Saturday 28 May 2016

Bitter pill to swallow or why writers need an editor.

When you think about an author at work, you think about the scribbling pen, the rattling keyboard, the words springing from the head onto the page. You seldom think about the editing part of the process. Author Ricardo Victoria visits the blog to talk about the necessary chore that is editing. 

Editor's note - there are many ways to edit a story, on screen, reading aloud to hear the rhythm of the story and to make you pay attention to each word... but the line editor at Inklings Press prefers the old-fashioned way, printing the story out, and getting out the red pen to mark up any changes. What's important, says editor Stephen Hunt, is changing the context in which you look at the writing, getting away from the screen in which you first viewed it, so that you deliberately force a change in perspective. That change, that shift can help you notice errors you didn't previously. 

I’m gonna be honest here and have a full disclosure: I hate editing. I hate revisiting an old story of mine. I cringe at the cheesy dialogue of yore, the lousy ideas. Since I’m not the most patient man on earth (my wife can attest that), the sole idea of having to go back to my finished draft to polish it when it has took me a month, a year, a decade to get it done is infuriating. That said, I will bite the bullet and do the revising anyway; because it is one of the surest ways to become a better writer. I can’t edit my own stories, I get in my own way too much. But that is what editors are for: to help us polish our stories.

Writers need editors as much as humans need medicines (whatever the kind you want, alternative or mainstream, the point is the same). It is a bitter pill to swallow, as it means exposing your creation to someone else’s opinions and that can be devastating. But it is necessary, as it comes to a point where you as writer are so engrossed, so embedded in the story that you miss the mistakes, the errors, the fluidity of the narration; you read the story as it is in your head, not as in on paper. And unless I managed to invent a machine that allows people to see your ideas as if they were a movie or make a computer to transcribe it, truth is that much gets lost at the hole in your elbow from your brain to your hand. Editors can help a writer with that as they can be more objective – albeit far from perfect - and detect the mistakes that can be amended and even improve your ideas. Of course, you need good chemistry with your editor as an antagonistic relationship will end up more often than not in disaster. Your editor should be what Alfred is for Batman, your aide de camp to help you find the way. They don’t dictate the course, but help you navigate it.

I came to this conclusion after reading an article that Brent and Stephen shared in our daily chat (here is the link: that Brent described as ‘soul crushing’. Fortunately for me, I don’t have a soul to crush. The gist of the article is that the current bar on writing is so low, that writers can publish any dross, any poorly conceived and even more poorly written story and still be a success - and then presents a couple of cases. One of those cases make a good point: having an editor means investing in something when you don’t know if it will sell. I call bullshit, because if you think that of your story then you don’t have enough faith in your ideas. If you had, you would find a way.

This low bar, which with all due respect I consider to be pinnacled by EL James and her work, are a result of the current trends in publishing, where now if you are not one of the lucky ones to get picked by a major publishing house, you have the option to self-publish online. What in years before was considered vanity publishing has now become the standard and anyone can publish anything short of a fanfic (and that is just because of the legal issues). I shudder when I think of ‘My Immortal’, the legendary worst fanfic ever written, becoming an ebook.

I know that you keen reader will call me hypocrite, as I’m part of Inklings Press and we self-publish. But here is the thing and why I said that the point about not having dough for an editor makes editing your book impossible. There are ways. Here at Inklings Press, we found one. All of the anthologies we have published so far go through three editors: Stephen, Brent and I. Granted neither Brent nor I do this for writing, so we stick mostly to plot points and overall quality of the story we are reviewing. Stephen, who is actually a newspaper editor and thus does this for a living, does the heavy duty of the line by line editing and does a stellar job. Brent is getting there. Actually that was one of the reasons behind the creation of Inklings Press, to have a support network of like-minded aspiring writers, some with experience, some not, to help us develop our stories and polish them to the point they stand a shot at being published and well received. We are stumbling a bit on the way, but we will get there. Because we want to be good and get known for our quality.

At my day job, where I have to review hundreds of pages of academic writing by my students, I get used to the fact that most of their work could be good on ideas, but regular or bad in their execution on paper. Some of them hate me for that (my wife who used to be one of my master’s students can attest that), but at the end of the day it came to a couple of questions: is this the best you can offer to a reader?  Do I have enough faith in my work that I know it can be improved with proper editing? And more important: would I be proud of myself down the years when I reread what I wrote? If I’m honest, I can’t read my PhD thesis to this day because I want to smack my past self in the head. It’s not a bad document – I got my PhD - but I know it could have been better if I just put enough effort back then instead of trying to get things finished faster. 

It has been a bitter pill to swallow for me, as I said I lack patience; but it is a pill I will gladly swallow if that means that my novel in progress becomes good enough to be published, reaches enough readers and connects with them and allows me to keep writing more stories in that world I’m creating, because it has been well received. And for me the challenge is double as I’m doing it in my second language for a market that is flooded with options (in the Spanish market, the problem is the lack of market for fiction or genre stories). Thus I have a double barrier to overcome and it becomes a matter of pride, to prove it can be done. That’s why I can’t conceive that someone won’t get an editor when they have easier access due to speaking the language already.

Think of this: all those acknowledgments you see in the first pages of a book are usually for the editor and the beta readers, be it your wife, your cousin or a friend. Because they dedicated their time and minds to help the writer get there, to help the book to be properly finished.

At the end of the day, choosing to get an editor or at least some beta readers is up to you. There are options to publish your weekend project and get paid for it. As that linked article says, the bar is pretty low. But just because the bar is low, you don't have to settle for that. It just means there is plenty of room for a well-polished book. Find someone that can help you: a friend, a paid editor, crowdsourcing, don’t settle for excuses, find a way. You owe it to your readers, to your characters, to your story and more important, you owe it to yourself. Create a product that you will be proud of in the future.

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