Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • Will you look at my story and tell me if it's any good?

    Sorry, no.

    I don't have the time, and even if I was any good at book doctoring (as it's known) I'd have to charge for it. And boy, would I be expensive. If you want an opinion on your writing, you have two options: the free one is to join a workshop like Critters online, which has helped many a writer over the years, and the paying one is to ask a professional who does those things for a living.

    All kinds of people offer these assessment services, and not all of them are competent or kosher, so writer beware, as they say. (Check out the SFWA site for scam warnings.) I still think that the best way to test a book is to have a group of callous friends (there is such a breed) who like reading generally and will plough through your stuff and tell you exactly what they think, no sugar-coating. Kindness isn't helpful to writers. You're aiming at readers. That's whose raw opinion matters.

    This is why I say contact a proper book doctor like John Jarrold. Disclosure: I don't get any fee or freebies for directing people to his site. I don't have any link with John whatsoever, although I do know him and he's a nice, sensible bloke. I just feel confident enough that an editor of his experience (and he's an agent now too) will steer you right, and he's an editor to the core, not a wannabe writer. He'll give you the straight truth on how sellable you are.

    Now for YMMV country. What follows is my subjective opinion, based on my experience and the experience of writer friends. We do compare notes, and sometimes what we find doesn't match up with the textbook advice given to would-be writers.

    If you're still planning to submit books to traditional publishers, then your work will have to appeal to an editor, and the difference between editors and actual readers can be as wide as the difference between film critics who trash a movie and cinema audiences who make it break box office records. (Or vice versa – critically-acclaimed movies have tanked, as have many books that editors have adored.) But if you're planning to do what increasing numbers of writers are doing these days and publish yourself via Kindle or other platforms, reader reaction is paramount, and your money would be better spent on hiring a copy editor to ensure your book is as free of errors as possible.

    Some writers offer critiques as a service, but my personal view is that you need an editor to do it, and I mean an editor who just wants to look at the story from a reader perspective, not a wannabe writer who's paying the bills by editing while they write their Great American/ British/ Whatever Novel. You can't tell which they are until it's too late, unfortunately. And yes, this may well sound unfair, but over the years I've perceived a difference in judgement between editors who just love reading and editors who actually wish they were doing your job. Some of the latter can get quite destructive as a result. Ask a writer – or an editor who wishes they were a writer – and you'll get how they would have written it, and that's not the best way to polish your own personal style. (Plus the fact that the really successful writers whose opinions you probably want rarely have time to do it.)

    I'm going to be really subversive and add this thought. Do you actually need an editor? I don't mean a copy editor, whose detached eye should (but often doesn't, alas) spot the basic mechanical errors before they make it onto the page. A good copy editor is worth their weight in Ferrero Rocher. I mean a developmental editor, the kind who does the big picture stuff and tells you what story you should be telling and how you should tell it. Painters, musicians, potters, and pretty well any other creatives you can think of don't rely on the approval of a non-creative middleman to tell them how to do their job. They just exercise their own judgement, do their thing, and see how their audience reacts. Only writers have been schooled to believe they can't do anything without an editor.

    So I question that. Developmental editing – although increasingly rare in publishing houses these days, because most editors are actually doing project management to get the book through the production process – hasn't saved the world from what many regard as badly told, badly written books. Personally, I don't think there's an objective definition of a bad book, and a good book is any book that the reader enjoys. But I mention it just to ask you to consider if you might be better off telling your own story the way you want to tell it and market-testing directly on readers via self-publishing. If it sells like crazy, great. A publisher will see that and probably want a slice of the action, and as you hold the rights, you can sell it to them if you like. But if it's doing that well without them, you don't need them anyway...

    (Updated/ revised 25/12/15)