When Is Your Book Ready to be Published?

by James Scott Bell

Brother Gilstrap’s recent post on critique groups raises a question I’ve heard from other writers: When do I know my book is ready to go out to an agent, editor, or direct to market?

The answer depends on where you are as a writer. Let’s look at three categories.

The Newbie

This is your first novel. Maybe it’s not the first you’ve written. Most first novels are like first waffles. So you make up your mind to write another one.

Good for you! A lot of writers quit after that initial try.

Now read it through in hard copy, as if you were a book buyer. Don’t take copious notes. Just keep asking yourself at what point are you tempted to put the book down? Put a mark there and move on.

Then hunker down and fix what needs fixing, cut what needs cutting, add what needs adding. Learn your craft by consulting books that cover your weak spots. (Insert shameless plug here).

Write a second draft.

Now it’s time to get feedback. But you need to get it from people who know what to look for. I offer two options: informed beta readers and an experienced developmental editor.

Your beta readers don’t necessarily have to be writers. What you want are dedicated readers in your genre who are willing to give some detailed notes—for which you’ll take them to lunch or gift them an Amazon card (or something). My first beta has always been the eagle-eyed Mrs. B. Also, at the start in my career, I forged a relationship with the staff of a bookstore near me. They loved to read and were more than happy to look at my manuscripts.

Then I signed with a house and got paired with a fantastic developmental editor who upped my game. (A developmental editor focuses on the big picture of your novel, primarily structure, plot, characters, and scenes.)

At this point in your journey a solid developmental editor can be of great benefit. It’s going to cost money, but like any small business startup, you’ve got to invest to become the best.

How can you find such an editor? Get recommendations. Search the net. Study the websites. Look at their client list. Ask for a sample edit.

How much will this cost? In my opinion it should be in the low four figures. More than that and you’re passing a sign that reads Scam Territory: Proceed At Your Own Risk.

The Intermediate

Once you’ve had some publishing success, meaning three or four books that have gained traction, you should be able to get by solely with good beta readers. Key word, good. How do you find them? What do you ask them? See the TKZ posts here.

You’re still listening for development help. But you’re also getting more knowledgable with each book.

The Veteran

Once you’ve hit a certain level—maybe seven or eight books doing nicely—you can probably skip developmental editing. I remember asking a multi-published, bestselling author what he did with his manuscripts. He said, “I know enough now that I know when my story is solid. I get a copy edit to find any holes or contradictions, like a character who has blue eyes in chapter one and green eyes in chapter twenty. But that’s about it.” (I’ll add that you need to pay a proof reader to smash those pesky sand fleas we call typos.)

How to Take Criticism

There may come a time when an editor or beta reader hauls off and gives you a gut punch. Agent Steve Laube recently wrote a piece titled My Editor Made My Book Worse! It’s mostly for the traditionally published, but indies can take much of it to heart. It begins:

You just received a 15-page, single-spaced editorial letter from your editor. They want you to rewrite most of the book. But you disagree with the letter and are spitting mad. What do you do?

Or your agent took a look at your manuscript and told you to cut it in half to make it salable. What do you do?

Both examples are true stories and illustrate the universal challenge of refining your manuscript to make it the best it can be.

Steve advises:

  1. This is normal.
  2. Keep anger to yourself. (Don’t burn bridges!)
  3. Hear today. Respond tomorrow.
  4. Remember the editor is doing the best job they know how. And often they have a lot of experience with manuscripts like yours.
  5. Remember this is a negotiation, not a dictation. Ultimately, it is your book; and the editor is providing suggestions, not requirements.
  6. Remember that the suggestions with which you disagree may actually be valid.
  7. Communicate your frustration to your agent.
  8. Communicate with your editor. Be respectful but firm if you disagree. You’ll find that editors have their jobs because they know what they are doing.
  9. BUT if the edits are out of line, unreasonable, or outrageous, then you have every right to object. Decide which hills you will die on. A word here, a sentence there, a paragraph cut are not the place for the pitched battle.

When to Trust Thyself

There’s a famous story about Ayn Rand, when she turned in her behemoth manuscript for Atlas Shrugged to a famous editor named Bennett Cerf. He had a sit-down with her where he suggested, you know, this may be a little too long for the general market. And I’ve got some ideas to where to cut….

To which Rand replied, “You vould not cut zee Bible, vould you?”

Not exactly a shrinking violet, Ms. Rand (to this day, Atlas Shrugged sells tens of thousands of copies a year).

At some point you’ve got to trust yourself. You’ve done the work, learned the lessons, taken the feedback, and fixed and polished your manuscript. Now go for it. Send it out into the wild. Pop some champagne. You deserve it. Have yourself a nice dinner. Get a good night’s sleep.

And when you wake up start on your next book.

What steps do you take to know when a book is ready to go? What advice would you give a new writer on that question?

How to save a bundle on editing costs – without sacrificing quality

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversby Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor & craft-of-writing author

If you’re relatively new at writing fiction for publication, whether you plan to publish your novel yourself or query agents, it’s a good idea (essential, really) to get your manuscript edited by a respected freelance fiction editor, preferably one who reads and edits your genre. Can’t afford it, you say? I say you can’t afford not to, but below you’ll find lots of advice for significantly reducing your editing costs, with additional links at the end to concrete tips for approaching the revision process and for reducing your word count without losing any of the good stuff.

Editing fees vary hugely, depending on the length and quality of the manuscript, and how much work is needed to take it from “so-so” or “pretty good” to a real page-turner that sells and garners great reviews. Before approaching an editor, hone your skills and make sure your story is as tight and compelling as you can make it – and that it’s under 100,000 words long. 70-90K is generally preferred for today’s fiction.

Don’t be in a hurry to publish your book before it’s ready.
If you rush to publish an early draft, you could do your reputation as a writer a lot of damage. Once the book is out there and getting negative reviews, the bad publicity could sink your career before it has had a chance to take off. It’s important to open your mind to the very real possibility probability that your story could use clarification, revising, and amping up on several levels, areas that haven’t occurred to you because you’re too close to the story or are simply unaware of key techniques that bring fiction to life.

First, write freely, then step back, hone your skills, and evaluate.
First, get your ideas down as quickly as you can, with no editing – write with wild abandon and let your muse flow freely. But once you’ve gotten your story down, or as far as your initial surge of creativity will take you for now, it’s a good time to put it aside for a week or three and bone up on some current, well-respected craft advice, with your story in the back of your mind. Then you can re-attack your novel with knowledge and inspiration, and address any possible issues you weren’t aware of that could be considered amateurish, confusing, heavy-handed, or boring to today’s sophisticated, savvy readers.

Now’s the time to read a few books by the writing “gurus” (here’s an excellent list), and some of the great  craft-of-writing posts by The Kill Zone’s contributors in the TKZ Library (in the sidebar on the right), and maybe join a critique group (in-person or online) and/or attend some writing workshops.

Then, notes in hand, roll up your sleeves and start revising, based on what you’ve learned. If you then send your improved story, rather than your first or second draft, to a freelance editor, they will be able to concentrate on more advanced fine-tuning instead of just flagging basic weaknesses and issues, and will take your manuscript up several more levels. Not only that, you’ll “get” the editor’s suggestions, so the whole process will go a lot smoother and be more enjoyable and beneficial.

A great book to start with is my short, sweet, to-the-point editor’s guide to writing compelling stories,  Fire up Your Fiction. And for more on point of view, avoiding author intrusions, and showing instead of telling, peruse Captivate Your Readers. And if you’re writing a thriller or other fast-paced story, check out my Writing a Killer Thriller for more great tips. All three are available in print or e-book, which you can also read on your computer, tablet, or smartphone.

And when it comes time to find a freelance editor, don’t shop for the cheapest one and insist that your manuscript only needs a quick final proofread or light edit. That approach will result in a cursory, superficial, even substandard job, like painting a house that’s falling over and needs rebuilding, and will actually end up costing you more money in the long run. Why?

Because you could well be unaware of how many structural, content, and stylistic weaknesses your story may contain, which should be addressed and fixed before the final copyedit stage. Paying for a basic copyedit and proofread on a long, weak manuscript, only to find out later it needs a major overhaul, which will then require rewriting and another copyedit, is short-sighted — and money down the drain.

Say, for example, your novel is a rambling 130,000 words long. It’s very likely you need to learn to focus your story, cut down on descriptions and explanations, eliminate or combine some characters, maybe delete a sub-plot or two, plug some plot holes, fix point-of-view issues, and turn those long, meandering sentences and paragraphs into lean, mean, to-the-point writing. Not only will this make your story much stronger and more captivating, but it will save you a bundle on editing costs, since freelance editors charge by the word, the page, or the hour, and editing your 80,000-word, tighter, self-edited and revised book will cost you a whole lot less than asking them to slug through 130,000 words written in rambling, convoluted sentences.

Your story may even need a structural or developmental edit.
If you’re at the stage where you know it’s not great but you’re too close to your story to pinpoint the weaknesses, perhaps you should hire a developmental editor to stand back and take a look at the big picture for you and give you a professional assessment of your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses. Or if you can’t afford a developmental editor, try a critique group or beta readers – smart acquaintances who read a lot in your genre – to give you some advice on your story line and characters, and flag any spots where the story lags or is confusing or illogical.

Enlist help to ferret out inconsistencies and inaccuracies.
You don’t want to lose reader trust and invite bad reviews by being careless about facts and time sequences, etc., either. Find an astute friend or two with an inquiring mind and an eye for detail and ask them to read your story purely for logistics. Do all the details make sense? How about the time sequences? Character motivations? Accuracy of information? For technical info, maybe try to find an expert or two in the field, and rather than asking them to plow through your whole novel, just send them the sections that are relevant to their area of expertise.

It’s even possible that you’ve based your whole story premise on something that doesn’t actually make sense or is just too far-fetched, and the sooner you find that out the better!

Read it aloud.
Read your whole story out loud to check for a natural, easy flow of ideas, in the characters’ vernacular and voice, and suit the tone, mood, and situation. This should also help you cut down on wordiness, which is your enemy, as it could put your readers to sleep.

The more you’re aware and the more advance work you do, the less you’ll pay for editing.
So, to save money and increase your sales and royalties, after writing your first draft, it’s critical to hone your skills and revise your manuscript before sending it out. Also, be sure to find an editor who specializes in fiction and edits your genre, and get them to send you a sample edit of at least four pages. (See my article, “Looking for an editor? Check them out very carefully!”)

And don’t seek out the cheapest editor you can find, as they may be just starting out and unaware of important fiction-writing issues that should be addressed, like point of view and showing instead of telling, etc. And whatever you do, don’t tie the editor’s hands by insisting your manuscript only needs a light edit, because that’s cheaper. You could well end up paying for that “cheap” light edit on an overlong, weak manuscript, then discovering that the story has big issues that need to be addressed and requires major revisions, including slashing and rewriting. Then you’ll have to pay for another complete edit of the new version! $$ multiplied!

Check out these other articles by Jodie for lots of concrete tips on revising and tightening your novel (Click on the titles below):

~ REVISE FOR SUCCESS – A Stress-Free, Concrete Plan of Action for Revising, Editing, and Polishing Your Novel

~ How to Slash Your Word Count by 20-40% …and tighten up your story without losing any of the good stuff!

Captivate_full_w_decalJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.