You’ve set up the perfect writing space, found a pen that channels Poe, a coffee shop fit for Camus and a chair good enough for Chandler. With a few chapters complete, you’d like some feedback, tips on how to improve or something more in-depth. You need education, editors and readers.
Writing a novel, or even a short story, is a gigantic leap for most of us. Even as a journalist, a long article would rarely exceed 1,500 words. My first attempt to write a novel followed a pattern many writers will recognise. I splurged an unholy mess of rambling story that simultaneously went nowhere and seemed like it would never end. The sentences were good, the chapters were OK, the story was terrible.
The introverted bookworm in me went to my comfort zone: books about writing. How Not To Write A Novel for practical tips. Wonderbook for the joy of imaginative writing. On Writing because, simply, it’s Stephen King’s On Writing. I buy one or two writing guides a year to remind myself that no-one’s ever good enough to stop learning. Some of them are disappointments, such as the joyless Reading Like A Writer. Last year I bought J Michael Straczynski’s Becoming A Writer, Staying A Writer, a fascinating insight into maintaining your creativity over decades.
My second Nanowrimo was a lot better, but I needed something more. I signed up for a 10-week “Introduction To The Novel” course at City University in London. Not only did I receive friendly, expert tuition and constructive feedback, I met other writers and learned from them. If you’re not sure how to start writing and don’t have an enormous budget, google “Creative Writing classes near me”. That course gave me confidence and whet my appetite for an MA in Creative Writing.
To MA or not to MA?
Many writers fear the Creative Writing MA, or the MFA in America. They worry it will force them into a particular style or form, limiting the power of their idiosyncratic genius. Genre writers are often particularly worried that they’ll be forced into a literary straitjacket. I’ve met tutors who try to make students write a different book, modelled on the latest literary vogue. Fortunately, my tutors wanted to help me make my novel the best it could be. I was also happy to push back, politely, when I didn’t like a direction they suggested.
Do your research and find a course that suits you. Talk to the tutors about the stories you’d like to write. If possible, talk to current and former students about their experiences. I chose an MA that focused on the novel and wasn’t snobby about genre fiction.
Then, maybe, get over yourself. Even the greatest artists had to learn their craft before they became great. You have to learn the rules before you can break the rules: it’s a truism, not a cliché.
The benefit of an MA is that it covers a lot of ground — character, structure, plot, world building, style, etc. It exposes you to other writers and styles. A good course should have visiting authors, agents and editors. Regular deadlines build that crucial writing habit.
If you don’t have time for an MA, there are classes for almost every aspect and genre of creative writing. Many are available online if you can’t attend or prefer remote learning.
My cost: €1,320
Writing books (€40/year over four years), Short writing course €400, Creative Writing MA (€8,000 with inflation, but I’ll spread this across at least the first 10 books).
Editors and mentors
Editors and readers are a key part of the creative process, but they come in many forms, each serving a different role. Mostly you’ll hear about development editors, line and copy editors, and proofreaders. Editors in publishing houses are none of these (nor are news editors, newspaper editors, sub-editors, production editors or picture editors).
The first editor you might encounter as you write a novel is the Development Editor. You hire them either during or immediately after your first draft, and they’re often experienced authors, agents or publishing editors. Development editors look at your draft, or a few chapters with your synopsis of the story you hope to write. They help you hone it into a novel which will win traditional agents and publishers, or find readers via self-publishing.
Their job isn’t to tell you what to write, but to offer constructive criticism. They’ll suggest ways that your story can be its most engaging, point out big picture problems and potential pitfalls, and to help you engage critically with your own writing.
Development editors often work as writing tutors. The development editor for Blood River was the tutor on my first writing course (which got me a discounted rate). My MA tutor was effectively the development editor for the novel I began on that course. At around €500 for a report and often a follow-up conversation, development editors are the most affordable editor you’ll use. Many writers use a development editor throughout their careers to find creative distance from a new project.
Mentoring has become increasingly common, with writers’ organisations, agents and publishers now offering mentorship as a prize in writing competitions. It’s like development editing but lasts for a year, or even the entire creative cycle of a project. Mentor and mentee interact frequently to review and critique their work, answer questions and offer support.
Line and copy editing
Line and copy editing is an intensive form of editing conducted on late-stage drafts. By now, the project is creatively complete. It’s also the most expensive editing, running to thousands of Euro, Sterling or Dollars for a 90,000-word book. Publishing houses provide copy and line editing, although they now expect first-time writers to submit polished work that needs very little editing.
Copy Editors polish and rewrite your work at the chapter or book level. This is closer to ghost writing or sub-editing in the effect it will have on your original work. If your writing style isn’t great but you have a good story, a copy editor is an essential partner. Line editors leave the style and structure of your story intact, correcting your work on a line-by-line level. They focus on grammar and ensure there’s consistency in time, names and places.
Line editing and proof-reading services are often combined, because it’s hard to line edit without seeing the typos, spelling and punctuation errors that a proofreader will correct. Proofreaders work on the final copy — or ‘proofs’ — of a book before it’s published. These editors typically deliver a marked-up copy of the work, also known as a ‘galley’. The author checks this before publishing, to ensure that no deliberate errors or specialist terms have been corrected by mistake.
Many authors now rely on services like Grammarly and ProWritingAid to line edit and proofread their work. They’re extremely effective, fast and cheap, but they are not foolproof and they can introduce errors. You should be confident in your own style, and your knowledge of grammar, spelling and punctuation.
Hemingway is an online/desktop editorial tool which analyses the complexity of your language. It highlights complex sentences and recommends style changes that will make your work more and accessible. Writing groups often do the same job, but it’s not likely you’ll be able to give them every chapter.
Scrivener includes a feature called Regular Expressions. You use it to search your manuscript for clichéd phrases, repeated words, passive verbs, and other forms of sloppy writing. Grammarly and ProWritingAid also do this, but you can customise Regular Expressions to search for your personal writing bugbears.
Budget prevented me from hiring a line editor for Blood River, so I relied on my editing experience and pedantic beta readers. Blood River’s idiosyncratic diary style was also a challenge for automated proof-reading services. I will check my current WIPs in ProWritingAid before they arrive with agents.
My cost: €400
Development editor (€400), Scrivener regular expressions (free).
O Reader, where art thou?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of a manuscript, must be in want of a reader. But good readers are hard to find.
Readers are not hard to find. You can submit your work into dozens of writers’ groups on Facebook and Reddit, often to genre-savvy writers who are happy to offer their feedback. Online communities like Scribophile work on a karma system, so that you can only submit chapters when you’ve critiqued the work of other members. It’s great for short works, but an enormous commitment if you have an entire novel that needs reading.
The problem with online feedback is that it’s a crap shoot. Your random readers may be successful authors with years of experience, trolls who want to undermine you, cheerleaders who don’t like to criticise anyone, or simply too inexperienced to help. The best people might not be reading when you have something new to submit. It’s great if that works for you, but I prefer some consistency.
Try a critique group
Writing critique groups help with this, either in-person or online. My first writing course spawned a short-lived writers’ group. Before my MA, I joined a regular critique group at City Lit in London, hosted by an experienced writer. Meetup and Nanowrimo message boards are also a good way to find critique groups in your area.
Our writing cohort has become the most important and lasting gift of my creative writing MA. A year of critiques built trust in the comments of our fellow writers. It also taught me how other people interact with my writing. I’ve learned from their writing and we support each other on our writing journey. I’m still with my MA writing group, two years after graduation.
Some authors say that you should move to a new writing group every few years to avoid creative groupthink. I can see the possibility, but our group has refreshed itself as we’ve lost members and found new writers.
Alpha and beta readers
Alpha and beta readers are a special category of readers. They look at your complete first draft or your final, proofed pre-publishing draft.
Alpha reading is a special responsibility. The manuscript will be in a raw state, unpolished and probably ripe with typos. Their job is to judge the potential of your story. Is it worth pushing on to the final draft, and how much work it will take to get there? You need someone — maybe only one or two readers — who you can trust to give you honest, constructive feedback.
Beta reading requires a blank slate: a reader who will react as though they’ve bought your novel. If they don’t enjoy it, the next feedback you receive will come from agents or reader reviews. You need three to six beta readers, and sometimes a second group to rate your edits.
In both cases, the challenge is finding readers who like your genre and can provide quality feedback in a useful time. Family and friends will offer to do it, but only about one in five will deliver on time, if at all. It’s both frustrating and awkward. For Blood River, I lived this problem. I received incredible feedback from some people and nothing from others.
That’s why I’ve launched The Good Reader, a professional critiquing service for science fiction, fantasy and horror. I’ll read your novel at the alpha or beta stage and deliver a detailed report. I’ll even read your opening chapters and a synopsis — it’s a mini development editor’s report.
My cost: €200
Writing group (mostly free except for coffee and time), beta readers (free except for beer, cake and time)
The bill so far: c.€3,250
It’s difficult to add up the intangibles of coffee, cake, beer and travel over four years. You could say that Blood River came in cheap, but that’s a lot of money to make back from a debut novel. Self-publishing brings more costs, too.
That’s why I’ve always seen Blood River as my training wheels novel. It’s an investment of time and money that will pay back as I learn to write smarter and faster on my next books.
Until then, I’m open for commissions to The Good Reader, if you’d like feedback on your work before it’s published. How much did it cost to write your debut novel? Did you employ editors and readers? Did you send the invoice to yourself and write it off as the cost of professional development?
Cover image: Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio
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