Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Importance of Rewrites and Edits

I have been scarce -- really scarce. That's because I have found that the mental fortitude to get these novels ready has become a slippery thing. Not because it's hard to rewrite, to edit, to proofread, to format -- oh, it's hard. But more because I'm dealing with the prospect of actually finishing these books and putting them out for public consumption. That, my friends, is pretty scary. No changies, no take-backs. They will be finished. They will be ex-projects, they will be things that stand out there on the stage by themselves so that passersby can throw overripe fruit at them.

Which brings me to the lesson for today. In reading blogs about self-publishing (both pro and con) a constant theme you see brought up is that a lot of the books that are self-published are bad. I definitely don't disagree with that. Most of them shouldn't be published. I can't give you a percentage, but I am rock-solid positive it's over 50%. Probably way, way over 50%.

There are a lot of reasons these books shouldn't be published. First and foremost, they're written by people with the delusions that they're writers. But they won't ever be writers. It takes both talent and practice to be a readable writer. BOTH. Some people can't do it, but they're sure they can.

Then there are the group that has the talent, but haven't practiced enough. People throw around the "10,000 hour rule": you're not going to be really good at something until you've spent 10,000 hours doing it. People don't want to hear that. They want to be just good enough. They don't want to have towers of pages that are unpublishable. But unless you're a savant, there's a lot of hard work that goes into being a good writer.

Then you get to the group that's almost there. They have the talent, they've been toiling, they're getting close. At that point, you're talking about rewrites and edits. (This are sometimes interchangeable terms. For my purposes, a rewrite means you need to make substantial changes, sometimes structural changes, to a manuscript. And edit means you've got it mostly where you want it, but it needs to be streamlined or better fleshed, you need to add or subtract a few things. You need to check you're not using the word "massive" as a descriptor in 17 different places, you're two main male characters don't have the exact same speech patterns.....use your imagination. Proofreading is just for errors and continuity.)

Some writers stall at this point. They don't know any good beta readers or trustworthy critics, they can't afford an editor. Maybe they're just tired. Maybe they just want to move on. (And sometimes you DO get to a point when you've edited as much as you can and you're just scared. I'm not to that point, but I can see it out the window. The changes I'm making are still important ones.)

I struggle a lot with the "okay" versus "good enough" versus "really good" versus "perfect." There is no perfect. Good enough is not good enough. We should all shoot for really good. Before you publish, try your best to look at your work with a critical eye. Have others look at your work with a critical eye. Beg, trade, or save your pennies for some help here.

Darker By Degree has been agented, has been in editorial committee, has been accepted by an initial editorial committee at a respected publishing house, but ultimately vetoed. Editors and agents have said good things about it. But no one took the ultimate plunge. Since this happened several times, we took a step back and looked at the book. We had other people read it. When they came back with the same weaknesses, we decided it was worth ripping the book apart and rewriting. It's been a process of several months, but we've cut whole chapters, introduced new characters, strengthened motivations, really looked critically at making every word written work. By the end of this week, the final edit will be done.

If you want to be noticed in the flood self-published books that are becoming available, you've got to be brutal in your assessment. You've got to find people who will be honest and have the knowledge and experience to tell you what's good and bad. And then you have to put in the hours. I've sampled a lot of books that are at that "almost" stage. They have the potential to be really good, but the writers have settled for "okay." Settling for "okay" is not going to garner you an enthusiastic following or enhance your skills as a writer.

I also want to add something that people don't say often enough when giving advice to writers. READ. You can take classes and workshops and join critique groups and exchange chapters and pay an editor, but the thing that is going to contribute most to your growth as a writer is reading books. Read in your genre, especially. But also read out of your genre. Read good books. Read bad books. What's the difference between the two? Pick things apart. Watch. Listen. Find your voice. And then write, write, write, and rewrite. Don't settle.

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