Thursday, October 31, 2019

H. G. Wells on Editing

Australia outlaws Editing Student Work

I've just read that Australia has passed a law with fines of $250,000 and/or two years in jail for anyone editing a student paper. This makes my brain hurt.

I completely understand that one wants to stop rich students from hiring someone to write their papers for them, and I understand that there is a thin line between 'editing' and 'rewriting'. But the law banning editing is stunningly stupid for several reasons:

First, it's not going to slow cheaters at all. It just means they have to outsource their papers to paper factories outside of Australia--you can't fine or jail a guy in India or Philippines, so how is banning local editors addressing the problem?

Second, besides being unenforceable, the law is fundamentally discriminatory. The ability to write academically is a learned skill, but some students are disadvantaged by speaking a different dialect even if 'native speakers'. Undergraduates from impoverished, ethnic minority, immigrant, etc household are clearly discriminated against by the demand that students write in a certain style with which they have not been raised.

Third, the fiction that students are taught these skills in undergraduate courses is rubbish. I do have colleagues who spend time developing their students' writing skills, but these individuals are few and far between. The vast majority of the professoriate have little training in pedagogy let alone in the subtle and difficult skill of teaching writing. Although some take some interest in learning how to teach their particular discipline, most have little interest and take no responsibility for teaching writing, not even the writing skills specific to their discipline. When I challenge these individuals they inevitably say, "The students should have those skills when they show up in my class, it's not my job to teach them how to write." For the flaw in the argument that these skills are a pre-requisite for which the professorate has no responsibility, see #2 above.

Fourth, since few professors are prepared by training or motivation to teach writing skills, how exactly are students supposed to learn them? If it is proposed that helping students learn how to write by editing their papers with them be made illegal, what you are really saying is that it is illegal to help students from the working classes, ethnic minorities, and so on, succeed. Whatever the initial intent (which may have been to stop cheating) the actual impact of such legislation is the suppression of social mobility.

Fifth, as a former prof and now editor, I do a lot of thesis rescue work. Supervisors approach me to help their students with the writing process, saying that their student's research is fine, but they are struggling with the writing process. When I was a prof, they would bring me on as a committee member to help the students learn how to write, like other committee members contributed their expertise in methodology or stats or whatever. Now that I'm retired, they send the students to me as an editor, trusting me not to write the paper for the student, but rather to tutor them on how to do it. I'm very good at teaching graduate students how to manage the writing process, whereas their supervisors often are not. Why should it be illegal to delegate a task the supervisor does not want to do, and is not trained for, to another professional who is trained and is prepared to do it? Ideally, such instructors should be provided by the university, but generally, they are not. I would, therefore, argue that any legislation regulating editing has to allow for tutoring, and specify the permission process/documentation to ensure this doesn't devolve into cheating. The Editors Association of Canada, for example, has a set of guidelines for the ethical editing of student texts that clearly sets out the limits of what can be done and the process for obtaining instructor/advisor permission and transparency.

Sixth,(in North America, at least, though I assume it's the same in Australia) roughly 50% of graduate students fail out of their thesis and dissertations programs—in some programs, it's as high as 75% of thesis-route students. That figure has remained stable since the 1950s. If people failed out in their first two semesters, then fine, the program wasn't for them. But 85% of these failures come after 8 and 9 semesters--i.e., as the student sits down to do their thesis. Withdrawing after sometimes 7 or 8 years of paying tuition, of foregone earnings, of investing their self-image in academe, such failures are personally traumatic and an economic drain on the system. So--either the professoriate is spectacularly bad at recruitment and selection of grad students, or there is a systematic failure to teach students how to successfully manage the thesis-writing process. Making it ILLEGAL to help students learn the skills that would allow them to complete their masters or dissertation is either insane or part of a deliberate policy of labour market manipulation and subsidizing university costs. I always prefer to assume incompetence rather than conspiracy, but the fact that legislators and university administrators continue to ignore 40 years of research on this topic does make me wonder.

More and more Canadian universities are adopting anti-editing policies. Most have based their policies on the Editor Canada guidelines, but others are more restrictive. I hope the trend doesn't continue so far as provincial legislation. Such laws are unenforceable and would only have the effect of maintaining or increasing the suppression of able members of discriminated against populations, particularly the working class.

(My paper on thesis writing strategies which--based on the work of Howard Becker--explains why 50% of graduate students fail, is here: The appendix lays out the research on failure rates.)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Common Errors #22: Mistakes When Submitting to a Publisher: Cover Letters and Synopses

Great interview with Sandra Kasturi, Co-Publisher, ChiZine Publications, on Jim Harrington's excellent Six Questions for..." blog. I particularly loved the discussion of cover letters and synopses (answer to question #3) which is the clearest statement of the typical errors people make and the clearest direction for how to do them properly I have yet read.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Common Errors #21 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Copy Editing

Once the final draft of the manuscript is approved, it goes for copy-editing. There would be little point copy-editing the initial draft, as whole sections are likely to disappear and entirely new sections appear during developmental edits, so no one is going to pay $60 an hour to keep re-copy editing the same manuscript. Copy editors catch typos, spelling and grammar errors, inconsistencies, and so on.  It is a highly technical skill, takes a certain personality, and is often underrated. A typical example: I used 'global change' to change a character in one of my stories, but unknowingly had Word set to "changes from here down" rather than "all document" so that a minor character was one name in the first scene, and a different name four scenes later. Which, understandably, caused some confusion until caught by the copy editor.

The need for copy-editing is obvious; less obvious is that copyediting is not a substitute for development editing. Beginning authors who arrange to have their manuscripts 'edited' before submitting to a publisher, or self-publishing, need to be clear on whether they are hiring a copy editor or a development/structural editor.  Freelance development editors (often marketing themselves as "writing coaches") can often be very helpful in identifying problem areas; over-coming writer's block; pushing authors to go deeper, to up their game; and turning initial drafts into submission-ready drafts. Copy editors can help authors avoid embarrassing typos and inconsistencies, but it is not their job to tamper with the manuscript's content.

Knowing which service one is contracting for is therefore crucial. When I was an acquisition editor at a small press, I several times had authors telling me they had paid thousands to have their manuscript edited before submission, but when I looked at it, the manuscript made no sense. Of course, the "editor" they had hired was a copy editor, who therefore hadn't pointed out that giant ants, say, are a non-starter, but simply tidied up whatever they had been handed. Heartbreaking, but it happens a lot. To educate yourself on the different types of editors and what each does, read the Editor's Canada definitions of professional skills here:


Finally, there are a couple of trends in publishing that should be noted here. First, publishers at all levels are doing a lot less editing than they used to. Most of the major players let go between 30-40% of their remaining editorial staff during the 2008 recession, and there is no reason to expect any of them to rehire to the same levels in the future. The heavy concentration of publishing into a very few houses has created a situation where there are so many authors submitting to the same six surviving SF imprints, for example, that the majors can simply take the top 1% that need almost no development and reject the rest. Indeed, very few publishers these days have the patience to develop new talent, and simply do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Instead, the slush pile has largely been outsourced to agents, who perforce have taken on the role of development editor. That even makes a kind of sense, given that most of the new agents on the market (and therefore the ones willing to accept new clients) are the very editors laid off from the major publishing houses. Same people doing the same job, the difference being that now their salaries are being paid by the writers, rather than by the publishers....

Second, copy-editing and proofreading have been partially eliminated as steps in the process by the change from hot lead typesetting to digital. Certainly, many small presses (and almost all self-publishers) simply take the author's digital submission and run it through a software package to turn it into the printed book. Given the expectation that authors will have already run spell and grammar checks on the document, the need to pay someone $60 an hour to go through checking for minor glitches is now sometimes seen as redundant. This is a wrong idea, of course, as is obvious whenever one runs across a book that hasn't benefitted from the attention of a good copy editor.

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

On Writing Collaborations with Family Members editor Halli Lilburn has an article on collaborating with her daughter, Eartha, on a novel. Halli talks about how the project was a way to bond and to produce a unique manuscript which is greater than the sum of their singular contributions. The article was published in the Dec-Oct, 2019 issue of WestWord, the magazine of the Writers Guild of Alberta.

Group of Seven Reimagined: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings

I like to update when editors get things published.

I was therefore pleased to receive my copy of The Group of Seven Reimagined: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Paintings, which includes my story "Iceberg" inspired by the Lawren S. Harris painting "Icebergs, Davis Strait", 1930 (shown above). Honoured to have a story included in this magnificent collection: my first piece of flash fiction and my first appearance in an art book! Thanks to editor Karen Schauber for conceiving and sheparding this audacious project to its successful culmination, and especially for her help in shaping my own entry. (Even editors need and greatly benefit from editors!)

The book is available from Heritage House press

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Common Errors #20 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Structural Editing (Part II)

In Part I, I discussed the first reason there are always structural edits, even on a perfect manuscript. We continue here with Part II.

Second, editors are going to ask for changes because—well, because they're editors. Playwrights understand that no matter how brilliant the words they put on paper, how detailed their stage directions, the play's director is going to have a major impact on the interpretation that audiences ultimately see. So it is with editors. This is not to suggest that editors will insist on making changes where none are needed, but simply that authors&msash;particularly beginning authors—should start from the understanding that this is a partnership, and so allow some space for input from their (senior) partner.

Three important observations: First, just as it is to be expected that one's editor will suggest or demand certain changes, it is natural that one's first reaction to these revisions is to have a minor meltdown. I have yet to receive something back from an editor that I didn't (initially) regard as ridiculous suggestions that would undermine the entire point of the piece. I always begin by complaining to my wife and colleagues about the morons with whom I have to contend; if, that is, I can get a word in edgewise, as they complain about their editors and referees in turn. That's all just a normal part of the process. Because, let's face it, we are all of us really lazy and absolutely hate having to do revisions. Just once I would like an editor to tell me, "Hey, that was perfect! I can't think of a single thing to change!" but it is never going to happen.

Usually, about the fifth time I read the comments through I start to grudgingly confess that there is maybe the remote possibility that this or that suggestion might, in fact, have identified something that could be worked on a bit. As the deadline approaches, I roll up my sleeves and actually try to rewrite the offending passage, a struggle that requires me to throw out my previously written words: an act in my mind akin to abandoning a child. In the end, however, as I rewrite this bit or that from the new perspective of the 'mistaken reading' by editor or referees, I come to realize that the new version is actually quite an improvement. Indeed, having completed the new draft, I generally wince when I look back at the previous version, and shake my head to think I ever felt it ready to go out.

The key here is: NEVER EVER respond to editorial suggestions the same day (probably not even the same week) as one receives them. One needs time to absorb what the editor is actually saying, to work through the emotionality of even this partial rejection, and to start seeing the possibilities arising out of the editor's feedback. That first day, one should simply acknowledge receipt of the comments and promise to attend to them in the immediate future. That's it. If some comments need to be resisted, resist them later when one is calmer; and one has already made the other x number of suggested changes—which demonstrates that one is open to change, is reasonable, flexible, and merely raising the possibility that perhaps -- in this one instance—there may be good reason to go another route than with the editor's recommendation. Such an approach is far more likely to be successful than the incoherent rant that is likely one's initial, instinctual response.

The second point here is that one needs to choose one's battles carefully. Sometimes one needs to say 'no' to development editors (or agents and publishers) if the changes they are insisting on are inappropriate -- the recent controversies over authors being asked to change characters from gay to straight or black to white come to mind. Most publishers would not hold these principled refusals against the author, though they may well choose (for purely commercial reasons) not to continue with publication of that particular manuscript. On the other hand, authors who endlessly debate every little change, who refuse to budge on any suggested revision, quickly acquire the reputation as "difficult to work with". And then one's career is over. With hundreds of equally competent manuscripts vying for the six or eight available slots in an imprint's monthly publishing schedule, there is no need for a publisher to invest time and effort in a difficult or unresponsive author. Eventually, even megastars like Charlie Sheen get fired if they are sufficiently unprofessional. One may even win the battles over a particular manuscript, but then lose the war if the publisher decides not to bother accepting future submissions.

If one feels the need to retain complete and utter control over every aspect of one's writing, the only viable solution is to self-publish; with the obvious perils that without development editing, one's ego may quickly outdistance one's competence.

Third, developmental editing is an iterative process. One submits the initial manuscript; the editor provides detailed feedback; one resubmits with the required revisions, and perhaps the occasional argument why this or that suggested change is better some other way; and the editor re-edits the revisions. My experience is that a polished first submission requires at least two, and usually three rounds of suggestions and rewrites. Other manuscripts have sometimes taken as many as six, though that does start to get tedious for both sides.

Again, it is important to view this as the editor working to make the manuscript as strong as it can be, rather than an obstruction. The goal here is to produce the best book possible, not just to get published. If getting published were the goal, one could self-publish and be done with it.

Note too, that it is important to make one's revisions on the same copy as the editor. These days, that usually means using "Track Changes" in Word, though some houses I'm told still prefer hard copy. The editor needs to see that the suggested comments have been addressed—either that the change as been made, or the author has provided reasons why the change is being resisted. It is not uncommon (and often quite interesting) to get a dialog going over this or that revision as comments go back and forth over two or three iterations. Sending a 'clean' copy back with all your changes, on the other hand, will likely drive your editor crazy as s/he has to reread the entire manuscript again, with a copy of the original next to it to compare line by tedious line, just to ensure that all the suggested edits have been attended to, and whether the revisions were successful.

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Common Errors #19 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Structural Editing (Part I)

Once a manuscript has been identified as one of interest, it still has to go for copy and/or structural editing (sometimes called developmental editing). The exact structure of the process varies publisher to publisher: In some companies, junior editors handoff manuscripts they nominate as promising to more senior editors. In others, the same editor works to develop whatever manuscripts they have identified from the slush pile, social contacts at conventions, or soliciting manuscripts from authors (perhaps based on the author's work for smaller presses). In smaller presses, the acquisition, development, and copy editor are often all the same person, sometimes just the publisher him/herself. Whatever the particular structure, the process is always the same: a promising manuscript is identified; the editor identifies weaknesses, or areas that could be explored further, and asks for changes; and finally the manuscript is copy edited.

There is always some structural editing. One may have polished a manuscript to flawless perfection, but that is largely irrelevant to the process, for two reasons:

First, the author's definition of perfection probably has something to do with the quality and integrity of the work; the editor's definition is as likely to be focused on marketability. Sure, that allusion is brilliant, funny, and exactly what that character would say in that moment, but it's over the heads of the mass-market audience and therefore a threat to future sales. It is the editor's job to raise the possibility of making the work more accessible. Yes, the hero needs to die tragically in the last scene -- but that decision precludes a sequel, and marketing costs could be better amortized over a trilogy—or even better, a series -- than a stand-alone novel. And American audiences in particular, prefer happy endings.

Which is, I hasten to clarify, not to suggest that all editors are philistines—quite the contrary in my experience. Just that their job is to help the author reach as large an audience as possible, and that minor adjustments can sometimes make a big difference in sales. There is probably no threat to the integrity of the work in changing "boot" to "trunk" and "torch" to "flashlight", to sell a British author to American audiences; but authors may justifiably balk at changing a gay character to straight, or a black character to white to pander to the prejudices of the lowest common denominator of the American mass market.

Authors may have lots of horror stories of changes demanded by editors [my personal favorite is the Canadian screenwriter who was asked if he would mind adapting his biography of a serial killer into a musical]; but for every author story, I can cite ten even more ridiculous accounts of authors unwilling to change a single word or comma in their far-from-perfect manuscripts. Authors, by definition, are too close to their own work to be able to spot the flaws in their manuscript. Development editors approach the manuscript with fresh eyes, and easily spot the lapses in logic, the sudden slowdowns in pacing, the out-of-character actions, and so on, that an author cannot. In the vast majority of cases, the editor is correct when identifying problematic areas of the current draft, though there may well be alternatives to their suggested fixes. Every suggested change is likely negotiable, but the author has to be willing to change—or to walk away from the deal.

It is true that not all editors are equally good, or equally appropriate for any given manuscript; finding the right editor to partner with is an important element in the successful development of any book. If one starts from the assumption, however, that the editor is the enemy and all their suggestions 'tampering', then the potential benefits of a successful working partnership are at risk, and the work likely impoverished thereby. Instead, start from the assumption that one's manuscript -- like all manuscripts -- could benefit from a second set of eyes, and that the editor appointed by the publisher is the most suitable for manuscripts of that sort. The careers of everyone involved is dependent on getting it right, so they really are trying to help; and not part of an international conspiracy to block or undermine new authors.

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Common Errors #18 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Acquisition Editors (Part III)

This is Part III of a discussion of how acquisition editors help writers.

Third, the acquisition editor's rejection letters actually provide a great deal of useful information, if one knows how to interpret them.

A form letter rejection means one is not yet within the ballpark, either because one is submitting to the wrong publisher, or because the work is not yet up to standard. Sorry, but again, don't shoot the messenger.

Occasionally, when an author's work shows promise, an acquisition editor will write a few words of encouragement, or point out one or two flaws that are keeping the author in the slush pile. This is an act of generosity, because every second spent writing a comment represents extra, unpaid labour for an overworked, highly stressed editor who could save him/herself a lot of effort simply by sticking to the boilerplate. Consequently, the more detailed the comments, the greater the implicit compliment -- that the editor believes the author shows enough promise to be worth the investment—even if the comments themselves appear quite negative.

If an acquisitions editor scribbles, "Not for us, but try us again" in the margin of the rejection slip, that's very a positive sign. One is within hailing distance of being accepted, but the editor already had too many time travel stories that month, or the story just didn't quite work for them, but they still saw something they liked. Put that magazine or publisher at the top of the list for next time: put some time and energy into researching the current issue / recent releases from that publisher to write something specifically targeted to that market. But one should only send one's very best work as a follow up to such a nibble -- do not make the beginner mistake of immediately shipping off everything in one's bottom drawer, especially if any of those manuscripts has already garnered a few rejections elsewhere. 

Longer comments are worthy of close examination. At first glance, the hastily scribbled comments of an acquisition editor may appear confusing, off target, or just plain stupid. Yes, the editor wrote, "didn't like the snake on page 25" when one doesn't happen to have any snakes on page 25, or elsewhere. It doesn't mean, as one often hears asserted, that the editor didn't even read the manuscript, or that they got the pages interleaved with someone else's draft. Far more likely, the editor was referring to the character of the brother-in-law and is trying to tell the author that she thought the characterization too obviously evil, or some such. Scribbling a quick (in their mind, helpful) comment on a rejected manuscript, acquisition editors often express themselves poorly. They literally cannot afford to take the time to make precise, thoughtful comments, unless an offer is on the table to buy the book. But careful examination of the confusing, oracle-like pronouncements of these acquisition editors can be useful in identifying problematic areas of the manuscript.

Of course, acquisition editors don't always say 'no'. They make their careers by discovering talented authors and advocating for their nominees within the company. When those authors produce for the company, the editor moves up in the organization. So they are highly motivated to help (marketable) new authors get published. Once they have a manuscript they feel they can work with, they either change to development editor mode, or (if the work is flawless) pass it on to a copy editor.

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Gender Inclusive Writing Resources

The Canadian government has posted some resources for gender-inclusive writing, especially in business/government/academic writing:

Linguistic recommendation: gender-inclusive writing in correspondence

Making letters and emails gender-inclusive

Gender and sexual diversity glossary

Thanks to Gael Spivak for pointing these out.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Common Errors #17 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Acquisition Editors Part II

Part I on acquisition editors talked about the first of three ways acquisition editors help authors. This is Part II.

Second, acquisition editors know their particular markets. If they say 'no', it may simply mean one is targeting the wrong market. Or, as sometimes happens, that even if one's book is brilliant, it may not be commercial. Don't shoot the messenger just because the answer isn't what one was hoping for. The acquisition editor is still doing the writer a favour, by identifying that this publisher is not the right venue for this book.  One needs to find the right audience for one's book to succeed, and if that means asking a series of acquisition editors for directions, one shouldn't be too disappointed if they simply say theirs is not the correct on-ramp for where one wants to go.

(Insert here standard lecture about researching markets before submitting—it never ceases to amaze me that so many manuscripts that show up in the wrong slush piles. Why submit a horror manuscript to an SF publisher that states right on their website that they don't publish horror?  Why submit an American SF novel to a specialty CanLit publisher? Waste of everybody's time and energy. If one is constantly getting the 'not for us' form letter, better check again that the right markets are being targeted.)

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Common Errors #16 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Acquisition Editors (Part 1)

There is a great deal of confusion out there about the role of editors.

Part of the problem is that the same label is applied to three very different roles/processes: acquisition editors, structural editors, and copy editors.

Acquisition Editors

When beginning writers think of editors, they usually focus on acquisition editors, the people who decide whether their book or story will be accepted for publication. As gatekeepers to the promised land of publication, it is easy to cast acquisition editors in the role of bad guy: the foul demons who fail to recognize our genius and arbitrarily reject our work, sometimes with cruel comments about the inadequacies of our manuscript.

That is, of course, a completely wrong-headed view of things. Acquisition editors serve three important functions for new authors:

First, they keep new authors from embarrassing themselves by publishing prematurely. One of the biggest flaws with the new self-publishing models is that it is impossible to know when one's manuscript is ready to go to press. All authors are, by definition, too close to their own work to be objective about this, and are either too self-critical (refusing to ever let go) or too self-generous (running with a first or third draft of the ten that may be required). Without an editor to tell one 'no', there is a real danger of going to press before the manuscript's full potential has been achieved—which is unfair to the book the manuscript might have become; unfair to readers who are not getting the book it could have been; and worst of all, not fair to the writer one may become. Without exception, every successful self-published author to whom I have spoken has, looking back, identified some fundamental flaw they wish they had caught before their books went to press.

Or to make the same point from a slightly different perspective: In the good old days, acquisition editors stopped newbies from publishing until they were ready, which usually happened about book five. I've interviewed over 100 successful authors, and in all but a few cases, it was their fifth book that finally got published. This is an obvious manifestation of K. Anders Ericsson's 10,000-hour rule: to master any significant skill requires about 10,000 hours of concentrated effort. The problem today is, having written those first four 'practice' novels -- and having a circle of (unqualified) friends and relatives telling one how good the books are -- it is very tempting to self-publish what should remain unpublished practice novels.

The problem in both scenarios is that one doesn't get a second chance for a first impression: readers (and reviewers) who feel that one's first novel bites, will shy away from any future titles. An awful lot of self-published writers looking back at their earlier work come to realize, not only how far they have grown since, but how much their writing career has been undermined by association with manuscripts that should never have been allowed to go public. One's name is one's brand: one cannot afford to allow it to be placed at risk.

Second…continued in next week's column.

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Common Errors #15: All of Them in One Place

I'm writing this column based on my current experiences as Senior Editor at and before that as the former Senior Editor at Five Rivers Publishing, and before that, my years as a university professor. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't mention the greatest error tool of all time: The Turkey City Lexicon.

Turkey City is a Texas writers' group that produced numerous top science fiction writers from the 1970s to today. In undertaking their peer critiques of each other's writing, they evolved their own lexicon as one or other of them uttered some clever phrase that subsequently caught on to articulate various recurring problems or tropes. Since it originated with SF writers, some of the identified tropes and examples are science-fiction oriented, but with few exceptions can be easily extrapolated to any genre. The Turkey City Lexicon has therefore spread far and wide, and if you attend any professional and most amateur writing critique groups, this is the terminology with which you'll need to be familiar.

The lexicon is available FREE from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of American (SFWA)

It is an amazingly useful tool, not only in workshops, but to interrogate your own fiction manuscript when self-editing. The lexicon gives you the language to self-identify the most common errors writers make, and by implication, how to correct them. I highly recommend you download a copy and use it.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Common Mistake #14: Adverbs

Stephen King, in his excellent On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft famously said:

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's—GASP!!—too late.

King sets up the strawman of the evil adverb by providing numerous examples of appalling misuse, with which he then attempts to tar an entire part of speech. American authors, who were never completely comfortable with the adverb, often misquote King as saying one must never use adverbs. That is obvious nonsense. British authors (and by extension, Canadian writers) being native speakers of English are better equipped to use the adverb correctly. Far worse, in my view, is the inexcusable American habit of dropping the 'ly' from an adverb and pretending it is an adjective. But King is correct about the overuse of adverbs, if one is not cautious about their proliferation.

As with said bookism, adverbs in dialog tags must be used sparingly. As discussed in Common Errors episode 13, we usually don't need to spell out how something is said. If the dialog is well written, it is usually self-explanatory:

    "I hate you!" Frank said angrily.

We knew that Frank said that angrily from the words and the exclamation mark. The adverb sticking out can sometimes tip you that the entire tag can be deleted.

By extension, some caution is required not to overload adverbs onto self-explanatory actions:

    He angrily threw down the gauntlet.

Do we really need "angrily" in there? I think not.

Having "angrily" included creates three problems: First, its redundant, so removing "angrily" tightens the text, which I've suggested earlier means faster pacing, more tension, better action. Second, it restricts the reader to a single interpretation of "threw down the gauntlet" and in the reader-director's cut, that might have been better rendered as "haughtily" or "carelessly" or whatever. Don't try to overcontrol the script. Third, "angrily" is an example of that most basic of errors, "telling, not showing". If you have to tell us the character is angry, then you're probably not doing it right. We need to see anger in their body language, in their actions (throwing down a gauntlet, for example), in their choice of words, the punctuation, and so on. Too many adverbs may be a sign that the author is giving the reader the outline rather than the story.

A few deftly chosen adverbs can refine descriptions, occasional use in dialog tags and action scenes can provide necessary stage directions, but each use of an adverb should be interrogated to ensure that it's necessary.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Common Mistake #13: Said Bookism

Somewhere about grade 6, depending where you went to school, there's an exercise in Language Arts class that has students try to come up with more descriptive words to use instead of "said". Your English teacher then circled every time you wrote "said" and scrawled "choose better word" in red beside it. But here's the important thing I want you to remember about your English teachers: they themselves never published anything.

Yes, it's important to point out to students once during their schooling that there are some other words that mean "said" which might, on rare occasion, be usefully employed. But it is not helpful to insist on changing every "said" in an actual piece of writing (as opposed to the 12 example sentences on that one worksheet). If your English teachers had a thing about "said" it's because they read that one lesson and didn't understand that it was intended as a tool to add to the writing toolbox, not a rule to be slavishly enforced. In fact, it probably indicates that your English teacher wasn't even reading stories because if you look at actual writing, there are way more "said"s than their alternatives.

Don't think of "said" as a word: it's punctuation. Just like commas and periods, said is completely invisible to readers with Grade 5 literacy and above (i.e., your readers unless you're writing for beginning readers). Replacing said with any other word introduces stage directions into the dialog. Sometimes one needs stage directions, but providing stage directions every line of dialog drives readers to distraction.

First, stage directions are usually redundant:

"I hate you!" he shouted.

Really? You had to tell us he shouted that? The words "hate you" and the exclamation point weren't sufficient, you had to step in over the reader's shoulder and whisper into their ear, "this line of dialog is shouted"? Dialog, if well written, should be self-explanatory. We don't even need a "said" here, because unless there three different couples all talking at the same time, it's usually pretty clear who is yelling at whom.

There are three problems with replacing the invisible said with stage directions.

First, unnecessary stage directions are words that could be cut to tighten the writing to speed the pacing and so increase the tension and immediacy of the scene. "I hate you!" doesn't usually need any explanation. You can just move on immediately to the next piece of action or to the response:

"I hate you!" Grabbing the gun off the table, he pulled the trigger. (No dialog tag required.)
"I hate you!"
"I hate you more, you bastard!" (No dialog tags required.)

Second, said replacements are often a sign the author is over-controlling, trying to dictate to the reader every tiny detail and nuance. Insisting the reader read the scene exactly as you saw it in your head is self-indulgent and alienating. The reader has to be allowed to bring something to the page, just like the play director has to have some room to interpret a script. Once you've written the scene, it's not yours anymore: the reader gets to remember the time their mom/lover/neighbour said "I hate you!" and bring all that emotional baggage to your scene, to relive those emotions in your scene—which makes your scene way better than you wrote it. That won't work if you insisted "he shouted" instead of "he growled" which is what it was for them.

Third, too many obvious stage directions (like "he shouted") could be received by at least some readers as insulting to their intelligence. Not a reaction you want!

Therefore: save "said" replacements for when you need them.

For example, if the character is saying something in an unexpected way, then a "said" replacement can really improve a line of dialog:

    "I hate you!" he whispered.

Oh yeah, we needed that "whispered", because it goes against the expectation of the exclamation mark, which is way creepier than some guy shouting it. People yell their emotions all the time and don't necessarily mean it literally; a covert, whispered threat can be significantly more sinister. So sometimes we need the stage directions.

Sometimes we need a dialog tag of "John growled" because even if the tone is obvious, the speaker isn't and "said" would be discordant with the emotion being expressed.

And sometimes, yes, we need to break up 200 "said" dialog tags with something different. But the use of said replacements has to be deliberate and sparing.

Too many "said" replacements is called "said bookism" because it usually feels like the author is trying too hard to elevate their writing. Said is indeed elementary, but replacing every "said" quickly comes across as pompous and tedious. So, choose carefully.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Writing Better Fiction - Brent Nichols

Writing Better Fiction released at When Words Collide (Calgary writer's convention) this weekend.

Pleased that my chapter was included in Writing Better Fiction, a charity anthology of donated essays on writing tips for fiction authors. All proceeds go to support In Places Between, the Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest, I was keen to contribute because Robyn was my friend: I did some beta reading for her years ago, so have read everything she wrote, and I greatly treasure a strikingly beautiful blown-glass globe she made and then gifted me. I've also been a judge for In Places Between, and believe that the contest and the accompanying anthology have done a lot to develop new writers.

The volume covers everything from beginnings to endings and every aspect of writing in between. There is also a chapter on business plans for writers. My contributions is "Description: When Less Equals More".

Besides me, contributors to the volume include Robert J. Sawyer (major award-winning author and Keynote Speaker at the upcoming Wordbridge conference), Hayden Trenholm (author and managing editor, Bundoran Press) Barb Galler-Smith (author and editor with On Spec Magazine), Adria Laycraft, (author and editor with, Ron S. Friedman (author), Brent Nichols (author), J.E. Bernard (author), Shawn Bird (author & poet), Sally McBride (author), Tim Reynolds, (author), Craig DiLouie (author), Ace Jordyn (author), Liz Westbrook-Trenholm (author), J. Paul Cooper (author), Renée Bennett (author), Randy Nikkel Schroeder (author), Jim Jackson (author and author of storytelling manuals), and the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association (IFWA), Josephine LoRe (author and poet), Swati Chavda (editor, author & neurosurgeon), Sandra Hurst (author), Mahrie G. Reid (author and instructor), Sandra Fitzpatrick (author Lee F. Patrick) and Lisa Brassard (author).

Thanks to Brent Nichols for taking on this project, and for accepting my chapter.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Common Mistake #12 "As You Know, Bob" Dialog

One way authors try to work in information the audience needs is through dialog. This can work well if there is some believable context where one character knows something the other doesn't, so both that character and the reader can learn the fact or clue at the same time. There are two possible problems here, however, that one has to be on guard against.

The Dumb Blonde
Back in the bad old days of pulp fiction, it was fairly common practice to have the scientist hero explain how the warp drive works to the attractive heroine passenger whose primary role in such space operas was to say things like, "How does the warp drive work, professor?" You can imagine the reaction to this 1930's motif today. Sexism, racism, agism, etc is going to get you assassinated in reviews, so don't have a dumb anything in your story. If the only purpose of a character is so other characters can explain things to them, that's a fail. (Mirrors and pets count as another character if your protagonist talks to them more than once or at length.)

"As You Know, Bob"
It's okay to have the detective explain that the suspect was seen at the scene of a previous crime, because that's information the character who wasn't there couldn't be expected to know. As long as that dialog arises organically from the current scene, and doesn't interrupt the action, that's how to do it. But having one police officer explain police procedure to another police officer makes no sense. They both know that already so would no more explain that to each other than you explain how a toaster works to your family every time you heat bread. Explaining things other characters already know is only acceptable when deliberately portraying a character as mansplaining or afflicted with particular varieties of mental illness. Having characters say things they already know to each other drops the reader out of the character's point of view and therefore out of the story.

If you could add "as you know ______ (character name)" to any dialog between characters, all that dialog has to go.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Common Mistake#11: Roundabout Redundancy

As an undergraduate, I was often told I needed to "tighten up" my writing. I never understood what that meant or how one might go about 'tightening', so the advice wasn't all that helpful. It wasn't until I was in grad school and discovered Howard Becker's book on Writing for the Social Sciences that I figured what that meant and how to do it. Allow me, then, to explain it to you.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, the process is the same. We start with an idea or scene, and we try to get what's in our head down on paper. But because it's still in the process of forming, you don't know quite what you're trying to argue or show until it's actually down on the page. This exploration of the scene/idea/theme is a natural part of first draft writing, but the result is that one writes down a line, then a second line to fill in some detail that first sentence didn't include, then another line to show some action, then another line to firm up your idea/visual, and then yet another line to nail that all down. The result is that as one circles 'round the core of the scene/idea, one ends up taking the scenic route to get to the point. Trying to tease out your own thinking leads to a lot of repetition, of rephrasing the same thought several different ways, of half saying the point here, saying the other half over there, and a third half over again because you feel you still haven't quite got it.

As you can see by the math, the first draft doesn't quite add up: it's likely wordy, unfocused, and repetitious. That's to be expected for the first draft, because you cannot see the scene or fully realize what your point was until you've worked it out on paper. You didn't realize the hero had to duck left, until you wrote that bit where the villain swings right. You can't see that A plus B equals C until you write A down on paper, to give B a chance to pop into your brain. The first draft is all about getting your ideas or scene down in rough so you can go back and refine later.

"Tightening" your writing simply means revising this initial rough draft to reduce those eight or nine roundabout sentences into one or two clear sentences. Now that you know what the scene or argument is, you need to go back and rewrite the paragraph to get directly to the point, without all the wandering hither and yon.

That's a lot harder than it sounds, because the scene or argument is now perfectly clear in your own mind, so when you look at you wrote, you see the scene that's in your head, not the circuitous labyrinth that's actually what's on the page. That's why many authors recommend putting a manuscript aside for six months and work on something else (a different scene, another story, gardening) and then come back when you've half forgotten what you've written. Then, hopefully, you can see the scene with fresh eyes and say to yourself, "Gosh, that line repeats the information I already covered two lines back" or "These three lines are trying to describe X, I should just write X" and so tighten up the writing so it actually says what you're trying to convey.

Howard Becker's dictate was simply: how many words can you cut without losing the meaning of the sentence/paragraph? Of course, he was addressing nonfiction and was all about being more precise and concise, but the principle holds equally for fiction. I'm not saying you have to cut out all the poetry and nuance, only that you have to be sure that you only have the image/symbol/metaphor that you need. That you're only describing the action that the camera would show the audience if this were a film, and not going off to describe details or scenery that isn't immediately relevant.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Common Mistake #10: Expository Lump

Another mistake I see a lot is the "expository lump". This is where the author stops the story to explain something to the audience. Sometimes it's character backstory, sometimes it's a history lesson, sometimes it a rant against some government policy, sometimes a quaint discussion of poisons so that the audience is up to speed for when the victim drops dead over her teacup two chapters later. Expository lumps are, by definition, an intrusion on the narrative, rather than the necessary information emerging organically from the action.

Expository lump is a fatal flaw for three reasons:

First, the forward action of the story stops dead while the author speaks to the audience. The explanation interrupts the action and defuses whatever tension has been carefully built up to now. By and large, your audience paid for a story, not an essay, so when the story stops, they stop reading. Even if you break these asides into smaller bite-sized bits, rather than a three-page essay, you're still serving lumpy gravy.

Second, expository violates the character's point of view. It's often the author talking, not the character, because the character already knows the information s/he is "thinking" and it doesn't make sense for the character to be thinking about that now. If the ninja jumps out at our hero, he doesn't stop and remind himself, "ninjas originally appeared in the 15th century during the Sengoku period of Japan but were considered dishonorable because of their use of covert methods" he's too busy thinking, "Look out!" As soon as the author starts explaining background history, we're no longer seeing through the character's eyes, and we've fallen out of the story.

Third, most of the information presented in expository lump is unnecessary. If the story is about the heroine hanging off a cliff, do we really need to know her fear of heights came from that time she fell off the roof when she was six? Why spend time telling us about another scene from another book when all one has to do is show us she's afraid? The answer is usually that the author has spent hours developing their setting, character, plot and so on and having put in all that work, feels compelled to tell the audience all about it. But it's redundant, off message, a distraction . . . bloating.

Cut the expository lumps out of your writing, and you automatically move it up to the next level.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Common Mistake #9: Backstory: Alternating Scenes/Chapters

I have read stories and books where the author explores two different timelines, one backstory to the other, and brings these together at the end in the "aha!" moment when the author realizes why what happened in the backstory chapters determined how the protagonist responded in the current timeline the way they did. But, um, don't try this at home.

I had occasion once to judge 33 CanLit short stories, of which I think 28 used this motif. Reading twenty-seven of these stories left me scratching my head, because they were terrible. Then I read the one author who pulled this off, and it was stunning! I voted for it to win, and it won a half dozen other awards as well. Reading that story finally showed me what the other 27 had been trying for, but . . .so not.

I'm not saying you shouldn't accept a challenge, as long as you are aware that's what you're doing, and there is a good reason for you doing this particular story that way. Just don't adopt that motif because it's "in" or because you spent all that energy on developing backstory and are hellbent on working it all in somehow. If there is a simpler way to present your story, chances are, that will make a better story. (Two better stories, actually, if you can write and sell both backstory and current story, separately.)

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Common Mistake #8 Backstory: Timing

In developing the character, the author may have decided to add a limp, and knows whether the limp was from their previous military service or falling out a tree when they were six. Great, that will help the writer know how the character will respond in any particular scene. But there is no earthly reason to interrupt the current action—say, limping away from the scene of the crime while sirens scream in the distance—to have a flashback to when they were up a tree and about to fall. Leaving the current scene in which you have carefully built up the tension, to start over with a different scene in a flashback to when they were six, is obviously self-defeating. If not handled correctly, backstory can disrupt continuity, dissipate tension, and throw the reader out of the character's point of view (because it doesn't make sense to be thinking of backstory when dealing with the current emergency). For this scene, the reader needs to know whether our hero gets to his car before the cops get there, not why he is limping. They probably never need to know why the limp, but certainly not now.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Common Mistake #7 Backstory: Compulsive Bloat

When an author is developing their character, or the setting, or the plot, it's important for them to know the history that led up to the point where the story starts. An author creates realistic characters or settings by knowing them inside and out. But there is generally no need to tell the reader any of that backstory.

Having put a lot of effort into backstory or worldbuilding or character development, there is a natural desire to get some return on that investment beyond just knowing how your setting works today and how your characters interact now. Working in the backstory therefore becomes almost compulsive with some authors, inevitably leading to bloating the manuscript way beyond what the current story can carry.

If the backstory is actually that good, write it as a separate story and sell it to a magazine, so that when the novel comes out, there is already a market for that character and/or setting. Readers love when they know backstory from having encountered these characters before, and will often seek out other stories with the same world or characters. Or write it as series with prequels and sequels galore. But today's book has to stay focused on the current story, unless there is a compelling reason to risk going off message. Trying to fit all of that into one book inevitably distracts from the current action and leads to a bloated manuscript.

Sunday, June 30, 2019


My first published drabble (a drabble is a story exactly 100 words long) is up at

Writing Drabbles and other types of flash and micro fiction is a good way to 'tighten' one's writing. Editors and agents often say things like, "this is good, it just needs to be tightened up a bit" but it's not always obvious to the author what that means exactly. As I try to edit down my novel by 25% without actually cutting any scenes, paring down my verbose style to something a little 'tighter' is what's required. The discipline of writing a story in a hundred words, or even 1000 words for flash, helps develop the skills necessary to be more concise...

Try it! Harder than it looks!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Common Mistake #6: Physical Descriptions in Place of Characterization

The author often mistakenly believes s/he breathes life into a character by providing all sorts of detail; but in fact it often has the opposite effect: by lavishing attention on the physical description, the author is to that same degree likely to skimp on actual characterization. Eye color does not a character make, because one can randomly (re)assign hair and eye color and not change the character in any fundamental way. (Well, unless these things have special significance in this particular SF&F world, that grey eyes indicate elvish ancestry, or some such...). Characters are generally memorable because of their actions, motivations, attitudes, strengths, flaws—in short, their personalities— rather than eye or hair color. If one's character notes are all about physical appearance, then you're doing it wrong. As we frequently reassure each other, it's not appearance that counts, but what's inside.

Which is not to suggest that one should never provide any detail of appearance or setting; only that one needs to ensure these details are inserted when timely and relevant; that they don't occur as a disruption of the narrative, or in overwhelming quantity (see previous columns, "Common Mistakes #2 thur #4: Less is More).

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Common Mistake #5: Too Specific Physical Descriptions

Although the author may have cast the character in a particular way, imposing that one specific actor/description on the reader is unnecessarily restrictive. Yes, the author may have worked hard to picture the scene s/he is trying to depict down to the specifics of hair and eye color, but contrary to the beginner's understanding of the process, the writer's job is not to reproduce that scene in the reader's brain exactly as the author originally pictured it. On the contrary, one wants a certain level of vagueness, of blank canvas, onto which the reader may project their own experiences and preferences. Just as a playwright has to allow for a certain amount of interpretation of the script by the director and actors, the writer has to leave room for the reader to bring something to the project.

For example, if the story features a bully, then it is far better if in the reader's mind that bully merges with that bastard down in accounting who is currently making their life miserable. Of course their conscious mind is not about to suffer any such confusion, since we're pretty sure the guy in accounting is not in fact the murder or king of the space vampires, or whatever; but great fiction, like great opera, often bypasses the intellect and goes directly to the viscera, with people's emotions. The resonance between the writing and the reader's own experience may be disrupted, however, if one insists on establishing definitively that the guy in accounting is not the bully under discussion because the one in the book has red hair and blue eyes.

Or, to take an example from the other end of the emotional scale, if one is too precise in describing the love interest, one runs the risk of including a detail that is, for the reader, a deal breaker. "Electric blue eyes" is as likely to remind them of their ex as of their current lover. (It is the same reason why it seldom pays to be too explicit in sex scenes: if it doesn't happen to be the reader's kink, one is more likely to get an "eewww!" than a sale.)

So why go there? If the writer insists on determining every microscopic detail of the experience for the reader because that happened to be how the writer pictured the scene, then it's not about trying to be precise, it's about being a control freak. If one wants to build readership, one has to give up some control so the reader can take some ownership of the reading experience. If one wants readers to recommend the book to their friends, then the reader has to come to think of it as one of their books

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Role of the Editor

This blog by Iva Cheung provides excellent insight into the writing process for academics/grad students, and then provides the most perfect explanation of the role of the editor I have ever encountered.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Common Mistake #4: Automatic Physical Descriptions

Another problem I see a lot is the mistaken belief that one needs to provide a detailed physical description of every character that crosses the page, no matter how minor. Beginning authors seem particularly focused on eye and hair color. Here's the thing: no one cares. No one ever said, "Hey, I bought this great book: it's protagonist had blue eyes. Can you believe that?! It was so great to see that in a book!"

There are three problems with providing too much physical description of characters (and to some extent, of settings).

First, timing. Beginning authors often feel they have to provide the character's appearance immediately upon that character's initial entrance. There is certainly a logic to that, but then what one often gets is expository lump right in the middle of what is supposed to be an action scene. Say an assassin jumps out at our hero: if the author feels compelled to provide a detailed description of what the killer looks like, then instead of the rapid pace of swordplay, gun fire or fisticuffs, the story comes to a complete standstill while we are briefed on disheveled hair, wild eyes, rumpled suit, and so on down to the shoelaces. Interesting as all of this might be, it is less relevant and compelling then the fact the individual in question is trying to kill the viewpoint character.

When police try to debrief an incident, for example, the witnesses are often hard pressed to identify their assailant's hair and eye color and height and so on because their attention was pretty much focused on the fact that they were being assaulted. (Sometimes they remember their was a knife, but the description is usually about and six inches bigger than it actually was.) In the heat of the moment, eye color is pretty far down the list of what people notice; so the reader won't really notice its absence either, if the writer provides sufficient action. What the reader will notice is that description replaced action; that the action ground to an unexpected halt at the precise moment the author should have been building tension.

Publication in Active Voice

I wrote a 500-word flash piece in response to this painting by Group of Seven artist, Lawren Harris. It was published today in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Active Voice, the Editors Canada newsletter.

The story is here if you'd like to read it. If you do, can you see what I saw in the painting?

The story represents a few firsts: I believe this is the first time Active Voice has solicited fiction and poetry from its members; it's my first publication translated into French, and I think this was only my third piece of flash ever.

I have found the discipline of writing flash has been very helpful as I edit my novel down from 166,000 words to something more manageable—say 120,000. Editors often say airily to their clients that the author needs to 'tighten up the writing' but it's often hard to explain exactly what that entails. Trying to write a complete story in 1,00, or 500 words, or a drabble (exactly 100 words), quickly teaches one which words are essential, and which can go. Once one develops the mindset of cutting to core, tightening up our verbose first drafts comes a lot more naturally.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Another Essential Editor Publishes this week.

And no sooner had I entered the last post, than another Essential Edits editor has a release:

Halli Lilburn has a story out in the just released Tesseracts 22 from Edge Publishing (co-edited by my former boss, Loria Stevens, and Susan McGregor, whose first novel I edited years ago). Halli's story is "Joint Eaters" and she shares the Table of Contents with some very big names in Canadian speculative fiction.

New book by an Essential Edits editor

Cover reveal for forthcoming book from an Essential Edits editor: Jumpship Hope by Adria Laycraft published by Tyche Books.

Earth is a storm-ravaged wasteland

Humanity has fled the planet, establishing bases off-world. But disaster has struck the food crops of Luna Base, leaving the Orbitals starving, and Mars Colony ignores their pleas for aid.

Hot-headed pilot Janlin Kavanaugh will do anything to save her friends, so when SpaceOp captain Stepper Jordan proposes a sketchy plan to save their people, she immediately volunteers. Anything is better than slow starvation, even a risky voyage to an alien solar system in a ship with unproven Jump technology.

The mission faces unexpected dangers, and the mettle of Janlin and her crew is tested, against each other and the strange, new species they encounter. Can Janlin overcome mistrust and betrayal to salvage the mission and restore hope to her friends and herself?

Book release is set for Summer 2019--i.e., shortly.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Common Mistake #3 Less is More: Everything

"Less is more" also applies to, well, everything: metaphors, jokes, even surplus characters. I had a manuscript across my desk where a writer used essentially the same line twice within three pages. It was funny and it built up the speaker's character, but you can't get a laugh out of the same punchline twice in three pages; one of them had to go. Later that same day, I was reading another manuscript where the author introduced several characters, spent time describing them, building up their personalities, but then didn't actually have them do anything in the story. They were just sort of there . . . except for one character who sat out the entire story in the barn, and so wasn't even there. Maybe save the barn character for another story . . . Just because you thought of an image, or a metaphor or a character, or a funny line doesn't mean you have to use it. Keep to the point, keep things moving forward, and restrict yourself to your very best material.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Dave Duncan Website

The late Dave Duncan's website has been hacked...his family has moved the content to a new address:

I am editing Dave Duncan's unfinished manuscripts for publication. (He's not done yet!) The first of these releases will be The Traitor's Son from Five Rivers in August 2021.

The 2019 Aurora Awards ballot has been announced: File 770 news Very pleased to see TIMEFALL by Alison Lohans, a book I edited for Five Rivers, made the shortlist for best YA novel.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Common Mistake #2 Less is More: Description

Another common mistake I see is beginning authors piling on the images. For example, the protagonist will ride his trusty steed into a forest, and the author will start a description of the forest with a nice image of the trees—and then another, and another and another and another until one cannot see the forest for the imagery....[sorry]. What I mean is, the first image will be striking, and the reader will think, "nice image!" and then read another couple of words and find another striking image, and think, "oh wow, another nice image—I can really see it;" and then bump into yet another image and think, "oh, that's, uh, vivid," and then another image and think, "say, this is really quite dense description". By the next image the reader is either getting impatient to get back to the story—which has likely ground to a halt—or going, "wait, what was that about the leaves again?", because one can only take in so many images piled atop one another before hitting sensory overload. The more images stacked up, the weaker each one becomes. One cannot emphasize the leaves and the trunks and the branches and the roots and the piles of dead leaves and the moss and the ants and that deer over there and the way the sun glints through the trees and the way the pattern of light dapples the forest floor and keep on to cover the entire ecology of the forest...because if everything is emphasized, nothing is.

Or, to put it another way, while it might have taken the writer three days to shape that description of the forest, and so had time to savor each carefully crafted image, the reader is going past at 300 words a minute. Okay, maybe if you're Proust or James Joyce, readers will slow down for you, but, um, you're not. Not yet, anyway. So less is more. Out of the ten images you've come up with, pick the best one; prune the rest. This will usually make the scene—and your writing—leaner, tighter and ever so much better.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Cover Reveal of Group of Seven Reimagined

Here' the cover of The Group of Seven Reimagined: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings.

The hardcover book is available now for pre-order on

I'm really pleased that my speculative fiction piece, "Iceberg" is in here: it's an honour to participate in such an important project, marking the anniversary of the Group of Seven, and to share a table of contents with such a great lineup of authors. Feeling a bit like this means I have finally "arrived"! Can't hardly wait until the book is actually released in October, and I get my copy.

Common Mistakes I See in Fiction Manuscripts #1: Starting Too Soon

The most common mistake I see is authors starting the story way too early. They need to start with the 'initiating incident', the thing that makes today different from yesterday for the characters. Starting with the 'before' picture does NOT work, because 'before' was just ordinary and readers do not want to read about ordinary life. We are all already living our own ordinary lives, thank you very much, and we bought the book for a taste of something different. Start with the action scene, start with the characters under threat and keep them under threat as the action and tension one wants to read the characters' "Before" story, their backstory, at least not in the first 30 pages.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Common Mistakes I See in Fiction Manuscripts (Introduction)

As a follow-up to the wildly successful, oversubscribed Live Action Slush panel at WordBridge 2019, I've been writing a weekly column for the WordBridge Facebook page on the errors I most commonly see across my desk as Senior Editor at It occurs to me to re-run those here as well. Three of the most common mistakes have already been mentioned on posts here, but that was several years ago, so worth repeating.

But I'd like to start by pointing out that all these "errors" are just things I'm asking you to consider in your writing, not hard and fast rules that must be obeyed. These are common errors because they are things that beginning writers (and sometimes veterans) often do without thinking, but if you have in fact thought about why you're doing this or that, and it's important to your vision, then go ahead and do that. It's not my job as an editor to dictate how you write your story. Just as there is no secret formula for great writing or commercial sales (note: those are usually distinct categories) there is no universal formula for things not to do. For every "common error" covered on a live-action slush panel or in this column over the coming year, one can point to awesome counterexamples in critically acclaimed and/or commercial fiction.

Take, for example, "expository lump": an information dump in the middle of the story where the author stops the action to explain how the science works in a science fiction novel, or how magic works in a fantasy novel, or police procedures work in a detective novel, or provides historical backstory in historical novels, or whatever. For most authors, getting the expository lumps out of their manuscript instantly raises it to the next level, because expository lumps usually interrupt the action, defuse the tension, and distract the reader. Do you really want to read a six-page essay on the fake science behind how warp drive works or do you just want to hear Kirk say, "Warp factor 5" and get on with the action?

But having said that, Robert Sawyer—the most commercially successful and award-winning Canadian SF writer ever—has very consciously laced all his books with chunks of exposition. In his case, that's not a bug, that's a feature. Of course, his exposition is better written and integrated than most, and his identification, interpretation and working out the implication of various scientific developments is what draws Sawyer's fans to his books. Declaring the exposition in his books to be 'lumps' and something to be excised would be completely missing the point and commercial suicide.

The difference is, Sawyer knows what he's doing and why he's doing it. If you haven't thought about where you're putting in the exposition and it's just kind of happened as you were writing the first draft, then looking at the checklist of common errors and asking yourself, "did I just do that?" might be a useful part of revision.

Let me start this column, then, by referring you to an excellent article by Xandra J., "The Absurdity of Publishing" ( that refutes just about everything that you're likely to hear at a Live Action Slush panel or in the coming installments of this column. Xandra riles against the sort of advice I'm about to give you with the complaint that "Advice for novice writers treats readers as though they are inept children with the attention spans of goldfish." Yep, that's about right, if authors take the errors checklist too literally.

For example, when I first posted on another blog about not making the mistake of piling on too many images at once, I got a pretty strong backlash from a group of poets. Well, um, no, wasn't addressing those remarks to poets who have carefully crafted a series of images and are on the 16th draft of their poetry chapbook. I was talking to someone looking at the first draft of their action-adventure novel and asking if a two-page description of a sunrise is really how they want to try to hook the reader.

Context and vision are everything, and no universal rule of writing exists. Indeed, great writing may require breaking some of the rules some of the time. For every five authors I have to edit down the bloat, I have one who needs to expand every scene so it's not just in their head but on the page. Any "common errors" discussion is about checking to see if you are making that mistake without really understanding why that could be a problem; but if you know what you are doing and why you're doing it for this scene in the context of this story, then, yeah, go for it!

If there is any advice I think might actually be universal, then it is these three points:

  • Take all advice with salt
  • Think about every word your write
  • Write the book you want to read

Friday, May 10, 2019

Why I Am Not a (Total) Prescriptivist

From Ryan Starkley of Starkley comics:

If you love language, be a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist!


  • Just because a word isn’t in your dictionary, doesn’t mean it isn’t a word.
  • Just because a dialect is different from the standard language, doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.
  • Just because someone uses a word in a way you aren’t familiar with, doesn’t mean they are wrong.
  • And, however you feel about it, language evolution is inevitable, so you might as well enjoy it!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Fake Writer's Contests

An excellent overview of scammers using high fee contests to con writers out of their money is available at Writer Beware: Writer Beware for April 26, 2019.

I generally won't submit my writing to any contest that charges fees, the exception being one or two magazines/journals I planned to subscribe to anyway, where the contest entry fee gives you a subscription. I am a bit sympathetic to magazines forcing subscriptions on people submitting to their contests, since if writers want to benefit from the staff at that magazine they should perhaps be a bit supportive of that community--the minimum of taking out a subscription--but also, one does sort of have to read a magazine/journal before submitting to it. I find it strange that so many writers want us to read their stories, but have so little interest in reading other people's writing. But anyway, that's a different situation than where a contest sponsor wants you to send them $25 to enter their story contest, where the prize is, say, $200. So as long as they get 8 entries they break even, and anything over that is pure profit. And you have to watch the fine print or you may find that submitting gives them the rights to your story, even if you don't win--so 100 authors pay them to enter, and they only pay the three winners, but get to keep all the rest for free. Yeah, no.

Non paying markets that charge $3 for submissions are a different thing--the $3 pays for the submission system, so that's okay. I figure the $3 are what I'd pay in postage. But nonpaying and $10? Yeah, no.

Your mileage may vary. But watch out for the scams in the Writer Beware article. Those are just straight sucker exploitation.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Best Social Media Tip for Writers: Stay Away

An accomplished, published author told me yesterday that she had to “learn how to do this Twitter thing, because they say publishers won’t look at you any more unless you have a presence on social media”. There are so many things wrong with this, I barely know where to start . . . but here goes.

False Promise

First, it’s true that the big commercial presses take social media presence into account as one of the four or five factors deciding whether to publish an author. An author that comes to them with a million followers on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram is someone who already has an audience and is therefore someone they want in their stable. But that’s like saying that they are more likely to take a movie star than a guy off the street, so you’re going to start acting lessons; or they’re more likely to take a sports celebrity, so your plan for getting published is to begin working out more so you can qualify for the Olympics. Saying you’re going to 'start on Twitter' is no less ludicrous than planning to become a published author by first becoming an Olympian.

To demonstrate why “starting on Twitter” is a waste of your time and effort, let’s examine an author who is currently active across social media: on Twitter, for example, a self-published author I much admire has been active since 2009, has made 186 thousand tweets, and accumulated 59 thousand likes (proving that what she is tweeting is well received) . . . and has accumulated a grand total of 2,561 followers. This author has a ten-year, 200,000 tweet head start on you, and still only has a couple of thousand followers—which none of the big publishers would consider as constituting a ‘social media presence’. And frankly, your life is not as interesting as her’s—she is, shall we say, damn feisty. Furthermore, I suspect the causation ran the other way: she got 2,500 loyal followers because they’re fanatical fans of her books; she didn’t get the book sales by being active on social media.

Danika Stone

To be fair and balanced, let’s consider the case of someone who consciously and successfully cultivated a social media following. YA author Danika Stone has gathered 21,000 followers on Twitter based on a mere 40,000 tweets. She had 10K followers on Twitter when she signed with Macmillan: half were garnered pre-2016 and publication of All the Feels, the rest since. But Danika Stone is drop dead gorgeous and does at least one selfie a day projecting a glamourous lifestyle, to which the rest of us cannot aspire. My question to you is: what possible angle you are going to develop in your projected 40,000 tweets to attract a significant following? Most writers I know are pretty ordinary folk . . . until your book is out there, nobody beyond family and friends is likely to care what you post. How realistic is committing yourself to come up with 40,000 brilliant tweets or selfies?

And . . . what is the demographic for your book? Are any of them even on Social Media? The friend asking me about starting Twitter writes books for people who, like her, spend their time reading books, not on Twitter.

Just because some expert on some panel at a writer's conference—likely someone promoting their book How to Use Social Media—told you that you have to have a social media presence to get published these days, doesn't mean that advice is relevant to you.

Social media diva requires a different set of skills than writing. If you had that skill, you wouldn’t be “starting on Twitter”.

If you’re not already on social media and enjoying it, don’t bother. That ship has sailed. You’ll have to compete for your publishing slot on the other four criteria, like: “write a better book”.

Bottomless Black Hole

If you’re not careful, Facebook and the rest will suck you in and take over your whole day.

All social media platforms are designed to suck you into participating. Their advertising revenue entirely depends on eyes on their page, so it will do anything to keep you on their platform&msash;and to the extent they’re successful—not writing your book. For example, Facebook defaults to showing the most popular posts first—no matter how many times you change the setting to see the current posts first—because Facebook calculates that the posts with the most likes and comments are the posts most likely to suck you back in. If you allow it, Facebook will email you multiple times a day to tell you that this or that person has just commented on your post&emdash;or commented on your comment on someone else's post—would you like to see that they said about you? And if you haven't commented or posted for a few days, Facebook will nag you that it has been several days since your X number of followers last heard from you&emdash; the implication being that they won't wait forever and you'd better get back before they lose interest and wander off.

It’s okay to go on Facebook when you’re standing in line at the DMV or otherwise killing time, but any time you’re on social media that isn’t already dead time is time robbed from writing. If you’re not spending time writing, you’re no longer a writer . . . you’re just a commodity Facebook is selling to advertisers.


Again, almost too obvious to have to state, but social media is more likely to bring you down than build you up. Social media is crowded with trolls whose only apparent purpose in life is to rain on your parade and make you miserable. Even well-meaning people who disagree with, or take offense at, something you wrote can be emotionally damaging. Even the microaggressions of self-righteous grammar Nazis can undermine your belief in your abilities, or worse, pressure you into taking more time composing and proofing social media than the fast-scrolling medium is worth. You don’t have writing time to devote to posting, let alone being meticulous about your wording so it cannot be misinterpreted or criticized.

False Positives

Even more insidious than the overall negativity is the false positivity one so often sees on social media for writers. There are thousands of memes which are some variation on “Keep going, you’re awesome, you can do it.” These motivational sayings seem inspiring at first, and may even help beginners keep going through the angst of writer’s block and the drudgery of endless revision. But sooner or later, when success still eludes one, the endless positivity starts to eat away at one’s soul. If the message is that everyone can do it, and you haven’t yet, it must be because you’re either not trying hard enough (i.e., you are a loser) or you are the exception to the rule and really are not awesome (i.e., you are a loser). The addiction to cute inspirational sayings, like all addictions, inevitably ends badly.

Controlled Participation

Earlier this year I joined various writer associations’ Facebook pages and encountered their perky social media coordinator whose task it was to build the association’s media presence/activity on their page. And initially, it was great because this person posted something every day to get the conversation going and I was glad to contribute in a forum of positivity and light. The coordinator had something positive to comment on every person’s contribution. It was refreshing.


Over time it became apparent that these were not meaningful posts or part of an actual conversation. Every Wednesday was Welcome Wednesday and every Thursday was Self-Promotion Day and every Friday was Funday and so on, which was fine for about five iterations and then . . . well, that’s not an actual discussion. Posting about my writing project on Self-Promotion Thursday isn't actually promoting it because the other people there are not remotely interested in reading my post, because they're too busy posting about their book. Since I have no interest whatsoever in their book about cats, why would I think for a moment they would have any interest in mine? We're all just talking past each other because the forum was for writers, not readers of any one particular genre.

Worse, the social media director was the director for another group I had joined about the same time, so it was the same posts on both of them—manufactured, generic posts, not genuine conversation at all. Sure it was positive, but shallow memes about nothing are not professional development or even genuine social interaction. I wasn't building connections and community, I was just feeding the statistics for the (very nice) social media facilitator. Thanks, but I need to put those hours into my own projects.

Robert Sawyer, the most commercially successful of any Canadian SF writer, says: if you want to be a writer, then you have to write and be careful not to spend time doing writerly things instead of writing. It’s easy to trick ourselves that we are being professional writers when we present at writers’ conferences or post to our author's blog or—and this is relevant here—spend time in writer groups/pages on Facebook or etc. I can’t count the number of writers I know who waste hours writing posts for social media or get sucked into arguing with people in Facebook writer groups and think they’re promoting their careers but, um . . . are to that extent not actually writing.


As Barb Geiger once pointed out to me, the only people who actually make money at craft fairs are the people selling supplies to the crafters. Nobody wants to buy your wobbly candles, or crappy beaded bracelets or whatever, but the guys selling wax and beads are doing very well, thanks.

Same with the writing game. The only people who are making money out of writing are the people selling you their "How to Sell a Million Copies on Ebay" or "How to Use Twitter to Sell Your Book" books. Even if they actually sold a million copies through social media, the book that sold that many copies was "How to Sell Books on Social Media"—i.e., the one you just bought—not an actual book-book, like the one you're trying to flog.

Sure, one or two authors in the early days figured out how to market via Twitter, and made it big, probably bigger even than their book deserved. But consumers are smart, and while whatever strategy these original pioneers used (and are now pitching to you) worked for them, it is by definition far too late for you. The online universe moves, evolves, changes so quickly that yesterday's gimmick is today's sadly obvious ploy, which the consumer merely steps around.

Bottom line: How many books did you buy this month? Of those, how many were titles/authors you discovered on Twitter? Did any of the tricks these social media marketers are handing you, tricks that have worked on you?

If you're already at home on social media, then sure, use social media to market your book(s). But if you're only there because someone told you, you have be, put your time to better use.