Welcome to November! As many of you are no doubt aware, it’s National Novel Writing Month. This is more than just a month-long, vague, awareness-spreading initiative. NaNoWriMo is an event where writers of all levels pledge to write a 50,000-word novel throughout November. Some people set a daily goal, and others—forgive me if I say they are more realistic—simply write when they can. There is a community aspect—you can share your word count and novel info, discuss writing in the forums, earn badges, and more.
Two of my friends are participating this year. One of my friends said that 50,000 words was too easy. I had a few responses to this. Firstly, a lot of the fiction books I edit are between 70,000 and 100,000 words. So, yes, 50,000 is a bit short. It doesn’t mean you have to—or should—stop there.
But I am an advocate for shorter works. I believe in being brief and concise, in most cases. Perhaps 50,000 words is a good goal. But it can’t just be 50,000 words. It has to be 50,000 good words. Words that you are happy with. A good strategy might entail writing more than that—say, 80,000 words—and then paring it down to 50,000 in the revision process. And I think that’s the goal of NaNoWriMo in the first place (at least the general goal, not specific to anyone). It’s just to write. Get words on paper. Flesh out an outline. Have some semblance of a plot. When you’re under that kind of deadline—writing an entire novel in a month—of course it’s not going to be complete by the end of it. Naturally, that’s where people like me come in. It’s time to edit!
I’m not going to delve too deeply into the specifics of writing and editing in this post. I may do so another time. But I would like to talk a little bit about the author-editor relationship and how authors should approach the editing process.
Firstly, editors are not adversaries. We want your book to succeed just as much as you do. (And not just because our name may be associated with it.) We don’t like crushing people’s hopes and dreams. We want to work with you to produce a masterpiece. Who doesn’t want to create a work of art?
With this in mind, there are ways that you as an author can approach this process to make it a smooth one.
As I am known to say, communication is key. You must actually be available to discuss the project. Especially when there are deadlines looming—promptness is crucial! Do not suddenly disappear during a project. If you are going on vacation during an active project and will not be available to answer editor queries, perhaps reconsider your timing—or at least let your editor know, and maybe give her alternative contact information. In a more typical workweek, you don’t have to answer within minutes of receiving the query, but within a day is best, at most two. Remember, some things are urgent and if your editor cannot proceed with a certain step on which the following ones are dependent, he may not be able to make the deadline.
You must be open to the idea of change. If you hire any sort of editor, your work is going to be changed, and a lot of these changes will probably be for the better. Of course, you are in charge of the final product, and can reject all changes if you wish—but then why are you paying for an editor? It is best to adopt the mindset that other people might catch things you missed, and everyone reads a manuscript differently. Your audience may be quite diverse. Editors are always on the watch for things that might impede understanding with certain people or groups, or even things that might offend.
A manuscript dripping in red might inspire anger or embarrassment, but I look at it as a good thing. If I were to send my work to an editor, I would be happy to see corrections. It shows that there are many ways to think about a thing, and other angles to consider. Some things are surely quite important, and must be changed, but others—they are more subjective, and I can consider all options to decide which my audience would best accept. Having options is better than receiving a clean manuscript back with the message “It’s perfect.” That means one person thinks it’s perfect, but if I sent it to anyone else, I would almost certainly hear something different. I want people to be thinking about the words I use. I hope that you feel the same.
This sort of goes with the previous point. You think your manuscript is the next best thing, and it may very well be—but it might also have some serious flaws. Of course these flaws are subjective, but editors are experienced in thinking for many different types of audiences. We know what readers will and won’t want to see. If you have a manuscript that is confusing, annoying, offensive, boring, or something else, and you won’t accept editorial help because you don’t agree with this diagnosis, then it might not sell very well. It will not be well received by critics and the general public. It is best to at least consider the editor’s point and see what changes might be made to make it better. At the very least, continue believing that your manuscript is the absolute best, but it could still be made better. (It helps if you reject perfection as a concept.)
On the other hand, the author cannot simply (blindly) accept all of the editor’s suggestions without paying real attention. Each suggestion must be considered as carefully as the author is able and weighed against alternatives. As an author, you care about the final product your audience will be reading, don’t you? Of course you do! And editors do make mistakes. We are only human. You might catch a typo we miss, or something we accidentally changed (and please don’t then wonder why you’re paying us. Look at all the other wonderful suggestions we made!). Two sets of eyes evaluating a project are much better than one. This also goes along with communication and availability. Editing is an active, interpersonal process. It is a partnership. It requires input from both parties. You cannot simply pass off your work to an editor and expect it to come back perfect, no other work necessary. You must work with your editor to polish your creation and be able to discuss it as much as is necessary with your editor while she edits it. The best process is an efficient one. This will also give you more control over the project and you won’t feel like your editor is tearing it apart behind your back. It’s a team effort!
In continuing with the theme of teamwork, you cannot expect your editor to singlehandedly turn your poor manuscript into a polished beauty. Keep your expectations realistic. If something needs major revising, your editor will no doubt point it out—but he will not rewrite it for you. That is not what you are paying him for and would not be ethical. You must do the writing yourself. This may be a process that takes a long time. Your work may go through several revisions, and you may have an extensive back-and-forth with your editor until you reach a final draft that you both can be satisfied with. (That is, if you both do agree—it may be that one person concedes to the other, usually the editor to the author’s rewrite.) But the point is, you must understand what you are paying for. You are paying for the author’s attention, her ability to notice things that most others don’t, and her experience with the industry and audience. You are not paying her to be a writer of any sort. That is your job. You can hire her for any of the editorial services she provides—and then hire another editor for different services you require—but if you are paying for an editor, you must understand that that is what you are going to get. If you want someone else to help you write, there are services for that as well. Even developmental editors won’t write significant portions of your work for you. Besides—you’re a writer! It’s what you do. Wouldn’t you much rather publish your own work? (Another point—please, please don’t plagiarize.)
Those are some of the main tenets of working with an editor. There are many I’m missing, I’m sure, but those I shall save for another day. If you are participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck! I hope to see you on the other side.