• Self-editing: Can you do it?


    After all my years in the writing industry, if I was asked whether a writer can edit his own work and call it complete, I’d have to say—overall—no. But I believe self-editing is a prominent part of a writer’s responsibility. No writer excels so well in the craft that he can submit a first draft to a publisher in hopes of achieving acceptance. Please, please, please, don’t ever think you are the exception to the rule. In this case, the rule is absolute.

    I have discovered that writers are truly unique individuals. They come from all walks of life, from different professions, and lifestyles. They are creative, passionate, and invested in their craft, all worthy qualities to have. But, for the most part, they are also self-absorbed, stubborn, and proud. These are obstacles in most writers, but they can also be employed to the writer’s advantage.

    As a writer, you should be prepared to become self-aware of your strengths and weaknesses. It is imperative to ask yourself these questions:

    Are you the best writer you can be?

    Do you have a good grasp on today’s English language?

    Are your stories the best they can be?

    Have you created an original story?

    Do you need the assistance of an editor to polish your work?

    Humility is the first step to reaching the right answers to each of those questions. The first question—are you the best writer you can be—is always no. Writing is an ever-evolving process of self-improvement. The very fact that you gain life experience as time goes by makes you a better writer. You are able to create more vivacious characters by your interaction with different people in your own life, write scenes more credibly from memories of your own experience, describe relationships more intensely from an understanding of your own with friends and family, detail conflict more specifically from the trials and tribulations you experience in your own life, and devise more complex plots with a greater grasp of how life tricks you up. So, even though you think you are a great writer now, you always have the capacity to become a better one. That doesn’t even go into the prospect of continuing your formal education in writing and English.

    Which leads us to the next question—do you have a good grasp of today’s English language? I’m not talking about being able to substitute for the local high school’s English teacher out on maternity leave, or to apply for a professorship at a college. You don’t even need a degree in Liberal Arts to qualify for editing your own work. But you do need to understand that English is a complex language that is wrought with rules and ambiguities. Ask yourself if you ever check your work in reference books. Do you have any English manuals to verify that you are using punctuation correctly, syntax appropriately, and verbiage in the right manner? Do you have a dictionary to check your spelling? God forbid you rely on your word processing program’s spellcheck function to catch misspelled words. A good writer surrounds himself with reference books to perfect his understanding of the English language and refer back to it in times of uncertainty. If you don’t have any, get some.

    The third question—are your stories the best they can be—is a similar question as the first one, only that this one deals with your creation, not yourself. If you are used to calling it quits on a project with the completion of your first draft, you can rest assured that your story is not the best it can be. If you shelve your work for a month or two, then revisit it, you will inevitably discover that it doesn’t quite stand up to the standards you find satisfactory. Some writers are so anxious to finish a project that they don’t want to go back to it. Writing is a lengthy project. It takes months and sometimes years to write a first draft. When it’s completed it, you’re relieved. You feel accomplished. For the most part, you dread going back over it. Worse, you fear discovering that it’s inferior and having to rework it. God forbid you find discrepancies that don’t quite fit and must rewrite whole sections. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve brought up discrepancies in a storyline to a writer and suggested a rewrite, and they fought me tooth and nail just to avoid doing so. A sad state of affairs when a writer doesn’t work to make his project the best it can be.

    Let’s move on to the fourth question—have you created an original story? In this day and age, where our lives are inundated with a myriad of creative works—television, movies, video games, and other books—our brains are bombarded with hundreds of stories, plots, conflicts, characters, and even imaginary worlds. We store them in our subconscious. We are even able to recite lines from our favorite movies. So, have you invested your stories with scenes from other works you don’t own, haven’t created, but have stored in your subconscious? Even the smallest addition of these borrowed aspects to your work is a slight to your authenticity as a writer. You must be aware of these plagiarisms. Perhaps they’re not extensive enough for readers to pick up on, but you know they’re not your original work. Is that okay with you? Of course, it’s impossible for you to know the entirety of all scenes, conflicts, and characters in all the movies, televisions, and books in existence, but you should be open-minded when someone points out the similarities they’ve noticed. Another reason for another set of eyes to review your work.

    Lastly, but not least, is the question—do you need the assistance of an editor to polish your work? This is the key to all the other questions posed before this one. Do you feel you have the confidence to do your work justice? Do you have an objective eye to judge your work as an outsider would? Forget asking your mom or sister to read it and give you their opinion; they are most likely to coddle you. That isn’t the job of an editor. But independent editors will rarely take on your project for free. To rely on an editor to be your professional set of eyes is costly. Nowadays, most writers can’t afford the services of a professional editor. And is the payoff worth it? Probably not. The odds of being published are slim, even for excellent works of literature. So, is it justifiable to your family budget to spent $1200 to $2500 to someone to edit your work? Only you can answer that. For those of you who cannot afford that expense, there are ways for you to do service to your work on your own.

    For one, be humble. Recognize that your first draft is riddled with errors. It’s rife with misspelled words, grammatical flaws, and mistakes in content. Be diligent in hunting those out. Never be satisfied that you have reached complete perfection. Eventually, you’ll settle for a version that happens to be good and be able to call it complete. So, in order to do that, let me help you with these tips.

    The first thing to do is to get a comprehensive English grammar reference book. I rely on the Chicago Manual of Style, which is excellent reference for a creative writer. This book offers current rules, plus acceptable leniency for style. Once you have this book, use it. Use it liberally. However long ago it was that you took English in school, doubt your ability to recall everything you learned. Also be aware that the rules of grammar change over time. I would strongly suggest that you read your resource materials, no matter how clinical they may be. Mark them up with notes and an outliner to highlight oft-used rules. Dog-ear the pages and annotate the margins. Whatever it takes to make those your bible. If you are honest about your passion for writing, take it to the extreme. Do it right. Achieve greatness in all aspects of writing, even the tedium of grammar.

    Another important reference material is a good dictionary. Find one that outshines the concise paperback you used in high school. Choose one that has appendixes that give quick references to grammatical rules, syntax, and other neat writing tools. I use an enormous Webster volume that weighs over ten pounds and makes a thunderclap went I set it on my desk. Is this necessary for the casual writer? You be the judge of that. Are you a good speller? Do you use highbrow words that can be found in an abridged dictionary? Please do not rely on your word processing program’s spellcheck function. Do not rely on its grammar check program, either. Get old school.

    Editors not only check for spelling and grammar errors, but judge the content of your work. If you must edit your own work, this job falls on your shoulders. However, you are often too close to your work to do this. You must step outside yourself to view your work objectively. You must imagine yourself as another reader who has no previous understanding of your work or insight into your storyline. You have to judge if what you’re reading would be comprehensible to someone in that position. This is a very difficult job. You are the creator of your story. You know it inside and out. You know secrets about your characters and plot that you intend to reveal in stages, but are you able to notice where you might have let out too much or not enough? Sometimes, the only way to be that pair of objective eyes is to shelve your story for a few months and go back to it later. The time away from it, perhaps spent working on another project, will distance you from such intimacy with it. You can review it with more objectivity then.

    In editing your story for content, don’t be shy about taking notes, if that helps you keep track of facts. You want to be sure that your protagonist who has brown hair and green eyes in chapter one has brown hair and green eyes in chapter five, twelve, twenty, and so on. You also want to make sure that your characters have the same name throughout the story. On that note, you want to be cognizant that not all your characters have names beginning with the same letter. I’ve encounters stories where there were an inordinate number of characters with names beginning in the letter A. Notes are a simple solution to keep you organized.

    When you edit, be an objective judge of your storyline. Does it fall within the parameters of the story’s tone? Is your story a light-hearted romance that carries that sense throughout its recounting or a serious police procedural that requires a significant amount of gravity? Are the characters and verbiage credible to that tone? In that respect, are the characters true to themselves? Is the somber protagonist serious in his dealings with other characters or does his nature slip in and out of his intended behavior? You may have to reconsider the tone of your project if you discover that the characters are too somber or ridiculous for what you intended.

    The two other factors I want you to be cognizant of in your self-editing are cheesiness and originality. Unless you intend for your work to be kitschy, you might have inadvertently written something less sophisticated into it. It will be up to you to catch these instances and judge whether they are within the realm of your intent. Perhaps they are; or perhaps they make you a little edgy leaving them in. Now that you are in the editing phase, you are in the position to make changes if you choose. And a word of advice: If something doesn’t sit right with you in your work, fix it so you feel comfortable with it. Otherwise, it will most likely come back to haunt you later.

    Originality is an important aspect of writing. I caution writers to make sure their story concept is as original as possible. Of course, there are many premises that have already been explored in the mainstream, but a writer must always try to put a new spin on these traditional premises. But more than that, you should be aware of the originality of each scene and character. How embarrassing would it be to be called out on a rehash of a scene found in another book or—God forbid—movie. It is impossible for everyone to know every scene or premise ever written or created, but it is your responsibility to make sure that you do not copy those that you do know of. A successful writer is creative and an editor is responsible for ensuring that in a work. A self-editing writer needs to be a harsh critic of his own work.

    So, can you self-edit your work? The only one who can answer that is you. Are you capable of being humble in your assessment of your work? Are you educated enough to catch misspelling, errors in syntax, poor grammar, and improper punctuation? Are you analytical and objective enough to judge your content and continuity, and can you be critical in picking out cheesiness and reproduction of other works? I understand the high cost in professional editing and encourage you to consider investing in yourself to be your own editor. It might not lead to a picture-perfect work, but it will impress more agents and publishers that you have a good work ethic in your craft.


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  • What to do when all publishing efforts fail?

    No doubt, the majority of writers discover that publishing to the mass market is a fleeting dream that comes true only to a fraction of a fraction of lucky people who fall into the right place at the right time under the most ideal circumstances. The rest of the world's writers will never see their work delivered to the general public through traditional measures; ie. recognizable publishing houses like Penguin, St. Martin's Press, and Doubleday. They will rarely be honored with a review of their work unless it comes through the presentation of a literary agent. But not just any agent will do. It must be an agent with a good reputation and connection with editors at these publishing houses. Fortunately, most agents will accept queries from writers, but a lot of weight of whether the writer's work will draw any interest from them comes from marketability--and marketability is a subjective factor. That leads to the rotten reality that a masterfully crafted work may not fall into this marketability niche and will receive a polite rejection letter from the agent. The ability to reach the general public then falls short of ever making it onto the shelves of a real-life bookstore.

    What is a writer to do then? Sadly, he goes into a major depression and spends weeks and weeks re-evaluating his self-worth as a writer. He begins to second-guess his work and creativity. He may even throw in the towel. This is a wretched outcome for a human being who only wanted to open himself up and share his innermost thoughts with the world. That is what a writer ultimately does. He exposes himself to the world, subjecting himself to ridicule or acclaim, whichever way his work is received. In doing so, he bleeds his heart into his work, spending days and days churning out words on paper, those days turning into weeks, months, and even years of hard labor. At the end, he feels wonderfully accomplished, excited to present his work to the world, only to be dismissed by a clipped rejection letter from a mostly unqualified reader at a publishing house in the most disheartening manner. A terrible, terrible travesty to an artist, something that is arbitrarily justified by the publisher not having the time to even read the work. A shame, really, since this just proves that the reader at the publishing house never gave the work more than thirty seconds of his time for judgment. It is no wonder the writer goes into a deep depression. After all the love and labor he invested into his work, the first person he submits his work to doesn't even have the time to bother looking at it.

    So, what is the average writer to do when he comes up against this obstacle and encounters the dark depression of rejection. For one, he should realize that this happens to the majority of writers, many of which are amazingly talented artists. The writer should not take the form rejection personal, but look at it as the callous disinterest of a faceless reader who'll only claim to being too bogged down with work to spend more than a glance at the writer's work. Who is to fault for the failure of the work? Yes, there are exceptions to the rule and there is a lot of bad writing that proliferates the industry. But I have also seen bad writing published by the large houses, to the point that I question the quality control of their selection process. Aside from that, the dejected writer is faced with a choice after having been rejected all the way from publishing houses to literary agents. He then must determine the next course for his work, if he hasn't abandoned it altogether. He may turn to a small press, which may give his work a little more attention; or, unfortunately, gobble it up enthusiastically--with little editing, marketing, and promotion to guarantee its success. The desperate writer may jump at the chance just to see their work "published," even if they are subsequently dissatisfied with the push from the small press to get their work out into the public. And, God forbid, they sign on with a subsidiary publisher, who will charge for the work to be published. There will be virtually no editorial, marketing, or promotional effort on the part of a subsidiary press except at the expense passed on to the writer. This is the next stage of depression a writer will undergo if he takes this route.

    A writer who has reached the stage where his work seems stagnant in reaching the public should ultimately have a heart-to-heart with himself about the quality of his work. If he thinks his writing is exemplary and worthy of delivery to the public, yet still comes up against brick walls, he should come to that sad realization. This is the reality of the industry. The quality of a writer's work does not guarantee the work's success. Should the work be shelved in a desk drawer or storage box to collect dust for years until it is thrown out during spring cleaning one year? No. I say there may still be an audience for it. The audience may not be the general public, per se, but even a small audience could be moved by the work. Start with family and friends. Take advantage of on-demand printers who will print the work up in a nice package and charge the writer only for the number of books printed. Then pass them out to family and friends. A true writer writes for the passion of putting their ideas on paper and then sharing his work with others, not making money off it. Yes, the money would be nice, but the reality is that even the majority of successful writers published by mass market publishing houses don't make tons of money. The average unpublished writer must have this epiphany about the reality of mass market success and re-evaluate his purpose for writing. Those that take their art to heart will be satisfied with the process of writing and not the anticipation of achieving fame or fortune. Cling to the joy of creating different worlds with beautiful words and dismiss the weight of rejections from indifferent readers who can't be bothered with judging the merit of writing for the purpose of promoting quailty literature. Spread the joy of your creativity to the world by passing your work out one book at a time.



  • Writer's endorcements: pros and cons

    One of the main marketing advantages for a writer's work is to have an endorcements by a fellow author, preferably one with a well-recognized name. This is a tactic favored by publishers and promoters, but does it really do any good for the sale of the work in the mainstream public? Let's first talk about getting those endorcements.

    For the most part, if you are an upcoming author who's only avenue in publishing is a small press or self-publishing, you are most likely not going to get an endorcement by a well-recognized name in the business. The likely response to asking a known author to read your book for an endorcement is no response at all. Some may grace you with a reply the likes of which is "I'm too busy." For the most part, they are and they probably receive hundreds of requests on a routine basis to read books for an endorcement of the work. You can't blame them for that. Yet you inevitably still see author endorcements on books you pick up in Barnes and Noble and other shelf stores and figure that an author will make an exception for you. Think again. Publishing houses are most likely the reason for those endorcements. It's a marketing scheme. A publisher (one of the traditional big houses, not a micro press) will have some pull in getting another author to endorce one of their other published works. It helps the book look good on the shelf when Scott Turow or Sally Kellerman has read it and thought it was "the best summer read of the year."

    Personally, I could care less what another author thinks of a book. I have my own particular tastes and don't need anyone else to tell me they liked it to decide if I will like a book myself. How do I know that James Patterson's or F. Paul Wilson's preferences match my own? I don't believe they are any more worthy of judging the worth of a book than I am. And knowing that they might have been solicited into giving a favorable review doesn't particularly give a fair assessment of the book. It's not realistic to think that all reviews of the book have been included on the cover or in the inside matter of the book. What about the negative reviews? What about even the mediocre ones? Did they make the cut for printing the book? Absolutely not. Those were conveniently left out.

    So, what to do as a writer who is not published by a traditional house, but one who is represented by a small press, vanity, or is self-published when it comes to trying to stack up against the mass-market industry? It falls upon your shoulders to drum up acclaim for your book to measure up against a mass-marketed book with an endorcement from a well-known celebrity writer. Unfortunately, you cannot get anyone to give you the time of the day, so you go in search of another obscure writer, hoping to make the review look impressive by adding, ... by John Smith, author of Just Another Obscure Book at the end of the blurb. A sad state of affairs, really. It may fool some, but it doesn't fool everyone.

    Then there is the caveat of asking another writer for a review of your work, expecting it to be posted in GoodReads or Amazon, or any number of other review sites for all the world to see. Consider the danger of that request. You are asking your competition to support your work when there is such a miniscule market for works published by small presses. I have discovered that the majority of writers, both well known and obscure, are extremely critical of other writers and not entirely kind to their works. They sniff disdainfully at other writers' achievements regardless of whether the work excels in merit. It is a defensive mechanism for feeling threatened by a better writer. A shame, actually, since many obscure writers are extremely talented but will never get the recognition they deserve simply because fate is not aligned in their favor--a discussion for another time.

    Do some writers, obscure or otherwise, provide good reviews for other writers' works? Yes, there are exceptions to every rule. There are some good-hearted writers who have level heads and a positive image of their own self-worth that they aren't threatened by another excellent writer. But, for the most part, that isn't the likely case a small time writer will come up against.

    Beware also the tit-for-tat review, where one writer asks another for a review of his work in exchange for a review of the other writer's work. I would like to think that each writer would be honest in their assessment of the other's work. But what would happen is one writer gave the other a less than glorifying endorcement? Would the other one take offense and return the favor? Maybe not, but perhaps they would. There's always that risk. If you ask for an endorcement or a review, do so without any strings attached. You may be turned down with the ever popular "I'm too busy" excuse, but at least you are not obligated to give anything up in return for a review that might not be what you are expecting.

    I cannot say much against readers' reviews. They are what they are. A reader who has gone through the effort of purchasing a book and reading it, then posting a review, has obviously made a conscious decision of either liking or disliking the work. I can give more credence to the veracity of those reviews than an author endorcement. Value those reviews; they show more integrity in their content than solicited reviews by other writers.

    And what of critics? I find them pretentious, overwinded, and often arrogant power mongers. I refer you back to the third paragraph of this article. Remember, there are a variety of ways any book can be interpreted by a reader, whether he is another writer, a critic, or a member of the common stock. There is no special school one has to go to in order to say whether he liked or disliked a book. Just as one man's trash is another man's treasure, one reader may enjoy a story while another may hate it. The goal of a writer is to try to connect with his readers. That means he must write a story so well that there's something in it for every type of person he expects his audience to come from.



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    In the spirit of perpetuating discussion about writing, literature, publishing, editing, and any other aspect relative to this web site, we encourage everyone to use this blog to post your thoughts, concerns, and discussions.



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