I’m writing and self-publishing a book in 13 weeks and sharing the experience for anyone doing or thinking of doing the same. This week: the edit. Or rather, the first of the edits.
Publication date: five weeks from today.
Before I was a published writer, but when I knew I wanted to be one more than anything else, I would pore over the acknowledgements page in every book I read, searching for clues. Did these writers have people, or types of people, in common, who made the difference between them and me?
Apart from thanking long-suffering partners and family members, the most effusive thanks were always saved for the editor. I simply couldn’t understand why. OK, so they cut a few words out, checked your spelling and took you out for lunch to celebrate the launch. I’m not saying that’s not important (especially the lunch, now I earn what most writers earn) but it hardly came top of any list I would think of compiling.
And then, an editor at Pan Macmillan called Jason Cooper commissioned my first book.
Okay, that was definitely worth one of the biggest thank yous. But I soon learned that an editor did so much more.
I don’t want to talk too much about professional publishing because this series of blog posts is aimed at people thinking of self-publishing, but you do want to try and get as close to a professional standard as you can, and I’m lucky enough to know now what that looks like.
Once an editor is convinced of the worth of your book, they become your voice, your ally, your champion inside the publishing house, fighting your corner against sales, marketing, publicity, design and everyone else to get them on board with your vision.
They become invested in the book, because this is now their reputation riding on it too. They only bought it because they love it just like you do. At worst, they’re a valuable sounding board. At best, they are co-creators with you.
I over-wrote my first three books to an outrageous extent. Knowing I was brilliant, I couldn’t see where any of my excellent words could be cut. On the first two, Jason showed me. I always remember one page with a very long paragraph on it that I said could not be shortened. Jason eventually took his red pen and crossed out about half the words, and after he’d finished, the paragraph somehow said more than it had before.
Of course, any good writer should be able to do a good chunk of this themselves. But you get too close to the subject when you’ve been working on it for two years or more. You forget where the base level of knowledge of your target reader is. Your forget how much you knew yourself about your subject before you started. So you can lose sight of what detail is important to exclude, and to include. After Jason left Pan Mac, Jon Butler edited Hops & Glory. Editors also need to be able to handle the fragile ego of the author, and my favourite note from Jon on the first draft of Hops & Glory read, “Pete, I’m absolutely loving this. So interesting. My only comment so far is that I’ve picked up a book about a sea voyage to India, and I’m on page 156 and I’m still stuck on a canal boat just outside Burton on Trent…”
The last editor I worked with on a narrative book was Cecilia Stein, who has just moved on from Penguin. Cecilia reminds me of the quote attributed to Michaelangelo, who, when asked how he sculpted so well, replied that he simply cut away all the bits that didn’t look like the object or person he was carving. On The Apple Orchard and Pie Fidelity, Cecilia could see the book inside my first draft that was very similar to the book I thought I was writing, but better, and she helped bring that book out of me instead, cutting away all the bits that were not part of it.
Our confusion around editing is that with a book-length project, there are actually two edits, which in my experience are done by two different people. What Jason, Jon and Cecilia did is known as the structural edit. When we think of the red pen, the punctuation and grammar corrections, we’re talking about the copy edit.
I’m grateful to have worked with such brilliant editors in large publishing houses. Because it’s taught me that, even on a self-published project, I need both edits. I know why I need them, and I firmly believe that any writer of any level of experience or ability needs them too.
So how can you get this level of edit if you’re self-publishing?
There are various options. I’m very lucky in that I’m married to someone who has never worked as a literary editor but is so good at it she’s thinking of it as a next career. Liz is what Stephen King refers to as my “primary reader.” She is my biggest fan and greatest critic. She is the person I want to get engaged in the subject, the person I want to make laugh and, occasionally, cry. She’s perfect for my subject area in that she loves drinking craft beer but shuts off from any geeky discussion about it. When I was working with Cecilia, it turned out that Liz’s instincts were exactly the same as hers. Liz would make suggestions that I would disagree with or be sceptical about, and then Cecilia would make exactly the same points.
A book is like having a baby. You have to completely trust whomever you hand it over to to look after. That bond of trust is a special thing, and when you find it, you have to trust what that person says. They’re nearly always right.
On Craft: An Argument, Liz gets the dubious honour of being thanked as both long-suffering partner and editor. She even came up with the revised title, which editors usually do for me – I’m rubbish with titles. She’s spent most of this week reading a paper copy of the first draft, scribbling notes furiously on a pad beside her, making noises of surprise, confusion, and occasionally, satisfaction. If you’re looking for objective support from your biggest fan and greatest critic, then, “This is brilliant, I really enjoyed reading it, especially part two, and except for part one, which is all over the place and I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, why we’re here or why you’re talking about any of this,” is just what you need to hear.
If you’re not lucky enough to have such a partner, at least try giving it to two or three friends who you know are going to be straight with you – people who are close enough to you to know that they’e not going to hurt your feelings or jeopardise the friendship, but are on your side and aren’t going to take the piss or be cruel just because they’re jealous of your ambition. Even Stephen King does this. If you are part of a community of writers, you could even do a contra deal with another writer to do a through and honest structural edit of your work and return the favour for their future project. I believe a writer can learn to do a structural edit pretty easily. I just don’t think a writer is capable of doing it on their own work.
If you have a bit of budget to spend, websites such as peopleperhour.com are full of freelancers who would be happy to do an edit for you for a modest hourly rate.
Whatever you do, don’t assume you can get by without this fundamental step. Sadly, a solid structural edit seems to be going out of fashion thanks to big name authors being too important to disagree with or push back against, and topical books being rushed to market to capitalise on news or current affairs or the notoriety of the author.
I promise you this, as someone who has now been through the process ten times: however good you think your first draft is, and however confident you are in your abilities to write brilliantly and then be an objective judge of your own work, a firm structural edit WILL improve the quality of your book.
I won’t talk too much about the copy edit, which we’re hoping to get to early next week, because I think it speaks for itself: I mean, have you ever read my tweets?
My new book Craft – An Argument: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June. The ebook is available for pre-order now. (Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site.)