The Things I’m Learning: Working With an Editor

In this series of posts, I’m sharing a few of the things that surprised me about publishing a book, as well as things I wish I’d known before I started. This is all personal experience and personal opinion, shared in case it helps someone. Your mileage may vary.

This is going to be a long post, and not of interest to everyone. Feel free to skip this one and join the party next week, or skip to the TL;DR version at the bottom. And again, this is about my choices and experiences. My way is not the only way. You can do it your way, and I respect that. We all cool?

I get a lot of questions about my editor: why I chose to use one, how I decided who to work with, how much it cost, what the process was like, and whether the decision has paid off. I think it was one of the best decisions I made for my book, so I thought I’d answer some of those questions today.

…And then I really need to get back to my real work, which means getting Torn ready for beta readers, who look at it before my editor does (more on that later).

So. Once I made the decision to publish independently*, I knew I wasn’t going to put out anything that was less than the best, most professional work I could produce. I know there’s a popular school of thought that says do your best, publish and move on, and then pay for editing later if there’s enough interest in the book. I can’t do that. My perfectionism will not allow do-overs, so it had to be right the first time.

In my case, that meant hiring an editor.

I had done my research already. I knew I wanted developmental editing, because though the story was as good as I could make it, and my beta readers were AMAZING, I knew it still had weak spots. I knew it needed line edits, because no one can catch all of his/her own errors. Also, the number one criticism I see on indie/self-pub books in reviews is “this could have used an editor,” and I didn’t want to put my readers through that.

(For anyone wondering, developmental editing = critiquing the story, finding plot holes/character inconsistencies, pointing out missed opportunities for kicking things up a notch… whatever. This can be done any time from the planning phase through edits. Line editing is fixing grammatical errors, changing sentence structure to be clearer or flow better, probably changing that string of three consecutive “ing” words up there, noting confusing sentences/blocking, etc. Some people call this copy editing, and define line editing differently, but this is what I was looking for.)

I had a list of a few editors to check out. There are a some whose blogs I follow who seem fantastic, and who are on my list for future projects, but I had one more item on my list: I wanted someone with experience in Fantasy. That narrowed the list down. While I would trust many professional, experienced editors to do line edits, I needed someone who knew world-building and magic systems.

Enter editor Joshua Essoe.

I’d been listening to the Hide and Create podcast for a few months, and knew that he knew his stuff. I liked what he said about those issues I mentioned above. I liked how he described his approach to editing. People seemed pleased with his work. I went to his website, looked things over, and decided to send my sample pages in and get an estimate.

I was so nervous. I hate sending my work out for critique, and this was the real thing. Someone was going to tell me how my work sucked so I could pay him money to tell me MORE about how my work sucked. Sweet deal, right?

Anyway, it was fine. He actually thought the first five pages were pretty good, but he made some line edits. I changed things, read it through, and knew I’d found my guy. He didn’t mess with my character’s voice, just made things smoother and clearer, and asked questions that helped me make the setting and character movements clearer.

The next question, of course, was money. I don’t like to talk about money. Monsieur Joshua Essoe charges an hourly rate (posted on his site if you’re THAT curious), and gives an estimate based on the sample and how long he thinks it will take to edit the full book. The estimate is subject to change, of course. If a mechanic gives you an estimate on changing your oil, then opens the hood to find the engine plastered in cat crap and roadkill (not to mention the parts that are falling off), your price is going to go up. Likewise for an editor who charges by the hour.** My estimate came in at something just north of 50 hours.

So yeah, it was a big decision. I had to talk it over with AJ, and explain that there was a good chance that this book wouldn’t earn that money back. Most books, especially first ones, don’t “earn out,” and any profits would need to go toward the next book’s production costs***. We’d have to think of it as an educational expense; I wanted an editor more than I wanted to take a few courses or try to go to a convention. More than just getting this one story fixed, I wanted to know where my writing needed to improve, and I knew I’d get that. It was an investment in me and my business, and (may all the gods of Tyrea bless him forever), AJ voted that I should go ahead with it.

I was shaking when I hit “send.” I may have barfed. Wait, maybe that was when I published. In any case, for the two weeks My Editor (yes, it’s fun to say that) had the book I was tense, jumpy, nervous… a joy to be around in all respects. He sent an updated estimate half-way through (not much change, but considerate of him nonetheless).

Was I nervous that I was wasting my our money? You bet. Terrified, in fact. What if it wasn’t worth it? What if Señor Joshua Essoe thought it was horrible and told me to change everything? What if he didn’t get what I was trying to do, and wanted to make the tone less modern and more TRADITIONAL, MEDIEVAL FANTASY? Ick. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what I like to read or write. What if it turned out my work was so horrible that I couldn’t publish, and had to give up writing, and had wasted our tax refund, and…

Sometimes having an over-active imagination sucks.

So then, on an evening in April, my phone binged its e-mail notification as I was getting ready for bed. By that point I was jumping to the ceiling every time that happened.

And there it was: Bound Edit Complete! And an attachment!

Nausea. Excitement. It was like Christmas morning, if we’d had the turkey the night before and it gave me salmonella.**** Obviously I wasn’t going to wait until morning to peek. AJ was working, the kids were in bed. Screw sleep, I had reading to do!

The editorial critique letter came in around 20 pages. This was the developmental editing, the big picture stuff, the things that would lead to revisions and scene re-writes.

And it was FANTASTIC.

That’s not to say it was all positive. Nooooooo sir.

The first paragraph was kind and wonderful. He said I was a good writer, that my characters were well-drawn and engaging, that he enjoyed the story right through.

The second paragraph said this: “If you feel like throwing things as you continue to go through the edit, come back and read that first paragraph again.”

Cue my nerves.

It was a fair warning, actually.

  • He critiqued my magic system, which seemed too broad and open, and allowed problems to be solved too easily. It wasn’t well-defined enough; that was my fault, as I’d accidentally edited much of the explain-y stuff out when I was trying to get the word-count down to trad-pub acceptable levels.
  • He reminded me that I had the ability to time-travel, to go back and set up important details early in the story so that they didn’t seem a little too convenient when they showed up later, or slow pacing when I had to explain them during exciting moments.
  • There were big issues with Aren’s character and motivation. Not surprising, given that he wasn’t even supposed to be a viewpoint character when I first came up with the concept for the story, or through most of the first draft.
  • The climax needed to be re-written, as it was too melodramatic.
  • He thought I should change the ending, and **SPOILER** suggested I not let certain aspects of the romantic storyline reach a conclusion until the next book.

There were other things, but I won’t list them all here. The letter concluded with another lovely paragraph about the book. More importantly, the body of the letter gave suggestions about how to fix the problems. *insert choirs of angels singing* And not only that, he had respected the story that I wanted to tell and the way I wanted to tell it.

So yeah, it was hard to hear there was so much room for improvement, but it made me sure I’d made the right decision in hiring my editor. I fell asleep that night with a huge grin on my face. It was going to take a lot of work, but this thing was going to be goooooood.

I read through the line notes the next day. These were done using Track Changes in Word– not my favourite program, but effective for this. There were changes to wording that I would accept or reject later. SO many of those. But more importantly, there were notes EVERYWHERE. Why would he do this? This statement doesn’t make sense. That concept needs to be explained sooner. Redundant. She wouldn’t be this comfortable with him yet. Cut. These characters are too stereotypical. There were also little notes that indicated personal reactions to the story, and those made it easier to get through the tough stuff: **cool!  **nice **this is awesome

My personal favourite correction.

My personal favourite correction.

Maybe it’s silly that I needed them, but those little bits of encouragement really made the whole thing a lot more pleasant. Yes, there were times when I made faces at the screen. Yes, in my sleep-deprived immaturity I may have giggled at the phrase “needs deeper penetration.” Yes, I did occasionally want to throw things.

In fact, what came next was the hardest work I’ve ever done on anything. I took the advice. I planned changes. I accepted most suggestions, and rejected a few (see aforementioned romantic conclusion and ending– truth is, I hate cliffhangers and unresolved romance as a reader, and I didn’t want to use them in this book. Not bad advice, just a personal decision. This is one of the reasons I went indie, after all). And at the end, I had a book I was truly proud of.

Was there anything I would change about the experience? I guess doing developmental and line edits separately would have been nice, though it would have been a LOT more expensive to have him take the time to do two passes. It would have allowed me to make the big changes and address major issues before he fixed up the smaller things. But keeping costs down was important at the time, too. And Joshua was great with follow-up stuff. I asked for clarification on a few points, bounced a few ideas off of him in e-mails, was probably a little annoying, and he was great about answering everything. He offered a wrap-up phone call, but I don’t really do phone stuff. E-mail it was. And he took a quick look at by cover copy and corrected a couple of grammatical/punctuation errors there, too.

Was it easy? No. My skin’s not as thick as it should be, though it’s getting tougher. But it was absolutely worth every dollar and every minute.

Is it for everyone? Probably not. I know I was lucky to be able to afford to do this (see aforementioned tax refund), and not everyone can. Many authors get by just fine without developmental editing, and line edits are usually cheaper. Some writers don’t work with editors at all. I’m sure people will read this and tell me I spent too much. That’s fine, if that’s your opinion. But my book came out of that editing so much stronger than it went in. It’s not a perfect book, but I’m confident that it’s the best I could make it.

Okay, there’s one typo. I need to fix that.

And yes, it has paid for itself already. I don’t like to talk money, but my fears about that were unfounded.

Before anyone asks, yes, Mr Essoe has agreed to work on Torn. If Bound hadn’t made enough money, I’d have had to find a cheaper route, but we’re good for now, and I’m thrilled about that. When my lovely, wonderful, and honest beta readers are done ripping it apart critiquing it, I’ll fix the problems they identify, and then send it off. Fewer problems = less for mister editor to fix = less expensive for me. I highly recommend doing it this way if you’re using an editor.

TL;DR VERSION

Why I decided to use an editor: The book was good, but I needed professional help if I wanted it to kick ass.

How I found mine: Heard him on a podcast, was blown away by the sample edit.

How much it cost: More than my first car, less than my current one.

Holy crap, really?: Yes.  This is a good post on what they do, and average rates. There’s another FANTASTIC post out there on why they charge as much as they do (taxes, business expenses, non-billable hours, etc), but I can’t find it. If anyone knows the one I’m talking about, please drop a link in the comments!

What the process was like: Amazing. Humbling. Uplifting. Inspiring. Confidence-boosting. Challenging. Grey-hair inducing. SWELL.

Has it paid off: In my case, absolutely. Your mileage may vary. This is all personal experience.

So I hope that helps someone, and now I have a post I can refer people to when they ask. WIN-WIN, guys.

*No, I don’t like the term self-published, because it has a stigma attached to it and because I don’t do it all myself. I operate like a micro-press that works with freelance editors, cover artists, and formatters. It just happens to only represent one author.

**Many do charge by word-count. I consider them brave souls!

*** General advice is to expect to release 3-5 books before you’re making much money, so that’s how I planned it.

****Sorry for that visual.

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About Kate Sparkes

Kate Sparkes was born in Hamilton, Ontario, but now resides in Newfoundland, where she tries not to talk too much about the dragons she sees in the fog. She lives with a Mountie, two kids who take turns playing Jeckyll and Hyde, two cats, an intentional boxer and an accidental chihuahua. She's the author of the bestselling Bound Trilogy (mature YA Fantasy). www.katesparkes.com View all posts by Kate Sparkes

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