The Two Big Myths in Editing a Novel

“There he is—at the Genius Bar!” bellowed a familiar voice behind me. It was my plumber Sam, who had somehow tracked me to the Apple Store, an hour away from my home.

I had a sudden urge to drink rat poison. Or buy a machine gun. Or move to Sri Lanka.

Sam sidled up beside me at the Genius Bar and winked at the young blond Apple technician who was looking at my dead laptop. She had multiple piercings in her eyebrows and her name tag said “Ashley.”

Ashley ignored Sam and showed me her iPad, which displayed a series of diagnostic checks. “Sir, your machine passes all of these tests, so the next—”

“Say, Ashley, ain’t ya tried rebooting it?” Sam said.

Ashley frowned at him. “So the next step is to boot up the computer and test the hard drive.”

Sam harrumphed loudly and poked me in the ribs. “Ain’t that what I just said? Ya don’t need no high-priced Genius to know to reboot yer computer.”

Ashley held down several keys and asked me to push the power button.

I did.

“That ain’t gonna help.” Sam bent over, yanked off one of his size-15 boots, and plopped it on the Genius Bar. “No offense, but don’t be sending no girl to do a man’s job.”

“Wrong on every possible level, Sam.” I shoved his boot off the bar. “Ashley is a professional, and you aren’t, so please just—”

“It ain’t working!” Sam crowed. “Yer laptop ain’t working! And how much ya paying this perfessional genius? Way too much, I betcha.”

“Nothing,” I said. “They solve problems here for free.”

Ashley was shaking her head. “It’s not looking good, sir. Do you mind if I remove your hard drive and look at it in the back room?”

“Go right ahead.”

Sam pulled half a dozen screwdrivers and pipe wrenches out of pockets in his greasy coveralls. “Need a tool? I got everything ya could want.”

Ashley gave him a disbelieving stare and then escaped to the back room with my laptop.

“Sam, what the devil are you doing here?” I hissed.

“Ya got to talk my Ma out of some craziness,” Sam said. He waved with both arms toward the store entrance, where his mother, Minnie, stood clutching a manuscript. “Come on up here, Ma! I caught the so-called genius being stupid red-handed.”

All around the store, shoppers were staring at us.

Minnie plowed through the crowd. “Dear boy! You’ve got to edit my manuscript for me.”

I put up both hands. “Hold on here. Sam, Minnie, I thought I told you I don’t edit manuscripts. Plenty of people do, but that’s just not my—”

“There, ya see, Ma!” Sam boomed. “He don’t edit stuff. Waste of money fer him to edit it, anyway. He probably couldn’t edit his way out of a paper bag if ya spotted him two commas and a semicolonoscopy.”

“I’d be a good editor,” I huffed. “I’m just too busy, is all.”

“Oooh, too busy being hoity-toity,” Sam said. “But Ma don’t need no editor. Just run it through spell check and voom! Pack it off to Amazon. So just tell her that so she’ll stop this rat-sense about hiring some editor. Good writers don’t need no editor. They can do it theirself.”

Minnie was shaking her head. “Sammy, I’m going to do my book right.” She tugged at my arm. “Tell Sammy he’s wrong.”

I pulled out my iPad and brought up Amazon. In seconds I found the second edition of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, the classic book by Renni Browne and Dave King. “Okay, Minnie, the very first thing you need to do is get this book. It’s the best book out there on self-editing—”

“Told ya, Ma!” Sam crowed. “The truth finally comes out. Mr. Smarty Pants sez ya can edit yer book yerself.”

Minnied looked deflated. “That doesn’t make any sense. If I was going to work with a traditional publisher, I’d have an editor. I don’t want to cut corners, just because I’m going to be an indie author. I want an editor to fix my book and make it perfect for me!”

“Stop, stop, both of you!” I said. “Listen, you’re both wrong. Minnie, it’s a myth that editors will make your book perfect for you. Professional authors self-edit their novels—”

Sam hooted and started doing a victory dance, waving a pipe wrench overhead in each hand. “Woo, woo, woo!”

“But it’s a myth that an author can do all the editing for a novel,” I said. “When they’ve made it the best they possibly can, professional authors hire an editor to tell them how to improve it.”

“Told you, Sammy!” Minnie hollered.

Sam scowled. “Big waste of money. Readers is stupid. They don’t care if ya spell a few words wrong.”

Minnie had her iPhone out and hastily ordered a copy of Self-Editing For Fiction Writers. “Dear boy, if you won’t edit my book after I’m done self-editing it, then who will?”

“First let’s define what we mean by editing,” I said. “There are several different kinds of editors.”

Minnie’s eyebrows scrunched up. “Oh mercy! This is going to cost me a lot of money. How many editors am I going to have to hire?”

“I recommend you always hire a high-level editor first,” I said. “Somebody who understands your category of fiction and who can tell you what’s right and wrong with your plot and characters. Every novelist needs somebody to do that. I’ve never met an author who could do that for themselves.”

“But … it sounds like you’re saying they won’t fix it!” Minnie’s lower lip was trembling. “And if I can’t do it for myself, then who in high heaven is going to do it?”

I shook my head. “There are two steps. The editor’s job is to point out the problems. Your job is to listen carefully, decide what changes you’re going to make, and then rewrite your story to make it better. You’re the author.”

“So I need to put an ad in the paper for a ‘big-picture’ editor?”

Sam held a large-screen iMac in the air. “Here’s a big picture, Ma! How ya gonna edit that?”

“Sammy, shut up!”

I was starting to get worried that the Apple Store people would throw us out. “Some people call this kind of editing a ‘substantive edit.’ Some call it a ‘macro edit.’ Some call it a ‘content edit.’ Your best bet is to just define exactly what you want—a review of your plot and characters at a high level.”

“Oh, please, won’t you do that for me? I wouldn’t know where to find somebody like that if you won’t.”

“I can’t,” I said. “But you have a lot of options. You’ve already got one fan for your novel—that librarian we met at Barnes & Noble. It’s possible she might make a good macro editor and she’d probably read your book for free because she likes you.”

Minnie punched in a note to herself on her iPhone. “But what if she isn’t any good?”

“You could also join a critique group,” I said. “Other writers often make good editors. Of course, some of them are awful editors, but you’ll figure out who’s good and who’s bad.”

“Well, I don’t want an amateur ruining my story,” Minnie said.

“One of the best editors I know got started as an amateur reading my work for free,” I said. “Eventually, she became a professional editor and now I pay her to review my work. So I can refer you to her, but you should be aware that no editor is perfect for every author. You need to find somebody who really gets your work. You might want to look around online too. There are plenty of good editors who’ve been laid off by big publishers lately.”

“It sounds horribly complicated,” Minnie said. “Maybe I’m making a mistake not to work with a traditional publisher. If they were paying for the editing, they’d surely assign me an editor who gets my work.”

“That’s no guarantee,” I said. “The absolute worst editor I ever had was assigned to me by a traditional publisher. A major publisher who paid me  quite a decent advance. But this editor completely failed to get my writing.”

“So you’re saying that after I hire this macro editor, then I still have to rewrite my novel all over again,” Minnie said. “Then what?”

“At that point, you still need to do copy editing and line editing,” I said. “Those involve editing for clarity and flow, and then for punctuation, grammar, and syntax. That book I mentioned, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers will also help you out a lot on those. I’ve seen your work. It’s fairly clean copy, so you might be able to the job yourself. A lot of indie authors do their own copy editing and line editing. I do mine.”

Minnie looked puzzled. “What about spelling? I thought editors were there to fix my spelling, but you haven’t even said anything about that.”

“Spell check! Spell check!” Sam chanted.

“Spell check isn’t good enough,” I said. “You really need a human to proofread your novel for spelling, punctuation, and that sort of thing. That’s the last step. I do that myself, and then I hire my daughter to do the same, because my eyes just aren’t as sharp as they used to be.”

“It’s all so confusing,” Minnie said.

“Let’s just take things in order,” I said. “You’ve written the first draft of your novel, and I think you’ve polished it up a bit. Your next step is to find a macro editor to look at the high-level parts of your story.”

“Like when that Ashley cutie run that there fancy diagnostic thingie on yer laptop and told you there wasn’t a thing wrong with it,” Sam said. “But that didn’t help, did it?”

“A little bit like that,” I said. “But it did help. It told us what was working. A good macro editor needs to tell you what’s working so you won’t go trying to fix something that isn’t broken.”

“Sir?” It was Ashley’s voice, and her tone told me immediately that something was broken. Bad broken.

I spun around. “Have you got a diagnosis for me?”

She nodded. “Your hard drive is dead. I plugged it in to a different machine and I could see the hard drive exists, but … no data.”

A ghastly silence settled over the store.

“No … data?” Sam croaked. “What kinda fixit girl are you, if ya lost all his data? It was right there on the hard drive until you started messing—”

“Sam, that’ll be enough.” I stepped up to the Genius Bar. “Thanks for finding the problem, Ashley. I guess I need a new drive, right?”

She nodded. “I’ll put in a new drive but I can’t give you back your data. Do you have a backup?”

“Of course,” I said. “I use Time Machine.”

“Well then, you can take it home and restore your data from the backups and you’ll be up and running.”

“Now watch fer it,” Sam said in a stage whisper that you could hear in the next state. “She’s making him do all the work, but she’s gonna ask him fer money.”

Ashley gave him a poisonous look. “That’ll be $120 for parts and $40 for labor. And $500 for PITA unless you get your friend out of the store in sixty seconds.”

I pulled out my wallet, handed Ashley my credit card, and tugged on Sam’s arm. “Come on, Sam. You heard the lady. Let’s get you outside.”

Sam weighs about 300 pounds and he didn’t move. “I got a perfect right to be shopping in this store, which incidentally is a big ripoff and—”

“Sam, out! Now!”

“Forty-five seconds,” said Ashley.

Sam didn’t move.

Cold sweat sprang up over my entire body. “Come on, Sam, help me out here.”

“I ain’t no PITA and I demand a apology.”

“Thirty seconds.”

Panic began building in my stomach. I looked to Minnie. “If you get him out of here, I’ll macro edit your book myself.”

Minnie leaped forward, jabbed a finger in Sam’s face, and screamed, “Get out of the store right now or I’ll hide your Wookiee action figure!”

“Fifteen seconds!”

Sam’s face turned white. “You wouldn’t, Ma.”

“Would too.” Minnie shoved him toward the door. “And I’ll tell everybody here what you named her!”

Sam bolted for the door.

The crowd cleared a path before him.

“Five seconds! Four! Three! Two! One!”

Sam raced out into the mall and knocked over a huge ficus tree. Dirt spilled over the floor all the way to the Victoria’s Secret store.

“That naughty boy!” Minnie scowled. Then her face brightened. “But at least I found a nice person to do the macro edit on my novel! It’s so kind of you to volunteer.”

I mumbled something even I couldn’t understand.

Ashley handed me her iPad to sign. “Sir, we’ll have your computer back to you in a few hours, and then it’ll take you a few hours to restore your system. I’m sorry you won’t be able to work until then.”

“There’s where you’re wrong.” I took Minnie’s manuscript and shoved it savagely into my backpack. “Looks like I’ll be macro editing a novel for the next two days.”

“Well, then, everybody’s happy, sir.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED …

Randy sez: This is the fifth in a series of blog posts on self-publishing novels. Some of what we say will be useful to non-fiction writers too, but our target audience for this series is composed of novelists who want to indie publish their work.

Today’s post was prompted by the horrible experience I had this weekend when the hard drive on my laptop failed.

Getting it fixed required some work by Apple Store technicians and some work by me. (Which is why I’m a couple of days late on this blog post.)

In the same way, editing your novel will take some work by a good editor and some work by you.

It’s a myth that you can do all the editing yourself. It’s also a myth that you can hire somebody else to do it all for you.

Professional novelists find the right balance. Amateurs don’t.

Minnie now has a plan to edit her novel. While she’s waiting for her macro editor to read her manuscript, isn’t there something she could be doing? Check back next week to see what comes next.

If you’ve got friends who might be interested in becoming an indie author, feel free to let them know about this Indie Author Guidebook series.

See you next week!

23 Comments

  1. Janet Ann Collins July 18, 2013 at 8:12 am #

    Maybe Minnie should have hired a parenting expert. 😉

    • Randy as Admin July 18, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

      Hi Jan: Poor Minnie does have her hands full with Sam. I think he’d be tough for any parent. I created him and I can’t even get him to behave!

  2. Conor July 18, 2013 at 8:17 am #

    Thanks for the post.

    Sorry about your hard drive ,: \

    • Randy as Admin July 18, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

      Hi Conor: Thanks! This just highlights the need for everybody to have a good backup system. I’m extremely glad that Apple’s Time Machine system works as well as it should. Of course, I have a second backup system (online) in place in case the external drive were to be lost at the same time as the main computer. That can happen if the house burns down or the burglar decides to clean out the office.

  3. Josh July 18, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    Sorry about the hard drive, Randy. I don’t know if your numbers were real for the cost, but if they were, might I reccomend some DIY next time? I had the same thing happen not too long ago, and I was able to replace it with a larger, faster hard drive for <$100 and some elbow grease. There are lots of tutorials for it online and with a bit of tech proficiency (which I'm guessing you have in spades, given the website and the fact that you seem to have backups and restores down) it's no problem at all.

    Good luck with the new drive!

    • Randy as Admin July 18, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

      Thanks, Josh! The numbers were real, other than the PITA charge for Sam, which is of course fictitious. I tend to leave hardware work to others, especially on Macs.

  4. Rue July 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    Thanks so very much for all your great advise and guidance. I read everything you write for years now…you and the Snowflake are making me better in every way …plus give me a good laugh.

    • Randy as Admin July 18, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

      Hi Rue: Glad you like the web site. The Snowflake method makes me a better writer too. It forces me to think about the whole store and keep it consistent. Have fun!

      • arundebnath December 13, 2013 at 11:38 am #

        Hi Randy

        I bought both your book on Writing Fiction For Dummies and the Snowflake software. I’ve found the book invaluable for my writing journey -I’m just a novice yet. Unfortunately I haven’t tried to use the Snowflake software yet. Not sure how to start and where to start. Any advice please.Thanks.

  5. Emma July 19, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    Thanks for another brilliantly funny post! I love reading these each week. And it’s such a great way to get your advice across – which I always make the most of!
    Oh and sorry to hear about the hard drive – its reminding me to do something about my slightly haphazard backing up methods…

  6. Charles Harris July 19, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    Nice one. A good chuckle and some serious points.

    My condolences on the hard drive. Glad to meet someone else who cares about both good writing and back-ups!

    Charles

  7. Penny July 20, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    The adventures of Sam, Minnie and Randy are becoming strangely addictive…

    And I don’t even like this approach to teaching!

  8. Susan July 20, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    Thanks for this fun post. I hope it’s okay to forward it to my critique group. Some of them are newbies and need the lesson. Good luck with your hard drive. I’m sure you’re probably backed up in the cloud or dropbox as well.

  9. David July 28, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    On the TV show The Big Bang theory, one of the young physicists says something like, “Let’s go down to the Apple store and make fun of the guys at the “Genius Bar”. Just wondering if physicists really do that? 🙂

    • Randy Ingermanson July 28, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

      I doubt it. I don’t know what the average IQ of physicists is, but my hunch is that it’s high enough that most of us don’t feel particularly threatened by a clever bit of marketing. I should hope not, anyway. The Big Bang Theory is a lot of fun–definitely one of my favorite shows.

  10. Michael July 29, 2013 at 5:32 pm #

    Some great lessons for new and seasoned writers, alike. Different levels of editors for different writers based on what they’re not good at editing themselves. I especially liked, “He probably couldn’t edit his way out of a paper bag if ya spotted him two commas and a semicolonoscopy.” Haha!

  11. Peter Smith August 1, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    I told myself I hated this form of teaching yet I find myself addicted to the story and am now in love with it, darn you Randy Ingermanson ! 🙂

  12. Samuel Tomoloju December 23, 2013 at 2:58 am #

    A humourous way of passing a great message.Randy,I love the way you explain things that i really want to keep reading.Thanks so much.You‘ve been a blessing to the world of Young fiction Writers like me.

  13. Ceara Schwake April 12, 2014 at 11:20 pm #

    Hi Randy!
    Just wondering if there will be any more Sam the Plumber posts. I know it says to check back next week, But I can’t find any after July 2013. I know your busy, just wondering If there were more coming or if this was the end.
    Thanks!

  14. Jack Cordwell July 22, 2014 at 2:21 pm #

    It was the boot where Sam lost me. Wow.

    Great post, thanks for the book. I’m going to head over to Amazon to pick it up. I’m going to finish this novel next month and will definitely need Editing help…

    Thanks Randy!

  15. Tony March 14, 2015 at 1:39 pm #

    I’m going to bump this. This is great stuff, and seeing as it’s been a year and a half, I’m going to assume that Same the Plumber and his mother Minnie decided to go their own way. Any chance this’ll make a comeback?

  16. Cecilia November 9, 2015 at 7:45 pm #

    several years down the track and this article is priceless. Thank you. I am so glad I hired a copy editor. She found all the bad things I could not see anymore after several self edits. She found all my repetitive descriptions, my idiosyncratic spellings and some glaring plot holes and I love her for it.

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