The other day, an author emailed to ask me, ‘How much does it cost to copy edit a book in South Africa? This is my first novel.’ I replied, ‘It depends on the work involved. Please send me the word count and a few sample chapters.’ A day later, the author sent me two chapters and asked me to quote her on ‘around 5 000 words’. Surprised, I sent her the quote but added, ‘Kindly note that this is for editing 5 000 words only, which covers your first two chapters.’ She wrote back: ‘I would like to ask, do you recommend that I finish writing the book before editing? Or is it wise to edit chapter by chapter?’ It was only then that I realised she hadn’t finished writing her book. Yet, she was rushing to find an editor. This happens too often. Authors get overwhelmed by the excitement of the writing process and the prospect of having their work published, but this is the time to be cautious.
Anyone who’s created a computer programme – even the simplest one outputting ‘Hello World!’ to the screen – has experienced the joy of knowing you have the freedom to do whatever you like with it. You can change the text. You can change the colour. You can make it flash at intervals. This same power can be intoxicating when you sit down to create a novel. It’s your book. You, and your characters, can do whatever you want. All you have to do is write well, and the rest will follow. However, you soon realise that your creation is less for your own benefit and more for the use of others. Similar to programmes, your novel should be designed with the end user in mind. It needs to be logically organised. It needs to be engineered so that it runs smoothly on the operating system it will be installed on. In the case of books, this is the reader’s mind. But how do we better understand how that operating system works? If we think of stories as programmes, how are they run on readers’ minds?
Recently, I worked with an author who had written a unique memoir about abuse. With the help of a writing coach, he’d created and reworked his first drafts of the manuscript, but now he was stuck. All he knew was that, in spite of his best efforts to produce a story that felt true to his life experiences, and in spite of the extensive writing coaching he’d received, there was still something “off” with his book. He already had some interest from an international publishing house, but in order to secure a contract, he needed to make sure his script was the best it could be. What now? How could he ensure that his book would not only be accepted for publication but also be more than just an “also-published” title; that it would spark that magical effect of spreading like wildfire among readers?