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. http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy.html

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
http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tpv2guides/guides/wrtps/index-eng.html?lang=eng&lettr=indx_catlog_g&page=9tZXuAe4oZYs.html

Making letters and emails gender-inclusive
https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/blogue-blog/inclusifs-gender-inclusive-eng

Gender and sexual diversity glossary
http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/publications/diversite-diversity-eng.html

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. http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy.html

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. http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy.html

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 EssentialEdits.ca 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) https://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/turkey-city-lexicon-a-primer-for-sf-workshops/

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.