Working with Professional Editors and Beta Readers

editingA few weeks ago, I was asked by the St. Louis Writer’s Guild to teach a workshop on “Querying, and getting an Agent.” So I decided to turn my presentation into a series of blog posts for everyone who couldn’t attend. (Before you non-writers run away screaming, take a second to consider this your backstage pass into what goes into getting your favorite books published. Okay, now you can hit delete if you want.)

In case you just want the Cliff’s Notes version, here’s the handout that I gave to all attendees.

Are You Ready to Query?
Finishing your manuscript is a huge deal, something most people never accomplish and you should be proud. Make sure to celebrate!

Once you’ve done all your self-editing, and maybe had your mom, spouse and/or a few friends read it, you’re ready to submit it to agents, right? Maybe not. It’s a tough call. You may not know for sure until you’ve sent out a few query letters and seen what the response is. I queried my first book too soon. I thought it was as good as I could make it, so I hit a list of agents of my favorite authors. I got a few nibbles here and there, but no major enthusiasm.

Working with a Professional Editor
This made me step back and take a hard look at my book. I realized I needed experienced help if I was going to make it better. I really didn’t want to spend the money on a professional editor, but I did. I wanted to make sure I was working with a real professional, someone legitimate, so I went through Writer’s Digest Second Draft Critique service. (They are only one of many, many options. Do some research and you’ll find many more reputable people/companies.) They match you based on genre. I was matched with historical romance writer Terri Valentine. I learned more from her than I could have in any class. And using my own manuscript as a textbook made it personal and much easier to understand than a generic example.

Some editors offer only content editing, which is the big picture stuff like suggestions on plot, pacing, continuity, character development, chapter breaks, etc. Others offer line editing, which goes into the little things like spelling, grammar, and proper dialogue formatting (which I still have problems with). I chose to do both, which meant an extra fee. That’s totally up to you.

A good editor will tell you where you need to change things and possibly give a suggestion for how, but will leave the writing up to you. So while he or she will point out areas for improvement, you’ll still be the one doing the work. Have no fear that it won’t end up as your product. You are free to agree or disagree as you see fit.

Beta Readers/Critique Partners
An alternative to a professional editor is to work with critique partners or beta readers. I consider beta readers and critique partners pretty much the same thing. Some people make the distinction that critique partners tend to be other writers, and so focus more strongly on the craft of writing, whereas beta readers are non-writer people who give you gut feedback.

No matter how you define it, I recommend a mix of writers and other people so that you get feedback from both the mindset of the writer and the typical reader. Because I work in marketing, I know a lot of writers, so that was easy for me. But if you’re wondering where to look, try members of professional writing organizations you’re a part of, a writer’s group or even people you trust from social media. I usually have about five to seven people read and comment on my books before they go to my agent. I always make sure at least one is an excellent proofreader (that would be you, Nancy!) to catch those errant typos that somehow manage to multiply in the editing process no matter how many people read the book.

What do kind of feedback do you ask them for? That’s really up to you. But I always ask for general impressions of the book, if there were any places they stumbled on or didn’t make sense, if they caught any inconsistencies, who their favorite/least favorite characters were and what scene(s) stuck with them. Chances are good you’ll know specific chapters/scenes that may be weak or have a piece of writing that you’re not entirely happy with. Ask them about it. This is your chance to get an honest opinion on anything that doesn’t sit right with you. I also find it’s great at revealing information that I thought made it into the book, but was really only in my head. That’s something you can’t catch without outside help.

I’ve also been a beta reader for other people, which has taught me a lot. I’ve gotten to see different writing styles, pick up tips from others and pass on the ones I’ve learned. Plus, who doesn’t want to be the very first person other than the author to read a new book?

Whichever route you choose, getting professional feedback before you query is great practice for working with agents and editors, because no matter how good your story is, you’ll have to make several rounds of changes before publication. It helps you to get over the fear/hatred of critiques. When I got my first round of edits back from Terri, I sobbed. Seriously. But I took a few days to think about what she said and realized she was right. I would recommend doing that with any feedback you get. Then get to work and make the edits. If it makes the story better, it’s worth putting in the time for.

What about you? Have you used a professional editor, critique partners or beta readers? What’s your experience been like? What tips do you have? What questions do you have?

Love/Hate: Ramblings About Research & Editing

So I was going to write another educational post this week, when the new issue of Writer’s Digest showed up in my mailbox. It contains an article on research by Charles J. Shields, and, like research itself, I’m finding I have a love/hate relationship with it.

Didn’t You Learn That in School?
When I first saw the headline “Research Like a Pro: New Techniques,” I thought, “It’s pretty sad that we have to explain to writers how to research.” I don’t know if I was just lucky that as an English major, and again to get my master’s in public relations, I had to write lengthy, well-researched thesis papers. That’s when I learned about research databases (although this article introduced me to several I hadn’t heard about), interlibrary loans (a godsend!) and the importance of getting to know subject matter experts. I’m not a historian – yet (getting my Ph.D. is in my 10-15 year plan) – but these experiences have given me a solid understanding of research.

But then again, I went to school primarily before the Internet took over. For my undergraduate thesis, we weren’t allowed to use online resources at all. Maybe that’s why I’m still more fond and trusting of information I find in books, as opposed to on the Internet. The article in question focuses mainly on online research, which is nice, but I’m old-fashioned. In general, books have to pass quality standards to be published; anything can be put on the Web. I’m not saying I don’t use online research, but I mainly keep it for minor fact checking or on the spot information. It was a lifesaver when I was writing the battle of Mount Badon. I can’t tell you how many times I used Google Maps to look at Little Solisbury Hill or how many sites I visited to learn about Anglo Saxon warfare in the late 5th century (which my books were oddly silent about). I do like Google Books, but that’s really just a searchable database of books, so I’m not really going too far out on a limb with that site. 

Oh Wait, Maybe I Was Wrong
The more I thought about it, I realized it’s actually wonderful that we’re teaching people how to research. In an age when the Web runs our lives, Shields’ article has some great tips on how to contact experts and how to use virtual tours to get to know places you can’t actually visit. He also made some great points about “folding in your research,” so that your readers can’t tell what you had to look up or what your sources were.

I can say from personal experience that there’s nothing more annoying to a reader than to be enjoying a book and what the author writes about starts looking really familiar and then all of a sudden, you know what book they used. The whole point of research is to make it look effortless, like you knew that information all along. In my opinion, that happens when you really internalize your subject and begin to live it. If you can get lost in it, your characters, and hence your readers, will too.

Editing: Blessing or Bane?
The other aspect of writing I have a love/hate relationship with is editing. I’m working my way through what I hope is my second to last round of edits before I query again. Sometimes, I’d rather poke my eye out than make a suggested change and other times I change one tiny thing and the whole story is suddenly a million times better.

The other day it hit me: editing is a beautiful process. It’s like getting multiple second chances. It’s very freeing to realize you don’t have to get everything right the first time around. Stories evolve as we write them, so it’s nearly impossible to get everything in the right order or shown the right way in your first few drafts. Editing allows you to not only change things that aren’t working, but foreshadow things you didn’t even know were going to happen when you originally wrote the lead up to them. If you’ll forgive the comparison, it gives you an almost god-like power, because you can go back and redo things until they turn out to where the plot appears seemless. If only reality worked that way. Wouldn’t it be great if we could edit our own lives? Oh wait, that lack of control is one reason we write – to be able to control the lives of our characters.

So, talk to me. How do you do your research? Are you an online junkie or a bookworm or a little of both? Does editing make you rejoice or just cringe?