by Mel Hughes
In 1999 I wanted to ride motorcycles. Of course, most people’s first thought of motorcycles is Harley Davidsons. But real riders told me a different story. “Harleys are a joke,” was the consensus. “They put all their money into advertising, but they don’t engineer.” Before long I found this out firsthand. I bought a Yamaha and joined Women on Wheels. On one of my first rides, a Harley threw a part into a ditch. We had to stop the ride until the part could be located and the rider towed.
I remembered the ride when I heard about an author who spent several thousand dollars marketing their book but wasn’t getting reviews. I read it. The writing was beautiful, but there was no story. The first of three major characters (who appeared on the blurb) spent almost ninety pages getting into trouble—and then disappeared, replaced by a less interesting character. When the second character got interesting, she likewise disappeared, replaced by an even less interesting character. None of them had a character arc. And the least interesting character somehow avoided the conflict she should’ve faced and led quiet, boring life. Real life? Maybe. Story? No.
I asked the author what their book was about, and I was told the book was about the third character. I asked the author what was important about the story, and I was told “redemption.” But redemption wasn’t in the book. I asked about the editing. It had been read by a great many individuals—friends, fellow writers, beta readers. All had provided input. “Did you have it professionally edited?” I asked—and never got an answer.
This writer can write. The book dripped with atmosphere from regional and period detail. But there was no cohesive story line. An editor would have insisted on one. But apparently the author never viewed an editor as necessary, figuring that if enough money were spent on marketing, the book would sell.
I’ve worked with a few authors who turned in a draft, thinking it was God’s gift to romance/mystery/etc. and returned it to them with entire pages chopped or moved, with so many comments that Word turned them to links. I think all editors have gone through this. Most authors—after the initial tantrum—come back ready to work at shaping their story. They end up with a better book for it—one that gets reviews.
I’m not saying marketing is unimportant, or that the best stories will sell on their own. I know an author who is terrific at marketing, who has sold several thousand books and gotten a wagon load of excellent reviews. But that author had a cracking good story, too—one they wouldn’t have had without an editor. And both the editing and the marketing are to credit for the sales.
My point? When authors budget for the success of their work, they must remember what’s important. All the marketing in the world won’t sell a story that isn’t a story. And if you can afford marketing, you can afford an editor—so budget for one.
Mel Hughes has been editing one thing or another for thirty years. She started with military correspondence in 1978 and has since edited everything from court dockets and literary criticism to romance, fantasy, and cozy mysteries. She lives in Florida with her husband and two fetch-a-holic border collie mixes. Her website is melhughes.net.
I love your post, Mel! What a great analogy about motorcycles and writing!