Editor v. Beta Readers: A Comparison

20180507_093600So I’ve written in the past about manuscript swapping with beta readers and about whether it’s worth it to pay for professional editing. But  for the latter, I had never actually had a professional edit of an entire manuscript, so I was mostly going off what other people had to say on the matter.

But a few months ago, I actually did the thing. I shelled out for a real live professional editor to go over an entire manuscript. As a result, I now feel a liiiiiittle better positioned to talk about professional editing- I mean, one experience isn’t a lot, but it’s more than zero. Since I’ve now had manuscripts edited on both ends of the spectrum, I thought it might be most helpful for you lovely readers if I did a compare-and-contrast of the two.

In a lot of ways, the two experiences felt very similar. In both cases, I selected someone that I thought would be a good fit for the story and who had time to squeeze it into their schedule. I did a final pass on the manuscript and then sent it off and sat in a flaming torment until I got a response. At this point in the game, both of the scenarios felt very similar, except for two differences. One, I was paying for the professional edit, so I was chewing my nails about money, which I tend to do. And two, I didn’t know the editor on a personal level like I tend to know my betas, so I was a little tiny bit uncomfortable sharing a work in its entirety with a stranger. Just a tiny bit. (I guess there was a third difference in that I sent it to one editor and I usually send out to betas in batches, but the wait didn’t feel any more or less torturous for that.)

One thing that professional editing really has going for it is a quick turnaround. The editor gave me a two-week time table. (She had a family emergency come up which knocked it back an extra week, but three weeks is still a fair bit faster than I typically hear from most beta readers.) So if you’re in a hurry, going with a pro might be the better option for you.

Next, already briefly mentioned, is the monies. Professional editing is expensive. It varies a lot from editor to editor and project to project, but it being expensive is especially true if you need a lot of work, have a very long story, need a rush job, etc. This stuff ain’t cheap. Beta reading, on the other hand, is free as far as money goes, although it usually comes with the expectation that you’ll return the favor at some point with your own time and editorial eyes.

I have had a lot of beta readers, and I have had only one professional editor. I can say without reservation that beta reading is a bit of a mixed bag when you’re first starting out. Sometimes you get really good betas that make you wonder why they’re not professional editors themselves. But sometimes you get gushy I-loved-it-it’s-perfect betas that, while a nice pat on the ego, isn’t super helpful to improving your manuscript. And sometimes you get the betas who… don’t… beta at all. (I know things come up, but if you’re just not going to read a thing, you should really let the author know as soon as you do instead of just letting it hang silently in the air for several months.) Most people fall somewhere in between these extremes.

I can’t say any of that for sure about professional editors. And I’ve winnowed my beta team down to a solid team that I trust and they are amazing. That said, I felt like I didn’t get as much out of the professional edit as I typically do from my favorite beta readers. Even if I don’t count all the back-and-forth weirdly-specific-question-and-answer sessions I tend to do with beta readers (Since I didn’t feel comfortable asking for that from a stranger who was expecting to get paid for her time, I didn’t ask much of anything.), I still felt like I got more from my average beta reader than I did from the editor even before I would have moved on to this step. If I’m being completely honest, I was disappointed, and the odds are low that I’ll be making this choice again any time soon.

All of this said, this is one small experience and maybe I just had a bum experience. (I mean, the lady did have a family emergency. It’s possible her mind was just somewhere else at the time- namely a hospital bed.) Lots of people out there swear by their editors, so don’t take my one small experience as the Gospel truth.

Anybody else out there have any experience with professional editors, good or bad? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear about it!

Until next week, happy writing!

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Resource Roundup: YouTube Edition

So I mentioned last week in Breaking Up with Candy Crush that part of my computerly goofing off occurred on YouTube. I am not, however, breaking up with YouTube. Candy Crush is great for distracting me from doldrums (and my children from squabbles), but really not much more than that. YouTube is actually great for a lot of things.

Beyond sheer entertainment, YouTube is a good resources for many of your writing needs. Here are the ways that I fold YouTube into my writing life. If you have more ideas, I’d love to hear them below!

Research You can look up tons of stuff on YouTube! Want to know about the most poisonous tree in earth? YouTube can tell you about that. Want to know how to replace the engine in your car? YouTube can tell you about that. Want to know about what brains do on adrenaline? YouTube can tell you about that. There are so many videos out there that could fall under this umbrella, depending on what your project is about, but a couple of my favorites generalists are SciShow and TED, or any of their affiliate channels.

Writing Tips Whole channels are devoted to breaking down what makes an excellent story, first chapter, character, etc. You can find writing tips on everything from initial inspiration on down to the specific nitty gritty of word choice, crafting believable side characters, and examples of well done settings. One of my favorite shows for writing tips right now is the On Writing series by Hello Future Me.

Editing Tips Not sure how to clean up that messy draft you’ve plopped out on your keyboard? Never fear! YouTube has videos for that! Whether it’s troubleshooting what’s wrong with your character arc, making sure your opening scene doesn’t fall prey to overused tropes, or plucking out all those troublesome adverbs, YouTube has you covered.

Submission Tips Submitting stuff, and all the snarl of yarn that entails, is hands down the scariest part of writing for me. I’ll gobble up any submission tips I can find. I needs ‘em! One of my favorites right now is the Book Doctors’ channel. Their book was great. So is their channel. (They also cover editing and marketing too. Like many of these channels, they cover a lot of stuff.)

Marketing and Promotion I don’t really do this one, but maybe you’re better at promoting yourself and your work than I am. Lots of literary professionals build up a following on YouTube sharing tips, trends, or even just slice of life segments. Authors post thoughts on the writing journey, book trailers, you name it. All of this builds up hype for their work, which hopefully equates more sales!

Inspiration Yes, you can be ‘working’ while browsing interesting videos! I don’t know how many times I’ve been goofing around YouTube and then an idea suddenly pops in my head for a new element in a story I’m working on, or even a new story altogether. That’s the fun thing about inspiration- you never know what will lead you to it!

If you don’t even know what you’re looking for, but find yourself trawling YouTube for stray thoughts, you can’t go wrong working your way through The Write Life’s click-bait-titled list, 15 of the Best YouTube Channels for Writers. Go give it a glance! (I’m gonna go check out Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lecture series first minute I find.)

All that said, do be cautious. Like all of the internet, YouTube is vast and interesting, and getting sucked down that rabbit hole is a lot easier than we like to admit to ourselves. It helps to have a system in place to keep YouTube from cutting in too much on your writing time. Some people use a timer. Some people only let themselves watch a certain number of videos per day. Personally, I only watch YouTube when my kids are up and about, which is time in which I wouldn’t be able to effectively do any writing anyway. Find what works for you and stick to your guns!

What else do you use YouTube for? Do you have any great resources you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below! Please and thank you!

(On an unrelated note, happy birthday, Mama! Thanks for keeping me alive and sane-ish all those years!)

Writing Method Experiment

20180507_093600The day before my husband and oldest son went on a caribou hunt, I bought a vacuum sealer from a second hand store. It did not work. Annoyed, I returned it, and my annoyance was compounded by the fact that I could only return it for in store credit, and that credit had to be used immediately. (This was after being told at the time of purchase that yes, of course I could return the item, and nothing more was said. I feel like something more should have been said.)

In the midst of my discontented wanderings through the store, I came across a most beautiful thing- a vintage turquoise Smith-Corona portable typewriter. Of course, it was irrevocably broken, as all things in this shop seem to be. But still, it was fun to plink away on and I’m sorry I didn’t buy it. It would have been just lovely on my book case and I could have spent many happy hours tinkering with it in the vague hope that I could resurrect it and name it Lazarus, but my husband would have caught me trying to sneak it in the house and given me that look and really, I don’t have any room on the book cases anyway. Alas. (In other news, I need more book cases. And a bigger house.)

But just touching that typewriter made me feel suddenly more creative, and I hustled home (with a bunch of new books I’m not sure where to put and some curtains I’ll never use, curse you, vacuum sealer) and knocked out another chapter in the Copper book I posted a chapter from last month (read here!).

The typewriter got me thinking. Some writing methods work better for me than others. And some that work for me might not work for as well for other writers. So I thought it might be fun to spend some time writing using several different recording methods and see if any patterns emerged. I came up with several styles of writing that I wanted to try, and went forth, hoping that a victor would emerge in each of these categories: best for brainstorming; best for drafting; best for editing. Each of the following writing methods was ranked according to these categories. Read on for my own personal results!

Method: Longhand, cursive

I know so many people who draft in longhand. (Sadly, I don’t know anybody who still uses shorthand to write anything more than short notes, and I was too lazy to learn stenography for this.) I don’t normally draft in longhand so it was fun to give it a try.

Pros: very good for inspiring creativity; excellent for working out outlines of books and individual scenes; very accessible;

Cons: difficult for later editing; in nearly all cases, must be transcribed to a digital format for sharing;

Method: Longhand, print

Everyone I know who uses longhand for writing does it exclusively in cursive. So I though, ‘Huh! What’s wrong with print?’ And once I start asking questions, I gotta find answers. All in the name of science. Sort of.

Pros: actually somewhat better WPM than cursive (Ms. Hardman lied to me); accessible;

Cons: doesn’t feel quite as inspiring as cursive; same cons as cursive;

Method: Typing, computer

This is my workhorse. A solid ninety percent, maybe more, of my writing uses this method.

Pros: very quick WPM; easy to keep files together and organized; easy to share materials with others;

Cons: computer isn’t always accessible; I am so very, very bad at technology; screens make my eyeballs sad; inspirationally meh;

Method: Typing, mechanical typewriter

Wow it took me half of forever to scrounge one up to type on. I’d never used one this old before and I was a little afraid to touch it, haha. It didn’t type very well, but honestly, the thing is like a hundred years old and I’m really impressed it worked at all.

Pros: mega super fun; creatively inspiring; that little ding at the end of the line; general coolness; that typing sound- something about the clickety-clack of a typewriter just feels all inspired and literary;

Cons: SO HARD TO FIND; keys jammed when typing too fast; had to push the keys really deep to get the typebars up to the page; machine was old and I didn’t know how to change the ribbon (let alone where to get one); difficult to edit;

Method: Typing, electronic typewriter

I actually managed to scrounge up not one, but two of these- each of them in dusty storage rooms of increasingly underfunded libraries. Go figure.

Pros: halfway between an old typewriter and a computer for coolness and inspiration; able to keep up with my typing speed;

Cons: relatively obscure- difficult to procure, and doubtless difficult to keep in repair; difficult to edit;

Method: Audio Recording

This method started out at a steep disadvantage, largely because I hate the sound of my voice. Not enough that I’d consider ever shutting up, but still. (It really didn’t help that I’ve been sick and sniffly for the entire duration of this experiment.)

Pros: can be done relatively hands free once you hit record; thoughts can be recorded quickly; very accessible if you have a phone that takes recordings; assuming recording was on a phone, sharing is very easy;

Cons: Very self-conscious of doing character voices; self-conscious of my just normal human voice; how does editing even happen like this; must be transcribed into another format for editing and sharing; while it worked well for taking notes, it was TERRIBLE for doing actual prose or, even worse, dialog;

Results

There are many, many ways to record stories out there. And while I was tempted to bust out some clay tablets or carve on some tree bark, I by no means exhausted the possibilities. These are just the methods that I thought a decent percent of people might actually regularly use. (Maybe not the typewriters these days. That was more for fun.)

But anyway, here is some data because data is delicious.

  Words/2 min WPM Accessible Editing Sharing Inspiring
Longhand, cursive 48; 54 25.5 Easy Medium Difficult ****
Longhand, print 51; 57 27 Easy Medium Difficult ***
Typing, digital 142; 150 73 Easy Easy Easy ***
Typing, electronic typewriter 82; 83; 79; 77; 77; 78.8 Difficult Medium Difficult ****
Typing, mechanical typewriter Didn’t record Slooow WHYYY Medium Difficult *****
Audio recording 373 in 4 min 93.25 Easy Difficult Easy *

So the results are in and I think we have our winners! For brainstorming, I definitely did best with longhand cursive.  For drafting, digital typing (on my laptop) was hands down the winner, as it was for editing. Typing on a computer isn’t the most inspiring way for me to write, but it is the quickest and the easiest, and it’s way easier to edit and share than its counterparts.

But that’s just me! Seriously guys, this was great fun running this experiment. You should consider doing it yourselves. Just spend a few hours working away using each method and see if any patterns emerge. You never know when you might stumble across your next big breakthrough on putting out your best work.

Until next week, happy writing!

(PS- Warning: in a couple more weeks, I’ll be skipping the country again and I’ve slated about a month of not putting up blog posts, depending on how quickly I recover, etc. But I promise I’ll bring you back some cool pictures and new sample settings. More details to come.)

Of Productivity and Patience

patience-is-a-virtueEvery Tuesday morning and Thursday evening, I put my kids to bed and get on my computer and curse my internet connection and open Scrivener. I write every day, usually at night after having put my kids down to sleep, but Tuesday morning and Thursday evening are special because those are the times when I write with friends.

Mary has been my number one writer friend for years and years and is pretty much my soulmate. My number two is Anna- who shares with me an almighty kitchen quirk and who gave me a questionable bag of flour that I can’t get rid of because it was Anna’s questionable bag of flour and I’ll be darned if I throw it out before I figure out what it is- and, even though both of them have moved away from me, we still carve this time out to write together. I love this writing time, and it feeds my soul in a different way than just writing by myself does.

In our little group dynamic, I am and always have been The Nag. I’m constantly blowing up their phones if they forget what day it is, or talking smack when their word counts are low, or coming up with new and improved ways to extort their stories out of them. My latest scheme is our Chapter Pact of Doom. (I am the only one who calls it that.)

Every other Friday, we are each supposed to post a chapter of our current WIP to a Google doc that the others have access to. This is kind of new and terrifying for me because I once-shy-of-never show first draft material to people, and here I am posting it to the internet to peruse at their leisure. *faints* But this just goes to show you how far I will go to try and shoehorn forward writing progress out of myself and everyone around me, especially when it comes to first drafts.

I write rapidly. Feverishly. I squeeze first drafts out with the hurried frenzy of Peter Rabbit popping through Mr. McGregor’s fence.

But there is another end to this spectrum. As important as it is to get stories quickly to market, there is a Zen to writing as well that cannot be rushed.

No matter how quickly you can put words down, writing requires phenomenal patience. A book that takes me two months to write can also take me two years to edit. I’ve been querying literary agents with only glacial progress for years. Even if I signed tomorrow, it would in all likelihood be years longer before a book of mine ever hit a bookstore shelf.

So here are a few things that I’ve learned to be patient about over the years.

Editing As quickly as I draft, I am at least that slow in editing. Everything about this process is super slow and thoughtful. A passage that took me minutes to jot down can take months to tweak into its polished final state. Drafting is all about just getting ideas onto the page. Editing is a hundred things more- checking for spelling and grammar; clarifying; refining the voice; making sure the scene and each part of it move the story forward; putting emotion on the page; grounding the scene in sensory detail; ALL THE THINGS. And that takes time!

Submitting Even after all these years, it still burns us. Crafting submission materials (blurbs, queries, bios, etc) is only half the battle. Then you have to research the heck out of who you’re going to send all this material to- and then tailor each submission for just that person. This does not happen overnight. (Or if it does, you’re doing it wrong.) And even after you’ve finally gotten your materials perfect and sent them to the perfect people, you still have to wait for…

Responses So, waiting for responses is actually one of the things I’ve gotten decent at being patient for. When I first started submitting stuff (to anyone, really- friends, beta readers, agents, etc), I felt like I was sitting in a boiler room on a bed of broken glass. There were even a few times where anxiety got the better of me and I thought I was going to die of a heart attack or something before the whole ordeal was over. But these days, I’ve learned how to keep myself busy while waiting for responses. I have other projects I work on. I send things out in batches timed so that there’s always a few out and a few more to send. I read exciting books. I occasionally skip the country on vacations. You know, things like that.

Fame, Riches, and Glory I’m, uh… I’m still waiting on this one. Completely. And frankly, this is probably a thing I’ll be patiently waiting for until I die.

Writing is a lot of work- the kind of work that happens quickly, and the kind that happens slowly. If I worked very slowly at all of it, I would never have the body of prose that I’ve accumulated, nor gotten through the literal millions of words of practice that I have. But if I was a slave to speed in its every aspect, sure, maybe I’d have a lot of work, but none of it would have the kind of polished refine that it requires to garner any critical notice, whether that’s from agents or publishers or readers. A writer requires both. And that is something that took me a long time to learn.

So whether you’re pouring on the heat to try and muscle through a first draft in three weeks flat, or reining in the horses to make sure you really get this one line just right, take pride in knowing that you’re giving your work just what it needs- a push of productivity, and a pinch of patience, each in due course.

Happy writing!

Pants, Plans, and In Between

pantsLong time readers may have noticed this about me, but I like to experiment from time to time with my writing strategies. Sometimes I try a bunch of creativity inducing activities to see which ones I like best. Sometimes I try out several writing programs to see if there’s a better system out there. I know what’s working for me now, but I don’t always know what will work better.

To that end, I’ve been experimenting this last year with various degrees of plotting preparation. When I first started out this writing gig, I was pretty deep in Pants territory, writing whatever the heck I wanted as the whimsy took me. I planned absolutely nothing. In recent years, I’ve been taking an increasingly structured stance for starting out new projects. I even sometimes use wonky little character sheets that might have details about their dietary preferences in childhood and how their first pet died. Real who-cares sorts of details, but it helps me get into the characters’ lives a little more.

The last three books I’ve written, current project inclusive, I’ve taken pains to plan them to different degrees. In the first book, I did no planning whatsoever; I went into it with a very brief premise idea, and just wrote whatever little rabbit trails came to mind. For the second book, I did just a little bit less than my usual degree of preparation, falling about midway between no plan and front-to-finish omniplan. And for my current project, I planned and planned until I felt like I had everything down and if I did any more planning, I would puke.

Here are my thoughts!

The Plans-Are-For-Sissies Approach: This one was a little painful. The words seemed to come alright, and I never really lacked for inspiration, but story wandered quite a bit before I found the track I wanted to take, and this poor baby will require gobs of editing to clean up all the foreshadowing that never went anywhere, the events that came out of nowhere, the sudden and significant eye color change of the secondary main character midway through the book, et cetera ad infinitum. (Heck, I never even nailed down which title I want to use.) Not only was the story all over the place, but writing the thing out took kind of forever. I never really lacked for things to write, but not having a plan meant moving forward at a snail’s pace. It took nearly six months to write this meandering draft, while first drafts of a similar size usually take me about two or three. I like the story, and I enjoyed the totally-free-to-explore feeling of writing, but it came at a huge time cost.

The Moderate’s Approach: This one was even more painful, but for different reasons that are probably not the method’s fault at all. I planned out the story just a smidgeon past the midway point in moderate detail, leaving myself a bit of wiggle room for exactly how things would take place, and a whole lot of wiggle room for how things would wrap up. The story progressed pretty easily at first, following my nice little plan. But the closer I got to the end, the more I realized I was in deep water. As things came onto the paper, all the little gaps and giant holes became painfully apparent. When I got past the outline’s reaches, I was swimming blind but, unlike the Plans-Are-For-Sissies story, nothing was coming. I tried to force it and things just got more and more lame, until finally I quit a couple chapters before the anticlimactic final battle. Blehhhhh… But as I said, this is probably more due to the story idea’s weakness than the method’s invalidity. The Moderate’s Approach is probably closer to my regular degree of plannedness (which is totally a word, shhh) than either of the others. I think I just picked a bum story idea for the experiment. 😦

The Doomsday-Prepper Approach: I can’t totally write this experiment off as done, since I’m still working my way through the book, but I have been so far most comfortable with this one. This story- and the historical timeline, the magic system, and each character and location- was planned out in detail, start to finish, before I even created the new Scrivener file. Honestly, the planning stage is usually the most fun part of the whole process for me, and I was a little worried I would use up all the funness (also a word, sh) before I got to the drafting phase. But I’ve been working on it for about a month now and things are still fun! I will say, though, progress is being made, but the words aren’t flying onto the page the way I assume they would with the way ahead so clear from the start. But this could also be a product of my writing habits; when doing the meandering no plan book, I got into the habit of just sort of picking at it- about five hundred words a day- and that habit has so far stuck. But as I write this, I am resolving anew to pick up the pace. Ask me how I’m doing in another month!

So this little experiment is inconclusive. Turns out each story (like each pregnancy?) is different. Go figure. But still, I had fun playing around with the degree to which I plan a story, and I now have a firmer awareness of exactly what my most comfortable planning style is. Not quite a pantser, and not quite a full on planner, but a plans-oriented plantser, which is kind of what I had figured I was before. Turns out I found the spot just by wandering there all on my own over the last twenty years of writing.

How about you readers? What’s your planning style? Why do you like it that way? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!

Reblog: 5 Ways to Save Your Character From A Drowning Story

Hey, gang! I’m down south visiting family in Anchorage Alaska, and getting very little writing done while I instead plan vacations, bake all the things, and hold the tiniest of humans far more than is necessary.  Fortunately, I’ve got the word count buffer to sustain this kind of lifestyle for another few days during this NaNoWriMo adventure. Any of you fellow wrimos- how go the literary hijinks?

This is our last reblog of the month, and then I have to start being thoughtful again. This one comes from Nicole Blades via Writers Digest, and stuck out to me probably because my story kind of stinks this month, haha. It’s nice to know that if the ship sinks, I might at least be able to launch a lifeboat and get my MC to dry land again.

5 Ways to Save Your Character From a Drowning Story

NBladeby Nicole Blades

As writers, we’ve all experienced that moment when it becomes painfully clear that the story we’re working on just isn’t. We’ve tried to twist and bend it this way and that, but then it’s time to finally admit that we’ve come to the end of the rope with the manuscript and will have to let go. It’s next-level kill your darlings, and it’s rarely pleasant or easy. But what if the protagonist or a key character in that sinking story won’t let go of you? What if the character continues to haunt you and you simply cannot give up on them? Is there a way to valiantly rescue a great protagonist from a less than great story? Short answer: Yes! So, move over, Rose; there’s definitely room for Jack on that floating piece of wood.

I’ve lived through this with my latest novel, Have You Met Nora? (Kensington). My main character, Nora Mackenzie, is a young woman with an incredible secret and a heartbreaking but complicated backstory. She is flawed and layered and fascinating to me. However, the initial setting of the book—an all-girls’ Catholic boarding school in Vermont, where a 17-year-old Nora reigned as the queen of Mean Girls—wasn’t connecting. As Dawn Brooks, a character in the revised book would say, “it didn’t curl all the way over.” I had received feedback from agents, writers, and early readers that kind of all said the same thing: she’s too mean. As compelling as Nora’s story was in my eyes, having readers say that they couldn’t relate to her, that they couldn’t find the connection site with the character, meant that they would never care about what happens to her. And that spells The End for the story. Who’s going to want to keep reading when they don’t care about the protagonist? Exactly.

The thing is, this character captivated me, and the heart of the story I was trying to tell was still beating strong. I just needed to strip away everything else around Nora’s foundation and rebuild it using sturdier, more developed bricks. I went about it by first growing Nora up, moving the character out of school and into full-blown adulthood. I had to construct a fresh world around her that included new relationships, experiences, and weighty conflict that served the character and the story. This kind of revise wasn’t a walk in the park; it took years to pull it off, but I did it. (After all, the book is going to released into the wilds come October 31, right?)

I wanted to share what I learned through this experience with others who may be trying to save a character from a burning book before just hitting DELETE on the whole thing. I asked some other author friends to loan me their two cents on the topic, too. So, here are five actionable tips on how to keep the baby when it’s time to dash the bathwater.

Ready to read some more? Head on over to Writers Digest for the full article. And until next week, happy writing!

Getting Publication Ready with Jane Friedman

Jane-Friedman-1First off, this woman looks eerily like my sister-in-law. I had to get that off my chest. It’s like future Annie has come back to the past to tell me about books.

Second, Jane Friedman is a publishing beast. Co-founder of the Hot Sheet, former editor of Writer’s Digest, Ms. Friedman has a bio that makes me want to curl up under a blankie and weep at all the majesty. She managed to pack one metric tonne of information into the three hour class. There’s no way I’m going to be able to fit it all into a single blog post, so I’m only going to talk this week about just getting your book ready for publication. I will come back to address the other topics- the five categories of publishing and how to go about them- in more detail in later posts, so fear not. Start looking for those toward the beginning of next year, maaaybe a little sooner if I get an unexpected hole in my schedule.

But if that’s too long a wait, I came across this class, How to Publish Your Book, with Jane Friedman, while perusing a catalog for The Great Courses. It looks like it might cover some of the same information, and is massively on sale until 26 October. You know, if you’re the impatient type.

However! being the impatient type is not the best way to be when hoping to publish a book. Slow down, cowboy! Let’s talk about the steps you must go through to successfully get your book ready for publication, whether that’s traditional, indie, or somewhere in between.

The first step is to make sure that your book is its best possible self. This includes drafting, self-editing, beta editing, rewriting, maybe even professional editing, the works. This is a very long process, and it can be hard to tell when you’re really done here. The yardstick I’ve been using is that I am a) stupidly proud of the work, and b) feel like my eyeballs are going to fall out of my head every time I open the file again. It’s a strange balance. But after your manuscript is the absolute prettiest it can be, then you can turn your mind to preparing for publication, and that means market research.

The earliest parts of research can be done from within the comfortable confines of your very own story- you have to know what you’re selling. Know whether you’ve written fiction or nonfiction, know what your intended age group is, and know your category.  For fiction, have you written mainstream, literary, or genre? For nonfiction, is the MS narrative, prescriptive, or inspirational? Each of these groupings will point toward a different target audience and, if you’re traditionally publishing, a different submission target.

Be aware of the different age categories and try not to straddle them. (I am so bad about straddling age categories, ugggggh.) Also, never claim that your project is “hard to categorize”. Nobody likes that and it doesn’t give potential readers any information. Instead, say that it’s “multi-genre” or has “crossover appeal” and mention just two specific categories.

Once you have your book all neatly categorized, do some market research. Your goal here is to understand the commercial viability of a project, which is important whether you plan to enlist the help of traditional publishers or to go it alone. But just for general reference, I’m going to list some of the positive and negative signs a publisher will look for when deciding whether a book is marketable or not.

Positive Signs (do this stuff) Negative Signs (avoid this stuff)
  • Uses standard lengths (wordcount)
  • Written in a commercial genre
  • Author has a solid platform (for nonfiction)
  • Wordcounts that are way outside of norms (<50k, >120k, etc)
  • Tough sell categories (cookbooks, picture books, travel books, short story complication, etc)
  • Memoirs without a high concept or publicity angle

If you find that your book has some of those negative signs, maybe give it a closer squint before moving past this point. (Huge books by unknown authors are a hard sell, no matter which publication route you choose. Most cookbooks are sold by celebrity chefs. Keep these things in mind when figuring out your own market viability.)

For traditional publishing, this is where you start getting your submission packet ready, which probably includes something like a query, sample pages, and a synopsis; know ahead of time whether you want to query agents or publishing houses directly, because you’re not supposed to do both at the same time, and follow submission guidelines exactly. Novels and memoirs must be finished, edited, and polished before beginning the submission process. For nonfiction, write the book proposal first, including a business plan; since publishers don’t have the finished materials, you have to convince them that this book will sell.

If you’re going the indie route, you don’t need a proposal or query, but you still need a lot of the bits and pieces that would go into them, including a business plan, sales copy, and a finely polished project. In addition, you’ll also need to work out your book design, including formatting, cover design, blurbs, etc. If you’re not a professional [editor/book designer/artist/etc], pay for one like any other book publisher would.

When putting together back cover blurbs/pitches, business plans, and author bios, feel free to pick the brains of your friends, family, and neighbors on the bus to work. This stuff is hard to write, but having extra eyes on it can help you pick out the pieces that aren’t clear, or that sound strange, or whatever the problem may be. Just as you wouldn’t try to publish a work that hadn’t been beta read and closely edited, don’t try to do that with this stuff either. These things make up the sales pitch of your book, whether you’re addressing it to agents, editors, or readers. Give it the same care that you have given the rest of your book.

After you have all these scores of little duckies in a row, it’s time to get your rhinoceros-thick skin on. You’re ready to step into the publishing ring! Good luck!