On Friday I received my first editorial review for Feast of Dreams, and unlike the title of today’s blog might lead you to believe, it was glowing. ForeWord Clarion gave Feast of Dreams a five star rating and their blurb said: With gorgeous settings and memorable characters, this fast-paced fantasy is a book that can’t be put down. Yay! Go team Geadhain. Now in an age of self-actualized publishing, when anyone with the time and willpower can pump out a manuscript, throw a cover on it, submit their work through Smashwords, and voila, novel, some might beg the question: why does anyone give two farts what the critics think? Well, it’s a complicated response. Depending on who you ask, we’ve either entered the shit volcano era of publishing, or the golden era of publishing, and any answer is determined by whether or not—in that person’s eyes—the traditional circle of editorial critics, booksellers, publicists and agents has value.
I take a moderate stance on the topic. First and foremost, I recognize the sheer sway of the Big Five publishers. At the same time, I believe in the power of small press and in giving artists the opportunity to build a platform without the backing of a corporate patron. In the end, a publisher can’t guarantee success (volume sales) with your work, though, until recently, they alone offered the best public exposure and distribution into retail. And lest we slide into the “decay of retail” argument and derail ourselves from our chat on the benefits of editorial evisceration, yes, I realize that retail isn’t the only viable channel through which authors can spread their work. For me, getting Feasts into retail stores was only modestly helpful in pushing the needle of sales over the 5K mark—I sold way more physical and digital books online and through other channels, and by a massive margin. Anyway, the market is clearly in a state of transition. Where the dust settles, who knows? However, I suspect that in the short term we’ll end up in a prolonged cold war between more powerful independent platforms and the traditional giants. We’ll see successes on both fronts, and more alliances where expansion into secondary media projects occurs (Andy Weir and The Martian movie, for example).
All fascinating conjecture and food for thought for authors or avid readers (who are really the biggest beneficiaries of this age of rampant creativity). Still, at the end of the day, the person(s) providing the content, be they traditionally, independently or small-press published should be aiming to deliver a product of measurable, base-line quality. We (artists) hate to think of our work as a “product”. Yet that’s exactly what the written word happens to be when packaged in book-format and placed upon a retail or digital shelf. Sure, writing is an art, and when we tap into that font of divinity, words and images resonate in our heads as if we’re saints hearing voices. It’s undeniably a magical experience. Anyone who writes with regularity, however, can tell you that those moments are rare. At least that’s the consensus I’ve formed for myself and from the words of others (Stephen King would agree—see his book, On Writing). If I had only written whenever that current of creativity hit me, I’d have typed maybe twenty or thirty pages of Feast of Fates and not the million word epic that I’ve created (omg, I just realized how huge this series has gotten).
For me, and many other professional fabricators, writing is a vocation. As such it should be prey to all the checks and balances of any efficient business: time-keeping, accountability, and quality-control. If you’re writing just to share your thoughts with the world and possess absolutely no expectations of visibility, income or growing a fan base, then none of this applies to you. It does, however, apply to those who dedicate their time, money and efforts into building a literary career. Remember: it’s alright to want to be successful. Write a sternly worded letter to that person who told you that it wasn’t—just to show them how powerful the written word can be. In fact, believing in yourself is step one on the road to success. There’s this weird voice that writers cultivate to pre-emptively protect themselves from failure, by saying things like:
“I only write for myself.”
Then keep a diary.
“It’s just something I do on the side.”
Okay, you’re devaluing the importance of your work and dreams by spewing that half-truth. No one started off as an astrophysicist or brain-surgeon, they trained into that profession over a period of years, excreted buckets of blood, sweat and tears, and probably had various crappy jobs the whole while to keep the lights on. The ascension to writerdom won’t be any less a journey of tears and pain—it hasn’t been, not for me. Assuming that writing is a profession that should be taken seriously, or that your aspirations with the craft lean in that direction, here’s where we encounter the need for critics and editors. I’m not talking about those internet vigilantes who took a steaming corn-filled dump on your work. Someone will always dislike your art/ style/ story. That’s life and part of being an artist. Don’t let that breed of negativity upset you, unless every piece of criticism is the same. In which case, you probably should have had a good editor (or three—I use three, plus a copy-editor and proof readers) who would have minimized the destruction you’d wrought on your story.
Professional editors and critics—persons versed in structure, style, tone, and the rules that must be followed and can be bent in literature—are an author’s greatest ally. Having a highly polished manuscript is only one of the many—and growing—number of assets traditional or independently published authors must establish for their platform. Again, success and visibility are not guaranteed. What editors do guarantee, in the very least, is that you’ve done your absolute best to clarify your voice and story. That’s if you’ve actually listened to these advisors, and taken their feedback without unnecessary defensiveness. A professional editor is here to help you, not hurt you, even though seeing all that red on your manuscript certainly evokes a sense of blood having been spilled. An editor is one of your earliest and dearest critics, they’re the ones who are in your corner and who want you to succeed (it looks good on them, too, if you write the next Twilight or whatever). That brutalizing of your manuscript? It’s for your own good, you probably wrote a lot of dumb shit, and now they’ve saved you from embarrassing yourself with it.
After your team of gatekeepers has bestowed their blessings upon your manuscript, huzzah, release the kraken! Your monster is free and roaming the world. Your work will be enjoyed, reviled, ignored or passably accepted by mankind. What next? Winding back around to editorial reviews and why they’re important—to me—I use these totally arbitrary, 3rd party evaluators to give a final grade on my work. Is their word absolute and infallible? Absolutely not. What I’m looking for in their critique, more than anything that falls into the realm of “opinion”, is an evaluation of my craft. After the constant drafting and exchanges with various literary doctors, has my manuscript passed the basic physical examination, the “quality” check for language, structure, and competency to deliver a story? Any subsequent praise is simply gravy. Any criticism from this external party schooled in language might have merit, and could be something I should look into with my editors. For we should always be open to evolving and retraining ourselves. In summation: while an editorial evisceration won’t ensure a NYT bestseller, it will ensure that you are capable, perhaps even extraordinary at your craft.
All my love,
Disclaimer: this blog was written after a delightful, wine-soaked evening with some new friends of ours—you were lovely company last night, if you’re reading! In the importance of stressing the need for editorial assistance as an author, I may or may not have peppered the piece with errors. Entirely intentional should such tests of your mental aptitude present themselves. Entirely.
P.S. Since the ForeWord review isn’t up on their site, or in their magazine just yet, here you go: