Is Your Book Ready for an Editor?

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NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is an annual event held in November that challenges writers to draft a 50,000-page novel in 30 days. To achieve that goal, you must write a minimum of 1,667 words a day, which is a tall order, even for accomplished writers.

The exercise is meant to develop your ability to get your ideas on paper without fetters on your creativity. It is a word dance you perform alone, with no one looking or judging as you whirl and twirl without abandon, knocking over furniture. It teaches you discipline and persistence—two traits a successful writer must develop. It aims to cure you of “self editing,” that terrible habit that’s a gateway drug to “perfection paralysis” and the nearly fatal “writer’s block.”

You write those 1,667 words simply to get them on the page. That’s all that matters. Slap that paint on the canvas! Jump off that cliff! It’s NaNoWriMo! You’re allowed!

At the end of those 30 days, you won’t have a completed manuscript. Rather, you’ll have a steaming pile of horse doodie. It will reek, wander aimlessly and sound like the ravings of a lunatic. There will be typos and grammatical errors galore. It will be an embarrassment to yourself and to everyone who knows and loves you. Keep it to yourself, as you would your teen-age diary.

But you know what? In 30 days, you’ll have accomplished something that only the tiniest fraction of the “I want to be a writer” people will ever accomplish in their lives—you’ll have done the work. You’ll have proven to yourself that writing a novel is something you really want to do. You should be awfully proud of yourself, steaming pile or not.

What you now hold in your hands cannot really be considered a first draft of anything at this point. It’s a collection of unrestrained thoughts and creative wanderings that have the potential to become something more. It’s simply sculpting material, a tall tower of clay that now must be shaped, scraped, re-conceived, slashed and rewritten. It is not ready to be shown to an editor. Not by a long shot.

Some people decide to turn the pages over and use it as recycled paper in their copy machines, because that’s all it’s good for. Many, though, see thoughts and ideas that ought to be developed further. Some even see the makings of several novels. Their next step will be to flesh these out into separate piles of “notes” and “outlines.”

Unless you’re a full-time writer with hours to spare, the sculpting of this material may take months, perhaps years, with some tears, self-doubt and frustration thrown in. If you stick with it, though, you’ll wind up with an 80,000-word first draft of a novel.

Still, if you’re a first-time writer, it’s not ready for an editor, unless you have deep pockets. A book editor charges his/her fee a couple of different ways—by the hour, or by the page. The industry standard for a page is 250 words. With 80,000 words, that equates to 320 pages.

The worst the shape your manuscript is in, the more expensive the editing will be. Often a first-time novel (or non-fiction book) will have scores of problems: point-of-view issues, plot inconsistencies, faulty research, spelling and grammatical errors, two-dimensional characters and more.

By the way, as reassurance, even the work of the finest writer requires editing. No one is immune. Also, contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as a good first draft. All first drafts stink to high heaven. As grammar expert Harry Shaw says, “There is no such thing as good writing. There is only good rewriting.”

My advice is to find a local writer’s critique group or online writer’s workshop and vet your work through them, one chapter at a time, no matter how long the process takes. Try and find a group with at least a few members who are experienced or published. You’ll do a lot of re-writing and whine that they’re “killing your masterpiece,” but it’s totally worth it. Save the self pity for another day. Their feedback is indispensable.   I did this with my first suspense novel and my biggest takeaway from the process was that my novel was terrible. I mean, really awful. These “beta” readers taught me craft, and pointed out the most typical sins committed by almost all first-time novelists. They also told me I was a good writer, which boosted my confidence significantly.

Then, when you’ve reworked your rework, hire an editor, who might still tell you you’ve got a lot of rewriting to do. Better this person than the market, right?