Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Editing on a Budget

Many writers decide to go the self-publishing route. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s cheap, right? Well, not exactly. The biggest shock for many folks is that you can’t just slap any old thing up on Amazon or Barnes & Noble and make a killing. Nope. You need to put out something that’s great, not just readable. Not even just plain good. But great—a book that readers can’t put down and can’t stop recommending to their friends. Word of mouth sells books more effectively than anything else. 

There are several components to creating a great book; your own storytelling and writing craft are two of them. The other is hiring a good freelance editor to make your story shine and engross the reader. But don't just take my word for it. NYT and USA TODAY best-selling author Allison Brennan has plenty to say on the subject of why you need to hire an editor

We’ve all experienced the sense of “flow” that a great book can produce—that seamless immersion in another world, where you forget you’re reading and the story unfolds like a movie in your mind. That sense of flow is what makes reading addictive. And a key component of achieving flow is a flawless reading experience that allows you to get lost in the story. Repeatedly tripping over errors (whether they’re story problems or typos) robs you of that feeling. *That's* why errors matter—and that’s why good editing can make the difference between a writer who sells thousands, even millions of copies, and a writer who sells only a handful.

A good editor helps you up your game, taking your writing from “okay” to great or from good to extraordinary. A book can be flawless mechanically, and yet dead on the page when it comes to story. How many books have you read that started with a bang, then fizzled out at the end? How many books have you read where you simply lost interest—or never developed it in the first place? These are failures of storytelling craft. And it’s the editor’s job to tell you when and where you’re hitting the mark—or not—and to help you figure out the fixes. And of course, an editor helps ensure that your book is mechanically sound in terms of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. 

Well, you’re saying to yourself, that’s all great, but I can’t afford an editor. Or I can’t afford to pay more than X amount for editing. 

If this is your first book or if you’re a writer who’s getting reader feedback that your books need improvement in terms of mechanics, style, or storytelling craft, I’d urge you to reconsider your thinking. You only get one chance to make a first impression, one chance to hook a reader for life. Would you pay good money for a shirt with mismatched or missing buttons, crooked seams, and tears in the fabric? Would you feel ripped off if your new shirt looked great in the store but disintegrated during the first wash? Would you tell all your friends to shop at the store that sold such clothing—or would you tell them to run the other way?

You can’t afford to put out anything less than a professional product. And if you can’t afford at least a proofreading pass* on your work, you aren’t ready to publish. Investing in editing for your books is an investment in yourself and your future. Making sure your books are edited and polished shows respect for your readers… and it shows that you’re worth them making an investment in you with their hard-earned cash and their precious time. Your stories are competing with videogames, movies, and TV—not to mention thousands of other books—for people’s attention, and to get it, you need to put out a polished product. That means investing in professional editing, covers, and formatting. 

In other words, save your pennies until you can afford to put out a top-notch product. However, don’t despair—you can save a lot of those pennies by following the tips listed below. 

* A note on editors versus proofreaders: Proofreaders cover the mechanical basics (spelling, grammar, and punctuation), typically after an editor has already done a pass or two on the book. Editors cover not only the basics, but also story issues, pacing, character development, style (wordsmithing), fact-checking, terminology, and errors of logic, timing, or consistency. A proofreader may notice these issues, but such issues fall outside the scope of the job (and the pay rate), so don’t expect a proofreader to provide the same level of service as an editor. For more information, see “Types of Editing” at

So, what should editing cost? For a 90,000 word book, the range (depending on your skill level and the skill level of the editor working with you) can be anywhere from $1100-$3600 (possibly more if you’re not writing in your first language). Skilled editors earn anywhere from $30-$60 an hour, and they’re worth every penny. (For freelance editing rates, see By contrast, for a 90,000 word book, a skilled proofreader would charge anywhere from $500-$900. 

How can you still get a great edit and keep your costs down?

  • Polish your writing and storytelling craft as much as possible on your own. Take classes through your local community college, writers’ groups, or writers’ conferences in your area. 
  • Find a critique partner or critique group to help provide you with developmental feedback.
  • Self-edit as much as possible before hiring an editor. Of the many books on the subject, my favorite is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. 
  • If you struggle with grammar and punctuation, pick up a copy of English Simplified by Blanche Ellsworth and John A. Higgins. It’s short (around 80 pages) and covers the basics in a concise, straightforward manner. There’s a reason this book is on its thirteenth edition.
  • Do NOT hand your editor your first draft. Polish that baby up as much as you can yourself! At the least, set it aside for three to four weeks so you can read it with fresh eyes. Print it out single spaced to mimic the book reading experience. You’ll be shocked how many more errors you catch that way. 
  • If you can’t afford the editor you want, consider hiring that editor to do a partial edit (for example, the first 20-50 pages) so that you can apply what you learn to the rest of the book before you hire someone to finish the project. Every error you eliminate on your own not only saves you money, but also allows the editor to focus on deeper issues rather than surface ones. 
  • See if you can barter for part or all of the editor’s fee. For example, if you’re a web designer or a graphic artist, your editor may be willing to trade services.
  • If you truly can’t afford an editor, at least hire a proofreader to clean up the basics. Your readers will thank you, and your story will have a fighting chance to shine and gain that good word of mouth so vital to success. 

By following these tips, you have a much better chance of cutting your editing costs down to the lower part of the range, and saving yourself a bundle in the process!

If you have questions about finding a good editor, feel free to contact me at

Friday, March 6, 2015

Nailing the Art of the Book Blurb

Dana Delamar, By Your Side Self-Publishing

Want to make a writer cry? Ask for a tight, exciting 150-word bit of back cover copy for the book he or she has been working on for months and months, if not years. Youll be met by whimpering, whining, and big puppy-dog eyes, along with Do I have to? Aside from the dreaded one-page synopsis, writing back cover blurbs is some of the most hair-pulling work a writer will ever do. And yet its the most crucial piece of work that writers ever produce.

The blurb is what sells your book. To readers, to editors, to agents. The blurb is your books calling card. A good blurb gets a reader to open the book (or the online sample) and see what its about. A great blurb may even get a reader to buy on the premise alone. Along with top-notch writing and a professional cover, an exciting, well-honed blurb is essential to selling your story.

Speaking from my own experience, it helps enormously if you try to develop your blurb before you write the book. Boiling down what youre writing about into 150 to 200 words helps distill your ideas and make them clear to you. Ive found that writing the blurb helps me nail down the major themes and determine the big hooks for the story. And, if youre writing a series—particularly one that is tightly linked—having the blurbs written early will give you a sense of the scope of each book, the major conflicts in that book, and how much of the overarching story will be covered by each book.

What elements should be part of a great blurb? 
  • The protagonist and antagonist. For romance, that means the hero and heroine; if they’re facing an antagonist together, you may also need to mention that person or thing.
  • What’s the big story question that the leads face? Do they have to work together to save the world from destruction? Do they need to learn to trust each other? Does one have to defeat the other? (In other words, what’s the journey the characters go on?)
  • Is there an ironic twist to the story? Irony is an excellent hook. Are the leads complete opposites? Are they on opposing sides of an impossible situation? Do they have a fierce attraction, but mutually exclusive goals?
  • Focus on goals, conflicts, motivations (GMCs) and the stakes. What will happen if the leads don’t resolve the central story conflict? 

You can also think of writing a blurb this way: youre stepping back from the story and giving the view of it that a bird soaring overhead might have. Two people in conflict. Over what? 

I wish I had an easy formula for blurb writing, but its really something you have to do again and again to get the hang of it. (At least that was the case for me.) The best thing Ive found to do is to try to write the traditional two-paragraph (150-200 word) blurb first. Then chisel that blurb down to 100 words. Then 50. Then one sentence. (You can use these shorter descriptions in various types of advertising.) Make every word count.

Think of that single sentence as your high-concept logline—in other words, its the hook youd give someone who asks you what your book is about. The logline gives the gist of the book, including the twist/irony in the characters situation. Even though its directed at screenwriters, Blake Snyders Save the Cat! has some great tips for developing your pitch and your logline.

Once youve got these versions of the blurb put together, give yourself a pat on the back, and possibly a glass of your favorite alcohol. Because you’re not done yet.

Now you need to punch up what youve got and make it as exciting as possible. And this means using power words. Not sure what I mean? Read the back covers of a bunch of paperbacks you have lying around. Try to pick out the words that evoke some kind of reaction from you. These are power words, such as danger, kill, death, passion, jealousy, vengeance—you get the picture. Also make sure youve chosen the strongest verbs you can. And think about what kind of mood your book has—is it fast-paced? Slow burning? Steamy? Intellectual? An intricate puzzle, or a race against time? And then try to mirror what kind of experience the reader is going to get through your choice of words, syntax, and style.

Another thing to consider: your target audience and your genre. What appeals to your readers? What elements are they looking for in a story?

For example, if you’re writing romance, your audience will be ninety percent female, so you may want to highlight the appeal of your male lead. Lets say your book is a romantic suspense story about a female cop who has to team up with a male private investigator to solve a crime. If your story is very steamy and the PI is super rugged (ex-military perhaps), you might describe the PI as “lethally sexy” or “ruggedly handsome.” If hes movie-star material, you might describe him as drop-dead gorgeous. If hes constantly trying to get her in bed, he might be sinfully sexy. If the story is less steamy and more light-hearted, flirty, and full of banter (think the TV show Castle), you might describe him as irresistibly charming. While you certainly could describe him as good-looking or attractive, those are generic descriptions that could apply to anyone. The more specific you can get, and the more that description conveys the tone of the story, the better.

To help you see what I mean, here are the log lines and short descriptions Ive come up with for my romantic suspense book Retribution. Ive highlighted the power words in bold.

Log line:

An undercover Interpol agent falls for an alluring Mafia princess while playing a deadly game of deception and betrayal—but is he the one getting played?

50 words or less version:

Intent on imprisoning his Mafia don father, Nick Clarkston poses as a dirty agent and allies with another mobster. But when he falls for the mans alluring daughter, will Nicks unrelenting drive for justice get them both killed? (38 words)

200 words or less version:

An Interpol agent playing a dangerous game. A Mafia princess desperate to escape. A man determined to exact retribution…

Nick Clarkston, a young Interpol agent, threatens to undo the fragile peace between the Lucchesi and Andretti families when he tries to take down the Mafia don father who abandoned him. He allies with his father’s sworn enemy, a mobster both devious and ruthless. The mobster's alluring daughter helps Nick negotiate the murky criminal underworld, but he soon learns shes using him. Trapped, and with nowhere to turn, Nick makes a tragic mistake that plunges him further into danger.

Delfina Andretti appears to be the typical Mafia princess—but this princess wants out. Delfina dreams of being a fashion designer, and hooking up with Nick is her ticket out of an arranged marriage. Her feelings for Nick are genuine, but hes leery of her. Even worse, his heedless drive for justice threatens to get them both killed and to put everyone Delfina loves behind bars—unless she and Nick can forge a new future for their warring families. (177 words)

Bear in mind that it will take you hours (and hours) to develop these various blurbs and loglines the first few times. However, practice does make perfect, so the more you work at it, the better youll get. You may even someday enjoy it!

Looking for more? These articles contain some great tips on blurb writing:

If youre still not sure whether your blurb really sells your book, contact us at By Your Side for a blurb polish!