Congratulations! You’ve written your novel. In the process you’ve expended blood, sweat and tears and enough energy to power the Grid for a month. Your other half has read it and so have your friends. They all declare it a brilliant creation, so much so that you think you should simply send it out to a few chosen agents, sit back and wait for the phone to ring. What could possibly go wrong? Answer: quite a lot.
The problem is one of objectivity. Naturally, those who care about you and want you to succeed are going to pull their punches. (They’ve seen you sweat for the past year or so, remember.) For example, are they honestly going to point out that your main character is a weed; your story has the pace of a sick snail; your police procedure/research is, ahem, ‘unresearched,’ or your climactic scene lacks conflict and tension? Of course not! The more discerning of your mates may say something like: ‘I really loved that scene in the nightclub/in the empty house/in the burning building.’ They might even be bold enough to say: ‘I’m not sure I got why X did Y.’ Even if they pinpoint a problem, they are unlikely to be able to help you fix it. This is where people like me come in.
It’s extremely rare for a novel to tick all the boxes without a little intervention. The mundane truth is that editors encounter the same flaws time and time again. Simply put, my job involves identifying weak areas, flagging these up and offering suggestions for improvement. Weak areas can range from poor spelling and grammar, and repetition of the same word in a paragraph – I’ve twice suggested literacy courses – poor plot structure where the narrative is skimmed and scenes aren’t fully dramatised – a series of company meetings doesn’t constitute a story – to main protagonists who couldn’t cross the road without help, let alone sort out a bad guy. My pet hate is split point of view. I once encountered four different viewpoints in a single paragraph. It was the literary equivalent of watching a doubles match of ping-pong.
My skills don’t simply lie in picking up on these little idiosyncrasies. Somehow, I have to get the message across in the kindest manner possible. I find humour helps and I really endeavour to tailor the report to the individual. Psychology plays an important role. I want to inspire not crush and it’s sometimes hard to tell a writer, who has rightly set such store by his or her work, that certain elements are not working as well as they might. Occasionally, I’ll receive a piece of work and quickly realise that crime fiction isn’t really the genre that best showcases a writer’s talent. Suggesting to a wannabe crime author that their strengths lie in writing historical fiction can be a delicate business. I’ve noticed recently that constructive criticism is especially difficult to get across to clients who have had sparkling careers in other fields. Once or twice, I’ve been on the business end of a writer’s wrath, which is unpleasant for me, but a disaster for him or her. Believe it or not, and in common with a good agent, editors are batting for the writer. As a published writer myself, I know only too well what it’s like to receive rejection. I understand how damaging it can be to one’s self-esteem, how it eats away, if you let it. With this in mind, how can I not be on your side?
Crime fiction is one of the most competitive genres. With the seismic changes in the publishing industry over the past ten years, it’s harder than ever to break in. Cutting to the chase, it can cost in terms of time, mental stamina, occasionally relationships, and money. And here’s the rub.
In times of recession it may seem madness to spend your hard earned cash on professional advice. The alternative is to risk rejection from a dozen or more agents and have your confidence shattered; or self-publish, receive poor sales and rubbish reviews from armchair critics and, erm… have your confidence shattered! Too often writers seek help after the proverbial horse has careered out onto the road and hit a bus. Why put yourself through the misery when, with a little tweaking, rewriting and polishing, you can produce a piece of work of which you can be justly proud?
One final point: there are a lot of rookie outfits offering ‘professional expertise’. It pays to check these out and discover exactly what you are going to get for your money. Find out whether an editorial consultancy has a close relationship with agents. Will that editorial consultancy scout and recommend? In the past two years, I’ve seen three of my ‘babies’ obtain representation. As someone who once used the services of an editorial consultancy a decade ago, I can say, hand on heart, that it was the best decision I ever made. Soon afterwards, I obtained an agent.
E.V. Seymour is the author of five published novels. Under a closely guarded pseudonym, her sixth novel is published in August 2013 with Cutting Edge Press.
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