Part V – quality control (of how does a book get published)
Have you started looking at chocolate bars (books) in a slightly different light yet? There are hundreds on the shelves – what makes any one stand out? Observe your own behaviour when you are in a shop: do you purposefully stride to a particular product, or do you hesitantly browse over the selection? You will do the former if you had a really good experience with a particular bar (book) before – it was just great, and naturally you want more of the same.
Making sure that your reader gets that classy, stand-out experience involves quality control (editing). We have looked at the first bigger step I took in this area: getting professional advice from the Manuscript Appraisal Agency. This was a marvellous investment, and put me firmly back on track with real direction. I worked hard to follow it, had a lot of fun and excitement with it, and some tears too when having to cut out irrelevant material. “If it does not contribute directly to the story, consider removing it.” Even more brutally: “what is the purpose of every word/sentence/paragraph/chapter?”
Let me diverge here a bit. It is certainly true that most manuscripts are way too long, and if a galloping plot or a ripping yarn are your primary objective, then the above guideline is your best friend. In recent times it has become entirely the fashion and prevailing style to cut, cut, cut! However, there is a growing school of thought that such a minimalist style may also be a big loss to our body of literature. In our frenetic age there is no time for anything not directly useful, but there was once a great pleasure to be found in thoughtful cogitation. Well-crafted words can bring us images of places and situations in a manner that everyday quick thought does not permit, introduce a little philosophical discourse, a new way of seeing things, or let us meander gently down a country lane and get a breath of peaceful air. We now recognise the value of meditation and mindfulness, slow eating, and conscious relaxing, and a good book can take us to a similar place. To paint thoughtful images with words is a real gift to give, and those among us capable of doing it should not be cut out of existence. This does not mean that you can dodge a thorough edit or two – indeed, quite the opposite. A good editor should be able to recognise when words have a useful, contributory place even if they do not immediately add to the story. If this is your objective, you may have to hunt for an editor who has a heart for such an approach but can still do appropriate cutting. You could say it’s the difference between a satisfying chocolate snack and a gourmet bar to linger over; both must have good quality, but the latter even more so.
Above all, the rule is to know your market and supply what it wants! Who exactly are you writing for?
Back to our editing. After working through the guidelines provided by the MAA, I thought that it was good enough to submit. So I did, going through the hoops of submitting it to publishers and some agents. I spent hours and hours following their various guidelines. Surely they couldn’t fail to see the value of the work, now that it had been so thoroughly improved? Well, they could and they did. Not a sausage in response…it was most dispiriting, to say the least. In Part I we mentioned that this is a very unlikely path to recognition, in any case, as agents and publishers are simply overloaded with submissions. Another challenge, surprisingly difficult, is to effectively summarise what the book is about into a very small space – generally about 200-300 words – and we will talk about that separately, for it is a crucial art, and not just for submissions. But, while recognising the short-comings of this process, it seemed that my chocolate bar, even after all that effort, still did not have the stand-out quality that makes a winner.
Well, I started saving up again, for the next step was to take it to another quality control process, this time a full word-by-word edit. I would say that both the over-view one, as provided by the Manuscript Appraisal Agency, and the full edit are essential. The first gets the structure and direction right, the second looks at the detail. There are many firms that provide both (including MAA); some offer various blends of the two, and prices vary. I strongly recommend that you do some thorough searching to find the one that suits you and your pocket. If you have joined a Writers’ Fellowship (much recommended!) you will get some real information through that. In the end, I felt a different and additional point of view could have its own value, so I opted for Laurel Cohn, Editing & Manuscript Development Services (www.laurelcohn.com.au ). The cost was $1200, and the whole process from first approach to receiving the edited manuscript back was two months. An eventful time for me, as it happened: I moved house and was busy enough to give my manuscript only fleeting thought.
When I got it back, it was like a Christmas present. There was a 13-page report, homing in on details, characters, styles and much more, and the manuscript itself was bristling with yellow sticky notes – there was tons of more work to do! And again, what kept me going were the good points that were highlighted, particularly the exciting last paragraph entitled: “What makes this book publishable”. I set to work with a will. It had taken me nine years to get this far – I was not about to give up!
So step four of the TBM (The Business Method) is: MORE Quality Control. Next week: the re-write.