The Writers’ Process: an adapting, evolving, creating and editing masterclass

August 8th, 2014

Hey! If you’re going to NineWorlds Geekfest tomorrow, I’ll be teaching a master class* on editing for writers.

To be honest, I’ll be teaching it even if you aren’t coming tomorrow, but it’ll be better if I’m not in a room by myself, for a start. And look, I don’t want to use the word “epic”, but…well. I mean, there’ll be an orchestra, and battles, and everything.

OK. There won’t. But what there will be is me talking a little bit about what editing is, and how writers can learn to edit their own work; what sorts of things editors look for – and find;­ and how and why we change some things and not others.

I’ll also be talking through some different ways you can develop your own editing skills through writing exercises. And I’ll take any questions you want to throw at me (preferably those about editing and writing) so if you’re in an editorial frame of mind, please come along!

 

*Ooh, hark at me: “master class”.

 

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The writer’s editor: a project

April 17th, 2014

If you’ve ever read this blog, or accidentally engaged me in conversation, you’ll know I have Quite Strong Feelings about editing. And writing. And how editors and writers relate to each other and their procedures.

“Editing is tedious.”

I hear that a lot. From writers to me and/or to other writers. From other editors (less frequently). In terms of the writing process, editing is often regarded as administrative; the clean-up chore you know you have to complete in order to make your story “good enough”.

“Editing is about finding mistakes.”

That’s another line used regularly.

Too often these are views held by writers and reinforced by the editors they work with who are trying to pacify and reassure them: it’s OK to dislike this process, it’s hard; it’s not going to be pleasant, but…

I consider this an unfair and inaccurate view of editing. Both phrases put the task of editing, and thus the role itself, in a wholly negative light. And if you find editing monotonous, or perceive it as an unpleasant process, it’s possible neither writing nor editing are the right vocation for you.

Editing is key to the writing process, especially if you want to do it even semi-professionally – rather than writing for your eyes only[i].
It is part of redrafting and refining whatever you managed to get out on the page in your first flurry of inspiration.

If you take out the initial research and planning parts[ii], then unless you are one of those miracle writers who manages to type out exactly what they mean to say on the first pass and never go back, editing probably takes more time all up than putting the very first draft down on the page – whether you are self-editing or working with an editor. It includes all those rewrites and amendments you make as you go, as well as the changes you make to the final version.

So if you start out regarding it as an exhausting exercise in disparaging your hard work, you are really setting yourself up for a hard time.

And I’d say you’re doing it wrong.

And so are we, as editors, if that’s how you feel about the process.

What editing is…and isn’t

I spend a significant amount of my time as an editor reassuring writers that things I’ve marked on the manuscript are not a judgement against, or criticism of, or, in many cases, even a correction to their work. Of course, there are some changes that are marked for correction – spelling mistakes, grammatical errors etc. – but a large proportion of things I mark up are phrased as queries, suggestions, or flags for attention. I’m not marking a test. I’m not going to slash through someone’s work with a pen and send them to the back of the class for a “fail”[iii] – though I know some people (writers and editors) prefer that approach.

Editors can go deeper into a work than just rectifying surface issues. Given the chance, and assuming we connect with the work/author, we can get almost as close as the story’s creator – but with the benefit of objectivity. Editors can be as passionate about a work as the author, but since we didn’t actually put the words on the page, there are no threads tying our heart to the author’s darlings. Which doesn’t immediately lead us to “kill them all” but does mean we can see why something may need fine-tuning.

An editor’s job is not to jump in and tell a writer how to tell their story or what phrasing they have to use. Rather, our role is to attempt to slip into the writer’s skin[iv] and work out how they would approach a problem or phrase, and then either pose questions or provide suggestions that might spark the synapses. The key is to help and guide the author to make sure they’ve written the story they want or intend to tell. Not, unless we have been engaged by someone for this purpose, to encourage them to write the story we think they should be writing.

It’s genuinely troubling to see the role and purpose of the editor diminished to “making corrections” and “ripping things to shreds” when I know how hard my colleagues and I work to establish relationships of trust with authors; the time we spend getting to know each manuscript, and thus its author; and reassuring new writers that the editing process might be confronting but it doesn’t have to be painful and will be
worth it.

Knowing how much we all love stories and writing (whether or not we write ourselves) and the creativity that is involved in the task of editing, it is disgruntling to see others cut our work down to a chore that must be endured.

But much of this sense comes from the fact that many writers don’t know what editors are capable of, or what we can offer. Particularly freelance editors. I’ve been told very matter-of-factly by several writers that they don’t think an editor would be able to help with story, or developing writing skills. (We can and do.) And more than once I’ve had writers say to me that the information and/or support and guidance they are looking for just isn’t out there if you don’t have your own circle of writing friends, or an agent, or a publisher. (It is. If you know who to ask.)

Having said that, while there are things some writers may not know they need to know, or may not realise an editor can help with, I think there are also things writers want that editors don’t always provide – or only provide by accident. Especially now that the publishing industry is changing so much and in so many different ways. With self-publishing becoming more viable, a slew of new publishing services and models on the rise, and traditional publishers often unable to offer their authors the same guidance they may have done in the past, a lot of writers I talk to seem a little adrift – unsure where to find support and advice, or how to navigate the vast quantities of information available online.

With this in mind, I think freelance editors are uniquely equipped to adapt to the developing needs of publishers and writers. Which leads me to:

What would a writer’s perfect editor look like?

The usual (only half-joking) answer to this question is “someone who tells me my work is perfect as is!” or “someone who offers me a contract!”; but, as you very well know, that is not really what I am asking. And furthermore…I don’t think either of those responses are correct.

Of course you want to impress your editor, that’s only natural. But is it really their feedback you are most concerned about? Working with an editor, whether via a publisher or privately prior to self-publishing, is just one step at the start of the process. Do you want your editor to tell you your book is amazing and nothing needs changing…or do you want your readers to feel that way? Because the role of the editor is to help you make your book the best it can possibly be. To give your readers the same joy/pain/other emotion that you get from your own story.

The editor is already on your side. We not only want to help make your book shine, it’s the whole reason we do this job. And sure, there are budgetary concerns and time constraints whichever publishing path you choose, and not all editors can do all things… but, generally speaking, editors will do whatever we can to help you and your book.

So how can we offer the best help and support? What is it writers are missing out on?

Like most editors, I already do my best to discover and understand authors’ processes and language and interests so I can communicate and feedback in a way that is most useful to them – from a position of understanding things on the outside. But I’d like to take this further.

The project

This year, I am talking to writers about what they need and want from the editing process. While an editor doesn’t need to be a writer[v], knowing their techniques, strategies and angles helps us to speak to writers in their own language. A lot of writers assume that an editor will work from a solely editorial perspective anmalkovitchd force novelists to work to that structure: “here are rules you must follow; plain language first and foremost.” But editors are generally more flexible than that – it’s down to what works and suits the manuscript best, rather than blindly obeying writing laws. Personally, I am more interested in getting inside the writers’ mindset and working from within, rather than tidying up wordage from the outside.

Putting myself in a writer’s shoes helps me not only to understand how to adapt my feedback and approach, but to weed out other writing advice and see what can be helpful or harmful. What works for one writer can be detrimental to another[vi], so every writer’s process is a helpful guide for how to work with authors.

As such, later this year I will attend a series of conferences and literature events in the UK, with the aim of learning more about how different authors create and develop their work; their writing and publishing challenges; and what they need (and want) from editors. I’ll be following[vii] agents and publishers, too, to see how they approach and respond to different needs and requirements.

I hope to talk to writers, publishers, artists, creators and producers in different fields – literature (particularly genre), film/TV, fanfic, comics etc – to find out more about how these works are created, what makes them good or bad, and how all this can translate to the editing process.

And when I get back, I’ll be looking for ways to adapt and develop Bothersome Words to better meet these needs and challenges.

 

Australia_Council_master_horiz_col_logoThis project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

This is a research project that is being undertaken with the support of the Literature Section of the Australia Council for the Arts, to whom I am incredibly grateful. The Editorial Professional Development Grant supports opportunities for professional development and cultural leadership for Australian book and journal editors to enhance their literary editing skills. I am thrilled that in this case the Council is supporting a project that will largely focus on genre, allowing me to attend NineWorlds, LonCon3, FantasyCon and the Edinburgh International Book Festival in pursuit of knowledge.

Are you going to any of these events?
Drop me a line if you’d like to meet up!

Got some ideas about what editors can do to help writers?
I’d love to hear from you, too!

Comments, as always, are open…

 


[ii] Because yes, I understand that some books have years of research and planning behind them. A whole lifetime, in some cases.

[iii] OK. Occasionally the slashing might happen. But there are no marks awarded or deducted for your work.

[v] Some say this can be a hindrance since it can lead to the temptation to rewrite rather than query or suggest. On the other hand an editor editing something they wrote themselves can get stuck on an endless edit loop. So… you say potato, I say edible tuber…

[vi] This post about “firing the muse” and just getting on with it instead of waiting for inspiration is perfectly just and sound. But some writers do work best with a sudden flood of inspiration or a “visit from the muse”; some writers cannot handle thoroughly planning in advance.

[vii] Not in a stalkery way.


 

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On writing skills: Professional writing versus fanfiction (Part B).

April 6th, 2014

Previous post: (Part A)

Part B: How fanfic can help you write better

I first dipped my toe into reading fanfiction because I knew some authors I had worked with had started that way. It seemed like an area I needed to know more about if I was going to work with emerging writers; not only to offer advice, but also to recognise certain writing styles and habits typical to fanfic.

I admit to being apprehensive. I’d heard the comments, read the news stories – I expected to find utter rubbish. And it’s not all gold dust in them thar hills. But there’s less-than-perfect writing anywhere. The internet is full of barely readable blogs[i] and typo-ridden news articles.

I have come across works – novel-length pieces – that are better written and constructed than some published novels I have read. And these are pieces people have put together purely for the love of it – no hope or expectation of payment, or a publishing deal, or even (necessarily) readers[ii]. Some of the stories have taken months or years to write and perfect. Many of the best ones bear little resemblance to the original works on which they’re based. They might use the same characters and traits, but often key aspects are so substantially changed that even the world is different. Perhaps only the character names remain the same; a kind of shorthand so the reader – almost guaranteed to be a fan – knows at least what to expect from the personality of that character.  These are well-written, well-crafted stories. Usually with a tonne of research and planning and thought, and even editing behind them.

There are a million writing guides out there explaining how to write, how to plan, how to research, how to self-edit. The information is overwhelming…

…and can be difficult to sift through for brand new writers who don’t have an established community of fellow writers.

Forever alone

Not everyone knows where to start or how to put esoteric writing advice into practice. Not everyone can make it to writers’ festivals, and not everyone is comfortable contacting known authors for advice – even though many are very friendly and happy to help.

The fanfic community can be a safe space to learn about the writing process, and these days the internet makes it easy. Far from being lazy, fanficcers have developed their own approaches to writing and “publishing”[iii] ­– most of which are identical to processes successful pro writers use, though couched in slightly different phrasing.

If you want to develop your writing skills, you could do worse than to emulate some fanficcers’ processes.

Five (fanfic) writing techniques
that will help make you a better storyteller

1. Meta and analysis.

This really leads into all the other points. Fanficcers are (obviously) based in fandom. They will analyse the canon work to within an inch of its life. And they will pull characters to pieces to understand their thoughts, feelings, motivations, backstory and relationships; figuring out how they would react in any given situation. They talk about these characters and their world among themselves – they can because, of course, these characters are shared. But the end result, when they write, tends to be a level of believability and depth that you can only get by knowing your characters and setting so well.

Outside fanfic, writers spend a lot of time arguing the merits of being a plotter or a pantser. In either case, if you know the background and impetus to your story and know it well, it’s going to be stronger on every other level than if you haven’t thought about it at all.

2. Knowing your characters.

This writing advice gets handed out constantly. Lots of authors recommend writing character sheets or “interviewing” your character to get to know them. If you’re writing fanfic, you have the advantage of an existing canon “template” to work from. In this case, the key is to learn how to convey the characteristics that readers will expect to see. Fanficcers have to make sure they get their portrayal right. They will study them until they know everything that makes them tick, so they can drop them in an unfamiliar (or canon-accurate) scenario and know exactly how they would react and why.

If you’re writing original fiction, the same rule applies. Only you don’t have a template to work from and you need to create this person (or bird, or potato) from scratch.

3. Consistent worldbuilding.

Very similar to the above. Fanfiction allows you to work with a template for an existing world. It means you have to develop the skills to portray things correctly, as the reader expects. Or you have to justify any differences if you diverge from canon.

Again, for fanfiction you need to know your world backwards. To write original fiction well you need the same skills and techniques to convince your readers this place is real.

4. Alpha and beta readers.[iv]

Most successful published authors have their own team of readers who critique their manuscript, although there are professional writers who hand in their first draft to the publisher without any eyes but their own ever having been cast over it.

Fanficcers don’t have a professional publishing house at their service (usually!) so they’ve worked out their own ways to develop and polish their work. Many of them put their fics through rigorous testing before it goes online. They have readers check that the story and characters hang together, that everything is as strong as it needs to be. And they may put it through its editing paces for spelling and grammar as well. These readers are usually fellow writers, or sometimes just readers passionate about the genre or topic.

This is a great system for polishing original work, too. Putting a manuscript through its paces before submitting to agents and publishers, or even before hiring your own editor, can result in a much tighter and more developed story.

5. Brit pickers, science pickers etc.

A step deeper than fact checking, although this is basically what this is. Many fanficcers are writing in a world or culture that is not their native one; for example, they might be Americans writing characters and stories set in the UK or vice versa. Or they might be writing a story about a scientist, or an artist, or a bird, or anything at all. They research heavily before they start writing, but then they get an expert to check through and ensure the language and tone is correct, not just basic facts.

In both fanfic and original fiction the slightest (unexplained) off-note will throw a reader out of the story. It can be invaluable to get someone who knows to look things over for you. You can’t always rely on an editor or proofreader to pick up these details.

***

Of course, none of these methods are exclusive to fanfic; many professional writers use the same or similar processes and more besides. But if you’ve never put much thought into planning your story, or considered why such research or planning might be necessary, some of these techniques – and the reasons behind them – might help you explore and develop your own work in new and interesting ways.

 


[i] Ahem.

[ii] Although, realistically, no one enjoys writing into the void. Even if they’re not looking for fame.

[iii] Albeit usually online and for free on specific forums/communities.

[iv] Fun fact! I got someone to beta read this post and the one previous. Thank you, Fabulous Colleague. You know who you are.


 

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On writing skills: Professional writing versus fanfiction

March 31st, 2014

 Part A

This post isn’t about getting fanfic professionally published. Nor is it an attempt to disagree (or not) with authors such as George R. R. Martin who stand directly against fanfiction for various reasons. This isn’t about encouraging writers to plagiarise or teaching them how to file off the serial numbers on fanfic to publish it as original work[i].
It is about how the techniques required by fanfic can help writers develop their skills and become more thoughtful about their processes.

Fanfiction[ii] gets a lot of stick. Despite its lengthy history, for a long time fanfic was tucked away and never spoken of in polite company. While it’s never really been secret, over the past few years, it has been brought a little further into the light. Certain books[iii] have achieved success off the back of their fanfic beginnings. Publishers have been actively seeking out popular fanfic works to greater or lesser success.

But just because it has had light shone upon it, doesn’t mean people regard it any more highly than they used to[iv]. Talk to most people from outside the fanfic world and they tend to be a little bit:

stinkface

“Real” writing

Fanfic, goes the argument, isn’t “real” writing. It’s cheating. It’s lazy. It’s stealing someone else’s ideas. It’s plagiarism. It’s sordid. It doesn’t involve skill or creativity. It doesn’t take any talent[v].

“Real writers”, professional writers, create original worlds and characters from scratch. Their works are carefully and fully developed, and they consequently have a depth that’s impossible for a fanwork to achieve.

There’s no denying there are differences between “professional”, or original, writing and fanfic. They each have their own sets of standards and expectations – something that is acceptable for a fanfic would be frowned on in a traditionally published work; someone writing professionally is bound by a lot more rules and guidelines than someone writing fanfic; the author of an original work has to convince their audience to believe in and follow a brand new fictional world where the fanfic author has to reassure their audience that they can be trusted with already beloved characters and worlds and meet their expectations. They’re important differences…but that doesn’t mean fanfic isn’t real writing, or that it doesn’t involve useful skills and techniques that can be applied to professional (or other!) writing.

Critics would have it that pro writers are pro writers and fanficcers are fanficcers and never the twain shall meet. But there are plenty of traditionally published works that prove the twain have   met and they get along quite well, thanks. There are off-shoot series based on popular films and TV shows such as Star Wars and Stargate that are not called fanfic because they are officially licensed[vi].

Books like Wide Sargasso Sea, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the Young Sherlock Holmes are described as derivative, or mash-ups, or parodies; “inspired by” or “set in the world of”… but are equally the kinds of books that could only be written by someone deeply familiar with the source material that inspired them.

Ignoring the legal and financial sides, what makes these books different to fanfic? Is it simply the fact that the original creators have authorised them? You don’t have to delve too deeply into ff.net or AO3 to find works that are equally just “variations on a theme” – stories that continue where canon left off or reset the entire story in a completely different world.

Like it or loathe it, the suggestion that such writing would involve neither skill nor creativity is patently incorrect.

A number of publishers and even authors employ ghostwriters or collaborators to continue a popular series. Tom Clancy’s splinter cell series, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and many others have all been taken up by other writers. Such endeavours require the same skills as fanfiction: the writers need to immerse themselves in the original canon, to learn worlds and characters and write in a way that matches and is true to the original creators’ style and tone[vii]. In these situations, popular media judges the writers for their skill and their ability to “get it”.

Does anyone ask these writers whether they will ever write “for real” as fanfic writers often are when they are found out?

Possibly they do, but is the scornful tone quite so loud? What constitutes “real” writing? Where’s the line?

The line must be drawn here

There is a post going around on Tumblr, written by someone who reads scripts for a living, reassuring fanfic writers about their talents… It is a good post, and as someone who works with stories for a living, I agree with much of the sentiment: there are some incredible storytellers in the fanfic world, and often fic ­– unconstrained by the rules and expectations of a money-making business –  bends genres and expectations in ways professionally published works don’t. (Or can’t?) Of course, some of these fanfic authors do actually write for a living, because writers of fanfic are just as varied as any other group of humans. They’re people. They come from all corners of life, and they’re all ages. They’re students and academics, scientists and librarians, business analysts and soldiers, artists and authors… So it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many of these writers know what they’re doing.

Writing lessons

Another recent online comment declared outright that “fanfic isn’t like professional writing”. This was in response to a post aggressively criticising the presence of certain phrases/tropes/writing styles in fic. Others went on to point out that such negative phrasing (rather than gentle guidance) tended to put people off writing at all[viii]. Fanfic, they pointed out, was more often about writing for fun and not everyone writes it with the intention or desire to learn how to write better.

Fair enough. Writing should be fun…or at least enjoyable and/or satisfying[ix].

Some fanfics are badly written and/or thinly-veiled self-insertion stories written by sparkle-eyed daydreamers.

So what? There are quite a lot of original works that could be described the same way.

Some people write for the same kinds of reasons and enjoyment as they might otherwise watch a film or read a book. No one asks them to work at those pastimes until they have them mastered.

Does writing anything have to be a training exercise? No… but it can be.

In fact, if you do want to learn how to write better and develop your skills, fanfiction is a pretty good way to start. Not the only way, granted. And maybe not everyone’s preferred way. And I don’t particularly advise ficcing your favourite author’s work if you know they are against the practice. But if you’re looking for writing exercises to develop your skills, using a pre-created world as a source or template seems as valid as other known exercises such as writing a scene from a photograph or using a song as a prompt. By learning how to explore, examine and develop someone else’s canon, you can often work out how they have pieced things together; the elements and themes and considerations that go into making a fictional world. And from there you can figure out how to go about creating your own…

Continued in Part B: How fanfic can help you write more professionally

 


[i] Some publishers accept and even encourage reworking fanfic but despite recent publishing deals it is more often frowned upon. It cuts so close to plagiarism that it can be a risky proposition and just changing the names is not enough. I once received a submission that was quite clearly a reworking of a Harry Potter fanfic; there wasn’t a single name or setting that was the same as the original, but it was still obvious.

[ii] fanfiction = fic. As distinct from “fiction” = original or published fiction.

[iii] You know the ones. Fifty Shades of Grey. The Mortal Instruments. A number of well-known authors began their writing careers in fanfiction. Some hide this fact, some are open about it. It’s surprising how many popular novels secretly began this way.

[iv] Fanfiction gets a lot of flak from all corners of the reading populace. Part of this is fan shaming, part of it is because of its reputation for being the originator of slash fiction and for being focused on erotica – even though, by definition, fanfiction is just that: a reimagining of an existing fiction by fans. Erotica and slash are just one aspect.

[v] One of the things often counted against fanfiction is the fact that a lot of the writing is amateur and often poorly executed. And some writers get outraged that people are “playing in their sandpits” or “misrepresenting” the characters they created. For actors who have portrayed certain characters it can undoubtedly be somewhat disconcerting to see “themselves” written into blushingly graphic anatomical situations.

[vi] Which is not quite the same thing as Amazon’s “Kindle Worlds”, which is licensed fanfiction.

[vii] This is also a fairly accurate rundown of how an editor approaches most edits. Suggestions and changes need to be made with the author’s voice and foundations in mind.

[viii] This holds for criticising any kind of writing, fanfic or otherwise.

[ix] Just covering my bases here for all the authors who feel writing is sometimes like squeezing blood from a stone and far removed from the notion of “fun”.


 

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Editor Q&A: Part 2

October 11th, 2013

Gather round! Gather round! For it is time for part 2 of Editor Q&A.

Last week, I explained that these posts were the consequence of a social media question time[i] I held a few weeks ago. I’m sticking to that explanation, and without further ado proffer the following as part 2…

FADE IN:

EXT. DIRT ROAD. TWILIGHT.

<HOWLING>

***

@laimelde asked: How do you get work/how does the process of agreeing to edit someone’s (manuscript) happen? ie: What info should someone have handy before they approach an editor?

1. Freelance editors get work by:

  • Word of mouth – fellow editors passing names on (either because we used to work in-house with them or because we have freelanced for them) or publishers/authors/clients passing our names around.
  • Many of us also have our own websites and advertise in editorial directories etc.
  • Most states/territories in Australia have a Society of Editors. Members can often apply to advertise in the directory and there is usually a jobs board as well as networking events.
  • Networking – in person and online!

2. As to the process of hiring an editor…

The basics to have on-hand when you approach an editor are:

  • A manuscript or document that is ready for an editor. (ie: not one you are still rewriting. UNLESS you want an editor or mentor to work with you at that level[ii].)
  • The final word count.
  • A description of the manuscript/document.
  • A goal.manuscriptpiles

I also like it when clients are able to give me a history of the work: whether it’s a first draft or something they’ve been working on for years and that they’ve passed through crit partners and writing groups. (This also holds for, say, corporate documents that may be compiled from several sources – has anyone else had a go at editing it into shape or am I being given the raw data?).

This gives me an idea of what state the manuscript is likely in and how much experience the author/writer has with being edited. This can affect the advice I give and terminology I use when discussing the work with them.

It also means I get an idea if the author is trying to hire someone too early in the process. A lot of people try to hire an editor to work on their very first draft and I think this can be a mistake.

If the author is looking for a quote, I usually ask for a few sample pages so I can gauge for myself how much work is likely involved in the edit. It also means I can give them feedback on the service I think is most suitable to them. I need to know the full, final word count for the same reason.

A description of the manuscript can be as simple as a couple of words stating that it’s a sci-fi novel or a short story, or as detailed as a half-page synopsis. This lets me know what I am dealing with – proofreading a legal text requires different time and skills than copyediting a romance novel, and developmental or substantive edits are different again.

Defining the goal is also important and it’s an opportunity for the author/client to clarify their expectations of the process[iii].
Someone who is self-publishing will need slightly different services to someone who plans to submit to agents and publishers. Someone who wants to work slowly on developing their manuscript will need different advice to someone who already knows how the publishing process works and wants a straight copyedit without any fuss. This part of the conversation ensures that both the author/client and the editor are approaching the edit with the same expectations and understanding.

 

 

Desolie Page asked: What, for you, is the biggest challenge in completing an editing project?

I think the best answer I have is: being overwhelmed.

Sometimes the project feels insurmountable – maybe there is just so much work to be done on the manuscript that it’s hard to know where to start; or it is competing with other deadlines and it feels like you could never get it finished. Sometimes it can even be difficult to know when to stop…

In this case I am a chronic list-maker. I write out all the steps I need to complete for the edit, or all the tasks I need to complete and their deadlines, and then mark them off as I go.

NB: I found this question quite tough – not because there are no challenges to editing, but because there are so many different ones. So I made Desolie answer as well!

Here’s her response:

Well, apart from all the challenges of freelancing (marketing, workflow), I often forget to pace myself, especially when working on a tight deadline. I need to take mini-breaks to rehydrate, change my focus for a bit, otherwise I’m just head down and running on adrenaline, which is not good for my health.

Like you, I need a list to remind me of the ‘little’ things I need to check. And I’ve learnt to keep all the notes relating to a project in the same place, rather than just grabbing the nearest piece of paper that I manage to misplace. I think my biggest fear is that I’ll miss something that obvious.

That sounds like my challenge is being organised (better work on that one).

 ***

 

FADE OUT.

 

Thanks everyone who joined in and asked questions! I’m always happy to answer editor questions, if I can. Drop a line in the comments or ask me on Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook. (And if I can’t help there’s sure to be someone online who can!)

 


[i] Not at all like this:

[ii] See previous post

[iii] Sometimes writers will state explicitly that they are looking for “a proofread”. Asking what they want to achieve from the process – their ultimate goal, is a good way to find out if they are really expecting an edit that will analyse plot and structure. Alternatively, sometimes people ask about an edit when they’re not even sure whether they want to or should continue their work at all. Again, by getting them to explain this, an editor might conclude that the author really just wants some initial feedback.

 


 

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Editor Q&A: Part 1

October 3rd, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I decided to open the floor[i] to questions: writing worries, query quandaries, or questions about the deeply mysterious hooded figures world of editors and editing. The following are some of the questions that came through on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook

FADE IN:

EXT. MOUNTAINS. SUNRISE. MIST.

<BIRDSONG>

* * *

 Q. What makes a book good to edit?

Assuming we’re talking fiction: the same thing that makes it good to read – a good story.

I work on different levels of edits and with writers at different career levels. It is an amazing experience to do developmental work with someone who is starting out – discovering the story and characters with them. But it’s also enjoyable to work with authors who already understand the writing/publishing process and who have handed in something that, on first glance, already looks publishable. (Because sometimes that’s a challenge[ii].)

Often it’s less about the book so much as the author. An author who is resistant to the very idea of editing is hard to work with. But then I consider it part of the editor’s job to explore why this might be the case so you can develop a productive working relationship. Ultimately you both want the book to be the best it can be, so you really ought to be able to work together rather than battling each other.

openbook

Q. (cont…) My attitude is to (attempt to) get my work to near publishable level, then work with an editor on substantive things…

That is exactly what I try to encourage people to do. Hiring an editor too early (if you choose to hire one

– critique partners and writing groups can work wonders too) can be very expensive.

I see writers who end up paying an editor to do the kind of clean-up the author could probably have done themselves (bad spelling, obvious grammar errors, awkward sentence construction) and thus miss out on the closer eye, subjectivity, and expert insight they actually signed up for[iii].

It’s like any other job you might hire a professional for: painting, cleaning, renovating. You’re paying for their time as well as their expertise, so the more “basics” you can clear before they start (shifting furniture, picking up odds and ends etc.) the more time they have to concentrate on the things you may not want, or be able, to do yourself.

This isn’t something that only applies to beginners or self-publishing authors, either. Even if you’re not hiring an editor, if you’re working directly with a publisher, that process applies.

An unedited first draft will take a publisher more time and resources (usually on a limited budget) than a manuscript that has already been fairly well developed and polished by the author. In fact, it could be the difference between the publisher accepting your manuscript to begin work and sending you off to rewrite it. (Even if you have already signed a contract.) However, some authors just hate self-editing, and there are experienced, traditionally published authors who will hand in their first draft for the publisher to sort out.[iv]

A lot of people starting out may just not realise how much reworking is involved. If they are not part of a writing community and/or they haven’t (for whatever reason) ever read anything much about the writing or publishing process, they may simply not know how to redraft or edit themselves. Especially if the only thing they have heard is that they “need” to hire an editor.

It helps to know the different edit levels and services that are available. And it’s also worth keeping in mind that some editors and organisations also offer mentoring, which can be useful if you’re not quite ready for an editor but want some professional guidance.

* * *

FADE OUT.

 

Thanks everyone who joined in and asked questions! I’m always happy to answer editor questions, if I can.
Drop a line in the comments or ask me on Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook. (And if I can’t help there’s sure to be someone online who can!)



[i]  Not like this, obviously:

[ii] By which I mean it can be difficult to find anything that needs changing – which is excellent for the author but a source of stress for an editor!

It’s not that we believe no one is capable of writing anything properly in the first place, it’s just that we’re employed to find problems and if we can’t see any we assume a) we’ve missed something that will immediately be obvious to someone else, and b) that whoever has employed us (either the writer or a publisher) will assume we haven’t done anything if nothing is marked up. This means we will never be hired again and we will starve to death in a hovel somewhere. It’s not a judgement on the quality of an author’s work; if you think we’re tough on authors you should know we’re 10 times tougher on ourselves!

The flip side of this is being given something to edit by someone who is exceptionally talented/experienced/knowledgeable… in which case there is that competing stress that causes us to second guess any edit we might think about considering marking up…

[iii] More on this in the next post…

[iv] Just because they can, doesn’t mean you should…

 

 


 

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Conflux 9

May 1st, 2013

It’s always great to head off to Canberra’s annual Conflux, where I can catch up with friends and make new ones.  It’s a chance to find out what everyone’s up to and celebrate successes. There are parties and gatherings and just all-round fun.

Mark Timmony, Karen Miller and Kaaron Warren

Mark Timmony, Karen Miller and Kaaron Warren

But for me it is also a chance to learn. Conflux may be a speculative fiction convention that draws and encourages fans of all flavours, but more than anything it is a celebration of writing; bringing together authors and publishers and readers in one spot. For all that I already spend a lot of time reading books and blogs about genre, writing, and publishing; events such as Conflux are an opportunity to hear experts and folks in the field speaking in person about their passion.

It’s a chance for me as an editor to discover what makes the worlds I wander through work so well, and to learn how writers understand their processes – so I can talk to them in their own terms when I am editing their words.

It’s also a chance for me to share the pearls of wisdom I pick up with other writers who may not yet have discovered writing communities or online resources. My incessant livetweeting during these events[i] is intended as much to help spread the word to them as it is to record/report the event as it happens. And spending time attending panels and talking to industry folk keeps me armed with the latest information to help new writers who often turn to me and other publishing professionals for advice.

This Conflux I not only followed panels, but also participated (because I was momentarily brave when filling out my registration form). I spent a late night with Patty Jansen, Ian Nicholls and Satima Flavell mumbling to a bleary-eyed audience of ten about whether self-publishers need editors (you can probably guess what I think about that). I think we mostly made sense, and even if we didn’t all agree, no one punched anyone and we’re all still friends. I also got to ramble about social media etiquette at the end of the con with Russell Farr, Zena Shapter, Alan Baxter and Alex Adsett. My favourite part of that was Jason Fischer repeatedly putting his hand up and prefacing every question with a promise not to pun. (Although I am pro-pun, as anyone who’s ever had to edit my magazine and newspaper heads can attest, so I was all for it…)

I also did my first pitching session for Etopia Press! That was an adrenaline-pumping  hour – who knew five minutes could go so quickly? I can’t speak for the writers, but I really enjoyed that session as I met some lovely writers, heard some fantastic stories, and can’t wait to read more. I also chatted about pitching and the process thereof to a few people later on, so maybe I’ll blog on that topic down the track…

Topics I followed through the con…

Small press: I work with small, medium and mainstream publishers so this was a particularly interesting series of conversations, not least because so many innovative things are coming from small press in this changing publishing landscape. The mainstream versus small press smackdown highlighted the different considerations and approaches publishers and small press take – and the different challenges they face and the opportunities for their authors. There was a strong sense that small press like Ticonderoga have been able to take more risks and follow their hearts on “artier” projects in ways that mainstream publishers, driven by the bottom line, cannot. Marc Gascoigne described Angry Robot as medium press and was keen to take advantage of the ability to move faster than larger publishers on publishing projects and even marketing and promotional ideas.

Fantasy: I read and edit so much in this genre, and there are so many sub-genres within it – and they’re constantly changing and expanding.

Duncan Lay and KJ Taylor prepare to launch each other's books!

Duncan Lay and KJ Taylor prepare to launch each other’s books!

The panel examining the success and visibility of women in fantasy was particularly fascinating as this seemed to vary depending on country and subgenre. Indeed, while this panel was taking place, *this article*  was going around Twitter; and many people have since been discussing the Strange Horizons survey. It was especially interesting to hear Trudi discuss her unexpected success in Poland, where she says publisher support and promotion meant her book tours made her feel like Stephanie Meyers.

Young Adult: Again this is a topic I followed as a fan and as an editor. Arguments about YA and what constitutes a YA novel seemed to permeate the whole convention – and you can log on to Twitter at any time of the day or night and bump into people discussing the subject. As the YA explosion panel explained, the fact that so many books originally published as “adult” titles have since been rebranded as “YA” only adds to the confusion.  Garth Nix pointed out that it’s no surprise so many adults enjoy YA fiction – the word “adult” is right there in the name. The panel ultimately concluded that YA is story-driven and this will always appeal to readers.

Crime: It was a twist to see the “crime tropes” panel pop up in a speculative fiction convention, but the reason for this soon became clear with a quick poll that confirmed everyone present, speculative fiction readers all, also read crime. The success of last year’s first GenreCon already made it obvious that most genre readers probably cross the streams fairly readily, but it was impossible to determine from this sample crowd whether as many readers of crime also cross back to science fiction. This talk covered the difficulty of categorising crime novels when so many cross genres – Daniel O’Malley making the point that in “anything ‘other world’ a single drop will make it so, but a drop of blood does not make a book a crime novel” – and quickly led on to book covers and bookshop shelving (a topic which came up numerous times during and after the convention; frustrating more than one bookseller.)

Co-author Lisa Hannett and cover artist Kathleen Jennings model their beautiful 'Midnight and Moonshine'

Co-author Lisa Hannett and cover artist Kathleen Jennings model their beautiful ‘Midnight and Moonshine’

Short story: I’m starting to edit more of these now I am working with digital presses – which have begun to accept and publish shorter works – so I was keen to learn from the experts what makes a short story successful and how the process differs for the writer compared with writing a novel. Lisa Hannett described short stories as “evoking more than they explain” and it was interesting to hear the panel describe the importance of the first paragraph or two of a short story – rather than the first line. Jonathan Strahan admitted a good first line made him suspicious as he’d then anticipate two pages wasted on justifying such an opening.

The business side of writing: In “facing reality” terms, this was one of the most valuable panels I attended. I often hear from new writers who plan, based on the first draft of the first thing they’ve ever written, to quit their job and live off their income as a writer. I know enough to talk them out of this,(!) but this panel took it to the next step. This was about the reality of being a career writer once you have been published. In many ways it was similar to workshops I have co-presented for freelance editors – the focus being less on the actual work you do (writing or editing) and more on the reality of what that life means: you will be running a small business. And you will be working alone. You have to be prepared, you have to be organised, and you have to know yourself. Karen Miller pointed out that while writing is a solo endeavour, publishing is a team sport and you need to know the roles of all the publishing people you work with. All the panellists agreed that publishing was just one step in a writing career and shouldn’t be the end goal because actually being published involves a lot of work and effort on the writer’s part.

Guests of Honour: I tried to attend as many guest of honour presentations as I could, although I missed more than I would have liked. Karen Miller’s photo presentation stood out in particular, showing how valuable a research trip can be and how differently a “standard” tourist tour of the castles and exhibits of Europe can be, viewed through a writer’s eyes. Under Karen’s guidance, stunning shots of a romantic, mist-swathed glassy river became the potential scene for a bloody ambush; an intricately engraved helm featuring the moulding of a bearded face became the enchanted armour for a king and so on. She showed us pictures of elaborate (and decrepit) doorways and encouraged us to imagine what sort of occupant might reside beyond, and further: how difficult (or how easy) others may find it to enter through such deceptively restrictive openings. The presence of tourists in the ancient dwellings served to add perspective – providing a measure by which we could see how humans have changed in height and girth (or not) and the challenges a character (and thus a writer) may face maneuvering within any given space.

Books about these places are easy to find, but Karen’s photo presentation made it obvious that these realities are much clearer when seen in pictures.[ii]

I also signed up to attend my first ever kaffeeklatsch – with Angry Robot’s Marc Gascoigne. I think everyone has been watching Angry Robot closely since they started as they’ve certainly been trying exciting new things and publishing fantastic titles – lots of Australian authors among them. Angry Robot are extremely online-savvy and one of the most important things I took away from the conversation, given the number of authors I have heard bemoaning the need to be on a blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, etc. was that the only thing that is a must-have for any author is a website. Nearly all publishers feature pages for their authors, but Marc pointed out that readers will go to Google, not a publisher, for the latest information about their favourite author. An author can keep all their information on their own site and be the obvious, official place for readers to go. Additional social media: blogging, Twitter etc. should only be undertaken with genuine interest. As our later social media panel discussed: readers and followers can instantly tell if you’re faking or marketing, so if you aren’t interested, don’t have time, or can’t be bothered: don’t do it – concentrate on the writing!

Angry Robots

The “Angry Robot family”: Marc Gascoigne, Jo Anderton, Ingrid Jonach, Kaaron Warren

I think all the authors at the chat[iii] liked the idea of Angry Robot’s inclusive approach to publishing, which both Marc and his authors described as a kind of “family” with AR authors
encouraged to join in on their email loop for discussions about releases and covers, launches and signings. More than one writer mentioned later how isolated they had found their own publishing experience by contrast.

For myself, I think it’s imperative that any future office[iv] I move into comes equipped with underfloor caves like the AR offices. And cobbled streets outside, too. Or inside. I’m not picky.

 

In all this was another fabulous con. I met some wonderful new people and learned far more than I could ever condense into a single post. (Even one as epically long as this.) And I haven’t even touched on all the launches, readings and parties that took place between and after panels. Once again, this was a weekend of fun and enrichment that reconfirmed to me how lucky I am to work with the books and stories I love to read.

 


[i] Apologies to everyone who has been bombarded during this month’s Bothersome Words Conference Tweeting Extravaganza.

[ii] Or real life. I think we could all justify a holiday to somewhere that would help with our next writing/editing project: yes/yes?

[iii] And at the Angry Robot Hour held later in the con… I may have stalked Angry Robot a little bit…

[iv] House.

Latest additions to Mount ToBeRead, courtesy of Conflux.

Latest additions to Mount ToBeRead, courtesy of Conflux.

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Ten rather good online resources for writers

February 21st, 2013

We all know by now, the internet is full of helpful information for writers – and sometimes the reason it’s hard to find anything is simply because there is so much to wade through. Every now and then, it’s helpful to have a quick list of Useful Places To Go To Learn Things – but even those abound.

The BW blog is aimed primarily at those who write/work with words that are intended to be read, whether in a book, or a magazine, or online, or wherever. There are thousands of “how to write” blogs devoted to this cause, so this list of writing resources is a little different. The following are in no particular order but aim to address the different aspects of the writing life, and hopefully come at some of those aspects from a slightly different direction…

 

1.       Daily Wpencil2riting Tips

http://www.dailywritingtips.com/

In which any explanation or description is superfluous to requirements: it’s all there in the title. This is indeed, a blog featuring daily writing tips. Less about story craft and more about “here’s how to use a comma”. It’s an easier-to-read style manual in bite-size chunks.

As an editor I am duty-bound to point out that some things will be more relevant to US writers than those from the UK or Australia.

2.       Grammar Girl

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

Is it who or whom? Lay or lie? Why isn’t the dictionary written in plain English? And who decided to make the style manual so confusing? For those moments when you can’t get your words to lie flat and you find you’re wrestling with the slithery octopus that is the English language, Grammar Girl is the place for “quick and dirty tips” – straight-forward explanations of language and grammar rules, and simple tricks to help you remember them. A small caveat here once again that this is a US site and thus adheres to US-English rules, although the author generally references British-English differences.

3.       John Finnemore: Forget What Did

http://johnfinnemore.blogspot.com.au/

As helpful as it is to see how other novelists approach their craft, sometimes examining story and the writing thereof via a different medium can make the lessons more interesting – not to mention highlight how universal some rules really are.

John Finnemore is a TV/radio writer and comedian. His blog is an excellent source of writing how-tos if you learn best by dissection. By this I mean he writes several popular radio comedies and he often returns to his blog, after an episode has aired, and explains in detail precisely how he went about crafting that episode – from rough notes to final recording. Obviously it helps if you have heard the radio shows in question,* but for writers (and editors) there is really no better way to learn than by example. Finnemore describes precisely why he may have made particular narrative choices, even going so far as to highlight story possibilities he explored during the draft process that ultimately failed to work – and explaining why this was the case. His willingness to analyse his own work so clearly and openly provides valuable insights into how stories work and proves the importance of knowing and understanding the rules.

 4.       UK Scriptwriters

http://dannystack.blogspot.com.au/p/uk-scriptwriters-podcast.html

This is a podcast,** although there is also a blog. It was created “for screenwriters by screenwriters” say the hosts, Danny Stack and Tim Clague.

Fie to that, I say. I mean, it is. It is chock-full of extremely useful information if you are a screenwriter, so if you are one: have at it – there’s loads of important information about film and TV. But even if you’re not, if you’re A Writer, or An Editor, this is still very useful. Stack and Clague are freelance writers by any other name. So their podcast is focused specifically at getting noticed and getting/finding work in the screenwriting business – but there’s not a single podcast that doesn’t include relevant information for you if you write stories and need to get noticed/published.

Again, it is about adapting advice to suit your needs. An episode focusing on how to pitch may be aimed at screenwriters who need to catch the attention of a room full of executives in under five minutes, but if you’ve written a novel you may well want to know how to do the same if you meet a publisher or agent at the next writers’ festival. Tips on how to craft a craft a screenplay are aimed at ensuring pacing is sound and actors and directors can easily interpret the action – but your manuscript needs to follow a lot of these same rules, and modern reading expectations have adapted to match what we expect from TV and film. The podcasters’ advice on how to survive the lonely day-to-day slog of running a freelance business and staying inspired is also valid no matter what you write.

Preditors & Editors/ Writer Beware/ Absolute Write

There’s so much information to absorb when you’re trying to get into publishing – how do you know who to trust? Luckily there are some great sites online where you can find out whether you’re being scammed by a shady agent who’s never made a sale in their life, or whether you have actually landed a golden contract with the Best Publisher In All The Land. 

5.       Preditors and Editors

http://pred-ed.com/

A massive index of agents, editors, publishers and other services, complete with ratings, warnings and recommendations.

6.       Writer Beware

http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/about/

Run by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, they state their mission as “…to track, expose, and raise awareness of the prevalence of fraud and other questionable activities in and around the publishing industry”. This is a good place to check for the latest scams catching unprepared writers.

7.       Absolute Write Water Cooler

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/

Questions about the industry? Need some support? Want the low-down on a particular publisher or writing competition? This is the place for you.

8.       The Australian Writers Centre

http://www.writingbar.com/

Looking for a good round-up of articles, news stories, tips, interviews, podcasts and blog posts on the world of writing, books and publishing? The Australian Writers’ Centre Blog is a pretty good place to start.

9.       Freelance Switch

http://freelanceswitch.com/

This site is full of tips and advice on freelancing. It’s not specifically about writing, or indeed editing, but it is about how to start freelancing and how to work as a freelancer. There are tips on self-promotion, on networking, on finding work and much more.

Much of this is adaptable to your needs as a writer. Maybe you work as a freelance writer (or editor), in which case you have already embraced the #rockstarfreelancelifestyle and anything that’s not country-specific (such as legal or taxation rules) will be completely relevant to your interests. But even if writing is something you do after hours, many of these rules will apply. Because in order to make a success of your writing career, you need to get your work out there – whether it’s submitting to publications, agents and publishers, or promoting work that has already been published. Maybe you’re alone in your writing life and you need to find like minds… these tips for networking and social media and promotion all apply to the writer hiding in her garret as much as to the freelancer in his shiny home office.***

10.   Life Hacker

http://www.lifehacker.com.au

Most writers I know, like most rockstar freelancers I know, tend to be really short on time. They point to that Douglas Adams quote about deadlines and laugh hysterically. And then they continue to procrastinate…

Life Hacker is great for this personality type. First of all, it gives you something to do while procrastinating because ooh, shiny website tpencil3o read. But also, when you realise that oh-my-god-how-did-I-just-lose-an-hour-on-this, you can make that time up with all the snazzy shortcuts you learned from Life Hacker. Like how to automate your freelance quotes, or computer and internet shortcuts, or how to use social media efficiently.

 

What are your favourite online resources? Share them in the comments!

 

* Go ahead and do that – it’s worth it, I promise. This post will still be here later…

** Yes. I know. Note my cunning use of the word “resources” in the heading to cover a multitude of sins. I am multilingual like that. Or something.

*** “Shiny home office” = very much like a writing garret. Often involves a couch. Frequently includes pajamas. Shininess is relative and probably fleeting.

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On submitting manuscripts

February 7th, 2013

And an announcement…

A funny thing happened while I was blundering around the interwebs late last year. I was rummaging around on Twitter, minding my own business, when I stumbled into a conversation about tentacle fiction. That wasn’t the funny thing, obviously. Conversations about tentacles are a dime a dozen online, (if you, ah, know where to look) and they can be Serious Business – but the non-linear result was this announcement: I am now a freelance editor for Etopia Press!

 As such, I am now taking direct manuscript submissions for speculative fiction (including fantasy, science fiction and horror) as well as romance/erotica.  

Please check out my new submissions page for details on what I’m looking for, and visit Etopia Press to find out more about what they publish.

 ***

In the meantime, in the spirit of dusting off the blog and getting it back up and running, and after a few conversations I’ve had online, I thought it might be time to analyse the fearsome obstacle of Publisher Submissions Guidelines.

Every week, there’s a new list of top tips on how to submit your manuscript successfully. Originally, this too was going to be one of those posts; but the thing is, ask any publisher or editor what they look for in a manuscript submission and they’ll nearly all say this:

The ideal submissions follow the publisher guidelines

No matter what else they might come up with in terms of story and writing quality, this will feature in their answer.
And yet some people still think guidelines are mere suggestions and can be ignored. Or alternatively, that they’re tricks and barriers deliberately put up by publishers to keep people out.

Neither of these things are true; or at least, not in the snarky and negative way that some people suggest. So, let’s break down what submission guidelines usually include and why the publisher might want you to adhere to them (and why it’s in your interests to do so, too).

Most publishers include the following within their submissions guidelines:

1. Description of the genres they do and don’t accept.

Not all publishers produce all things. If you’ve written a children’s book, you want to look for a children’s book publisher, or a publisher with a children’s imprint. What you do not want to do is send it to, say, a romance publisher who specifically states in their guidelines that they don’t publish children’s books*. And think about it, why would you want to? If they don’t publish your genre, then they don’t market to your audience; their editors probably don’t work regularly on those kinds of manuscripts.

Wouldn’t you rather work with a publisher as passionate and knowledgeable about your topic as you are? Who knows how to reach the people you’re talking to? Note: you might find someone at the first publisher does look at your misplaced manuscript, and maybe they’ll love your book. But that doesn’t change the fact they don’t publish that genre. So you’ll get a nice email from that editor telling you it’s a lovely book they can’t publish and wishing you well. That’s a best case scenario and where did it get you? Nowhere.

2. What to include in your submission (eg: cover letter, synopsis, manuscript/sample) – this will often include guidance on how long each element should be.

This is fairly obvious: the cover letter tells the editor/publisher who you are and a bit about your background, as well as what your manuscript is about; the synopsis summarises the entire manuscript down to a few pages, and the manuscript is… well… the manuscript.

The submission should include your contact information. It is extremely rare for a publisher to use this information to inform on you to ASIO/MI5/the CIA. As a general rule they like to use your contact information to contact you – maybe with a rejection, but hopefully with a contract offer.

Emanuscriptsvery element in your submission is important and has been requested for a reason. When you’re compiling your submission and thinking you could probably leave some bits out (or add in some extras) it’s worth thinking about how an editor might approach the actual reading of the contents of your submission. It’s possible they will read the parts in order, and how well each section is presented will help them decide whether to keep reading or cull your submission from the pile altogether.

If the cover letter is completely garbled, they may be hesitant about reading the synopsis. If they can’t make sense of that, they may not even look at the manuscript.

On the other hand, the synopsis might grab their attention within a page and convince them you’ve written a story they just have to read right now – something they wouldn’t have otherwise learned until they’d spent far longer reading the whole manuscript.

Other editors do it the other way around. They don’t want to know anything upfront and will dive into the manuscript first. But if they like that, then they want to know about the author… and it’s always nice to know whether the author’s view of the story as written in the synopsis is the same as the one in the full manuscript. Or maybe the editor will get halfway through the manuscript and waver on whether to keep going… the synopsis might ensure they do.

3. Where and when to send your submission

There are few publishers these days who hire staff for the sole purpose of reading through “the slush pile”. For the most part, reading submissions is a task editors and publishers do on top of their full-time work. Maybe it’s scheduled into their work week, but more likely they’re taking manuscripts home to read after work and on weekends. And they get hundreds of submissions each week.

It’s very easy for this to get out of control. And authors, understandably, do not like to be kept waiting for a response.

So publishers try to make this process simple and organised. They will provide details on precisely where you should send your submission. That means it will go to a monitored post box or email account and someone in charge of submissions will actually look after it. Of course, you can be wily and send it to someone specific if you think you’ll have a better shot. That might work. But you also run the risk in that case that your submission gets lost in that person’s overflowing inbox, or automatically deleted because you failed rule one of submissions: you didn’t follow the guidelines.

Some publishers are also specific about when you can send submissions. This might be on certain days, between set hours, or during certain times of the year. This is not the equivalent of the rock star’s rider.** Rather, this is a cunning administration technique to allow them to control the inflow of submissions. It means they know when to expect that week’s subs and they can monitor and distribute/read accordingly.

4. Formatting instructions

This is one people really think is a waste in the digital age – because who cares if you used the wrong font? Surely the in-house person can just “select all” and change to the preferred font or delete any unnecessary footers?

This is true.

They could.

Of course, they might have to do that on every one of hundreds of submissions.

One of the things an editor has to consider when reading a submission is how much editing a manuscript will require to make it ready for publishing – as in, ready to go on the shelves. Publishers have to think about the time and expense involved in working on any manuscript before they accept it. Part of that consideration includes gauging whether or not an author is likely to take guidance and edits happily. If you wilfully ignore the formatting guidelines on a publisher’s submission page, or worse, send in something you have pre-formatted for print (complete with cover, pictures and full layout) you may well lead the editor to assume you are someone who can’t take instruction and who is not willing to be edited.

There are also other reasons for specific formatting, depending on how the individual publisher’s submission filing system works.  If you don’t supply the right information in the right way, you are relying on whoever does look after the submissions files to notice and either correct it or contact you for the right information.  As mentioned, they’re probably dealing with several hundred submissions. What are the chances they have the time or inclination to do this?

 

The thing to keep in mind with all submission guidelines is they are there to make the process as clear, straightforward and fair as possible for everyone – on both sides of the equation. Next time you catch yourself thinking it doesn’t matter if you haven’t followed that particular guideline, ask yourself – what makes you so special?

Because, yes; your manuscript might well be The One. Maybe you are going to set the world on fire.*** But…  if your manuscript is in the submissions pile, no one has actually had a chance to read it yet to know that it’s so special. And if you don’t follow the guidelines, maybe they won’t ever get around to it. Because there are hundreds of other manuscripts in the same pile and all their writers think they’re special, too…

Publishers want great manuscripts. Help them find yours.

 

*And yes, this happens all the time. Also the other way around, I suspect.  Blanket bombing the entire publishing industry with your manuscript is not a good approach.

NB: There is often confusion specific to children’s titles because some publishers accept YA (young adult) titles. Even allowing for the arguments over whether “young adult” means 12-18 or includes 20-25-year-olds; if your book is for toddlers or 7-9-year-olds, it’s not “young adult”. Failure to understand your own market is another red flag to the submissions reader…

**I’ve never met anyone in publishing who would allow anyone to remove free M&Ms from the room – not even for dubious colour-coding purposes.

***…And you’d better believe you’re going to set the world on fire, because you need conviction to survive this tough publishing business.

 

 


 

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Fictional characters are real people too…or they should be

August 3rd, 2012

I recently* watched an interview with author John le Carré, in which he spoke at length about life as a spy versus life as a writer and the importance of story and character. Stories, he said, are “the ultimate escape: the fictional world is the one in which you really want to live”.

Now, if ever there were two careers likely to make one an expert on fiction versus reality, I’d say spy and novelist would be the ones! And le Carre’s assertion on stories is certainly true for me – the fictional worlds I travel to are invariably more interesting than my real life,** but more importantly, they tend to make a lot more sense; I am somehow more deeply involved in, and often inspired by, fiction in a way that I’m not always by my blander meatspace existence.

I wonder is this escapism true for everyone in the way that it is for those who write and work with stories? Le Carré wasn’t just talking about the daydreams in which surely every human indulges. He meant the particular finely crafted fictional worlds of books and film – populated with people so lifelike you can imagine them stepping off the page and down the street.

Stories help us to understand reality

I have spoken before about people who resist giving up their hold on the real world. And I frequently encounter those who are dismissive of fictional fancies. Yet we have always made sense of the world through storieThrough the Looking Glasss; we’ve always taught children and societies through myth, parable and fairytales.
Many university courses, particularly the oft-looked-down-upon Arts courses, still do so.*** Not just English, but philosophy, culture, sociology and other subjects are all taught with one eye/ear on stories to get the message across and clarify different concepts. In part this is also to show students and readers the different ways there are to read various books and texts, but these are important lessons too for writers who want to learn about hidden layers, messages and triggers in a story.

This week Linda Morris wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald about the Australian army’s prescribed reading and film lists****. “Reading lists,” she writes, “are assembled by military forces to help soldiers understand the history of conflict, develop critical thinking and navigate moral and ethical questions.”  Here is a prime example of fiction – albeit based on and bolstered by real life encounters and non-fiction materials – being used to help people come to grips with the real world. The realities and complexities of war are such that simply explaining the facts are not enough to prepare a person for it. We need stories to bring things to life; to enhance understanding.

It is sometimes easier to relate through fictional characters – whose inner thoughts and turmoils are often more clearly defined than those of a “real” person ***** –  and consequently it is easier (as a reader or a writer) to untangle your own thoughts, feelings and experiences through their stories. And yet these days a lot of people would say that fiction isn’t the place to get life lessons. It’s all just someone’s imagination.  How sad, they say, to live your life in books and not experience the real world. You can’t really connect with a fictional character, they say.

Can’t you?

Readers need characters to be real

Countless tales have been written where fictional characters come to life. And plenty of people talk about how much they wish certain characters were real. The fact is someone wrote that character, that experience. Even if entirely invented, the author must have drawn on something to pull that creation together: their own human emotions, or traits they’ve seen in others.

Many authors’ writing tips include putting together files or boards for each character, including their backstory, traits, appearance, tastes and so on. It’s important to note barely any of this goes into the actual story but it’s enough to help build the character into three dimensions in the author’s own mind – which means a lot of things will, or should, bleed through as they’re writing the story proper. It also means there is a frame of reference already built in when that character needs to react to a situation or interact with other characters.

Of course this technique won’t work for everyone – many writers are dedicated pantsers, working entirely without notes – but even if you keep it all in your head, you need to “know” your character if you’re going to wrangle him or her (or it) successfully on the page. This background is handy to prevent characters simply performing “actions of convenience” that move things to a necessary plot point but are otherwise out of character or lack sufficient motive. It means that if someone has to ask the question “why did he do that?” there is already an answer.******

This level of detail is why authors so often talk about characters writing themselves – not all of them spring to the page fully formed, some require careful creation by the author­ – but once you know them well enough, your characters may almost speak for themselves. This also means that when it comes to editing, your editor will also be able to spot inconsistencies in a character – even though they may not have all the background knowledge you do as the author.

So do writers

The irony in all this is that while the fictional world may be more alluring, the best characters are true to life; they are drawn on real people, real experiences – even if one single character is a mishmash of several real people. Le Carré suggests writing these characters can be an opportunity for the writer to explore themselves, noting that “in the reinvention of oneself you get the therapy of making character”.*******

Good writers are generally good observers, taking in all levels of detail from the world and the people around them – from dialogue overheard in cafes to altercations and misunderstandings between friends.********

The most convincing characters are believable because they draw on reality. Of course there are extremes – the serial killers you’d hope are not actually based on the writer’s true experience – but again the most memorable tend to be the most human. What makes them chilling is their charm, often the fact that you can imagine this person, responsible for such reprehensible crimes, could be your neighbour, your friend, even your lover. They share traits with people you, the reader, actually know.*********

Of course there’s further irony in the fact that while they strive to create realistic worlds – and even the fantastical ones must in some ways be realistic –  many writery types often joke about their personal obliviousness to and inability to interact with the real world.**********  Again, I would point to the real world’s dismissal of those who work with fiction as perhaps a reason for this sometimes-awkwardness; for example, the glazed expressions from people bored to death when one waxes lyrical about a beloved story or thrill of getting the words to align Just Right.

Fictional characters never judge you for this passion.***********

Stories and fictional characters are often what make some of us get up in the morning and keep us up at night. They may be our own creations or someone else’s, but though they’re not often accorded the same respect, they’re things we take as seriously as other people take their own jobs. (Perhaps more so in some cases, because some people hate their jobs and don’t care about them at all.)

Caring this much is hopefully what makes good stories. You care about the fictional as if it were real, because sometimes you wish it was. And ideally you want your reader to have the same yearning. If le Carré is right, and the fictional world is the one in which you really want to live – or the one in which you’d like your readers to want to live – then you have to make it real.

Do you get lost in your fictional worlds? Do characters write themselves onto your page? Or are you one of those terrifylingly well-adjusted creative types who can compartmentalise and socialise with the best of them?

 

*Recently = months ago. It was one of the extras on the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy DVD.

**Not a challenge. Even the most creative writer would get limited mileage from the exhausting adventures of editor-sitting-at-desk.

*** Anything from Shakespeare to The Matrix can be used to explain complex philosophical ponderings…

****Linda Morris: Military gets the reel deal: now army’s reading list includes these films SMH, July 30, 2012.

*****Because real people don’t have their own separate author, or a draft and edit function. Well, unless you want to be metaphorical or philosophical about it…

******Of course if someone is asking that question when they shouldn’t, that may not be a good sign. Make sure any excessive background you have kept wrapped up tightly away from the manuscript has a little more air to breathe and circulate.

*******And really, there is no better place to start when asking a character to perform a certain feat than by asking yourself what you would realistically do or say in the same situation. If you don’t like the answer, decide which one of you – you or the fictional character – needs personal development/therapy.

********You need to watch out for this. Some writers will warn you that anything you say can and may very well be used in their next book. I once made the mistake of mentioning an altercation I was involved in, forgetting I was at that moment standing in a room full of writers. I quickly found myself surrounded by a selection of eavesdroppers clamouring for a detailed anecdote, which both my stage fright and my conscience failed to provide. However, this was a handy reminder that writers are always listening and anything you say to, or near, a writer is fair game.

*********As indeed do real serial killers, apparently. Neighbours and friends are frequently reported as shocked that the quiet unassuming person on all the news channels is the criminal described.

**********This tumblr post by Neil Gaiman is the perfect example.

***********Unless you write them that way. In which case I refer you to the above footnote. Not that one. The other one.

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