Archive for October, 2009

Assuming you’ve come down out of the clouds and accept the proposition that your novel needs work, who is qualified to take that second look at your literary masterpiece? I prefer to turn the question on its side and ask who should you listen to?

Even the semi-sentient has an opinion. So the art is to choose your critic. And choose them wisely. Those nice people at your read-and-critique group can be the worst. Sally-of-the-higher-calling, Poetics in her backpack, and Joe-of-the-active-verb can grind your work into pabulum that the innocent-you who conceived the story may no longer recognize.

This is a different equation altogether from the role of the editor employed by the publisher who has paid money for your story. The story belongs to the publisher. It’s theirs. And the collaborative work you do with the editor (who is their agent) is to move the product along their assembly line in conformity with their view of the marketplace. It ain’t your story anymore.

There is another category of editors who promise to steer your manuscript toward acceptability by an agent or publisher. What they are offering is a bit like plastic surgery. “Make me look like J. K. Rowling!” Or Stephen King, or Dan Brown,  or whoever your literary god may be. Do you want to go there?

This last category of editors is found in abundance at writers conferences — never promising success, but implying  dolthood if you don’t hire them. If I were to venture a guess on who profits most from these conclaves, these people would be at the top of the list. They are selling the prospect of fame.

I don’t think there is any magic in the editing process:

Learn to self edit by critiquing other writers. It’s amazing how complaining about someone else’s purple prose suddenly makes you see your own.

Hook up with others who are like-minded. As you write better, the company you keep tends to be more knowledgeable, as well. (Yes, this is the classic observer-alters-the-observed type of thing. Natural selection at its best.)

Stay away from how-to books on writing until you have enough confidence in your own writing to resist their One True Way.

Any writer’s most valuable tool is their intuition. It’s like a child. Learn to teach it. Learn to trust it. Protect it.


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I help administer the novels critiquing list (Novels-L) at the Internet Writing Workshop. A member recently started a discussion about the difference between a critique and an edit. This was my response:

There is no difference between a critique and an edit, though the edit may well be punctuated with dollar signs. Novels-L is NOT a commercial venue, so I guess we only critique. This is a volunteer cooperative. We teach each other. We may exchange insights, but no money changes hands. Personally, I see our group as the modern-day equivalent of the literary salon.

I’m very skeptical of anyone offering their services as an editor. This is not to say they are all bad — far from it — but there is such a high percentage of unqualified people that it gives the good ones a bad name. Publishing houses have editors who get a product ready for market. The house’s resources have been allocated and the editor’s job is much like a station on a factory assembly line, working toward a finished product.

Free-lance editors are another breed. What is the goal of hiring one? Apart from any questions about a prospective editor’s competence, the writer has to ask: why am I doing this? Some people in search of an editor may have an idea, a memoir, a technical narrative they are ill equipped to write, but they have the money to see it take form. These people have a need for an editor, a ghost writer. But does a novelist need one? Some agents may suggest it, but this strikes me as paying up front for something the writer should have done, with knowledge he already should have.

Writers conferences and any place where writers gather are an active marketplace for free-lance editors. These are often people who (in my opinion) have failed to make it big with their novels, so they market their services as editors. There’s more money in it (and they hope people will buy their books.) From what I’ve observed, it’s often an ego thing. I’ve been approached by a couple of these people whose own writing was not as good as much of the writing that goes through Novels-L. I suppose their accepted wisdom is if they charge for their work, it must be good.

You are right that critiques posted on Novels-L are all over the map in both scope and quality. You know the good critters and politely tolerate the poor ones, hoping they will learn. Most will, if they stick with it.

The Internet Writing Workshop can be found at: http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/

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