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Writing: That Ephemeral Something

Writing is 40% sweat and toil, 40% technique and 20% other. I’m just making up these percentages but the proportions are near enough. It’s the other, the ephemeral something that can’t be taught.

When I started writing, my prose was purple. What’s meant by purple? It was so laden with description and adjectives that the action was lost in the story. My stories were convoluted, meandering and possibly lacking in tension. I don’t even have the earliest versions; they’re long gone or lost in a file somewhere. But I remember those first critiques from the creative writing class I took at UBC. Subsequently I probably went to the other extreme, removing all adjectives and most descriptions to the point of having talking heads and the reader not being able to see anything that was happening. But I was paying attention and learning and trying new ways of writing.

The next year I was accepted into the Clarion Writers workshop in Seattle and I have to remember that had I had exhibited no writing skills they probably wouldn’t have taken me. Presuming they had more applicants than spaces, that is. Clarion showed me I was low on the writing ladder, in terms of skill, but I was probably one of the people who moved the farthest along the ladder, while others stood still. I didn’t have as much ego back then, and therefore could learn more. ūüôā I had a lot to learn.

Over the years I worked on my skills, learning punctuation, grammar, plot and story arcs, tensions, dialogue, lacing in descriptions, etc. That was part of the sweat and toil. The other part includes researching your markets, reading guidelines, either writing pieces to suit (if there’s a theme) and submitting submitting submitting. Perseverance all the way, in learning to write and in getting work published. I would be nowhere if I’d given up after the first 100 rejections. And I cannot count how many rejections I’ve had.

But what makes a good writer? It is these elements I’ve mentioned. But it is also that ephemeral something. It can be voice, the way in which you tell a story. It can also be the story; how have you imagined it. Take a story about a bear that morphs into a human and in the process loses the ability to maintain the love he had but in the end replaces it with power to cover the loneliness. Give that plot to ten people and have them write a story. In almost all cases you will have very different stories from each person.

I once had an editor tell me my story could have been written by a cipher. I pondered that comment for a very long time and never forgot it. I wondered exactly what he meant and now I’m pretty sure I know. A story written by a cipher has no personality. Artists of every description develop style, whether painters, or dancers, or writers. It is both what individualizes the work but it can also pigeonhole you when your audience/fans always want something done in the same style. We can change our style but keep our voice the same. We have different ways of writing; wordy, crisp, rambling, descriptive, emotive, etc. And sometimes our style is our unique way of seeing things, the story itself.

Indeed, what makes or breaks a story is very ephemeral. Selling depends a lot on the likes of an individual and I have pieces that had been submitted numerous times, being rejected every time before they sold and had good reviews. You can’t really teach this ephemeral voice to a person except to say practice practice practice. Write all the time, study other writers, experiment and maybe you’ll develop a voice or style or personality. Mine is shifting and sometimes I’m not sure what it is. You can’t pluck this from a jar, nor plant it in your brain. You just have to keep trying.

Oh, and one last note. I’ve just sold It’s Only Words” to Des Lewis’s Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies out of Britain sometime this summer.

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The Difference Between Little Y Words

With the many forms of electronic communication, millions of people write notes, letters, emails, text messages, but not many spell well. Of course frequent written conversations have given way to slang (teh from common finger slip-ups…and one that I hate), and shortenings (thru for through, u for you), and acronyms (OMG=oh my god, TTYL=talk to you later, ROFL=rolling on the floor laughing). It has also increased many misspellings of words because we hear phonetically but the written word has some silent letters in it.

One set that is often easily confused are the little “Y” words: Yeah, Yay, Yea. When you are agree with someone but don’t use the more formal “I agree” or “yes” you might say instead, “Yeah.” The phonetic version, which has also crept into the written language as a slang vernacular is “yah.” Like the Beatles once sang, “I love you, yah yah yah (or yeah yeah yeah).

But I often see this written word used for a form of jubilation and cheer, which should be “Yay!” Pronounced like “hooray” yay is much the same in meaning. Yay for me and yay for you. But try and spellcheck this and it might come up as not a real word. English slang it is then but pretty common in our spoken language.

Yea is an older form of yes, and can also be seen as “aye,” (pronounced eye) which makes us think of sailors. Yea verily, yea is most often seen now in voting. All those who oppose voted nay and those for, voted yea. Yea is pronounced yay, but the meaning is very different. Yet yea’s meaning is the same as yeah and yes.

I know I might be fighting against the crumbling of the English language and any living language will evolve, but I can still try. “Yea verily, I will say yay if people use yeah correctly. Yah yah yah.

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Writing: Taking it Personally

This could just be called Writing and Ego for any time a writer submits a piece of work to an editor, ego does get involved. We write because of ego, because we think we have something to say, because we think we’re good enough, because we want to be rich or famous. But to write means also to be able to disengage the ego some.

The other night I was talking with someone who has a friend trying to be a writer. Great. Everyone should try to pursue their dreams. But writing, for 99% of us, takes work. A lot of work. It takes honing your craft. It takes knowledge. It takes a certain skill and perception that is ephemeral, that could be called ideas but is also your unique way of stringing them together. It takes perseverance. And yes, it takes luck.

The first part, learning your craft, is where everyone must start and stay to a degree. It is always a judgment call as to when you think your piece is ready. Once it’s been written, reworked, critiqued, rewritten and edited, it is then ready to send out, maybe. But sometimes you must take a leap of faith and submit the story or poem. Every writer can benefit from workshops, classes and writers’ groups. If I could afford to do it more, I’d take more workshops. Until I’m selling my pieces 100% of the time I still have something I can learn. To think otherwise would again be ego. A workshop might just be a new way to work or come up with ideas or just the camaraderie of other writers, because, as any writer knows, writing is a fairly solitary process.

Selling your writing takes the knowledge not just of how to write, but of the submission process. Sometimes people have an idea, their cherished baby, and they write it and then send it out. If you haven’t learned much about writing or even had your story read by knowledgeable people (editors, not friends unless those friends are writers/editors) then you jeopardize your chances at publication. Such basics as grammar can stop an editor from reading an otherwise great story. Editors read so much every day that they have no patience for people who cannot follow basic grammar, spelling and guidelines.

No one can teach a person ideas, but there are workshops that look at how to take those rough ideas and chisel them into the best and most clear idea, compelling, interesting and filled with tension. But the beginning idea must be interesting in and of itself and unique, not done before. There are many stories, even within a genre, that follow certain motifs. Each one that is published must present something new.

Next, and how we get back to the person trying to be a writer, is perseverance. He had sent his work out to a publisher or two and when it was rejected, he took it personally. They (those faceless editors) hate him. Really, the editor or publisher doesn’t know most beginning writers from Adam. The writers too, are faceless. There is rarely anything personal unless you take to insulting the editor in your cover letters.

It may not even be that your story sucks. Here are just a few reasons that an editor/publisher may not have accepted your story/novel, which has nothing particular to do with your work:

  • doesn’t fit their theme
  • they’ve just spent two years publishing books on this topic and the market is glutted
  • budget cuts
  • there are limited slots and even some of the good stories must go
  • you wrote on a topic that the editor personally hates
  • the slushpile has grown so big that there is some wholesale rejecting to get them caught up (not as frequent but it can happen)
  • they’re changing their focus
  • they’re folding (I’ve sold too many pieces to magazines/anthologies, which were then never published because they closed down–I call it the kiss of death)
  • the structure of the magazine/anthology has changed (I sold one story to an anthology which then went to a different publisher and then was halved–although I received a kill-fee the story was never published.)
  • the editor has changed

Those are a few reasons that has nothing whatsoever to do with the writer. Grammar, typos, conflict, tension, characterization, plot, theme, structure and flow have to do with the written piece. Editors also reject on those reasons, if the other reasons haven’t come into play first. Again, this is rarely personal. They don’t know you. They base their thoughts on the manuscript before them.

This is why perseverance is the mainstay for most writers. It is a very tiny percentage of us who can send out our work and sell it on the first go. My ego had to accept that I wasn’t the greatest writer since sliced bread. Otherwise I would sell everything or mostly everything. I’m still a small pea in a big pod. Even the best writers, the award winners,¬†don’t sell some pieces. You and me and most other writers have to keep writing and submitting. If I’d quit after my first year, I would have only sold a couple of poems. I keep going, getting better the more I write (and read), the more workshops I take, the more I discuss my ongoing projects before submitting.

If you want to be a writer, you’ll need to disengage your ego enough to get through the rejections. At one time I could paper my bathroom in acceptances and my house in rejections. Now I might be able to paper a house in acceptances…and several houses in rejections. So it goes. If you take it personally, if you want to be an overnight sensation, if you get overly depressed or angry at a rejection, then you better not be a writer.

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Writing: The Great Wheel of Publishing

 This wheel is large and ungainly, held together with sweat, tears, slush pile manuscripts, spit, unbought or returned books and elbow grease. It lumbers along, turning ever so slowly, sometimes looking more as if it will tumble over then keep rolling. But roll it does, usually, sometimes losing an author, or a novel, some staff or advertising revenue. It does not turn smoothly but continues until the gap of lost material becomes so big that the wheel must be overhauled.

Such is the case with various publishers along the long road of years. Ten years ago I was trying to get copy editing work with US publishers. This Herculean task met many difficulties. Publishers and the editors in charge are over-busy, always reading and procuring manuscripts and then going through the myriad phases of production. Send a letter and if it isn’t imperative to answer (we want your manuscript, pay our invoice) it never gets answered, not even if you include a SASE and you’re looking for employment. The next stage is to phone and hope you get the right editor in the right department. Should you call and only get their voicemail, presume they won’t return your call. And if you live on the west coast and have a three-hour time difference it will take early hours and a crystal ball to figure out the best time and day to try and catch and editor. Give up on Fridays altogether.

Should you get through these first layers of the publishing house inferno, you will most likely get a copy editing test. Once that’s done you send it back. I did two over two-three years with Tor, where they subsequently lost the test both times. Then said oh well you have to go through St. Martins as they’re our boss. Uh, they didn’t know this beforehand when they gave me the test? And Ace gave me the test; I sent it back and heard nothing. When I queried twice they said, oh we can’t hire Canadians. I didn’t know that when I sent you a test. Great, I’ve had a lot of practice with editing tests.

With Harper Collins, I passed the test. Then they sent me disks because they used a specific computer-based editing system. (This was about ten years ago and I’m not sure Word’s track changes feature was that developed then.) So, I received the disks but then had to buy a new computer because I didn’t have the memory capacity. At that time the guy who was going to train me was on holidays for a month. When he got back, he quit. So they were then trying to find someone else. In that time, they also bought out Avon books.

What ensued was two years of frustration and nary a job out of it. The editor I was dealing with was transferred to a different dept., then let go. Others came and went. I was given various names of people and would call every month. Each time I had to explain the situation who I had talked to, where it had changed, what area of copy editing I specialized in (SF/spec fiction) etc. Each time, it was a different person, a new department, a new system. Two years of calling every month after being told I would be hired as a freelancer and I never got one job out of it. But I had a bigger, better computer.

Over the years I have edited for a few US publishers and Canadian publishers but the sheer frustration of getting New York publishers was enough to stop most people. You really do have to live there. The longest stint I had copy editing with one publisher was three years or so with Byron Preiss book packagers (now gone the way of the dodo). And I got my first job because I was at the World Fantasy Convention standing in the lineup for the hotel. The guy in front told me he had just got a promotion to editor and I said, hey do you need any copy editors. He said send a resume when you get back but before I could he called because he had a rush job. Keith DeCandido gave me my first real break in copy editing. He quit before the company imploded and I had stopped doing work form them before that because getting paid was becoming difficult. He now writes novels. I now think of writing my novel, still copy edit and still write.

Other hurdles in the publishing world are managing editors who ask you to copy edit but don’t clarify by how much. Some publishers (or working on some authors) means that you’re required to only correct typos and punctuation. Copy editing is more than this and includes correcting sentence structure and continuity. It can be structural editing, which looks at the overall structure of chapters, pacing and flow, or very close to proofreading. Over the years I have found most companies who wanted proofreading really wanted more than that.

It’s common for individuals looking for an editor to say they want proofreading when in almost all cases they mean copy editing. It can be confusing for the new¬†writer but just as confusing for the freelance editor.¬†I’ve had publishers cancel a project in the middle (they were moving into movies, but did pay for what I’d ) or wanting a book padded (requiring that one line paragraphs be left in and the worst sentences be reworked but not deleted).

Publishing houses usually have a house style and often a style sheet. If they don’t give me one, I usually ask if they have a house style as it can affect the overall product. I’ve started to see some weird things in some books of late. Tor is an American publisher yet I’ve seen a book or two done with British spellings. In one case it may have been to give it the flavor of an earlier era as it was about a world in the 1800s.

But editing and acquisition of books are just a couple spokes of that great wheel. There is design production, advertising, marketing, distribution, return and paying the employees, artists and authors. Some spokes seem to have more weight, or, if you were looking a wooden wheel, some would be sturdier or decorated, but without all of the spokes the wheel fails. And to carry the analogy to the end the hub of the wheel is the writer and the publisher. Without the writer there is no story to sell. Without the publisher there are still stories but it’s harder to get them out to the public.

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Little Words and Zed

I’ve worked many years as a copy editor and have a fairly good memory for spelling. It’s amazing really that we ever standardized the English language, if you take into account that there’s British English (BE), American English (AE) and the bastard child of both, Canadian English (CE). AE and CE say “synchronize” instead of “synchronise”, but BE and CE say “neighbour” instead of “neighbor” and “travelled” instead of “traveled.” There are a few other odd words such as “jewellery” vs “jewelry.” But mostly we can understand each other even if Canadians say “zed” and Americans, “zee.” I’m an adamant proponent of continuing the “zed” pronunciation (being Canadian) and when some little tads corrected me with saying, “It’s zee.” I pretty much bit my lip and corrected them since they’re Canadian. Alas the invasion continues.

So, is it any wonder that there are so many misspelled words considering that Shakespear spelled his name so many different ways? Of course ,a lot of this had to to with relative illiteracy of the era. If you didn’t write regularly, even if you knew the rudiments, you weren’t very likely to spell words correctly.

As an editor, sometimes words are so often misspelled the same way that I start to doubt my own senses and then I have to look up words that I know are spelled incorrectly. Here are a few words of the modern age that are misspelled frequently:

  • burgundy (not burgandy for color or wine)
  • indefinitely (not indefinately, received three times last week) if it’s not finite then it’s indefinite like infinity .
  • no one (not no-one nor noone; this might be different in England)
  • its (the most misused word ever: if it is blue, then it’s blue. If the ball belongs to it (the dog), then it (the ball)¬†is its (the dog). Its ball rolled into traffic.
  • twenty, thirty-something (twenty-two not twenty two)
  • would of, could of: People say this: I could’ve gone to the store. (which should really just be “could have”) But because of the way we hear it, I’ve seen it spelled could of. Wrong wrong wrong. Could have. I’ve seen this in books, which tells me either the copy editor was inexperienced or the publisher didn’t have a copy editor.
  • yeah is an informal form of agreement (yes) and yay, which is a cheer: Yay! We win.

And then there are the similarly pronounced words that have different spellings and meanings, called homonyms. Some commonly misused ones are:

  • consul (a consul general or Canadian consul) and console (to sympathize with someone, or a panel or case that holds an item like electronics)
  • aisle (what is between two rows of bookshelves) and isle (where we all want to go for a tropical vacation)
  • altar (where we put our objects to worship) and alter (how we change our appearance to escape the law)
  • brooch (what you wear as a decoration) and broach (what you do when you want¬† to raise a subject)
  • complement (how many you have–a complement of soldiers) and compliment (to praise–my you look great in your uniform)
  • council (a group of people) and counsel (the adviser/counsellor you get when your marriage is on the rocks)
  • gorilla (these guys use bananas) and guerrilla (these guys use guns)

There are many homonyms and a very extensive list can be found here, even ones that I’ve never considered or known. http://www.cooper.com/alan/homonym_list.html

I find it particularly bad when I read books that have many misspellings but it all depends on how good the publishers are at maintaining quality and if they care. Many small publishing houses do not even have copy editors and depend on (demand) the authors proofread their work. Of course everyone should always do that and hand in relatively clean copies. Still, when you’re looking at a story over and over again you are bound to miss some of your own typos. A second set of eyes is always best.

I sometimes think the internet will work at crumbling the English language (maybe others too) as people abbreviate words down to essential letters. We tend to get lazy at writing, leaving off capitalization and punctuation. Part of the advent of computers for everyone meant that many people have them but probably not everyone learned to type. And like our signatures that get messier the more we write them, our grammar goes to pot on the internet.
But English is a living and therefore evolving language so maybe the misspellings will take over the more people use them. In the meantime, misuses and typos will continue to drive the editors of the world crazy.

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Editing: A Job Interview

This happened some time last year when a job for editing showed up on one of editors’ lists I am on: a publisher looking for freelance content editors. I sent my resume in and got a forwarded email that said sign into an instant messaging group to discuss this. Now this was for book editing and that’s my specialty, been doing it for 15 years. So the managing editor asks if I use story arcs and I ask her to define what she means in terms of editing as people use this term differently. Basically, she means plot, conflict, resolution and flow. Etc. The usual. She says editing is usually between 25-50 hours a manuscript, which is fine; nothing unusual.Then I ask what they pay and she says 10%. O-kay. So I said, could you please break this down for me as I’m not sure what 10% is from and I’ve always worked hourly contracts before. (I mean it could be 10% of cover price and books printed, or sold, or 10% of wholesale.) I don’t know. It’s a simple question.

She then goes on to say that line editing is a waste of time and that if a writer can’t write, then¬†they (the publisher) don’t want the book. I said, I understand, however when I did copy editing it was never for the same repetitive mistakes but sometimes to correct grammar, odd typos, and check for consistency (continuity). After all, we all miss things in our own writing from seeing it too often, and copy editors give a fresh eye to the grammar.

Then she says, “We love our proofreaders. We don’t need proofreaders.” She says this a couple of times, adding they have no work for hire. So I say, I’m sorry, I thought you were looking for content editors.

Through all this she has not yet given me that breakdown of 10% but basically, from what I can tell,¬†the editor gets paid if the book sells. It could be $5 for all I know. I have already said, yes but I’ve worked hourly before so I don’t know how this breaks down. She says, “Hon, I’m not disputing (but she is) and I’ve worked for 5 publishing houses in 7 years.” I didn’t bother to get into the one-upmanship and say I’ve worked for as many if not more in 15 years. Hon? From someone I don’t know? That’s pretty condescending. It’s like she hasn’t read my resume, nor heard what I was saying and was on a personal crusade.

At this point I’m getting angry as she seems to presume I’m talking about proofreading. I’ve already talked about content and have said I’ve done proofreading, copyediting, line as well as structural and stylistic editing. I know the difference. I’m not sure she does. Then she blathers that she’s had 200 responses and needs to make sure she has a content editor (after once saying she had 3000 manuscripts and rejected them all).

I haven’t met this person in person but I’m already getting a sense that her pile is bigger than everyone else’s. And working for her would be a personality conflict waiting to happen. At that point I say, I think I’ll pass on this as I’d like to know I’ll be paid a base rate for what I do. MFG! Does this woman think all publishing is based out of her ebusiness? (Turns out she’s the CEO too.)

Fine, name as many publishing houses as you want, but don’t discount there is more than one way to do things and pay people. She seemed to believe her way of paying was the only way, and indeed it may be for ebooks, but it’s not for other publishers. Having worked for US and Canadian publishers, I know. I have invoices. I’ve been paid an hourly fee on all of them. In a few cases when I freelance I might have charged by the project but usually I charged by the hour.

I think I avoided a very uncomfortable and possibly not lucrative job editing books for peanuts.

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Writing: Language and Typos

This is just a random sampling of words and styles I have found of late that seem to be commonly used incorrectly.

The post popular words for misspelling, even amongst people with university degrees or masters are:

  • burgundy–often spelled as burgandy…it’s organdy but burgundy
  • definitely–it’s definite that finite is included but it’s never definate
  • espresso–you may want your coffee quickly but the concentrated brew is always espresso, not expresso

I won’t even get into pronunciations. It’s new klee er, Mr. President, not new cue lar.

And I cannot forget that tiny little word that gives people so much consternation: It. That’s it, but what happens when you make it a possessive or a plural. It is a particular, idiosyncratic word that doesn’t follow the convention of most possessive.

When it owns something, it becomes its. When it is doing something, it becomes it’s. An easy way to remember the right form is this: if you have a sentence and you can turn it into “it is,” then you use it’s. Its dog bone fell in the hole. It’s a dog’s life. In the first sentence I can’t say, it is bone, but in the second I can say, It is a dog’s life. Oh, and there is no such thing as its’.

I saw this one so much recently I had to shake my brain. If you have a sentence of dialogue, it goes into double quotes (for Canada and the US). If you have a sentence with a quote in part of it, it still goes into double quotes, not single. For example; He was known for his “zoot suits,” white spats, and top hat.

And last, Canadians and Americans hyphenate numbers (really, it’s a en-dash, but let’s not confuse things). We don’t write twenty four but twenty-four, thirty-six, seventy-seven. Things get very confusing when we toss in Europe because there are different rules for different countries. Germans capitalize all nouns. North Americans want to capitalize more nouns than they need to. British put punctuation outside of quotations. French capitalize very little. Canadians do a bastardized form of American and British spelling. (Drives people batty, but we understand it.)

As a copy editor, even when I’m not editing I’m still editing. I can’t help it. It’s my anal gene. It especially gets me when I see advertising brochures that have huge typos. Uh, guys, if you’re spending that much on marketing, hire a proofreader too.

And last, dear reader, should you write something and want to exclaim about it, you’re only allowed one exclamation point! It doesn’t become louder because there are six exclamation points. Erotic writers tried to get carried away with this as if it was a prolonged orgrasm. Get it? And not more than one in a very large swath of writing. Okay!!!!!!

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