Convergence and the Path to Publication II: On Editing

[Click here to read Part I in this series.] Chuck Wendig recently posted the following two blogs over at his site, which, inexplicably, have become a source of some controversy to some folks: Self-Publishing Is Not The Minor Leagues and Follow-Up On Self-Publishing: Readers Are Not Good Gatekeepers. Both are well worth the read. Even more recently, he followed-up with Slushy Glut Slog: Why The Self-Publishing Shit Volcano Is A Problem.

Mr. Wendig is dead-on correct, IMHO, particularly when he writes:

If you’re charging money for your work, you owe it to the reader to give them your best. Not your most mediocre. Not your half-assiest.

I point you to his posts, first of all because Mr. Wendig has plenty of great points amongst this trio of blogs. Also, I want you know directly where I'm coming from, particularly since I will be experimenting with self-publishing for my first novel.

Although self-publishing has become more mainstream of late, it still has a bit of a bad rap. Some writer's skimp on editing, they have bad covers, they can't spell. This does a disservice to the whole of self-publishing, particularly if that lack of grace and effort is viewed as the norm. It's why Wendig is so passionate about raising the bar, because, really, we should be putting our best foot forward. Even if a professionally designed cover doesn't attract me, I may be swayed by a well-written description of the book, enough to click the preview button. At that point, if I'm confronted with amateurish writing, riddled with errors, that book just lost a potential reader. (This is true of both Big 5 releases and artisanal authors.) It's not enough to get two out of three right. You have to hit all three out of the ballpark, no questions asked. Mind you, there are, in fact, plenty of good reads out there from self-published authors (Wendig's Atlanta Burns series among them). My sincere hope is that there will be an audience for my book(s) who feel secure enough with my effort(s) to include me in that grouping of self-pubbers who care and strive for quality.

This is why I've held off on publishing CONVERGENCE for more than a year and spent that time refining and honing my work to make it as good as I possibly could. After earning a spot in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarter-finals, I began working with a team of editors at Red Adept. I hired a content editor to help me make my book better. I brought in a line editor to help me make it better still. A proofreader helped make sure my sentences were coherent. In between each step, I read through each successive draft that was produced to weed out any further errors, to clean up the manuscript further, and to exercise the new tricks and tips I was learning. I rewrote, I removed entire sections, added entirely new scenes, then rewrote those, cut them down, parsed them into a form that was as good as I was capable of. All for the sake of improvement. Working with my team of editors at Red Adept was eye-opening. And not just in terms of realizing first-hand how vital and necessary their efforts and assistance were. They worked with me to take CONVERGENCE up to the next level, and were absolutely invaluable. In the end, I do believe that my manuscript is better, stronger, and tighter for it. More importantly, I believe that it is worth publishing. Not simply because I can, not just because I have that option, but because this novel I wrote has been honed into a worthwhile product that I can be proud of.

Had I published CONVERGENCE as soon as it was finished, or, hell, if I had even published the draft that has now been sitting with Harper Voyager for more than a year following their Digital Submissions period back in October 2012, the same draft that earned me a spot in the quarter-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013, the draft that Publisher's Weekly gave me a mound of praise for - if I had published that draft? I would have been taking the easy way out. I would have been selling a lesser product. I would have been half-assing it. Yeah, that draft survived a lot of stiff competition and went up against some staggering odds to make it as far as it did, but it also never was quite able to make it to the finish line. Which meant, to me, maybe it wasn't entirely ready. Maybe it wasn't finished yet. It hadn't reached its maximum boiling point.

And I'll tell you another thing, and it's as true for that earlier, rougher around the edges draft as it is of this finished, polished work that I will happily be presenting soon. It has my name on it. To me, that means something. This book bears my name. I poured a lot of my heart and soul into this novel, and then I put my fucking name on it. Which means I am claiming ownership of it and responsibility for it, and as such, it is up to me to make it as good as possible. It's up to me to make it as best as it can be. If I'm putting my name on it and selling it, it needs to be professionally done. It should not be half-assed. It should not be riddled with typos and errors. It's bad enough when one of the professional Big 5 publishing houses put out work like that. Go pick up the first hardcover edition of Vince Flynn's American Assassin as a good example of how bad Atria fumbled in their editing efforts - words missing or misspelled, even one scene where character's names get mixed up. I paid $14 through Amazon when that book was released and it was riddled with problems that nothing more than additional time, a good editor, and proofreader could have fixed. It had the same mistakes that far lesser self-published efforts bear. For a Big 5 publisher, that should be an embarrassment. And if it's an embarrassment for them, it should be equally embarrassing for a self-published author to churn out similar, low-quality, mistake-riddled books. Now go to Amazon and read some of the reviews for American Assassin, particularly the 1-star reviews that lambasted the book solely for these issues.

Seriously, why the hell would I want to release a product like that? And Flynn's work isn't even an aberration. There are plenty of other examples out there. It's a common occurrence among the Big 5, but we typically let it slide because their such powerhouses, movers and shakers. It's also this same kind of sloppiness that gives self-publishing such a bad image. It's why indie authors have to rise above such inadequacies and produce stronger works. If we are going to shake that bad image, then we need to not give excuses for producing bad work, or act like its defensible. Now, look, I'm a pretty forgiving reader when all is said and done. I don't make a fuss over a few typos or misspellings. But when such errors are so prevalent that the story suffers, that reading becomes an act of self-inflicting torture? That's a problem. If we are to own and control our novels and act as publisher, then it is in our own interest to make damn sure the work is shined to a professional finish and that it's actually worth the asking price. I'm publishing CONVERGENCE myself, so I must bear the burden of ensuring that my best work is released to the public. I'm charging money for this novel, and even though it'll be a hell of a lot less than $14 I want to make sure it is as free of typos, mistakes, and other assorted problems as can be reasonably expected. This is my book, and I want you to enjoy it. I don't want readers struggling through a sea of mistakes in an effort to determine my intent and meaning.

Editing is crucial. Editing is a must. If you are writer and think you are somehow above editing - you are wrong. Put the ego aside and realize one thing: Every single writer needs an editor. The end. Self-edits are an important first step, but they are merely a first-step. A professional editor is needed. They are a valued resource. A rich commodity. They not only improve your work, they help you grow as a writer. You can learn how to be much less sloppy through their efforts.

One of the most valuable things I learned from my editors was the power of word choice. I mean, sure, I knew that going in and did my level best to keep the prose punchy and have a few nice turns of phrase. But, I also knew that I had a tendency to fall into a comfortable routine of select words, many of them just filler. Words like "just" or "like." They're easy to use and they fit comfortably into sentences. As do words like "while" or "so." And more often than not, they are supremely unnecessary and easily eliminated, in most cases, without changing the importance of the sentence they once inhabited. Those words, though...they're empty calories. They don't bring anything to the table. They're a quick crutch to lean on. They are also annoyingly repetitive. CONVERGENCE is a fairly violent affair, and my editors were smart to point out my overuse of 'blood' and 'bloody.' After a while, it got to be a boring description, and I needed to come up with other gory, visceral ways of describing violent aftermath. My editors and I worked together to eliminate these troublesome words and find other, higher-quality words to give the sentence more oomph. We also worked on making sentences flow, to trim them of fat. In my time as a freelance journalist, one thing that was hammered into me was this: never use three words when one can do. For every time I broke that simple command, there was an editor to reign it back in and fix it. Obviously, without the crutch of an editor, I break this rule freely and frequently... There is no need to over-complicate a sentence or to use flowery prose unnecessarily. Short and punchy, that's where it's at. And a good editor can help you achieve this.

My content editor provided a lot of valuable input. She sussed out a lot of my gaps in logic and the weak points of the story. She helped me beef up the plot and make sure all those dots were connected and that the story arc was structurally sound. She also helped and encouraged me to eliminate a lot of unneeded world building, while also making sure that said world building was flush and well-rounded. It was all about "show" rather than "tell." Again, I think she did a great job and that CONVERGENCE is stronger because of her efforts and guidance.

My proof editor went through and made sure the i's were dotted, the t's crossed, that words weren't missing, and that sentences were complete. Sadly, she found many, many things to fix. I'd read the book so many times over that my mind began to fill in the blanks, or insert words that were actually missing from the text. Thankfully, she brought fresh eyes to the pages and caught stuff the rest of us overlooked.

Each draft that I received from each editor were filled with red marks. More than I had ever seen. It was humbling. And it was necessary. Each flaw they found, every mistake they pointed out, every suggestion they made proved how vitally necessary the task of editing is. There is absolutely no reason to compromise here, or mince words. Editing is a must.

Is CONVERGENCE 100 percent error free? Honestly, I don't know. I'd really like to say yes, but there's always something that slips through the cracks, no matter how many eyes have gone over it. To err is human, as they say. No book is perfect and error free (hell, I just found a typo in my supposedly final draft last weekend, and I worry there are others we've all missed), but, with work and focus, we can go a long way toward getting those problems closer and closer to zero. Between myself, my wife, and my Red Adept editors, this book has been through at least five sets of eyes, each pair working to ensure it was as correct a copy as it could be. If it were as good as any random Big 5 book, I'd be happy. But, the truth is, in this day and age, in this climate of self-publishing and reader savviness, it needs to be better. As a soon-to-be self-published author, I demand that it be better.

[Keep reading: Part III, Part IV, Part V]

Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

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