Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Editor is Not Your Enemy (Part 1)

I'm tickled to have Dr. Robert Runte visiting us and doing two guest posts on the different kinds of editors in the fiction world. Robert is an associate professor at the University of Lethbridge. As an academic, editor, reviewer, and organizer, Robert has been actively promoting Canadian SF for over 30 years. He was a founding Director of NonCon, Context89,, and SF Canada; and has served on the Boards of the Edmonton Science Fiction and Comic Arts SocietyOn Spec Magazine, Tesseract Books, and The Writers Guild of Alberta. In addition to dozens of conference papers, journal articles, book chapters, and a half dozen entries in theEncyclopedia of Literature in Canada , Robert has edited over 150 issues of various SF newsletters.

The Editor is Not Your Enemy

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: development editors, acquisition 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, 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.)

Third, 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.

Note, however, that any solution suggested by an acquisition editor in the 68 seconds they had to devote to the problem is probably wrong. Editing out the snake of the brother-in-law character won’t work because, as the author knows all too well, the story needs the brother-in-law in the second half of the book, whereas the acquisition editor stopped reading at page 25. If the problem had an obvious and simple solution, the author would likely already have done it that way. But armed with the knowledge of where the acquisition editor fell out of the story, stopped reading, or had some significant problem with the text, is itself a huge help. Even when the specific comment or advice seems stupid, 99% of the time, careful examination will reveal that something was wrong with the passage/character/etc. In my experience, whenever I have fixed the problem that I identified after the wrong-headed mumblings of an editor directed me to a particular aspect of the manuscript, they always say, "Yes, that's exactly what I meant! This revision is way better!" even though I didn't actually address whatever the specifics of their original complaint was.

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.

Tuesday: Copy editors and development editors

3 comments:

  1. "Note, however, that any solution suggested by an acquisition editor in the 68 seconds they had to devote to the problem is probably wrong." -- Bang on, Robert! Every editor or critique group member in your life should be listened to, but not blindly followed! I've seen good, unpolished manuscripts disintegrate like the faces of stars who indulge in too much cosmetic surgery because the author changes it this way, that way and all over.

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  2. This is my feedback flow chart:

    Of course! Why didn't I see that before? ---> I immediately correct the issue and send a thank you.

    Hmmm, I'm not sure. You think so? -----> I put it aside and give it a couple of weeks, or a month, and then reread and reconsider.

    OMG! NO WAY! YOU ARE AN IDIOT! -----> I put it aside for a bit. I've found that the advice in this section is generally 50/50 split between yes, the editor is an idiot and me being the idiot. :)

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  3. Great post & feedback chart.
    I think you might have commented on me for the Tesseracts antho, so thanks for those 68+ seconds! It was my first feedback!

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