Editing is REALLY important. Yes, we all know that the last thing we want to read in a book is a spelling error, but I am not just talking about spelling and grammar here. That is proofreading. What I mean is that EDITING is really important. Just as redrafting is really important. You want to know how important? Well here we go:
The Blood of Whisperers, the first book in The Vengeance Trilogy, is out next month, so I thought I would take the time to share about the editing journey. I first wrote an original draft of this back in 2007-2008. It was called the Errant Pawn then (have a good laugh over that working title) and it was terrible. I left it for years and eventually scrapped the entire thing. Then at the start of 2012 I wrote it again and kept only a few names and binned everything else, and it was SO much better. But that was still the first draft. It began like this:
I would be there soon. I had been telling myself so all afternoon, an afternoon that seemed to stretch so long it melded into yesterday, into last week and last year. There no longer seemed to be seconds, just step after step of aching feet and legs so tired I felt sure that the moment I stopped walking they would never move again.
There are worse beginnings, but it’s pretty dull. I had it read by other people, took in all the criticisms and rewrote 90% of the book. The new beginning went like this:
The girl would not stop screaming. Her hysterical sobs scythed through the summer heat. Men were shouting too, but their words were buried beneath the thrum of my pulse beating in my ears. Leaning my head back against the rough stones of the alehouse, I tried to slow it each gasped breath. Let them not find me, I begged. Let them not find me.
Oooh action. But there is bugger all character and worldbuilding in this first chapter and although the book was significantly improved over all, it wasn’t right. Book take multiple drafts and rewrites to get better. Another 60% rewrite ensued. And, if you are anything like me, the first chapter, and specifically the first lines will be the last things you get right. Eventually it ended up like this:
We are judged. That is what the Sixth Law says. It says the gods are always watching. That they can hear the whisper of our souls.
Finally it was ready to go to my editor. I am my own worst critic, but I am not a stranger to the pride most writers feel when they look over their books, and my months of beta reads and rewrites held me in good stead. The book was well received, but good luck if you think you can produce a publishable book without the assistance of an editor. My editor and I went through many passes of the book and it made a huge difference. Here are some before and after samples:
This was my first visit to Shimai, but I had little desire to look about me. Much like any other town the evening was full of people. Shopkeepers closed up for the night, merchants went in search of lodgings, and everywhere swarmed the usual army of lantern boys, climbing posts and buildings to reach each string of lanterns, tinder caught between their teeth. And yet despite this bustle there was a sense of purpose, of people going from place to place with quick steps, barely lifting their gaze from their feet.
On every corner guards wore the Emperor’s colour.
It was my first visit to Shimai, but in the fading light it looked much like every other city. Shopkeepers were closing their shutters and bolting their doors while late arrivals hunted for lodgings. Street merchants filled the dusk, stalking citizens with their produce, their food trailing mouth-watering odours and their hands held out for coins. A boy was lighting a string of lanterns overhead. Perched like a sparrow upon the eave, he held the tinder between his teeth, a bag of candles hanging from his waist. The city bustled around me, yet I could feel uneasiness. People were going from place to place with quick steps, eyes turned warily toward the emperor’s soldiers on every corner.
And another. Before:
I spat the water back into the pool. Clutching my tunic close I turned, heart hammering. Monarch was there. The day had all but drained away, but there was light enough to gild the tips of his dark hair. He stood between the trees, fingers curled around his great bow, Hatsukoi, his thumb thrumming the string.
I tugged the laces and the bind sprang loose, releasing my breasts. The relief was not untouched by pain, and for a moment I crouched with my forearms pressed to my chest, staring absently at the forest floor. When the sting had subsided, I began to wash, dunking the cloth into the bucket and running it over my body – underarms, breasts, neck, back – wherever I could reach without removing my breeches. With cupped hands I drank, swishing the water around my mouth.
A footstep, barely audible. I spat the water back into the bucket and turned, heart hammering, arms folded across my chest. Monarch was there. The day had all but drained away, but there was light enough to gild the tips of his dark hair. He stood between the trees, fingers curled around his great bow, “Hatsukoi”, his thumb thrumming the string.
There are places where whole sections could be deleted, places where there was pronoun confusion, poorly chosen descriptors and despite my efforts to be rid of them, unnecessary adverbs. *shudders* My editor deleted ‘down’ every time I had written ‘I sat down’ because it wasn’t needed. She pulled me up on repeated words and misplaced capitalisation. Yes, she also corrected spelling errors and grammatical problems, but the job of an editor is so much more than that. The job of an editor is to make your book the absolute best it can possibly be, but they can only do that if you listen to them!
Love your editor! It is a partnership.
Hurrah! The crowdfunding is over and we were successful. We reached the goal with minutes to spare, proving my point that people can’t get enough drama. I can. I’m not that keen on drama in my real, actual life, so I can’t say I particularly enjoyed that part of the ride.
But now that it is over and I have had some time to recover and to think about the whole experience, I have a few things I want to share.
1) Crowdfunding is the strangest experience I have ever had.
Full of ups and downs and twists and turns as one day it looks as though you are going to make it and the next that you’re way off your target. Traffic stats mean bugger all. Number of supporters means bugger all. You look at that total and you see the time ticking down and that is all that matters.
2) Crowdfunding is an exercise in popularity.
Throughout this month I have been saying that, should I survive the experience, I would never crowdfund again, but I can imagine that for those to whom it comes easily it must be exciting to see your project running away with popularity. But that sort of excitement is rarely generated by a worthy or even an exciting project – but rather by famous names and already established fan bases. If JK Rowling were to crowdfund there would be no end of people queuing up to get her next book (although possibly questioning why a woman that rich needs to crowdfund at all) while for those of us still growing our fan bases it is a difficult and wearing task. No one knows who you are and no one cares.
3) Crowdfunding makes you question EVERYTHING.
Every morning when I got up I would check my traffic stats, curious to see how many new hits I had in the last 24 hours. Then I would wait to see how many of them would turn into actual pledges. The percentage is small. If you read any stats about crowdfunding it is always small, but you start to wonder if there is something actually wrong with the project. Are people laughing? Are they unconvinced that your project is worth even a single dollar? Have you offended people? And then, when someone does pledge, you question some more. Why did they choose that reward instead of another? Why hasn’t anyone picked this other reward? Are the pledging what they can afford? Or what they think I am worth? And then when it is someone you know it gets even harder, because you can answer some of those questions. See –
4) Crowdfunding makes you judge your friends and your family.
This, I think, was the hardest part of the whole experience for me, and the one that I didn’t expect. When I would receive a pledge from someone I knew I would of course be excited, every pledge was exciting, but when you see that $ amount on the screen you cannot help but set it beside everything you know about that person. How long have you known them? Are they well off? Have they a genuine interest in the project or are they supporting you because, hey, it’s you? Every pledge is a pledge and that is the way you need to think about it, being grateful for each whether they were $1 or $100. But we can’t help human nature. We can’t help but judge, yes JUDGE the people who just helped to support your dream, based on the amount they just typed into their computer.
5) Crowdfunding reminds you about the worth of personal integrity.
Ok, that sounds like a mouthful, but I’m serious. Personal integrity is something everyone should strive to achieve. If you say you are going to do something, do it, don’t make excuses. If you aren’t sure you can, or will, don’t say it. Yes, I had people tell me they were going to pledge, this much, that much, tonight, tomorrow, next week, and here am I, hoping, hanging out to see if we are going to make the target, and by the end – nothing. And you KNOW, they didn’t forget. It’s a terrible thing to realise about people, but we want to look good, so we say what we don’t mean. You want to look good? PERSONAL INTEGRITY. Only say it if you mean it.
In short – crowdfunding is not for the faint of heart. You have to go out and pimp yourself, and there is nothing, NOTHING worse than asking people for money. Some people are naturals at making you want to part with your cash for nothing, but I am not one of them. I would much rather have a book to sell, and even then, I would prefer it sold itself. I’m not pushy, which is why I don’t think it’s an exercise I will ever put myself through again. Of course I might change my mind. If time can make us forget the agony of childbirth, it can make me forget the anguish of crowdfunding too.
Ok, so it’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. Time is precious, even to an obsessive workaholic like me. Sometimes people ask me why I have to work so much. My answer? Because writing can be bloody hard! And this is why I get really annoyed when people say: “I could write better than that author.” or “I could do that if I had more time.” or the shudder-worthy: “Everyone has a book inside them.” It’s like when my brother yells at the football. Why yell at players? You couldn’t do any better. You haven’t even touched a football for years.
So, think you’re better than Stephenie Meyer? Think you could write faster than George R.R. Martin?
Then bloody well go do it and good luck to you, because I think there are some truths about writing that no one has told you.
Writing a story is easy. Kids can do it. You take a character and make things happen to them. Susie goes for a walk, she gets lost in the forest. She meets a friendly dragon, helps him cook his breakfast, then he shows her how to get out. Done. My three year old comes up with stories like this all the time. But few would argue that it is publishing grade material. Do you know why most writers take at least a year to bring out a book? Because that is how long it takes to make it GOOD.
So what do you do? You write a first draft. Great, well done, you have some characters and they do some vaguely interesting things, or even some very interesting things if you’re lucky. This stage takes me about 5-6 weeks for a 100,000-120,000 word novel. It’s exciting. If you’re a fly by the seat of your pants writer like me it’s really exciting because you don’t know what your characters are going to do until they do it. It’s the best part of the whole process, the part where we get to be storytellers, not just glorified typists. But now what? Do you submit your amazing work to a publisher? No, almost certainly they would throw it in the bin. Self publish it? It’s easy to do, but please don’t. It isn’t ready. You have to put it aside. You have to leave it, and when you do come back to it you have to be critical and tear it to pieces so you can rebuild it better. You write another draft. You fix the plot holes, ramp up the tension, take out the characters that don’t need to be there even if you really like that one line they have about goats.
Great. Second draft is done. Off to the publisher now? NO! Give it to someone else to read. And no, I don’t mean your partner, your best friend or your mum, unless you are fortunate enough to have a great literary critic about you. Give it to someone who reads a lot, who you trust to tell you the absolute truth no matter how much it might hurt. These people are your true friends. People who say “It’s good” are no use to you. You want the people who have the balls to say: “Why the hell does Johnny go into the sewers anyway?” .. “Don’t you think dragons and elves are a bit… well… cliche?” Or even: “Dude, it’s shit. I didn’t like your character and I wanted to throw the book in the fire.” – because these opinions aren’t any good to you if you’ve already self published it.
Ok, so you have your readers (yes, you need more than one). These are your ‘alpha readers’. Fantastic. Let them read it. Listen to EVERYTHING they have to say. You can’t be a precious ass at this time and defend everything. If they see a problem most likely there is a problem and you have to at least take it on board. Then you re-write with all of these comments in mind. Fix the pacing. Give Johnny a damn good reason for going into that sewer. Spice up the pointy-eared fantasy staples or take them out. Then give it back to the readers. The same ones, a few new ones, hunt around for even complete strangers if you have to. These people are your ‘beta readers’.
Great. Now you’re starting to get somewhere. But you know what? You aren’t there yet. How many drafts and changes do you have to make? As many as it bloody well takes to come near perfection. I draft, I have readers, I draft more, I keep this going until there is no plot holes, no slow patches, and I am carrying these readers with me on the edge of their seats. Then the story is finished, but the book is not. From there chances are you need to cut words. Some people work to a percentage, 10-15% cutback. I go with the flow, but keep an eye on the math. Read the work aloud. Are there difficult passages to read? Highlight them as you go and fix them up later. I’ve found loads of problems this way that I might never have found otherwise.
By now you are probably wondering if a book is EVER finished. And the answer is that it has to be. There comes a point at which the effort is no longer worth it. In the early drafts you are dramatically improving your manuscript. By the time you have the story right and are fixing the words, you are taking it from good to great. But after a while every editing run you take through your work is going to change less and less, and somewhere we perfectionists must draw the line. It is finished. I might never be able to read it in print for fear of finding a sentence I could have improved, but it is finished and I will not touch it anymore.
It is nothing short of torture. But it is a torture I love. So this, this is why there is no book inside everyone. Everyone has a story to tell over a beer down at the pub, just as everyone can be funny, but that doesn’t mean we should all become comedians. There is a big difference.
So next time you idly think about how cool it would be to write a book – don’t. It is not for idle dreamers. Writing is for mad people who would self-flagellate if it hadn’t gone out of fashion.
Who would ever have thought that writing a blurb would be harder than writing the darn book? Well, anyone who has ever tried to condense the eloquence and glory and sheer magnificence of their manuscript into a single page synopsis probably has some idea what I’m talking about.
I have been at this for two days now and my eyes are starting to blur over the slew of similar but slightly different lines I’ve used in an attempt to perfectly capture the sense of my story. I’m finally NEARLY happy with it. It needs fresh eyes and some tightening to remove surplus words, but it conforms to the rules and has its own little bit of panache.
So what does a blurb need?
It needs a protagonist and, unless that protagonist has no name in the story, that protagonist needs to be named. Your potential readers need to be able to identify with your character and form an emotional connection to their situation, which is really hard to do without a name.
It needs a hook, not necessarily at the start of the blurb, but somewhere you need to give away an early twist that is going to grab people in. Look at all the best book blurbs in the store, almost every single one of them will tell you something big that happens in the first few chapters.
We need to see what problem the protagonist is trying to solve and have some idea of what is standing in their way.
Of course some genres require extra things. For example fantasy novels often have a reference to the setting to give an overview of the big world problem, which often occurs in fantasy novels.
But most of all we need that emotional connection. We need to give a damn about the character and have a reason to want to find out what happens, while also getting a feel for the tone and style of the book.
Asking much? You bet! That’s why the big publishing houses often have copywriters employed for this very purpose. Of course they don’t often read the whole book and have less knowledge of the story than the author, but they understand about targeting the right audience and using the minimal amount of words for the maximum amount of punch.
So next time you are reading a good blurb take a moment to appreciate the sheer mastery that goes into the craft!