Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Editor is Not Your Enemy: Part 2

Development editing vs Copy Editing

Once a manuscript has been identified as one of interest, it has to go for copy and/or development 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 slushpile, 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 development 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. Sure 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.

Second, editors are going to ask for changes because -- well, because they are 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 -- 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 here: 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.

So 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 chose (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. 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 out distance 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.

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 development, 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 (admittedly anal) 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 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, but it is not their job to tamper with the manuscript's content. Knowing which service one is contracting for is therefore crucial.

Trends

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 recent recession, and there is no reason to expect any of them to rehire 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 slushpile 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 recently 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 has been partially eliminated as a step 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 a 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.


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

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Novel Process: Research to Submit

I'm very pleased to have Canadian speculative fiction author Derryl Murphy share with us his particular process for editing his own work. Napier’s Bones is Derryl’s first novel, and third book, after the collection Wasps at the Speed of Sound and the novella Cast a Cold Eye, co-written with William Shunn. When time and children allow, he works on his next novel.


The Novel Process: Research to Submit


In writing (and finishing, and rewriting, and so on) Napier’s Bones, I realize now that the work involved in editing the novel unfolded into a seemingly never-ending series of stages. Now, your mileage may vary, but it seems to me that these stages will probably come close to what most authors experience. Allow me to lay them out for you:

1. The Research Stage

This strikes me as the least certain fit, as it all depends on how much the writer has to deal with doing actual work leading up to writing the novel, work that doesn’t (at least directly) relate to coming up with a plot. But for those of us who write SF/F, this is a pretty common stage, for instance in researching the latest cutting-edge science, or, in the case of Napier’s Bones, all sorts of aspects of history, from the sublime to the outright bizarre.

Sitting beside me as I write this is the notebook I took with me to Scotland and London, filled with notes from that trip. There are quotes from John Napier, gathered during visits to libraries, quotes from others about Napier or about Napier’s bones themselves, descriptions of a wide variety of possible locations for scenes in the novel, sketches of a couple of those locations (where photographs were not allowed), and all sorts of little tidbits that I thought might fit into the story. And of course, the vast majority of this research never saw the light of day. One of the first things a writer has to learn is that, no matter how bleedingly cool a chunk of info might be, now matter how many mountains you climbed and oceans you swam to get that nifty bit of trivia, there are going to be times when you have to sit down and ruthlessly slice it out of your book.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tips for Hiring an Editor

I met Marie Dees a few years ago through an online writing group and we've kept in touch. She's written romance, mysteries, and erotica. She posts snippets from her work on Sundays on her blog - www.mariedees.com - which are always fun and steamy! On top of her impressive fiction list, Marie also works as a freelance editor for publishing houses.


I’ve told Krista that I’m going to be snarky and perhaps downright bitchy in this article.  But I’m doing it to save someone some money and perhaps some grief.  Why? Because I recently sat through yet another writing group where I had to tell a writer that his work has basic problems with an uncontrolled point of view, rampant tag line abuse and lethargic pacing.  Problems an editor can help with, you say? 

Well, in this case the writer has already paid an editor to help him with the work. What I saw was the edited work.  But you know what, that’s not uncommon anymore.  I see it over and over again.  Someone with a background in journalism or non-fiction decides to pimp themselves out as an editor for works of fiction or as a book coach or a writing guru.  They make promises like “if I edit your book when it’s accepted, the publisher won’t have to send it through editing.” 

So, let’s set some overall expectations.

 - No editor hired by an author can guarantee a book will be accepted by an agent or publisher. 
- Hiring a freelance editor for your work does not mean that it will skip the editing process when it reaches the publisher. 
- Even if accepted by a publisher, your book may not bring in a large enough advance to cover the fees some editors charge. 
- If your book is good enough to interest a publisher, they will provide you with an editor at no cost to you.

Got all that?

Now consider this:
I’ve heard editors explain that they don’t edit for story consistency, plot development or basic accuracy of the information.  In other words, they proof-read.  Which is useful, but only if done after someone edits for plot, consistency and accuracy, not before.  And now I’m seeing editors actually create their own publishing sites so that if their editing isn’t good enough to land a publisher, they can provide self-publishing assistance for you.  All for a fee that the author pays. 

Still want to hire an editor? I’m not going to tell you it won’t help. But remember that there is no single definition of what an editor does and hiring an editor without clear expectations and requirements can be an expensive exercise in futility.