Five things I wish I could tell my pre-published self

I had grand intentions to write this earlier in the day, and post in a timely fashion even, but it got busy (a good thing!) and I found myself with no time. And of course, in my off time, I was doing important adulty things like adjusting my budget and looking at emails. Back to night blogging.

Though not very far in the process myself, I feel like I’ve already come a long way and there are a lot of things I’ve learned since I first started. First a disclaimer: this is all from my process, things that have happened to me, things I’ve learned and taken away. They may not be the same for you, and your own experience may vary–but these are the kinds of things people ask me, and you may find them helpful. And so, a listicle!

Five things I wish I could tell my pre-published self:

1. Getting a submission rejected isn’t the hardest part

For years, and years, and years, the one thing holding me back from submitting anything, anywhere, was fear of rejection. I saw very talented friends submitting their fiction through the process best known to be tried and true successful, querying an agent, and getting rejection after rejection. From this, I held up rejection as the absolute worst, and figured it was better to keep writing fanfic forever than it would be to risk my original fiction and have it turned down. I already knew that being turned down that way would be like having my own self rejected, so I was pretty much willing to avoid that prospect indefinitely.

It took a real kick in the pants to get me to the point of ever submitting anything, and a direct invitation from an awesome person.

And when I got past the amazingness of getting accepted, I came to realize there were worse things than the prospect of rejection. Which, in the end, is really the process of finding the best fit for author and publisher and nothing more. And that “worse” brings me to my next item, which is…

2. The first pro edit will rip your soul to shreds

I’m exaggerating. Slightly.

The day I got my first pro edit back, I wanted to hide in a hole, never write again, take my manuscript back from the publisher and light it on fire, cry (I definitely did that), yell, drink a lot (I probably did some of that), and wondered just what the hell I had gotten into.

It was, bar none, the most difficult edit of my life, not only because it had a lot of issues to fix, being my oldest manuscript (from 2003) but a lot of rewrites were involved, and I finished with a different editor from the one that I started with.

So I’m not exaggerating when I say the first edit is hard. It’s not like working with a beta reader (or maybe it is, depending on how intensely you work with a beta). They will catch things you never could have thought would still be in there, no matter how many passes you’ve already made. They will point out things you may disagree with, and it will be difficult to decide how to incorporate those edits. It might be hard to see the line where the edit is optional, versus highly recommended, versus required. Edits like publishing house style, of course, are always required.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it–I’m not sure if anyone has a good first pro edit experience. Maybe I’m wrong and someone will comment to prove that to me! The important takeaway is that it gets better, and easier. You get stronger and more confident, provided you learn from the experience and take that into each subsequent draft.

I’ve said before, Hemingway said write drunk, edit sober. I say read your edits drunk, incorporate them sober. It’s medicinal.

3. Be an author the editors WANT to work with

From the very first, uphill battle, though, my goal was to be an author that my editors would want to work with. After I was thoroughly tenderized from my first edit, I started to see the importance and merit in a lot of what I’ve begun to call their “tough love.”

It’s the editor’s job to see the forest for the trees. They have a bigger perspective, they have industry experience, and in many cases, they can spot the flaws and problems that are invisible to you and whatever friends have helped you get the manuscript to its second draft.

In order to be an author that people want to work with, there are some mandatory baseline items. You have to pay attention to your publisher’s house style. If they go by the Chicago Manual of Style, invest in a copy. Make sure your manuscript conforms. If they use emdashes, make sure to use emdashes–like so–instead of other formatting styles – like the space, dash, space, that I used to use – see what I did there?

Here’s the thing: your editor should not have to spend extra time on things that should already be done. Such as a single space between sentences, instead of the two spaces a lot of us grew up with. I think I just dated myself there. Microsoft Word’s find-replace can even fix that for you, so there’s no excuse.

Their job is to make your manuscript better. But first, don’t you want it to be the absolute best it can be before they ever lay eyes on it? Not only does it make their job easier, but they’ll see you’ve mastered the basics and they’ll turn their attention to places where your manuscript really needs work, content as well as line edits.

Conventional wisdom says never turn in your first draft. Conventional wisdom is absolutely correct. No one’s first draft is perfect. There are always things to find. If you don’t have people who can do a good, hard edit for you, there are writer’s groups you can join, or you can even approach pro editors and ask if they’ll do a sample pro edit for you, to see what you’re getting into. Many of them will do that, all you have to do is shop around. And this is also important, I think, to see whether you can work with a pro edit, or whether your reaction is just “No!!!!” But there’s a major reason it is so important to listen to your editor and work well with them.

4. The things your editor says are the things the reviewers will say if you don’t do diligence with your edits

I learned this the hard way with one of my own novels. Many of some negative elements in reviews for From the Inside Out mentioned things that were an initial concern of one of my editors, or things where I had made a half-hearted stab at things she’d asked me to do, but hadn’t taken that as far as I should have. And I kind of wince at all of the reviews that say “needed more editing,” because, well, that’s my fault. It wasn’t that the editor didn’t point out those things–it was that I didn’t incorporate them, or didn’t do them as fully as I ought to have.

Every edit for any manuscript I’ve had since then, I have paid scrupulous attention to my edits, asked more questions if I didn’t understand an edit, and made sure the editor and I were both happy with the final draft before it goes for its line edit. And I stand behind every manuscript I’ve had since then. And in my own opinion, working with my editors has gotten better and better. I hope they feel the same way!

When the editor asks for changes, it’s not because they hate your manuscript, think you’re terrible, or are trying to make your life difficult. It’s because the changes will almost certainly make your novel better. And if you’re not sure about that and feel very strongly about your original draft, the head editor is usually available for questions if a tie-breaker is needed. You’ve (typically) got the option to override suggested changes, as the author it’s your novel, but don’t forget the editor’s name is on that book too, as the editor. They’re invested in the edits because it’s their job to make you look good.

And when you look good, the reviews are good … usually.

5. Take reviews with a grain of salt. Or a block. Keep writing.

Popular opinion of most authors you’ll survey is “DON’T LOOK AT YOUR REVIEWS.” But if you do, for the love of God, be prepared and fully braced for negative opinions. Maybe they have a point. Maybe it’s like they read a completely different manuscript from the one you wrote. But either way, they will have an opinion, they will express it, and it may not ping you the right way. It may sting, or it may outright hurt and make you want to throw your keyboard on the ground.

But, really, what’s a negative review (or ten) going to change? The manuscript is done, it’s published. Once it’s out there, it’s open to interpretation. Some people will like it, some people won’t. Reviews let other people know what that person thought. In a way, they’re not really for you, they’re for those other people, the ones who might read your book.

Take what you can from the reviews, hold the good close to you and cherish it, and shake off the bad. What else can you really do? Wait, let me answer that: for the love of little green apples, do not, DO NOT, do not ever engage with a reviewer if they’ve left you any slightest nuance of a negative review. You may be tempted to engage with them and correct them for something you think they’ve said that is “wrong” about your story. It is not worth the shitstorm that will rain down upon you from the masses. It’s not your job to tell a reviewer that they read your story wrong. The story needs to speak for itself. Once it’s out there, that’s it. You had your shot, now it’s their turn.

Some other authors have advised having a third party screen your reviews, and share the positive ones. This is not a bad idea, if you know yourself and what your reactions to criticism (you feel unwarranted) might be.

At the end of the day, no matter what, reviews shouldn’t stop you writing. An author is someone who basically has to write, after all. Or, rather, an author is like a shark. Keep swimming or something dies.

That’s what I’ve got to share this week! I hope it was helpful, or at least gave a few of you something to think about. This is all a work in progress for me. Next year, I’ll probably have five new things I would have told the me-of-now.

Next week: tackling effeminophobia. What the heck is that, why is it terribad, and where does it come from?

14 comments

  1. add to that list “don’t enlist your friends to go argue with a negative reviewer.” if they bought the book, they are entitled to share their honest opinion of the product with other possible consumers.

    1. Absolutely, this totally goes hand in hand with a “do not engage” policy, I think. Because having your friends do battle for you is still engaging, and readers are savvy to that.

  2. Oh, lord, the “one space instead of two.” It’s the new rule for designers too and I hate it. It’s so hard to go to one space when I’ve done two for so long. I get why the change has happened, but, ugh. So hard to remember when my muscle memory has been pretty well fixed for the last 15 years. I love em dashes though. They just look so much nicer to me.

    This is a great list, btw. Now if I could ever finish something, let alone try to get it published.

    1. I’ve already re-trained my muscle memory, but now the problem is that my workplace still uses two spaces for the standard. Augh! So switching back and forth, or even remembering to do that, is an issue for me.

      Thanks! I’m glad if it was helpful! Yeah, finishing things are definitely integral to the process. 😉 You can do it, though, I know you can.

  3. I don’t remember the first edits I got back being particularly traumatic. I don’t remember crying or wanting to stop writing or anything like that. I think the first edits were for Heart of Water and Stone and there were a lot of them. I remember thinking the editor seemed to be lukewarm on the story over all, mostly because there was nothing they pointed out that they really loved or even liked about the story.

    Mostly I just remember being really, really determined to do as much as possible so there would be less edits on the second pass. That and finding someone more professional to look over my manuscripts before I submitted them after that.

    1. The first edit is probably the item where “your mileage may vary” most substantially. Some people may not be fazed; others may go through various levels of devastation! My first manuscript needed a lot of work, more than I had been braced to expect. But also, when I received it I’d recently learned that my cat had lymphoma and his outlook was not good. That cast a pall over everything, I think.

      Being determined to do the best I could before submission, that definitely was a takeaway for me. I have another older manuscript, from 2004, and I’m going to do substantial renovations on it before I even think of submitting it.

  4. I’m so glad you posted this 😀 It’s very helpful. And insightful. Do you feel like you’ve changed so much when you look back at your first experiences in the publishing world? Or do you think you’re still that same writer? And a slightly different and odd question: why is it important that your dashes have X number of spaces/none at all for example? Is it such a faux pas to do it a different way?

    1. I’m glad if it’s helpful for you! I feel like I’ve grown a lot when I look at me now vs how I was working and the things I assumed back then. And there are a lot of things I watch out for in my writing now, so I feel like overall getting pro edits and learning to incorporate them has improved my writing.

      The emdashes are a matter of house style. That’s one of the things you should pay close attention to when submitting to a specific publisher. Look at what their specific formatting requirements are, and make sure your manuscript meets those requirements.

  5. That first edit is definitely hard! By chance, even though I submitted Beast to LT3 first, my edits from Part of Your World came back first – and they were dire. But I’m almost glad I got them first, because it prepared me for how hard edits can be. When I got the edits for Beast, literally the only changes were to format it to house style. Which would have totally skewed my expectations of the editing process!

    I think it’s a particularly important point you make that editor comments reflect potential reader comments. An author can cry and rage all they want, but it’s definitely true that readers will pick up on the same things editors do. Many of the edits for Part of Your World were asking me to clarify how the magic works and what the rules for the universe were – the exact kind of complaints I got on Imaginary!

    1. God, right? The first edit can totally be the worse. My experience was similar to yours, I got Signal to Noise back second, and there were only a few changes, house style, a couple of sentences here and there. And my expectations would’ve been skewed, too. My edits for From the Inside Out, Appetite and The Fall Guide have all been more extensive and included rewriting either major details, adding material, or even rewriting entire chapters.

      It’s so important to pay attention to the editor, not only because they know editing better than we do, but they’re a reader too. And after that first tough edit, I’ve been able to see how all my editors’ concerns make sense, so I focus on trying to resolve those, rather than getting defensive.

      That makes for a better process, I think.

  6. Nice blog post.

    One thing I learned. Publishing one book doesn’t make you [me] an author and don’t expect to be welcomed by other authors with open arms. [just my experience.]

    1. Thank you!

      If anyone’s trying to tell you that you’re not an author, they’re full of it. And, in my humble opinion, being an elitist snob. We’re all authors, whether we’re rich and famous or just starting out.

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