• S.E. Burr

The Mountain of Things I Don't Know About Writing

I have wanted to be an author since I was six years old. It is the only persistent career goal I've ever had. I began to take my goal seriously eleven years ago and most days since, I've written or worked on some aspect of my writing "career." I've written five novels, a couple dozen children's stories, about twenty short (grownup) stories, and thirty or forty songs and poems, but it's only now that I feel like I'm even able to see the mistakes I need to fix in order to be successful.

So what's held me back?

I think a lot of it comes down to two things--Living in a rural community and introversion. (Lack of money has also played a role.) There are benefits to both of these things but they have also made it difficult to look for and receive good feedback, which is absolutely essential in improving any skill, including writing. You have to have some way of judging how much progress you're making and what you still need to work on. I've tried to get quality feedback, but I've found it profoundly difficult.

Here are some of the things I've tried:

  • Attending the local writers group. This was held at the senior center and I was the solitary non-senior in the group. All of the critiques were extremely sweet and polite, including my own. Improving writing through honest critique was not a priority of the group. I wasn't even sure writing itself was a group priority. It seemed more like an excuse to have a get-together and chat.

  • Starting my own writers group. I had two friends who would come to my meetings, but never at the same time. I pictured them playing games of "1,2,3 not it!" to get out of being the one who had to attend that week.

  • Getting a master's degree. I earned a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies: English and Writing degree. I was hugely blessed for several years to have a job that, even though it paid horribly, reimbursed tuition at the local branch of a state college. I had helpful, published, talented professors, but we never had a novel length fiction project. I got feedback on short stories and poems, but I needed more!

  • Online critique groups. I just had a hard time with these. I often felt like the reader was simply trying to get to the required word count in their critique rather than trying to help me. I could get feedback on a chapter this way but never a full book.

  • Going to Writers conferences. I went to a few but didn't do a lot of talking. I was too shy to take full advantage of these opportunities.

  • Attending the (new) local writers group. I moved to a new small town, one with a much more creative/intellectual culture than the poor farming community where'd I'd spent most of my life. Initially, I was very excited about the writers group. It had several published authors, including a couple who wrote for young people, as I usually do. However, soon after I arrived, there was some sort of group explosion which I've never fully understood. All but one of the group officers quit attending and meetings became sporadic and then non-existent for a number of months. Eventually, the group started meeting again, this time over lunch, but the meetings felt like social gatherings and once again, it seemed that writing may not have been a big priority in the writers group. I quit attending meetings but stayed on the email list.

  • Asking friends and family to read my novels. Each time I've published a novel, at least two or three people have read and given me feedback on it first. I am so grateful for this help. These people tend to be some of my favorite people in the world and they've stopped me from publishing books with gaping plot holes. However, they're not authors and while they were excellent people to be the first to read my books--alpha readers--I relied too heavily on them to catch mistakes, an easy thing to do, as they were the only people giving me feedback at all pre-publication.

So what's changed?

I've heard that no matter how shoe-string the budget, an indie author must invest in two things if she wants her books to be successful--a professional cover design and a professional copyedit. Though initially resistant, I've long been on board with paying for professional covers, but I've always felt that copyediting cost more than I could afford.

In May, about to release Goblin Winter, the third book in the "Gobbled" series, I thought I would test my assumption about copyediting being out of my price range. I did some research, got some recommendations and found…wait for it…that I was right all along. The cheapest person I found would charge $450 to copyedit my fairly short novel. Someday, I hope to be able to pay that without a second thought, but that day is not yet. I got to thinking that even if the people in my writing group weren't taking their writing very seriously, surely there were some grammarian members. I put an email out to the group list offering to trade reads or to pay (a limited amount of) money.

Angie (I haven't asked her permission so I won't put her full name in yet) responded, saying she'd be willing to do it for what I could pay because she was planning to start an editing business and wanted me to write a review of her services to put on her website. (I don't think the website's up yet.)

I gave her the manuscript. When she gave the book back to me it was a sea of (well-deserved) red ink. She'd done so much more than copyedit for grammar issues (though that was sorely needed.) She also pointed out numerous point-of-view (POV) problems and other issues.

Here are the things I learned (and should have already known) from Angie's Goblin Winter edit:

  • Use the POV's voice even when you're not speaking as the POV. Angie got onto me for describing someone's body as supple, a word my character would never use. I just wanted to describe what another character looked like but as Angie pointed out, I needed to do this the way my POV character would. Also, if a character has more than one name, such as Sincerity, who is sometimes called "Sara" for short, or "Mom" for the usual reasons, use the name in each section that the POV character would use.

  • The first person to appear in a new section of the novel has POV. If Todd has POV in a section, I can't start it with Audrey's dialogue. I have to find a way to put him in first, otherwise the reader gets confused.

  • A reader of any book in a series should be able to read it without being confused. They may not have read the previous books or, even more likely, they may have forgotten a lot of the details about them. You have to include recaps of pertinent information.

  • Clearly describe physical space and body positions if needed. Angie scolded me for describing someone looking for something under the bed in a way that made no physical sense. It was a small scene, but one that could have confused the reader and drawn them out of the story.

I was so impressed (and humbled) by Angie's edits that I asked her to edit the first two books in the series, even though I'd published them some time ago. She gave me back Goblin Girl today and it was full of red ink, too. That's embarrassing, and the problems seem to be different than the ones she found in Goblin Winter. I clearly have a lot to learn, but I'm so grateful for the opportunity to learn it. I don't know how long I'll be able to hire Angie at the currently low price, but I fully intend to work with her as much as possible for as long as I can afford her. I know I'll learn a lot in that time. With recent improvements in my covers, in my website, and now in my writing, (as well as some good resources I've found and plan to use to promote my work,) I feel like I'm on the right track to making my dream of becoming a full time author a reality.

What are the best ways you've found to get feedback on your writing?