Welcome to our new writing advice column, where you'll find bestselling author Julie Cohen answering reader questions! Over to you, Julie.
I’m so excited about this first column for Novelicious, starting a series where I answer writers’ questions. We’ve already had lots of questions coming in, and I hope I’ll get to all of them in turn. But the first question is this one, as it’s a question I’ve heard many times, and asked myself, too…
I have completed four books. I know the earlier ones were good ideas but badly executed!
Now I am going back to the fourth one in order to practise my editing skills.
My question is: How will I know when it really is as good as I can get it? I know I have been guilty of doing what all writers do, sending something out too early and wasting everyone's time!
I have culled adverbs, removed adjectives, done all the things most often suggested in the editing process. I have read it aloud, passed it on to beta readers and taken advice.
In the end I know I have to send it out into the world, but should I get it looked at by a professional editor or expert first?
The trouble is I have now read it so many times that I can't actually "see" it any more!
First – congratulations on finishing four novels!
Generally my experience is that when you’ve done all you think you can, it’s time for another set of eyes. A good sign is when you are utterly, totally sick of the sight of the book and can’t wait to get it out of your house. Or maybe you still like the book, but you just feel that you’ve tried everything and you truly think you’ve done the best you can, right now.
(That right now is the key. One of the problems with writing is that a book is never truly perfect. It can always, always be made better. Whenever I pick up one of my published books I see things that I wish I’d changed or done differently. So your question is one that never goes away.)
The problem in your case is: who should be that other set of eyes? Should you hire an editor or a consultant, or should you start submitting to agents? It sounds like you’ve shown your work to beta readers, which is great – but beta readers generally react as readers, not editors. They often comment on their reaction to a story, not the construction of the story, or its potential, or its market appeal. This is all stuff it can be difficult for an author to see by herself.
You say you’ve ‘culled adverbs and removed adjectives’ – good work! – but in my experience, adverbs and adjectives are the least of the stumbling blocks to publication. A good editor will pick up problems with characterization, structure, plotting, conflict, voice, tone … the big things, and the things that are hardest to get right.
Ultimately, what you do next depends on your level of confidence and your own budget. A reputable literary consultancy or editor can almost certainly improve your work and possibly introduce you to suitable agents or publishers … but they are quite expensive. Many writers feel that the cost is well worth the investment, but many writers don’t have that money in the first place.
If your book is women’s fiction or involves romance, you could join the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), and submit your manuscript for a critique by a published author, for a fraction of the cost of a consultancy. But the NWS is closed this year, and won’t re-open until January 2016. (This is what I did, by the way!) You could also try a local writers’ group, or a workshop or a course, taught by someone whose work you respect.
On the other hand, if you are confident, you can submit to agents or editors. You’re unlikely to get detailed feedback, as they are extremely busy and rarely have time to comment on their submissions unless they take an author on. And you have to be prepared for rejection: most authors, however successful, have to experience it at some point. But you will need to take the plunge sooner or later, so if you’re confident, why not try it?
Of course, another way is just to put this manuscript aside and write another book. It’s amazing what you can learn from distance and from working on something else. But it sounds like you’re eager to do something with this manuscript.
The real answer to your question is that it’s up to you. You need to make the judgment about whether your work is ready to submit, or whether you need more help.
I won’t lie to you: sending your work out there into the world is very scary. But it’s a leap all authors have to take at some point – and some of us (including me) have to do it many, many times before we get it right. Only you can decide when the time is right – but make sure it’s not just fear that’s holding you back.
Good luck, and keep writing!
Julie Cohen has had 20 books published under her own name and pseudonyms, selling nearly a million copies and being translated into 15 languages. Several have won or been shortlisted for awards, including the Romantic Novelists' Association's Award and the National Readers’ Choice Award. Her novel Dear Thing was a summer 2014 Richard and Judy Book Club pick.
Julie is also a popular speaker and teacher of creative writing, tutoring courses for Penguin Random House Academy, The Guardian, Literature Wales, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and Writers' Workshop. She runs a fiction consultancy business, with several of her clients having gone on to publication. Her latest book is Where Love Lies.