order to directly match a writer's goals.


We want to produce a book well, we want to produce it quickly, and we want to produce it cheaply. Unfortunately, we cannot have it all. We must choose just TWO of the above. It can be any two. The only catch is that we absolutely cannot achieve the one that we leave out.
  • If you want to produce a quality product in a short time frame, it is not going to be cheap. It costs a lot of money as this is when you must hire an editor, proof reader, formatter etc.
  • If you want to produce a low cost (or even no-cost) product, but maintain a high standard of quality, it cannot be rushed. When an author goes sit alone, it is going to take time. A lot of time.
  • If however, you merely want to get your book out there as quickly and cheaply as possible, you can do this, but the quality will suffer dramatically. It will be a steaming turd, no doubt about it.
We can now see where different writers fit into this triangle. The prolific indies, who release their books quicker than the rest of us change the page on our calenders, are spending a lot of money on professionals to make sure that their work achieves the highest standard of quality. They are also bloody good writers, because an editor, no matter how adept, cannot turn a frog into a prince.

Then we have the less prolific authors, who self edit and maybe only release one book a year (or fewer). To achieve the required objectivity to self edit, they must put aside their manuscript for a period of many months and move directly onto the next. When they return to perform the editing duty they find that their book now has a vaguely unfamiliar feel to it. It is as if it were written by another. They can now approach it with a degree of objectivity.

The last group are those who fit the description I gave at the beginning of this post. Those who never should have published in the first place. These are the ones who dispense with the editing altogether. Ultimately, they will pay the price as their ill reputation spreads among readers.

So that is what I think about the editing process. The most important factor being whether we choose to spend our time or spend our money. Professionals are not cheap, but they get the job done quickly. Self editing costs nothing in monetary terms, but takes time. A lot of time. As well as the lengthy rest period, a self editor will need to do many more read-throughs than the professional editor if they are to do as good a job, but it is possible*.

* I should add that although hiring a professional editor is not essential, having the manuscript checked by others for errors is. Whether it be friends, family or a team of independent beta readers, all manuscripts must be proofread by somebody other than the author. The more, the better.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks at Amazon.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Thinking of Publishing a Novel?

Recently, I have grown tired of my day job. A change of career is greatly needed, so I have been thinking about what I could do.

Back in the nineties, Ally McBeal was one of my favourite programs, so I am now thinking that maybe I can become a lawyer. I will not bother with law school as it is far too expensive and time consuming. Besides, I have seen enough lawyer movies to have more than mastered the basics already (Jim Carrey gives a masterclass at the end of Liar Liar. I will simply do as he does.) The rest I can learn on the job. I just need to print off some business cards and stick an advert for my services online. Oh, wait, I need to pass a bar exam? So I do need to spend years at law school, after all? That puts paid to that idea.

How about medicine? I can become a doctor. That cannot be too difficult and the pay is almost as good as a lawyer's. Most illnesses are going to be obvious and any that I do not identify right away can be sorted by a quick Google search of the symptoms. This is perfect. I will put in an order for stationary bearing the title: Dr Dave. What was that? I need to attend medical school and this takes twice as long as law school? Forget that.

Personal Trainer sounds more up my street. This time I can get by without a lengthy academic degree. I have also seen enough training montages in the Rocky movies to know how to get somebody into shape. What does it matter if I am not fit myself? Rocky's coach was an old man and he trained a world champion. I just need to hang a few frozen steaks in the garage and I can get started right away. On second thoughts, I am going to give this one a miss. I put my back out when I got up to search for my Rocky dvd box set. It is going to take me a while to recuperate so I better find a job that I can do from the couch.

I will become a writer. Most of the successful ones have a fancy Creative Writing or English Degree, but that is merely optional. I studied at the school of life and have a ton of ideas for novels. Okay, so I have never paid much heed to grammar, but even Dickens had an editor. I bet that he could not tell an adverb from an adjective either. The editor will fix everything. This is definitely the best idea that I have had. I better get to work on my platform before I even start writing my book (still undecided what it is going to be about, but it will have vampires and magic in it, because everyone loves the undead and magic is cool). I will start a blog where I will tell everybody about my book whilst I write it and that way I will have a huge fan base ready and waiting upon its completion. Now I just need to get writing. Fifty thousand words should do (found something called NaNoWriMo via Google search. I'm practically an expert already). That will take a month, and then I just need to pay the editor (as little as $100 - Google, again) and I will be making money before spring arrives.

I think that I have made my point. Writing can be done by anybody, but a distinction must be made between a hobby writer and a professional writer. I am not saying that people should not, therefore, aspire to publishing a novel. I just want to make it clear that it takes a long time to become a competent writer. You need to acquire a high level of skill before you are ready to publish. A would-be lawyer does not start handing out business cards on their first day of law school and a doctor does not write prescriptions without having the requisite letters after his or her name. Writing is no different.

If you want to be a writer, you must write and read as often as possible. By all means send out samples to agents and editors (nothing will get published unless it is ready so there is no harm in trying), but if you are going to self publish make sure that you have achieved a high standard of ability first. I had written four novels (along with three partially written ones) and spent two years playing the submissions game before deciding to self publish. I also have a degree in English Literature and a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) certificate. There is still a vast amount of information about style and grammar that I am yet to master, but my knowledge is far more advanced than the lay person and I have put it into practice enough to have achieved a level of competency that I feel is worth charging people money for (the response to my books from both strangers and friends alike, backs up this theory). There is an overused, but always relevant expression that says you must not run before you can walk. If I apply this phrase to becoming a writer, then publishing is like competing in an Olympic sprint. Remember that, as you take your first baby steps on the path to becoming a writer.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels, The Outback, and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks at Amazon.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The One Book About Writing That EVERY Aspiring Writer Should Read

Now that we are into January and a new year, Christmas feels like a distant memory. There is one present that I received however, that's influence will not fade for a very long time. That is On Writing by Stephen King. Any writer who has not read this book should do so immediately (well, maybe finish this blog post first, but then, definitely, read King's book).

As a novelist, I have found the majority of texts about creative writing to be pretty useless. They usually focus on completely the wrong thing. They are written under the false belief that the ability to craft stories is an acquired skill. It is not. Some people are born with the creative drive and others are not. King knows this and makes this very clear from the beginning (or the middle - the first section of the book is an abridged autobiography, but more of that later).

'...while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.'

And so we have his motivation for writing this book. This is not written for people who want to become writers. It is for writers who want to improve. To be the best that we can be. With King's help, we may just get there too.

Whether or not you are a fan of the author's work, there is no denying that the name Stephen King carries a fair amount of weight in the book industry. His advice therefore, is relevant to all who seek a career in the that industry. It is also very simple and echoes the words of other great authors such as Elmore Leonard (try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip) and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (murder your darlings*). Basically, a writer must be ruthless with their work. Anything that is not absolutely necessary, which is not an essential ingredient of the story, is a distraction. It has to go.

King's two biggest pet peeves are passive writing and adverbs. Passive writing is basically something like; this blog post was written by David Clarkson as opposed to the active; David Clarkson wrote this blog post. If you want to create a strong narrative, I think that it is self evident which one is preferable. An adverb is a word that describes a verb, usually ending in "-ly". They are most destructive when attached to speech tags, he said, knowingly. Can you see how nauseatingly awful that was? Exactly. Kill them.

Neither of the above are actually incorrect from a grammatical standpoint, but they should be used sparingly. If they can be removed they should be (if they cannot be removed it is okay - they obviously belong in that case). Try it on your own writing. It will be better for it, I promise.

Another noteworthy piece of advice dispatched in the book regards the use of fragmented sentences. These are fine. They work. Use them. Just do not overdo it. Or as King puts it:

'Take any noun, put it with a verb,and you have a sentence. It never fails.'

Good writing is all about the flow of the story. If you find your rhythm, you will hook the reader. Sticking rigidly to certain preconceived rules of grammar can sometimes lead to clunky and stilted writing. Reading should be a pleasure, so if the rules do not fit - break them.

Other advice is not so universal. King employs a drafting formula of '1st draft - 10% = 2nd draft'. This is much more subjective and depending on how an individual approaches the tasks of redrafting and editing, may not be entirely useful. It does however, echo the earlier, much more important advice that a writer's biggest problem is putting too many words on the page. You really must 'murder your darlings'.

As I stated earlier, a large section of the book is autobiographical. This is divided into two parts. The first, which opens the book, concerns itself with King's early life and the parts of it that influenced and shaped his eventual career path. We learn how childhood trips to the cinema to watch old black and white horror movies, and his experiences of devious dentists and demon babysitter's, helped to shape where his creativity would eventually take him. The second autobiographical passage comes after his advice on writing and details the road accident that almost killed him, whilst he was working on this very book. Both are extremely well written, interesting and well worth the price of the paperback even without the writing advice.

Now that I have shown the reasons why this is such a great book, it is only fair that I also share some of the things that I did not like. Thankfully, these are few, so I will not go into too much detail. Basically, they consist of a now defunct chapter on the process of landing a literary agent, where King uses a composite of three up and coming writers who he knows, to show how easy this is. The reality, as we all know, is not easy and it is getting even harder all of the time. Sadly, those who are successful, no matter how talented, often fail to realise how much a factor that luck played in their success. The other section of the book that I found disappointing was the first and second draft comparison. He chose to use a segment of his short story, 1408, which I think was a little bit too well formed from the beginning to be a great deal of use. Most of the changes stem from a cut and replace on a character's name. He should have used an earlier, less well formed from the outset piece, but there was still some helpful advice in there.

One other potentially negative aspect of the book that I want to talk about is perhaps the most sensitive to would be writers as it concerns editing. King tells us in the third(!) foreword that:

'The editor is always right...[as] to write is human. To edit is divine.'

The thing is, this book is far from divine when it comes to editing. Content wise, it works. The author has a relaxed, easy going style that is very easy on the reader. His writing has rhythm and he certainly leaves out the boring bits. Darlings all slain without mercy. Where the problem actually lies is in the grammar. There is one simple rule (and it is a rule - even King's literary bible of choice, Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, refers to it) that King consistently disregards. The rule regards a comma being placed before a "non-restrictive clause within a sentence". Or in layman's terms - the difference between "which" and "that". The word "that" denotes an essential clause and does not require a comma. The word "which" denotes a non-essential clause and should be preceded by a comma. [check out the final sentence of the fifth paragraph of this post for an example of the correct usage]. This book is missing a lot of commas. For a detailed examination of this subject you can check out a post that author Richard Van Anderson wrote for the Woven Tale Press (another great resource for writers). It may just be me being picky, but the editor for an author of King's stature should really have picked this up. Or then again, does it really matter? As this book so rightly attests - it is the story itself that counts.

This brings me to my final point and perhaps the one that I believe to be the most important contained within this book. King prefaces the book with two quotes:

'Honesty is the best policy'
- Miguel de Cervantes


'Liars prosper'
- Anonymous

As writers, we must be both of the above. Fiction, by mere definition, is the creation of lies. If a writer wants to create anything of real value however, he/she must make sure that the lies they compose are as truthful as possible. Contradiction perhaps? I think not and neither does King. In his book, he compares the process of a writer penning a story to that of an archaeologist excavating a fossil. Good authors do not direct the plot of a story, they discover it, one piece at a time. I will be very clear on this - Stephen King is against plots and I agree with him. I have always been a fly by the seat of my pantser and with King's insight, I now have a greater understanding of why.

To force a rigid plot onto a story inadvertently compromises one's ability to find the "truth" of the story. The biggest joy that I find in writing is when an outcome takes me completely by surprise. To anyone who does not write, this will sound strange. How can a writer be surprised by his or her own writing? The simple answer is that the best stories do not begin with a plot, but with a scenario. A question is posed. We begin with a character (or set of characters) and a predicament. What happens next is anybody's guess and it is the job of the author to figure out the answer by keeping their characters as true as possible. A character should react how their creator believes that they would (when faced with a particular situation), not how the creator merely wants them to act. Believe me when I say that I know this to be true. I once had to kill off a character who I myself had been rooting for during the whole story. The worst thing is that it was not my choice to end their life. As I got to know this character over the course of 300 pages, I realised that they were simply too stubborn, too set in their ways, too God damn righteous, to make it to the end. If I had tried to have it any other way, the story would have been a lie. It would not have worked. I discovered during writing the book that they had to die. And so it is. The story is always right. It basically reduces to the simple premise that an artist does not define one's art, but rather the art defines the artist.

I am starting to sound pretentious, so I will end here. Personally, I would have liked to have said a bit more, but as you can see, my writing has other ideas. This particular piece has reached its natural conclusion and who am I to argue? So to summarise, if you are a writer and believe that you have talent (sadly, this is a prerequisite) and you want to make the most of it, you could do a lot worse than reading On Writing by Stephen King. In the author's words; 'most books about writing are filled with bullshit' - this thankfully, is the exception that proves the rule (note it is not - the exception which proves the rule, as Stephen King may say). If you only read one work of non-fiction this year - make it On Writing.

*A variation of the line; 'kill your darlings' is attributed to William Faulkner. Who said what and when is not really important. It is good advice nonetheless. Follow it.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks at Amazon.