There are four rules to follow if you want to self-publish a novel and not embarrass yourself, the publishing industry, and the English language. They are:
1) Write slowly. Write slowly, carefully, and vigilantly, always watching out for self-indulgence, which will betray your characters.
2) Rewrite. Because you will never be completely successful following the admonition in Rule #1.
3) Find an editor. No matter how careful you are in rewrite, you will miss some debilitating infelicities in your book.
4) Find a real editor, either someone who is trained in editing, or someone who has long experience in editing. And most important: it must be someone who does not love you. No friends, no relatives. (Unless they’re relatives you don’t get along with; that might work out.)
If you are lucky, the editor will just catch typos, misspellings, and inconsistencies–continuity errors, minor characters changing names, metamorphosing landscapes, that sort of thing. I myself stumbled over a minor error in a trade book by Ross Macdonald, when a handgun presented as a .32 revolver in the first third of the story re-emerged as a .32 automatic in the last third. To anyone possessing even a cursory familiarity with weapons–and that would likely include most readers of a well-known mystery writer such as MacDonald–this jars the flow of the story. Especially as the gun ties together the plot. In other books I’ve noticed mountains that slide about the countryside, stunningly elastic neighborhoods, and even furniture that seems to testify to the presence of poltergeists. Editors, who are reading a story from outside the writer’s own head, are always on the lookout for such nasty beasts
Nonetheless, I must confess that two editors and a proofreader, all well-trained pros, plus my own nine readovers, left a couple of fortunately very minor typos in my most recent book, Family Ties. They don’t harm the story, and I’ve seen worse, far worse, in trade books, but they irk the hell out of its author, and presumably annoy at least some readers. (Did you catch them?)
How do you find an editor? The easiest and most obvious way is to find a list of professional editors-for-hire, dig out one who works in your genre, and pay him or her to do the job. A site called Self-Publishing Review offers advice and lists in their article “Where to Find a Self-Published Book Editor.” (And yes, that sentence itself could have used an editor, since it can be read as suggesting you find an editor who has been self-published, rather than one willing to work on self-published books. I have been an editor of short-form works, so that stood out to me.)
Sure, you can find literate friends who are willing to edit a book for you–but I have read books edited by the author’s friends, and they suffered from too much kindness. Someone who is close to you will likely not be willing to forward any severe criticism your book may merit. My own editors are in fact people I know indirectly, but we have never actually met, shared a meal and a beer, talked about our kids, or indulged in any sort of real-world relationship. They are willing to tell me when I’ve let my story go flat. You’ve got to be sure your editor will not hide the bad news from you. Because your reviewers sure as hell won’t.
Find an editor, a good, hardhearted editor, before you go public with your book. It is easier to rewrite a novel than a reputation.
This article also appears on A Writer’s Path, for which I originally wrote it.