Why is editorial help important? How can independent advice improve a manuscript?
As a writer, you can only get so far on your own before you need an outside eye. Even bestselling authors have a regular editor. The job of the editor is to say what works in your manuscript, and what doesn't.
Do your ideas need developing? Do your characters spring off the page? Is the plot compelling enough? And, more importantly, if not, what should we do about it without scrapping the entire project and starting again? Here's my personal experience of what editorial help can do for a writer...
In 2010, when I was pregnant with my second child, I had a part-time teaching job, a lively toddler, and a stack of unpublished fiction on my bookshelf that I despaired would ever make it into print. Like many aspiring writers, I knew that I needed help with my writing, but I was struggling to find it. I discovered a couple of local writers’ circles, and I hoped they might provide what I needed. But the problem was, with a young child, a baby on the way, and an evening job, I simply couldn’t make the meetings. Disappointed, I found a couple of writer forums on the net and hoped I’d struck gold, but the other members were an awful lot younger than me (I was 40). I didn’t want to be the only middle-aged woman in a group of eager young students. No matter where I looked or what I found in terms of writing support, it just didn’t tick the boxes for like-minded members or flexible meeting times. I was getting desperate.
Looking back, it strikes me how different things were ten years ago. There were few creative writing courses available on-line, and I don’t recall writing coaches advertising their services on the net, either. Those were the days of the Yellow Pages, a publication known more for its practical tradesmen than its freelance fiction editors! So, in 2011, it was in desperation that I finally joined an MA in creative writing. I remember balking at the astronomical fees, and desperately re-jigging the family finances and my workload in order to continue teaching after the arrival of baby number two, whilst studying part time.
I bit the bullet because every writer needs editorial help. That’s why literary agents screen clients, offer editorial advice and then filter novels through to publishers; it’s also why every publisher employs an editor who is assigned to your work to go through the process (yet again!) before you eventually find yourself in print.
Almost a decade later, after plenty of hard work and several false starts, I have two novels published, a third finished (as yet unpublished), a fourth novel in-progress, and a stack of short stories that I might just do something with one day. Because my PhD is almost complete, I recently decided it was time to take on some more work. I launched a Script Doctor service because I’m passionate about offering editorial advice on finished manuscripts (it’s a vital part of the journey to becoming published). But no sooner had I opened my doors for business, than it occurred to me that there are plenty of aspiring writers stuck in exactly the same position that I was, back in 2010 - writers with a stack of un-finished manuscripts, fragments of novellas, and detailed plot plans left on a shelf somewhere gathering dust simply because they cannot afford to engage in the expensive process of joining a publishing academy course or a creative writing MA, in order to get the advice they need.
This gave me an idea. The most helpful part of the process of becoming published, for me, was having my un-finished work critiqued in chunks. As part of the MA, I’d submit extracts of fiction to a peer group or to my tutor. Nobody ever read the full novel, not even my final examiners. The extracts I sent for critique ranged between 1,000 and 5,000 words in length. I’d receive a detailed commentary in return, telling me what worked and what didn’t, exploring the extract in the wider context of the plot, and suggesting improvements. In the background, my critique group threw in plot breakdowns, flash-fiction, non-fiction, book reviews, recommended reading and other interesting suggestions. It was not only great fun, the process transformed my writing. I discovered what readers like, and what they don’t. After all, until this point I'd been writing for myself! I found out how to hook a reader with a choice opening line. I began to understand character and backstory. I became acquainted with a whole load of fiction I’d never previously heard of, which opened up tremendous possibilities to me as a writer, not just as a reader. And all this happened as I was writing my (then) unfinished novel, submitted in chunks, allowing me to tinker with plot, characters, and scenes throughout the journey rather than waiting until the very end to ask for help. Without this process, my first novel would have been unpublishable in 2013 when I finished the MA. Instead, it was short-listed for a competition that year, found an agent in 2014, became a talking book in 2015, and was published as a paperback in 2016.
So, my novel and fiction editing service has now expanded to include The Writing Coach. Writers can follow a similar blueprint to the one I did: nobody needs to submit a full manuscript to take advice on their prose. A writer can submit a single chunk as a one-off, or can return every few chapters to ask for more feedback. This system works very well indeed, as I know first-hand. This is the system that led to me finding an agent and becoming mainstream published.