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Writing: Shopping for an Editor

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I recently rejected an author’s manuscript and gave him the possibility of rewriting and resubmitting at a later date; a very rare thing to do both. At Chizine Publications we ask for three or four sample chapters and a short synopsis. I had already asked the author to send the full manuscript, after he made corrections, fixed grammar and numerous homophonic typos (bare/bear, to/two, hare/hair, staid/stayed, etc.), as well as adding details to certain sections that I had read.

When I read through the full manuscript I found many of the same errors and it looked like little had been changed if anything at all. Editors have many manuscripts to read, and day jobs on top of it in most cases. We get irritated when people don’t follow instructions, which can be anything from not submitting in the correct manuscript format, to sending inappropriate material, to not making an effort to correct what we ask for. Of course, a writer can ignore all of these things and just send to someone else.

I concluded that the writer needed to learn grammar and punctuation better and overall, story structure, but feeling his story had worth I gave a caveat of retrying with a rewrite, in time, but not right away. He wrote back and was surprised to learn that most publishers don’t give feedback nor mark the manuscript unless they’re buying the story (I had done both).  I also explained my irritation at which point he apologized because he had felt rushed and hired an editor to do the changes requested.

I sincerely hope he didn’t pay the editor that much because I don’t know what that editor did. He/she certainly did not read the sentences to catch the homophone typos, nor to check the sentence structure and catch the run-on sentences. It is possible that the author asked the editor to make corrections in regards to my notes. If that was the case then my notes only gave examples, not the full extent of what was needed.

If I’d been given such a job as a copy editor I would have been fixing those sentences. I’ve found with a few other clients that they had gone to bigger, more expensive editors first, paid out a ton of money and came back with a manuscript measled with errors. Anyone who takes on copy editing (this is different from structural editing) should look for grammar, typo and punctuation errors as the most basic step. If one is a structural editor then you’re looking at the overall plot and structure of the story.

Almost everyone can use a second set of eyes to catch errors because our fingers like to type different words than our brains think. I often put down for done or type meanign instead of meaning. And then there is the too close to the forest to see the trees syndrome. If you’ve written something and gone over it a few times you might miss a scene or a description that the reader needs to be able to understand the story.

If I was hiring an editor I would lace in a couple of different errors in a sample page or three and see what they caught. But that only works if you understand grammar and sentence structure enough. As it was, this writer left too much to an unknown quantity and didn’t check over the manuscript first so he ended up with many errors. He would have had to flesh out his own scenes because an editor cannot necessarily write in the same style nor know where the writer’s mind is for the story.

I sometimes wonder why I don’t charge more when I see the work done by more expensive editors. Like anything else, there are good and bad editors. Learning how to write will of course save you money and mean you need a copy editor’s services less. Getting comments from an editor, even if you’re rejected, are a plus. Many magazines and even book publishers send out form rejections that say something like, “This didn’t work for us.” If you get comments, if you get an invite to resubmit and rewrite, take it seriously and feel lucky that you got that far. Magazine and book publishers always have limited spots are there are always other good works on their way so don’t take any feedback for granted.

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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 Life of a Writer

I try once a week to take my laptop and go off to a local cafe/restaurant, have a couple of drinks and work on a novel. If I don’t do this, I tend to get distracted with many other writing projects.

I’m not writing any poetry at the moment but rewriting a bit, trying to redo a story for one anthology, finish a new story for another, and work on my novel. Sometimes ideas flow and sometimes it’s stop and start, the idea complex, the world taking some thinking. How much to put in of the world without veering too far from the story becomes a balancing act. It’s almost time to go through my bookmarked literary and speculative markets again, tossing the broken links and moving the ones that take online subs into a separate folder. I’m behind on submitting because of some freelance work and the writing.

An example of a submission night: I sit down at 8:00 pm and start going through the markets, continuing from where I left off the last night. By 11:30 I’ve weeded through the markets and sent out poems to about four magazines. That’s about four poems per magazine and they’re already written. I also submit two stories to two other magazines. But just doing that, searching through, finding the right poems, reading through them, making a few changes, reading other guidelines took three and a half hours.

When I submit stories/poetry in paper format it takes even longer because I must take the template letter, fill in the titles on each one, print the poems and letters off, match them up, fill out envelopes, make up SASEs, put stamps on, put the material inside, seal them up and take them to the post office. Usually I’ll do a batch of about ten magazines at once and it will take me three solid nights to get everything sorted.

Although I could keep track of where my stories and poems go on an Excel spreadsheet I find that I need a tactile, visual aid. I still use index cards. For the markets I have a 5X7  index card and I write the editor, magazine name, address, pay and type of writing that they accept at the top. Then I write the title of the pieces I’m sending and the date I sent them, usually just the month and year: 03/09. When the story/poem comes back I write the return date. If they’ve accepted a piece I put a circled P beside the piece and the date.

I have a separate 3X5 card for every poem and story. I have categorized these cards by color: pink for erotica and mainstream, green for fantasy, yellow for SF, blue for dark fantasy. That’s for stories. For poems I have them on white cards or green for the speculative poems. I put the title and the length at the top of the card and then list the market and date sent on each one as I send them out. When I have sent to the market, I put the market card at the back of my large index box. When I have submitted a story/poem I put that card to the back of the story/poem box behind a paper-clipped card. I have one box for poems (I have that many) and one for fiction. One larger box holds the markets. If a story/poem has been out too long I will send a query and I mark that with a Q and the date. If I hear nothing after a couple of months, I put the card back into the submission flow again.

I confess to not having a card for every market. If they’re fairly new or a one-of anthology, I sometimes don’t make a card. I’ll wait to see if they continue and if I submit more than once. But I do have one for every piece I’ve written. It lets me see how often I’ve sent a piece out, where I’ve sent it and which ones are becoming trunk stories; the ones that keep going out again and again and again.

I tried computerized index systems before but I found that if I wanted to find a poem about deadly flowers for market X that was doing a theme issue, and SF stories dealing with a dark future for market Y, that it was easier to sort the cards back and forth and match them up to the best market. Say that I have one futuristic SF story and there are three markets. I look at the story, make sure I haven’t sent it to the markets and then will try to match it to the highest paying one first. But if I have a secondary story, SF but Utopian and only one magazine likes that type then I may switch them about. To me, this is far easier with the cards than by clicking through various screens.

Writing is about 40% creation (breaking that down to 15% writing and 25% rewriting) and 60% perseverance. It’s true that if you persevere long enough, you will get items published. Some stories have sat for years and then ended up at the right market at the right time. But it also means you must be willing to rewrite and drop your favored line or character. Some editors will give a short statement of what worked or didn’t. You can get contradictory statements so take them with a grain of salt, but if you’re saying the editor was out to lunch for every rejection, then you’ll probably continue to get a lot of rejections.

The advent of computers meant suddenly that everyone could write. But not everyone can write well. It takes practice, and magazines are inundated with good works as well as bad. The more polished a piece, the better the chance of acceptance. Continuing to submit and not give up is half the battle.

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Writing Catch Up

With all the running about and schmoozing at World Fantasy I haven’t had time to actually post anything or even send out many submissions.

However, the Best New Erotica 8 edited by Maxim Jakubowski will be out by Robinson (UK) in a month. It features a reprint of a story of mine “Stocking Stuffers.” I have also just sold “The Boy Who Bled Rubies” to Caro Soles for Don Juan: Tales of Lust and Seduction. I turned in an erotic fairy tale for a Harlequin anthology but have yet to hear the details on that. Other stories and poetry are out but with no firm dates of publication.

I did just receive my certificate and free chapbooks for “Don Quixote’s Quandary” which received a judges’ choice in the SFPA contest. It’s probably the least I’ve been paid (pay presumably in the mail with the chapbook of winning poems) for a poem in years. But what the heck, it was a contest, I have many poems and oh well. I plan to post a couple of published poems up on this site in the near future.

There was a poetry reading at World Fantasy on the Thursday night. Joe Haldeman, David Lunde, Rhea Rose, Eileen Kernaghan, Carolyn Clink and I think one other person read in round table style. Mostly we read to friends and spouses it seems. I wish poetry was more accessible to people. I want to have a poetry reading one day where the word poetry/poem are never mentioned. Lure them in and then gobsmack them with some poetry. I’ve done a lot of performance poetry in the past and maybe that’s what’s needed to bring in a few more people. Alas, poor poetry, dismissed and neglected by so many, including SFWA.

I have a rough draft of “Our Lady of Redemption” done but need to clean it up. I’m still waiting for some readers to look over “Awaking Pandora,” a novelette that took me 15 years to finish. I’m working on a monkey/elephant story and a cat story. Never thought I’d really do a cat story but it’s very nebulous right now as I work out the details of the mystery in it.

Editing wise, I’ve been fighting some pretty nasty viruses on my computer but will be working through some of the poems for Chizine soon. For Aberrant Dreams, we’re still in a holding pattern, though new content went up for October. “The Girl Who Swallowed the Sky” by Jacqueline Bowen is one of the stories I accepted.

Some people will be hearing from me in the near future on the Aberrant stories. Unfortunately being backlogged means rejecting more. Be prepared. I also have to write up a report for SF Canada. That was supposed to be done tonight but other backlogged paperwork caught up to me. I’ll be meeting a client tomorrow evening and then finishing that report.

I think I need to set a firm date for working on the novel. I’ve drifted a bit there and no one else is going to write it for me. Time to set aside part of at least one night a week. Perhaps Mondays after bellydance.

Speaking of novels, many years ago, a woman in our group, Lydia Langstaff, wrote a first draft. She died at 28 of congenital heart problems and never got to go further with her work. Her husband Jeff approached me after her death about doing an edit on her novel. Even though I was going to give him a deal, I still would have needed to charge for my time and the rewrite would have been extensive. He couldn’t afford to do anything at the time and asked me to hang on to it. And then time passed.

It’s been more than ten years and I can’t find Jeff Langstaff. I don’t want to throw out what might be the only copy of Lydia’s work. If I rewrote it, could I publish it with both our names? Would I want to? What’s moral and ethical in a situation like this? Take half the money and donate it to heart research? It’s not my labor of love but it was hers. Would I want to invest the time, not knowing if it would sell? I guess I could send out query letters on the story but I’m not sure that’s my right. If I could find Jeff or Lydia’s family I could ask. But for now her manuscript sits in limbo and I can’t throw it out.

I’ll try again to find a relative but it’s an odd conundrum.

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