Over the weekend I read a collection of paranormal romance novellas. For those who aren't up to date on fiction terminology, a novella is longer than a short story (>10,000 words) and shorter than a novel (<50,000 words). A novella offers a nice bit of entertainment that can be read over a lunch break or while languishing in a physician's waiting room.
Other than having been written by the same author, these novellas had some traits in common: decent character development, realistic emotion, just enough conflict to keep things interesting without being over-the-top ridiculous, and clean editing. I found no overuse of passive tense, wandering apostrophes, arbitrary capitalization, improper tense switches, or "telling" (as opposed to "showing") that commonly afflict most self-published romance, especially in the paranormal and erotic sub-genres which bear a well-deserved and notorious reputation for poor writing.
I tell you, the competence of the author was a truly refreshing change of pace.
This morning I began reading another paranormal romance. Aside from the funky formatting--and sometimes e-books will pull tricks like that--the contrast couldn't be more obvious. I'll give the author points for general grammar issues; thus far I've found nothing of note. However, stilted, banal dialogue, too-stupid-too-live heroine, unlikable hero, and lots of "telling" instead of "showing" had me skimming pages before I'd finished the first chapter.
I've griped about such problems before.
Today, I want to talk about bringing all those disparate elements together. If you've written a book, do not immediately upload it for the world to see. This bears repeating: If you've written a book, do not immediately upload it for the world to see. I guarantee you it's not ready for public viewing.
Let the manuscript sit for at least a few days. Then use great care and a keen eye and read it from beginning to end. Put on your editor's hat and be ruthless, because you can be sure the public won't spare your feelings. It's a cruel, cruel world out there. When you've identified and corrected errors--malapropisms, discrepancies, redundancies, plot holes, grammar errors, typos, etc.--then let the manuscript sit a while longer. Go over it again. (Yes, I know you're hearing the cliched shampoo instructions in your head: lather, rinse, repeat.) After this second round of self-editing, it's time to bring in a fresh set of eyes.
The fresh set of eyes can be a writing group, handpicked volunteers also known as beta readers, or a hired professional. Writing groups vary in efficacy and new authors tend to try to make everyone happy. Unfortunately, that leads to the story devolving. The author loses her voice and the story loses its interest.
Beta readers often make a crucial part of the publication team. I like to separate my beta readers into critical and general. The critical readers will use laser focus to point out everything that's wrong with the manuscript: a forgotten word here and an unnecessary comma there, blue eyes on page 13 and brown eyes on page 221. General readers give feedback on the overall sense of the story: "You killed off this character on page 300, but he appears again--with dialogue--on page 368." Or: "Your hero was too arrogant, a real jackass, too violent. Tone him down."
Beta readers, though, aren't a sure thing. Some of them volunteer so they get the pleasure of reading a free book, but offer little in the way of feedback. Others really do want to help, but don't wish to offend you and so withhold their sharpest criticism, despite the author's request to be candid and brutally honest.
Hiring a professional editor (or even two) is the author's best best to whip the manuscript into shape. Editors come in three basic flavors: developmental, content, and line. The developmental editor is the big picture guy. The developmental editor primarily works on nonfiction and his function is to ensure the book moves forward. He focuses on plot and characterization. The content editor focuses his attention on plot, characterization, voice, and setting. The line editor (a.k.a. "copy editor") critiques every line of the manuscript, correcting grammar, punctuation, spelling, formatting, characterization, voice, setting, etc.
A hired editor is paid to be ruthless, not to be your friend.
Consider carefully the editor's feedback. You've paid for this person's expertise, now don't just toss it out because you don't like what she said about your purple prose. It may be that the editor is a bad fit: that does happen. Or it may be that you paid for a cut-rate editor and got the incompetence you paid for. (See my blog on checking out the competition.) Caveat emptor. Regardless, the author is not obligated to accept every correction or suggestion made by the editor. As ruler of your own little universe--the book--you control its development.
Consider carefully the editor's every comment. His job is not to make you look back; any author can do that all on her own by publishing work that's simply not fit for public viewing. His job is to improve upon what you wrote so that you look good when you publish it. It's to his credit to make your manuscript look as good as possible. The editor helps you bring it all together, to make that story a cohesive whole that follows logically and still engages the reader.