Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ponderings from the other side

The "other" side is the real world, not the internet. After my last post on the blog (long, long ago) I spent some time cruising around the internet, kind of sightseeing on what is out there for writers and what other editors are doing on the internet to interact with writers. I was looking for gaps, things writers might find interesting but they won't find easily. Something...uh...valid, you know?


There is a lot of disinformation, misrepresentation, narrow-minded opinion stated as fact, ego inflation, and just plain ugliness out there.

It made me stop and wonder why I couldn't find "popular" blogs from of the better writers and editors I know. No, actually, it made me stop and wonder why I couldn't find any blogs at all from the great writers and editors I know.

Did you ever stop to wonder how a hugely successful, professional, high-powered editor or agent has the time to maintain a busy, followers-hanging-off-every-word blog? That's what I wondered about. I don't know much about agents, but real world editors who work for publishing houses are chasing their own tails off just trying to keep up. They sleep with manuscripts and write backjacket copy during breakfast.

So, I pulled back, edited some fine manuscripts, signed two publishing contracts for short fiction of my own to be included in trade anthologies, and contemplated how entirely different the actual, face-to-face world of publishing and editing is compared to the one plastered on the internet.

Writers really need to know that 99% (just my impression here, I didn't, like*do* a statistical survey) of the wisdom doled out on blogs, writers' forums and self-proclaimed "editors" websites aren't the reality of the publishing world. Real editors don't make fun of the manuscripts they are editing. Real publishers don't hire editors who plaster the internet with "inside" stuff about clients. Real editors know what a participial phrase is and aren't terrified of passive voice. They even know what it is, and it isn't the use of the "to be" verb. :-(

I've made a vow to myself to find some representation of the "real" thing on the internet. And when I do, I'll be sharing it with you.

So, here's my question for you folks.

What is it that you want to know?

I've opened an email account for the blog. Feel free to spam me with questions (just kidding...spam goes to spam purgatory where the little buggers spend the rest of eternity trying to sell each other HUGE members, more pleasure, or phony watches...the get-rich-quickers go straight to hell).

So, here's the email address:

Anything to do with grammar, punctuation (see the blog title for a hint :-) ), editing, publishing, dog grooming or astrophysics is okay. See, I'm getting the hang of the Internet. I can be anything I want. :-)

Seriously. Ask away.

Until then, I'll post something later this weekend on commas, since the last three manuscripts that I had edited (I mean, ones I wrote and that were edited by the publisher's copy editor) had a lot of comma suggestions in them. :-) That's a euphemism for "mistakes." And I'm an editor. We all make 'em, folks. So much easier to see other people's little screw ups, though. :-)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Writers’ Comments—Editors’ Comments (Caution, long one, get a beer or whatever)

When you join a writers’ group, either in person or online, the variability of skill level and experience of the other members can be a large factor in the quality and value of the feedback you get. Online groups seem to have the widest (and, in my opinion, the most interesting) demographic spread, as well as representing writers with all skill sets and from various genres and cultures. Face to face groups are wonderful as well, but online groups will give you a much larger and more diverse group of other writers to interact with.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when getting feedback from other writers is that they are writers. That probably sounds self-evident, and you’re probably thinking “Huh?”

Okay, let’s explore writers being writers, then. This is a good thing, right? Yes. Is it a bad thing? Sometimes.

The good thing about it is that other writers share the same goals, tribulations and challenges that you do. They strive to “show not tell,” worry about explanatory dialogue tags, struggle with momentum, flashbacks and info dumps. The really good ones, especially those who have studied the craft of writing in some formal venue (don’t shoot me, I’m a HUGE believer in studying creative writing as a part of an educational experience, either in a classroom or online...more about that on another post), will not only point out the things you can’t see yourself, but they’ll likely have the knowledge and skill set to suggest very specific ways for you to fix things.

That’s the best scenario. A selfless writer who is experienced enough to see your work as the diamond in the rough it truly is and who is able to give you solid, craft-specific advice you can sit down and use is a gem. If you find one, latch onto them and don’t let go.

Nothing gets better than that. And that’s why I belong to writers’ groups and value feedback from other writers highly.

What about the bad things? Sigh, they are more frequent than the good things at times.

Because writers are writers, they often have the most interest in their own work. They comment on your work in order for you to return the favour and comment on their work. They often view all writing through the lens of their own work. They can carry around a lot of baggage. They might avoid all adverbs (so you can’t use them), they may find description boring (so you have to cut yours), they don’t believe in using big words (so you’ve got to remove anything bigger than two syllables), they’re uncomfortable writing present tense (so it doesn’t work in your manuscript), they insist on heavy conflict in their opening chapter (so your opening chapter has to grab them by the throat and make their hearts beat wildly)...

It can be very hard for writers not to inject their own internal writing rules into your manuscript and not advise you to write it the way they would write it. This is mostly an unconscious thing. I doubt many writers are aware they do it and would probably deny it, fervently defending their comments behind the shield of what the “reader” (as in the reader “God” we all try to please) would think.

But you see, once you’ve become a writer, you will never again read as a reader. You become acutely aware of the craft, the presentation, the mechanics behind the fiction, and you no longer represent the reader “God.” You can only represent the writer inside you.

Editors, on the other hand, usually don’t write fiction. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part, they edit. And here is the strength they can bring to your manuscript. Their only focus is your manuscript. They aren’t interested in changing things to the way they would have written it. They’re interested in making your voice and your manuscript stronger by enhancing the unique style and story you’ve created. Editors are well read, very well read in their chosen genre. If you’re dealing with an editor from a publishing house, they represent both the reader and the publisher when they approach your manuscript. If you go with a freelance editor to polish a manuscript, they represent the reader and the potential marketability of your work.

Editors bring a different eye to a manuscript. If you’re careful in your choice of editor, he or she should be bringing a background of experience and very specific knowledge to your novel or book. They should be on top of upcoming trends in the industry. They should have a rock solid and current knowledge base in grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage, and stylistic trends. A good editor leaves personal likes and dislikes with their bedside reading. They approach your manuscript as “yours” and work with your writing, your style and your storyline. During my formal studies in editing, it was considered a cardinal sin to insert your own likes and dislikes into a manuscript. Editors are not supposed edit as writers (even frustrated ones) and revising someone else’s work to make it sound the way “they” would have written it is bad editing.

You should expect an editor to make comments and offer suggestions on pacing, plot, characterization, setting, dialogue, voicing, consistency, clarity, and your own particular style. They will quite likely focus more on what they feel should be fixed, rather than on what works. You should (in my opinion) only present a finished and polished manuscript to an editor. They aren’t there to help you “find” the novel, their job is to take a finished manuscript and assess it, then make recommendations to make it more powerful.

All good, right? Sometimes not.

Because editors generally aren’t writers, they can sometimes recommend changes without understanding the complexity or difficulty of the change.

Change this character to a girl. (Wha..???)

How about writing this from the mother’s POV? (You’ve got to be kidding)

You need a sidekick here, somebody hip and witty to bounce off your protagonist. (If I had a hip, witty sidekick in me, they’d be in the novel, don’t ya think?)

How would this work in present tense? (All 120,000 words of it?)

Okay, some exaggerations, but not unheard of. The one thing that you should always remember with an editor’s suggestions and recommendations is that they are giving them to you the writer to use or not. If you’ve signed a publishing contract and your substantive editor asks for something you feel you just can’t do or that you don’t feel will enhance the manuscript, it’s usually negotiable. Sometimes editors throw big curveballs at writers just to get them thinking. They don’t actually expect you to rewrite the entire novel to add a character, much as they might like the idea. But they do want you to think about the need for something more in the novel, the little hole (or big one) that should be filled with something hip and witty, even if it isn’t a character.

Really good editors want to get you thinking and let you, as the writer, revise the manuscript in your own voice and with your own creativity. The really, really good editors try to phrase their assessment in a way that the writer will recognize the deficit and come up with a stupendous fix. Editors have a lot of faith in the manuscripts they acquire and the writers who write them.

The other, somewhat sensitive, point about editors who are not the acquiring editor at a publishing house is that anybody can call himself or herself an editor. There is no universal, professional standard. The same can be said for the other writers we trust our beloved manuscripts with. But we don’t often “pay” other writers for feedback, so if they don’t know what they’re talking about, meh, big deal. However, if you are paying an editor to comment on your work, I really think you have the right to know if they are qualified to charge you money for it.

Unfortunately, I see folks hanging out their editing shingles all the time. And they are not qualified to do so. They’re often writers who happen to believe they know where a comma should be placed or English Lit grads who think that degree bestows some kind of innate editorial skill set. It doesn’t. Editing is an art, as well as a skill. It requires practice as well as a very specific knowledge base.

I can’t help you much with selecting an editor. I can suggest that you look for experience (in-house or freelance); educational credentials in editing (Publishing post-grad studies are more and more common and designed to supply the publishing industry with potential editors who don’t have to be mentored for years before they can be turned loose on a novel. These are tough courses, I can affirm that, really tough with high standards.); affiliations with editing organizations; or evidence of ongoing education in editing (workshops, conferences, courses). Good editors specialize in a few areas of fiction and should be willing to provide a sample edit of a small part of your manuscript. That is very helpful for both of you to establish if the communication and editing style are a good fit.

To wrap up a very long post, all writers need feedback on their manuscripts. I don’t know any writers who write totally in isolation. Some wait until the entire first draft is complete before they show the manuscript to a selected few other writers. I know of one writer who engages three or four freelance editors to help them hammer out a manuscript before submission. Some writers like to write novels in public, rushing every first draft chapter to their writer buddies for comment. We all work differently.

I value writers’ feedback when a manuscript of mine is finished in first draft and while I’m contemplating the revision process, as well as during revisions. Writers can so succinctly pinpoint craft issues that I’d be lost without their input on my own work.

As an editor, I don’t like to work on “in progress” manuscripts. I only work on completed manuscripts (if possible) since this is the material I’ve been trained to view from an editorial perspective. Providing a writer with possible strategies for improving an already fine manuscript is the role of an editor. If you work with other writers during the development and revision stages of a manuscript, you’ll never fall into the sad state of paying an editor to tell you the manuscript isn’t polished enough to consider publication.

When you do think that manuscript is ready to submit, or you have submitted to a chorus of rejections, that might be the time to look for an editor. But be smart, ask questions, get that sample edit, make sure this editor is working for “your” manuscript.

With other writers, you’ll know quickly which ones have a talent for communicating the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript to you. If what they say doesn’t make sense, move on. There are some wonderfully skilled writers out there who have the gift of sharing their skills with others. Give them the best you can back.

Final word. Where does that put me, both writer and editor? In a hard place, actually. Being a fiction writer isn’t necessarily seen as bonus in the fiction-editing field. I don’t mention it much. :-) I don’t often mention being an editor to the writers I trade manuscripts with either. I want to interact with them as a writer. I can tell you this, I cherish my writer buddies who comment on my manuscripts and allow me the privilege of commenting on theirs. They help me to get a manuscript ready for submission. Then I put on my editor’s hat and attempt to see it with those eyes. But not until other writers have had at it first. :-)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Editors don’t like...

...all kinds of things, apparently.

Have you ever had a writer, who was commenting on your work, slip that into margins or onto the page?

I’m always slightly awestruck by the omniscient knowledge implicit in that comment. This person must actually know every acquisitions editor in every English language publishing house on earth. Not only do they know them, they know them intimately enough to know for a fact what they don’t like.

Editors (all editors since there is never a qualifier on that comment) don’t like adjectives or adverbs or explanatory dialogue tags or first person or present tense or back story or novels that open with description or passive verbs or dream sequences or single POV or multiple POV or omniscient POV or poetic language or plain language or lots of characters or too few characters or...

If it was as simple as all that, then why does this universal pool of like-minded acquisitions editors keep contracting fiction that contains all of the above?

How can that be?

Go to the library or the bookstore and pull ten recently published books of different genres off the shelf. Read through the opening page or two of each. I bet every “mistake” in the so-called writing lexicon of what “not to do” will be there.

I don’t know about you folks, but even if I wasn’t an editor myself, logic tells me that acquisitions editors like all kinds of stuff. In fact, it looks like they actually like things they don’t like. If you pick fifty or a hundred books to peruse, it looks like they maybe even like those things they “don’t like,” a lot.

Don’t fall for it when someone tells you you’ve broken a writing rule. If they can direct you to that one set of rules that all publishers and acquisitions editors keep open on their desks, then please share with the rest of us. But they can’t do that, because it doesn’t exist.

Write the novel or short story that you’d like to read. And you know what you like to read because it’s published and you buy these books. So someone else likes to read what you like to read as well, including an acquiring editor.

Forget the rules; write from the heart and the gut. If it feels good in that secret place all of us writers have where we read something we’ve just written and it makes us smile, then it will make someone else smile. That someone is likely the same someone who buys and reads the same kind of books that you buy and read—and the acquiring editor who snapped them up.

Try not to get caught up in the world of opinion on writing that proliferates on the internet and in how-to writing books. It’s all opinion and nothing more. Some of it may work for you and your manuscript, some of it won’t work at all. Just remember that if this set of absolute “rules” existed, it would be published somewhere. This magic book would be on the curriculum of every creative writing class in the English speaking world. Every aspiring writer would be directed to it as soon as they typed “creative writing” into Google, right?

There is no such set of rules and no credible list of what editors don’t like.

Give yourself the freedom to plaster the page with words. Colour outside the lines. Be messy.

Be you.

I’ll have another post coming up on what it is that writers can give you that editors can’t, and vice versa. It will be entirely my opinion. :-) Like everything on this blog.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Little Dash With Panache or a Pesky Puzzler?

That’s the hyphen, of course, and it’s a complicated little symbol. Aside from indicating a word has been segmented on a line break (the placement of which I will leave up to your word processor and your good judgement), hyphens have the exciting job of joining words together to create a new or expanded meaning. Hyphens belong in two areas of writing—spelling and punctuation. They play an essential role in compound words and in their evolution from open compounds to closed compounds.

Take email, for example. I remember it being called electronic mail (open compound) before it morphed to e-mail (hyphenated compound). Now most dictionaries list it as email (closed compound).

Closed compounds evolve quickly in America. Open or hyphenated compounds are more common in the U.K. Canada straddles the fence, as usual, with a mixture of open, hyphenated, and closed compounds.

If a compound word is used frequently, it will show up in a dictionary. Don’t be surprised if dictionaries differ. They will. Pick the most current edition of your favourite dictionary (I recommend the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, for the U.S.; the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition, for Canada; and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary for the U.K.). The dictionary itself really doesn’t matter, as long as it is current, and you use the same one consistently.

So, one part of unravelling the mysteries of hyphenation is easy. Look up the compound word in the dictionary and use whatever combination you find there. Is it copy edit, copy-edit or copyedit? Your dictionary (the one you cherish above all other books in your library :-) ) will guide your way.

Of course, that doesn’t help with the pesky words we hyphenate to modify words. Let’s have a look at a couple of examples:

The well-known actor sat down at the table. The compound word “well-known” is hyphenated.

The actor sitting at the table is well known. What’s up with that? We just saw that “well-known” is hyphenated. Here’s where the complexity comes in. Compound words are usually not hyphenated when they follow the word they modify.


It gets worse.

The beautifully dressed woman looks very elegant. Why isn’t this compound hyphenated? Well, sometimes it is, and now you’re ready to pull your hair out. But a good rule of thumb is that if you are writing for the North American market, don’t hyphenate a compound word when the first word ends in “ly.” If you are writing for the U.K. market, go ahead and hyphenate compounds that contain “ly” words.

The very well known actor is sitting next to me. Now what? The compound word is in front of the word it is modifying (actor), so why isn’t it hyphenated? If a compound word is further qualified by another modifier (very), then there is no hyphen.


Hyphens can be tricky.

New car buyers will receive a substantial rebate. No hyphen. But does this mean that only first time car buyers (regardless of the age of the car) will get the rebate? Or does it mean that only buyers of new cars will get the rebate? If we play with the hyphens, the answers are clear.

New-car buyers will receive a substantial rebate. (No previously owned vehicles here.)

New car-buyers will receive a substantial rebate. (Yay! That second-hand rust bucket qualifies.)

I checked four dictionaries for “second hand” to see which ones used a hyphen: the Canadian Oxford (CANOX), the Nelson Canadian, Merriam Webster’s (MW) and the Concise Oxford. They all list second hand as an open compound as a noun (think the little hand on the clock). When used as an adjective, CANOX and the Concise Oxford hyphenate it (second-hand), and MW and Nelson both list it as a closed compound (secondhand). So don’t despair if you can’t decide if a hyphen is necessary or not. It’s not a precise science. :-)

Here’s a quick overview of some simplified guidelines (notice I didn’t say rules):

1. Check your dictionary first. You’ll be surprised how many compounds are in there. The choice is already made for you.

2. If you are in North America and writing for that market, don’t hyphenate a compound that contains a word ending in “ly.” If you are in the U.K. and writing for that market, go ahead and use a hyphen.

3. Hyphenate compound words that appear before the word they are modifying.

4. Don’t hyphenate compound words that appear after the word they are modifying.

5. Don’t hyphenate compound words that are further modified.

6. If in doubt, and the absence of a hyphen will have no impact on the meaning of the sentence, then don’t hyphenate. Too many hyphens can be distracting. The use of hyphens is so variable that a missing one is not likely to raise any eyebrows.