We’ve looked at things you can do as an author but how can others improve your book? The big advantage that others have is that they are not you and so they can provide insights that would have never crossed your mind.
Here we’ll look at –
- Readers and how important they can be
- Writing groups
- Writing schools
- Professional help for writers
Readers and how important they can be
So you think you might be ready to publish yet how many people have read your book? The more people you can get to read it the better, even more so if they regularly read in the genre you write in. Even friends or family can provide valuable insights so long as they are prepared to be objective and honest.
I am the first reader for all of Patrick C. Walsh’s books. I’m Patrick’s partner but I also write myself. He now tells me nothing about a new book untiI he has a draft that’s ready to read. This is to ensure that I come to it as a first time reader. Strangely enough critically reading a book and looking for flaws is much easier to do for someone else that it is for yourself. As a writer you just sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees.
When I read books by published authors such as C J Sansom I notice that he always thanks his readers. I thank them too as, with their help, he has written some brilliant historical novels with mysteries within.
Patrick writes page turners within the crime genre and ghost stories too. So when I am reading I’m specifically looking for issues that might stop readers from reading on. I have come to call it the traffic light system, amber issues are noted for Patrick to consider but something that flags up a red light with me will most likely end up having to go or being changed significantly. An instance of this was Patrick’s second book, The Dead Squirrel, which was changed completely when I pointed out that an interesting story was almost left untold. Patrick then expanded this story and was much happier with the result.
Patrick’s second reader reads of a wide range of books. Her points are usually different to mine, often something I have not picked up on or even considered an issue. For all that they are usually valid.
The third reader is also widely read but has the added value of having a really good grasp of grammar. So has Patrick but it is all too easy to miss things. She is acute in her observations and, after she has gone through the book, we are all left wondering how we missed such obvious typos, tortuous phrasings and other mistakes.
Then Patrick’s sister reads his books and also gives him her feedback.
The fifth reader is an English teacher who also has local knowledge of the area that the books are set in and provides an invaluable last pair of eyes on Patrick’s books. This reader is also a writer who is working on his first novel. When he is ready we will return his efforts by reading for him.
Everyone spots something new. Patrick then re-writes and often re-writes again if he is not happy. Having said all this, while the first book was completely re-written several times, the ensuing books have required less and less changes as time has wore on. Patrick is obviously learning!
Before you get someone to read your book it’s worth asking yourself the following questions to see if it’s really finished –
Are you happy with your characters?
Can you see them in your imagination?
Is there enough setting and background detail?
Have you cut all the dead description and unnecessary adjectives?
Is your dialogue convincing?
Do your characters talk like people?
Is the point of view consistent?
Have you checked for unqualified abstract words?
Are the events of the plot logical to the story?
Have you checked for clichéd words or phrases?
Are you showing not telling?
Are you happy with it?
If the answer is yes to all these questions then it’s time you found someone else to read your book.
(From ‘Feeling the Burn’ by Julia Bell in The Creative Writing Course Book)
So what other sources of help are out there?
Workshops can be a valuable experience for some writers – looking at the successes with the Tindal Street Fiction Group a good well organised workshop can build a thriving mutually supportive writing community. Writing groups have proved helpful for some writers however there might also be some drawbacks.
If you do not feel comfortable reading your work in front of others this could hold an author back as it is an essential part of the process for many writers. If the group collectively have ideas about writing that an author cannot buy into this also could be problematic.
An overbearing ego! Someone in the group who takes the ideas of others and presents them as there own. This is upsetting and can happen with any of the points of help an author may choose for support.
Residential writing courses and retreats such as provided by the Arvon foundation.
University courses – there are a growing number of these e.g. the University of East Anglia have been running such a course since 1970 and the Open University in the UK offers a number of courses at different stages.
Professional help for writers
A Literary Consultant may provide a link between the author and publisher and they can be constructively candid if a manuscript is not ready. They may be able to make a representation to an agent on an authors behalf. They can suggest improvements to the work and what the chances are for publication or they can help an author face the likelihood that their work will not sell and offer constructive workshop style advice.
What can a client expect?
A good consultant will also have good editing skills and be informed about the marketplace. They should also give one to one attention to the work and tell the author how well the book is working on its own terms. They should know of small publishing ventures as well as responsible companies that can help with self publishing. If a project is worthy of some kind of publication a consultant could help the client to think about what route it is sensible for them to take up. However, as with anyone who you might be paying for help, make sure you do your best to check them out and ensure that they are genuine.
They sell the rights to your manuscript and can take 10 to 20 percent commission for doing so. They can put authors in touch with likely publishers and can advise an author on the best deal. Literary agents can do more than simply look after an authors commercial interests as they might support an author through a sticky patch, come up with a missing bit of plot or make suggestions for revision.
Good agents will chase publishers who are not meeting their obligations. They may provide help with financial matters and check statements when royalties come in, query them if necessary, and chase up outstanding amounts.
My source for this information is the University of East Anglia’s The Creative Writing Course Book. Here they provide some questions that you might want to ask an agent. It also refers to the courage you would have to summon up, once you have found that illusive first agent who has shown any interest in your book.
Why are you an agent?
Which recent publication would you compare with my manuscript?
What aspects of your job do you like/dislike the most?
If you were a publisher how would you publish my manuscript?
Does your agency handle foreign rights? If not, what arrangements do you make?
What will you be doing to secure film/TV/radio reading rights?
How involved will you be in my book?
Will you attend publicity meetings, Jacket design sessions etc?
How do you see my literary career developing if it all goes well?
How do you work on your back-list – i e what strategy do you employ for keeping publishers active on past books?
Do you charge for incidentals – photocopying, couriering etc?
How long do you keep trying to sell a manuscript?
They also recommend interviewing several agents, if you are lucky enough to have the choice that is.
Be suspicious of agents trying to persuade you to agree to a three or four year contract. Get someone independent to check any contract before signing . In the UK The Society of Authors provides this kind of assistance if you’re a member.
Editors and Copy-editors
The editor who works in-house at the publisher that has bought your manuscript, helps to knock the book into the best possible shape in the light of the market they are aiming to pitch it at. They would be looking at plot, structure and characterisation. They may recommend changes with regard to style or possibly even the names of characters.
When structural matters have been attended to the script is passed to a copy editor who could be a freelance, paid by the publisher on an hourly rate, or by an in-house desk editor. The copy editor’s job is to correct errors and inconsistencies in spelling, punctuation or grammar, and to impose the publisher’s house style and to make sure the plot fits together properly after editing. Once changes are made as well as technical details to do with layout for the typesetter.
Some Editors who have left the publishing industry have become agents. This means they may concentrate on editing your work, but not be as skilled at representing you as they might. On the other hand your agent may be a brilliant representative, but sell your work to a publishing house that puts little emphasis on editing. In that case the editing of your book would be left to a copy editor, who acts as a much cheaper editor, one trained to put right details rather than view the bigger picture.
You may not have an agent or publisher on board so could find a proofreader or copy editor yourself. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders might be a good place to start.
If you are going to enlist the help of any of these professionals there will be a cost involved for their professional expertise and for their time spent in assessing your work. Be very cautious of the ‘too good to be true’ offers who say that they’ll do this for little or no cost. Again take nothing for granted and check them out.
Some other questions to ask yourself before publishing
Publishing an ebook does not guarantee large sums of money or big sales, although there have been some notable successes. So perhaps some questions you might want to ask yourself –
Why do you want to publish? Writing is a personal pastime before it becomes public, it is enjoyable for many people, like drawing pictures with words. As writing is unique to the creator who can tell if work will resonate with a larger public? Of course you might have an interesting family history or story that you think should be shared and read widely then by all means go for it.
Do you really need to publish? If you enjoy the creative pursuit of writing in its own right there is no need to publish unless you wish to obtain feedback from readers outside of your immediate contacts.
Is your book ready and are you ready?
Have you taken every step that you can to ensure your book is as good as you can make it?
Whatever your reasons when you look at how much work a publisher or agent might put into a work before it goes to print you would be well advised to do as much as you possibly can to ensure your work is the best you can get it. Enlist support, paid or unpaid, for the more people that read it and provide feedback the better it will be for your readers and, quite possibly, your sales.
Previous post in the series – Things to consider (2) – What you can do