Friday, March 30, 2012

Editing the Road to Self-Discovery as a Writer... by Dani Alexander

In today’s market, you need a flame-proof suit and full body armor to self-publish. You also need a second skin. Ideally that skin will be tougher than an armadillo’s.

I don’t have any of those things. In fact, I have been known to weep at Obama’s speeches and, almost always sometimes, at YouTube videos with people memorializing their relationships to the inappropriate lyrics of Fix you by Coldplay. What I’m saying is: I’m a freakin’ wuss.

So why on earth did I self-publish?

When most people ask me that question, I usually fire off my diplomatic answer of, “I wanted control over my covers.” But seriously, who am I kidding? My covers aren’t works of art. They’re a learning process. I love them. I obsess about them. I spend weeks, months, nearly a year creating them. But if I’d had the chance of using Anne Cain or Nathie or even Jordan Castillo Price, Reese Dante—we’ll be here all day if I list the better-than-me cover artists—I would have jumped at it. So cover art was one reason. The second reason was that I needed to make a living off my writing. And the third, most important reason, was editing—the chance at becoming a better writer. And, well, in the last instance there weren’t a lot of options. The road to discovering that is what this article is about.

At the end of 2010 I wrote my first novel. It started out as a young adult story and metastasized into a second half that was more racy/erotic. Since the story had two parts, the first where a single kiss happened, I was going to publish it for free in two parts just to get my name out there. That was the plan. Until I sent it off the first part to a very disinterested beta reader (who I can probably call editor-- because she was that good). For the sake of this article, we’ll call her “Delores’.

Delores, somewhat tactfully, told me that my story sucked more crap than an airplane potty. Not outright. She was never that mean. I realized what she was saying when I began to decode the meaning of her ‘red marks’ and comments.

The grammar, I learned, was atrocious. If comma-splice were a deadly word, I’d be a hit man and my story would be a weapon of mass destruction. I lacked continuity in both plot and character development. I used enough clichés that the word cliché had to be redefined and possibly used as a warning tag on the book. It was bad bad bad.

After finding that out, I raged for about ten minutes, hid in bed for a full day and then brooded for another. When I finally emerged from my cocoon of self-pity, I began to wonder if I really wanted to be a writer and what that meant for someone as thin-skinned as me.

Since the first thing I did when I sat back at my computer was start writing a new story, I guess I had my answer. I wanted to be a writer.

During this time, it’s important to mention, I was also managing websites and blogs by the hundreds. I was already writing for a living, but not about subjects I enjoyed. I was getting burned out by article after article; and I was sick of updating Wordpress 100 times every two months. If I was going to enjoy making a living with writing, I was going to have to professionally publish fiction (please excuse the alliteration). So that’s what I decided to do.

Within the first paragraph of my currently published novel: Shattered Glass (the original version-yes, there are two), I started researching publishers whose books I read consistently. After looking at all the book titles I owned, I settled on a publisher to whom I might submit my story. This publisher accepted previously unknown authors, they had great cover artists and they were prolific. But the idea of publishing with them slowly became less appealing after a while. I eventually came to the conclusion that I should self-publish instead, and my own editing process played a part in that decision. (Pardon, once again, for the alliteration).
Grabbing my “young adult story”, I re-read the editing notes from Delores and took her comments to heart. I put aside that first crappy book and I continued writing Shattered Glass using her notes to guide me into a better writer.

Around the four chapter mark, I sent along my progress to Delores. After a very long time, so long that I had already progressed 75k into the story, I received the 4 beta’d chapters back. I opened up the Word file immediately, my eyes flying to her comments and changes.

My jaw dropped.

I would have needed four cartridges of red ink to print out her corrections. The only thing she liked? That I treated women well in my story.

It took four days to come out of that funk. It took me six weeks to start writing again. In that six weeks a few things happened.

My husband got a layoff notice. My blogs suffered from my lack of interest in writing articles. And, the most important factor, I started getting really irritated with the books I was buying/reading.

Picking up the latest seven books I had purchased, I began to notice something: Writing problems that previously—before Delores—didn’t bother me, glared back at me like my cats when I buy them generic food.

At this point, I realized a few things.

1)       I wasn’t going to be a better writer without having a ruthless good editor.
2)      I wanted to be a writer more than I wanted to get rich or even to eat.
3)      I was nowhere near good enough to be accepted by most publishers. (PS: I’m not even sure that I’m good enough now.).
4)      We needed money and we needed it before my husband’s severance dried up.

I crossed my fingers and dove in to the possibilities of self-publishing with the option that I still might submit to a publisher in the end.

But first, I needed to learn how to write. Not just write better, I needed to learn the fundamentals. I was going to do my damndest to make this as polished as possible.

I began voraciously reading about writing and combing over “Delores’s” emails and notes. I filled notebooks about grammar, syntax, sentence structure--you name it. I read websites, blogs, free stories, short stories. In short, I researched how to write; which lead to me throwing away my second berated-book and beginning anew. That was last February. It took nearly a year to finish the current version. Luckily I found a professional editor who agreed to edit for free—though his experience was nonfiction. We seemed to click. And, hallelujah, he liked my story, polished though it needed to be. I had it edited along the way—chapter by chapter, learning from my new editor.

Now, let’s be clear. I’m not the poster boy of good grammar and perfect editing. Plenty of people have complained about both in my novel. I’ve annoyed people with choices I made in my story. Subheadings worked for some, not for others. Endings felt tacked on. I had a few typos, a few malapropisms (sorry, Chris, for “marquis”!) etc. Shattered Glass is far from perfect. But would it have been much better if I’d gone with some of the less stringent publishers out there? No. I don’t think so. I really don’t. Let me tell you why.

While writing Shattered Glass, over the course of that year, I was still reading online free fiction. But…some of the stories I’d go to catch up on, or re-read, started disappearing from the Interwebs. From various blog posts, I found out many of them were getting published. These were stories I was familiar with, stories I’d read and raved over, stories in which I’d been engrossed for months or even years. When they’d finally pop up as published works, of course I bought them. Because, hell, I was already donating to authors and I liked the stories. They had to be even better after an editor got to them. What a great opportunity to learn more about writing by seeing what a professional editor changes. Right?


Most of them were the same stories. There were a few corrections. A few minor details were changed. But important things, like head hopping in the same section break; like head hopping in the same paragraph; like throwaway characters; continuity issues; adverbial abuse; those problems were still in the stories. And they more obvious now that I was learning the fundamentals of writing. Did it make them terrible stories? No. God, no! Not at all. In fact, they were still the stories I loved. But…they could have been better stories. They should have been better stories. They were already good. An editor, a publisher, is supposed to make a good story better.

I’m sure there are people out there who’ve stumbled across same stories I have. Who’ve noticed previously free stories being published as the same, nearly unedited, version? This is a problem.

I tried an experiment while writing this article. I wanted to see if this was just a “me thing”. I took a look at one and two star ratings from certain publishers. “What’s constant about the complaints in those stories,” I asked myself. “Is it editing? Or is it content?” “The actual story that didn’t work for people? Or the grammar and typos?” “Do the reviews say things like ‘too much head hopping’ or ‘telling not showing‘ ‘grammar‘ ‘typos‘?” I went through 20+ popular books and the answer always depended on the publisher. That seemed a real disservice to the author, in my opinion, not just the reader.

A good story is a good story. Period. Proper editing only makes it better. And that means more than proofreading. It’s about removing the unnecessary. When a publisher fails to do that, they don’t just anger readers, they anger reviewers and they do a disservice to that author. When you see those $6.99 prices, those are supposed to be for the proofreading, the cover art and the editing.

It’s a dream of mine to be trade published. I’m so lucky, so damn lucky that people liked Shattered Glass. I’m humbled and mystified by its success, but I still want that publishing house editing process, that method which promises to make me so much better.

I plan to self-publish in the future. My upcoming novels in the Shattered Glass family, Not So Innocent and Shatterproof, will all self-published. I learned my lesson, though. My next novels will have two editors—because self-published doesn’t mean I get a pass for errors. But I’m also going to submit to publishers who care about editing and making me a better writer. And in this genre, that’s important because I’m competing with authors who are already better. Better at understanding pace and grammar and better at lyrical prose without being purplish. I have a lot to learn. I want to do more than just sell books. I want to sell good books. Awesome books. Books worthy of the readers who put their hard-earned money into their collections.

Listen, I know our genre isn’t the only one guilty of getting backlash for editing issues. It’s invaded all areas of the publishing business as it flails to keep up with digital trends. But we, the gay romance genre, can’t be lax like big publishing houses. We can’t afford any backlash. None.

You know what really chapped my hide last year? What really had me fuming? Suzanne Brockman published her m/m novel with Random House, while many of our most prolific m/m writers couldn’t get a major publishing house to look at their work in the same genre. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t mad at Suzanne (please support her and Random House if you can). Because of her, perhaps our genre is about to break out even bigger. But those publishers should have been taking us writers (and our publishers) seriously three years ago. Instead we’re largely relegated to “too genre” or “too niche” “the redheaded stepchild of romance”. PFFFFT!

Why is this so important to me? I’m queer. I’m not only queer, I’m transgender. I’m not only queer and transgender, I’m AmIndian. I’m a queer, transgender, AmIndian writer of gay romance. You want to talk marginalized? But all gay romance writers are marginalized, by the publishing world, by many outsiders, by editors and agents. We have something to prove in this genre.

I’m tired of being last in line. Queers are the last to be allowed to marry, the last to be allowed in the military openly, the last to be included in anti-discrimination laws and now we’re the last to get major publishers to vie for our romance novels. We do not deserve to be last at anything.

But I see hope on the horizon. Last year, Hot Head by Damon Suede (Dreamspinner Press), nearly won the Reader’s Choice Awards on Goodreads. It beat out a lot of mainstream published romance. That was a milestone. An incredible, groundbreaking moment in gay romance. It was, for me, one of the most exciting moments in books. It was thrilling to see his name up there next to Julia Quinn, Nora Roberts, Nalini Singh. That’s where that book belonged, right alongside major NY published books!

For my final words, I want to thank the readers of gay romance for being so incredibly supportive and vocal about their love for the genre. And my heartfelt gratitude goes to all the publishers of LGBTQ romance. When other publishers were turning their noses up at the genre, they were giving us a voice. Thank you so very much.

A male prostitute, a mangy cat, a murder and a maniacal mix-up that threatens his career, his impending marriage and his life. Nothing is going as planned for Austin Glass. 

Austin — seems to have it all. At least on the surface. A loving fiancee. A future with the FBI and a healthy sized trust fund. He also has a grin and a wisecrack for every situation. But the smile he presents to everyone hides a painful past he’s buried too deeply to remember. And his quips mask bitterness and insecurity. Austin has himself and most of the whole world fooled. Until he meets someone who immediately sees him better than he sees himself. 

As events unfold and Austin’s world unravels, he finds himself pushed into making quick life-changing decisions. But can he trust Peter or what’s happening between them when each meeting seems to be just a series of volatile reactions? 

Dani Alexander has been making up characters since he was fifteen. In fact, characters are his favorite part because all the voices in his head can now be explained in a way which doesn't make people question his sanity. Dani is lucky to have the support and love of a husband, his cats and a dog, all of whom get neglected when the voices start demanding to be put on paper.


  1. When I see all the enthusiasm you put in this post through your words to talk about writing and how to become a better writer, I have no doubt that you are going to have a lot of success Dani.
    I loved Shattered Glass and I cannot wait to read more books from you. :)

    1. Thanks, Carnell. <3 =) I'm so glad you enjoyed SG. Writing is so sacred to me, probably too much with the length of this article haha oO.

  2. Great article and I too loved Shattered Glass. I'm really looking forward to finding out what Cai did when he was in Europe.
    I'm a fanfic writer trying to write my own stuff so reading your book and what you've achieved makes me want to keep at it.

    1. Thanks Iolo =) Please do keep writing. Every new author is a new voice that I get excited to read.

  3. So, in a very embarrassing (for me) and kinda awesome way, the beta reader for my article just pointed out that I used the word "strident" when I meant "stringent". Which just goes to prove, after someone edits my work, and I CHANGE it, I should send it BACK to them to get approved before I publish LOL.

    Or, you know, publicly humiliate myself. (It's funny cuz it's true)

  4. Hey, you're one of the (few) authors out there who are determined to take the editing, get up, dust off your knees, wipe the blood off and keep playing. It's a rare trait and usually found among the technically more accomplished authors.

    Personally, I consider a good editing like a good flogging. It hurts while it happens, but after you're done, you get this big adrenaline buzz.

    1. =D I'm a little obsessed with editing now. It's exciting to learn it. I know not everyone enjoys the process and some compare it to pulling teeth, but it's become a sort to me. Seeing how little my editor changes when I hand in a new chapter. (Granted, that hasn't happened yet, he still makes my work look like a Quentin Tarantino movie, but I have hope!).

      PS: I always pictured you as more of the flogger than the floggee. =D Er...not that I'm picturing you as anything *whistles*


    2. Well, like any good versatile, I know when I can take my punishment. (And Rachel does it Gooood)

  5. Reading this post shows how much work and dedication it takes to be a good writer. I really admire you for not giving up and for striving to make your books even better. I wish you much success. You definitely deserve it!

    I loved Shattered Glass and I can't wait for the next book. Keep up the good work. :)

    1. Thank you, Lisa! <3 Writing is a forever learning process, one that frustrates and exhilarates, but through all the turmoil, it's comments like yours that make every second of frustration so worth it.

  6. Great post and determination, Dani. I share the comma-splicing affliction with you. I'm still working on identifying it but sometimes I just like the way it sounds. ;-)

    1. lol it's a tough concept to learn, and I'm not entirely sure that I've gotten it down. Oddly, reading Wiki's post (not the definition, but the "correction" section below) was really helpful to me. More than Grammar Girl was anyway =D

    2. Sweet! Thanks for the link, Dani. :-)

  7. This post makes me want to work so much harder to better myself also. Thank you. =)

    Congratulations! I can't wait to read Shattered Glass next month. I'm really looking forward to it.

    1. I'm still learning too. It's a neverending process, but that's the coolest part about it. (I'm weird though, lol. All this adverb stuff is pretty interesting to me now). I just wish I had been a better student when I was in college, I'd be making far fewer mistakes now LOL!

      Hope you enjoy SG =) And, if nothing else, it makes you laugh/entertains you for a while.

      =) Thanks for commenting, Adara.

  8. Great post (except for the " I was nowhere near good enough to be accepted by most publishers. (PS: I’m not even sure that I’m good enough now.).") - You would be accepted right now by most M/M publishers with great delight on their part. But if you are finding a way to get really good, stringent content editing of your work already, you are perhaps better off staying with self-pub. A good editor is worth their weight in gold (and two are even better.)

    I did one book self-pub, and was dumb enough not to know about looking for editing first and it shows. I admire your dedication and the effort you put into writing the best book you can. (And I loved SG - can't wait for the next one.)

    Guys like you who put in not just the inspiration but the perspiration deserve the success you get. I do look forward to the day when our genre breaks out of its ghetto. And I fully expect to see your name among the breakout authors when that happens.

    1. Self-publishing is a minefield, I know how it feels to try and maneuver through it. Personally, I like your books and writing, self-published or not. You have a very strong voice and it reads all over every page.

      SG's editing wasn't even close to trade-house publishing, where 3-4 editors and then proofreaders go through it. I had 5 beta readers and one editor, and they were amazing, more than amazing, but we all missed some things. I wouldn't change them for the world though (the editor and my betas, I mean), I'm just going to add another editor and maybe another beta reader. There is so much to learn through the process; and I guess I'm a word-nerd lol. I love reading those red-marks now and, especially, the comments of "I laughed" or "this is a great sentence".

      Kaje, Thanks so much for the kind words. I always look forward to opening one of your books. <3

  9. I'm a staunch admirer of ANYONE who takes their work seriously, and I have great respect for people, like you, who dip into the world of self-publishing. Good editing is a complete necessity in any publishing, and I am in awe of your determination to "get it right"!

    So, thank you for persevering!
    BTW, if there were any errors still left in SG, I surely missed them! I read this story as if it were my life-blood: thrilling, humourous; LOL occasions, and a brilliant storyline!!

    Keep going! You have a permanent fan here :)
    *Hugs* and *thumps on the back* for an innovative new writer!
    With great respect

    1. I had this comment section in feeds so I could see when anyone responded, but blogger is the debil and didn't tell me until now o_O

      Thanks, Carole-Anne, I'm glad you missed them haha. Seeing glaring errors always takes me out of the story, so I know how important they are to repair. I really appreciate the kind words the kind words =D.

      It's really kind words like yours that make me want to do so much better =) <3

  10. I'm reading Shattered Glass now (I know, I'm late to the party - when I'm writing, I find it hard to read much) and I'm really enjoying it. I think one of the best things about it is your voice and your style, and that's made me think about the self-pubbing/trade-pubbing thing.

    I've worked with a lot of the major e-pubs, and I've found that all but one have weird quirks of house style that kind of interfered with my voice. In some cases, the contributions made by the editors to improving my story outweighed, for me, the damage done by their odd rules. But some of the others didn't give me strong content editing in exchange for conformity to their arbitrary rules. (And I mean ARBITRARY. One place absolutely outlaws colons. Not, like, 'we really try to avoid colons, but obviously this one makes sense'. More like 'no, colons are completely unacceptable. Restructure your entire sentence... oh, well, yes, I guess it will be your entire paragraph, which essentially means several paragraphs on each side as well, because we hate colons that much'.) So now I know which trade publishers I will work with again, and which I really hope to avoid!

    And you've been one of the many factors inspiring me to give self-publishing a try, so, thanks for that!

    (This was a really self-centred post. I was going to tack something on bringing it back to you, but... Nah. I'm gonna leave it self-centred. DEAL WITH IT!)

    1. LOL self-centered or eye-opening? I knew there were weird editing houses, but, really, colons? WTF? Why? lol

      =D I hope my factoring into your self-publishing doesn't make you want to hunt me down and stab me in the face. My husband likes my face, Kate.

      haha no need to bring it back to me. I think it's awesome you're self-publishing. YOur name is pretty household. I hope it breaks you out even further =) <3

  11. I read Shattered Glass over the weekend and really enjoyed it. I look forward to reading more from you.

    1. =) Thanks so much for telling me, Sas! It's so uplifting to know my story was enjoyed.

  12. Well....I've *purchased* SG but haven't yet had the opportunity to read it! I enjoyed your article so have high hopes for your book :-)

    SherryF from the Midwest

    1. =D Hope you enjoy it, Sherry, when you get a chance to read it.

  13. I hust finished Shattered Glass and really enjoyed it. I live in a Denver suburb and can say you totally capture the nightmare that is negotiating downtown Denver. I'm hoping that there are at least two more books, Cai's story and Dare's.

    1. =D Thanks so much, Treasure! There are two more books planned: Cai's which will be out later this year and Darryl's which will follow after that =).

      And yes, lol, downtown Denver is so frustrating Gah. It's a nightmare of epic proportions =D.

  14. I so admire you and absolutely loved Shattered Glass. So many of the m/m books I buy seem hastily written and so short that there is no room at for character development. As an editor, it's frustrating, but then I hit on a novel like yours and fall in love with the genre all over again.

    1. Thanks so much, Nikki! What an awesome thing to read first thing this morning =D. I really appreciate the compliment. <3