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Month: March 2017

Need an Editor? Maybe Not

Do you need an editor? As an editor myself, I’m going to take a risk today and talk about some reasons that an indie author just might not need an editor after all.

Hiring an editor can certainly have several benefits for self-published authors:

    1. The right developmental editor will make your story better by helping you find the weaknesses in your story, plot, theme, and characterization. She will also give you ideas for strengthening them.
    2. The right copyeditor will polish your work. He will make sure missing commas, misused words, and misspellings won’t ruin your reader’s enjoyment of the story.
    3. A good editor will help you improve your own writing skills through queries and conversation. She’ll tell you why she made certain changes so that you can learn not to make the same mistakes again. Developmental editing is especially good for this. While it may not be for everyone, I favor the editorial letter for developmental editing over the editorial rewrite. This letter points out the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript. It gives the author lots of thinking points and lets her use this knowledge to revise or rewrite her book. Using—not just hearing—this new or reinforced knowledge is a great way for a writer to improve not just her current book but also her overall skill.
    4. An experienced editor has likely seen many more books, worked with many more authors, and gained more insight into the craft of writing and the ins and outs of the publishing industry than your typical beta readers and critique partners. If your editor is also a writer, he has probably exchanged his own work with beta readers and critique partners. So, he has the practical knowledge of a writer plus his own professional experience to work from.

need an editor, editorial letter

Why You Might Not Need an Editor

Okay, so you can tell that I think (good) editors are great [see my post on vetting editors for tips on finding a good one]. However, I honestly believe that there are times when you shouldn’t hire one. Here are some reasons to stop and think before you pay for professional editing:

1. You are writing a legacy work.

A legacy work is for friends and family. While you might have buried dreams about making money from it, its primary purpose is to leave your loved ones and descendants a little piece of you when you’re gone. They will tend to be more forgiving of grammatical errors and structural issues than your average reader.

need an editor, legacy

2. You have no commercial goals.

You may be writing simply for the love of it. Maybe you’ve just had this one book inside you that just has to get out, but you never plan to write another. One of the purposes of hiring an editor is to turn out the best book possible so that your readers will keep coming back for more. Your well-edited titles will give you a strong basis for commercial success. However, if this is not what you’re looking for, the benefits of hiring an editor might not outweigh the financial cost. If your pride demands a clean manuscript, you might still need an editor, but otherwise, share away. Keep in mind that services such as Amazon KDP have quality guidelines to which you must adhere to keep your book available on their sites. This doesn’t stop you from using print on demand or sharing your book on your blog or website.

3. You’ve finished only your first draft.

There will always be exceptions, but most first drafts are not ready for developmental editing, let alone copyediting. See “My First Draft Is Done! What’s Next? A Manuscript Guide for Indie Authors” for possible next steps.

4. You know an editor who is willing to barter or edit for free.

Okay, in this case, you still need an editor, but you don’t actually have to hire one. Please do be sensitive and flexible with your editor family member or friend. She likely needs to be doing mostly paid work to survive, but if she is willing to help, great! However, if said editor is a friend or family member, be sure that she is willing to treat you like any other client (a.k.a. not hold back) and that the relationship can survive the constructive criticism you are going to get when she does.

5. You simply can’t afford it, or you don’t feel that the boost in sales will be worth the cost of editing.

Be realistic about your budget. No editor with any sense of ethics wants to be the last straw in his client’s financial downfall. If you can’t find a way to make the budget or don’t have an audience that is big enough to cover the cost of editing, find ways to make your manuscript as clean as possible without professional editing. Go through all the free steps in my Indie Author Guide to Saving Money on Editing series before you hit publish. Would one of the alternative ways to pay for editing work for you? Also, consider crowdsourcing your editing.

6. You believe that writing as an art form is best when it is pure and unedited.

This is a valid opinion. Some writers believe that any form of editing tarnishes a writer’s voice. After all, painters don’t have editors. If this is you, don’t let your friends talk you into having your book edited anyway. Hiring an editor while you have this mindset will likely just lead to an adversarial relationship. It won’t help either one of you. If you want to test out your theory that your writing is better without feedback, use a willing beta reader or critique partner before you consider shelling out your cash and putting your writing under the knife of a pro.

need an editor, success

Success without an Editor

Finally, if your story is appealing enough and the errors aren’t so bad that readers can’t get past them, you might still find commercial success without an editor. You may need an editor later to increase that success. When you self-publish an ebook, you have the option to revise and re-upload your book down the line. You can fix errors yourself or even hire an editor after the book has been up a while to increase its appeal even more. Having your book edited postpublication won’t erase any bad reviews that are already there, but it will show readers that you are willing to respond to their concerns.

Spend some time getting to know yourself and figuring out your goals for your writing career (if any). This can help you figure out which path to take.

So, do you think every writer needs an editor? Why or why not?

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11 Rules for Your Critique Group

A critique group can be an invaluable resource for any writer. I was a member of a great one for the past year and a half and recently set up a set of critique groups for the new writers’ group that I am facilitating.

My last group worked so well that I wanted to help the writers in my new group re-create its respectful, collaborative experience. Writers are, by definition, very different people with different experiences, goals, and backgrounds, so it’s important to set out expectations ahead of time to facilitate a smooth and enjoyable environment where writers can give and receive useful critical feedback without being overwhelmed by negativity.

Here are some guidelines (thanks to my group for all of their input!):

Critique Group Guidelines

  1. Appoint a facilitator: The facilitator’s job is not to lead the critiques but to keep everyone on track so that there is time for each critique. The facilitator may also serve to resolve problems but should take a hands-off approach with the critiques unless a conflict does arise.
  2. Have writers provide their work in advance: Provide works to be critiqued via email or hard copy to other members at least one week in advance so that everyone has time to read and digest the writing and organize his or her feedback before the meeting.
    email manuscript, send manuscript, manuscript, critique groups
  3. Have writers give some background: Each critique group member submitting pieces should give some background, including his or her plans for the work and goals for feedback. For example, does the writer want to improve his or her writing in general or to polish this piece in particular? Does he or she want structural feedback, grammar/spelling/punctuation type feedback, or both?
  4. Be sensitive when giving a critique: Point out the positives of the piece first. Don’t forget to tell the author what you liked about the piece. When you need to give criticism, be respectful and constructive. Each writer is at a different point on his or her writing journey. There is no need to try to make someone a perfect writer overnight or to try to berate other writers because they are further along or further behind than you. On the flip side, don’t be so nice that you avoid giving constructive criticism. Platitudes will not help your fellow writers improve.
  5. Do not argue with your fellow critique group members: When others give you feedback on your writing, ask questions, get clarification, but do not argue with them. Remember that you will not be there to justify the whys and hows of your work when it is in the hands of your readers. Your fellow group members are there to provide you with a reader’s viewpoint. Be respectful of that.

    critique, critique group rules, arguing, critique groups
    WHAT did you say about my story?!
  6. Take what you want and leave the rest: Remember that you choose which feedback you incorporate into your piece. You can take all of it, none of it, or some amount between. That is a private choice for you to make with your manuscript after the meeting. My own personal rule is to sift through feedback that I hear from only one source but to pay special attention when I receive the same feedback from multiple sources.
  7. Respect your fellow critique group members: Respect the fact that other writers may have backgrounds, styles, values, and moral viewpoints that are different from your own. The goal of a critique group is not to change others or their viewpoints but to help each writer be the best writer that he or she can be while still preserving his or her unique voice.
  8. Don’t take feedback if you can’t give it: If you cannot make it to a meeting, do not submit a piece for feedback. If you have already submitted a piece and find out that you won’t be able to attend the meeting, let your fellow critique group members know as soon as you can. If they’ve already read your piece and took notes, offer to give feedback on their work outside the meeting, such as through email, if that is allowed.
  9. Give written notes: If possible, give your written notes to each author after the critique group meeting so that he or she has something to work from at home. Many writers feel that this should be mandatory. You can give handwritten notes on the manuscript or on a separate piece of paper or electronic notes on the manuscript with Track Changes or a similar tool so that edits are obvious and easy to spot.
  10. Avoid distractions during the discussion: Mute your cell phone and lay it aside during critique sessions. An exception can be made for the facilitator if he or she is using a timer app on his or her phone to keep track of each critique.
  11. Set and stick to specific guidelines for length: Set a number of words or pages per author for each critique session and abide by your group’s guidelines. Don’t squeeze twice the writing into your 10-page limit by shrinking the font and using single spacing. Like you, the other writers in your critique group are not getting paid. They are using their free time to help you and other writers. Don’t take advantage and make that job harder for them.

What are some rules that you have found work well—or backfire—for critique groups?



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Balancing Pantsing and Plotting: Part 2

If you missed part 1, find it here.

As I mentioned in the last post, finding a balance between pantsing and plotting was elusive and frustrating. So, I decided to take off my pants.

Taking Off My Pants

Well, not exactly, but I did read Libbie Hawker’s ebook, Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing.

Faster? Yes, please. All of my outlining was starting to feel like a way avoid actually writing. However, I didn’t want to just pants the book thing again and end up where I’d started. I also knew that the first draft of Flight of the Ceo San, which I’d written with a bare-bones structure, was in way better shape than that of Strange Bedfellows.

Take Off Your Pants, a short 108 pages, turned out to be just what I needed. Hawker’s three-legged story structure and five-element story core made sense to me, but more than that, after she explains her theory, she shows step by step how she used her formula to outline her own novel. Her explanation of pacing helped to explain the structure of a scene to me in a way that clicked and that turns out to naturally fit with other Goal/Conflict/Disaster structures that I’ve read about.

Her elements, in the form of thwarts and displaying flaws, made sense for me in a way that plot points and pinch points don’t, even though they could be defined as the same thing. Pinch points can be easy to spot once their written, but telling myself to write a pinch point, a scene in which “everything changes for the character,” just seemed vague. “Show your character’s flaw in action,” as paraphrased from Take Off Your Pants—THAT I can do.

I outlined the Strange Bedfellows rewrite as I read Hawker’s book and finished over the course of two or three one-and-a-half-hour writing sessions. My outline was short, only 807 words.

Coming Together

Things really began to come together after that. Using my shiny new outline, I moved on to writing scenes on index cards, a la Rachael Stephen, complete with the Conflict/Motive/Effect plus Setting on each one. All the while, the information I had learned from my character interviews was swimming around in my head, making them tangible entities. So, after spending most of January and more than half of February on this whole process, I was ready to write again. It was a glorious feeling.

My paranormal romance is now a solid urban fantasy with lots of series potential that it didn’t have before. It has a new name: Blood Mastery. The characters are still there, but it is a completely different novel. The second protagonist has taken a backseat to the first and has changed so much that I renamed her. The story went from third person point of view to first person.

Lessons Learned

What I learned is that for me, less is more. I do need to at least dig deeply into my main characters to give them their own unique voices, but I get impatient with too much outlining, and when I get impatient, I start to lose my motivation for writing—not good.

So for me, outlining is good as long as there is not too much of it. My new method makes sense for me personally, and I’ll likely continue to use it in the future. The Hero’s Journey structure was extremely helpful, but not every novel I write will be a hero’s journey.

With my scene cards, I have a brief road map to get me started writing every day. I have pacing and Motive/Conflict/Effect to consider after I write each scene to make sure that I have hit all of the relevant points. No more staring at the screen, going What was I thinking there? Now, what am I supposed to write?

Will it pay off? I will know for sure only when this draft is finished and I send it to some readers, but I have a good feeling.

Lessons for You

What I’m not saying is that you should forget all of the other advice and run out and buy Take Off Your Pants. You can if you want to, but what I’m really saying is do your research. Put in the time learning, but when something clearly isn’t working for you and starts to feel like nothing but a grind, try something else.

balancing pantsing and plotting
Balancing Pantsing and Plotting © 2017 Janell E. Robisch

Like any experience, you can learn what works for you only if you go through the process and try new things. Like that little slider on an old-fashioned standing scale, slide back and forth between pantsing and plotting until you reach your own personal balance. Just as your weight changes, that balance may change from book to book and along your writing journey. Wherever you end up, you will take bits from each path that you have explored and mix them with your own authorly instincts to create a unique voice and a unique method, forging a new path that is just different enough to be yours alone.

Explore, learn, do well, and keep writing.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? What tricks have you used to find your balance?

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Balancing Pantsing and Plotting: Part 1

Pantsing and Plotting: A Never-Ending Debate

Pantsing (also known as discovery writing): Flying by the seat of your pants while writing, letting the stories and the characters come to you as you go.

Plotting (also known as outlining): Planning the details of your book—the plot, the structure, the characters, the settings, the theme, everything—before you write.

Pantser or plotter? Which one are you? There always seems to be a battle over which is best. However, rarely are writers completely at one end of the spectrum because that’s what this whole thing is: a spectrum. Plotters often find some bit of instantaneous creativity creeping in and messing up their well-laid plans. Discovery writers often get stuck and need to take some time out to figure out (i.e., plot) where the story is going.

This post is about my journey with pantsing and plotting and how I have found a tentative balance between the two.

pantsing and plotting, lost, stuck, writing, writerMy Story: Pants First, Plot Later

When I really got serious about my fiction writing, I was terrified. I had spent many years writing nonfiction and editing other people’s writing. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten it into my had that I couldn’t finish a novel. I had started so many times over the years with a brilliant idea, only to get stuck at 500 words or 5000 words, sometimes even 10,000. The problem was, I’d always reach a point where I came up blank. I didn’t know where my story was headed or I’d get overwhelmed because I couldn’t figure out the perfect plotline. It was usually the former. In other words, I was a total pantser, and when it came time to plot, I’d freeze.

A friend helped me realize that I could write the worst thing ever, and it wouldn’t matter. I am an editor by trade. I can fix almost anything. What I can’t do, as they say, is fix a blank page. Another friend helped me realize that fear was holding me back, keeping me from coming up with those stellar endings. Funny how that revelation lifted the very fear that was stopping me.

I decided then that I would finish my novel, Strange Bedfellows, no matter how bad it was. With my new friends from the Twitter monthly writing challenge to keep me accountable, I started writing at least 500 words a day. At first, I would skip days when things were too crazy. But before long, I was writing every single day.

By the the time three months has passed, I had finished the first draft of Strange Bedfellows, a lesbian paranormal romance. It was a fantastic day!

What Next?

Of course, I really wanted to jump right into editing, but I knew better. Author blindness is nothing to trifle with. I needed time away from my manuscript, and it was October 31. Everyone on social media was posting about National Novel Writing Month, which starts every November 1. Honestly, I had always thought NaNoWriMo was crazy. Fifty thousand words in one month? That was 1667 words a day! But when I looked at my writing log from the month before, there were plenty of days when I had capped a thousand words. Maybe I could do it, but I had only the barest idea for a story, the vision of one character in my mind. I didn’t even know if it was epic fantasy or urban fantasy, and I had one day to begin writing.

The Beginning of My Plotting Journey—Well, Sort Of

By that time, I had learned more and more about writing structure, among other things. Self-education is important in my line of work, especially since I work for indie authors in an industry that is constantly changing. I knew enough about the whole pantsing and plotting debate that I knew I wanted to try more plotting.

However, I didn’t have time to outline an entire book, but I decided to take a structure that already had the major plot points mapped out for me: the Hero’s Journey. I printed out a road map to that famous story structure and made each plot point (ordinary world, call to adventure, refusal of the call, etc.) a scene in my new novel’s Scrivener file. It was the barest of structures, yes, but it got me through NaNoWriMo. Every once in a while, I’d stop and write notes for a few days ahead using The Hero’s Journey. It worked! I won NaNoWriMo, reaching 52,359 words by November 30! With a little bit more plotting, in December, I finished the first draft of Flight of the Ceo San, a heroic fantasy, which was closer to 80,000 words.

So with mostly pantsing and some plotting, I had finished two first drafts.

I Really Need to Plot More

When it came time to revise that original first draft, I was tentative. By then, I’d had an alpha reader tell me that it had no plot and that he didn’t care for the characters. While I was trying to take the feedback with a grain of salt, I knew my story had problems. I couldn’t ever quite get a handle on my main character’s motivation. I had just kept pushing her forward in the story because I just needed to finish it.

To be honest, I never even started to edit it. Instead, with the characters in my head, I decided to go full-on plotter for the revision.

Plotting Is Hard

Over the course of six weeks or so, this is what happened. At first, I filled half of a Moleskine notebook with the answers to the character interviews in K. M. Weiland’s Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life. I ran out of steam after finishing my two protagonists but still managed to fill another ten pages or so with my antagonist and a side character.

Then, it was time to figure out motive, conflict, and effect. Here, I turned to Rachael Stephen’s How to Build a Novel. I also used K. M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel, and a favorite of mine, The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester. I wrote down lots of ideas but couldn’t get to the point where I could map out scenes containing the magic Goal/Conflict/Disaster (Motive/Conflict/Effect) trifecta. Sequels, I could handle, but scenes? My brain felt like a pile of mush. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of the story. It changed from one day to the next. It seemed like maybe I just wasn’t cut out to be a plotter after all.

Part of my problem was that I wasn’t able to kill my darlings—those scenes and ideas that weren’t fitting but that I couldn’t let go of—yet.

I got so desperate that I considered taking off my pants.

Continued in Part 2.


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