After NaNoWriMo Part 3: Working with an Editor

Monday, I discussed how to take your NaNoWriMo manuscript from first draft to second. Yesterday, I examined getting criticism and using it to shape further drafts. Today, I’ll look at, arguably, the most critical step towards getting your book ready for publication: editing.

You might be thinking you’ve already edited it several times. After all, you read your first draft, reshaped it and sent it to your critics, and then made further alterations based on their suggestions. Well, you’re right. All those are edits. But now you need a professional editor to really help you clean that manuscript up.

English is an extremely tricky language, and, even those of us who think we know it pretty well tend to make mistakes with it. The sheer number of rules and exceptions is staggering. I know most of them, and it often amazes me that I can keep as many of them as straight as I do.

But like every writer, I have my weak spots. I simply cannot keep the rule for appositives in my head. (This has to do with comma usage and referring to someone. For example, “This blog’s author, John, has trouble with appositives.” I just can’t remember if I’m supposed to set John off with commas, because he’s the only author of the blog, or if that would indicate there are multiple authors, and John is only one of them, in which case there should be no commas, because John is the only author.) I need an editor to keep after this detail for me.

The first step to choosing an editor is to understand you need a professional for your book. This should not be your friend, the English Major. It has to be someone who has professional or at least amateur experience with editing the English language. You want someone who knows how to use an appositive correctly (as well as the other rules of English).

Be prepared to spend some money on this. Aside from what you invest to design a good cover, this is the most important cash you will spend on the development of your novel. Shop around for good rates — reputable editors can be found online with a pretty simple search, and they should be upfront about their rates — but make sure you’re paying for someone with some experience.

I took a chance on my editor. She had never edited a novel before, but she was a copy editor for two major metroplitan newspapers and had worked on two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories. It cost me less to use her, but her experience gave me confidence in her abilities.

You also need to understand something about styles. English has a variety of different styles for publicantion. AP (the standard for journalism) is very different from MLA (the standard for academic writing). Neither is quite proper a novel. I recommend The Creative Writer’s Style Guide by Christopher T. Leland. He writes in easy-to-understand language, discusses all the major grammar rules, and talks about which is best for fiction.

Make sure your editor is comfortable working in the right style. If you hire a former journalist like I did, make sure this person can distinguish between AP Style and what you’re using. AP, for example, uses the Rule of Nine — you write out the word for numbers one through nine, and then use the number for 10 or above. That’s not true in a novel. All numbers are written as words, although you can use numbers for chapters and in a few other situations. Capitalization and punctuation are different from style to style as well.

For the most part, you should listen to your editor. You’re paying money for his or her opinion on how to improve your novel grammatically. If you hired someone you trust (and you should have), there is no reason not to listen. Occasionally,  my editor and I disagree. In those cases, I research the rule, looking for an authoritative decision. If it isn’t clear, I choose the version that seems to most closely match the style I’m using. Just for the record, I’m wrong more often than I’m right.

I am a firm believer in more than one edit. When I get a manuscript back, I put in changes, but I also have my editor content-editing, not just grammar-proofing. I want to know about structural problems, not just syntactical ones. You may need to pay a little more for this, but it’s worth it. Having a professional tell you where you’ve got a major plot hole or inconsistencies in your characters is extremely helpful.

After I’ve made the changes my editor suggests, I send it back to her for another read. Nothing causes typos and story conflicts like a rewrite. A second edit, makes sure none of these slip past me into the final publication.

The last step is to read the book aloud. Once you’re confident your book has been well edited and all the changes put in, you need to sit down with someone else and read the entire novel out loud. This works best with your editor, since he or she has enough familiarity with the manuscript to spot some things you might have missed up to this point. If your editor isn’t local or you can’t afford this service, find someone who will do it with you. You hear repetitive words and phrases and catch punction mistakes better when you are reading the book aloud than when you read it silently in your head.

RD5 Hi-res coverIt’s also a last chance to find a real problem. During the read-aloud phase of publishing Red Dragon Five, I discovered a logic problem. Wolf was speaking in a foreign accent while undercover. But he was posing as a Phrygian agent who was supposed to be undercover to Wolf’s native Urland. Thus, it would be illogical for the character to have a Phrygian accent — he’d get caught! It was reading this aloud that made it occur to me Wolf shouldn’t have an accent in those scenes.

You need to have your manuscript edited if you want it to be professional and ready for publication. Self-publishing companies like Kindle Direct Publishing, Pubit!, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and Lulu have made it extremely easy to get one’s work out there. But an unfortunately high percentage of self-published novels are rife with typos and grammatical and stylistic errors. Make your work stand out and increase your opportunities for four- and five-star reviews with a clean manuscript that reads well.

Congratulations again on finishing your NaNoWriMo project. I hope this series helped a little bit in determining what to do with it next!

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