Wadded paperI’ve now been editing for the better part of a year. To say that I learned a lot is an understatement. Some of the work Down & Out has sent me could be intimidating. My first project came from a well-known author in crime fiction circles, one I read quite a bit of in the oughties. I might have been more rigid on that one simply wanting to do a good job when, as a writer, I actually turned to this guy for advice. But I’ve learned a lot since then. Like, the writer expects you to edit. So if there’s a glaring issue, it probably means he or she forgot it or wants suggestions. 

More recently, the publisher handed me a local author, which worked out well. His would be a difficult book simply for the story he told and the choices he made. Being local, I was able to meet up with him (in an indie bookstore, no less.) Which was cool. We’d met and interacted before, so it was old-home week. Plus, his book had some AC/DC references. I’d just read Brian Johnson’s The Lives of Brian, so invoking Mr. Johnson’s bff from beyond the grave added some fun to this project. It wasn’t easy, but it was a joy to work with.

Since I use ProWritingAid to edit, some things become obvious. Writers, including the two I happen to be, don’t always follow the rules. PWA hates passive voice, but most writers, including the two I happen to be, use it sparingly or in contexts where active would just sound silly. But I’ve often wondered how I was doing? I mentioned in an online forum how much fun I had doing a recent music-themed anthology (which are always fun to edit, write, or read.) The editor, who had his own story in the book, sent back a note and said, “Yeah, I fixed a couple things with mine because of your notes.”  Yeah. I like feedback like that. If they didn’t like it, I usually don’t hear about it.

Unfortunately, I’ve had a couple of bad experiences as a writer. One with an editor trying to backdoor their mad developmental editing skills and coming off as though they didn’t even read. I won’t recount the “I didn’t know this wasn’t Mars” story, but suffice it to say, a red dwarf sun and the line, “Unlike Mars, we have a magnetic field” line should have been huge hints. (As TS Hottle, I write scifi. I have expectations of the audience. I have higher ones of the betas or an editor.)

The other, also a beta, thought everything was an Easter egg because I’m an American. And Americans put Easter eggs into everything. Some of this paid off, and I had to thank him even though I didn’t take a particular suggestion. It wasn’t his objection to “tea bags.” It was sending me down a rabbit hole and asking a handful of UK friends and an exchange student from Japan how they drank their tea. As such, Suicide’s silent rant about the Interstellar Era’s equivalent of the Keurig expanded. But downside, he was finding Easter eggs where their were none. “Falcon? Do you think everyone knows all the names of Apollo lunar modules?” Space buff that I am, I had to go look that one up. And I had seen the command modules from 11 and 15 that same year. This one wasn’t so bad because it did help having a reader who wanted to know if I killed off that murderous  human pestilence, Jez Salamacis, yet. Spoiler alert: No. And not even in the upcoming Suicide Gambit.

Yet I always wondered how I was doing as an editor. Was I stepping on my writers’ toes? Was I being too loose and handing back my publisher a less-than-stellar product?

Then I ran into a couple of instances with other writers where the editors clearly did not know what they were doing. One came from, of all places, the introduction to a memoir of a woman my wife and I met up in Ohio’s Amish Country. The intro, written by the editor, had said editor telling on herself. She said she ripped out all the passive voice, all the adverbs, and all the offending “thats.” The author said that wasn’t what she’d written. Oops. What I actually bought had a much cleaner edit. Yes, there were adverbs and a stray passive voice phrase here and there, but not that many. And she still showed “that” no mercy.  That was the editor telling on herself. She was also a writer, this her first attempt editing a manuscript.

A friend of mine fared worse. He made friends with a couple of editors, one of whom would be a bit expensive. The other wanted to become what’s called a “story coach” (a glorified developmental editor.) Like the lady from Ohio, she, too, had never edited. 

My friend showed me a 1500-word scene he’d given her. Upset, he said there was no way he could do everything she asked. It was turning less and less into what he’d written. I gave him the same treatment I give Down & Out’s authors, that two of their copy editors gave me. It wasn’t bad. I trimmed the fat, took out two of three passive voice lines, and tightened up a few lines. It was a fight scene. I wrote more comments than usual so he could understand what I was doing, with an eye for him looking for these things himself. Then I looked at the offending edit.

Tempted as I am to say who it was, I won’t. I will say opening an edit with a flagged paragraph and a page-long rant is not professional, never mind helpful. I was angry when I saw that. He’s a new writer, and the rant was one of the most insulting (and in a lot of places, just flat-out WRONG) comments I’ve ever read. I told him to part ways with the editor. This after she locked him into a six-hour story consult. For reference, the two dev editors I know – Stacy Robinson and Kalene Williams – limit such Zoom meetings to about an hour. Will this person ever become a decent editor?

Hey, I did. My first attempt at editing left the writer in tears. I didn’t try it again for several years afterward. But, there’s a balance between sticking to the rules like politicians to bribes and keeping the writer’s voice. Yes, you have to take out the excessive crutch words, repetitions, adverbs, and passive voice. But all of them?

If you really do have to do a rewrite, the best person to do that is the writer. Rewriting is not your job.

Wadded paperThis website is, of course, to pitch editing services to writers. If you’re here, you’re either a writer or you follow me somehow on social media. In terms of business, I’m trying to replace Uber as a side hustle, one that lets me interact with other writers and doesn’t risk my car dying before the final payment.

Which means editing costs money. So do book covers, formatting, and other services a writer needs. Marketing can be a real cash suck as there’s no guarantee your social media maven can help you recoup your expenses.

On behalf of all the other freelance editors I know, we get it. Most of us are also writers, have been on a shoestring budget, and know the loneliness of exile in DIY Land. I still do. Wish I knew ten years ago what I know now about formatting and covers. (No, I do not offer those services. Don’t ask.) The one service successful authors and small presses harp on the most for the independent writer is editing. More over, even big name traditional authors will use them before submitting their work to their publisher. Copy editors at big houses are overworked. The less they have to do, the better. But you don’t have the sums it may cost for a line or copy edit. You most likely don’t have the larger sums for a developmental edit. So, while many are saying you have to have an editor, many writers are forced to do it themselves.

When I decided to go into science fiction and be the master control freak that I am, I did my own. I thought, “Eh. I can string sentences together. Beta readers, many of whom are closet editors, will catch the rest.” Um… No, that doesn’t really work.

I just took three novels off the market for clean-up and rerelease. New covers, combined with shorter works as bonus material, and fresh copy edits. Both The Children of Amargosa and Storming Amargosa show the signs of having a developmental edit without having a solid line edit after the fact. Someone else did the dev edit on Children while I did several of my own on Storming. In developmental editing, you’re not proofreading, doing consistency checks, or reading for flow. You’re restructuring the story. Essentially, it’s a collaborative rewrite. 

Which means whether you just ripped your own story apart and put it back together with new parts, or someone pointed out the structural flaws in the story, you now have a brand new….

Rough draft.

I once knew a writer who did not consider rough drafts to be first drafts. The first draft was the readable version of the rough draft. It’s not an opinion I agreed with, but it is one worth considering. Especially after you do a dev edit.  The reason is you are moving scenes around. You are adding new material to replace old or to make existing material fit together. I heard one writer say she would never pay a developmental editor if it came back needing a line edit. That assumes all editing is created equal.  

Dev edits, whether you do them yourself or have someone do them for you, by definition introduce new errors. If you’re paying others, you need to either hire at least a proofreader or have really picky beta readers.

So, if this post is about doing it yourself, what does that mean?

1.)  When you finish a draft, let it sit. Yes, we’re in an age when indie writers have to get it out fast. However, that first one (and all the subsequent ones) have to be rightSecond Wave, the second Amargosa novel, might have had three betas, but I didn’t wait. It had been a while since Children, and I wanted the sequel out, dammit! That’s never a good idea. Get it right. Or take up knitting. Otherwise, you’re wasting the reader’s time.

2.) Editors use editing tools. Hemingway, ProWritingAid, and even the built-in functions in Word and Scrivener give you a leg up. Someone once told me they didn’t need Grammarly because they had an education. I thought that was the most arrogant (and flat-out wrong) writing advice I’d heard since “Write what you know.” (I may rant about that rotting chestnut on the TS Hottle or Jim Winter blogs. Or both.) To shun editing tools is a sign of insecurity. Don’t brag about using a Mac if you’re too stubborn to use the tools the apps have built-in or are available for the platform. (And those apps, like those for Windows, are legion.*) USE THE TOOLS! You’re human. By definition, Francis, you will miss stuff.

3.) Betas are your buddies. Now, let’s define a beta reader. A beta reader is one who reads before the public does. This can be anything from taking it for a test drive (“I didn’t like the character of Joe. Have you considered making him a houseplant?”) to doing a line edit. If they go beyond that, someone’s trying to hawk their editing services without looking like they’re hawking their editing services. I’ve had two do that to me. The second one didn’t end well. (First one, I shrugged and said, “Well, edit for the author’s style, not yours.”)

4.) It’s more important to get it right than to get it fast. Yes, you want to be an author. I get it. I’ve been that person both traditionally and independently. The first novel is, for every writer, “My baby!” Trust me. My first novel is a book called Northcoast Shakedown, and unlike the four that followed it, I want that thing line edited before I republish it in the next couple of years.

5.) Things to look for that editors wish you would look for: Crutch words in varying degrees and pet peeves, adverbs, repeated words, missing words, missing letters, dictation mistakes for those of you brave enough. (Many writers prefer dictation. Others can’t wrap their heads around it. I’m somewhere in the middle.)

6.) Commas still matter. Learn the rules. The Chicago Manual of Style has sections available online. The Elements of Style is cheap in paperback, cheaper in ebook. Read them! Love them! They will save you grief later on.

*If you use Linux, you probably can write your own. 

Wadded paperWelcome to the first post of this site’s blog. No fanfare. No title. I’m just here to talk about editing.
Today, I want to talk about the beta reading, the poor man’s method of editing. As an editor, I want to charge for my services. After all, this beats Uber as a side hustle – no fuel costs, no wear-and-tear on the vehicle. But it’s labor. One should always charge for their labor.
As a writer, I completely get why one doesn’t want pay for an editor. Self-publishing and small press are crapshoots. Editor’s fees make it that much harder to recoup your investment. But you need to polish, and every writer, including this one, is too close to their work to see mistakes clearly.
Editing tools are great. I have a ProWritingAid subscription and am writing this post in Hemingway. But those cost money as well, and again, you’re too close to the work.
So, many writers turn to beta reading. Get a fresh set of eyes on the work without handing over huge amounts of cash. That leaves one question.
What the heck is beta reading?
In software, there used to be alpha testing and beta testing. Alpha testing would happen in-house with other developers or QA testers. They would put an app through its paces and see what broke. You may have done beta testing. Big software producers, like Microsoft or gaming companies, want end users to find real-world bugs in their products. Mind you, this is old-school development, and it did not always work. Anyone remember Windows Vista? Apple fans may not want to admit there were a couple of iPhone iterations and versions of OS X that stunk up the joint. But they happen.
While Agile has elminated the Alpha and Beta testing system, writers still use it. Even writers who hire editors. I have two alpha readers. Jenn Nixon reads all my science fiction while Brian Thornton reads anything I write as Jim Winter, crime fiction maestro*. Both of them have read pretty much every novel or novella I’ve written in each genre. How do I pay them? I return the favor. Or I do other tasks for them they don’t have the budget to pay for.
Which is how beta reading works. But again, what is beta reading in this context?
When I write, I write with the door closed. No one gets to look at what I’m working on. I might bounce a scene off Jenn or Brian (or even both), but the story remains locked down until I’ve done one pass myself. And lately, that goes through ProWritingAid after an eyeball pass. After I take their suggestions, I pass it on to the betas, the second wave. Now, what do they do?
Some make a cursory pass at the story. If it’s a series, they point out assumptions I’m making about what a reader would know or figure out. Are my ranks for law enforcement or the military correct. And while a line edit is not expected, some of them often will have reams of tracked changes to go through. Sometimes, it’s just a quick summary. “I liked this story, but I was confused as to why Davra likes vanilla ice cream when she’s clearly a sea salt caramel kinda girl.”
Betas are doing this for free or for trade. So, if you don’t like what someone says, keep it to yourself. (Note: Even if you’re paying a freelance editor, it’s always best to ask why than get nasty. You’re paying them to improve your work. You might want to know why you can’t say, “For all intensive purposes”**)
Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. I once had a beta ask me why it took me ten chapters before she knew the story did not take place on Mars. (Apparently, the narrator saying, “Unlike Mars, we have a magnetic field” in chapter one was not a clue.) She also didn’t quite get the Andy Weir-style of narrating via log entries. I suspect she was trying to sell editing service via a backdoor. Yes, that happens. No, I do not do that when I beta read.
Other times, a beta will ghost. This is for free, and often, it’s a favor that’s not a priority. Real life takes precedence, and random writer on Facebook takes a backseat to child or spouse in the hospital. Deal with it. And sometimes, the reader just won’t get it. That’s why I use three. If two flag the same problem that the alpha or #3 didn’t, I fix it. It’s a good barometer.
A friend of mine just starting out said betas are hard to find. He even toyed with offering a paid beta reader service. He did the most recent Suicide Arc novel as a free beta. What he would be selling is best branded as a critique. (Incidentally, I’m open to that.

Contact me

, and we’ll talk if you need something like that.) The fact is you have to network. Shake hands. And occasionally, find a person who just reads. They’re not a writer. They’re the person flopped out on a bean bag chair or on a beach flipping pages of your book. That’s useful, too. Very useful.

Betas are a hedge against turning in or publishing bad work when you can’t afford me or another editor. Even when you can, they can tell you if your story’s a winner.
*Yeah, let’s go with that. Fake it ’til you make it!
**If I have to explain that one to you, you might want to drop what you’re doing as a writer and go buy a book on grammar.

Need professional help? Contact TS about line and copy editing for your crime or science fiction work.