Today I've invited an old writer friend of mine, Lee Anna Estein to talk about the 'joys' of editing!
I have been asked to write a blog post by Mr. Emrys to cover when to finish editing your first book because we writers are a neurotic bunch who want it to be absolutely perfect. Some writers spend 20 years trying to make the first one just right.
You see, it's a topic I find rarely covered, and so I'm going to struggle through this. What makes me qualified to write this post? Well, I'm a writer working on editing my first book. Yes. I have finished writing it, and I'm now "polishing shit."
So, what will I talk about in a topic so broad? I have to start at the beginning. I'll cover something that a lot of new writers are using these days, online writing communities. They're popular because you can just throw your vomit up on the interwebs, and you don't have to pay for people's opinions. Not everyone on there hopes to become rich and famous, but a large percentage want to get published. A lot of these people with gleaming eyes hope to get the feedback they need to prepare their book for agent hunting, or that an agent will pick it up right off the internet, no work required.
Here is the problem. How many people use the internet? How many people will find your book and give you helpful feedback? Yeah, that's what I thought. Not many, so you end up floundering in the dark with your arms flailing because you don't know where to start or what needs fixing.
First, brush up on your grammar. You'll need it. Get a dictionary and thesaurus. Learn how to use them.
Second, I will point you in the direction of Chuck Wendig's wonderful post on editing so you get it done. (Warning, does contain profanity, but he is genius.) Seriously, read it. It's great advice. And here's his neat info-graphic he says anyone can share:
Okay, now that I've given you someone else's advice, onto mine.
So someone gives you feed back on your book. You don't know this person. They aren't your mom, your second cousin, or your neighbor who runs around outside in his underwear after he's had too much tequila. Their name might be their real one, or it might be their pseudonym, or it could be a screen name like OtakuYaoiShipper20. Either way, they took the time to read your book and your looking for something juicy that can help you fix your work.
Warning! The words critique, criticism, and critic are not negative! Do not have a panic attack upon seeing them in use. It's part of the business.
Here is a list of the kind of people and responses you might get:
The Ego-stroker: This is the most common response you will get. They read your stuff and like it. They'll tell you everything they loved about it. They'll shout it to the heavens and want to have it's babies. Here is the problem, they can't help you with the technical issues or the plot issues or the fact that your hunky hero is unintentionally a giant douche because they're too wrapped up in their own fantasies. They pat you on the head and tell you you've been a good doggie. These people are the reason why a lot of bad fiction gets published. Don't listen to them. Their words are like eating nothing but junk food. It blows you up but doesn't actually do anything for you.
The Troll: They hate everyone. They hate that you breathe. Don't take what they say personally. They will rip on everything without saying anything constructive. They're the opposite of the Ego-stroker. They just want to hurt you.
The Helpful: They come in many different shapes and sizes. How can you tell they aren't the two listed above, they try to point out your mistakes with concrete examples and try to give you suggestions or resources you can use to try and fix them. On the flip-side, they also tell you what you're doing right and why. Or they at least try too. Good criticism is hard to come by. It can be polarizing or keep repeating the same thing. They can sound like an Ego-stroker, or a complete Troll. It is so extremely varied that you will bang your head against the wall trying to figure out who is right. Here is the kicker, it's just their opinion. That's right. Opinion. They might be completely wrong. No one knows your work better than you.
Now that you have your criticism, it's up to you. You have to open to whatever has been said, but you have to take it all with a grain of salt too. If you think your shit don't stink, than you won't be able to absorb any helpful advice. (And you probably wouldn't be reading this.) If you're too open, your brain might fall out and you could end up fixing things that don't need fixed. As a writer, you have to find what will work for your story. Here is some of the things I keep in mind:
How often have certain aspects/parts of your story been referred too? How often have critics told you that your protagonist was too whiney and childish? How many have said they want more background to your world? How many have told you about the Texas sized plot hole in the middle of your story? Keep track. One isn't usually enough, but sometimes it is. If you agree that your dialogue could use a little work, don't be afraid to change it and then run it by more people.
How reputable is the critic? I'm not saying that they need a degree or to work as a writer. (Although, that would awesome). Look at the other critiques they have written and any responses to topics on discussion forums. You can usually tell if someone knows what they're speaking about, or if they have some idea. If they have some of their own stories up, check those out too. See how they respond to criticism of their work.
Be polite. This should go without saying. DO NOT disrespect someone who has taken the time to read your work. It is time consuming. They had other things to do, but they took time out of their day to try and help you. Calling them names, ranting, and raving are not good behavior. It is not professional. Don't like what they say, suck it up and thank them. If you wish clarity on what they said, then ask for it nicely. If you disagree, but they have said something you still want help with, let them know as nice as you can. Arguing doesn't have to be all shouting and screaming. I've seen intelligent debates go down between people with radically different viewpoints that make the rest of the internet look shameful. DO NOT reduce yourself to a YouTube comment.
So where do these helpful people exist. Personally, I'm a big fan of Book Country. The site is filled with intelligent and nice people who just want to help. There is the occasional best seller floating around, and 3 people have been picked up by publishers and agents that I know of. Even though their star ranking system is under scrutiny by their users, they really want to make it useful. Many a member has tried branching out to other writing sites, only to run back. It's one of the few places not ruled by Ego-strokers and Trolls. (We do have the occasional old curmudgeon, but he's harmless and can be quite helpful.)
So, what does this have to do when figuring out when your book is ready to be whored around to agents and publishers like a starving starlet? Here's the problem. You really don't. You can only fix most of the problems before it's clean enough to show off. The best thing I've ever heard was that we never finish art, we only abandon it. There may come a time when all the advice in the world and all your hard work are no longer needed. Sure, there will always be things you have to fix, but you need to limit yourself. You can overwork your writing. Set yourself limits and hope it's enough.
Sorry if the ending was a bit anti-climatic. That's the truth of it. It may take a couple rejection letters to tell you what you need to do. Just don't be lazy. The more you work on it now, the faster it will go. Editing is writing. Not everyone realizes that, but there's the truth for you. Dive into it like you did the words-to-paper part, and it won't take 20 years.
I'm working on a major edit right now that I'm workshopping in a couple of places. I hope after one more run through, it'll be close enough to show off to professionals. Now all I have to do is get my butt in gear and get over the intimidation of pages that look like this:
I never said it was going to be easy.