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Dark Days: The Monster Within, A Post-Mortem (Book Editing)

When a software project is finished, often small companies and teams will release a post-mortem. This is a report on what in the project went right, what went wrong, and lessons that can (hopefully) carried by others without the pain of making the same mistakes. As Dark Days: The Monster Within has been unleashed upon an unsuspecting populace like a giant lizard-beast, I’ve decided to do a post-mortem of my own, detailing the creation, editing and publishing process for any authors thinking of taking the self-publishing route.

Editing: Cutting the ones you love

The one thing that really shouldn’t be controversial in the writing community but strangely is has got to be editing. I don’t mean the act of re-reading your draft, hating yourself a little, and fixing all the obvious errors. I mean handing your precious manuscript to a professional and letting them point out the flaws and help you turn the raw iron of your draft into the sturdy steel needed for the general public. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do emotionally since, unlike when you hand the manuscript over to a beta reader, you are pretty much asking for constructive criticism. There’s no hope of getting it back as being ‘perfect’ (which isn’t a result you should ever want anyway, even from beta readers) I hope, that by posting my experience, authors will feel a little more comfortable with the process.

Do I need an editor?

Short Answer: yes. Even if you are planning on releasing a free ebook and nothing else, you at the very minimum need a copyediting pass to make certain your work is easily readable by others. Ideally, you’ll also get a developmental edit to help you find dropped plot lines, broken scenes, and fix dialog issues. These are important since, as an author, you never are really able to read what you’ve written on the page without layering on the inner monologue that created the writing in the first place.

As an example look at the following sentence:

It seemed that there was at least three reasons that this murder could have occurred in that place.

The sentence feels clunky, right? It doesn’t read well and you likely wouldn’t use a sentence like that in a normal conversation. The problem is, if you were the author of the sentence, you likely wouldn’t read it as it was actually written. In your mind, it said this:

It seemed that there were at least three reasons the murder could have occurred in this place.

That sentence isn’t great, but already it contains less words that the actual one that was written down. That’s because the writer of a work often skips over words and parts that, subconsciously, they know shouldn’t be there. We see this a lot in the software field, where code written is often more obtuse and confusing than what the original programmer meant to write, but doesn’t get recognized until a second pair of critical eyes looks at it. In programming we use a technique called code review to help prevent this. In a code review, a programmer or equal or greater skill simply reads through your changes and asks questions or provides feedback on what could be improved. Book editing is simply a professional service that helps get a second pair of constructive eyes on the actual words and scenes of your written story and points out areas for improvement.

As an example, here is the original chapter preview for The Monster Within without copy-editing:

Download Epub

And here is the post edited work:

Download ePub

What kind of editing do I need?

I’ve been offered (and used) different forms of editing, which I’ll try to summarize here:

  • Peer Review: Peer reviews or book readings are when you hand a book off to a friend or fellow writer just to read. Big plot problems and advice on writing technique can often come out of this, but the quality or depth of the feedback can vary wildly. While good for early stages of writing, you do have to keep in mind that the feedback isn’t coming from a professional with training and a lot can be missed.

  • Development Editing: also called plot editing, this is where the editor looks over at the book as a series of scenes and plot lines and looks for anything that might be confusing, missing, or irrelevant to the plot. If you’ve ever read a book that had a giant tangent in the middle, you can bet somebody didn’t listen their developmental editor.

  • Point of View/Political Editing: This is new and I’ve noticed several editors now offer advice specific to certain viewpoints or check for ‘triggering’ content. The idea being, as a traditionally gendered male author, I could have someone verify if my female or nonbinary characters are believable or if they come across as, well, being written by a man whose never been either of those things. In a future article I’ll cover the pitfalls and cautions of writing from such perspectives, but for right now my only advice is to make certain that the person who you are contracting for such an edit actual holds the viewpoints you are asking for help on. As a male author, if I reach out to a male editor for help on my female character’s perspective, the value is nowhere near what I would get from a female editor commenting on my female character’s viewpoints.

  • Copy Editing: This is the most important editing pass. Done at the very last stage before whisking things off the printers, this is the pass where all the extra words, misspellings, and grammar problems are highlighted and resolved. This is where a manuscript crosses the line from being readable by professionals to being readable to the general public

What we did for Dark Days: The Monster Within

After the second draft of The Monster Within was completed, I went looking for a professional editor. I felt the manuscript was pretty good, but wanted to give my story the best chance to be read and understood by the public at large. Following advice from a fellow NaNoWriMo author, I contacted Jade Hemming at jadewritesbooks. After some initial discussions and price estimates we agreed to have a developmental editing pass done on the manuscript. 

Jade worked hard on the manuscript for a couple weeks and gave great feedback. A change in plot during the drafting process had left a couple dropped plot threads and I would later realize an entire scene hadn’t actually made it from my head to the paper. She also provided advice regarding scene descriptions and dialog. I’m not going to lie, getting the manuscript back with so many recommendations were heart-stopping at first. Authors tend to treat their manuscripts like small children, and being let yours wasn’t (yet) up to snuff can be emotional. I just had to remember that every major author from Stephen King to Steve Alcorn has been through an editor long before I ever read the resulting work. It took a couple more weeks to integrate the feedback. Most items required only the rewriting of a sentence or two, but the final action scene needed a few days on its own to smooth out some of the (quite lengthy) action descriptions. 

Once those edits (and a final readthrough and tweak) was done, it was time to do a copy edit. At this point I had read and self-edited The Monster Within so many times I don’t even think I was actually reading the manuscript at that point – just letting my eyes rove over the text as I dredged up the words from memory. Jade went to work again – this time finding my ‘unique’ approach to dialog punctuation and correcting errors in verbiage. Compared to developmental editing, copy editing is a much more straightforward task and they final manuscript is only a couple words different from Jade’s final corrected version.  I’ve picked up the book several times since that editing pass was done and the book is now much more readable. 

What we are looking at doing differently for the next novel:

We will definitely do a developmental and copy edit pass on the next novel. As the series develops, I’m also considering a Point of View edit to cover LittleBird and Olivia Baer as both characters  are important to the plot, but aren’t male.  In the end, editing is all about improving your story for the reader and I’m glad for every edit we’ve gotten in our work so far.

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