Friday, June 28, 2013

Writer, Edit Thyself: Why You Shouldn't Hire an Editor (Yet)

You need an editor to fix your plot, pacing, and grammar? Tell me again what a great writer you are.
I've been reading a lot of writers' blogs and posts in writers' communities on G+. One thing I keep seeing is the recommendation (commandment, from some) that all indie writers must hire an editor before (a) sending work to an agent, or (b) self-publishing.

I understand where this advice is coming from, but...I have a big problem with this. And this is from someone who earned her highest salary EVER as a professional editor. (Feel free to laugh at this. My bank account does.) I know a few editors, and most of them are incredibly nice and talented people. I have nothing against them. I do have something against lazy writers who can't learn on their own.

If you ask me, the solution isn't to hire someone to make your writing better. It's to make it better your own damn self.

Suck at editing? Learn.
Suck at grammar? Learn.
Suck at revising? So do lots of people. Guess what? They fucking learn.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well. If you can't commit the time to learn how to use the English language well enough to pass muster with a reader, are you really cut out to be a writer? Or do you just like the cheap thrill of how easy it is to tell a story?  There's nothing wrong with storytelling. But it's only half of your toolkit.  You can't buy the other half.  Okay, maybe you can. But it's lazy and wrong and I'm going to berate you for it.

Objection #1: But as a writer, I'm too close to my story to see its flaws.
Bullshit. Read some books. Is yours like theirs? If so, you're doing it right. Sit down and make a list of the kinds of things that happen in good books. See the story arcs? Diagram your own story arc. Is there an arc? There are all kinds of story arc tools you can use before you write your story to make sure it's plotted and paced well. If you have any analytic capability at all, apply it at this stage in the game. If you don't have any analytic capability at all, you might not be cut out for writing. If you have analytic capability but this sounds like a hell of a lot of work, you're damn right. Stop reading blog posts and go diagram your damn book.

Objection #2: But I've read my manuscript so many times that my eyes glaze over the typos.
Bullshit. Read it out loud. Read it backwards. Print it out and look at it on paper. Put it in a drawer for a month and come back to it. None of these are impossible tasks unless you refuse to devote the necessary time. Are you refusing to devote the necessary time? Are you short-cutting what I hope is the most important thing in the world to you when you're doing it? If you have a nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach, if your cheeks are red, or if you're thinking of other things you should be doing right now, you're who I'm talking to. Don't ignore it. Embrace it, and then get it done. It might lengthen your production schedule to include a cooling-off period and then final proofing, but that's not my problem. It's yours.

Objection #3: But I'm just not good at grammar. I need someone to fix a few commas and things.
Bullshit. If you're not that good at grammar, how are you crafting sentences that shock and awe? How are you being careful when you pick your verbs? How are you playing with language to create the precise effect you want in a reader's mind? Or are you just whizzing through it all, using descriptions you've read in books because it's easier that way? Doing shit like this gets you nowhere. I read the jacket copy for a self-published romance novel where the author actually wrote that the dangerous and intriguing mystery man knocked the heroine's world on its axis. I kid you not. This is the kind of writer I'm talking about.  I saw a second writer who tried to convince me of a character's ability to deploy "feminine whiles." These people need to become better craftsmen. Right now, they're just swinging hammers with a blindfold on and hoping they hit a nail.

Objection #4: But editors need money. I have the money. What's the problem?
This is a slippery slope that often ends in bullshit. Replace "editors" with "prostitutes." Are you really doing this out of the goodness of your heart for your editor? Don't use this as an excuse not to learn to revise or proofread yourself.  Trust me.  We editors are a skilled and wily bunch. We'll survive.

Books aren't written, they're rewritten: Michael Crichton quote
What do you think...would Michael Crichton have appreciated
being immortalized on a purple gingham background?
Objection #5: But I need someone who will push me to do better.
Bullshit. If you want to do better, you can and you will. If you have the desire to become a better writer, don't do it by hiring someone to tell you why you suck.  That's stupid.  Figure it out yourself so you're not dependent on an editor for every book you write. It's like this:  "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime."  Teach yourself to fucking fish.  Do it by reading, experimenting, writing more, getting critiques from friends and beta readers, then rewriting again and again until you've produced something that leaves them speechless.  And then you can hire an editor for that extra 10% of effort that gets you to the full 110%.
An editor can be a part of that solution, but only a part, and only after you've exhausted every inner working of your soul that can go into the creation and recreation of your book.

Tip: A really good creative writing professor once told me that the best way to learn how to write good stories is to copy a great story out by hand. As you write the other writer's words, you'll absorb how they flow and how they're put together. You'll be forced to slow down and really read the story.  He suggested doing this with Flannery O'Connor. Have you done this yet? I didn't think so.

Objection #6: Why do you hate people so much?
As Bukowski said, "I don't hate people. I just feel better when they aren't around."

If you love writing, great. So do I. But doing only the fun parts is like what a five-year-old does when she strews toys all across the living room, plays with one or two of them, and then abandons the mess to go play outside. Or when you cook a great meal, eat it, and then leave dirty dishes lying everywhere. No, it's not fun to clean them. But paying someone else to do it because it's a difficult or distasteful task is cheating.

Think of the great writers of history: Homer, Sophocles, Chaucer, Shakespeare. They learned their shit and they learned it well. Yes, guys like Hemingway and Fitzgerald received editing from their publishers...only once they had turned in a manuscript that was as honed and polished as they could get it. They didn't slap-dash anything the page, do a Microsoft spellcheck, and hire someone to make sure it wasn't a mess. They agonized and revised and revised again. Your agony level needs to be somewhere north of poison-oak-in-your-nether-region. If you're at lemon-juice-in-hangnail stage, you're not nearly there yet.

Yes, beta readers can be helpful. As the book's writer, you cannot approximate a first-time reader's experience (unless you become psychic or telepathic). But fixing commas and quotation marks and hyphens and holes in your plot an elephant could fit through simply because you can't learn how to do it yourself?

Give me a break.  You can do better.  (Have I mentioned I love memes?)
Writing better: challenge accepted meme