Recently, a friend showed me the most unedited, messiest piece of dreck passed off in the shape of a 600-page indie novel that I’ve ever seen. It was just a disaster. The same character “looked open mouthed at” something three times on the same page (once at an “exposed blue thong,” I believe); at one point her gaze “seemed to slip off [the other character]’s face”; the author had never met any punctuation that he actually liked and got along with; nearly all the sentences were exactly the same length and structure, so that it sounded as though a robot were reading the book to you; and that’s all without looking at problems the actual story was riven with.
So: a PSA for all emerging writers out there. In the case of the writer above, he really could have used a lot more work on his craft prior to bringing anyone a manuscript, but: and I’ll assume here, for the sake of argument, that you (a) have talent and (b) have done that initial work of learning how to write well, and (c) want your work to be both good and capable of getting sold. If those things are true, then:
Get your novel edited. Not just proofread, either. Actually edited. Look, I self-publish a lot of my own work, too (not all, but quite a bit). But I do not understand the sense of pride with which some writers say they didn’t need or use an editor. Speaking frankly, that’s hogwash. That’s like selling someone an indie car you designed and taking pride in the fact that you designed the car without consulting anyone and that you never had mechanics perform a bumper-to-bumper diagnostic, and no one has even test-driven the car other than you. That’s not something to be proud of! And from a business perspective, I get that you think you’re avoiding sunk costs, but by the same decision, you’re probably avoiding a lot of revenue, too.
I would recommend that you consider contracting with at least two editors: a developmental editor (or “dev-editor”) and a copy editor. A copy editor’s job is to read through your manuscript for consistency, ease of reading, and grammar. Ideally, you would also hire a proofreader to review the final, final edited version, but if you pay more for a good copy editor, you can certainly find someone who has both skill sets and is willing to do two edits on your manuscript, one for copy and one for proofreading and typological errors.
But you also need a dev-editor. I am startled by how many new writers have never heard of developmental editing. A dev-editor is not a proofreader, and also not a beta reader reacting to your manuscript — though having several beta readers is also a great idea; that’s like giving your novel a focus group. But that doesn’t replace a dev-editor, who can help you make strides on whatever it is the focus group has noticed, and who will likely see things they don’t know how to look for. A dev-editor is a seasoned, experienced professional who works with manuscripts to identify where your character arc could be made more tense, believable, or exciting; on issues of plot and pacing; spotting missing scenes or scenes that are redundant. They help you improve the design and execution of your story. A good dev-editor can take your average manuscript and help you make it good, or take your good manuscript and help you make it great. If you are going to be your own publisher, then do what the better publishers do, and pair yourself with an excellent dev-editor.
Granted, these do cost money. It is easy to find a relatively affordable copy editor. Dev-editors are less affordable, but you can find a reasonable one; sadly, many highly qualified editors were laid off in publishing over the past decade, and some of them — even ones with very impressive credentials of past work — are freelancing. This can be a boon for you, if you’re willing to make that investment in your work.
Or you can keep trying to be the great American novelist off in your cabin or cubicle alone and never share your work with anyone prior to publishing it. But you should realize that the great American novelists of the past did not actually work that way. It’s a myth.
If you are going the indie or selfpub route, I applaud you. There’s a lot of benefit to that route. You get to keep a greater share of the proceeds; you get greater artistic control over your work; you get to contract with the people YOU want to work with. This is all very awesome. It’s something I love, too. But: if you don’t take the time to find out anything about how publishing works and how the best books are made, you’re not going to do a good job of replacing or improving that process with your own publishing experiment. And if you aren’t willing to actually invest funds in your project, you’re going to end up with an under-developed project, and readers don’t have any patience with under-developed projects (nor should they: would YOU want to be handed a car that was missing all the upholstery and air conditioning and that the designer forgot to add a gas tank to (and they never asked anyone else to check and see if anything was missing from the car?)?).
So please, edit the novel. Have it proofread, have it copy-edited, and contract with a developmental editor who has worked with dozens and dozens of novels and who can help you realize your novel’s fullest potential. Don’t let your literary baby become an unedited, messy piece of 600-page dreck that someone hands Stant Litore to look at one evening. If you don’t care enough about your project to invest in it, why should your readers care, either?