“How Do I Make My Writing Better?” Ask an editor!
Meet Editor/Author Bridget McKenna!
Last spring, Bridget and I started a conversation about her article, “Why I Didn’t Keep Reading Your Book” Parts 1 & 2. And then I had the idea that I wanted to interview her and I send her questions. Then she moved. And then I kind of forgot about it. And then I broke my ankle and I was on pain meds. Then she reminded me that she would get to those questions as soon as she could. And then I started this crazy Facebook group. And then when I got the interview questions back, it felt like I was a different person (I was, I hobbled on one foot for a while). Regardless, the interview was worth waiting for.
Bridget’s insight to editing is very valuable. So please take a look at what she has to say:
What specifically prompted you to write the articles: Why I Didn’t Keep Reading Your Book, Parts 1 & 2?
Bridget: I used to edit books for a company called Thriller Doctor. In addition to marking up someone’s manuscript, I would send the client an analysis of their writing problems—things that might be keeping them from writing as well as they might. It boiled down to the same handful of general problems—weak verbs further compromised by adverbs, filler words and fish heads, redundancy, point of view problems, and worst of all, telling the reader things they ought to be letting them see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. I wrote a short book about it, then decided I hadn’t handled many of those things in enough depth, so I took the book apart and wrote an article series called “Self-Editing for Everyone,” which became the basis for the second edition of “The Little Book of Self-Editing for Writers.”
Bridget: I had used a lot of (disguised) real-world examples of problem writing in the articles and book, and not all from new writers; some were taken from authors whose names you’d recognize. So it occurred to me that I could go out and find these same problems in the wild, in published books. That’s how I started writing the series “Why I Didn’t Keep Reading Your Book.” My job wasn’t to make anyone feel bad, so I disguised the writing while revealing the problems, and didn’t mention names or titles.
Do you think that the surge in self-publishing is making things better or worse for writers? For readers?
Bridget: I think there’s never been a better environment for readers and writers than what we have now. Readers have more choice, at lower prices, than ever before. They can find books they really love that couldn’t be published before—often the very books turned down by big publishers because “we don’t know how to market that,” or “it’s between genres, so it doesn’t fit any of our lines,” or “it’s really good, but we’re just not sure it has an audience—” those books are now finding readers and making their authors money.
What surprises have you found in the self-publishing market?
Bridget: Coming from Ye Olde School—write, submit to agents, get a book deal, I was suspicious of self-publishing for a long time. I believed in gatekeepers and the thinking that a good enough book would eventually get picked up by some editor somewhere, and that until that happened the writer should just keep plugging along.
In order to keep thinking that I had to deliberately forget about really awful books that got zillion-dollar advances, friends’ books I thought were wonderful but couldn’t find a home, and about the books I was encouraged by agents and editors not to write or not to finish because there was no market for them, while being encouraged to write more of what was selling instead. This was the 90s. Self-publishing was the kiss of doom to a writer’s career. That remained the case for a long time.
Then a friend of mine who had sold half a dozen science fiction novels but had been told there was no market for his alternate-history thriller decided to publish it himself to the Kindle platform. That woke me right up, and I began looking into self-publishing. That was 2010. Toward the end of 2011, I started publishing science fiction and fantasy short stories I’d sold to magazines years back. I loved the freedom and control—two things I hadn’t gotten from traditional publishing.
So I guess the thing that surprises me most is how quickly everything has changed. People are learning new attitudes about self-publishing, and indie author/publishers are breaking new ground every day. Self-publishing has gone from something very few writers would consider seven years ago to a viable alternative to traditional publishing for tens of thousands of writers.
You’ve been writing for a long time. If you were just starting out, let’s say, like ME, what would you have done differently as a beginner?
Bridget: Well, when I was a beginner there was only one game in town for writers, and that was traditional publishing. Fortunately for me at the time, I caught the attention of an agent and my career took off. I won’t say it ever reached cruising altitude—my first book went out of print as the third was being released, which took the whole series down in flames.
But I kept writing and sending synopses to my agent, and he kept me afloat with work-for-hire jobs while shooting down every proposal I sent him for original novels. “Nobody’s buying ____ right now.” Later I wrote another novel and got another agent, but when I didn’t want to gut my book and remake it into what one editor wanted, he stopped sending it out. And I stopped writing, except for the day job in the computer games industry.
So there’s what I might have done differently: I might have kept writing. I might not have let the inevitable disappointments of traditional publishing stop me. I might have kept on writing for publishing “house names” (I wrote one of the last Tom Swift novels, believe it or not).
Did you struggle with lack of confidence in the beginning of your career? How did overcome this?
I have yet to find a creative person who doesn’t suffer from lack of confidence or even full-blown impostor syndrome. The good news is, the more experience you have that says you can do this and do it well, the easier it is to talk yourself down from the ledge.
What’s next for you?
Bridget: I just got the rights back to a 3-book private eye mystery series. Apparently the letter from the publisher had been sitting around my former agent’s office for two years without anyone letting me know I could re-publish the books. So now I will.
Thank you, Bridget for carrying the standard of excellence! And this great interview!