Guest Article : Test and Invest to help your Manuscript Sell

by Karen Charlton
Artwork by Bradley Wind

If authors are not prepared to invest in themselves, why should anyone else?’

OK, I hold up my hands at the start. I manage a company which makes money out of helping aspiring writers to fine tune their manuscripts until they are of publishable standard. So I have a personal interest in promoting the idea that paying for a professional edit is a sound investment.

However, even I was shocked when my business advisor, Paul Harper, blurted out the comment above. We were chatting over coffee and I said that many authors didn’t seem to realise the hours of work involved in properly editing a manuscript, that many baulked at the cost of hiring a professional to undertake the work. Paul is not a man who suffers fools gladly.

‘But if authors are not prepared to invest in themselves, why should anyone else?’ he snapped. ‘Why should publishers invest in their damned book, if they won’t?’

The ferocity of his tone led to a sharp intake of breath, but it also made me think.

Business entrepreneurs, all over the world, invest time, energy and their own money into the development of their products. They begin with an idea (just like an author) and develop a prototype. This prototype is then thoroughly tested, over and over again, to make sure that it does the job it is supposed to do. They accept that the product will not be marketable until it is thoroughly refined and they often go back to the drawing board to start again or make major adjustments. It is an expensive, time-consuming and frustrating process. However, as a result of this professional approach, our world is full of incredible products. Everything from our computers, to intricate life-saving medical equipment and our beloved cars enhance the quality our lives and provide a well-deserved reputation for excellence for their creators.

Professionals in every other walk of life, from accountants to lawyers and dentists, also invest heavily in themselves. They pay thousands of pounds or dollars in university/college fees and accommodation, and live on peanuts until they are qualified. Many of them also bear the brunt of the cost of continuous training and development throughout their careers.

Yet, although most aspiring writers are desperate to be regarded as professional authors and want their manuscripts to be taken seriously by publishers or agents, far too many dismiss the need to invest in any quality control testing of their product and try to do everything on the cheap. Sadly, this often includes the editing and proofreading of the books which they may have laboured over for years. What a waste.

As a result, the Kindle store is bursting at the seams with thousands of books of poor literary quality which have been rejected, time and time again, by publishers or agents.

So, when does writing a novel become a business venture?

There are a multitude of reasons why authors begin the daunting task that is writing a novel. For many people it is fun, a hobby, an extension of the scribbling they have done since they were a child. Their imaginations teem with stories that need out to be set down on paper and characters who demand a voice. Others may be driven by a deep-seated need to express their anger, grief and frustration with the world; they seek catharsis through the journey of their protagonist. But whatever originally motivated us to spend those long, frustrating months (or years) at the keyboard; we all have something in common. When we finally type: ‘The End,’ we have a burning desire to share our creation with others.

But the process is not over. At this stage, the writer has a prototype of a novel, not a complete product. Those 100,000 words will need a thorough edit before they are marketable. This was never ‘The End’ but only a mid-way point in the manufacturing process. What started as a personal journey for each individual author has now become a viable business venture.

‘No need for an edit’

Of course, some writers will find my analogy with business distasteful. Their precious manuscripts are far more than mere ‘products’; they are works of art. These authors see themselves as ethereal and otherworldly artistes, who inhabit a delicate yet intense universe of similes and syntax far removed from the grubby clutches of commerce and business. To view your novel as a work of art is quite acceptable – in many ways fiction is an art form – but that doesn’t mean you can’t work on it to make it technically as good as it possibly can be through the use of a good editor or consultancy. These days, if you don’t do that then you’re not going to get very far in the highly competitive world of publishing.

Unfortunately, there are still some would-be novelists who maintain a bewildering arrogance. They assume that there are publishers and agents who will spot their genius without the need for an edit. They may even think that they are so talented, they don’t make mistakes. Or they believe that publishing houses will overlook their excessive word count, lapses in grammar and frequent inconsistencies to launch a bidding war, regardless. They need to think again.

‘I gave it to the woman down the road to edit’

Some debut authors do make a half-hearted effort to get some help. They ask their aunty and their best friend to read their final drafts. Because aunty has no idea what to look out for and because the best friend wants to stay ‘best friend’, they both return the MS with glowing reports. That’s it: editing and proof reading complete.

Other aspiring novelists rely on total strangers on the Internet to read their precious manuscripts. I cringe every time I see this kind of transaction take place in online writers’ groups. Yes, there are some genuine people in cyber space who are happy to spend hours reading someone else’s book; they like helping and they revel in the title ‘beta-reader.’ But who knows whether the opinion of these enthusiastic amateurs is any good? They are strangers, faceless and unaccountable. They often have little credibility apart from the fact that they may have already self-published an unedited, poorly-written novel on Amazon. They may be worse at characterisation, pacing and grammar than the naive writer who emails them that precious first draft. Or they could have the attention span of an amoeba, become bored half-way through and abandon the book. Then there is always the danger that they might not be genuine and may deliberately try to mislead the author:

‘It’s all right,’ they report back. ‘Your novel is great – just a couple of typos on the first page.’ Editing done.

‘A quick edit tonight’

Another thing which shocks me is the sheer number of authors who post on Facebook that today they have finished their book, and tonight they will give it a quick edit before they submit it to agents tomorrow. This is horrific. It takes days to edit a book properly. At Famelton, we estimate about thirty hours are needed for an average length novel. In addition to this, most writers are far too close to their work to see the weak areas and mistakes. Many of us bring some grammatical or linguistic idiosyncrasy into our text from our regional dialect and most of us make mistakes – especially when we redraft. But all manuscripts need to be as close to perfect as possible before submission. That’s what publishers and agents want.

My question is this: If you have invested so much of your time and energy to create the book in the first place, is it not worth investing a little money and effort to refine the product and put it through some form of quality control process? In other words: surely your book, your baby, deserves a thorough, professional edit?

‘If you need an editor, hire one.’

Still not convinced? Well, if you don’t believe me, here is the opinion of highly-acclaimed novelist, Ruth Harris, on the subject of editing. A million-copy New York Times best-selling author, Ruth has reached the top of the literary pile. She also worked in the publishing industry before she began her dazzling career as an author. In a recent blog article, Ruth explained why so many manuscripts are rejected. Her very first point was this:

The reasons for rejection start with the basics, i.e. the ms sucks. Author can't format/spell/doesn’t know grammar, is clueless about characterisation, plotting and pacing. Maybe, though, it's not that bad and with competent editing, it's publishable but the days of Maxwell Perkins are long gone. Staff editors, these days, don't have the time, so if you need an editor, hire one.

Enough said.

Karen Charlton is the author of two historical novels published by Knox Robinson Publishing, Catching the Eagle and The Missing Heiress. She is also the co-founder of Famelton Writing Services.
Paul Harper is the Managing Director of Zeddcoms, a marketing agency with a sales focus. 

Editor's note: Other literary consultancies that we'd recommend as well as Famelton that may be of interest if you want to compare what's availiable are :
The Creative Writing Consultancy 
The Literary Consultancy

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